Naturally there's different schools of Buddhism and how you classify Buddhism is different to how you classify other religions, some schools of Buddhism aren't too much different from the other religions out there. I think the thing that fundamentally sets itself apart is the fact it doesn't require dogmatism and it is not based around the commands of any deities but the philosophies and teachings of men and it doesn't claim to be the words of a higher power. What people do with them differs. Buddhism is about making your own path and that is how its multiple schools were set up. It's why it was perfectly normal for it to start with 2 separate schools (Theravada
) with separate texts inspired by the words of men and not the innerrant command of the divine. Since then, other schools have started, including Zen (which derives from Mahayana) Interestingly, the man people think of as 'the Buddha' is not the only 'Buddha' and he's only highly regarded because it was his teachings that became so huge, but he was neither the first of his kind (he learned from men before him) and nor was he the last. If you know the story of him become Buddha, you'll know that he spent his time with monks in poverty, these were the monks who taught him - I do not know how much truth the story holds
but it refers to real people, Siddartha Gautama and those who came before him. He's by no means an absolute authority, but that doesn't stop dogmatism, it is religion after all and I don't think it'll ever escape that mindset, but the beauty of it is, you're not required to have it.
And generally the lack of dogmatism and lack of deities leads people to argue that Buddhism isn't religion but a philosophy, but because there are religious practices and in some circles and societies there's even dogmatism and similar traits you might see in other religions. I think it would be more appropriate to look at it on 2 levels. The term I've seen coined is 'Philosophical Buddhism'. My knowledge on Zen Buddhism is not vast, but from my knowledge of it, I would put it as philosophical Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is very much about the mind and their emphasis is mainly place on meditation and it can manifest through martial arts. So whilst I do not know much about Zen Buddhism from an academic point of view, I am a martial artist (or was), I studied Shotokan Karate (1st kyu, almost went for my black belt) and actually Zen makes its way into the practice of the martial art. Our association was very traditional, so we weren't only learning to beat the crap out of people as some Karate associations might have you do. The martial art interestingly enough it a means of meditating your mind and it is perhaps why martial arts are generally associated with Buddhist monks, usually the Shaolin Monks, but Zen Buddhism is Japanese and not Chinese and of course Shaolin Monks aren't the only ones who use martial arts, though the Chinese isn't too different from the Japanese (Zen and Chan are pretty much the same thing). For the Japanese, Zen Buddhism was pretty much a philosophy that sat alongside their Shinto beliefs, at least before Christianity came. For Samurai, there was an additional philsophy and of course that was Bushido, which was actually pretty bloody (see definition of my username
When you start looking at Buddhism from that philosophical perspective and take away the 'woo', you're actually looking at something similar (though, not identical) to humanism, but it's much, much older. I think this is probably why it tends to sit better with certain types of atheists out there. I would say be weary of letting Buddhists have the get-out-of-jail free card, because there are still horror stories out there. But I think with anything, understand Buddhism and all of its schools for what they are. I know people tend to group 'religion' under one umbrella, but of course it's easier to do that than to understand them on a one-by-one basis, to know the merits and pitfalls, to understand the history, the teachings and fundamentally how it all works. I think it all works two ways, don't be blinded by what you like and conversely don't be blinded by what you don't like.
Me? I actually consider myself a philosophical Buddhist, simply because I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Buddhism teaches, I don't buy into the woo (karma don't happen) but you don't have to. I could take the humanist route instead, but for me, I feel enlightenment is good for my attitude and keeping your head clear. I don't consider it spiritual, but it's something very psychological. Now, if you were to take that route too, Zen Buddhism is actually a good direction. It might seem odd that I'm not a Zen Buddhist myself, you know with the martial arts, the strong interest in Feudal Japan (jeez, my name's Seppuku and my avatar is Miyamoto Musashi and so's my sig) and I love many of the philsophies associated with the time, well, aside from the sense of war and warriors (though I find them interesting). But, my own philosophies are based on what I like and what I agree with, any labels are only taken to be descriptive and also should my mind ever be clouded I have something definite to remind me of my own values. I don't think I'm the kind to commit to any school, so I just stick to agnostic atheist Buddhist and you wouldn't believe how often that confuses people.
Is cool bro.