During my years of teaching, the thoughtful student often asked whether Buddhism could be excluded from the category of religion altogether as there are often no gods or concept of divinity to be found in many expressions of this rather elastic religion. In many books on religion the authors feel compelled to qualify Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, or to single out Zen Buddhism and similar sects as expressions of Buddhism that are somehow separate from Buddhist religious practice.
Even if this opinion is understandable, it betrays a lack of persistence in uncovering the practices and teachings of the religions of the world. The student of religion will eventually find that all religions propose a worldview based on the belief in revelation. Yet, Buddhism can present the student with a far less obvious belief in revealed truths.
The adherents of Jainism and Indian Buddhism depict themselves as traditionally separate from Hinduism. These traditions describe themselves as ‘Non-Vedic’; that is, not in accord with the ancient Hindu Scriptures called the Vedas. Because both Buddhism and Jainism began as reforms of ancient Hinduism and formally reject the Vedic tradition, it is common to pass over the dependence of these two religions on the revealed Vedic worldview.
The ancient Indian orientation is founded on the concepts of Maya, the illusory nature of our perception of reality, Karma, the persistent consequence of our delusion, Samsara, birth and rebirth into Maya, and Moksha, the release from this cycle of unreality. Both Jainism and Buddhism assume this orientation and are devoted to solving the problems posed in this Indian view of the human condition. It is very difficult to argue that the ancient Indian description of the human condition does not come from the revelation of the Vedas and Upanishads.
The very concept that there is an attainable state of awareness (called enlightenment) must be taken on faith in order to start along the way of the Buddha. In a sense, one must believe in the Buddha’s claim that he had achieved this enlightenment, and assume he is correct in insisting that you, too, can achieve this enlightenment. This is founded upon the revelation of truth through the enlightened Guru, established in ancient Indian religion.
But the belief in revelation is minimized in a sense, and the student is not at all wrong in their observation that these forms of Buddhism seem less like religion. In the case of Japanese ZaZen practice, for example, once you have decided to practice, no further profession of belief is required.