What is Buddhism? ~ A short, simple guide


This summer my parents asked if I could write a “short, simple guide” to answer the main questions they and their friends have about Buddhism. They kindly sent me the list of quite excellent enquiries, so I am going to have a go now.

  • What is Buddhism in one sentence? 

Buddhism is learning to live from a peaceful mind and a good heart as the best way to solve our own inner problems of anxiety, depression, fear, etc.; finding a deepening sense of happiness and freedom from within; and in time helping and inspiring others to do the same.

(Thank goodness for semi-colons.)

Or how about this:

“Buddha says be nice to people and animals and then you feel good.” ~ a 4-year-old Buddhist

  • What is meditation in one sentence?

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resMeditation, literally “familiarizing ourselves with positivity”, lies at the heart of Buddhism, and by practicing it we (1) are protected from the suffering caused by unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind such as anger, attachment, and ignorance that give rise to suffering; and (2) learn how to develop and maintain our peaceful, beneficial states of mind such as patience, love, and wisdom, in this way fulfilling our innate potential for lasting happiness and freedom, as well as the ability to help others.

Hmm, that might have been stretching the one sentence thing a bit. So how about this quote from Buddha instead:

Learn to do good,
Cease to do evil,
And control the mind.

  • Do Buddhists believe there is a God?

Short answer: No. Not a creator God. But we do believe in the existence of completely perfect holy beings.

If there is a creator God who is omnipotent and has compassion for his creation, why is there suffering? It would seem that a creator God must either have no compassion or not be omnipotent, one can’t have it both ways.

Buddhists do not believe that one single mind, namely God’s, created the world, but that we are all creating our own reality with our own minds continually. Nonetheless, we all have the potential to purify our minds of all obstructions and attain omniscience, if not omnipotence. And so Buddhists do believe in the existence of countless enlightened beings who have attained complete freedom and omniscience in order to help everyone else do the same, and we pray to them for guidance and blessings.

Kadampa  BuddhasSo, like Christians and so on, we believe in the existence of omnipresent compassionate holy beings and in the power of prayer and blessings. Just not in an omnipotent creator God.

We can also find common ground on a more mystical (perhaps sort of holy spirit level) if we take God to be the clear light mind possessed by all living beings, which is called the basic Dharmakaya or Truth Body. This very subtle mind that goes from life to life is the basis or creator of both samsara and nirvana, and, when purified, will become the bliss and emptiness of the actual Truth Body of a Buddha, omniscient wisdom.

There is a bit more here.

  • Is Buddhism a religion or a faith? Are they different?

Buddhism is a religion, according to the dictionary definition. It is also a faith, in so far as Buddhists grow their faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Faith is a positive state of mind that is quite clearly defined in Buddhism – it goes hand in hand with experience and includes (a) believing faith, where we simply believe in the existence of holy beings, pure states of mind, etc.; (b) admiring faith, where we admire their good qualities; and (c) wishing faith, where we wish to gain those qualities ourselves.

  • What happens when you die? What is meant by reincarnation?

We take rebirth, which means the same as reincarnation moreorless. Our mind is formless awareness whereas our body is made of flesh and blood; so though the body dies, the very subtle mind continues. Buddha documents the entire process of dying and taking rebirth from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is fascinating. We pass through different levels of consciousness. It is a bit like falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up, though we wake up into an entirely new body and world. What body and world that is depends on the quality of our mind and our actions, or karma. I have written several articles about this subject here.

reincarnation.jpgA surprising number of Western thinkers too have believed in rebirth over the centuries, including early Christian Gnostics; and I like Voltaire’s words on the subject:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.

For as long as I remember I have believed in rebirth, so that kind of says something right there. I remember telling you, Dad, that your father was going to be reborn as a human and not as an animal because he was a good man (a vicar) and died peacefully. I was all of six years old at the time, I wonder if you remember, it was in the kitchen in Guildford. I also knew without being told, aged 4, that our daschund Rozy was already on the way to her next life when you drove her away in the boot of our car in Sri Lanka after her accident. Stuff like that.

  • What is a Buddhist’s relationship with everyday life? For instance, can a Buddhist be a soldier? or kill anything?

Buddhism is based on compassion and its chief refuge commitment is: “Not to harm others.” So Buddhists avoid killing as much as they can, and also try to have careers that don’t involve harming others if possible. The main thing always is the motivation, however, so there are no external laws or strict rules for living per se; each Buddhist has to be pragmatic and figure out for themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what results it will have for themselves and others.

Moreover, Buddhists believe that everyday life can be transformed into a spiritual path by changing our minds:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. – Eight Steps to Happiness

  • Do Buddhists aim to make the world a better place by the personal example of their Way of Life rather than by direct action?

Another good question. It’s a bit of both. Bodhisattvas have two main methods to make the world a better place, which are reflected in the vows they take – (1) to develop their minds so they can attain enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all living beings, and (2) to help others directly whenever they can. What form that help takes depends on the individual, there is a lot of diversity.Sally and Buddha

For example, my main aim is to practice Buddhism and help it to flourish so that it reaches lots of people and inspires them also to become more peaceful, happy, patient, etc. This involves both a way of life and direct action. But I also do other types of direct action, as you may be meaning it, in the form of helping an animal shelter and trying to promote kindness to animals. But again, it is the motivation that counts. Direct action motivated by, say, a mind full of hate or intolerance, is counterproductive.

Buddhists’ main goal to make the world a better place by helping each other develop the capacity of our minds, realizing that everyone has powerful spiritual potential for lasting peace and freedom. We have been creating our own suffering for a very long time, and in the same way we can create our own happiness; we just need the methods. Geshe Kelsang puts it like this:

Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough.

A friend on Facebook put it rather nicely I thought: “We could bandage people up and give them tents and a bowl of soup, and it is great if we can do that; but if they are in a whirlwind of self-destruction they will run out with the bandages on to fight again. The whirlwind is the delusions. Until these are stopped, we can keep rebuilding houses but the uncontrolled mind will keep smashing them down again.”

  • For example, is a Buddhist Doctor a Buddhist first or a Doctor? We assume there is no dilemma or conflict but how do you explain?

I think that depends on the individual – some would say they were Buddhists first and then doctors, some would say it the other way around. There need be no conflict between being a Buddhist and being a doctor, especially if the doctor is motivated by the wish to relieve suffering and support happiness in his or her patients. As with any job, there may be certain dilemmas to navigate; but these in themselves can help someone become better at eg, compassion, patience, or taking responsibility. As one guest blogger put it in his article:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Interestingly enough, Geshe Kelsang was a doctor in Tibet before he became a teacher. He came to feel that he could personally help people more by being a teacher (see point above), but there is no contradiction.

  • There are many different forms of Buddhism, do we need to know how to refer to the NKT?

Guru Sumati Buddha HerukaWe refer to the NKT as Kadampa Buddhism, “Kadampa” literally meaning “those who take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in their daily lives.” These days we also call ourselves “modern Buddhism”, because this tradition has spread more globally than most due to its accessibility to people in many countries and walks of life.

The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054), practiced fully and passed down the generations through accomplished spiritual masters, including Je Tsongkhapa (AD 1357-1419), to the present day.

  • Is anyone or any type of Buddhism considered the founder of Buddhism? If so, how long ago did Buddhism start?

Buddha Shakyamuni is known as the founder of Buddhism – so from one point of view Buddhism started just over 2550 years ago in India and then spread from there. However, time is beginningless, and there are countless beings who have realized their full potential and become Buddhas; so Buddhism has actually been around (somewhere if not always here) forever!

In this world, a prince called Siddhartha in India (550 BC) found suffering unacceptable, so left his palace to bring an end to it. He discovered that the root of suffering lies within the mind, specifically within a mistaken understanding of reality, and he found a way to cut this root of ignorance with compassion and the wisdom realizing the illusory nature of things. He was then requested to teach, and gave 84,000 teachings to a very wide audience over a 40-year ministry, which became known as Dharma (literally, “that which holds us back from suffering”).

squirrelInterestingly, Buddha didn’t coin the term “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”; that was something we did much later. He called his followers simply “inner beings” because there were interested in attaining happiness and freedom by controlling the mind. Anyone can use Buddha’s teachings, therefore — for example on meditation, mindfulness, love, patience, and wisdom — without having to call themselves a Buddhist if they don’t want to. Geshe Kelsang, I remember, used to call some of his students in Dallas Texas “Christian Buddhists”, for example.

  • How many types of Buddhism exist? Or does no-one really know?

Buddhism can be grouped by country, by culture, by lineage, by teacher, by monastery, etc., so there are many types. At the same time you could say there is only one type of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism spread extensively because many countries and cultures saw that it deals with the mind so effectively; and, broadly speaking, in all these places groups would form with an experienced teacher at their center.

Buddha imageBasically there are two main “vehicles” of Buddhism – Hinayana (incl. Theravadan) and Mahayana, of which Kadampa Buddhism is the latter. Hinayanists’ goal is to attain liberation or nirvana, which means freedom from all delusions and suffering for themselves. Mahayanists’ or Bodhisattvas’ goal is to attain full enlightenment so they can lead all living beings to the same state. (Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is included in the Mahayana.) Both traditions were taught by Buddha and they have many practices in common, including the four noble truths. All authentic traditions of Buddhism are able to trace their teachings back through an unbroken line of teachers and disciples to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Thank you to Facebook friends who contributed to this article. I have attempted the impossible, ie, to keep my answers short. It is clearly not conclusive and plenty more could be said, so this article is like Cliff’s notes or something. Please feel free to contribute good stuff on any of these questions in the comments section below.

 

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    I cannot stop laughing at the acorn hat!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is a fascinating article. However, I follow a different path––Kundalini as a force within us all and which comes into consciousness under some conditions. This path more or less assumes (for me) that the practitioner is morally pure, feels compassion for all, and strives to make the world a better place. The emphasis is on the subtle body, which is what we carry with us from lifetime to lifetime. Once that body is awakened, we experience extreme bliss and strive to help others go through the process of spiritual transformation as their bodies and nervous systems are rewired.

    • Nice. Within Tantra, Buddha taught this — how to meditate on our subtle body of channels, winds, and drops to generate great bliss as a method to attain non-dualistic wisdom and enlightenment very quickly in order to liberate all living beings.

  3. Thank you. I needed this. Drifted for various reasons over the years.
    This has fired me up again!

  4. Candice says:

    Hi
    Thanks for the article, as a simple guide it’s a good place to start for someone asking questions.

    Just a minor correction: Hinayana Buddhism doesn’t exist, it was a minor school that disappeared over 1000 years ago. The 2 schools of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana. (Don’t forget Vajrayana Buddhism that is also a recognised school of Buddhism of which the NKT is actually a part of, though for a basic introduction on Buddhism I can understand why you don’t mention it).

    • Hi there Candice, thank you so much for your comment.

      Hinayana Buddhism is a catch-all term for Buddhist traditions with the primary motivation of liberation. Theravada is a subset.

      I had been meaning to spell out where Tantra came in, and you reminded me, so thank you for that! It is a really important part of Buddhism, the quick path to enlightenment.

    • The Wikipedia article on Hinayana has a lot of interesting discussion on the differences between the terms. I’ve always thought it was impolite to call people or their motivations “small.”

  5. You did a great job Luna! The article is very clear and easy to understand. I was wondering if it might be worth including in the section about the different types of Buddhism that all Buddhists follow the Four Noble Truths and briefly (!) explain what they are; or maybe this would be too complicated?

    • Thank you Pagpa. I have included the four noble truths now in passing, and part of me wants to explain them here but part of me wants to keep this article short🙂 Maybe you would spell them out here … ? Then later you could write another guest article about them?!

  6. manjushrigirl says:

    This was a very difficult undertaking. When I saw the questions that your parents had put to you I felt the full challenge of them. It’s interesting how in many ways the answers ought to be so simple and yet they are not easy to express succinctly.

    With regard to ‘faith’, I would want to clarify that in Buddhism it is never ‘blind’ but is based on analysis and experience – it is akin to ‘confidence’ rather than anything mystical. I certainly can’t express these things in one sentence!

    Your article is important and the exercise you have engaged in has great value. I guess we all need to be able to answer these questions as clearly and accurately as possible. These are just the kind of questions that we must wish to be asked of us, specially by our closest friends and family.

    Thank you.

  7. Sharon Morganti says:

    My son, Greg Gladd was a meditation teacher at the San Diego center. He died at age 40, two years ago. I am heartbroken and miss him so much. He believed in reincarnation, and if I’m studying Kadampa Buddhism correctly, I probably won’t see him again when I die. What do you think? I would appreciate your insight

    • I am so sorry, Sharon.

      You may well see him again, but unless you have strong mindfulness and some control over the death process, you probably won’t recognize him. Depending on where he is, for example if he took rebirth in a Pure Land, he may recognize you. He may even be sending you blessings as we speak.

      If you have love for him while working on letting go of the attachment, and if you cultivate an understanding of the true nature of things — that nothing is independent of the mind — this could help the healing.

    • Tony Stevens says:

      I believe that the true nature of all precious mother living beings’ very subtle mind is the same nature as great bliss and therefore we are never separated ❤️

  8. Wendy LongCrier says:

    Thank you for simple, clear information to share with others~

  9. Donna says:

    This is fantastic! I sent it to my daughter who will no doubt get an A in her philosophy class now🙂

I'd love to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: