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.

 

Tired, yet, of living a cliché?

Buddha Shakyamuni

On the last day of the recent Kadampa Summer Festival, the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni was shown, as it always is, and well received.

Buddha’s story is a great story, and ours can be a great story too, if we stop thinking about ourselves in clichéd, samsaric ways. “Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,” as one dictionary definition of cliché has it.

Once upon a time, when I was experiencing a break-up from a fun and always interesting relationship that had lasted over half our lives, when my larger than life, handsome, previously devoted partner, like countless men before him, left for a baby with a younger woman, I turned for desperate comfort to my dear friend M. “What a cliché!” I wailed to him. “I don’t WANT to be a cliché.”

And M replied, “Everything in samsara is a cliché.”

This shook me out of self-pity. Point being, despite variations on a theme, despite any extenuating circumstances, we have been there, done that, countless times – no tee-shirt will ever be big enough to document it all. We even call the appearances of samsara “common appearances” or “ordinary appearances”. seen it all.jpg

We might think it is just us, we’re in a private world of forlorn hopes and dwindling dreams; but pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to finds growing older distasteful at least from time to time. This is especially if they assumed that they would be an exception to the rule — that with the help of Botox or a great exercise routine or a good hairdresser or alternative healing or a lot of money or a predictable partner they could avoid life’s biggest clichés. But the end of collection is dispersion, as Buddha pointed out, the end of rising falling, the end of meeting parting. Everyone (who lives long enough) seems to feel at some point or another old or ill, or past it, overlooked, or useless, or unglamorous, haggard, or paunchy, or an object of increasing irrelevance or ridicule – and then basically ends up losing everything. Just in time to buy into the next series of clichés in our next life.

Samsara manages to be both unpredictable and banally predictable all at the same time. The details may be unpredictable, but the pattern is wearyingly monotonous.

The seven sufferings of samsara are all one gigantic cliché and we’re all going to be living this forever if we don’t decide to think outside the box, in fact until we realize there is no box. Like Buddha did.

I have been thinking a lot about Buddha Shakyamuni recently because I was very moved by Gen-la Dekyong‘s teachings at the US Kadampa Spring Festival 2016 and also by the fact that Geshe Kelsang loves watching the Life of Buddha, so much, for all its teachings. He Geshela life of Buddha.jpegsaid he is watching not actors but the actual life story and protagonists, and he said something similar after watching the Life of Atisha play. It is as if Geshe-la is watching the actual life story unfold in the present, which makes me think the story is eternally present really, the examples timelessly relevant.

Think outside the box

I love that Prince Siddhartha had everything a man could ever want, and certainly far more than I could hope for in this life; yet he still walked away from it because he saw that it was built on a deceptive illusion, the utterly shaky edifice of the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.

I mean, who amongst you has all the things he had – such as exceptional good looks, the most beautiful spouse in the kingdom, a whole harem of other glamorous people eager to please you, a really nice palace, riches and worldly achievements beyond compare, crowds of adulating Prince Siddhartha.jpgvillagers bowing at your feet?! Are you set to become a king or queen anytime soon?!

Prince Siddhartha didn’t even know, technically, that he was going to find the solution, but he decided he had to do it anyway. So if he could do it, I reckon we can develop renunciation for our relatively paltry objects of attachment, especially as Buddha did figure out our escape for us. Not to say that we have to abandon anything external, for that is not in fact renunciation; but we can abandon our attachment and turn our attention to the solution for the existential predicament we find ourselves in. Vis a vis, realize that the things we normally see — those common appearances that we normally buy into as if they are the only pathetic choice we have — don’t even exist.

Calling the earth to witness

Buddha and marasThen there is that great scene when Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi Tree and is attacked by Maras — first appearing as enticing women and then as terrifying demons. And Buddha is entirely unbothered, he stays in undistracted concentration, he can see through the whole hallucination. He is infinitely more interested in blissful love and profound illumination. He is unbelievably cool.

Maybe we see that scene as something allegorical, and not even that relevant to us, just indicating Buddha’s extraordinary qualities as he showed the manner of attaining enlightenment.  But I think it shows us a powerful way to deal with our own delusions or maras when they arise. After all, sure, in the play we can think that those enchanting women are too abstract to be tempting; but if all the people we ever really lusted after were to appear in front of us and say, “It’s always been you I love! I’ve been an idiot! Come with me!” might we not be tempted?! But Buddha saw right through them.

And when those same maras then tried to scare him, again we might think that is something abstract; but what are those maras? All are appearances created by our own scary delusions of anger, attachment, jealousy, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or existential despair arising as if out there, in front of us, trying to attack us, to overwhelm us. Think of the scariest appearances to your mind, your most feared enemies, those who have the greatest power (you think) to upset you – a neglectful parent, an off the rails child, a sneering rival, a bullying abuser, a ruthless boss, a dismissive ex, or plain old sickness, ageing, wrinkles, and death. But they get nowhere because we, like Buddha, can see right through them.

And at no point did Buddha identify with these appearances. At no point was he overpowered by them. He understood they were maras with no function other than to harm him. He accepted they were appearing, but instead of fighting them he saw right through them. He saw they were mistaken appearances, saw they weren’t even there; and with his love, concentration, and wisdom he called the earth to witness that he had overcome them all.Buddha calling earth to witness

Buddha understood that none of these maras was outside his mind, so they all disappeared permanently the moment his final obstructions were lifted. In that moment, he became an omniscient being.

It’s kind of encouraging, don’t you think, that all this happened minutes before his enlightenment. No excuses, then, to think, “Bloody hell, I’ve been practicing Buddhism for six years already and I’m still being assailed by maras!” Looks like maras trying to scare or ensnare us might be the order of the day until the very last minute.

But, like Buddha, we can call the earth to witness that none of these phantoms has any hold over us whatsoever. We are waking up. We are learning to see everything as it is. We can finally do (and have) what we want because we realize that everything is created by our minds.

We can be like this. For hallucinations can only harm us if we buy into them, if we believe in them as being real, as existing independent of the mind. Ven Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:

We mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. p. 311

beautiful heartHave you ever imagined what it would be like to not be hallucinating at all – not your self, not others, not your job, not your objects of desire, not anything? What will appear to you once common, banal appearances stop appearing? What will you choose to manifest or appear from the bliss and emptiness of your own mind, understanding the dreamlike nature of things?! This experience will be inexhaustibly joyful and meaningful, I think, and enable us to help everyone else in cosmically original, effortless, ways.

Over to you, comments welcome.