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.

 

Everything we need is inside us

I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst theft of iphoneother things) that was bringing me to his desk.

I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!

Sutra lessons learned
Karmic mirror

I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.

Never safe in samsara

Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):

I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.

Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:

There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.

My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all iphone casecontained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projections come to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.

We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.

Self-grasping

And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”

As Chandrakirti puts it:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25

This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.

Compassion
Find-My-iPhone
Always been unfindable.

I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.

The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.

(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, orange juicenow I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)

I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.

After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.

So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:

There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.

My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while deathI still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.

Death is on its way

It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:

Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.

The kindness of others

I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.

A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:

If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69

Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.cheesman park.JPG

But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)

There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.

Tantric lessons learned
all you need is inside youEmptiness

When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.

I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …

Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.

Bounty of the Dharmakaya

I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.Vajrayogini 1

Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.

This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.

Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our squirrelimaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.

Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?

A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …

Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.