Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is Buddhism?

The final, and natural, introductory post for this blog addresses the question, "What is Buddhism?" The first thing that should be said about every tradition, religious or otherwise, is that it is complicated. As with every tradition, Buddhism has many schools of thought and a long history within which those schools have developed. My own approach is generally within the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools and is marked by particular authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, and Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet). A very brief history of Buddhism's doctrinal beginning might be useful to provisionally differentiate these schools of thought.

Mahayana Buddhism refers to the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma: three series of teachings by the Buddha. In the first, and universally accepted, turning of the wheel (given in Sarnath, India), Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. In these teachings the emptiness (shunyata) of the self was taught, as we find in Hinayana Buddhism, but the emptiness of all phenomena was not. In the second turning of the wheel (given at Rajagriha, Vulture Peak Mountain), the fundamental emptiness of all things (not just the self) was emphasized and the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal was given: the dedication of the practitioner to relieve the suffering of all beings. In the third turning of the wheel (at Vaishali, in northeast India, accepted by Tibetan Buddhists), we receive the teachings on the Buddha nature (tathagatha-gharba)--the fundamental goodness and openness at the core of all beings--and a refutation of the nihilistic interpretation of shunyata.

With that, one of the most surprising aspects of Buddhism is that it is not a "religion":

When you're trained as a Buddhist, you don't think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a nonjudgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, "Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should avoid to avoid unhappiness."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, p. 11.

One reason for this is that the Buddha is not a god that is prayed to for liberation. At least within the Mahayana tradition, it is thathaghatha-gharba, the Buddha-nature (or enlightened one) within that we seek. There is a story about a student who became disappointed in his guru over this or that matter, to which his guru responded, "Good! I don't want you to think that the Buddha is to be found outside of yourself." The Buddha is venerated for being an enlightened one, an example of one who has tread the Path, but he is not sought as an external savior who "gives" or "grants" enlightenment.

The non-religious nature of Buddhism can also be seen in its relation to dogma: Buddhist practitioners are not asked to accept anything on faith and are repeatedly exhorted to test what is given. The Four Noble Truths are not propositions to be believed, asserted, or died for, but realities to be experienced: the concrete reality of our suffering, the understanding of the concrete causes of our sufferings, the concrete realization of the causes of well-being, and the concrete experience of well-being through wholesome living. One metaphor used by the Buddha is that of a finger pointing to the moon: if we fixate on the finger--the words, doctrines, propositions, signs--we will miss the beauty of the moon that the finger is pointing to. Furthermore, Buddhism's truths are understandable by everyone and does not require any special understanding of philosophy or theology: the cessation of suffering and the cultivation of well-being are possible now and here, even for the most philosophically un-savvy and uneducated individuals. There are no "orthodox" doctrines that must be believed under pain of eternal damnation or suffering, just concrete ways of living and experiencing life.

Buddhism, put very simply, is the science of self-understanding. We examine the nature of the mind, the body, the senses, and the grounds of our experiences. Through this process we come to understand why we suffer and how to cultivate well-being. This does not occur through affirming and believing some proposition that some book or some authority tells us to believe. It comes through intimately connecting with our own experience, understanding our own relation to suffering and well-being, and learning how to live abundantly. Anyone from any religious, philosophical, or socio-political tradition can benefit from such self-scrutiny and the majority of meditation practices can be done regardless of whether one accepts the emptiness of all phenomena (e.g., see The Foundations of Mindfulness).

NOTE: I finally (2/13/09) found the exact reference for the anecdote given above. Here it is:

When I complained to my abbot Ajahn Chah, considered by millions to be a great saint, that he didn't always act as if he were completely enlightened, he laughed and told me that was good, "because otherwise you would still be imagining that you could find the Buddha outside of yourself. And he is not here."
Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstacy, the Laundry, p. xx.

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