What is Buddhism?

By Rev. Jon Turner

“What is Buddhism?” is one of those sneaky hard questions. It is like asking “What is Music?” or “What is Mathematics?” These subjects are so broad that it is hard to give a short, concise answer. They are also difficult to understand through explanation alone. Ultimately, you need to experience them to fully appreciate them. This may be why we start with examples before theory. For instance, practicing scales on the guitar or doing problem after problem in algebra. Only later do we learn the theory, that scales are the basis for chords and that Algebra is any set of objects and operators. In high school algebra, numbers are the objects and addition/multiplication are the operators. We practice basic skills over and over again until they become second nature. Once this occurs, only then do we learn the theory.

While this approach of practice leading to theory is acceptable for most pursuits, it is not the one we usually take when studying religion. In general, we reverse the order; where theory comes first and then – if lucky – practice. This is because we usually think of religion as an intellectual pursuit. There is a divine founder and a book. This book consists of doctrine we should believe in and rules that we should follow. This is why most people new to Buddhism want to know what we believe in and what rules we follow. We also initially learn Buddhism through books. This is so prevalent that scholars have coined the term Nightstand Buddhists for those who read books on Buddhism before bed and then leave their books on the nightstand. There is also a name for those who have grown up with a different religious tradition and begin to practice Buddhism for the first time. They are called Modern Convert Buddhists.

This may be why Buddhism is described as a philosophy first, then as a religion and lastly as a way of life. In this order we are gradually moving from theory towards practice. We can think of these three pursuits as pathways into Buddhism. These pathways are also referred to as gates or as keyholes. All three are equally valid and important. They can be taken in any order or simultaneously but in general it is usually as philosophy, then as religion and then as practice.

“Theory” and “practice” are used here in the common, everyday sense. But “religion” is not. Many words used in Buddhism are like this so we need to qualify exactly what we mean by them. In general, the term “religion” adds more confusion than it removes. There are two reasons for this. First, many new to Buddhism are leaving the organized religion they grew up with and are looking for something different. For this reason, “spirituality” is often used in place of “religion.” It is also very important to highlight the specific definition of religion being used when discussing Buddhism.

If religion is defined in terms of a creator God then Buddhism is not a religion. But if religion is thought of as something that provides spiritual depth and meaning in our lives then Buddhism is a religion. Notice that in either case, Buddhism is not changing, only the definition is. So we are really only debating definitions of religion. It is interesting to note that Yoga instructors also state that Yoga is not a religion, using the first definition. However, Yoga and Buddhism are both spiritual practices of India. Perhaps it is safest to acknowledge that the word “religion” has already been defined and accepting that definition in favor of using the term “spirituality” instead.

The issue that Buddhism is focused upon is also different than we are used to. In general, the Abrahamic religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are concerned with the distance between God and humanity. This distance is due to sin. The “religions” of India: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, are concerned with a different dilemma. Rather sin, they deal with issues of misperception. It is not the distance between God and humanity but the distance between true reality and our false cognition of it. We suffer not due to sin but due to our invalid assumptions. You could say that it is a seeing problem rather than a being problem.

This difference is hard to appreciate because religion in the West is equated with morals and ethics. This is done through beliefs, rules and behavior. Morals and ethics are also very important in Buddhism but they are not seen as religious practice. Being “good” is often not enough. It is quite possible to lead a very pure life while still feeling that something is missing. It is a feeling that something is just off. This feeling is often the first step towards an appreciation of Buddhism. Through self-reflection, Buddhism can ease our suffering.  Often insight occurs when we see things from a different perspective. We also try to find value in all aspects of our lives, both the good and the bad.  We mistakenly believe that meaning is determined externally but we actually assign meaning internally. This process is very subtle and effortless. So much so that we do not realize it is occurring. If we can slow down then we can become aware of this and no longer be a slave to it. We begin to respond rather than react.

Next is the term “way of life”. When our life becomes our spiritual practice then Buddhism becomes our way of life. This “way of life” description sometimes sounds a bit shallow to newcomers, consisting of only socializing. Sometimes even as folklore or merely cultural activities. This approach is often called Traditional Buddhism as opposed to a more serious or academic style of Buddhism. But this is a false choice. Theory and practice are both very important and they mutually reinforce one another. If we only study then this can lead to merely an academic understanding. It does not touch our heart. While practice without context can lead to a form of Buddhism that merely affirms our long held beliefs. It is only when we are challenged that we can have insight and spiritual depth.

So when theory and practice are done simultaneously we can get a multiplier effect. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as they say. This is the goal but of course you have to start somewhere. Often Protestant Christians approach Buddhism through books rather than practice. While Catholics tend to first appreciate the rituals of Buddhism such as chanting, bowing and meditation. Either way is fine. There are also those who are very visual and learn mainly through reading while others learn through doing.  In Buddhism you don’t have to do anything but you have to do something. You are encouraged to find the something that works for you.

The most important step is to move from a Nightstand Buddhist who practices alone – without a teacher – to one that practices within a Sangha – a community of fellow Buddhists. Buddhism is a team sport. Studying with others in a classroom setting or meditating as part of a Buddhist service is much more powerful than trying to go it alone. Very few people can learn to play the guitar or solve algebra equations on their own. We all need good teachers and fellow students to help us on our path. Buddhism is no different. Once we immerse ourselves within the Buddhist tradition then our lives become effortless just like music is for the musician and mathematics is for the mathematician. The only requirement for success is time and effort.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner