What is Buddhism?

Is Buddhism a religion?

Buddhism doesn’t have an opinion about the big questions of life, like ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or ‘What was the origin of the world?’ or ‘Is there a God? or ‘What is the nature of God?’  From a Buddhist perspective it isn’t a profitable way of thinking.  Views and opinions about such things simply lead to argument, conflict and even wars.

Buddhism doesn’t fit the ‘Western’ definition of a religion as it doesn’t have an opinion on a creator God.  Some call it a philosophy as it focusses on understanding our experience and especially the mind, but it not simply a theory about life. The goal of Buddhism is to transform our life. 

Why do Buddhists bow to an image of the Buddha?

Amaravati Temple

Buddhists don’t worship the Buddha.  The Buddha died 2,500 years ago and he was a human being, not a god.  Buddhists bow to the Buddha image because it symbolises enlightenment – they bow out of gratitude that the Buddha realised enlightenment.  They bow three times, once to the Buddha’s enlightenment, second to his teaching, and the third to the people who are putting the teachings into practice.  And they don’t pray to the Buddha.  He can’t answer anyone’s prayers.  Meditation is not prayer but mental training and investigation leading to an understanding of the mind and how/why we experience the world the way we do. 

The basis of Buddhist practice – morality 

Buddhism has a strong ethical foundation – which can be summarised as not harming and is described in the Five Precepts.  Not intentionally taking the life of any living being is the first precept.  The second is not taking what isn’t freely given.  The third is avoiding sexual misconduct, the fourth is not lying, and the fifth is avoiding intoxication through alcohol and drugs.   

Ethics are found in every religion, but the Buddhist precepts are not commandments as it is the intention which matters.  The intention not to harm life means that if we accidentally hurt a worm when we are digging, that is not breaking the first precept.  Another example would be if we say something we thought was true, but it turns out not to be true – it was not an intentional lie.  And no God stands in judgement over a Buddhist.  Happiness and suffering follow naturally from good and bad deeds according a natural law of cause and effect – we pile suffering on ourselves when we harm others as we naturally receive hatred in response. And we fill ourselves with joy when we are loving and compassionate, and as a result, we are loved in return.  

Training the mind through meditation and mindfulness

The Buddha gave many detailed instructions on how to meditate, both to control the mind and to gain insight.  Learning to control the mind through meditation is important so that we can create some space between thought and action which is essential for us to understand our intentions and act with wisdom.  This training in standing back from our experience enables us to be mindful or aware of our experience moment by moment.  And when we are aware, insight can arise.  We can start to see things as they are, rather the way we would like them to be, or have believed them to be according to our past conditioning.

Mindfulness can be defined as present moment non-judgemental awareness.  The past is a memory, the future is a dream, only the present moment is reality.  And judging is just a bad habit.  Ultimately, it is only by bringing peace into our present moment experience that we can bring conflict to an end.

Wisdom means not creating suffering out of our experience – the Four Noble Truths

Buddhism isn’t an unrealistic navel-gazing religion where we just have to ‘think peaceful thoughts’ to be at peace, and thus ignore suffering – as it is sometimes thought to be.  It tells us that we first have to completely accept suffering to be free of it.  This is the teaching of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which is the core of the Buddha’s teaching.  

The Buddha said that what he taught was ‘Suffering and the end of suffering’.   First we have to admit that we are suffering (the first noble truth) before we can start to understand it and investigate how it is caused.  When we understand suffering and how suffering arises then we will stop doing what causes it.  

The origin of our suffering and all the suffering in the world is greed in its many forms.   Greed is what causes global warming and greed causes us to suffer when we find a slug eating our lettuce.  Hate is just another aspect of greed – it is the desire for things to be other than they are.  Attachment to what we want to keep also causes suffering, when things inevitably change.

So the second noble truth is the origin of suffering, which leads to the letting go of greed and attachment which brings the end of suffering (the third noble truth).  This is not a theoretical model but a practical one which brings joy and frees the heart.  

If we experience conflict, we first have to acknowledge that it is painful (the first noble truth), and this gives us the motivation to do whatever it takes to resolve it.  But we can’t resolve conflict when we are angry.  If we try to do that we just make it worse.  So we have to let go of the desire ‘to put the other person straight’ and cultivate loving kindness to overcome our hate. When we have let go of hate we can act with wisdom – but not before.  In other words, we have to bring resolution in our own hearts before we can act with wisdom towards the external world.  The resolution will mean we are able to be more accepting of the other person – so that there is no longer anything we need to ‘fix’ about them.

As you can see from this example, Buddhism resolves suffering through investigating the origin of suffering in our internal world first, before we rush around trying to fix the external world. We come to realise that it is not possible to change external conditions so they don’t upset us anymore.  Understanding cause and effect is a key teaching of Buddhism. If you don’t understand the cause of conflict you will do more harm than good in trying to fix it.

But we shouldn’t think that Buddhism is just about suffering, it is about bringing suffering to an end – not by running away from suffering but by completely accepting it, understanding how it arises and by no longer creating it. 

The Middle Way

The fourth noble truth is called the Middle Way – because it is a path of moderation, between extremes.  It has three aspects, ethical conduct, mental training and wisdom.   Buddhists don’t have to be perfect in morality, they just need to try their best with good intent; they don’t need to be perfectly concentrated but to train their mind so they can stand back from their experience in order to act with wisdom rather than act impulsively.  And ‘Buddhist’ wisdom isn’t some ultimate truth to be grasped and argued about, but something which gives us a perspective on life which brings suffering to an end.  We can’t solve all the problems of the world, trying to do that is a source of stress. We can’t make other people stop suffering, suffering ends in our own hearts.  If we develop peace in ourselves, we will inevitably bring peace into the world.  

 Martin Evans