1. What is Buddhism?
QUESTION: What is Buddhism?
ANSWER: The name Buddhism comes from the word budhi which means ‘to wake up’ and thus Buddhism can be said to be the philosophy of awakening. This philosophy has its origins in the experience of the man Siddhattha Gotama, known as the Buddha, who was himself awakened at the age of 35. Buddhism is now more than 2,500 years old and has about 380 million followers worldwide. Until a hundred years ago Buddhism was mainly an Asian philosophy but increasingly it is gaining adherents in Europe, Australia and the Americas.
QUESTION: So Buddhism is just a philosophy?
ANSWER: The word philosophy comes from two words philo, which means ‘love’, and sophia which means ‘wisdom’. So philosophy is the love of wisdom, or love and wisdom. Both meanings describe Buddhism perfectly. Buddhism teaches that we should try to develop our intellectual ability to the fullest so that we can understand clearly. It also teaches us to develop love and kindness so that we can be like a true friend to all beings. So Buddhism is a philosophy but not just a philosophy. It is the supreme philosophy.
QUESTION: Who was the Buddha?
ANSWER: In the year 563 BC a baby was born into a royal family in northern India. He grew up in wealth and luxury but eventually found that worldly comforts and security do not guarantee happiness. He was deeply moved by the suffering he saw all around and resolved to find the key to human happiness. When he was 29 he left his wife and child and set off to sit at the feet of the great religious teachers of the day and to learn from them. They taught him much but none really knew the cause of human suffering and how it could be overcome. Eventually, after six years study, struggle and meditation he had an experience in which all ignorance fell away and he suddenly understood. From that day onwards he was called the Buddha, the Awakened One. He lived for another 45 years during which time he traveled all over northern India teaching others what he had discovered. His compassion and patience were legendary and he had thousands of followers. In his 80th year, old and sick, but still dignified and serene, he finally died.
QUESTION: If he was only called ‘Buddha’ after he had this profound realization, what was his name before that?
ANSWER: The Buddha’s family or clan name was Gotama, which means ‘best cow’, cattle being objects of wealth and prestige at that time. His given name was Siddhattha which means ‘attaining his goal’, the kind of name one would expect a ruler to give his son.
QUESTION: Wasn’t it irresponsible for the Buddha to walk out on his wife and child?
ANSWER: It couldn’t have been an easy thing for the Buddha to leave his family. He must have worried and hesitated for a long time before he finally left. But he had a choice between dedicating himself to his family or dedicating himself to the world. In the end, his great compassion made him give himself to the whole world, and the whole world still benefits from his sacrifice. This was not irresponsible. It was perhaps the most significant sacrifice ever made.
QUESTION: If the Buddha is dead how can he help us?
ANSWER: Faraday who discovered electricity is dead, but what he discovered still helps us. Louis Pasteur who found the cures for so many diseases is also dead, but his medical discoveries still save lives. Leonardo da Vinci who created masterpieces of art is dead, but what he created can still uplift the heart and give joy. Great heroes and heroines may have been dead for centuries but when we read of their deeds and achievements we can still be inspired to act as they did. Yes, the Buddha passed away but 2500 years later his teachings still help people, his example still inspires people, his words still change lives. Only a Buddha could have such power centuries after his passing.
QUESTION: Was the Buddha a god?
ANSWER: No, he was not. He did not claim that he was a god, the child of a god or even the messenger from a god. He was a human being who perfected himself and taught that if we follow his example we could perfect ourselves also.
QUESTION: If the Buddha is not a god why do people worship him?
ANSWER: There are different types of worship. When someone worships a god, they praise him or her, make offerings and ask for favors, believing that the god will hear their praise, receive their offerings and answer their prayers. Buddhists do not practice this kind of worship. The other kind of worship is when we show respect to someone or something we admire. When a teacher walks into a room we stand up; when we meet a dignitary we shake hands; when the national anthem is played we salute. These are all gestures of respect and worship and indicate our admiration for a specific person or thing. This is the type of worship Buddhists practice.
A statue of the Buddha with its hands resting gently in its lap and its compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. The perfume of incense reminds us of the pervading influence of virtue, the lamp reminds us of the light of knowledge, and the flowers, which soon fade and die, reminds us of impermanence. When we bow we express our gratitude to the Buddha for what his teachings have given us. This is the meaning of Buddhist worship.
QUESTION: But I have heard people say that Buddhists worship idols.
ANSWER: Such statements only reflect the misunderstanding of the persons who make them. The dictionary defines an idol as ‘an image or statue worshipped as a god.’ As we have seen, Buddhists do not believe that the Buddha was a god, so how could they possibly believe that a piece of wood or metal is a god? All religions use symbols to represent their various beliefs.
In Taoism, the ying-yang diagram is used to symbolize the harmony between opposites. In Sikhism, the sword is used to symbolize spiritual struggle. In Christianity, the fish is used to symbolize Christ’s presence and a cross to represent his sacrifice. In Buddhism, the statue of the Buddha reminds us of the human dimension in Buddhist teaching, the fact that Buddhism is human-centered rather than god-centered, that we must look within, not without to find perfection and understanding. Therefore, to say that Buddhists worship idols is as silly as saying that Christians worship fish or geometrical shapes.
QUESTION: Why do people do all kinds of strange things in Buddhist temples?
ANSWER: Many things seem strange to us when we don’t understand them. Rather than dismiss such things as strange, we should try to find their meaning. However, it is true that some of the things Buddhists do have their origin in popular superstition and misunderstanding rather than the teaching of the Buddha. And such misunderstandings are not found in Buddhism alone but creep into in all religions from time to time. The Buddha taught with clarity and in detail and if some people fail to understand fully, he cannot be blamed for that. There is a saying from the Buddhist scriptures:
‘If a person suffering from a disease does not seek treatment even when there is a physician at hand, it is not the fault of the physician. In the same way, if a person is oppressed and tormented by the disease of the defilements but does not seek the help of the Buddha, that is not the Buddha’s fault.’ Jn. 28-9
Nor should Buddhism or any religion be judged by those who don’t practice it properly. If you wish to know the real teachings of Buddhism, read the Buddha’s words or speak to those who understand them properly.
QUESTION: I see the word Dhamma often. What does it mean?
ANSWER: The word dhamma (Sanskrit dharma) has multiple meanings but as it is used in Buddhism its main meaning is truth, reality, actuality, the way things are. Because we consider the Buddha’s teachings to be true we often refer to them as Dhamma too.
QUESTION: Is there a Buddhist equivalent of Christmas?
ANSWER: According to tradition, Prince Siddhattha was born, became the Buddha and passed away on the full moon day of Vesakha, the second month of the Indian year, which corresponds to April-May of the Western calendar. On that day Buddhists in all lands celebrate these events by visiting temples, participating in various ceremonies, or perhaps spending the day meditating.
QUESTION: If Buddhism is so good why are some Buddhist countries poor?
ANSWER: If by poor you mean economically poor, then it is true that some Buddhist countries are poor. But if by poor you mean a poor quality of life, then perhaps some Buddhist countries are quite rich. America, for example, is an economically rich and powerful country but the crime rate is one of the highest in the world; millions of elderly people are neglected by their children and die of loneliness in old people’s homes; domestic violence, child abuse, drug addiction are major problems; and one in three marriages end in divorce. Rich in terms of money but perhaps poor in terms of the quality of life. Now if you look at some traditional Buddhist countries you find a very different situation.
Parents are honored and respected by their children, the crime rates are relatively low, divorce and suicide are rare, and traditional values like gentleness, generosity, hospitality to strangers, tolerance and respect for others are still strong. Economically backward but perhaps a higher quality of life than a country like America. However, even if we judge Buddhist countries in terms of economics alone, one of the wealthiest and most economically dynamic countries in the world today is Japan where a good percentage of the population call themselves Buddhist.
QUESTION: Why is it that you don’t often hear of charitable work being done by Buddhists?
ANSWER: Perhaps it is because Buddhists don’t feel the need to boast about the good they do. Several years ago the Japanese Buddhist leader Nikkyo Nirwano received the Templeton Prize for his work in promoting inter-religious harmony. Likewise a Thai Buddhist monk was recently awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Prize for his excellent work among drug addicts. In 1987 another Thai monk, Ven. Kantayapiwat, was awarded the Norwegian Children’s Peace Prize for his many years of work helping homeless children in rural areas. And what about the large scale social work being done among the poor in India by the Western Buddhist Order? They have built schools, child-minding centers, dispensaries and small-scale industries for self-sufficiency. Buddhists see help given to others as an expression of their religious practice just as other religions do but they believe that it should be done quietly and without self-promotion.
QUESTION: Why are there so many different types of Buddhism?
ANSWER: There are many different types of sugar – brown sugar, white sugar, rock sugar, syrup and icing sugar – but it is all sugar and it all tastes sweet. It is produced in different forms so that it can be used in different ways. Buddhism is the same: there is Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Yogacara Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism but it is all the teachings of the Buddha and it all has the same taste – the taste of freedom.
Buddhism has evolved into different forms so that it can be relevant to the different cultures in which it exists. It has been reinterpreted over the centuries so that it can remain relevant to each new generation. Outwardly, the types of Buddhism may seem very different but at the center of all of them are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. All major religions, Buddhism included, have split into schools and sects. Perhaps the difference between Buddhism and some other religions is that the various schools have generally been very tolerant and friendly towards each other.
QUESTION: You certainly think highly of Buddhism. I suppose you believe it is the only true religion and that all the others are false.
ANSWER: No Buddhist who understands the Buddha’s teaching thinks that other religions are wrong. No one who has made a genuine effort to examine other religions with an open mind could think like that either. The first thing you notice when you study the different religions is just how much they have in common. All religions acknowledge that humankind’s present state is unsatisfactory. All believe that a change of attitude and behavior is needed if the human situation is to improve. All teach an ethics that includes love, kindness, patience, generosity and social responsibility, and all accept the existence of some form of Absolute. They use different languages, different names and different symbols to describe and explain these things. It is only when people cling narrow-mindedly to their particular way of seeing things that intolerance, pride and self-righteousness arise.
Imagine an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Chinese and an Indonesian all looking at a cup. The Englishman says, ‘That is a cup’. The Frenchman answers, ‘No it’s not. It’s a tasse‘. Then the Chinese comments, ‘You are both wrong. It’s a pei‘. Finally the Indonesian man laughs at the others and says, ‘What fools you are. It’s a cawan‘. Then the Englishman get a dictionary and shows it to the others saying, ‘I can prove that it is a cup. My dictionary says so’. ‘Then your dictionary is wrong,’ says the Frenchman, ‘because my dictionary clearly says it is a tasse‘. The Chinese scoffs, ‘My dictionary says it’s a pei and my dictionary is thousands of years older than yours so it must be right. And besides, more people speak Chinese than any other language, so it must be a pei‘. While they are squabbling and arguing with each other, another man comes up, drinks from the cup and then says to the others, ‘Whether you call it a cup, a tasse, a pei or a cawan, the purpose of the cup is to hold water so that it can be drunk. Stop arguing and drink, stop squabbling and quench your thirst’. This is the Buddhist attitude to other religions.
QUESTION: Some people say all religions are really the same. Would you agree with them?
ANSWER: Religions are far too complex and diverse to be encapsulated by a neat little statement like that. A Buddhist might say that this statement contains elements of both truth and falsehood. Buddhism teaches that there is no god while some other religions teach there is. Buddhism says that enlightenment is available to everyone who purifies their mind while Christianity for example insists that salvation is possible only for those who believe in Jesus. I think these are significant differences. However, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible says;
‘If I speak the languages of men and angels but have no love, I am only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so strong that it can move a mountain, but I have no love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and even surrender my body to the flames but I have no love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs done. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.’ I Cor.13-7
This is exactly what Buddhism teaches – that the quality of our heart is more important than any super-normal powers we might have, our ability to foretell the future, the strength of our faith or any extravagant gestures we might make. So when it comes to theological concepts and theories Buddhism and Christianity certainly differ. But when it comes to heart-qualities, ethics and behavior they are very similar. The same could be said for Buddhism and other religions.
QUESTION: Is Buddhism scientific?
ANSWER: Before we answer that question it would be best to define the word ‘science.’ Science is, according to the dictionary, ‘knowledge which can be made into a system, which depends upon seeing and testing facts and stating general natural laws, a branch of such knowledge, anything that can be studied exactly.’ There are aspects of Buddhism that would not fit into this definition but the central teachings of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, most certainly would. Suffering, the First Noble Truth, is an experience that can be defined, experienced and measured. The Second Noble Truth states that suffering has a natural cause, craving, which likewise can be defined, experienced and measured. No attempt is made to explain suffering in terms of a metaphysical concept or myths. According to the Third Noble Truth, suffering is ended, not by relying upon a supreme being, by faith or by prayers but simply by removing its cause. This is axiomatic. The Fourth Noble Truth, the way to end suffering, once again, has nothing to do with metaphysics but depends on behaving in specific ways. And once again behavior is open to testing. Buddhism dispenses with the concept of a supreme being, as does science, and explains the origins and workings of the universe in terms of natural laws. All of this certainly exhibits a scientific spirit. Once again, the Buddha’s constant advice that we should not blindly believe but rather question, examine, inquire and rely on our own experience, has a definite scientific ring to it. In his famous Kalama Sutta the Buddha says;
‘Do not go by revelation or tradition, do not go by rumor or the sacred scriptures, do not go by hearsay or mere logic, do not go by bias towards a notion or by another person’s seeming ability and do not go by the idea “He is our teacher.” But when you yourself know that a thing is good, that it is laudable, that it is praised by the wise and when practiced and observed that it leads to happiness, then follow that thing.‘ A.I,188
So we could say that although Buddhism is not entirely scientific, it certainly has a strong scientific overtone and is certainly more scientific than any other religion. It is significant that Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the 20th century, said of Buddhism:
‘The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.‘
QUESTION: I have sometimes heard the Buddha’s teachings called the Middle Way. What does this term mean?
ANSWER: The Buddha gave his Noble Eightfold Path an alternative name, majjhima patipada, which means ‘the Middle Way’. This is a very important name because it suggests to us that it is not enough to just follow the Path, but that we have to follow it in a particular way. People can become very rigid about religious rules and practices and end up becoming real fanatics. In Buddhism the rules have to be followed and the practice done in a balanced and reasonable way that avoids extremism and excess. The ancient Romans used to say ‘Moderation in all things’ and Buddhists would agree with this completely.
QUESTION: I read that Buddhism is just a type of Hinduism. Is this true?
ANSWER: No, it is not. Buddhism and Hinduism share many ethical ideas, they use some common terminology like the words kamma, samadhi and nirvana, and they both originated in India. This has led some people to think that they are the same or very similar. But when we look beyond the superficial similarities we see that the two religions are distinctly different. For example, Hindus believe in a supreme god while Buddhists do not. One of the central teachings of Hindu social philosophy is the idea of caste, which Buddhism firmly rejects. Ritual purification is an important practice in Hinduism but it has no place in Buddhism. In the Buddhist scriptures the Buddha is often portrayed as criticizing what the brahmins, the Hindu priests, taught and they were very critical of some of his ideas. This would not have happened if Buddhism and Hinduism were the same.
QUESTION: But the Buddha did copy the idea of kamma from Hinduism didn’t he?
ANSWER: Hinduism does teach a doctrine of kamma and also reincarnation. However, its versions of both these teachings are very different from the Buddhist version. For example, Hinduism says we are determined by our kamma while Buddhism says our kamma only conditions us. According to Hinduism, an eternal soul or atman passes from one life to the next while Buddhism denies that there is such a soul, saying rather that it is a constantly changing stream of mental energy that is reborn. These are just some of the many differences between the two religions on kamma and rebirth. However, even if the Buddhist and Hindu teachings were identical this would not necessarily mean that the Buddha unthinkingly copied the ideas of others.
It sometimes happens that two people, quite independently of each other, make exactly the same discovery. A good example of this was the discovery of evolution. In 1858, just before he published his famous book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin found that another man, Alfred Russell Wallace, had conceived the idea of evolution just as he had done. Darwin and Wallace had not copied each other’s ideas; rather, by studying the same phenomena they had come to the same conclusion about them. So even if Hindu and Buddhist ideas about kamma and rebirth were identical, which they are not, this would not necessarily be proof of copying. The truth is that through the insights they developed in meditation Hindu sages got vague ideas about kamma and rebirth which the Buddha later expounded more fully and more accurately.