Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Two: What is Buddhism?

In my introductory post, I addressed the question Why Natural Buddhism?, but I'm embarrassed to say I never really explained what those concepts mean to me. Certainly, I provided links over there on the right; but, seriously, even I don't usually click on links on the blogs I read!
Anyway, it's better if I put things in my own words. After all, as much as I like the sites I link to, that doesn't mean I agree in lockstep with everything they say.

So, last week I asked the question, "Why Naturalism?" But since I already addressed "Why Buddhism?" in my first post, and because people in the West have such a variety of ideas about what Buddhism actually is, I thought it might be better to explore a little bit of what I understand Buddhism to be.

I think the first, most important question to ask is, Is Buddhism a Religion? By this I mean a religion in the Western sense, with supernatural beliefs, rituals, scriptures, dogma and the like. Of course, like most things involving Buddhism, the answer is... complicated. In fact, all the answers I'm going to give in this post are going to be mere glimpses at a much more complicated answer, but there's no way I can give such a broad topic as Buddhism the proper scholarly treatment in a single blog post. So I'm going to answer the best I can, from my perspective; take this post with the proper amount of salt.

So, first off, Is Buddhism a religion? No. But, are there Buddhist religions? Yes. Lots of them.
What I mean is this: there is nothing inherent in Buddhism itself that requires supernatural beliefs or explanations.
What about karma, rebirth, enlightenment? I'll get to those in a bit, but in order to understand Buddhism you first have to understand the context in which it arose. The Buddha--or whoever invented Buddhism--lived in India in the 400's BCE. Hinduism was the primary religion of the day, and Buddhism was not created as a rival religion. It was introduced as both a philosophy and a practice, and was more interested in explaining pragmatic answers to life here and now, rather than postulating where we came from or where we are going. As such, you will find many Hindu beliefs mixed in with the Buddhism of Hindu countries, but those beliefs are easily passed off as allegory or ignored all together without losing anything from Buddhism.

The Core of Buddhism

What is at the core of Buddhism that does not change whether it's imported to a Hindu culture, or a Confucian/Taoist culture, or even a Western non-dualist culture? Two things:

The first is the philosophy, or worldview, of Buddhism: Impermanence and Interconnectedness. A Buddhist understands and accepts that all things arise and all things pass away. There is nothing permanent; not a feeling, not a relationship, not a stone, not a mountain, not the planet and not even the universe. All things change, nothing stays the same.
Furthermore, this arising, changing, and passing away does not happen in a vacuum--all things are connected in relationships of cause and effect. This applies not only in physics, but also in psychology and interpersonal relationships. (For a very quick, rough example of this, think about what happens to your relationships when you're late for work, or you have a headache. Physical, external factors have as much of an impact on our actions as our internal personality)

The second part is the practice, the active part of Buddhism. This is rooted in the understanding of interconnectedness. We realize that even our suffering and our happiness are rooted in causes, and by stilling our minds and examining things from the right perspective we can eradicate conditions that cause suffering and create conditions that cause happiness.
Note that this doesn't mean we try to control our environment to suit our needs. The conditions I'm talking about are conditions of the mind. Buddhism points out that bad things will always happen--that's part of life--but our response to those things determines whether we experience suffering or peace. If we cling to the way things are now, we will suffer when they (inevitably) change. If we cling to the idea that material acquisitions will make us happy, we will never know peace. Obsessions, aversions, irrational attachments; these are conditions that will plague us with suffering. But these mental states are conditions of the mind, they are not permanent. Buddhism is about recognizing them and finding practical ways of dealing with them.

And that, I believe, is the core of Buddhism--eradicating suffering, increasing happiness; not just for the practitioner but for all living beings. A simple, pragmatic approach to the realities of life; an honest approach, examining our intentions and desires in order to find the most skillful means of realizing them.

Soon to follow: karma, rebirth and enlightenment--I'll be explaining these concepts from a naturalistic viewpoint, and why they tie in intimately with the realities of impermanence and interconnectedness.


  1. Thanks for writing on this topic. It seems relatively rare to find this combination of the pursuit of truth (naturalism, atheism, rationality) and the pursuit of happiness (Buddhism, in your case). I'm especially looking forward to your next post.

    (By the way, I wish I could comment without selecting a profile.)

  2. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Be sure to peruse my archives if you liked this post; there's not that many and I think you'll definitely like them.

    I'm sorry about the profile requirement; that's a blogspot thing and I'm not even sure whether it can be turned off, but I know it's to reduce spam. My wife had a blog that didn't require registration once, and you'd be amazed how many posts a spam bot can clog your site with in the space of an hour.