By John Lee Pendall
What is the core belief in Buddhism? I saw this question asked in a Buddhist Facebook group.
Here are some of the replies:
The Four Noble Truths, anatta, emptiness, non-attachment, nonduality, the Three Jewels, that’s a loaded question, there are no beliefs, etc. Buddhism is a weird religion in that there’s no consensus on 1) whether it’s a religion or not, and 2) what it’s all about. That’s the case in the West, anyway.
In much of the East, most agree that it’s about venerating the Buddha and cultivating merit to secure freedom from Samsara, or at least a better rebirth. Unless you’re a monastic, all the other teachings are pretty much irrelevant. Even Japanese Zen is mostly relegated to a ceremonial role, with priests performing more funerals and merit offerings than Dharma talks.
I was fascinated as I watched the Facebook conversation flow without any kind of agreement among the contributors. This got me thinking about how Western Buddhism is packed full of contrarians. What is it about Western Buddhist practice that makes it so hard for us to agree with, or simply acknowledge, each others’ views? I never saw this sort of thing in the Church; people believed what the Bible said, and that was that.
Maybe it’s because we don’t consider any one Sutta, Sutra, or teacher authoritative? Maybe it’s because most of us are skeptics, which is pretty much a synonym for, “Stubbornly egocentric.” If it doesn’t make sense to me, if it doesn’t agree with my reasoning, views, or experiences, then it’s BS. Most of us are refugees of the Church. We left it—or were kicked out—because we couldn’t tolerate blindly believing in an unrevealed higher power.
But, there’s a little problem with that: when we fired God, who did we hire to replace him? The most common answer is probably, “Ourselves.”
We’ve become our own ultimate authorities on what is and isn’t true. That’s a problem because we’re humans, which means we’re all pretty fucked up and confused from the get-go. That’s probably one of the reasons why people so easily find faith in higher powers like Christ, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas. If we believe that the Suttas and Sutras are the last word on Buddhism—that they were crafted by a man who attained some degree of omniscience—then we can just rely on the teachings without thinking for ourselves.
That potentially solves the ego problem, but not the dogma problem. If the choice for most of us was between Traditional Buddhism and Luciferianism, we’d probably choose Lucifer. So, what can we do? Is there a core belief in Buddhism that we can all agree on and rally behind? I think so.
The core of Buddhism is (drum roll)… that there is no core. If that seems like a letdown, well, you’re definitely not gonna dig the anatta teachings. The very fact that everyone has their own opinion on what the core of Buddhism is shows firsthand that its core is corelessness. I’m phrasing that really weird because it isn’t that there’s no core at all, but that the core is open and dynamic.
What you deem the core of Buddhism depends on your intellect, degree of compassion, and personality, a.k.a, skillful means (upaya)—which is the heart of Buddhism. Looking through that buffet of replies in the Facebook group, upaya is the only “core” that makes any sense, and it’s one of the few teachings that can allow all of us to practice side-by-side and overcome this contrarian streak that’s infected Western Buddhism, both Secular and Traditional.
There was once a time when monastics of different schools all lived and practiced together. You had Theravadins and Sarvastivadins (Elder Schools) practicing alongside Madhyamakins and Yogacarins (Mahayana). To this day, Zennists and Pure Landers share the same temples in China. Zen itself was once practiced in Huayan and Tiantai temples. So, maybe we can all learn to respect each others’ views and practices if we see them all as valid means to enlightenment?
I’ve romped through all the Vehicles, and there is no core, and that is the core. Nothing is sacred in Buddhism.
Buddhism itself is just a label invented by some European dude a few hundred years ago. Realizing that it’s all upaya helps us as individuals as well, because then we can keep moving forward without getting stuck on any one view or practice. We’re less inclined to think, “This is it!”
Certainty is a path-killer, it is doubt that keeps us growing. Not just as Buddhists, but as a species.
Where would we be if our ancestors settled on what they had and what they knew? Most of us wouldn’t even exist. It’s the same thing with practice. The second we settle with just one view or one way of doing things, we hit a wall, and eventually, our suffering catches back up with us. Settling also strengthens egohood and limits compassion. So, I just encourage my fellow Westerners to keep all this in mind, and maybe loosen the grip on views and labels, especially the labels Traditional and Secular, and Buddhist and non-Buddhist.
We’re all just human beings playing dress up, after all. What we call ourselves doesn’t define us, it’s our actions that make us who we are.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".