By Tyler Lewke
What is Buddhism?
Technically speaking, Buddhism is a set of wisdom teachings we call the Dharma that encompasses a wide variety of traditions and spiritual practices based on the original oral teachings of the Buddha who lived in India 2,600ish years ago. Some call it a religion, some call it a philosophy. More on this later. For now, I’m not going to write a description of the life of the Buddha or how Buddhism was formed.
You can Google a thousand references to that stuff. Instead I’m going to give you my flawed and imperfect answer to this unanswerable question: What is Buddhism, really?
To even pose this question invites disharmony and immediate scrutiny (and some inevitable eye rolling). But who cares? To understand Buddhism is to understand that disharmony is always present, scrutiny is always present, and that someone, in fact, many people, will always roll their eyes at you. Maybe I could describe Buddhism as the tools to manage disharmony and scrutiny, both from the world and from the wounded parts of ourselves where we self-loathe and sabotage our own opportunity for inner peace.
If I posed the question to a broad audience, a bunch of folks would say Buddhism is a religion. An equal or greater number would say it’s not a religion. Many would say Buddhism can pair with other religions perfectly, for example, I know groups of people who call themselves “Christian Buddhists” and “Muslim Buddhists” and “Jewish Buddhists.” A great number of folks refer to themselves as “atheist Buddhists.” I won’t make an argument one way or the other on any of these labels, but I will offer some supporting evidence.
Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6.27-30)
Buddha: “Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth…Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.” (Dhammapada 1.5 &17.3)
Muhammed: “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.” (Qur’an)
Jesus: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10.23 & 25)
Buddha: “Riches make most people greedy, and so are like caravans lurching down the road to perdition. Any possession that increases the sin of selfishness or does nothing to confirm one’s wish to renounce what one has is nothing but a drawback in disguise.” (Jatakamala 5.5 & 15)
Muhammed: “The best richness is the richness of the soul.” (Qur’an)
Frankly, to fully answer the question, “What is Buddhism?” would be to violate one of the core teachings of the Buddha, “Come and see, don’t come and believe,” so I won’t do that. Instead, here is a simple perspective Bhante Sujatha and I share.
The Buddha gave instruction on how to navigate this life.
Buddha’s teachings have nothing at all to do with religion. Buddhism has rituals and dogma and a belief system—“Buddha did not make Buddhism, people did,” says Bhante. Buddhism is religion, and people invented Buddhism and all the other “isms,” but Buddhisms is not synonymous with the Buddha’s teachings.
Buddha’s teachings gave us tools and instruction for how to handle the difficulties of life and the suffering that arises. “He taught us how to handle things,” Bhante Sujatha often says. The core of Buddha’s teachings is very specific: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. “That’s it. There is nothing else,” Bhante says. Any time an “ism” is attached to a set of teachings, it creates problems in the world, and the teachings become limited. They create divisions and fractions and work to separate us rather than unite us.
Religion is fear-based, the teachings of The Buddha are mindfulness-based.
I like to consider the Four Noble Truths as something for us to understand, and the Noble Eightfold Path as something for us do. Understanding leads to action which leads to liberation.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddha’s teachings.
1) The truth that being alive means we will experience suffering.
2) The truth of the cause of that suffering.
3) The truth that the end of our suffering experience is possible.
4) The truth that a clear Eightfold path, when practiced, leads to the end of suffering.
“Suffering exists, it has a cause, it has an end, it has a cause to bring about its end,” says Bhante Sujatha. Some feel aversion to Buddha’s teaching because he used this word “suffering” often and people don’t like it. “But we do suffer. We deal with our bodies getting old, people dying, loss, mental instability, desire, ignorance, craving,” says Bhante Sujatha. “The Buddha gave us clear tools to alleviate the suffering these experiences bring.”
The Eightfold Path (also often referred to as “The Middle Path” or “The Middle Way”)
The Eightfold Path is considered the heart of the Buddhist teachings. Probably every religion uses some different words but has a nearly identical intention. The Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It’s simple enough to understand—our views and intentions and actions and speech and how we earn money and the effort we put forth and the mindfulness and concentration we put into things is more than enough to work on, and if we just make sure we’re noble in these eight areas, we will probably have an amazing life.
The Eightfold Path is commonly called “the Path” and is considered a road map for us to explore, test, and practice as a way to live every day with nobility. In following and practicing the path, you learn to see life as it is, to accept it and embrace it and find the joy in any circumstance.
- Right View
Be aware of your own actions and the reasons behind them. Know the Four Noble Truths and see the world as it really is, drop the illusions. Remember everything (even us!) changes and that clinging to the idea of that it (or we) won’t is an illusion and gives rise to unhappiness. When we stop expecting things to always be good and start embracing reality, life gets so much better.
- Right Intention
Understand what controls you, how you make decisions. Are your choices for the good of all or just yourself? Resist acting on feelings of desire, prejudgment, or aggression. Pause and reflect, then act. This will save you from a world of hurt. Inquire why you are doing what you’re doing. Knowing why is so helpful.
- Right Speech
Words are weapons and peace makers. Words make and break our lives. When we speak in judgment of others, gossip, or spread untrue statements, we are participating in the causes of suffering. We must be extreme in our carefulness with the things we say. Don’t tell deliberate lies or speak deceitfully. Avoid using harsh words that offend or hurt others. Speak kindly and only if you have something positive to contribute. “Noble silence is a great protector of the heart,” Bhante says.
Be in service to others. Help where you can. Don’t harm, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t sexually misuse anyone. Do good works. Simple, not easy. Be your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
Be conscious of the work you choose. Live honestly, find ways to have your work benefit mankind. Avoid occupations that violate your commitment to the Path, especially right speech and right action.
- Right Effort
Just do it. Effort is the foundation of all of the other Eightfold Path steps. Without right effort, you can’t get anywhere really. You make no progress on your path to inner peace. We have to work hard, tell the truth, and love the people. Actively engage in the world around you and help others to help yourself. Put in the time for service, study, and spiritual practice.
- Right Mindfulness
“Be here now” is a simple statement but not easy to practice. We live vast amounts of time in the past or the future. Pausing and learning to look at yourself from a distance is the foundation of mindfulness. A simple pause, an overview of how you are feeling, an observation of how you’re feeling in your body and in your mind. Notice what’s happening, stay in inquiry to why you are feeling what you are feeling. Seek the source. Don’t judge or interpret these observations, just observe them. The eighth step of the Path is how you achieve this mindfulness.
- Right Concentration
Meditation builds up good habits. Our behavior changes gradually. Our anger decreases, we are more able to make thoughtful and wise decisions. We become more satisfied and restful. We can love more fully, ourselves and all others, and through a strong determination to practice meditation, our lives reach a state of harmony not otherwise obtainable.
Deeply knowing the Four Noble Truths and following and practicing the Eightfold Path helped my judgements fall away and has given me motivation and strength to up my kindness in all my affairs, to be more aware and thoughtful in every exchange, to empty my mind and drop the mental noise and anguish that can torment me. The delusions that I manufacture seem to dissipate and even when they still show up, I catch them sooner. I’m more able to recognize what’s happening and get back to center more quickly.
Buddhist scripture says the Eightfold Path leads to liberation from our suffering and to an awakened, enlightened life.
I don’t know about those things. What I do know is that when I practice these principles in all my affairs, my life becomes easier, full of joy and peace, and suffused with sustainable happiness. Is it like that all the time? Of course not. Some days still totally suck. But with a rigorous commitment to keep at it, I find myself coming back to center faster and faster—and I stay on a little longer each time.
Every day, I remind myself of the Eightfold Path in one way or another.
I read and study ancient teachings about the steps, and I listen to how others use them to navigate their lives. Mostly, I set my intentions to live in nobility and kindness, to follow this path wherever my life goes. I do this not because some scripture says to or because of any religious instruction.
I do it because I see the evidence. I see fruitage show up all over the lives of people who walk this ancient road.
“The teachings of Buddha reveal a step-by-step path to lasting happiness,” says Bhante Sujatha.
Tyler Lewke is brutally irreverent, often way too direct and it gets him in trouble. He’s an optimistic pessimist, a grateful dad and friend, a hardcore capitalist, and a deep-seeking mindful and compassionate guy who’s most inspired by helping people through the bullshit parts of religion and spirituality to define a life of joy and contemplative service to others.
Tyler was born months before the official end of the Vietnam War on the Campus of Washington State University to a hippy mom and a heady scientist dad with an IQ that rivals Einstein… a combo that has left him totally out of place in the mainstream.
Tyler lives in the sky in downtown Chicago, in a 100-year-old bungalow in suburban Illinois and from his backpack as he explores the world. He teaches meditation and mindful leadership, has written as a form of art and spiritual practice every day for as long as he can remember. He shares his personal stories of integrating a spiritual life into a daily mainstream existence through his daily blog where he posts his raw, firsthand joys and struggles of trying to practice these mindful principles in all his affairs. Tyler thinks we all have only one real job, to add more love to the world.
Editor: Dana Gornall