By Johnathon Lee
Buddhists believe X. In Buddhism, we Y. According to Buddha, Z. Please stop.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone use one of the above phrases—mainly because I never anticipated needing to keep track. I’m not throwing stones because I’m guilty of it too.
I’ve even written articles here where I say, “Well,” pushes up glasses and reveals his nostrils, “Buddhists say that—“ No. Bad John, bad. Buddhism is vast and complicated, even though it’s founded on basic natural principles like impermanence and causality.
Studying all the material I can, and practicing all the methods I can get my hands on, slowly revealed how diverse Buddhism really is. Some Buddhist schools don’t even believe that suffering is real, and others reject objective reality altogether.
Most approaches emphasize compassion and meditation, but not all, and a few play fast and loose with the precept against intoxication (and they back up their perspective with valid dedications).
When we say, “Buddhists feel that (insert whatever),” we’re assuming an authority that we don’t have, the authority to represent Buddhism as a whole. No one has that power—not even Buddha.
I don’t have that power and neither does your teacher. Not even Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa and Stephen Batchelor have that authority.
This can be intimidating when you’re new to Buddhism, and downright confusing when you’ve practiced for awhile. Who do I trust? What do I study and practice? What is Buddhism?
I can’t answer that. Nor should I. I can say that it’s helpful to climb aboard the Buddha Bus with a critical open mind, and a heart dedicated to alleviating suffering.
It’s important to be equal parts critical and open, logical and intuitive. You’re going to need those traits in practice. Critical thinking is vital because people are gonna try to sell you all kinds of stuff, including actual products like Buddha Butt Cream and glow in the dark meditation cushions.
Online Buddhism is a marketplace of ideas and methods, and each poster, podcaster, writer or vlogger is gonna try to convert you to their way of viewing things. I’m doing it right now.
That’s because we’re 1) Passionate about Buddhadharma, and 2) moderately narcissistic. It takes at least a smidgeon of arrogance to even think, “I have something to share that might help people.”
We’re content creators, marketing our own brands of Buddhism for consumers. Don’t let us do your thinking for you.
Critical thinking needs to be balanced by an open mind. If not, it turns into a bitter, heartless conceit. There are countless facets to Buddhadharma. You’re going to encounter things that you don’t agree with, or don’t care about, right off the bat.
That’s not because they’re useless or wrong, but because you have biases and personal desires that predispose you for or against them. This will limit your practice and put a dent in your compassion.
If there is any unifying principle in Buddhism, and there might not be, it’s probably the focus on compassion and loving-kindness. Even traditions that focus on practicing alone and for oneself still make room for human decency and care.
“So, why not prune Buddhism down to basic kindness? Wouldn’t that be simpler?”
Sure, you can. You can do whatever you want, I’m not your guru. However, Buddhism offers a huge variety of reasons why we should be compassionate, and those reasons are important. Without them, kindness can kill, and compassion can cause pain.
If I had to give an open-ended summary for Buddhism, it’d be, “80,000 reasons you should be nice, and 80,000 ways to put them into practice.” They range from, “Your annoying neighbor could’ve been your mother in a past life,” to, “Each speck of dust has an unlimited affect on all things,” to, “Being kind feels good.”
So, there’s no real answer to, “What do Buddhists believe?” Some don’t even believe in Buddha, and that’s perfectly okay.
Like any self-absorbed content creator, I can only recommend what I did: get your feet wet with one tradition, and then dive into all of them until you come out the other side as an incoherent blob of vaguely Buddhist ramblings.
Study, study, study. Practice, practice, practice. Keep your critical open mind and caring heart, and you’ll be fine.
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