The Buddha Was Not a Buddhist
If we want to be free of the pain we inflict on ourselves and each other — in other words, if we want to be happy — then we have to learn to think for ourselves. We need to be responsible for ourselves and examine anything that claims to be the truth. That’s what the Buddha did long ago to free himself from his own discontent and persistent doubts about what he heard, day after day, from his parents, teachers, and the palace priests.
Although he was a prince born into a wealthy and powerful family, the young Siddhartha often just wanted to get away from it all. He wanted the space to think independently about who he was and what the spiritual path was about. Such freethinking was important to the Buddha’s search for inner truth and his ultimate realization of enlightenment. These days more and more people in the West are following the teachings and example of the Buddha. But what are these teachings about? What is Buddhism?
It looks like a religion, but is it? There are many definitions of religion. Some are so broad they’d include your neighborhood garden club. Others are narrower: your garden club would need a deity, enthusiasm for that deity, and a set of beliefs and practices. We all have some sense of what religion means to us, but when we start talking about it — trouble!
If you search “world religions,” you’ll find “Buddhism” on every list. Does that make Buddhism a religion? Does it mean that because I’m a Buddhist, I’m “religious”? I can argue that Buddhism is a science of mind — a way of exploring how we think, feel and act that leads us to profound truths about who we are. I can also say that Buddhism is a philosophy of life — a way to live that maximizes our chances for happiness.
What Buddhism is, at this point, is certainly out of the Buddha’s hands. His teachings passed into the hands of his followers thousands of years ago. They passed from wandering beggars to monastic institutions, from the illiterate to the learned, from the esoteric East to the outspoken West. In its travels, Buddhism has been many things to many people. But what did the Buddha intend when he taught?
At the start of his own spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his royal home, along with its many luxuries and privileges. He was determined to find answers to life’s most perplexing questions. Are we born into the world just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s going on — what’s the meaning of it all?
After years of experimenting with different forms of religious practice, he abandoned his austerities and all his concepts about his spiritual journey — all the beliefs and doctrines that had led him to where he was. At the end of that journey, with only an open and curious mind, he discovered what he was looking for — the great mind of enlightenment. He woke up from all confusion. He saw beyond all belief systems to the profound reality of the mind itself — a state of clear awareness and supreme happiness. Along with that knowledge came an understanding of how to lead a meaningful and compassionate life. For the next forty-five years, he taught how to work with the mind: how to look at it, how to free it from misunderstandings, and how to realize the greatness of its potential.
Those teachings today still describe a deeply personal inner journey that’s spiritual, yes, but not religious. The Buddha wasn’t a god — he wasn’t even a Buddhist. You’re not required to have more faith in the Buddha than you do in yourself. His power lies in his teachings, which show us how to work with our minds to realize our full capacity for wakefulness and happiness. These teachings can help us satisfy our search for the truth — our need to know who and what we really are.
Where do we find this truth? Although we can rely to some degree on the wisdom we find in books and on the advice of respected spiritual authorities, that’s only the beginning. The journey to genuine truth begins when you discover a true question — one that comes from the heart — from your own life and experience. That question will lead to an answer that will lead to another question, and so on. That’s how it goes on the spiritual path.
We start by bringing an open, inquisitive, and skeptical mind to whatever we hear, read, or see that presents itself as the truth. We examine it with reason and we put it to the test in meditation and in our lives. As we gain insight into the workings of the mind, we learn how to recognize and deal with our day-to-day experiences of thoughts and emotions. We uncover inaccurate and unhelpful habits of thinking and begin to correct them. Eventually we’re able to overcome the confusion that makes it so hard to see the mind’s naturally brilliant awareness. In this sense, the Buddha’s teachings are a method of investigation, or a science of mind.
Religion, on the other hand, often provides us with answers to life’s big questions from the start. We don’t have to think about it too much. We learn what to think and believe and our job is to live up to that, not to question it. If we relate to the Buddha’s teachings as final answers that don’t need to be examined, then we’re practicing Buddhism as a religion.
In any case, we still have to live our lives and face up to how we’re going to do it. We can’t escape having a “philosophy of life,” because we’re challenged every day to choose one action over another — kindness or indifference, generosity or selfishness, patience or blame. When our decisions and actions reflect the knowledge we’ve gained by working with our minds, that’s adopting Buddhism as a way of life.
As the teachings of the Buddha reach us and pass into our Western hands, what determines what they will be for us? It’s all in how we use them. As long as they help to clear up our confusion and inspire confidence that we can fulfill our potential, then they’re doing the job that the Buddha intended.
We can use all the help we can get, because strange as it seems, we hang onto to our confusion. We cling to it because we think it shields us from something. But like wearing sunglasses day and night, we are only avoiding looking at who we truly are. We prefer to wear our “shades,” simply because we’re not used to the bright light of our minds. The teachings of the Buddha — no matter how we label them — show us how to open our eyes to that brilliance.
This article by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche was originally published on Washington Post’s “On Faith” in 2010.