What is Buddhism?

Jinananda answers some frequently asked questions about what Buddhism is.

Is Buddhism a religion?

Well, yes, it traditionally involves faith and devotion, ritual, myth, monks and nuns. But it is non-theistic. There is no God or source of absolute authority. This makes Buddhism unique amongst universal religions, and allows it to be other things as well.

Is Buddhism a philosophy?

Probably, yes. It is a search for wisdom, knowledge, truth, ultimate reality, and an exploration of the ethical life, undistracted by divine revelation or doctrinal imperatives. However, unlike academic philosophy, Buddhism can only be properly understood when it is felt along the blood and in one’s very bones.

Is Buddhism a culture?

Certainly – In many traditional Buddhist countries Buddhism has generated an astonishingly rich body of art, architecture, literature, historical records and teaching.

Is Buddhism a sensibility?

Yes — there is a recognisable Buddhist mentality, characterised by practical realism, open-mindedness, a concern for direct experience, attentiveness, cheerfulness and kindness.

Is Buddhism a political or social system?

You could say so. Principles of non-violence and tolerance are central. It is non-authoritarian: decisions are traditionally made by consensus. Buddhist teachings of interdependence, of interconnection, are fundamental. Ecological or ‘green’ politics are underpinned by a philosophy that is basic Buddhism.

Is Buddhism a form of psychotherapy?

The teaching is couched in explicitly medical terms: symptoms are analysed and a model of wholeness proposed. It offers creative responses to life’s frustrations here and now.

Is Buddhism a form of psychology?

Up to a point. Buddhism involves an analysis of the components and dynamics of the psycho-physical organism, and how to effect change within it.

Is Buddhism a form of humanism?

More or less. As a Buddhist one is a human being first, and a Buddhist second.

Is Buddhism about believing strange things?

Buddhist theory is secondary to Buddhist practice. Faith is based on personal experience.

One way to approach Buddhism is to recognize that we all practise it anyway, just not always perhaps terribly effectively. Buddhism is not essentially a description of reality but a body of methods that promote the growth of a human being, enabling us to be more true to ourselves and others and to live more intimately with the reality of our experience. There are many ways to grow; mostly through accepting and carrying through the various challenges that life throws up and we seek out. Buddhism encourages us to accept life’s biggest challenges with joy and confidence, with a faith that our true nature is at once impermanent and limitless and compassionate.

There is no Buddhist creed of any kind. Buddhism consists of many contradictory systems of thought and practice. What unifies them is the fact that they represent always a pointing to the true nature of things, here and now. To use an image from the Zen tradition, Buddhism is ‘a finger pointing at the moon.’ What matters is that we look at the moon, not that we make sure the finger is washed and manicured in the right way.

Above all, Buddhism is a wordless exploration of the mystery of being here and the infinite possibilities of being human. It is about bringing the mind back to the reality of this moment. It is about a deepening awareness of the kindness and compassion that is the reality of our nature and the keys to our freedom.

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