What Is This Thing Called Buddhism?

The more I study Buddhism, the less able I feel to define it. And yet I consider myself a Buddhist, even though we Buddhists sometimes get confused about exactly whom we’re referring to when we talk about the Buddha.

The man most of us know as the Buddha was born in about 600 B.C.E. and spread his message, the Dharma, in what’s now Nepal and the eastern bulge of India. They didn’t take notes in those days; they memorized. His contemporary disciples taught later monks what they had memorized, and those monks did likewise. It was 150 years before some of his teachings were transcribed, and then more were, until eventually the collected material comprise what we call the Buddhist canon.

But the Buddha’s words were written down in languages other than the dialect in which he spoke, so the translations vary and exact meanings are elusive. The words got translated again, of course, into modern languages. All of this gets complicated further by the Buddha’s rhetorical devices. He used metaphor, irony, and humor, and like many good modern speakers he adapted his language for the audience he was addressing.

iStock_000052758056_SmallThe Buddha lived in a time and place going through religious ferment, so the words he used were often reactions to other spiritual movements. Experts in Pali and Sanskrit, the languages closest to what the Buddha spoke, have long debated exactly what he said and meant.

Possibly because of all this uncertainty, Buddhism has proved to be exceptionally malleable as it has gone from culture to culture. Each culture can find in the Buddhist canon the words and interpretations that fit it.

The first wave of Buddhism, known as Theravada, was east to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. About 500 years after the Buddha’s time, the religion spread north to China and then on to Korea and Japan. This was the Mahayana wave. Buddhism as practiced in Tibet has become known as Vajrayana.

Chinese culture especially did a lot to transform Buddhism, which took on aspects of Taoism and other spiritual practices. In Theravada, the focus was on individual enlightenment, with the laity supporting monastics, who could become enlightened. The lay practitioners could hope that by their dana (charity) to the monastics they would gain merit and be reborn as monks and nuns. Mahayana practitioners, on the other hand, believed that enlightenment was available to all and made it virtuous for one to work for the enlightenment of others.

China gave birth to Chan Buddhism, which became Zen in Japan and Korea. China also gave birth to Pure Land Buddhism, which is now probably the most-practiced form of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land focuses less on the man we call the Buddha and more on the Amida Buddha — a celestial entity of all-encompassing love.

The word “Buddha” simply means “awakened one,” so other enlightened beings are Buddhas as well, like the chubby laughing Buddha, we often see in novelty shops. Various sects may hold one of those as a central figure.

Vajrayana brings a mystic tantra element into the family of Buddhist religions.

I believe that the Buddhist denominations are even more diverse than Christian ones, so what makes a Buddhist? I’ll try tackling that next.

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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