My friend Markus had this to say about a recent blog I wrote.
the way you tell it, buddhism doesn’t even sound like a faith. If it’s not about an afterlife and a way to deal with impotence and fear, what makes it a religion? I think you leave something out. I am skeptical.
Which is a really good question, a lot of people say the same thing so it is a good subject to address in more than just a short reply. Let me start by saying that when I write “Buddhism” it is usually Zen Buddhism I’m talking about, but Buddhism is a broad umbrella covering many different things.
First, you need to know a very stripped down version of Buddhist history; about 2600 years ago the guy we call the Buddha (which just means “awakened”) undertook a personal quest to find an end to suffering in his life. He tried all sorts of methods and eventually discovered a path the we call Buddhism. Please note that I did not call it a faith or a religion, while difficult to pin down to an easy description the closest thing to what Buddhism “is” might be to call it a path, a method of interacting with the universe and not a system of “isms”, (but more on that later.)
The Buddhas teachings resonated with lots of folks and eventually it began to spread beyond the part of Northern India where it originated, as it traveled to each new area the indigenous people would take their already existing religion and mesh it with Buddhism to make their own version of Buddhism. Some Indian Hindus simply added the Buddha to the existing pantheon of Vedic gods as one of Shiva’s many reincarnations. In Nepal and Tibet there was already a strong local faith known as Bon and Buddhism was combined into it to form what we call Tibetan buddhism. As it moved along the Silk Road into China it was mixed with Chinese Daoism to form what was known as Chan Buddhism (the Chinese actually stripped off much of the ritual stuff the Tibetans had added) and eventually to Japan to form what we call Zen Buddhism. Zen buddhism was the result of Japanese Buddhists trying to get back to the original form of Buddhism as they understood it from the earliest writings. It sort of the protestant reformation of Buddhism. A “getting back to basics” if you will.
Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia is one of the most colorful and dramatic forms of Buddhism and so it is the one most westerners are familiar with. The Beastie Boys and actor Richard Gere are practicing Tibetan Buddhists as is, obviously, the Dalai Lama. This type of attention would lead someone with only a passing knowledge of Buddhism to believe that is what Buddhism is, actually though, Tibetan buddhism is a tiny sect and their beliefs, based on the native pre-Buddhist animist faith, are often confused with all forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, in magical beings and multiple deities, it is not that they are wrong, it’s simply that they are only one flavor of Buddhism among many different ones. An old Buddhist saying goes “there are 84,000 doors to the Dharma (teaching)” meaning what works for one person as Buddhism may not work for someone else.
In Japan the two main sects of Zen buddhism (Rinzai and Soto) both sought to strip away all the mumbo-jumbo that had been added to Buddhism over the centuries. Their effort was not to discredit other forms of Buddhism, it was to get back to what they saw as the essential meat at the heart of Buddhism that had been obscured by the cultural trappings it had acquired as it traveled from India to Japan. Some of those trappings include a belief in Reincarnation, spirits, the afterlife, the buddha as a divine being, and anyone’s ability to definitively say if there was or was not a god. The school I follow, Soto Zen, even did away with the concept of enlightenment as some special state that happens once you do Buddhism thoroughly enough. Everything, they said, was enlightenment, we are just to deluded in our normal lives to see it!
In Zen Buddhism you are not asked to believe anything, in fact the Buddhas last words were supposedly “be a lamp to yourselves” meaning “test the theories I’ve presented for yourselves, don’t take my word for it”. Since no one can claim to know for a fact about an afterlife, or the existence of God these questions are put aside in Zen Buddhism in favor of more practical matters. In one famous zen story a young monk asks to see the head Abbot of a monastery, a very experienced and wise man. The monk asks the abbot all sorts of questions like “what is mans true nature, is the buddha nature in everyone, is there life after death”. Instead of giving pat answers, the abbot asked a question of his own, “did you already eat breakfast?”, this confused the monk who said, “yes I did.” to which the abbot replied “then go wash your bowl!”
What the Abbot was saying is “all those questions are not answerable by man, but in the meantime your food bowl is still dirty! Go clean your fucking bowl and leave the unanswerable questions for later!” Zen buddhism deals with the questions of “impotence and fear” by directing your attention to where it ought to be, in this moment! It is about the very real problem of people not dealing with reality! they spend their lives worried about the coulds, shoulds, and what-ifs , yet all the while they are missing this actual moment as it is occurring. This habit of ours to dwell in a fictional past or an unknowable future is so ingrained in us that we seldom ever notice it. Spending time and energy on those sorts of questions is like wasting time worrying about whether the wizard of Oz wears black shoes or brown ones, it doesn’t fucking matter and no one knows for sure anyway! What does matter is how you live your life right now, are you kind to others or a prick, do you do what needs to be done or put off the hard things in life til they bite you in the ass, in short, are you living life causing more or less suffering to yourself and others? It turns out that our suffering comes about because we cause it! The good news is that because we cause it, we can also end it.
What the Buddha realized was that the less we were in touch with this actual reality as it occurred outside of our thoughts of how it ought to be, the more we suffered. He also realized that nobody else, not your family, not a priest, not the Buddha could show you the Truth. You had to do it yourself! This is one reason why Buddhists don’t try to “convert” people or sell you buddhism as an end to your problems, one simply comes to Buddhism when (and if) they are ready to look deeper than simple answers and easy to hear platitudes. What the Buddha could do, however, was show you one method to use that might help you to begin to strip away the bullshit and see things as they really are. He called it the eightfold path,” path” because it is something you travel upon your whole life instead of hearing someone else’s idea of the truth once and stopping there.
Zen Buddhism promises you nothing, asks you to believe nothing you can’t test for yourself, it is simply the teaching some folks have found to be helpful to live a life with less suffering for themselves and others. A faith, by definition, asks you to believe something you can not prove, Zen Buddhism does not do this. A religion promises sure answers to questions no human can honestly know, Zen doesn’t do this. Zen doesn’t even tell you what this unfettered view of the truth looks or feels like because each person must explore that for themselves (and words are not up to the task of something like that.) Buddhism is called a religion or a faith because that’s what we are used to calling things that people use to guide their lives, but Zen Buddhism isn’t really either one of those things. Buddhist writer Brad Warner once said that Buddhism is closer to an Art than a religion and I think that is the best description I’ve heard yet.