When change is uncontrollable, it has long been regarded in Buddhism as a form of suffering. Yet Buddhism has undergone remarkable changes over its history, up to the present. And in the face of change, Buddhist thinkers have struggled to control the meaning of the term Buddhism (and its often rough equivalents in Asian languages) and the meaning of the term Buddhist. As proponents of Buddhism have continued over the decades to expand what is encompassed by the term in order to accommodate various forms of science, it is perhaps useful at this point to pause briefly to consider the question of what makes a person, or an idea, “Buddhist.”
(P. 212, ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr.)
In his intriguing book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’, Donald S. Lopez not only writes of the relationship between Buddhism and the sciences, but also touches on the nature of Buddhism itself, in an endeavour to be sure of his subject matter. In this process, he throws up some interesting topics for Buddhists to reflect upon, such as the consideration of what significance words like Buddhism and Buddhist actually have for us, if any. For example, with the diversity of sects, both extant and archaic, Buddhism has evolved into forms that seem to actually contradict one another.
To the untrained eye, this apparently fundamental difference between
The above brief discussion of some very basic differences between two sects of Buddhism practiced for hundreds of years side-by-side in the Orient illustrates the wide variety of teachings and practices found under the banner ‘Buddhism’. Who is right here, the Pure Lander, the Zennist, the Theravadin, the Tibetan Buddhist, or some other sectarian Buddhist? But, now, we come to the question of what do we mean by ‘right’, in the Buddhist context. Surely, we do not mean ‘orthodox’, in some kind of dogmatic clinging to one particular Buddhist tradition? Given the scarcity of proof that the Buddha actually taught anything found in any of the Buddhist scriptures - whether written in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit or whatever – the thought arises that none of them can lay claim to such a thing as orthodoxy in the Buddhist sense, anyhow. Perhaps by ‘right’, we mean that a Buddhist is someone that practices one of a variety of lifestyles that share a broad set of criteria that enable them to be called ‘Buddhism’. And one well known entry point into Buddhism found in most if not all Buddhist sects is someone who ‘takes refuge’ in the so-called Triple Gem, of which Mr Lopez writes in his book:
So, even a basic element in Buddhist tradition as taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not without controversy, as definitions of the three jewels often differ between various branches of Buddhism. A contemporary example of this is the usage of the word ‘sangha’ as meaning the Buddhist community as a whole, as opposed to the traditional (original?) definition which includes fully-ordained monks & nuns only. This is a question discussed previously on Buddha Space, with some interesting insights contributed by some of this blog’s readership. (To read this article & its related comments, please click here.) Suffice to say, not all those who call themselves Buddhists share identical ideas on who constitutes the members of the Sangha.
Many modern-minded Buddhists view the older forms of Buddhism as being superstitious, ritualistic, and encumbered with much that is cultural in origin. Often such modernist movements replace the supernatural and mythological aspects of traditional Buddhist sects with science and scientific empirical methodology. In this approach to Buddhism, there is an emphasis on psychological interpretations of the teachings, sometimes incorporating the mythological and supernatural tales found in Buddhist lore. This fusion of the Buddha Dharma and science is the main focus of Lopez’s book, which he views with admiral detachment, neither endorsing it nor condemning it. (Perhaps this will be the focus of future reflections on Buddha Space.)
Of course, many traditionalists treat such modernist movements with some scorn, seeing them as not in complete agreement with ancient doctrines. Whatever one’s opinions on this subject, it is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of attachment to views, observing the mind’s reactions to teachings that are seen as agreeable or disagreeable. Part of the reason for this diversity of views is that Buddhism as a whole does not have one individual or group of individuals dictating its central tenets: it is as diverse as the many historical & contemporary cultures of those that have practiced it:
Buddhism, without a synod or a pope to declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox, became a tradition in which nothing is discarded, although something may be forgotten. New texts continued to be added, each claiming to be the word of the Buddha, with what was once definitive now being deemed provisional. All accretions were somehow accommodated. Yet the origins remain sufficiently occluded to make it possible to ask: is there only accretion?
This is a fair question when confronted with the sheer number of differing teachings & sects that are called ‘Buddhist’. Has the heart of Buddhism stopped beating under the sheer weight of two-and-a-half millennia of cultural, philosophical, ritualistic, and doctrinal accretions? To answer this question, we need to define what the ‘heart’ of Buddhism actually is. Well, this is enlightenment, of course, which is variously called Nirvana, Happiness, Cessation, Buddha-nature, and Emptiness, but to name a few. This awakening to the way-things-are (the Dharma) is not something to be gained, however, but something to be uncovered, hidden as it is by the three poisons of greed, hatred, & delusion. Meditation, practiced by a mind ripened for the task through living a moral & mindful life, is the doorway to enlightenment, but the latter is not the result of the former; it is revealed when the mental defilements that cover it over are completely washed away.
Now, what is left when the mind and all its delusions are let go of? Well, nothing. Or, to put it more accurately, perhaps: No-thing. That which lies at the heart of life, and is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is not a nihilist nothingness, as is often thought by those that haven’t experienced it and try to catch it with concepts, but neither is it any particular thing, hence, it may be named ‘No-thing’, rather than mere nothing. This No-thing is always here, whether noticed or not; but when noticed, it transforms experience, turning this world upside down & inside out, revealing the wordless meaning at the center of a previously meaningless universe.
If, then, the aim of a particular form of Buddhism includes basic teachings such the emptiness of all phenomena, and such practices as taking refuge in the Triple Gem, surely this is enough to classify system as ‘Buddhism’, and its adherents as ‘Buddhists’? What do you think of all this, dear reader? Is there only one true form of Buddhism, with all the other pretenders to the title nothing more than heresies? Is enlightenment the result of a specific system found in particular writings, or is it (as hinted at above) an innate aspect of life waiting to be discovered by those determined and skilled enough? Are the words ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist’ that important in the end? Sure, we need words to convey concepts and experiences that will help the unenlightened to awaken, but should these terms become fossilized in their meanings to the point of dogmatism? Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking the appropriate link below, remembering to retain the politeness & respect for others that Buddhists are famous for!