What is Buddhism?

A friend and colleague in academia, David Webster, recently posted an interesting article on teaching Buddhism to college students. It’s called, What Buddhism is Not: Presenting Buddhism to Students in the Twentyfirst Century, and it’s short and readable and very much worth a look. He writes of doing a simple web search comparing Buddhism and Islam:

I also ran, recently, a google-news search on UK media mentions on Buddhism—which resulted in stories about meditation, music, more meditation (mindfulness, mostly), spirituality, and various cultural events. An identical search where ‘Buddhism’ was replaced by ‘Islam’ brought results focused on; Jihad, violence, extremism, veils & death threats, and more.

Yes, Buddhism has a very good public image at the moment. As Dave writes, “Howeverthis benign but orientalist and patronising view is clearly only a very partial view.” The goal of any good educator is to get students to see things from multiple perspectives, to realize nothing is all good or all bad.

In concluding the article, he presents a bit of a challenge and request, writing,

my feeling is that we tend just to ignore this aspect of their prior acquaintance with the idea of Buddhism. What I like to do is to think through how we can initiate our teaching on Buddhism in such a way that it engages with where our students currently are: that it begins in the midst of their preconceptions and then works out from there to unpick some of the notions they arrive with.”

So what do you think? First, do you agree that it’s worthwhile to try to begin by drawing on students’ preconceptions of Buddhism, and then moving on from there? If so, how do you suggest doing that?

I, for one, think it’s a promising idea. When I taught an Intro to Buddhism course a few years back to about 200 undergrads, I started with a big picture of H.H. the Dalai Lama on powerpoint and asked, “how many of you know who this is?” 90+% of the students’ hands went up. He is, after all, “Buddhism’s Teddy Bear.” Then I went to a similar photo of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (this was fall 2006) and asked the same question. About 20% of the hands went up.

I’m pretty certain that zero of them (maybe one or two – this was a state school in Montana) would have recognized Ayatollah Ali Khāmene’i, one of the most powerful people in the world. How about Yehuda Krinsky? Apparently he is the most influential rabbi in America. But I digress.

The point of the short exercise was simply to point out that Buddhism is very visible. Pretty much everyone knows who the Dalai Lama is. But after that things get fuzzy. People’s impressions of what Buddhism is vary from “satanic idol-worshiping cult” to “a religion of pure love and kindness.” As the teacher, following my own mentor’s course design, I then stepped back, way back, in time so as to provide the context which led to the beginnings of Buddhism and on through the centuries to our current age of teddy-bear Dalai Lamas.

Buddhism didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Nor did the Dalia Lamas. Tenzin Gyatso, our current Dalai Lama, is #14. Did you know that several of his predecessors (or him in past lives…) died between the ages of 18 and 25 – probably murdered by fellow Tibetans?

Uh oh…

That’s Buddhism. It is, at least in some ways, a living, breathing tradition, filled with people and all of the ugly warts that people tend to have. I’m not a terribly big fan of the people side of it myself – hence the mostly philosophical/textual studies I do – but I have to acknowledge that it is there. The other side, the philosophy, the seemingly timeless concepts of not-self, emptiness, awakening, and the likes are all really fascinating – but in fact, in my own experience they get even more interesting when they’re understood in context. That context should be both the philosophical world in which they arose, but also the human, messy world of historians and anthropologists.

Getting a real grip on ‘What Buddhism is‘ takes all of these perspectives, even though some of them might not fit our particular interests.

Intersections of Gender, Identity, and Buddhism: an interview with LGBTIQ meditation teacher La Sarmiento
Jay Michaelson is right, don’t get your hopes up for Tibet
Practicing Compassion, a review
Mapping Buddhism in America
  • http://www.every-day-matters.org.uk caroline

    As a meditator ( not necessarily someone who would label themselves Buddhist, to call yourself a ‘Buddhist’ seems almost paradoxical ) I find that there are expectations around the practice/beliefs both from myself and others. I have sometimes been accused of ‘not being very Buddhist’ for example if I am angry or swearing at my desk at work for example! I think the stereotypical image of passivity and peacefulness in Buddhism can lead to a kind of spiritual bypass with the expectation that all meditators or buddhists should emulate some version of an enlightened being. It is also interesting to think about how this manifests in British culture where we are taught to repress any ‘unpleasant’ emotions’. Whilst I am part of the Thai forest tradition and love the austerity and simplicity of it, I find the Tibetan deities and demons offer a chance to reflect on other aspects of ourselves and human nature. Buddhism itself is very diverse, it’s hard to pin down…empty and impermanent…

    • Justin Whitaker

      Good points, Caroline, and thanks for your comments. I’m curious though about why labeling yourself a ‘Buddhist’ would be paradoxical. Isn’t it just another more-or-less useful way of describing ourselves in the world today? Similar to ‘meditator’ or ‘angry’ or ‘part of the Thai forest tradition’… :)

      I’m curious because I’ve come across this in many Western meditators. We, in the West more than anywhere, seem very shy about this particular label.

      • http://www.every-day-matters.org.uk caroline

        Yes good question, lots of people I know have similar issues with calling themselves a ‘Buddhist’. Personally I don’t want to be limited by my own expectations or other peoples expectations of what it means to be ‘buddhist’, it just feels like another thing to ‘become’ and get attached to which is why it seems like a bit of paradox. Calling myself a buddhist would make me feel like I have to do this or do that, because I am Buddhist, rather than enquire into my own behaviour and conduct and reach my own conclusion, which for me is what its all about and does seem a paradox. In fact I would have called myself ‘ buddhist’ in the past and maybe I will again in the future, I don’t know, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much as I see it as more of a practice than label. I guess I would be more comfortable saying I practice Buddhism rather than I am a Buddhist, that also makes it feel like I am engaged in an ongoing process rather than I have reached an end result…

  • http://thoughtschasethoughts.blogspot.com Tom Armstrong

    What people know about anything they learn from the press and other media that is often heavily influenced by the press — including, of course, any movies that become at least modestly popular. This is understandable; there is always a filter of some sort between us in the general public and the Underlying Reality [if there is, really, such].

    I don’t know that the Tricycized happy-talk hash that THAT magazine serves up — a stunted goat of a religion — from the keyboards of its twelve usual-suspect writers isn’t as valid a Buddhism as any. Is the Buddhism that Buddha or Hui Neng would have wanted the Buddhism we should “serve”? Buddha might very well be aghast that anything has survived of the piffle he preached AND with what has cropped up under his overmuch hallowed name. And by that I mean BOTH the scholarly-research Buddhism AND what’s being practiced by us hoi polloi. And Hui Neng, according to unreliable legend, wanted what we now call the Platform Sutra burned and forgotten.

    We live in a universe surrounded by fuzzy boundaries, deception and uncertainties. But it is this very disconnect from the past that is our greatest friend. Must the United States that the forefathers founded be the nation that we must genuflect to today? Or should we cast those slave-owning bastards aside and hope that there is collected wisdom in the present day that is better informed, more trustworthy and snazzier than anything that has come before. Ditto Buddhism (minus the slave-owning part).

    Seek and ye shall find. Stumbling along — and hurting a foot on a rock — is a vital part of the journey. Or, so I’ve read … probably in Tricycle.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Tom – brilliant as always. I think we have no choice but to stumble along. Yet Buddhist traditions have always had a strong backward-looking tendency, seeking truth and legitimacy from connections to past masters. Again, I think the best we can all do is wipe any ‘idealizing’ dust from our eyes. The more we understand the ways that contexts contributed to the great masters, the better we can see how the great masters of tomorrow might be shaped (or not).

  • urownexperience

    Buddhism, the Buddhism as taught by the founder, has always been counter-cultural. Although he taught a watered down Buddhism for his lay followers, who were hopelessly caught up in family life, the crux of his teachings to his monks involved dispassion, dis-attachment, and turning ones back on the world. Buddhism today is designer Buddhism manufactured to please the appetites of worldlings.

    • Justin Whitaker

      I think a lot of people would agree with your last statement. I definitely agree that the Buddha’s message was in many, many ways counter-cultural. But Buddhism shortly after his death became institutionalized and eventually a part of the culture. In fact it became the driving force in many Asian countries for centuries. So while the Buddha may have been counter-cultural, it seems that most Buddhists over time have not.

      • urownexperience

        Yes, of course you are correct. Only because of cultural Buddhism has Buddhism survived. Gratefully, a few sects have been arguably true (as possible over 2600 years) to the original suttas in the Pali language, and seekers can still practice his methods. The ones who dare do this however, I mean go for total enlightenment, will become outcasts from friends and society – at least until they become vetted and legitimate, which takes decades. That’s just part of the price.

  • Ben Franklin

    Would you answer the question, “What is Christianity?” by discussing the Crusades, the Inquisition, priestly molestation of altar boys, and the violent suppression of ‘heresies?’ I would think that the history of people who claim to represent a religion is not the same as the religion itself.

  • Dion Peoples

    I’m not arguing with Caroline above, but something she touched on, is something I have seen often – I’ll say it like this:

    I don’t know why people have this fear of calling themselves “Buddhist”? What is the fear? OK, so someone is not perfect (racing defilements) – OK: admit that one is not perfect. I’m certainly not perfect, and call myself a Buddhist. I have no fear of the label. We live in the age after the Buddha, and we have studied his ‘ism’ or we may try to be like him or exude certain attributes, thus we are ‘-ist’ (Buddh-ist) in that sense.

    It seems like people are bent or twisted on solving some riddle by not claiming to be the label. Often I have heard or have asked others: “Are you Buddhist?”, and someone replies: “Well, what is Buddhism?” At that point I feel like walking away, and doing something else. People know what it means, and are just trying to over-intellectualize and sound profound. In my mind, I feel sorry for these people.

    “Oh, I am liberated from such labels or constructions!” – is a take on some other responses that I have heard. At this point, yeah, again: I just stop talking to these people. They’ve taken their ideas from someone, linked (or un-anchored) their non-ideological position from somewhere… It’s like: listening or facing the liar.

    Again, I assert: I’ve not talking to anyone specifically above (we have not met), but I reply to the concept that I heave heard over my many years of studying Buddhism from many angles, and from many Buddhists and unlabeled people.

    This guy wrote a book, right Justin? “What Buddhism is not?” I seem to have seen it someplace, but since I am very restrictive in my reading and editing, I don’t have time for something like that, being very, very involved in Buddhism – as you well know.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Just a quick reply (running off to a min-conference): there is “What Makes You Not a Buddhist” by Jamyang Khyentse and “Buddhism Is Not What You Think” by Steve Hagen. I’ve read some other work by Hagen and enjoyed it, and I’ve heard good thinks about Khyentse’s book. But both are basically common sense approaches to Buddhism aimed at the modern audience and both (probably) decontexualize the tradition, ‘filtering it down to its essence’ or something along those lines. (Not that that is a bad thing, but it’s not the whole picture!)

    • http://www.every-day-matters.org.uk caroline

      Why would you say I ‘feel sorry’ for these people? Whilst I get your point it has a condesending air to it.

      In my case I would ask ‘do I really know what it means to call myself a Buddhist? ‘I am not sure that I do to be honest so it wouldn’t feel right call myself one.

  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Lynette Genju Monteiro

    Great post. I’ve “shared” (read: taken your name in vain) my views on our sangha blog site (www.sanghaarana.blogspot.com).

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Lynette! I tried to comment on yours but apparently it’s members only :) Anywho, I just wanted to say I appreciated your thoughts too; very Kantian with all that talk of intentions… :)

  • Scott Mitchell

    Hi Justin. I’m a little late to this one, but here are two sources that you (and your readers) should check out if you’re interested in this topic.

    The first is an article by Thomas Tweed called “Why are Buddhists so nice?” Speaks directly to the question of comparing Buddhism and Islam in the media.

    Second is Jane Naomi Iwamura’s recent book “Virtual Orientalism.” It’s a must-read for anyone serious about how Asian religions are represented in the media, thus constructing our pre-conceived notions of what “Buddhism is.”

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Scott! I’ll try to track those down. If I find any reviews or synopses, I’ll try to remember to post them here too for those with limited access to scholarly texts.

  • Scott Mitchell

    Ah yes, access. There’s something I should write about, increasing access to academic work. Another time!

    For what it’s worth, there’s a good review in the JAAR, if you’re a member:

    And while they don’t have a review of Iwamra’s book, the H-Buddhism scholar’s network has lots of good info. Highly recommended .

  • JMS

    I think this is an excellent topic and I enjoyed many of the discussion points. In brief, and surly I’m biased, but I find the comments by those practicing the Thai forest tradition or being well versed in the Pali Cannon to have a good sense of what practicing the dhamma is all about and have clear insight and understanding to what the other traditions (Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land) are all reprsenting.

    Westerners who want to embrace the dhamma must muddle their way through how the dhamma is culturally defined by the various schools and lineages they are studying. I was not brought up and exposed to Tibetan deities and imagery from a early age so their visualizations are difficult for me.

    I respect these lineages and see that they work. I have heard Theravada practitioners say they are mystified by practices such as doing prostrations and other preliminary practices for Mahamudra meditation. I think these practices work and are not mystical and can be explained quite conventionally. Preliminary practices train the mind to be concentrated. Rid negative karma by absorbing the mind in training exercises that steer the mind away from conventional thinking. So many westerners think you can watch HBO all day then go mediate. No. The Buddha said not to cling to rituals themselves Buddha also taught that clinging to the higher states of realizations, those above the sense-sphere we conventionally find ourselves in, is a necessary part of the path. I see a subtle parallel to what other traditions are doing and what the Buddha actually taught.

    In regard to the statement I made about HBO. I am just referring to the importance of wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. To get meditation to work, you really have to be ethical and a moral–not just to escape some future punishment but for simply the sake of being a good person with a pure heart and unstained mind. Its so hard to meditate when dealing with care-giving, work, and all life’s bothersome trivialities. TV–no way! But at the same time, one of the main points I learned by making it through the DN, is that you have to put much effort into your daily life; be a hard worker and strive for yourself diligently before you can even begin to truly work diligently and strive to help others. All the path factors have to achieved in daily practice as well as in sitting practice.

    I have had three spiritual guides or teachers, all of one of the Tibetan lineages. However, as a westerner I feel like I absorb the most dhamma through the original discourses orally passed down by the Buddha. The dhamma is holographic in nature and as I read my way through the Nikayas and other books of the Pali cannon I see how the other lineages unfolded and evolved.

    Take for example how the dhamma was transmitted to Tibet. The teachings were literally combined with their current culture in regard to existing deities them being turned into protector deities. LOL..rough history lesson please be nice!

    How is the west going to embrace the dhamma and integrate it into its culture? In regard to America were I live, that’s can be frightful thought. I’m in the middle of the Bible belt. Sometimes I find myself preaching dhamma as scripture like a Baptist minister. Then I take a step back and try to find a better way. A more compassionate way. This is a subtle point; I don’t shake the Dhp at people ‘thump’ it or anything, but part of that heritage is conditioned in me. I guess that’s why ‘me’ has to be unconditioned (the self).

    Early in my practice, someone at work approached and and broke status-quo and asked if I was a Christian. I hesitated. Then they laughed and said, “I’m sorry, of course you are”. I can tell by the way you act. As a ‘Buddhist’ being called a Christian turned out to be one of the best compliment I every received.

    Getting the dhamma established in the west is so important not only for the current practitioners but for those here who have yet to see the dhamma. For example, so many educated westerners are tired of dogmatic religions, have embraced science and need a middle way. I know Christians who are very devout and will hopefully achieve fortunate rebirth (although they do not believe in rebirth!)..My point is they truly embrace their faith. However, unfortunately, most Christians I now goto church, believed they are simply saved and are totally caught up in material things and unwholesome activities. This is actually a huge problem for Americans in general. We are so materialistic. Would the media ever let the dhamma into the country! The less media attention the dhamma gets probably the better. We don’t exactly go along with the corporate materialistic status-quo; dare I say agenda. Another problem.

    Yes, most westerners do have a fuzzy teddy bear view of Buddhism. The dhamma is precious but it was said you have to go through the jungle before you get to the temple. Sometimes its nice to just sit, sometimes its painful mentally or physically. Your not going to reach any kind of realization with just “only 10 minutes every morning” so many western pundits claim. I see and read how hard practitioners from the east strive to reach higher realizations. In America Buddhism is almost a hobby like biking.

    I was once told that Pema Chodron’s book “The Places that Scare You” is a “pithy read”…..

    I wish I could find a Theravada teacher in my area.

    Something that would have impact on this discussion is “The Western Seekers Glossary of Buddhism (Van Hines Study Group). Look up the definition of ‘Western Buddhist’ and ‘Elite Buddhist’. Painfully, relevant.