What is Buddhism?

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to Insight into the true nature of our experience. Buddhist practices such as meditation are means of transforming oneself into full awareness, kindness, and wisdom. The experience developed within the Buddhist tradition over thousands of years has created an incomparable resource for all those who wish to follow a path — a path which ultimately culminates in being Enlightened, or fully Awake.

Because Buddhism does not include the idea of worshipping a creator god, some people do not see it as a religion in the normal, Western sense. The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent; actions have consequences; change is possible. Thus Buddhism addresses itself to all people irrespective of race, nationality, gender or sexuality. It teaches practical methods (such as meditation) which enable people to realise and utilise its teachings in order to transform their experience, to be fully responsible for their lives and to develop the qualities of Wisdom and Compassion.

There are around 350 million Buddhists and a growing number of them are Westerners. They follow many different forms of Buddhism, but all traditions are characterised by going for refuge to the Three Jewels. This finds expression in non-violence, lack of dogma, tolerance of differences, and by the practice of generosity, ethics and meditation and brings about the transformation of one’s whole experience.

Going For Refuge

You could say this is the primary act of all beings. All beings strive to perpetuate themselves by avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. The whole of our life is built around these things. As humans we may have our basic needs in place and so we build our lives around our deepest beliefs about what matters most. This could be family, career or political ideal. Because the things we base our life on are constantly changing, we have to work hard to keep them in place. For example our children leave home, our loved ones die or fall in love with someone else. Our career ends or becomes something we no longer recognise, our ideals become jaded and generally it can be hard work to maintain a life that is built around these transient things that we cherish.

Going for refuge, then, is this act of emotionally investing in something, holding it most dear and building one’s life around it.

The primary importance of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

The fundamental aim of Buddhism is Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Traditionally Buddhists express this aspiration by ‘Going For Refuge’ to the Buddha, his Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (spiritual community), the Three Jewels, as they are called.

The Buddha is seen as a ‘Refuge’ not because he will help us to escape life and its difficulties, but because his example and teaching represent practical and reliable responses to our sorrows in the face of life. They can help free us from attachment to ‘false refuges’ — those mundane things we look to for happiness and security, but which are ultimately incapable of providing them. The Buddha’s vision and example are fundamental. 

These are real refuges because they are in line with Reality. Unlike everything else, Reality does not come into existence and go out of existence, it doesn’t change. The best thing to say of Reality is that it is change. Therefore it is a reliable centre around which to live one’s life. The Buddha shows us by example how to do this. Leading by example, he shows us what it means to be truly real, to be fully awake. The Dharma is the teachings and practices we can follow to bring this about. The Sangha is all those people who are engaged in this process; as such they represent an irreplaceable support in a Buddhist’s life. Whether we think of others as teachers, friends or disciples they are essential to our eventual success.

The Triratna Buddhist Community

Founded by Sangharakshita, an Englishman, in the 1960s, the Triratna Buddhist Community is an international network of Buddhist centres and practitioners dedicated to communicating Buddhist truths in ways appropriate to the modern world.

The essence of Buddhism is timeless and universal, but the forms it takes adapt according to context. Over the centuries, as the Buddha’s teaching reached each new country, it adapted to the prevailing culture – and often these countries had no contact with each other. As a result Asian Buddhism is extremely varied. Most of these traditions have now come to the West and present westerners with a bewildering variety of teachings, practices and forms.

Now that Buddhism is spreading around the globe, the task is to create new Buddhist traditions relevant to the 21st century. Rather than adopting one specific form, Sangharakshita, founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order, was keen to clarify what all Buddhist schools held in common: the essential principles and practices that run through the whole tradition. He suggests the key unifying factor is the historical Buddha and his experience of Enlightenment.

All Buddhist schools aim to teach a path to freedom from suffering that will help practitioners become more like the Buddha. The differences between them are basically a matter of means, not ends – however different they may look from the outside.

Sangharakshita’s approach is based on the perception that the diverse Buddhist tradition has an underlying unity. 

During the past 40 years the Triratna Buddhist Community has become one of the largest western Buddhist movements, with activities in many cities and rural retreat centres around the world.

“One should not have just an emotional approach to Buddhism, nor just an intellectual approach, nor just a meditative approach, nor just a practical, active approach; one should approach Buddhism in all these ways. One’s nature comprises all these aspects – one feels, thinks, acts, and also sometimes sits still – so one should approach Buddhism with all these aspects. In other words, one should approach Buddhism with one’s total being.”  Sangharakshita