What is Buddhism ?
Buddhism is neither a religion, nor a philosophy, nor a way of life. This may seem very surprising, given what millions of people appear to be doing in the name of Buddhism around the world. Yet genuine Buddhism has nothing to do with belief; or ritual, or meditation. It is something else altogether: something altogether more provocative and exciting. In its essence, Buddhism is all about the search for the ultimate metaphysical truth.
If you are the sort of person sufficiently provoked by the big metaphysical questions of life to want to try and answer them, impartially and objectively, then you qualify as a Buddhist, whether or not the label means anything to you. Buddhism is a special type of inner undertaking, not to be confused with philosophising, or religious practice, or meditating, or reading difficult books. Buddhism is about being independently-minded, and about learning to judge things for yourself; it is not about joining a belief system.
As a label, ‘Buddhism’ derives whatever special force it has from the story of the life of the Buddha. The Buddha started out as someone so tormented by the big metaphysical questions of life that he was prepared to abandon a privileged lifestyle in order to be able to devote himself single-mindedly to the pursuit of the ultimate truth. He began by immersing himself in religion, yoga, meditation, austerities – and all the rest – but found them wanting. He saw that they could not deliver anything more than special experiences – mere modifications to his state of mind – because they could not take you beyond the human condition. They did not offer a gateway to anything more certain, and more convincing, So, still sticking to his original goal, he tried to find his own way through the darkness. Somehow, amazingly, in the end, he happened across what he had been looking for. The discovery of this precious knowledge completed his search. The story may have a glorious ending, but the Buddha’s enlightenment was achieved only after his complete abandonment of all religious systems, philosophies, and mystical practices. If the story manages to illustrate anything at all, it is that metaphysical truth cannot be found by embracing religious or mystical teachings. You have to clear your mind of the beliefs you already have, not as a matter of principle, or dogma, but because you have seen for yourself that such beliefs are dragging you down. Religious, mystical and philosophical beliefs are dead weight, clouding your thinking, and preventing you from greater insight into the metaphysical situation you are already in.
So a Buddhist is someone who treats the quest for metaphysical truth with the same seriousness as did the Buddha. This does not mean changes in lifestyle or shaving your head. But it does mean adopting very demanding standards of excellence when it comes to metaphysical knowledge, and it does mean abandoning, as soon as possible, the kind of sentimental ideas that fuel most religious practice.
The term ‘Buddhist’ is not that important in itself, but sometimes adopting a label can help to clarify and crystallise your thinking. It can help reinforce a certain sense of purpose, and focus. It can remind you that you are not a mere philosopher, or a mere scientist, or a mere religious believer: you are an independent searcher for the ultimate truth.