Some Basic Concepts of Buddhism
Some people say Buddhism is not a religion; it is a system of philosophy. Others say it is neither a religion nor a philosophy, but simply a way of life. Still others say Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. Indeed, Buddhism can be either a religion or a philosophy, or it can be neither. It may even be called a science, a psychology, a way of life, and so on. To apply any of these terms may be either right or wrong according to what we mean by such terms. In other words, it depends on the usage and implication of the term in question.
In any event, it does not matter what we call Buddhism. What really matters is why Buddhism is called so, that is, what is meant by Buddhism. To decide what Buddhism is and is not, let us first consider some of its aspects.
Buddhism in essence is the truth, by which is meant the true nature of things, including, in particular, the various facts of life. These facts or phenomena are subject to the law of nature. And by the law of nature is meant the law of cause and effect. This law governs all phenomena, both physical and mental. When this law is discovered, the truth is realized, and one sees all things as they really are. Here is Buddhism discovered.
Once one sees things as they really are, one knows how to act upon them or what attitude to adopt toward them. He who knows the law of cause and effect knows how to avoid the undesired effects and to bring about the desired ones through his choice of action toward the causes. In other words, he knows how to apply this knowledge of the law to his everyday life. It is the teaching on this applied knowledge that is called the ethics of Buddhism—the teaching on how to treat all things wisely and how to choose to act for the good both of oneself and of others.
Intended for those who have not realized the truth for themselves, it serves as a course of training toward the realization of the truth.
Any person who has discovered the truth and makes it known to the world is called a Buddha, an Enlightened or Awakened One. His dual position is that of the discoverer and teacher. He cannot realize the truth for anyone else. He can only point out the way to the realization of the truth.
The truth is to be realized by each one for oneself. But a man can follow what his teacher teaches him, that is to say, he must undergo the training himself. This is how the Buddha can help humankind. But he can in no way save a man. Everyone must save himself. Once the training course is completed, one reaches the goal. One realizes the truth for oneself, thereby becoming a sort of Buddha oneself.
Therefore, in order to realize the truth, each person must make an effort for himself. One is responsible for oneself. Throughout the training course—or the Path as it is called—there is no intervention from outside. There is a lot for him to do, but all are lessons for training.
There is nothing that can be called a commandment. Even a precept is merely a training rule the trainee takes upon himself by his own choice. The trainees can practice the teaching at various levels according to their maturity.
In a nutshell, the course, or the Path, consists of three main levels: morality, concentration, and wisdom. Wisdom is the crown jewel or key virtue of Buddhism, because it is only through the knowledge of things as they really are that one realizes the truth, has the perfectly right attitude to life and to the world, and becomes free. One has thus purified oneself and gained freedom.
Freedom and purity are the automatic outcomes of perfect wisdom. Because through perfect wisdom, or the knowledge of the truth, one knows all things as they really are, and as a result, has no attachment to them. Selfishness is completely eradicated. One becomes independent and is no longer tainted by anything in the world. With the mind cleared through purity, the trained and liberated one looks upon suffering beings with compassion. He accordingly tries to help his fellow beings out of sorrow—from which he has been freed—to attain the state of purity and freedom as he himself has.
His attitude to life and to the world is that of independence, detachment and freedom, while to his fellow beings it is that of boundless love and compassion.
He who has reached freedom reaches the goal. He becomes a perfect man, with purity, wisdom and compassion as his main characteristics.
As the goal can be reached only through true knowledge, the Buddhist attitude to the world is the acceptance of the truth at every level of the training. A Buddhist must face bravely any fact of life whether desirable or not, and try to solve a problem through properly dealing with its cause; he must never deceive himself. This is his attitude to life and to the world.
To himself he is responsible for his own salvation. He must develop a sense of duty. He must be dutiful and earnest. There is no Being sitting in judgment of his right or wrong. It is the natural law of cause and effect that governs his action. He makes his own destiny.
As all beings are facing the common problems in life and wandering together through the same cycle of life, they are friends and relatives. Though one cannot realize the truth and gain freedom for another, one can still guide and encourage others. The more one has made progress along the Path, the more one can render help to one’s fellow beings.
If Buddhism is to be called a religion, it is one with no God, no Saviour, no prayers, no priests, and no commandments. If it is to be called a system of philosophy, it is one which teaches dependence not on reason, but on direct knowledge of life experiences.
And now you can decide for yourself what Buddhism is, and what it is not.
Source: Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto, Vision of the Dhamma: A Collection of Buddhist Writings in English (Nakhon Pathom, Thailand: Wat Nyanavesakavan, 2007), 148-150.