What is Buddhism about?

My wife just started teaching an online course introducing Buddhism. We had a few conversations about it which inspired me to reflect on this topic myself and start a new thread on this blog. The Buddhist teachings are very vast and profound and I often get lost in their richness. It is easy to forget what the main point and essence of Buddhism is. I hope reflecting on it will help remind me!

When my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche explains what Buddhism is about, he often begins by pointing out that in Tibet Buddhists actually don’t call themselves Buddhists. Only others call them Buddhists! In Tibet other people call Buddhists “Sangyepa”, which means followers of the Buddha, whereas Buddhist practitioners call themselves “Nangpa” which means someone that is looking for the truth inside. He says this very humorously and jokingly and makes everyone chuckle and laugh, but actually I find that it is a very profound statement and that there is a lot to understand in it.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with calling a Buddhist practitioner a follower of the Buddha. It is a true statement. However, the word “follower” might give the impression that Buddhism requires us to accept a certain view of the world and to follow rules of behavior that were given by the Buddha.

The second statement that the aim of Buddhist practice is to discover what is true about this world is a much better description of what Buddhism is about. It makes it clear that the Buddhist teachings are not a dogma, but that they lay out a path through which we can personally discover the truth.

Sky over the stupa next to the temple at Lerab Ling, France by Heinz Nowotny

That’s why the Buddha told his disciples not to blindly follow his teachings but test them and verify them through their own experience like a goldsmith tests the purity of gold. For example, in one his public talks my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche once explained that:

“The Buddha himself urged us not follow his teachings out of love or respect for him, but to discover their truth for ourselves, as if we were “analyzing gold, scorching, cutting, and rubbing it to test its purity”

Of course, it initially requires some trust and give ourselves a chance to examine the teachings. At first, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. If we do not  listen to the teachings, reflect on them so that we understand them correctly and then practice applying them in our meditation and into our lives, we will not be able to accomplish the practice correctly and personally experience the truth directly in our being.

So what is this truth that Buddhist are looking for? It is simply about discovering how things truly are. Buddha nature refers to “our” nature. It is the most simple and natural thing we can imagine. It is what we see when we are able to see clearly how things are without distortion. All beings have this nature, but unfortunately at the moment we can’t see it because it is obscured.

Buddha means “Awakened One” and was given to a person named Siddhartha after he fully and irreversibly realized the ultimate truth. He found that realizing the true nature of our being brings suffering and dissatisfaction to an end once and for all and gives rise to freedom and lasting happiness.

Thus Buddhism is not a system of believes we need to subscribe to, but about investigating how reality really is. That’s why Buddhism can be looked at as a philosophy, religion, science of mind, way of life. It is not something Buddha invented, but about the true nature of things.

How is this nature? It is limitless, timeless, beyond birth and death, wise, self-knowing and alive, naturally manifesting and acting compassionately. That’s why the essence of the Buddhist teachings is said to be wisdom and compassion.

There is another important point in the word “Nangpa”. It says that we are looking for the truth inside. Why inside? Because this truth is not something we can obtain outside. It is discovered by understanding our mind, by realizing the nature of our mind which is also said to be the nature of everything.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche at Rigpa Summer Retreat in the Pyrenees/France, August 1986 by Heinz Nowotny

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, one of the foremost holders of the Dzogchen teachings in our time and one of the main teachers of my own teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, who I had the good fortune to meet several times myself, used to say again and again that the main point of the teaching of the Buddha can be essentialized in one line: To train and tame or transform our mind!

What makes someone a Buddhist is taking refuge in the three jewels. Sogyal Rinpoche sometimes jokes that these jewels are not diamond, ruby and emerald but refer to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Refuge is explained as seeking protection from fear and compared to a child that is chased by a wild dog and is running for safety to its mother and climbs into her lap. What are we afraid of? The fear of suffering, dissatisfaction and pain that we have to face in our life. Illness, death are like the dogs that can wait in ambush around the corner, ready to chase and bite us if they manage to get us.

Buddha said that the place of refuge is the realization of our nature. If we come to the conclusion that the answers and solutions to life’s challenges that the Buddha found will help us then realizing our Buddha nature will become the mothers lap we are aiming at. If we can do that it is the ultimate refuge. But realistically speaking we need some help to get there.

Just as when we want to make a journey we need a guide who knows the way, instructions and guidance on what to do during the journey and the support of friends who want to reach the same destination. In the same way, when we wish to make a commitment to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and to realize the truth he discovered, be it because of conviction that arose through careful reflection or deep inspiration, we begin by what is called taking refuge. So practically speaking, on a relative level, refuge is to take the Buddha as our guide, the Dharma, his teachings, as our guidance, and the Sangha, the community of practitioners as our company. Because it so precious to have a realized teacher, an authentic teaching and community of genuine practitioners these are called jewels.

This entry was posted in 09 Refuge, Buddha, Buddhism, zz Buddha, zz Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, zz Sogyal Rinpoche and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What is Buddhism about?

  1. Varuni Chaudhary says:

    Dear Bernie,
    i was beginning to feel restless, not hearing you blog. i just logged on to check and there it was. i caught before RSS feed. and its not the first time too.
    Anyway, your post was beautiful and there are many points i am taking from it for my course.

  2. Varuni Chaudhary says:

    Might i mention also that you are very lucky to meet the Rinpochee’s teacher. meeting the Rinpochee just once in an audience of people had such a profound impact on me, so it must we awesome to meet the teacher’s teacher.

  3. Emily says:

    I’ve suffered from Major Depression and anxiety disorders all my life as the result of an abused childhood. I am disabled and unable to work. I thought I had left religion behind long ago. I admit I have some bitterness about my Christian upbringing. However, about 2 years ago, I picked up a book by the Dalai Lama called Becoming Enlightened. I was transfixed. Finally, I found a faith that made sense to me, a faith that gives endless second chances and encourages truth seeking rather than dogma. I’m still very ill, but my research into Buddhist philosophy has helped me more than any doctor or pill.

  4. Paul Weijden says:

    Hi Bernie,

    “refuge is to take the Buddha as our guide, the Dharma, his teachings, as our guidance, and the Sangha, the community of practitioners as our company”.

    Do we need permission to take refuge from a teacher (or someone else) or can we “simply” (with good intensions) take refuge on our own?

    Last retraite (5 full days this year in Amsterdam) it seemed that Sogyal Rinpoche invited everyone, who wanted, to take refuge.
    So i did i felt so.

    I look forward to your reply,
    Paul (Finding Peace Course 1 september 2010)

  5. Bernie says:

    Hi Paul,

    this is a good question! Thank you for asking.

    The heart of refuge is having confidence and trust in the teachings and making a resolution and commitment to follow them to work towards awakening to your Buddha nature until you have fully accomplished that. My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche often says that, if you study and practice the Dharma, refuge is already included, like when you drink tea the water is included. Since the aim of study and practice is to awaken, it implies that by doing it to you are automatically taking refuge in the Dharma, in the same way as you are automatically drinking water when you have tea.

    Traditionally a student requests to take refuge from a authentic Buddhist teacher, who then conducts a formal ceremony. I remember Sogyal Rinpoche used to do that in the 1980’s but he doesn’t these days. Maybe he will start offering this again. These days he sometimes gives refuge to an entire assembly as part of teachings. Many Buddhist teachers actually do that. Then it depends on you. If you feel inspired to take refuge and participate with that motivation, then you can consider having taken refuge. However it is not necessary to request refuge from the teacher in order to take it. You can simply quietly take refuge in the presence of a teacher on your own or, if that is not possible, you can do it on your own in front of a representation of the Buddha, like statue or a photo. Hope this helps! Cheers Bernie

  6. Edith says:

    What appeals to me most about Buddhism is precisely the fact that it doesn’t require any blind eblief in unexamined assumtions or teachings. The more I learn about the Buddhist approach to life the more practical and meaningful it becomes. Furthermore the promise that perhaps some day I shall realize my true nature and discover that the nature of mind is vast, limitless, open, compassionate and wise constitutes a serious investment of motivation to practice, practice, practice.
    I too am interested in the notion of taking refuge. Do the online classes allow for any formal or semi-formal inductionnow or at a later stage??

  7. Bernie Schreck says:

    Hi Edith,

    In the Rigpa study program refuge is studied more formally when you study and practice the Ngöndro (the Vajrayana prelminiaries). Right now receiving teachings on this level of the Rigpa’s study program requires coming to courses at a Rigpa center or retreats with Sogyal Rinpoche. However, I recently heard that online courses are being developed. In the mean time you can read books like The Words of my Perfect teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, the Ngöndro Commentary by Jane Tromge, or Gates to Buddhist Practice by Chagdud Rinpoche. Thre is also a good article on the Rigpa Wiki: http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Refuge

    But as I already mentioned in another comment above Sogyal Rinpoche often says that when we study the teachings and practice them, taking refuge is included. So you don’t have to worry about possibly lacking something crucial! Refuge is turning to the teachings for guidance and trusting that they can help you. So when we turn to the teachings in one sense we are automatically taking refuge. Sogyal Rinpoche sometimes compares it to how water automatically is included when we drink tea!

    Of course it is good to receive refuge formally but until you are are able to do that you can take refuge on your own in front of a representation of the Buddha like an image of statue. That is completely sufficient on its own.

    Hope this helps

    All my best

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