When different Buddhist groups form an association, e.g. in a counry, the question of a common definition of Buddhism is sometimes raised. The idea of that is obviously to come up with a kind of essence that is something like the least common denominator, which includes all and doesn’t reject anyone. I find this difficult, not only because “essentialism” has such a bad name these days.
Someone who tries to give an answer that is based on the teachings is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He says (Lions Roar, January 12, 2017):
Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or ‘seals.’ If all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.
What are these four seals? They are, as he summarizes:
– All compounded things are impermanent.
– All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”
– All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.
– The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.
I have no problem with any of the four seals, and also not with putting them together. But I am uncomfortable with the idea that when any of these are not “found in a path or a philosophy,” it cannot be “considered a path of the Buddha.” Does he really mean to exclude people who do not follow the teaching of emptiness? And isn’t “nirvana is beyond extremes” very Mahayana? Moreover, is someone, like me, who has not fully grasped that “emotions are painful” and that “phenomena are empty” not a Buddhist, or not a complete Buddhist?
The more I think about it, the more I become aware that one perhaps should not try to define what Buddhism is, but rather talk about what people, who consider themselves followers of the Buddha, do.
What would that be?
All Buddhists seem to be striving—although to different degrees—in three fields: meditative practice, cognition, and conduct. With “cognition” I mean that we try to train our consciousness to recognize errors and understand how these errors function. The most basic error, according to the Buddha, is that we ignore something that actually causes suffering and often even hold it to be joyful (most prominently: the self). Through training cognition in many ways, Buddhists try to identify that error and to stop its proliferation in our mind. As soon as one has even only a little understanding of that, one can start to change one’s conduct and to integrate that understanding in meditative practice, applying antidotes against that error and habitualizing our improved understanding of reality. In that way, conduct and meditative practice become aids for an improved cognition until awakening is attained.
Okay, let’s test this against my own criticism above.
Does this formulate a philosophical position that is not shared by all Buddhists? Is this perhaps a position that ordinary people like me are far from understanding properly? The only position formulated above is that Buddhists try to recognize errors and seek to abandon them. If that would not be the case, one would not do anything.—That is why I try to describe Buddhism as something one does rather than what philosophical position one holds. Does this exclude people from being recognized as Buddhists? I hope not. Even the most humble persons who “only” practice by making offerings to the Sangha do that because they perceive a fault in this life, hope for improvement, and actually do something about it: They make an offering and put themselves in a humble state of mind.
Is this perhaps over-inclusive? Not if we agree on one point, namely that Buddhists are unique in perceiving existence—at least to some degree—as suffering and seek to end that suffering. As Khyentse Rinpoche says:
All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”
I wouldn’t narrow it down so much on emotion alone, but I do agree that it is unique in the world of religions that the Buddha has described existence—including in heavenly realms—as ultimately only suffering. But here we have the problem again that this is an ideal view that most people have not yet fully realized. Yet Buddhists do seem to be attracted to the view of the entire existence as suffering. That is a strange attraction since from the point of view of its competetive ability in the market of religions it seems to be a huge disadvantage—it seems so negative. Yet it still appeals to people. Perhaps, if we now also look through the lense of what is, we could say that Buddhism is about existence as suffering and that people are, for whichever reason, somehow attracted to that idea. To me, this attraction is one of the big misterys about Buddhism.
Jigten Sumgön explains in the Single Intention that this is so because of Buddha nature: Everyone possesses it, and because it is pure, all beings have at least the capacity to recognize the huge gap between that purity within them and existence as it actually is. The rest of this blog entry will now be devoted to how the Single Intention explains the fact that people are drawn to a teaching that speaks so extensively about suffering.
The early commenator of the Single Intention, Doré Sherab, explains this point in the context of vajra statement 6.13. Here, Buddha nature, the nature of mind, and mahamudra are treated as synonymous terms. He explains that since every sentient being posesses the Buddha nature, which is the mahamudra of the ground, they gradually understand more and more about the nature of suffering and thereby are more and more attracted to taking up disciplined conduct in all of its forms until Buddhahood is attained. He thereby draws our attention to the analogy between Buddha nature/mahamudra on the one hand, and disciplined conduct on the other: Because of the purity of the first we are disgusted by samsara and strive with the help of the purity of the other, i.e., disciplined conduct, for awakening and Buddhahood. The passage reads in the Dosherma (section 6.13):
“[Discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. In general, the sentient beings who revolve in samsara have not realized true reality. Therefore, based on grasping a self, they accumulate karma, through which, as a result, they revolve in the three realms. But if they realize their mind, they are free from grasping a self, and thereby they are also without an object of desire or hatred that could arise. Since this freedom from desire and hatred is pure disciplined conduct, [discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. For ordinary sentient beings too, even though they have not realized their mind, discipined conduct and mahamudra are one, as expressed in the Uttaratantra (1.40):
If there were no buddha element,
there would be no aversion to suffering,
and there would be neither a desire to pass beyond sorrow,
nor an effort and the aspiration toward it.
“From the perspective of the gradual path, having understood that the lower realms are suffering, there arises the striving for the higher realms. Even guarding merely the approximation vows is the power of mahamudra. Similarly, understanding that everything below the peak of existence is suffering, a mind arises that strives for what is higher than that. Thus, guarding the disciplined conduct up to the vows of full ordination too is the power of mahamudra. Understanding that all of samsara is suffering one sets one’s mind on the two lower awakenings,♦ 1 and that too is the power of mahamudra. Seeing all sentient beings as one’s kind mothers one has the urge to obtain Buddhahood. That too is the power of mahamudra. For instance, when the sun rises, by the rising of the first light blue dawn, the whitish dawn, and then the reddish dawn, it becomes ever so slightly more radiant, and then gradually, up to daybreak, it becomes very bright. This is all due to the power of the sun.”
1. ↩ Shravaka and pratyekabuddhahood.