Buddhism, founded somewhere between 600 ad 400 CE by Siddhārtha Gautama, has intrigued Westerners ever since the Greeks first encountered Buddha's followers in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquest of Southeast Asia in 334 CE. Claiming 7% of the world's population, when Buddhism is categorized as a religion, it is the fourth largest in the world, behind only Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and its influence is felt in the growing popularity of apps like Calm, and in the mindfulness techniques used by psychologists and medical doctors to treat anxiety and stress.
But some Christians are leery of what they perceive as Buddhism's subtle intrusion into the West. They see the practices and techniques of mindfulness as the dangerous first step down a slippery slope. On the other hand, many would argue that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, and is more similar to existentialism than it is to Hinduism or Christianity.
So what is Buddhism in its own words? Is it a religion or a philosophy? According to Buddhist Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, it is neither. In a talk titled, Experience, Not Philosophy, Suzuki describes the difference between Buddhism, religion and philosophy. The talk is transcribed in the book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and it is replicated in full below. But before we get into the reading, you will want to be familiar with two important terms:
Zazen: Often mistranslated as "meditation," zazen refers to the practice of sitting, generally cross-legged, hands in the lap, with eyes half closed.
Zendo: The meditation hall where zazen is practiced.
"Although there are many people in this country who are interested in Buddhism, few of them are interested in its pure form. Most of them are interested in studying the teaching or the philosophy of Buddhism. Comparing it to other religions, they appreciate how satisfying Buddhism is intellectually. But whether Buddhism is philosophically deep or good or perfect is not the point. To keep our practice in its pure form is our purpose. Sometimes I feel there is something blasphemous in talking about how Buddhism is perfect as a philosophy or teaching without knowing what it actually is.
To practice zazen with a group is the most important thing for Buddhism—and for us—because this practice is the original way of life. Without knowing the origin of things we cannot appreciate the result of our life's effort. Our effort must have some meaning. To find the meaning of our effort is to find the original source of our effort. We should not be concerned about the result of our effort before we know its origin. If the origin is not clear and pure, our effort will not be pure, and its result will not satisfy us.
When we resume our original nature and incessantly make our effort from this base, we will appreciate the result of our effort moment after moment, day after day, year after year. This is how we should appreciate our life. Those who are attached only to the result of their effort will not have any chance to appreciate it, because the result will never come. But if moment by moment your effort arises from its pure origin, all you do will be good, and you will be satisfied with whatever you do.
Zazen practice is the practice in which we resume our pure way of life, beyond any gaining idea, and beyond fame and profit. By practice we just keep our original nature as it is. There is no need to intellectualize about what our pure original nature is, because it is beyond our intellectual understanding. And there is no need to appreciate it, because it is beyond our appreciation. So just to sit, without any idea of gain, and with the purest intention, to remain quiet as our original nature-this is our practice.
In the zendo there is nothing fancy. We just come and sit. After communicating with each other we go home and resume our own everyday activity as a continuity of our pure practice, enjoying our true way of life. Yet this is very unusual. Wherever I go people ask me, "What is Buddhism?" with their notebooks ready to write down my answer. You can imagine how I feel! But here we just practice. For us there is no need to understand what Zen is. We are practicing zazen. So for us there is no need to know what Zen is intellectually. This is, I think, very unusual for American society.
In America there are many patterns of life and many religions, so it may seem quite natural to talk about the differences between the various religions and compare one with the other. But for us there is no need to compare Buddhism to Christianity. Buddhism is Buddhism, and Buddhism is our practice. We do not even know what we are doing when we just practice with a pure mind. so we cannot compare our way to some other religion. Some people may say that Zen Buddhism is not religion. Maybe so, or maybe Zen Buddhism is religion before religion. So it might not be religion in the usual sense. But it is wonderful, and even though we do not study what it is intellectually, even though we do not have any cathedral or fancy ornaments, it is possible to appreciate our original nature. This is, I think, quite unusual."
Zendo Monastery - Fischingen, Switzerland
So what is Buddhism? According to Suzuki, the answer is simple: Zazen. Sitting. Breathing.
As Roshi, one of the greatest Zen teachers of the 20th century put it, "Just sit zazen, and that's the end of it." Buddhism is not a system of beliefs, a series of arguments, or a doctrinal statement. It is not about achieving enlightenment or making progress. Buddhism is simply the practice of sitting and dwelling in the body, observing, letting the inner monologue become silent. As such, Buddhism's gift to us is the way it calls us to be fully present in each moment by simply paying attention.
As humans we have a tendency to get caught up in theory and abstraction, but this should not be the focus in any belief system. Direct experience is what matters.
Zen Garden of Kyoto (Ralph Howald, iStockphoto)
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Vietnamese Buddhist and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
"[Christian] theologians spend a lot of time, ink, and breath talking about God. ... [But] it is risky to talk about God. The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom, and mindfulness. ... The Buddha was not against God, he was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions that do not conform to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality." Instead of debating ideas, Buddhism would have us move deeper into our own experience. Instead of focusing on doctrines and belief statements that we must affirm and adhere to through sheer willpower, Buddhism directs us to simply observe the thoughts and emotions that arise within us and notice where they come from.
Paul wrote something similar in 1 Timothy (I'm paraphrasing): "Stop wasting time on speculations and religious arguments. You are promoting controversy, when you should be living in love. Love grows from a pure heart and a good conscience and the sincere belief that it's all going to work out. As soon as you step away from love, your talk becomes meaningless."
It is easy to get caught in a debate or argument that has nothing to do with our personal experience. We even trick ourselves into beliefs and positions that fundamentally contradict our experiences, but if you take the time to pause and be silent, to sit in zazen, you may find that what you were arguing for meant nothing to you at all. Instead of wielding doctrines and ideas as weapons, try looking inward to find the source of your beliefs. When you feel like speaking up in an argument, pause and explore the source of your feelings. Are you defending something just because you are "supposed to" defend it? Are you just enjoying the feeling of being "right?" Or do your words, actions and beliefs genuinely grow out of love and compassion?
Love as an experience changes us. Not all at once, and never perfectly, but it does transform us. Buddhism, mindfulness, offers a practice to help us explore the source and reality of what we say and what we are. Christians do not need to be leery about Buddhism when it is understood this way. In fact, we can embrace it.
Russ Shumaker is a creative consultant and business strategist living in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A. He holds an MA in Theology and an MBA. You can find his website here.
See previous articles by Russ Shumaker