What is Buddhism ?
Buddhism cannot be categorised. No label suits it.
Buddhism is not a religion, at least not in sense that we generally use the word. In fact, it does not at all presuppose belief in the existence of one or several gods, and in a more general way, categorically rejects the idea that there is anything to believe in without being able to submit it to analysis through reasoning.
Buddhism is not a philosophy either, because it is not limited to an intellectual or conceptual approach. It teaches, in fact, that to understand is not enough. One must also experience and eventually "realise". That is the spiritual dimension of Buddhism.
Buddhism is not a cultural, political or social phenomenon either.
Culture, of which one could say that art in all its facets is the superior expression, is rooted in worldliness, whereas Buddhism goes beyond the worldly. Within culture, art is an end in itself; within the framework of Buddhism it is a means. Art is minor when compared to wisdom. In other words, Buddhism is timeless and beyond worldliness, whereas culture or art is rooted in a given time and society.
Buddhism is not political, that is, it does not know the limits of frontiers or of groups. It is not based on opposition between people. It does not come "from somewhere". It transcends continents and groups of humans. Nationality, colour, social class and membership of one party or another etc. do not constitute pertinent criteria in its eyes. The process is, on the contrary, to show that fundamentally all people, and more generally all living beings, share the same fundamental nature, the same emotions, the same aspirations and the same fears.
It is not a social phenomenon either. Buddhism is an individual quest for perfection. The Buddhist looks for himself. He evolves in the solitude of his own spiritual path. The Buddhist message influences, of course, the attitude or the behaviour of those who study and practice it, but it does not have a social aim. It does not intend to be a pressure group and does not set out rules about the organisation of society.
Lastly, is Buddhism a science? The sciences, in any case those which we describe as pure, are turned towards the exterior world, the diverse phenomena that we perceive. Buddhism is, on the contrary, turned towards "the interior"; that is to day, it is attentive to the mind. That is why it is said sometimes that Buddhism is a "science of the mind". As with all expressions, it has its limits.
I prefer to say that Buddhism is unclassifiable; that it eludes categories and comparisons.
Historically, Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived in India more than two thousand five hundred years ago. With the passing centuries the teachings was transmitted, translated into diverse languages and enriched by numerous commentaries. In this way, Buddhist literature is incomparably extensive.
More profoundly, Buddhism is the thought or thinking of the Buddhas, which is summed up by two great principles: compassion and wisdom. Buddhism is, therefore, a way of thinking. Buddhists are those who aspire to finding this good way of thinking and train in it. Buddhas are those who have succeeded.
One could also say that Buddhism is essentially reflection on happiness and the teaching of the causes of happiness. After having shown how much we deceive ourselves, how much we lose our way because of how we conceive the world and ourselves, Buddhism wakes us up to a new vision. It makes us see things in another way and leads us progressively to the realisation of the true nature of phenomena and of the mind.
This realisation is precisely at the origin of the cessation of all suffering and of all fear. A Buddhist is, above all, a serene person. He has no fear. He is also a good person, open to others. Theses three qualities –wisdom, serenity and goodness – are, moreover, linked one to the other and come one from the other.
Buddhism is, therefore, a voyage towards wisdom, serenity and goodness.
This text was written in French by Lama Orgyen Choling Dordje upon demand of Dzogchen Ranyak Patrul Rinpoche Tenzin Nyima in December 1999.