Derge press in Tibet where precious Buddhist texts are stored and printed
Buddhism is often defined as being a philosophy, religion, art of living, and so on. But what are the key points that define Buddhism according to the Buddha himself and qualified masters whose commentaries illuminate his teachings?
1. The main goal of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering in all its forms.
2. To achieve this, it is essential to identify the causes of suffering on different levels. These causes are rooted in ignorance. This ignorance results in afflicted mental states that affect our words and actions. Afflicted mental states include hatred, desire, a lack of discernment, pride, and jealousy.
3. We can ease these afflicted mental states by relying on antidotes. For example, loving-kindness to counteract hatred, non-attachment to neutralize desire, understanding the laws of cause and effect to remedy the lack of discernment.
4. However, these antidotes are powerless to eradicate the primary cause of suffering ignorance, which is defined as not recognizing the ultimate true nature of phenomena.
5. The only remedy to this fundamental ignorance is the understanding of “absolute truth” or “ultimate truth.” What is ultimate truth? It is the understanding that, although phenomena appear, they are empty of inherent existence. They appear but do not exist. In this way Buddhism avoids falling into the two erroneous extremes of nihilism and materialism.
6. The Buddha taught on both the relative truth and ultimate truth. The aim of the teachings on relative truth is to gradually bring us to the direct experience of ultimate truth. This experience transcends concepts and words and is the one and only means of eradicating the causes of ignorance and suffering.
This last point was elucidated during a series of teachings given in April 2017 in Nepal by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the Heart Sutra, or The Essence of Transcendent Knowledge. He drew attention on the fundamental distinction between the teachings that belong to relative (conventional truth), said to be “expedient”, and the teachings that belong to the ultimate truth.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explained that when the Buddha taught generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, analytical meditation, and so on, although these practices are beneficial and important virtues, they fall under the category of skilful means that will bring the practitioner towards an understanding of the ultimate truth.
On that basis, all cultural and religious aspects of Buddhism—rituals, ceremonies, music and sacred dances, monasteries, and so on—fall under the category of conventional truth. This is why the 14th Dalai Lama always encourages those who come to listen to him to study the fundamental texts rather than adopt the cultural aspects of Buddhism.
The study of these texts dispels the incorrect stereotypes of Buddhism that are rampant, including that it leads to nihilism, individualism, indifference towards others, lack of involvement, and so on.
On a practical level, for someone who embarks on the path to enlightenment, all these virtuous activities done with body and speech are essential. However, their sole objective is to enable our mind to shift gradually from bewilderment to knowledge, just as we first give liquids to an infant before feeding him solid food. Buddhism, therefore, offers a path to enlightenment—accompanied by the deliberate intention of freeing all beings from suffering—leading to transcendent knowledge. The Buddha expressed this when he attained enlightenment: “I have found a nectar-like Dharma, peaceful, profound, luminous, free from concepts and uncompounded.” From this point of view, Buddhism hardly fits the usual criteria that define religion.
There are countless philosophical texts and treaties that offer detailed explanations on the few points mentioned above. In English, you can consult, for example, Wisdom: Two Buddhist Commentaries*, which offers two commentaries on Shantideva’s Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva, a work dedicated to transcendent knowledge.
* Wisdom: Two Buddhist Commentaries. Two commentaries on Chapter IX of Shāntideva’s “The Way of the Bodhisattva” by Khenchen Kunzang Pelden and Minyak Kunzang Sönam, Padmakara Translation Group, Editions Padmakara, 1999.