I’m supposed to take a risk and say in 25 words or less what Buddhism is. That, of course, is a very arrogant presumption on one level. What I have concluded tentatively in recent years is to identify four points that the Buddha taught that cannot be derived from the socio-historical context of his time, in other words that are distinctively and non-controversially his own ideas.
The first of these is the principle of contingency, or conditioned arising, or dependent origination. One of the most authoritative accounts of the Buddha’s awakening is his awakening to paticca samuppada, the processual, contingent, fluid, unfolding, interconnected nature of life.
The second point is the practice of what are called four ennobling truths [or the four tasks] which I prefer to see as injunctions rather than descriptions. In other words, to fully embrace the suffering of oneself and the world, [secondly] to let go of grasping and craving which so often in a sense prevent us from that honest embrace of reality and reduce everything to my own personal desires and fears. Thirdly, to actually try to find a space within one’s own experience whereby one is no longer prompted or driven by fear, attachment, hatred, jealousy, pride. And fourthly, of the four noble truths [or tasks] – to embark on a way of life, or to bring into being a way in which your humanity can flourish in all of its aspects from the way we see things, think about them, speak, act, work, apply ourselves, pay attention, and focus our minds.
The third point that I think is distinctive is the Buddha’s emphasis on the cultivation of mindfulness, mindful awareness, regarding the specificity of experience. Again we often find in some later forms of Buddhism that meditation is basically introspective. It’s about looking into the very core of your own mind, or whatever, whereas the practice of mindfulness – which I think is the Buddhist meditation par excellence – is actually going in the opposite direction. You start by paying attention to your breath, to your body, your feelings, your mental states, your responses, and then literally whatever is going on in the totality of what’s happening right now. That’s the aim of this kind of meditation. It is to be fully present to what is taking place right now.
And the fourth point I would regard as distinctive is the Buddha’s emphasis on self reliance, on becoming autonomous. Again, a phrase you find in the early texts quite a lot: the person who has entered into the path has become independent of others in the Buddha’s teachings. And yet today so often we find this emphasis on finding a teacher, becoming devoted to the teacher, somehow almost surrendering your autonomy in order – as in the Tibetan schools would say – to receive the blessings of the lama or the guru, which to me is totally alien to the originality of what the Buddha first presented.
- Four noble truths [tasks]
- Autonomy, self reliance.
That in a nutshell is how I understand it.
This is an excerpt from the final part of an interfaith series held by The Guardian newspaper in conjunction with St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in March 2011 with the title ‘Uncertain Minds – How the West Misunderstands Buddhism.’