What is Buddhism? Part One – By Bill Cunningham


In this serialized essay, I attempt to present, as Bhante Henepola Gunaratana might have called it, Buddhism in Plain English. So, it explains core, shared Buddhist teachings and practices, without usual special vocabulary.

Part One compares Buddhism to a few other religions. Buddhism is a religion, like Quakerism, Catholicism, Judaism, and many others. It’s older than Quakerism and Catholicism, but younger than Judaism and Hinduism. It’s sort of middle aged — among ancient religions.

Like traditional Quakers, Buddhists sit in silence, but mostly on floor cushions. Like Catholics, and unlike Muslims, and Quakers, Buddhists often exhibit icons, statues, and related objects, such as candles, bowls of water, etc.

What Buddhists do in assembly, they do as a united group rather than as isolated individuals, just as do Quakers, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. What practitioners in all five of these groups do may be deeply personal, but it is a group doing. It is not solitary actions done in public. But Buddhists, unlike the others, do not regard this joint activity as worship of God or Buddha or anyone.

What Buddhists do mostly is called meditation. Some practitioners of other religions also meditate in similar ways, except that they often direct attention to God. Buddhists don’t.

Just as in other religions, Buddhists have special writings or “scriptures” that they study, and sometimes they read, recite, or chant together portions of these texts. And just as Quakers, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews engage in related family and private religious practices, Buddhists also engage in related family and private religious practices.

Many Christian religions require members to accept and believe a collection of doctrines or teachings of that religion. Catholics certainly do; Quakers, who may accept many teachings shared by many other Christians, generally do not make acceptance of some list of teachings a prerequisite for membership. Neither do Jews nor Buddhists. What holds Buddhists together is not a creed or set of beliefs, but a way of living designed and intended to solve the most general practical problem shared by all humans. It’s this universal human problem and proposed solution that I want to tell you much more about in Part II.

By Bill Cunningham

Note: This is the first of five parts of a serialized version composed of about half of an address to the Philadelphia Buddhist Association, Sunday, September 9, 2012.

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