What is Buddhism? Dharma Talk by Rev. William Masuda during KBC Bodhi Day service last month was so interesting. Although I forgot many parts of the talk but this simple question of "what is Buddhism in short or by using a few words" still lingers on me. And I still remember most answers from the floor.
I thought this question was excellent because
1. Simple and short, 2. Many answers, 3. No wrong answers
In addition, no matter how you may know Buddhism, knowledge doesn't help much to answer this question. Rather knowledge can be an obstacle to answer since you have to choose one out of many possible answers. Anyway, I enjoyed listening to the answers from members of the different temples.. They were "Compassion", "Impermanence and Permanence", "Non-attachment" and "Living in the present moment." Yes, they were all correct and I was thinking my answer as "middle path" or later "Teaching of Buddha to become a Buddha." The more I think, the more better answers I get.
Interestingly, Rev. Masuda introduced traditional passage of Buddhism as one of the answers for "What is Buddhism." Buddhism is, "1. Refrain from Various Evils, 2. Cultivate the Various Good, 3. Purify the mind, 4. That's the teaching of Buddhas (Dharmapada)."
There is a famous episode about this phrase. A Chinese famous poet, Bai Juyi(772-846), asked his Zen Master "What is Buddhism in essence" Then his master replied by quoting this passage above "Refrain from Various Evils..." However, Bai Juyi was disappointed to hear it and complained "Is that so simple? 3yrs old child could know this answer." Then his master told Bai Juyi "3 years old child may know it yet nobody can do it even though they become 80 years old."
Our Master Honen (1133-1212), on the other hand, also thought about the same question of "What is Buddhism." Then he pointed out the word "San-gaku (lit. three studies)"as the very essence of Buddhism, which can be translated into "Three-fold Discipline" in English. Master Honen said,
"Buddhist doctrine has many facets; however, its basis ultimately lies the Three-fold Discipline; that is, the precepts, meditation, and wisdom. The three-fold Discipline are embodied in Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, in the tenets of exoteric and esoteric Buddhist doctrines." ( Teachings of Honen, page 5)
I thought "Precepts, Meditation, and Wisdom" could be the best answer for What is Buddhism because these three words indicates both our goal and the way to reach goal. I haven't realized importance of wisdom until I recalled this phrase. Yes, wisdom is the most important teaching, goal, and light. Then I got to realize most of the answers for "what is Buddhism" are just different descriptions or expressions of "wisdom."
Needless to say, “Wisdom" is the very core concept in Buddhism and therefore we can call "non-attachment, middle path, living in the present moment, eight-fold path" as a part of wisdom. Then how can we get wisdom?
Excellently, three words "Precepts, meditation, and Wisdom" indicate a step-by step teaching. First, we need to follow various rules and disciplines called "basic." We can say any lesson such as any sports, any languages, any arts start with the simple basics which have many "Do not things." By following the basics or precepts, we can always improve ourselves to grow. Then as a next step, we need meditation which is like concentration. Where there are both basic and meditation, there is always improvement.
However, master Honen also realized there were countless people including himself having hard times to follow simple precepts and cannot observe meditation. According to the Buddhist tradition," One will not enter the state of samadhi(tranquility full of insight) unless one becomes pure of body and mind through the observation of the precepts."
If wisdom is achieved only by precepts and meditation, what will happen to people who cannot do these. Is there any way we can be saved? Is there any Buddhist teachings other than "Three fold discipline"? Master Honen made questions that eventually led him to renounce traditional Buddhism and established Jodoshu in 1175.
Once again, I thought the question “what is Buddhism?” was such a wonderful “right” question. If we can make “right question”, it’s always possible to find an answer. On the other hand, if we make a wrong question, the answer might be wrong, too. In this complicated world, it’s kind of hard to find a right way and right answer. However, just like Honen Shonin found a right question, if you can make a right question, you will find a right way out of the problems.