Well, it depends. To a follower of the Theravada, Buddhism is the body of teachings codified in the Pali Canon. To a follower of the Mahayana, Buddhism is the body of teachings that proliferated in, and outside of, India, that expanded on the original teachings that were ultimately codified in the Pali Canon. But even these two options would oversimplify the answer. For example, what about the extinct traditions, like the Pugdalavadins, who differed from their other Buddhist colleagues on the foundational point of whether a self exists?
But you’re not reading this for an avoidance of the question. So, I will attempt to give a concise answer with no “buts” or “what abouts.” To do this in as few words as possible, there is some information that has to be left out. Please visit MyDharmakaya for all the details that I can’t squeeze into this answer.
Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination, and Non-Self. All surviving traditions of Buddhism embrace these concepts as the core of their belief systems.
The Four Noble Truths are: suffering is inevitable, there is a cause of suffering, there is a solution to suffering, and the solution to suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha lived in a time when most of the prominent belief systems of his day took suffering as a given and explored different ways to escape the cycle of rebirth. The orthodoxy of his day held the belief that various ways of communing with the divine would lead to a ceasing of rebirth. The Buddha’s fellows in contrarianism scoffed at the idea of divine communion. But a healthy respect for the reality of suffering was shared by the various schools of thought.
The Noble Eightfold Path is where the Buddha staked his unique claim: suffering is alleviated by Perfect View, Perfect Resolve, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Mindfulness, Perfect Effort, and Perfect Concentration. The keystone of the Eightfold Path is Perfect View, which is a complete understanding of the Four Noble Truths and their implications.
Dependent Origination is the Second Noble Truth; it is the cause of suffering. Dependent Origination implies that nothing is created or destroyed. The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination are: ignorance, mental activities, consciousness, name and form, senses, mental impressions, feelings, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and death. Dependent origination can be thought of as the journey of birth and death and all the various factors that led to birth, lead to death, and perpetuate a being’s karmic impressions beyond death. The Twelve Links are simple but contain an almost infinite number of implications when thousands consider all beings are bound and defined by it. Another key implication is that dependent origination does not involve a creator god. This is a key aspect of the Buddha’s philosophy which distinguished him from most of his orthodox colleagues.
The No-Self doctrine is another area in which Buddhism stakes a position against orthodoxy. Many orthodox thinkers living before, during, and after the Buddha spent time looking for the true self, fortifying the true self, and attempting to unify the true self with the divine. The Buddha countered these efforts by challenging the very idea of the existence of a true self. He encouraged his followers to simply stop searching.
The No-Self and Dependent Origination doctrines combine into a powerful position of non-theistic selflessness.
That is the true answer. The answer to the question “What is Buddhism?” is“Selflessness.”
The concept of selflessness assumes many forms. The rich traditions of Buddhism that have flourished in India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond, are evidence of the astonishing array of traditions. Each tradition has taken the seed of the Buddha’s teachings into its cultural soul and produced unique and beautiful fruit.
Fortunately, the fruit is available to all of us. Explore the rest of MyDharmakaya for more.