Buddhism is a pragmatic religion. The Nyingma Lama, Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, was once asked a question concerning the difference between world religions and the answer he gave was unusual both in its humour and simplicity.
Hinduism is the religion of the King. If you want something you go to the King and ask. Christianity is the religion of the Prince. If you want something you go to the Prince rather than directly to the King, but the result is the same. Islam is the religion of the Ambassador. If you want something you go to the Ambassador rather than the King or Prince, but again – the result is the same. Buddhism is the religion of the labourer. If you want something done, you do it yourself.
It was evident at the time that Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche was not really simplistically encapsulating the religions to which he alluded – he was making a pragmatic point for a specific audience. He wanted them to know that he was not their saviour and that they were required to be diligent in respect of the nature of his communications.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who told me the story, elaborated on it as follows,
The labourer can naturally seek advice. The labourer can depend on guidance. The labourer can even commit to highly specific guidance – but in the end, he or she must carry out the instructions in order to realise the non-dual state.
Buddhism is a threefold structure in respect of the Buddha, that which the Buddha communicated, and those to whom the Buddha communicated. The communication aspect of the threefold division of Buddhism is Dharma1 , and it is eminently practical. It gives precise instructions not only of how to do it ourselves – but how to establish a relationship with a guide with whom we can check our findings. There was never a good labourer who did not have to learn the craft.
Dharma therefore, is rich with multifarious approaches and methods which make it accessible to the widest variety of individuals.
Some people are of the opinion that Dharma is not a religion2 , but rather a philosophy or ‘a way of approaching life’ – and so it may appear, at the practical, functional level. This however, is fundamentally misleading when becoming involved with the principles and methods of Dharma.
It is important at the outset of our interest in Dharma to define our terms. If we fail to do so we may discover, after some years have elapsed, that we were engaged in religion, even though it was philosophy or psychology we had initially wanted. We might feel cheated by such a revelation. We might feel we were tricked into adopting alien cultural and religious forms.
Through the practice of philosophy one might expect to arrive at one’s own conclusions about the nature of being – such investigations and conclusions having been mostly self-referential. Through the practice of the religion of Dharma, one discovers that the nature of being has already been understood by one’s teachers, and that it can be discovered for ourselves through the methods of practice they reveal. Hence, to fully engage with Dharma, we eventually have to let go of the limitations of our own view – and leap … without reservation, into Dharma-view.
If we choose a philosophy, we are always bigger than the philosophy. We can adjust its parameters when things become uncomfortable. We can wriggle out of whatever does not conform to our wishes. A religion, however, is always bigger than we are. A religion has a structure and clear parameters which cannot be ignored when they do not suit our convenience. We have to allow ourselves to be subsumed within the more expansive view of a religion. We need to fully embrace it to be fully embraced by it. In return, religion offers us a great support and structure to our lives.
Religions offer moral codes which cannot be compromised for our individual convenience. The religion of a country offers a way of life and an existential flavour to its people. The year revolves around the calendar of the religion, defining times of festival and times of prayer, times of celebration and times of reflection. Important life junctures may be celebrated by the religion, such as moving into adulthood and marriage. Difficult life circumstances such as the death of a loved one occur within the wisdom-scaffolding of religious ritual, in the context of which one is led to incorporate such experience in a wholesome manner.
In some cases and at some times the structure of religion may be experienced as limiting and claustrophobic, causing people—often the young—to reject it. However, the supportive quality of religion may come to be appreciated later in life. In the UK many people who would not count themselves as Christian still structure their lives around the Christian calendar, looking forward to family gatherings at Easter and Christmas. They may also find that they instinctively turn to religion for solace in times of trouble and distress.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche said of this,
It is sad that people reject the solace of religion on the basis that solace is a sop. Solace is indeed a sop – but I have yet to meet a human being who does not require a sop at some point in their lives. It is foolish to assume that merely because one has the intellect to define a sop that one would never be benefited by its availability. Every religion contains its supports and its challenges – and most human beings require both.
In 2001, I was invited to teach in Malta with my husband Ngakpa ’ö-Dzin Tridral Dorje. Malta is a primarily a Catholic country. The practice of Catholicism is extremely visible. Many houses have religious icons near their front doors. Public transport buses have shrines on their dashboards. The churches we visited always had groups of people actively engaged in practice – moving rosary beads with a low humming sound of prayer. We really valued the visibility of Malta’s religious culture – it completely saturated Maltese society. We appreciated the support and structure Catholicism offered the Maltese people. In Malta it is perfectly acceptable to practice your religion openly and devoutly. We were also aware of the problems of prejudice experienced by the Buddhist practitioners who had invited us to teach, but these do not negate the value of Catholicism itself. Where there are people there will be problems. It is human interpretation of religion that creates limitation and prejudice, not the fundamental principle and function of religion itself.
Some people believe that they can extract aspects of religions and adopt their philosophies and practices without embracing any religion as a whole. Once again this places the philosopher in control, in the prime position, governing the scope of the philosophy.
They choose what is to be adopted and what is to be abandoned. A religious practitioner always has the support of other practitioners and the structure of religion, even when they are rebelling against its limitations. The philosopher is always alone without support, because each philosopher will eclectically extract the aspects of religion that he or she sees as valuable. They may reject some practices as cultural and embrace others as pragmatic.
They also have the option of letting go of aspects that become inconvenient. But only a religious teacher, who is fully immersed and proficient in the methods of a religion, has the capacity to make adjustments to the external manifestations of the religion without distorting the religion in the process.
To understand what is cultural and what is essential in a religion, one has to be fully adept at its practice and view – as Khandro Déchen explained,
It takes a Buddha to reinvent or redefine Buddhism. Padmasambhava defined Vajrayana, and unless one has equal qualifications one would be like a five year old child attempting to dismantle and reassemble a television. The result could be somewhat incongruous.
In this context it is not necessary to be Tibetan to practice Nyingma Vajrayana Buddhism3 . The principle and function of Vajrayana goes beyond culture. To be able to view what in Vajrayana is the essence of method4, and what is the flavour of Tibetan culture, requires realisation through method. The perspective such realisation provides can only be offered by the Lama5.
1. The word ‘Buddhism’ is neither a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘Dharma’ nor of the Tibetan word ‘chö’. The Sanskrit dictionary of M Monier-Williams translates Dharma as ‘that which is established or firm; law; practice; religion; the law or doctrine of Buddhism, precepts of Buddhism; principal Dharma called Sutra.’ ‘Chö’ is translated as: ‘all phenomena, all matter, and all knowledge of things worldly and spiritual’ in the Chandra Das Tibetan dictionary. The translation ‘as it is’ which is commonly used, can be understood as in ‘the property of fire to run up and water to run down’. The word ‘Buddhism’ is derived from the religion’s association with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. However, the Buddhism of the Zen tradition is quite different from Theravada, which is again different from the Dharma found in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. It is thus more accurate to use the word Dharma in this text than the word Buddhism.
2. ‘Religion’ is defined by Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1972) as: belief in, recognition of, or an awakened sense of, a higher unseen controlling power or powers, with the emotion and morality connected therewith; rites or worship; any system of belief or worship: devoted fidelity. ‘Philosophy’ is given as: pursuit of wisdom and knowledge: investigation of the nature of being: knowledge of the causes and laws of all things: the principles underlying any department of knowledge: reasoning: a particular philosophical system. It could be said that the founders of Buddhist systems were philosophers, as they sought wisdom and knowledge and investigated the nature of being. However those of us who now follow the methods of Buddhism are acting from belief in and recognition of an awakened sense of some higher unseen state of potentiality; we engage in rites and offer devoted fidelity. Ergo Buddhism is a religion.
3. There are four schools of Buddhism in Tibet: Nyingma, Kagyüd, Sakya, and Gélug. Nyingma is the oldest of the schools, predating the reintroduction of Buddhism into Tibet after it was persecuted by Langdarma (the apostate King of Tibet) in the 9th century. Vajrayana (Sanskrit), the diamond path, the path of transformation, is a branch of Buddhism that utilises mantra and visualisation, and places great emphasis on the rôle of the teacher. Vajrayana is the practice based on the the tantric teachings of Padmasambhava.
4. Method: Thab (thabs) (Tibetan), upaya (Sanskrit).
5. Lama (bLa ma) (Tibetan): the title used for experienced and learned teachers of Buddhism in Tibet, who through study, practice, and devotion to their own teachers and lineage are able to teach and transmit Dharma.