What is Buddhism?


Welcome to this week’s wisdom for the Inner and Outer You.

Hello wisdom and adventure seekers! It’s been a while since I’ve wrote an article. I have been traveling to different international events and taking some time out to enjoy the summer and just “be”. I hope your summer has been enjoyable so far and continues to be so. This week’s short article manifested out of a talk I attended on the weekend.  I hope you enjoy it.

What is Buddhism?

Dr. Lewis Lancaster

Dr. Lewis Lancaster

I attended a talk a few days ago given by Dr. Lewis Lancaster who is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of East Asian Languages at the University of California at Berkeley and has been an adjunct professor at UWest since 1992. He has served as the Chair of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley and Editor of the Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series. Dr. Lancaster has published over 55 articles and reviews and has edited or authored numerous books including Prajnaparamita and Related Systems, The Korean Buddhist Canon, Buddhist Scriptures, Early Ch’an in China and Tibet, and Assimilation of Buddhism in Korea.  The advertisement for the lecture he was going to give asked three simple questions:

  1. Is Buddhism a Religion?
  2. Is Buddhism a Philosophy?
  3. Is Buddhism a Cognitive Science?

I had my own opinion on the matter of these questions and wanted to hear what Dr. Lancaster had to say, having devoted a huge chunk of his life to the study of Buddhism.

In his 90 minute talk that came with an array of slides full of pictures and graphs he shared with us that his research has shown Buddhism fits all three of these categories, meaning to say that in his educated view it is a religion, a philosophy and a cognitive science.  With each category he provided evidence to support his statements and I have to admit I was surprised to see as much statistical information laid out in graph formats for the audience.

I was happy to hear that Dr. Lancaster had actually taken a trip or perhaps even trips to the Orient to see how Buddhism presented itself in that region of the world. One can read as many books as one wishes but there is no substitute for firsthand experience.  In doing so he mentioned that the books he read were very different than the Buddhism he experience overseas. He also shared with us that many of his colleagues could or would not go to Asia to experience firsthand the countries where Buddhism was born. Even chuckling at how one esteemed peer of his would not get off the boat when it arrived at the docks in Shanghai, saying that this was not his China.

I remember when I attended another talk by Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass many years ago he shared his experience when he went to India looking for what he had read in books, and he read a lot of books, being a professor of psychology at Harvard; finally meeting his guru Neem Karoli Baba, he realized that all he had ever read did not prepare him for that meeting.  He said there simply was no context for the experience with his guru that he was aware of in the hundreds of books he had voraciously consumed with his mind. His trip to India opened his eyes, especially his inner eye, to more than his intellect alone.

Having been to India more than a few times as well as other neighbouring countries like China, Tibet, Thailand, etc., I can say with certainty that you can’t read about them, their people, their religions and teachings from a book alone and arrive at a full picture. That would be like having never experienced water before, but you have read about “how to swim” so you think you can swim. When you finally jump in, you might find out that the experience of swimming is quite different than what you had imagined it to be.Buddhism

I personally never have considered Buddhism as a religion but I have considered it a philosophy and cognitive science or as I have often called it psychology.  I walked away from the talk that Dr. Lancaster gave accepting that for many, Buddhism is a religion. I suppose I never wanted to consider it as religion because I’ve seen the damage religion can do and how various cultures add their own personal significance as time goes by. What I walked away with however is a greater appreciation of perhaps the word religion as Dr. Lancaster defined it and I adlib here now: “Religion is a community of like minded people who come together to support each other in the sharing of rituals, values and beliefs.”  I thought yes, I can see the aspect of community described this way being called religion… I suppose.  Ha-ha yes still a little hesitant as I’ve always been a rebel in so many ways and I dislike the thought of being boxed in to any one way of thinking. However I can and do appreciate as well as respect the benefits a community can bring.

One comment Dr. Lancaster made when it came to the category of Buddhism as a cognitive science is when the Dalai Lama was asked by a cognitive scientist what he would react or what he would do if science verifiably contradicted something that was accepted in Buddhism? The Dalai Lama responded, “Well then we would change Buddhism.” Somehow I can’t quite see respected leaders of other religions such as the Pope or the Ayatollah saying something like this.

One of the questions at the end of the talk that was “Buddhism is such an analytic way of life that we are asked to think about everything such as if there is a Right View there must be a Wrong View and we need to consider what that is. When is there time for just the practice of being?” Dr. Lancaster smiled and then remarked that perhaps it’s a matter of how we perceive practice. The thought of practicing everything all at once making a total transformation is for most too overwhelming and most people just give up and quit before they really even made any progress. It’s better to take smaller steps that need to be focused on and just do that. He said that a good way to do this is to make a declaration when you first get up in the morning he learned from a friend that goes like this; “Today I willfully vow to drink no more than two caramel Frappuccino, or today I willfully vow to exercise for at least 30 minutes, etc .  In other words to simply put your attention on something small and while this approach might seem like you are making slow progress, at least it will be steady progress towards the art and practice of bettering yourself.

Written by Terry Hodgkinson

Foot Note:

For those of you wanting to experience what it is like traveling to an Asian country like I mention in this article, I will be leading a small group of people to the Himalayan foothills town of Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. This is a two week experience that will give you a closer look at the north-western part of India where I will be your personal tour guide and meditation leader. This is the kind of adventure everyone should experience at least once in their life. Click the link Travel India for more information and contact me directly if you have any questions.

Contemplation quote

Dogen Quote


About Terry Hodgkinson

Terry J. Hodgkinson is a MindFit consultant. He owns Positive Changes Hypnotherapy and Meditation Centre in Toronto, Canada. As a corporate trainer, keynote speaker and retreat leader he enjoys his work so much that he calls it his passion. In 2009 Terry's book, Memoirs of a Wandering Ninja - Walking the Path of Enlightenment was published. *For information on Terry's international retreats visit: www.TaoJourneys.com *Book Terry for your next event visit: www.TerryHodgkinson.ca *Martial arts training visit: www.ChungFuMartialArts.com
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