Religion or Philosophy

What is Buddhism? Should we consider it a religion? Maybe it is a philosophy? Or a “way of life”? Many people ask this question and sometimes people get uncomfortable when they see statues, flowers, candles, and incense. In this advice session with students, Phakchok Rinpoche explains that Buddhism encompasses a great deal. “Buddhism is everything!” he says. We can say Buddhism is a way of life and/or a way of thinking. Buddhism is about good behavior and empowering oneself with dignity. We can also describe it as a medicine to calm the mind. And, yes, Buddhism is also a philosophy.

What is Buddhism?  Variety of Means

We should understand that the word “Buddhism” includes all aspects of life. Because of that, Buddhist practices offer a wide variety of means. All of these different practices work for different needs. For example, if we look at Amitābha Buddha practice, we can describe Buddhism as a savior. Because if someone has sincere belief and commits to pure land practices just a little bit, then he or she will be saved.

Deity Practices and Offerings

Buddhism also offers deity practices. In the beginning, it might appear that these focus on external offerings. But if we really understand the theory behind offerings, we can appreciate how and why they work. Then, we learn about the accumulation of merit and we realize that we are not trying to please a deity by making offerings. It is important that we understand that Buddhas don’t have any attachment, so our offering is training for our own minds. Offerings don’t make Buddhas happy. Why do we bother, then? Because offering helps us to reduce our own attachment. We can clearly see by practicing in this way how much attachment we have! We learn how our minds calculate and how we act selfishly. Buddhist practices can work at very deep levels to change these habitual patterns.

What is Buddhism? What Are the Rules?

Buddhist teachings don’t frighten us with punishment. But we do make commitments about our behavior and we try our best not to break them. Commitment, or samaya, and rules are helpful for us on and the path and thus very important.

Being a Genuine Practitioner

Buddhism contains everything, Rinpoche repeats. He explains that philosophically, the Middle Way view is beyond all extremes.  There is no existence and no non-existence. To be a genuine Buddhist practitioner means to relinquish all philosophical views. If one has a view of emptiness, then one does deity and pure land practices and makes offerings. Doing all these practices without seeing any contradictions is the sign of a true practitioner. But if we become picky and treat all the teachings as separate, we will miss out. Think of a giant jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.

Practice Advice

Finally, Rinpoche shares some personal practice advice. Follow the instructions of the teacher and don’t think too much. If we constantly question or doubt, then we won’t give the spiritual exercises the opportunity to work. At the conclusion of this clip, Rinpoche gives a very practical suggestion on how to alternate practices and avoid contradiction.

Reflection Questions–Share Your Experience

What practices have you encountered in your Buddhist path that were most confusing to you?  Is there still a particular aspect of practice that you find difficult to either understand or relate to?  What might help you relate to that?  For example, how do you practice offerings?  Is this a skillful means for you, or do you do it grudgingly?

If you previously found a practice or aspect of practice difficult and now enjoy or appreciate it–what changed your mind?  What advice might you share with someone just starting that similar practice? Have you tried simply following the teacher’s instructions with an open mind? If so, how did that work for you?

Phakchok Rinpoche was recorded on this topic in a Question and Answer session hosted in 2017 for the updated edition of A Glimpse of Buddhadharma, by Phakchok Rinpoche. This revised edition will be forthcoming from