What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is nothing but the NOBLE TRUTH.
What is Buddhism? This question has puzzled many people who often inquire if Buddhism is a philosophy, a religion, or a way of life. The simple answer is that Buddhism is too vast and too profound to be neatly placed in any single category. Of course, Buddhism includes philosophy and religion and a way of life. But Buddhism goes beyond these categories. 

The categories or labels given to Buddhism are like signboards to let the people know what is being presented. If we compare Buddhism to a medicine shop, it will be clear that the signboard on the medicine shop will not cure a person of his sickness. If the medicine is effective, then you can use it to heal yourself without being concerned as to the signboard that merely gives a label for the medicine. Likewise, if the Teaching of the Buddha is effective, then use it and do not be concerned about the label or signboard. Do not try to slip Buddhism into any single category or limit it under any signboard. 

Different people live at different times and in different places have given different labels and interpretations to Buddhism. To some people, Buddhism might appear to be only a mass of superstitious practices. To another group of people, Buddhism might be a convenient label to be used for temporal gains. To another group, it is old fashioned. To yet another group, Buddhism will have significance as a system of thought for intellectuals only. To some others, it is a scientific discovery. To the pious and devout Buddhist, Buddhism means his entire life, the fulfillment of all he holds near and dear to him. 

Some intellectuals see Buddhism as a product of its Indian environment or as an outgrowth of another kind of Indian religious teaching. Buddhism is nothing but the Noble Truth. It is an intellectual approach to reality. The Buddha's realization of universal problems did not come through a purely intellectual or rational process but through mental development and purification. The intellectual stance reminiscent of the scientific attitude, surely makes the Buddha absolutely unique among religious teachers of all time. Of course, the high standard of intellectual inquiry and ethical endeavor prevailing at the time in India were prime conditions for the re-emergence of the light of the Dhamma from the darkness of oblivion. Thousands of years of religious and philosophical development had left on the intellectual soil of India a rich and fertile deposit of ideas and ideals which formed the best possible environment into which the seed of the Dhamma could fall. Greece, China, Egypt and Babylonia, for all their loftiness of thought, had not attained the same quality of vision as the forest and mountain-dwelling sages of India. The germ of Enlightenment which had been borne, like a winged seed from distant fields, from worlds in space and time infinitely remote from ours _ this very germ of Enlightenment found growth and development in the north-eastern corner of India. This very germ of Enlightenment found its full expression in the experience of the man, Gautama Buddha. The fountainhead of all Buddhism is this experience which is called 'Enlightenment'. With this experience of Enlightenment, the Buddha began His Teaching not with any dogmatic beliefs or mysteries, but with a valid, universal experience, which He gave to the world as universal truth. Therefore, the real definition of Buddhism is NOBLE TRUTH. Remember that the Buddha did not teach from theories. He always taught from a practical standpoint based on His understanding, His Enlightenment, and His realization of the Truth.
Buddhism began with the Truth embodied over 2500 years ago in the person of Gautama, the Buddha. When the Buddha introduced His teachings, His intention was not to develop the concept of self in man's mind and create more ambition for eternal life and sense pleasure. Rather, His intention was to point out the futility of the worldly life and to show the correct, practical Path to salvation that He discovered.
The original Teachings of the Buddha disclosed the true nature of life and the world. However, a distinction must be made between the Buddha's original Teaching (often called the Dhamma or the Buddha Word) and the religion that developed based on His Teachings.
The Teachings of the Buddha not only started a religion, but inspired the blossoming of a whole civilization. These Teachings became a great civilizing force that moved through the history of many a culture and nation. Indeed, Buddhism has become one of the greatest civilizations that the world has ever known. It has a wonderful history of achievement in the fields of literature, art, philosophy, psychology, ethics, architecture and culture. In the course of centuries, countless social educational institutions were established in the various nations that were dedicated to the Buddha's Teaching. The history of Buddhism was written in golden letters of brotherhood and goodwill. The religious beliefs and practices turned into a rational, scientific and practical religious way of life for spiritual development from the day the Buddha preached His Teaching and realized the real purpose and meaning of a life and a religion.

The Way to the End of Suffering: Cutting Off the Causes of Suffering

To free ourselves from suffering fully and finally we have to eliminate it by the root, and that means to eliminate ignorance. But how does one go about eliminating ignorance? The answer follows clearly from the nature of the adversary. Since ignorance is a state of not knowing things as they really are, what is needed is knowledge of things as they really are. Not merely conceptual knowledge, knowledge as idea, but perceptual knowledge, a knowing which is also a seeing. This kind of knowing is called wisdom (panna). Wisdom helps to correct the distorting work of ignorance. It enables us to grasp things as they are in actuality, directly and immediately, free from the screen of ideas, views, and assumptions our minds ordinarily set up between themselves and the real. 

To eliminate ignorance we need wisdom, but how is wisdom to be acquired? As indubitable knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, wisdom cannot be gained by mere learning, by gathering and accumulating a battery of facts. However, the Buddha says, wisdom can be cultivated. It comes into being through a set of conditions, conditions which we have the power to develop. These conditions are actually mental factors, components of consciousness, which fit together into a systematic structure that can be called a path in the word's essential meaning: a courseway for movement leading to a goal. The goal here is the end of suffering, and the path leading to it is the Noble Eightfold Path with its eight factors: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

The Buddha calls this path the middle way (majjhima patipada). It is the middle way because it steers clear of two extremes, two misguided attempts to gain release from suffering. One is the extreme of indulgence in sense pleasures, the attempt to extinguish dissatisfaction by gratifying desire. This approach gives pleasure, but the enjoyment won is gross, transitory, and devoid of deep contentment. The Buddha recognized that sensual desire can exercise a tight grip over the minds of human beings, and he was keenly aware of how ardently attached people become to the pleasures of the senses. But he also knew that this pleasure is far inferior to the happiness that arises from renunciation, and therefore he repeatedly taught that the way to the Ultimate eventually requires the relinquishment of sensual desire. Thus the Buddha describes the indulgence in sense pleasures as "low, common, worldly, ignoble, not leading to the goal."

The other extreme is the practice of self-mortification, the attempt to gain liberation by afflicting the body. This approach may stem from a genuine aspiration for deliverance, but it works within the compass of a wrong assumption that renders the energy expended barren of results. The error is taking the body to be the cause of bondage, when the real source of trouble lies in the mind -- the mind obsessed by greed, aversion, and delusion. To rid the mind of these defilements the affliction of the body is not only useless but self-defeating, for it is the impairment of a necessary instrument. Thus the Buddha describes this second extreme as "painful, ignoble, not leading to the goal."

Aloof from these two extreme approaches is the Noble Eightfold Path, called the middle way, not in the sense that it effects a compromise between the extremes, but in the sense that it transcends them both by avoiding the errors that each involves. The path avoids the extreme of sense indulgence by its recognition of the futility of desire and its stress on renunciation. Desire and sensuality, far from being means to happiness, are springs of suffering to be abandoned as the requisite of deliverance. But the practice of renunciation does not entail the tormenting of the body. It consists in mental training, and for this the body must be fit, a sturdy support for the inward work. Thus the body is to be looked after well, kept in good health, while the mental faculties are trained to generate the liberating wisdom. That is the middle way, the Noble Eightfold Path, which "gives rise to vision, gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana."