Q: What is Buddhism?
A: [laughs] That depends on whom you ask. From my point of view, the Buddha’s teaching is real. It is absolute reality recorded in the Theravāda Suttas. Yes, there might be a little interpolation or editing here and there, but by and large, it’s reliable. Then there is our practice, our realization of the Buddha’s teaching. That is also real—absolute reality if we are successful.
Then there is a layer of interpretation in between. That is ‘Buddhism’. [Makes a sign of air quotes with his fingers, with a sarcastic or disparaging tone — Ed.] That depends on which interpretation you accept. Any interpretation introduces some distortion or attenuation of the original message. Therefore one way to define ‘Buddhism’ is ‘the editing and distortion of the Buddha’s original teaching in the Suttas’.
See, historically for a long time, monks have been ignoring the original Theravāda Suttas in favor of more recent interpretations. It gave them a feeling of power and importance, I guess. They monopolized the teaching by keeping the Pāli Suttas untranslated into the local language, just as the Hindu Brahmans discouraged the people by refusing to translate the Vedas from the original Sanskrit. But no derived teaching is going to be as powerful or accurate as the original.
So over the last century or so—basically since you Westerners got involved [laughs]—there has been a movement to get back to the original Suttas and translate them into all important languages. I’m extremely grateful to see this. Perhaps it has saved the Buddha’s teaching from falling into disuse and being forgotten entirely. Because the derivative teachings are not as powerful as the original, no one was becoming enlightened by following them.
You see, ‘religion’ is merely an abstraction, a fabrication, in exactly the same sense as a corporation, a government or a philosophy. It doesn’t really exist. It is only meaning, software. The reality is the Buddha’s teaching and our personal implementation and realization of it; the illusion is the interpretation, the systemization and distortion—the religion based on the Buddha’s teaching.
Probably everyone who claims to be a ‘Buddhist’ means something different by it. Yet the original underlying Suttas are the same. How is it possible? Because each one’s definition of ‘Buddhism’ is individual and different, according to their understanding.
There is no need for these artificial and simplified abstractions. Actually, they are an insult to the Buddha. Suppose I like your profile, but I don’t like any other view of you. Why don’t I just slice you in half vertically, keep that part and throw the rest away? That’s mad, of course; and similarly it’s mad to want to take the Buddha’s teaching and just present an outline, a series of stages or some other reductionist abstract view of his dhamma.
And that’s why I encourage people to go to the original Suttas themselves, and not accept any other interpretation, including mine. Am I just speculating, or is this just my personal opinion? No, it is based on the last words of the Buddha himself:
Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ānanda, saying: “It may be, Ānanda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ānanda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.” — Maha-parinbanna Sutta (DN 16)