Buddhism—the Definition

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
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You may wonder why this topic is chosen. The reason is simply because even some veteran Buddhists in both China and Tibet do not know the real meaning and the scope of Buddhism. Other than the monastics, most farmers and nomads in Tibet think that to be able to help build a stupa or a magnificent temple from time to time, or to recite the six-word mantra of Avalokitesvara, will make them good enough Buddhists. But all these are just doing good deeds, not learning or practicing the Dharma. So, further explanation about Buddhism is certainly necessary.

The Incorrect Definition of Buddhism

Some regard Buddhism as a kind of belief. Belief also means faith. Of course faith is needed in Buddhism, but it would be oversimplified to regard Buddhism as a belief since keeping faith is only one of the aspects of Buddhism.  The foundation and the priority of Buddhism are not about belief, but wisdom and compassion.  Although Buddhism does advocate the importance of faith, it is not unique to Buddhism; science also calls for faith.  For example, people today all want to promote faith in science.  If one does not trust science, one probably would not even dare to take airplane.  People take planes because they believe in the technology that allows airplane to transport people to their destinations.  It takes faith to accomplish anything in this world, the same kind of faith as in Buddhism. Therefore, it is incorrect to equate Buddhism with belief.

Is Buddhism a kind of philosophy? No. There are Eastern, Western and other types of philosophy. Some of them may enunciate certain thoughts that are similar to that of Buddhism, but their analyses never go as deep. Hence, Buddhism is not a branch of philosophy.

Is it science? Certain views of Buddhism and some findings of science may be the same, but Buddhism as a whole is not science.

Could it be idealism? Many people consider religion idealism. It may be the case in terms of Western religions. As most philosophers in the West are idealists, albeit holding different philosophical positions, they simply identify religion as a category of idealism as well. However, Buddhist thought and idealism are completely different.

Among the four schools of Buddhism, Sarvastivada1 and Sautrantika2 did not maintain any idealistic viewpoints at all, neither did the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school of the Mahayana tradition.

The Yogachara (Consciousness Only) school of Mahayana had a number of sects, of those only one posited a small portion of its views that was somewhat similar to that of idealism.

For example, part of the views of Berkeley’s subjective idealism appears to be similar to the central teaching of Yogachara that phenomena exist only as a process of mind. Russell, in the first chapter (Appearance and Reality) of The Problems of Philosophy also analyzed Berkeley’s viewpoints, but found complete refutation of which rather difficult. Still, idealism never quite matches Yogachara in its profundity.

Aside from this, no other similarity can be identified between idealism and Buddhism.

Actually, part of idealism, Christianity, ancient Indian religions and other kinds of faith, all share certain common views with Buddhism, but that does not mean they are identical as a whole. Buddhism and idealism are fundamentally different despite their partial similarity. The differences are even greater from an overall perspective. Hence, to regard religion as idealism is purely an opinion of the West, with which Buddhism does not identify.

To illustrate further, Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, the epitome of Mahayana teaching, holds that both mental and physical phenomena exist from the point of view of the relative truth, and neither exists in terms of the ultimate truth. Both are empty of self-nature, rather than the physical phenomena having no independent existence but the mental phenomena do.  Furthermore, Chandrakirti explained that this is the view of the Buddha, because in Abhidharma-kosa-Shastra the Buddha had inquired extensively into the existence of mental and physical phenomena from the perspective of the relative truth, and subsequently refuted the existence of both when enunciating Prajnaparamita. In other words, both exist if existence is affirmed, and vice versa if it is refuted. This is Chandrakirti’s point.

On the other hand, the view of the Nyingma tradition can be summed up in Longchenpa’s words:

External phenomena are not mind, only the illusory manifestations of mind.

From what I know about idealism, I can say with full confidence that to equate Buddhism with idealism is very wrong as their views differ quite substantially. Actually, no one really thinks of Buddhism as idealism, only that religion in general is viewed as such, which in the case of Western religion is not incorrect.

In summary, Buddhism is not idealism because it does not deem the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or mental phenomena; neither is it materialism as it does not consider the ultimate nature of reality is based on physical phenomena.

Is Buddhism a religion?

The word “religion” came from the West. If defining Buddhism by way of the meaning of religion, Buddhism cannot be deemed exactly a religion as the word “religion” connotes the recognition of a supernatural power or powers as the creator and governor of the universe, which Buddhism dissents. Some in the West do not see Buddhism as religion because of this. Those learned and respectable Buddhist practitioners in the past also held the same opinion. I too do not see Buddhism fit the Western definition of “religion” as Buddhism has never acknowledged the existence of the Creator.

Then, what exactly is Buddhism?

The Definition of Buddhism

Buddhism actually means Buddhist studies, a subject taught and transmitted by the Buddha; or, a way through which ordinary people can learn to reach Buddhahood.

In the scriptures, Buddhism is defined by the two words—“doctrine” and “realization.” Doctrine refers to the teachings transmitted by the Buddha himself or the commentaries on canonical texts and other treatises written by the bodhisattvas after the Buddha gave his blessing and approval, such as the Tibetan Buddhist canon of Kangyur (The Translation of the Word) and Tengyur (Translation of Treatises). Realization refers to personal realization gained through practice, which encompasses discipline, meditation and wisdom. In other words, “doctrine” and “realization” stand for the whole of Buddha Dharma. Two other words, even more significant, can also summarize the full meaning of the Dharma, that is, “compassion” and “wisdom”, which will serve as the cornerstone of our discussion on Buddhism here.

All Buddhist teachings, be they Mahayana or Theravada, exoteric or esoteric, can be summed up by wisdom and compassion. In fact, the union of wisdom and compassion is the essence of Buddhism; it is ultimately what to be learned and practiced in Buddhism.

What about burning incense, performing prostrations, reciting sutras and the like? Do these activities signify the process of learning Buddhism? Yes, they are part of that process, but certainly not the main part.

What is a Buddha? Is the real Buddha the one appearing in a thangka with golden face and sitting in a full lotus position?

That is only a partially real Buddha. In the view of Mahayana, the Nirmanakaya (Emanation Body) and the Sambhogakaya (Bliss Body) are the manifestations of the Buddha in order to liberate ordinary people and bodhisattvas of the first to the tenth bhumi, respectively.   The Nirmanakaya is for the Buddha to communicate with ordinary people. Although Buddha-nature exists within the mind of every sentient being, the Dharmakaya (Truth Body) of the Buddha is rendered powerless to those who have not attained realization and thus must rely on the Nirmanakaya and the Sambhogakaya of the Buddha for guidance to enlightenment. However, neither the Nirmanakaya nor the Sambhogakaya is the true Buddha, only the Dharmakaya, the union of wisdom and compassion, is.

To learn Buddhism is to learn wisdom and compassion. To attain Buddhahood means the manifestation of the inherent wisdom and compassion of Buddha-nature after all the obscurations have been purified. That is all it means.

Rongzom Pandita, one of the greatest scholars of the Nyingma lineage, once said, “The invariable definition of Buddhism is wisdom and compassion. No other explanation can fully express the core of Buddhism.”

He also thought that using any one of the numerous methods to learn Buddhism is equally fine, such as the Pure Land sect’s focus on single-mindedly praying to Amitabha or Zen school’s experiential realization through meditation. But it would be wrong to consider one school’s method the single most appropriate way to learn over all others.  Likewise, there are respective precepts for the monastics and lay practitioners.  One should not think that only the monastic precepts are real precepts, or that observing the lay precepts cannot help one attain Buddhahood. In Vajrayana Buddhism, there are practices involving the subtle energy system of the body, but it is not the only method one can use to attain enlightenment. All these are just different ways to reach the same destination. No one particular method is absolutely required. The only unchanging essentials, however, are wisdom and compassion. On the other hand, a method that cannot engender wisdom and compassion in the end would not be deemed the practice of the Dharma. This is the point held by Rongzom Pandita, but both the exoteric and the esoteric school also concur.

In general, the whole of Buddhadharma can be fully summarized when told from the perspective of wisdom and compassion. If people ask: What is Buddhadharma? Answer: It is wisdom and compassion. What is learning Buddhism about? It is to learn wisdom and compassion.


It means the wisdom of the Buddha, which is not quite the same as worldly wisdom despite some similarities between the two. For instance, the Buddha’s description of sahalokadhatu3, or the universe in plain language, and his views on the various worldly matters sometimes agreed and other times disagreed with that of ordinary people.  In any case, the Buddha had his reasons for making certain statements.

For example, the Buddha had mentioned the existence of Mount Sumeru and the four continents around it when describing the macro world.  This differed with the view of the universe held by some in the secular world. In the eyes of ordinary folks, the phenomena described by the Buddha were nowhere to be found.

Though I have explained before, it is more meaningful for us now, as opposed to people in the olden days, to understand the reason for the Buddha’s description of the universe. In ancient times, people’s knowledge about the structure and the constituent dynamics of the universe was limited. Buddhists at that time did not delve into this topic either. So there was no urgent need to elucidate further. Today, however, with the help of modern technology, the great majority has come to accept the current view of the universe, particularly at the macro level. Understandably, there are differences as well as similarities when compared with that of Buddhism. In order for people not to misinterpret the Buddhist view, it is necessary to explain once again why the Buddha chose to describe the universe the way he did.

The Buddha’s primary goal of teaching was to communicate precisely the doctrine of the Three Dharma Seals to the listeners. Failing this, the teaching would have been pointless. What made the Three Dharma Seals so important?  The answer is in the sutras.  A disciple once asked the Buddha, “How can the real teachings be distinguished if the non-Buddhists try to deceive with their false version after you, The Blessed One, pass into nirvana?” The Buddha answered, “Any teaching, as long as it espouses the principles of the Three Dharma Seals, can be considered Buddhist teaching; otherwise, it is not Buddhist teaching.” The fact that the Buddha always emphasized the key points in his transmissions should explain why so much importance has been attached to the Three Dharma Seals.

In the time of the Buddha, the listeners came from all walks of life. There were non-Buddhists, Brahmins, celestial beings, nagas, etc. Many of the Brahmins maintained a view of the universe that was at variance with the facts. The Buddha knew that to contradict them inopportunely would not only make them feel disagreeable but also jeopardize his work of propagating the Dharma. In order to teach them according to their capacity, the Buddha chose to apply skillful means instead, that is, to go along with their views, even knowing that those were wrong, as long as he could teach them the three characteristics of conditioned existence—impermanence, suffering and no-self (the Three Dharma Seals). The Buddha would not mind if the rest of their views were valid or not, because only through the knowledge of the Three Dharma Seals could they be liberated from samsara. Other branches of learning, no matter how proficient one is in, do not concern the question of liberation.

It is precisely due to the fact that the Buddha did not correct them that the view of the universe then was preserved. Once the capacity of the audience changed, the Buddha would also make timely corrections of their old views of the universe or other matters, and establish other viewpoints that might better correspond to their capacity. There are a variety of skillful means that the Buddha used to transmit the teachings, which have resulted in the kind of view of the universe in the sutras that is different from the modern understanding.

However, this explanation is not some expedient answer to the present-day question that the sutras do not conform to the view backed by modern science.  The same explanation was already available more than a   thousand years ago.  It was just not necessary to explain to the people then, as they did not have the kind of knowledge on the universe like we do today.  Nevertheless, to use skillful means to educate sentient beings also illustrates the incredible foresight and wisdom of the Buddha. The Buddha himself once said that there were quite a few inconsistencies in his teachings in order to suit the taste of different audience, but the one that would never change is the teaching on emptiness.  For example, from the point of view of relative truth, impermanence and suffering being the nature of all phenomena are deemed absolute truth, but not from the point of view of the ultimate truth. In the Three Dharma Seals, only no-self is deemed the absolute truth.

In fact, the Buddhist view cannot be proved wrong just because its description of the macro-world is different from what people generally know nowadays. The world, as we know it today, is nothing but a world that humans living on the Earth can observe either with eyes or with instruments. No one can be absolutely sure that this is the sole truth of the universe.

Buddhism holds that a glass of water seen by sentient beings of the six realms will manifest six different phenomena, respectively. By the same token, beings of the six realms will see six different worlds, somewhat like the idea of the multiverse.

At the level of the micro-world, scientific views spanning from classical physics to relativity to quantum physics are getting closer and closer to the Buddhist views. The father of quantum physics also acknowledged that man’s knowledge of the physical universe has taken a giant step toward the direction of Eastern civilization such as Buddhism ever since quantum theory was advanced. The reason that I mention this is to point out the similarities between science and the wisdom of the Buddha.

The dissimilarities between the two are those points that only the Buddha can explicate. Modern science or philosophy, even after tens of thousands of years of further development, will still be unable to reach the state of the Buddha, a state of emptiness and clear light wherein all phenomena are mandalas of the Buddhas, primordially pure. None of the thoughts, reasoning, intelligence, or even supernatural power of the world can perceive such state. This shows the wisdom of the Buddha reigns supreme over all worldly knowledge.

However, in the context of wisdom and compassion, wisdom can simply be put as realization of emptiness, which encompasses many meanings: realization of no-self, of emptiness pertaining to Madhyamaka of the exoteric school, and realization of Great Emptiness and Clear Light. From the point of view of the esoteric Buddhism, which also includes the view of the Great Perfection, emptiness and clear light are one and the same.

The term “Great Emptiness” has never appeared in the history of man’s thought and literature. And even if it did, it was only to mean the void as a result of matter being decomposed to decreasing size of particles until it could decompose no more. Some people now still do not dare to affirm even this void, insisting rather that energy should remain at the end. (Energy is matter too.) If energy also ends in a state of emptiness, it will be as if all matter were born from nothing. This, for many, is an unacceptable conclusion. So what these people are able to comprehend is even less than that of the exoteric school.

As I mentioned earlier, there are some similarities between the views of science and Buddhism with respect to the micro universe, but that does not mean science equals what the Buddha realized.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, some Chinese scholars, monks, as well as laypeople used inappropriately Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence to explain emptiness in Buddhism. Explanations given in this fashion were actually a kind of nihilism: mass disappears upon turning into energy—that which existed becomes empty. But this is not real emptiness.

Emptiness defined by the Buddha is not something achieved through a process of transformation. Neither can the notion of energy (an existent phenomenon) becoming emptiness be accepted according to the law of the conservation of energy. Even if it were to be accepted, the derivation of such conclusion would not correspond to Buddhist’s idea of emptiness. Actually, real emptiness does not mean matter disappears into thin air; rather, matter and emptiness exist simultaneously. This is the definition of emptiness given by the Buddha.

Despite the fact that modern-day physicists’ understanding of the physical universe has come quite close to that of the Buddha, in terms of the knowledge of the mental universe or the view on emptiness, modern man’s intelligence and the wisdom of Buddhism are still poles apart. The best result that can be achieved with man’s intelligence is no more than having a better living standard, such as the material civilization brought on by the advancement of technology. Yet, a great many people think that technology brings not better life but one that is more complex and precarious. And there is certain truth to that opinion.

On the other hand, what can be attained through wisdom of the Buddha is liberation from samsara for every sentient being. This is not just a theoretical outcome, but quite realistic so long as everyone can undertake to practice according to the Dharma.


Great compassion is at the core of Mahayana Buddhism, of which all Mahayana aspirations are born. It would not be Mahayana Buddhism without great compassion.

The idea of great compassion, as elucidated by the Buddha, does not exist in any of the worldly schools of thought. The traditional Chinese culture upholds moral principles and the Western culture advocates charity and social welfare.   But the Buddha’s idea of altruism, demonstrated by the meditation practice of tonglen4, for example, and the bodhisattva’s commitment to unconditional dedication to others, are unparalleled.

Great compassion can be explained in more details from two perspectives.

1. Conventional perspective

For example, at the time when the Buddha was learning the path, he did not hesitate to offer his body to a starving lion. Or, if someone were to force a person in this room to jump off from the tenth floor, the behavior in the true sense of Mahayana would be that everyone in this room volunteers to jump. It is not just paying lip service. One should wish with all sincerity like this: It must be very painful to jump to death like that. Just let me take the pain for them.

Such acts of giving, or of forbearance as well, are great compassion in the conventional sense. The real intent of the Dharma is not only to have the motivation for compassion but also the actual action; not only to engage in charitable works to release sentient beings from temporary suffering, such as relieving the victims of disasters, giving food and clothing to the needed, nursing the sick and the wounded and so on, but also to be willing to do anything to liberate sentient beings from samsara even at the cost of one’s own life.

However, we should not refrain from doing charity work just because it can only deal with sentient beings’ temporary suffering. As Mahayana practitioners who aspire to benefit all beings, it makes sense for us to participate in the charitable activities in the society.

There was a story in the Vinaya: A bihkshu who was rendered immobile due to his illness had no one to take care of him.  His bed was so filthy that it was as if he slept in his own excrement. One day, the Buddha came to this bihkshu’s home with Ananda. The bhikshu panicked upon seeing the Buddha, but the Buddha gently comforted him and took his dirty clothes to wash personally.

If the Buddha could do this, we the followers of the Buddha would have no excuse not to do likewise. Yet, this is still not quite real compassion. Real compassion means that, at the time of life and death, one chooses to sacrifice one’s own life for others. Although this ideal may also exist in some other schools of thought or theory, it is somewhat limited in their scope. Whereas the Buddha’s great compassion is for all sentient beings, not just humans or Buddhists.

2. Supra-conventional perspective

The greater, more extensive compassion entails more than just ensuring the basic needs of sentient beings. Those needs should be taken care of, but they are not the focal point. The most important is to make all sentient beings understand the facts of samsara and the ways to be freed from it. This is the Buddha’s greatest compassion—to teach sentient beings the truth first, then the methods for liberation.

Why so? For example, a patient can be perfectly nursed back to health. But can we prevent that person from getting sick again? No. We can only help this time.  There is nothing we can do for the sicknesses that person will suffer in countless future lives. In fact, any form of material help, be it food, clothing, or money, can only temporarily relieve those in need, never for long. The only way to completely and permanently release sentient beings from all suffering is to teach them the facts of samsara and guide them to practice the Dharma so as to bring them onto the path of liberation. Ultimately, this is the real benefit to sentient beings, indeed the true meaning of salvation.

Only this type of compassion of the Buddha can be deemed great compassion. The conventional sense of kindness and sympathy for others is also a kind of compassion, but it cannot be described as being “great.” Great compassion is closely connected to the profound wisdom of the Buddha, and bodhicitta for one is just such wisdom.

We all agree that, in terms of charitable activities, other religions probably have done more, but the wars they started in the name of charity and justice have also numbered not a few. Therefore, it is still debatable whether they harbor absolute compassion or not. Relatively speaking, Buddhism has never meant to conquer anything or anyone. The Buddha also said that he cared not in the least the victory of fighting with another man, but most emphatically the victory from the battle with one’s own mind.

Furthermore, great compassion has multi-level meanings. The Buddha once said, “I have pointed out for you the way to liberation. You must decide for yourself whether you want to go that way or not.”  In other words, the fate of each being is in each one’s own hands, not the Buddha’s. This attitude is different from that of other beliefs, the Savior or the Creator of which would decide who goes to heaven or to hell. Such difference also reflects the kind of freedom, tolerance, equality and peace encompassed in the great compassion of Buddhism.

Practice of the union of wisdom and compassion

How should one practice wisdom and compassion?

Actually, the six paramitas practiced by the bodhisattvas are all within the bounds of wisdom and compassion: generosity, discipline and patience are practices of great compassion; one-pointed concentration and insight are that of wisdom; diligence serves as the auxiliary condition to the practice of wisdom and compassion. It is a simple and direct way to define Buddhism as wisdom and compassion. The broader and more profound connotation of Buddhism is the six paramitas.

If the essence of the whole of Buddhism is being condensed into wisdom and compassion, could there be a way to cover all eighty-four thousand teachings in one sitting of meditation? The answer is yes, that is, to practice wisdom and compassion.

Some may question the viability of practicing both in one sitting, as great compassion needs to be practiced with thorough and deep contemplation while wisdom to realize emptiness requires no discursive thoughts.

For us beginners, we need to first cultivate bodhicitta and then receive the bodhisattva vows. Once receiving the vows, bodhicitta—the essence of the bodhisattva vows—will be in our mindstream already. On this basis, one can proceed to practice emptiness.

While the thought of “wishing all sentient beings liberation from the suffering of samsara” may not be that obvious upon entering the state of emptiness, that is, no apparent compassion at the time, still the bodhisattva vows will accompany us into the state of emptiness because the essence of the bodhisattva vows has been in our minds already. The bodhisattva vows are not matter but a condition of mind. Although there are no distinct thoughts going through mind when entering the state of emptiness, the bodhisattva vows do exist at the time. Hence, not separating one from the other, mind and the bodhisattva vows can simultaneously enter the state of emptiness. At this point, the bodhisattva vows are emptiness and emptiness the bodhisattva vows. The union of wisdom and compassion means thus.

Here, union means when we immerse in the state of emptiness, mind attains realization of emptiness that is inseparable from the bodhisattva vows. If one can practice this way, one will be able to grasp all the essence of Mahayana Buddhism and not need any other practice.

This is how a beginner can practice the union of wisdom and compassion. If one is able to do this, the essence of the Buddha’s eighty- four thousand teachings will be covered in one sitting, in one place, or at one time.

As for the respective practice of bodhicitta and emptiness, they have been taught already, thus no need to repeat them here. Just combine the two.

Naturally, before cultivating great compassion, one should generate renunciation first. One cannot have great compassion for sentient beings if one is unaware of the suffering of samsara, because compassion comes from the suffering of sentient beings. No compassion, no bodhicitta either. The other condition for developing renunciation is the desire for liberation. When seeing the suffering of sentient beings, one aspires to save them from the clutches of samsara forever. But on second thought, how can one help others if one cannot attain liberation for oneself in the first place? With this in mind, the two requisites for generating renunciation— aversion to samsara and desire for liberation—are complete.

Renunciation is the foundation of bodhicitta. Having aroused bodhicitta, one is qualified to receive the bodhisattva vows which one can bestow on oneself. Afterwards, one can begin the practice on emptiness. Knowing that the union of wisdom and compassion is the combination of emptiness and bodhicitta essentially means that one has understood perfectly the quintessence of all the exoteric and esoteric teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.

Renunciation and bodhicitta should be practiced separately in proper order and followed by the practice of emptiness. As such, renunciation and bodhicitta that were practiced beforehand will also turn into the wisdom of emptiness.

Here, emptiness is not like the Theravada view of no-self. Rather, it contains the element of great compassion. And within great compassion, there is realization of emptiness. These views and practices of the union of wisdom and compassion encompass all the implicit significance of the Dharma. However, they are much easily said than done

Renunciation depends on the practice of the four general preliminaries, that is, the conviction of the rarity and preciousness of human birth and impermanence of all phenomena must be generated. For bodhicitta to be aroused, there must be sufficient amount of merit accumulated through mandala offering and obscurations purified and healed by meditation on Vajrasattva. Clearly, one cannot avoid undertaking the practice of general and extraordinary preliminaries no matter how one chooses to go on the path. This is also the reason why I have been insisting all along on the necessity of preliminary practice.

Now that we know the true meaning of Buddhism is wisdom and compassion, we shall learn and practice only these two from now on.

1. A school that held to the existence of everything

2. the Sutra school

3. this world; the world of suffering

4. A Tibetan word for “giving and taking”—give one’s own merit and happiness to others and take onto oneself the suffering of others