I have often wondered if a succinct summary of Buddhism is possible. One can easily be confused by denominational differences, popular appropriations, and cultural and historical legacies. One of the greatest difficulties is that one cannot simply “learn” it. While we tend to think we might understand a spiritual tradition by comprehending what its practitioners believe, there is more to life than belief and creed. There are insights and there is practice, and these are not easily communicated. Communication is, after all, an imperfect human behavior, as are concepts themselves, as expressed in the aphorism “do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon.”

Nonetheless, communication is a vehicle available to us on the path. Hence, I’ve attempted a summary of my understanding in a hopefully commonsensical way. 1 Ironically, Buddhism has a reputation for being complex with lots of weird words and philosophical notions, as seen in the following notes. However, Buddha often refused to entertain philosophical questions, such as those about the afterlife, and likened a preoccupation with them to a man suffering from a poisoned arrow and demanding to know what it was made of, who shot it, and their motivations, before having it removed; Buddha noted the man would be dead before he received satisfying answers.

Buddhism in Under 1000 Words

Shit happens, such is life. 2 We will all get old, sick, and die, as will everyone we love. 3 Fortunately, there is also much joy in life, and pain can be a great teacher, particularly with respect to compassion. Yet, while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Buddhism is concerned with lessening suffering such that when shit happens, we aren’t caught in it and can perhaps even transform it, like compost nourishing a flower. Hence, whatever may happen, Buddhists aspire to respond with equanimity. 4 Otherwise, as related in a parable, it is like compounding the physical pain of being struck with a dart with another dart of anguish.

Buddhism distinguishes between our conceptions and reality itself. 5 Conceptually , we see ourselves as independent egos preoccupied with comparisons and ruminations on the past and future; all of this is subject to greed, hatred, and delusion. 6 In a way, concepts are a delusion, but that isn’t to say they aren’t real. It’s just that they are flawed abstractions of reality , much like the idea of a wave is an abstraction of a phenomenon of the ocean. Consider, is a wave genuinely independent? Is it the same wave that existed a moment ago? Where does one wave end and the next begin? When is a wave born, and when does it die? As much as these questions might confound us, this is a limitation of our thinking – including about ourselves, life, and death – and is of no concern to the ocean.

To lessen suffering, Buddhism offers techniques for dealing with life in the conceptual dimension and, ultimately, hopes to change our perspective so we can be with things as they really are. “Buddha” means “awakened one” and so Buddhism offers a way to lessen the cravings and anxieties of dreams so that we can be fully awake to life. Hence, we wouldn’t say a dream isn’t real, much like a wave, it’s just not the point.

To improve our sleep, so we might eventually awaken, Buddhism recommends some wholesome practices. For example, we should honor life, generosity, relationships, communication, and nourishment. 7 Stated in a negative form: don’t kill, steal, screw around, be shady, or get sauced. I prefer the positive form because we might otherwise think of them as “sins” when they simply recognize that wholesome activities will lessen pain and further joy in our life and the lives of others. And this then provides the ground for taking on suffering itself.

Suffering is avoided when we manage to escape the traps in our ways of thinking. It seems to me there are two key practices and two key concepts. The concepts are impermanence , or change, and non-self , or interdependence. All things change and everything is interconnected, or better yet, “inter-are.” No wave will last forever, and it’s a mistake to conceive of it as an independent wave anyway: it and the ocean simply are. Should one truly appreciate this then suffering would abate – one might say this is enlightenment, or waking up. (Similarly, Nirvana means “blowing out” the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.) Once grounded in a wholesome life we can approach these two insights with the practices of mindfulness and compassion. Mindfulness is bringing attention to the present moment, contrary to the mind’s natural tendency to judge and ruminate on the past and future. Mindfulness is often brought to simple activities such as sitting, walking, singing, or eating. In fact, all of life can be a meditation. Compassion is recognizing the delusion, or a least to challenge it with action, that we are an independent ego. And even outside of any transcendent insight, these practices have been empirically shown to improve one’s well-being. 8

Such is my imperfect understanding of Buddhism. Of course, any understanding of Buddhism can be problematic, so much so that it can be an impediment, hence the Zen saying: “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” The practice of Buddhism can be equally challenging, but simply having a go without judgment and worrying about consequences is the important thing. 9

  1. My understanding is mostly informed by the Thiền (Chan/Zen) tradition and teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh . I link to related Wikipedia articles where possible.

  2. The first of the Four Noble Truths is typically translated as “life is suffering” rather than “shit happens,” but this confuses the distinction between the pain we encounter in life, and our response to it. A less coarse ways of saying it is that “life is sometimes painful.”

  3. The first four of the Five Remembrances .

  4. We can’t control the world, but we can our actions, as recognized by the fifth remembrance.

  5. When speaking of the Two Truths , the notion of the conceptual domain is spoken of as the relative, historical, or conditioned dimension; the actual world is often spoken of as the absolute, ultimate, or unconditioned dimension.

  6. There are many articulations of Three Poisons , or afflictions, and my use of greed, hatred, and delusion also corresponds to attachment, aversion, and ignorance. These poisons also have the antidotes of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

  7. These are the Five Mindfulness Trainings, or precepts , also see the Noble Eightfold Path .

  8. Jon Kabat-Zinn ’s Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness include citations to some of the empirical research showing the benefits of mindfulness.

  9. The Four Vows recognize that despite, or perhaps because of, the daunting aspirations of Buddhism we make the effort nonetheless.