Revised August 18, 2016; revised April 25, 2019; re-written September 12, 2022; revised November 13, 2022 (#2)
Buddhism Versus Buddha Dhamma
1. The terms “Buddhism” and “Buddhist” were invented by English, French, and German historians in the nineteenth century when they first came across Buddha Dhamma in India, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. The Pāli word for a Buddhist is “Upāsaka,” and the Sinhala word is Bhauddhayā.
- The discovery of the “Asoka pillars” in India was followed by the discovery of the Pāli literature on Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka and other countries such as Burma and Thailand (together with translated Chinese Āgama scripts); of course, there were no practicing “Buddhists” or any Buddhist literature in India.
- See “Historical Background” for details.
Buddha Dhamma – Ending of Future Suffering
2. Here are two key points that should be the basis for defining the terms:
- Up to that time, it was “Buddha Dhamma” or the “Dhamma or Teachings of the Buddha.”
- The word Buddha comes from “bhava” + “uddha“; here, “bhava” means “existence (in the 31 realms),” and “uddha” means “removal.” Therefore, Buddha figured out how to stop the rebirth process and thus end future suffering. Every birth ends in old age and death; there are no exceptions.
- We can also see that “Buddha Dhamma” means “teachings that explain how to stop “bhava” from arising,” i.e., it is “bhava uddha Dhamma.” Here, “Dhamma” means “teaching.” Note that “dhammā” (with lowercase “d” and a long “a”) “to bear things in this world.”
- And a person who diligently followed the Path advised by the Buddha was called a “Bhauddhayā” (=bhava + uddha+yā= one who strives to stop the rebirth process, i.e., to stop suffering).
- Thus, if religion is defined as “faith-based salvation,” Buddha Dhamma is not a religion. It is a new worldview that can lead to stopping future suffering. Faith in that new vision will grow as one’s understanding improves.
Bhauddhayā and Upāsaka
3. Note that the word “Bhauddhayā” (භෞද්ධයා ) is used only in the Sinhala language. The Pāli word for a lay Buddhist is “Upāsaka.” Both words are being used in the Sinhala language today.
- The word upāsaka probably came from “upa” + “āsava” + “khaya, “where those words mean “stay close to,” “defilements,” and “eliminate” or “wear away.”
- Thus, it means someone who stays close to the goal of eliminating defilements (lobha, dosa, moha) leading to Nibbāna. Hence both words have the same meaning.
Most Adherents Today Are “Secular Buddhists”
4. When I hear the common statement, “all religions are the same; they teach you how to live a MORAL LIFE,” I cringe. I think about all those people unaware of the Buddha’s actual message. In particular, those who follow “secular Buddhism” have not realized the true value of Buddha Dhamma.
- Most people today have been exposed just to bits and pieces of Buddha Dhamma. Many do not believe in rebirth and are happy to be called “secular Buddhists.” See “Secular Buddhism.”
- They are happy to follow the precepts of moral conduct, do breath meditation to relieve the stresses of modern life, and see where that leads them; see the discussion at “Goenka´s Vipassana.”
- That is a perfectly good starting point. But Buddha Dhamma is much deeper and can lead to a state without suffering, i.e., Nibbāna; see, “Nibbāna.” Also, see “Buddhism without Rebirth and Nibbāna?”
- In addition, it is the best way to learn about this world. I have spent over ten years of my life to learning Buddha Dhamma, and I am still learning! It is an exhilarating experience.
Misconceptions of Secular Buddhists
5. Each person understands Buddha Dhamma differently, mainly based on the level of exposure to “correct Dhamma.” Most people have the following misconceptions:
- Buddha Dhamma provides temporary relief (version of nirāmisa sukha) from mental stress (as in breath meditation).
- Some others believe mediation will help alleviate suffering from physical ailments.
- While (i) is correct, it is only a minor benefit. The main benefit is to stop future suffering in the rebirth process.
- Those who believe in (ii) turn to Buddhism too late, but better late than never! It is easier to grasp the worldview of the Buddha when the body and the mind are in good condition, i.e., when one is healthy and the mind is alert.
Hidden Suffering in the Rebirth Process
6. The main message of the Buddha goes beyond “living a moral life.” He pointed out two forms of hidden suffering that average humans are not aware of:
- That incessant distress or agitation we all feel in #5 above arises due to greed, hate, and ignorance (of moral values first, then the ignorance of the true nature of this world at a deeper level.)
- Immoral deeds we commit due to these greedy, hateful, or ignorant mindsets will lead to much higher forms of suffering in future rebirths (especially when born in animals and other lower realms).
Buddha Dhamma Is the Ultimate Science
7. In world religions, faith in religion is mostly “blind faith.” Buddha Dhamma is more of a science than a religion. For example, one does not need to believe in rebirth with blind faith. There are two avenues to explore.
- There is mounting evidence for rebirth; see “Evidence for Rebirth” and “Near-Death Experiences (NDE): Brain Is Not the Mind.”
- Even more importantly, the worldview of the Buddha is self-consistent with rebirth among 31 realms of existence built-in. See “Origin of Life.”
- However, those new to Buddhism need to start gradually. It is good to read “Starting on the Path without Belief in Rebirth” and “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?” first.
8. Closely related to rebirth is the fact that we can be reborn among 31 realms of existence. Thus, in addition to the human and animal realms, there are 29 more realms that we are not aware of.
- Thus, the “wider worldview” of the Buddha can be briefly summarized as follows:
(i) Any living being will be reborn among the 31 realms,
(ii) Most rebirths are in the lowest four realms, and one of those is the animal realm (that is why the rebirth process has more suffering) (iii) Rebirth process happens naturally according to kamma accumulated via good/bad deeds.
- The first step to be released from that future suffering is to learn the wider worldview of the Buddha. This website is dedicated to explaining the Buddha’s worldview.
One Becomes a Bhauddhayā/Upāsaka by Learning Buddha’s Worldview
9. There are no rituals to become either a “secular Buddhist” or a Bhauddhayā. As one becomes convinced of the Buddha’s worldview and starts seeing the truth of the “wider worldview,” one becomes a better Buddhist or a Bhauddhayā.
- As one becomes a Buddhist/Bhauddhayā, his/her personality may change without forcefully changing it. That is because one starts seeing the world differently and reacting to outside events differently. It is all about changing perceptions about “this world,” i.e., it is all mental.
- Because of this, one cannot become a Bhauddhayā or even a good Buddhist by just following rituals. One becomes a good Buddhist/Bhauddhayā by attempting to comprehend the message of the Buddha and by experiencing the benefits as one progresses.
Making Gradual Progress
10. “Dhamma will guide and protect one who lives by Dhamma” (”Dhammo ha ve rakkhati Dhammacāri.”) If one starts becoming a Buddhist/Bhauddhayā, one will be able to see the changes in oneself as time goes by (others will start noticing after a bit longer). One’s likings and associations are the first to change.
- A Bhauddhayā/Upāsaka starts to realize the futility of staying anywhere in the 31 realms and will eventually attain the first stage of Nibbāna, i.e., become a Sōtapanna.
- A Sōtapanna would be automatically released from future births in the apāyās or the four lowest realms, including the animal realm.
- How that happens is described in other sections of the site, especially in the section “Sōtapanna Stage of Nibbāna.”
- Another key point the Buddha made was no “soul-like” entity moves from birth to birth. Future births occur due to causes and conditions as described in Paṭicca Samuppāda. See “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream.“
- The main teachings of the Buddha are embedded in “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”
11. Many people (especially those new to Buddhism/Buddha Dhamma) waste time by plunging headlong into reading deep suttas. That is like trying to learn mathematics without understanding addition/subtraction.
- One MUST first understand the “new vision” presented to the world by the Buddha; it was previously unknown to the world. It follows the same principle of causality followed by modern science. The Buddha’s version is Paṭicca Samuppāda. It explains in detail how future rebirths occur due to one’s mindset and actions. Suttas on Paṭicca Samuppāda start with the “Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (SN 12.1).”
- Another key point I did not discuss above is the importance of living a moral life. It is easier to grasp the deep Dhamma with a cleansed mind with less greed, hate/anger, and ignorance (of moral values); see “Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā to Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi.” Thus, starting as a “secular Buddhist” is perfectly fine.