Essential Buddhism

If there were a global nuclear war—

If the few survivors were mostly just trying to stay alive—

If all books were lost—

What little of Buddhism would we most want to save?

This is worth pondering because:

  1. It clarifies what you think is most important in Buddhism. There is far more Buddhism to learn than anyone ever could, so we have to pick. In the West, most of us have relatively little time to practice and must concentrate on essentials.
  2. Buddhism moving from Asia to the West is similar: unnecessary details just have to be dropped. Much of what worked in Tibet or Japan seems not to function in Finland and America. However, there is little agreement on what is cultural baggage and what is essential to preserve.
  3. I believe that Buddhism, world-wide, may be facing a catastrophe comparable to global nuclear war.

“Essential” can mean “unchanging, defining qualities,” or just “most important.” Buddhism teaches us to be skeptical of essences and definitions. Buddhism, like everything else, is empty; it has no defining characteristics. There is probably nothing that all Buddhists could agree on.

So I mean “essential Buddhism” in the sense of “Don’t leave home without it.” Different Buddhists would give entirely different answers as to what in Buddhism is most important—what is worth saving in an end-of-the-world scenario.

One good answer is that the fundamental principles and functions are the essential core of Buddhism. The reason is that, when those are understood, everything else makes sense. Without an understanding of principles and functions, Buddhist concepts become meaningless phrases. Buddhist practices become empty rituals.

Put another way, in a catastrophic scenario, a new Buddhism could probably be reconstructed from just the essential principles and functions. Here is an example. In Tibet, there are thousands of yidams (“awareness-beings”). Yidam practice is one of the most important in Buddhist Tantra. Over the course of Tibetan history, many yidams have been lost and forgotten. That’s a damn shame.

However, what really matters is an understanding of the function of yidams, supporting the essential principle of Buddhist Tantra: transformation. If all the specific yidams were lost, it would be tragic, but not a threat to the survival of Tantra. New yidams emerge from the dharmakaya frequently. We could trust that they would continue to do so.

This understanding of “essential Buddhism” is similar to a constitutional legal system. The U.S. Constitution is a short statement of fundamental legal principles and procedures. There are hundreds of thousands of pages of specific laws that derive from it. It would be a disaster if all those were lost. However, if the Constitution itself could be saved (and if it is as well-designed as we hope), then we should be equally happy with a new set of laws produced in accordance with it—even if they were quite different in detail.

Tibetan Buddhism has hundreds of thousands of pages of scripture, commentaries, and liturgy. In a catastrophe, if only a couple dozen pages of essential text survived, plus living lineages of a handful of essential practices—those might eventually develop into a Buddhism which would be quite different in detail, but that we ought to be equally happy with.

The question of how Buddhism should develop in the West is often asked in terms of “how much” of Asian practice should be preserved. From an “essential” perspective, what matters is not “how much,” but “which” and “why” and “for whom.”