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Teaching about Buddhism Before Moving on to Macedon

Jack Betterly

Emeritus, Emma Willard School

What in the World to Breathlessly Teach?  
    Although something called Buddhism has become fashionable in America over the past five or six decades, it is well to keep in mind that in the beginning in Asia, there was little about Buddhism which seemed exotic. Quite to the contrary, it tended to be distinguished by its pragmatism. For obvious and understandable reasons, the reverse tends to be true in America—or even in modern Asia. 1
    Take sitting, as an example. There are many people who put on a silk robe, place a pillow on the floor, plant their bottoms on it, and begin something exotic which they call meditation or zazen or some such. Few of them reflect upon the fact that in the sixth or fifth or fourth century BCE, in what is now Nepal, robes were everyday work apparel. They were pretty coarse, and one sat cross-legged on the ground because that is how one always sat. Chairs were neither common nor affordable, and sitting was not very exotic.
    In this essay, I will first try to briefly isolate the most common misconceptions about the contextual and intellectual assumptions of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Then, at greater length, I will reduce Buddhism to its bare bone essentials. For the latter I rely heavily upon the uneasy, sometimes equivocating, but basically straightforward consensus reached by Theravada and Mahayana1 elders at the World Buddhist Sangha Conference held in Sri Lanka in 1966.2

The Context of Experience and Thought

    1. Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism are monistic. The three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are dualistic. This is an overwhelming difference. The Abrahamic faiths—at least as conceived and practiced by the majority of the faithful—most commonly assume a Creator who is distinct from His Creation, even though He may insert himself into it from time to time. On the other hand, the majority of the three monistic faiths, to oversimplify, believe in the existence of the Creation alone. It is not even properly considered a creation at all, because it is considered to have always been. It is more often referred to as some equivalent of "the universe." Any gods which might exist are within it and part of it and as subject to its laws and processes as you, or me, or bumblebees, or camels, or ice cream cones. If you wished to use the image of this entire universe being "God" —an image used often by Hinduism, rarely by Daoism, and almost never by Buddhism —"you" are  an ever changing and renewed bundle of electrons whirling around in "God's" right foot, or kidney, or earlobe—  a bundle which does not perceive that it extends throughout the universe itself. The Sanskrit phrase is tat tvam asi —"that thou art." This difference between dualistic and monistic contexts within which to live, think, perceive, and experience is crucial to comprehend before approaching world religions. In the Abrahamic faiths—particularly among the common people—most usually assume that "God" has a plan for His creation, and that humans can temporarily choose to obstruct or frustrate this plan ("sinning"). This is not true for monistic faiths. 4
    2. The three Asian faiths are deterministic. All things and events are the result of causal chains. Cause A is followed by cause B is followed by cause C.3   There is no such thing as an uncaused cause. There is no "free will." Of what would it be free? In these religions, decisions, like thunderstorms, are determined by long causal, natural, inflexible interactions, often called "karma."

The Essentials of Buddhism

1. The Buddha. The faith is based upon multitudinous, and often contradictory, assertions about the thoughts and teachings of a single man, Siddartha Gautama. It confers upon him the titles of "Buddha" (enlightened, awakened) and "Sakyamuni" (Sage of the Sakyas.) He is commonly said to have been born in 563 BCE,  but no one really knows for sure.4   Traditionally said to be a prince, he was far more akin to a son of a Pueblo Indian chief or headman being confronted by the Spanish invasion. The Sakyas were a tribe only relatively recently settled down to village agricultural life and towns, and if Siddartha actually existed—and there is no longer any serious doubt that he did5  —he would have embodied a reflection of a general Sakya resentment of, and rejection of, the recent but increasing intrusions of Indian trade and Hindu culture.6  6
2. Diversity. If someone says, "The Buddha said this," or, "The Buddha thought that," tell her that no one knows these things for sure. Just as no one can correctly say, "Yeshua of Nazareth said that," or, "Yeshua of Nazareth thought that," but must be content with, "The authors of the gospels, their identities themselves obscure, seemed to have recalled, more than thirty-five and more years after his death, that they thought they remembered that Yeshua of Nazareth had said ...."7  7
    In the case of Siddartha, the reality is much, much more tenuous than it is for Yeshua of Nazareth.8   The First Buddhist Council, which met shortly after he died, apparently agreed upon an oral tradition. About a century later, the Second Buddhist Council may have begun to write this down, but it also saw the first arguments and fragmentation and interpretational squabbling. It was not until the Third Buddhist Council, about 250 years after Siddartha's death, that the basic scripture, the Pali Tripitaka, was actually gathered and compiled and completed. By then there was so much disagreement that many sects departed, including one which was to become the school of Mahayana Buddhism. By the Fourth Council, around 100 CE—the "Mahayana council"—  Theravada Buddhists were calling it  a gathering of heretics. 8
    In short, just as you can not teach a version of "what Christians believe" which would mutually satisfy and include an 11th century Byzantine priest, a 21st century Pentecostal, a 10th century Swedish nun, John Calvin, an Arian Goth, a newly converted Nigerian Baptist, and a Pope, so you can not teach about a single "Buddhism," a religion which is even more varied and internally inconsistent. Theravada, Pure Land Buddhists, Tendai Buddhists, Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Tibetan Buddhists (Tibetan Vajrayana, the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt)—  have comprised, and still comprise, a vast conglomeration of contradictory beliefs and practices. 9
3. Atheism, and the denial of any self or soul. The World Buddhist Sangha Council agreed, and stated bluntly that Buddhists do not believe that any god created the universe or rules it, and do not believe that conditioned and unconditioned things have any soul or self. These two principles probably represent Buddhism's most clearly stated, deliberate rejection of Hinduism, the caste system, and reincarnation. It was as stunning a break as the final Judaic rejection of polytheism. For reincarnation to take place, there must be something to be reincarnated. Pressed on this, Siddartha is said to have imagined something like a candle passing its flame to another candle. Nothing is passed, but a passing has happened. That is all. 10
4. The Four Noble Truths. The first truth is observational, that all life is experienced as suffering. The second truth is analytical, that suffering is not random, nor is it a punishment inflicted by some god. Rather it is caused by desire, attachment, "clinging," a lust for permanence. The third truth is a leap of faith, which immediately makes this a religion and not simply a philosophy.  It is a faith that this desire can cease. The fourth truth is descriptive: that when desire ceases it will be evidenced in the Eightfold Path. 11
5. The Eightfold Path. Here are the eight: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. "Right" does not mean—as it would in dualistic Abrahamic faiths—behavior which is "moral" rather than "immoral," or "good" rather than "evil," a discipline to impose upon one's "self," a path to follow to enlightenment. "Right," in Buddhism, means that which works. Buddhism is a monistic faith, not dualistic. There is no god—it is atheistic. By all accounts and legends, the Buddha allegedly disliked philosophical speculation and was a confirmed pragmatist, which is why he had to be pressed on something like reincarnation. The problem comes—as is so often true—with the strictly deterministic nature of a Buddhist universe, and with the absence of an individual. Whether one is on the Eightfold Path or not has already been determined by causality—"karma." Given the absence of any "soul" or "self" there is no entity which can "decide" to get on the Eightfold Path. For that matter, there is no "self" which can be on it. Westerners are so ingrained with the concept of "free will" that to them the Eightfold Path always seems like a matter for a determined decision by an individual with "free will," rather like deciding to give up smoking, swearing, or concupiscence. 12

How Can One Ever Try to Teach About Buddhism?
    Your biggest single obstacle in teaching these essentials will be the almost instinctive desire of dualistic peoples to translate monistic faiths into their own, to assume that "everyone believes in the same God but just calls Him by a different name." This frame of mind makes the Buddha an eastern Jesus, the Tripitaka an eastern Bible, a bodhisattva an eastern saint, a Buddhist temple an eastern church, and the Dalai Lama a sort of Buddhist pope. (There is a disastrously misleading fashion these days of placing alleged sayings of Yeshua of Nazareth and Siddartha Gautama side by side, as if each had been saying the same thing.) Your students are going to automatically assume that the Eightfold Path is just an eastern Ten Commandments. Because they have been programmed by their culture to do this, it will be essential that you patiently call attention to, and clarify, these distractions every time they raise their heads. The following are some techniques I recommend when teaching about Buddhism:
  •              Take two days to teach the essentials. Do not get distracted by later Buddhist history—save that for when you are teaching about India, Tibet,  Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Europe, and the Americas in the period of Buddhism's entry, and about its cultural synthesis with the indigenous faiths. Take one-half of the  period the first day, and no more, to display the essentials on your blackboard or screen, and to explain them.
  •              The first half-period of the first day, concentrate on the vast differences which separate monistic and dualistic faiths, followed by a quick description of how very little which is dependable is known about Siddartha from the point of view of an historian inspecting and evaluating the actual documentation.
  •             The first half-period of the second day, describe the immense diversity of beliefs and schools, handing out as large a list of schools possible.9   It will be obvious from the sheer length of the list that it is not a list for the student to memorize! Then very quickly go through the previously mentioned consensus arrived at by the World Buddhist Sangha Conference held in Sri Lanka in 1966. It should, indeed, be a handout for the students to keep.
  •              The second half-period of each of the two days reserve for questions and answers and discussion. Always keep in mind that your purpose is to provoke interest in Buddhism, and an enthusiasm to explore and to learn. You are not there to persuade the students that "Buddhism" is exotic and weird, nor to convert your students to "Buddhism" in some whirlwind of enthusiasm. "Buddhism" is already fashionable among certain classes of Americans in ways which, one suspects, might have caused the legendary founder to blanch and turn to pottery or weaving.
  •              Teach the essentials with metaphors and analogies. I would use only a few overheads, if any. The handouts are sufficient. It is talk which is crucial. The two handouts which I have suggested should be more than sufficient to provoke questions and dialogue. (Keep in mind that when a student asks the teacher a question, a productive reply is "What a good question. Just what do you think?" Similarly, when a student says, "I disagree! I think you're wrong!", a time-tested response is to chuckle and say, "Well, it would hardly be the first time! Can you tell us more about how and why?" An engaged student is a thinking student. A listening teacher is a learning teacher—learning about each student.)
    Another suggestion I would make which I have found useful in teaching the essentials is to exploit the knowledge they are acquiring in their science courses. We begin our life's adventure by believing the world is made of hard "things"—animal, vegetable, mineral, etc. We think of ourselves as made up of meat, bones, and something called a soul. Then we are introduced to a universe in which all of these "things" are actually made up of charges and orbits—protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, neutrinos and other whimsical clouds of vibrations separated by vast distances of "nothing." Gracious! And it becomes obvious that when "I" experience "colors," I am simply experiencing little sparks in my brain and interpreting them as colors. As a friend once said to me, "Our entire universe is merely painted on the inside of our heads." If you call upon their knowledge from science classes, make it clear that modern scientific theory merely suggests some possible analogies or metaphors— it is no "proof." 14
    This is tricky. It must be clear at all times that, as nearly as we can imagine, Siddartha certainly would have had no knowledge of, nor interest in, "protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, neutrinos and other whimsical clouds of vibrations separated by vast distances." The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path seem to have been eminently pragmatic. The sources, as limited and flawed as they are, seem to suggest a man undistracted by the theoretical. Hinduism was fraught with the theoretical, and Buddhism, at least in the beginning, was a  clearly articulated, pragmatic rejection of Hindu theorizing. People experience life as suffering. Why? What is it? Can it be addressed? What can be done about it? That was apparently Siddhartha's concern. 15
    The principles expressed here for the introduction of Buddhism are applicable to the introduction of what were to become other major religious traditions in human history. I strongly believe that it is differences, rather than similarities, which provoke respect, and which require a gradual mastery of tolerance. One has no need to tolerate similarities—they tend to imply that all religions, or political parties, or human beings, are basically like your own, or like you. This is not an assumption which motivates one to explore, and to learn, and to discriminate, and to appreciate. 16
    From my point of view, most world history textbooks spend far too little time on religious foundations, and often reveal confusion, misinformation and disinterest on the part of the author or authors.10   Religions have their own teleologies and cosmologies and universes within which their adherents think and live. For the most part, human beings do not choose their religion. They are born to it, instructed in it, and from childhood live and think within the universe which it assumes. This affects their politics, their social concerns, their picture of who they are, where they came from, their purpose, what jobs they might best take, their perception of the state, and the behaviors which they feel would most wisely fill their days. 17
    This is not religious determinism. It is simply a realization that human beings will live in such a way as to make sense to them, given the universe within which they believe they find themselves. Take the time to describe those universes. If one reserves one or two class periods each time one introduces Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, this will only amount to seven to fourteen class periods in the year, or two years, depending on the course program. In return, all of the rest of human history —artistic, literary, economic, social, political, geographic, military and scientific—will be seen very differently, with much greater depth, with much greater precision, and with much clearer understanding. 18


Biographical Note: Jack Betterly held the Independence Endowed Chair of History at Emma Willard School in Troy, NY,  1966-2000, where he taught various world history and area studies courses. He has studied Buddhism in India and Japan, and has been a practicing Rinzai Zen Buddhist for over thirty years. He is now active mentoring teachers online for the World History Association.

Books and Articles:

Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: Penguin Group, 2001.

Bankei. The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693.  Revised Edition, Trans. with Intro. by Norman Waddell. New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 1, India and China. Trans. by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter, with Intro. by John McRae. N.p.: World Wisdom, 2005.

Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 2, Japan. Trans. by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter, with Intro. by Victor Sogen Hori. N.p.: World Wisdom, 2005.

England, Roger, and Bancroft, Anne, comps. and eds. The Wisdom of Zen. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

Hui-neng. The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen, With Hui-neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Trans. by Thomas Cleary. Boston: Shambala, 1998.

Kaplan, Abraham. In Pursuit of Wisdom: The Scope of Philosophy. Beverly Hills: Glencoe Press, 1977.

Kiew Kit, Wong,  The Complete Book of Zen. Boston: Element Books, Inc., 1998.

Nhat Hahn, Thich,  The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Po, Huang. The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On the Transmission of the Mind. Trans. by John Blofeld. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Rahula, Walpola. The Heritage of The Bhikku. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1974.

Ross, Nancy Wilson, comp. and ed. The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Spodek, Howard. The World's History. 3rd ed., comb. vol. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

Suzuki, D. T. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki.

        Comp. and ed. by William Barrett. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. with Intro. by Juan Mascaro. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962.


"Buddhist Studies: Buddha Dharma Education Association, Inc. and BuddhaNet."  Encyclopedic study site.  14 July 2006.

"Schools of Buddhism" Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia. 2006. Online posting. 14 July 2006.

 World Buddhist Sangha Council, 1966. "Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and Mahayana." Published: 17 July 2004. Last updated: 3 June 2004. Site: Religion Facts, TM. Date accessed: 14 July 2006.

1 Mahayana and Theravada are two of the three major Buddhist schools, the third being Tibetan Vajrayana. Each subsumes a vast multitude of sects, subsects and cults.

2   Rahula, Walpola. The Heritage of The Bhikku. (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1974) 137-138. Dr. Rahula is the monk who drafted the essentials to be presented to, and later adopted by, The World Buddhist Sangha Council  on January 27, 1967. This is also available on the web at: courtesy of ReligionFacts.

3 Interdependent Co-Arising is actually much more complicated than that, due to the particular and limited human perceptions of "time" and "space." See Thich Nhat Than, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1999) 221-249.

4  "We cannot even be certain what century the Buddha lived in." Karen Armstrong, Buddha (New York:  Penguin Group. 2001) xix.

5  Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A  History. Vol. 1: India and China (Bloomington , Indiana:  World Wisdom, Inc., 2005) 3.

6 This description is one given me by W. Norman Brown, former head of the Department of Indic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. in 1971. I had received a grant for a tutorial from him reading Sanskrit and Pali literature in translation at his summer home in New Hampshire. It was an immense corrective to be forced to read the texts and discuss them with a man who was a master of both languages, and I shall be forever grateful.

7 The author realizes that such bluntness about various scriptures which are held sacred by believers may offend. It is not his intent. It is his intent merely to approach these scriptures as historical documents.

8  "We have to remember that the Buddha did not speak Pali, Sanskrit, or Prakrit. He spoke a local dialect called Magadhi or Ardhamagadhi, and there is no record of the Buddha's words in his own language." Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1999) 16.

9 To compile such a list, my own choice would be the one on Wikipedia at: This is a site which emphasizes short names and length of list. For a more descriptive look at the diversity of belief, the following site can be useful:

10  In my opinion, an outstanding exception to this outrageous generalization is: Spodek, Howard. The World's History. 3rd ed., comb. vol. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006). I have read this edition twice, and each time regretted that it was done too late for me to use with my students.



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