Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, January 26, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 2. Core Buddhism

CoreFlowerThere is a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” In order to make sense of this, I am going to distinguish three related terms “Original Buddhism,” “Core Buddhism” and “Authentic Buddhism.” Imagine someone made up and told a story that was then retold many times, with different words and much retooling and embellishment of details, but keeping the basic story intact right down to the response to the punch line, we might say the “core” of the “original” story is preserved in any “authentic” retelling.

Original Buddhism is Buddhism as taught by the Buddha, and as formulated by the Buddha. It consists of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Generally the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are generally agreed by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several traditions, the Pali Vinaya being the most easily available in English. Many will quibble endlessly about what is actually original, particularly since there are many contradictions and alternative interpretations in the texts transmitted to us, and clearly alterations. I have argued elsewhere that the resolution of these quibbles requires a recognition of the system that shines through when enough of the pieces are assembled, a recognition beyond the competence of pure scholars of Buddhism, but available to those who have entered deep into the path of practice to begin to see the Dhamma experientially.

Core Buddhism is a significant abstraction from Original Buddhism, a kind of eau de Buddhime. It is the system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that system. This term serves as way to eschew the literalism lurking in original texts.

For instance it is safe to say that some form of mindfulness practice is a key functional element of Core Buddhism. This is formulated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Original Buddhism, but the the quite distinctly formulated Zen method of meditation called Shikantaza in Japanese along with a set of off-the-cushion practices retain (I would argue, based on personal experience) its functionality. I therefore say both formulations maintain the same functional element of Core Buddhism and Zen is at least in this regard authentic Buddhism.

Also Original Buddhism was taught in a certain cultural context so it is inevitable that it will mention many elements that are not actually integral to Buddhism as a functional system. My own sense, for instance, is that the many devas, godly beings, who drop in on the Buddha in the early scriptures are such elements. Of course what it or is not Core Buddhism is subject to quibble at least as much as what is or is not Original Buddhism. For the most part I will describe Core Buddhism in terms of its intersection with Original Buddhism, but implicitly intend the qualification, “… or equivalent” at each step.

Finally, I refer to an Authentic Buddhism as any formulation of Buddhism that retains or even extends Core Buddhism, and thereby preserves the functionality or intention of Original Buddhism. A new authentic form of Buddhism might arise as Buddhism enters a new cultural space in which new ways of teaching are necessary to reach new ways of thinking. Naturally Original Buddhism is also the Original Authentic Buddhism. Other Authentic Buddhisms retool or extend Core elements of Original Buddhism or simply accrue extra elements, most particularly elements of religiosity. I hope this makes sense; these distinctions will be useful in coming chapters.

A Metaphor for Core Buddhism.

Buddhism is a flower. It is a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing any major part. Here is in a nutshell how Core Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbana (I will prefer Pali here, this is Nirvana in Sanskrit).
  • The stem that supports the blossom is Magga, the path, the instructions for practice and understanding, originally expressed as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nibbana.
  • The leaves androots are the Parisa, the Buddhist community, the roots are the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastic order of monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Parisa. They collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma), and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind in the proper direction.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:


Blossom. This is Nibbana, the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nibbana itself therefore has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would understand salvation differently.

Stem. This is the Path of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nibbana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore the most distinct from religiosity. The stem is made of three strands, which are called Wisdom, Virtue and Mental Cultivation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious traditions. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most.

Leaves and roots. This is the community context, the community itself and community activities and also the locus of religiosity. The community is divided into to parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin to ascend the stem.

Leaves. This is the Parisa,the Buddhist community, and its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor commanded in any special way, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Bhikkhusangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Nobel Ones. The particular organization of the Bhikkhusangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. Although the lay community is not explicitly organized its behavior plays off of that of the Bhikkhusangha.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhist religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be Refuge in the Triple Gem.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith or trust (Pali saddha) is necessary put aside accumulated faulty notions and to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight and its current embodiment. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of the necessary trust.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires the community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings and in those most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dhamma, the teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the clean water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts, past present and future, who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not reaching Nibbana, but progressing at least far enough to discern it and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Notice that the Sangha here is properly called the “Ariyasangha,” the Noble Ones, to distinguish it from the Bhikkhusangha, the institution that spins off Nobel Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Sangha between their toes, and the soil is made rich by the many generations of roots, of leaves, of stems and of blossoms.

The Religiosity the Buddha Did Not Teach

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture, made use of much of what he saw around him and dismissed what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of such religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to produce practice and understanding, but also to providing the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain a new appreciation by the end of this essay of what a carefully conceived and well-articulated system he crafted. Let us look for now at what he pared down.

In expressing reverence the Triple Gem Core Buddhism acquires something at least like worship. However it is not veneration toward an otherworldly being or force, but of things this-wordly: a remarkable person long deceased, of a set of teachings for and by humans and of real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives. Actually there may be irony intended in the frequent appearance of such otherworldly beings in the ancient discourses. Even higher deities, rather than demanding reverence for themselves, instead venerate those same things the good Buddhist does as higher than themselves, bowing before the Buddha and even the monks. The Buddha did on many occasions expect of others that they show proper respect for him, and actually required that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them. However there is little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”

Nonetheless the Buddha did specify four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he is gone.

The Buddha also advocated veneration for parents, teachers, the elderly and even monastics of other traditions, yet eschewed the prevailing caste system. Reverence was clearly part of his thinking.

Likewise limited ritual practices are current in Original Buddhism. Bowing is frequent as a gesture of veneration, as is circumambulation, for instance, “keeping the Tathagatha to his right.” Notice however these are no more than expressions. In contrast the Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (silabbata), even classifying these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path. He did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.”

Indeed what is absent from Core Buddhism is the attribution of some special hidden efficacy to rites and rituals, for instance making a sacrifice to to gain the good favor of a deity or asking a priest to make an incantation to produce some kind of future good luck or a favorable rebirth. This way of using of rites and rituals was rife in the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s day and did not gain the Buddha’s endorsement. Specifically he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well, by the way, of exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.

Trust or faith has a prominent role in Core Buddhism. Refuge in the Triple Gem is the immediate example, a trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However this is far from blind faith and in fact much like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers, a science graduate student puts into the paradigm her teacher represents. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a faith that is replaced gradually with knowing. It is helpful in this regard that the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of convictionor investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Another feature of Original Buddhism that bears mentioning is that there are virtually no special practices or teachings of consolation as found in other religions, beyond perhaps the peace of mind that comes with Refuge. There is no appeal to an outside power or metaphysical view that makes everything OK, old age, sickness and death and the rest. There is a notion of salvation, Nibbana, but its attainment is a matter of mental development.

How Buddhist Religiosity Works

The operating principle of the leaves, the roots and the nourishment of the Triple Gem is … friendship! In particular it is admirable friendship (kalyanamittata in Pali), that which is possible from having Noble Ones among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to have the opportunity to hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45.2)

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing what shines through the words, that the core of Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is therefore the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come.

The Ariya-Sangha arises from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. This is expressed approximately as follows,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants, of sages and of admirable friendship. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is both a training ground and a dwelling place for the Ariya-Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. Without Noble Ones Buddhism cannot retain its integrity, and Noble Ones will be very few indeed without nuns and monks in the Buddhist community … or equivalent.

Let’s see how this works out for a young man, Aung Myint, born into a Buddhist family in a Buddhist community. First he will be taught even as a toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha for him will exemplify certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity. The Dhamma is likely not to be readily accessible until he is moved to personal investigation outside of a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within.” The Sangha, with which Aung Myint could well be in daily contact, will provide living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Aung Myint lives among the leaves, as a part of the Buddhist community and supportive of the monks and nuns. He grows up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations. The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

He has noticed that people adopt a wide varieties of ways of life. He himself for a time thinks of marrying his cute neighbor Su Su and raising a family. But he learns what a problem life can be with no easy answers. He notices that the Noble Ones are more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple lives. This inspires him to follow the wise into the holy life, to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nibbana. Aung Myint joins the monastic order and begins to study as a student of one of the sages, and from the root begins his ascent upward. Eventually he becomes one of the Noble Ones, in fact an arahant (to ensure this tale a happy ending).


This has been a brief sketch of the religious infrastructure implemented by the Buddha and its functions. In the next two chapters I will go into more detail concerning the two main components of this system, Refuge, including trust and admirable friendship, and Community, including its organized and unorganized components. After that I will discuss the ways in which this religious system has been modified in the many later Buddhist traditions, including through the incursion of features that the Buddha originally wanted to keep in check. However I will finally consider the ways in which the Buddha foresaw that the presence of Noble Ones, the adapts, the Sangha, would serve to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism yet tolerate the many pressures toward variation within those traditions.

2 Responses to “Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism”

  1. Chevita Says:

    Wow! Thank you for this essay, especially the flower analogy, which makes an appropriate way to teach children about refuge in The Triple Gem.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I actually used this metaphor recently for teaching children (Burmese-Canadian). The graphic was something I cobbled together in Open Office with kids in mind.But in the West grownups need to learn about the Triple Gem as well.

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