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What is Buddhism?


Venturing to explain Buddhism, one might start with a picture of the Earth, as seen from space.  

From out here we share the perspective of the universe.  (The universe could be described as the totality of all things, not so much a thing itself but a process, one of expanding or contracting).  From this perspective the Earth, a "pale blue dot," as astronomer Carl Sagan described it, seems a part of it all, akin to quasars, lifeless moons, and clouds of space dust. 

Nothing right or wrong but thinking makes it so

What we call Buddhism is a system of thought and practice allowing us to see things more in this way.  Part of this description is the idea of challenging ourselves to see all things as equally valuable in place of valuing individual things. 

From this perspective there might be no right or wrong, no thing or action being considered better than another by the universe.  You could say, however, that there is a certain harmony to the way things work. 

Particle, or process?

The other part of the definition asserted above is seeing individual things we experience not as things but as processes.  The Zen priest and author Steve Hagan runs Dharma Field Zen Center in South Minneapolis.  His book Buddhism Plain and Simple offers a helpful analogy to explain the notion of process over object:  moving a glass of water across a table, does this action begin and end from your touching the glass to letting it go, or did it begin millions of years ago with the formation of the universe? 

We can choose either thought, finite action or continuing process.  The teachings of what might be called Buddhism suggest we might experience more satisfaction and wellbeing by choosing the latter. 

In the chorus of the song Woodstock, Joni Mitchell sings, "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden."  Perhaps the garden is like Buddhist "enlightenment."  You could describe this as an original state of thinking that existed before our minds seized upon and separated elements of our experience, breaking up their timeless unity.  Before, as it were, we ate from the tree of knowledge.

Where to learn more in the Twin Cities

Most Buddhist gathering places in the Minneapolis area are called "Meditation Centers."  For the most part, these centers will teach and practice a Buddhist tradition stemming from one of two broad categories.  One of them, Zen Buddhism, stemming from Chinese and Japanese approaches, places a heavy emphasis on disciplined mind training to achieve enlightenment.  Some local Zen centers include:

Dharma Field Zen Center in South Minneapolis

Minnesota Zen Meditation Center on Lake Calhoun Parkway

Another, Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, is a Tibetan form of practice that can incorporate techniques for working with difficult human emotions, as well as esoteric practices that can in some cases include energy systems and deeper exploration of a belief in reincarnation.  Local centers include:

Minneapolis Shambhala Center in North Minneapolis

Diamond Way Buddhist Center, TwinCities in Uptown.

These are only a few of many centers available in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  It is a good idea to try a number of approaches by visiting various centers.  Find one that makes sense to you, where you feel comfortable, and offers a community that feels welcoming.  All of the sites above will provide information and contacts for newcomers.

Photo of Earth taken by NASA from Voyager spacecraft


  • Shelly Damm 5 years ago

    Thanks Eric!

  • George 5 years ago

    Excellent work!

  • Barbara 5 years ago

    I'll be looking forward to your articles!

  • Anthony 5 years ago

    Well written . . . in books I've read there is also talk of how the order of things or harmony that exists doesn't always help to explain the tragedies of the world. Any thoughts on that concept?

  • Eric Hayward 5 years ago

    Thanks for the comments! Anthony: there is a lot of thinking on hardship. One says, "If you want to know what you did in a past life, look at the circumstances of your life today. If you want to know what your next life will be like, look at what you're doing now." From that perspective, Buddhists say we can be grateful for hardship as a clearing out of past debts. This explanation can be frustrating and hard to swallow. It's not necessary. The historic Buddha said, regardless of past lives, that suffering is a natural consequence of getting unecessarily caught up in the "why," and being pulled back and forth between the extremes of hope and fear. We might minimize suffering by striving to view more experiences without judgment. We can keep asking the question, "What's good and what's bad?" Buddha's First Noble Truth, discovered after years of profound meditation, was, in plain terms, "Life is out of whack" (dukkha). Is this a condition of life, or, of our minds?