Buddhism Basics


This is an iterative document. I will be updating it as I go in the coming months and years, until it has reached a state that feels right. If you find this document, and after reading it you would like me to do more work on it, I will happily spend some more time updating it.

It is based on direct learning from two different Buddhist centres;

Thrangu House in Oxford, UK and,
Oxford Zen Group

It also relies quite heavily on some books about Buddhist practice and experience.The main one is:

Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Donald W Mitchell. 2nd Edition. I can highly recommend this book.

At the moment, there are some parts that are incomplete. If anyone has any feedback about the document, or suggested edits or corrections, I would be grateful to receive them.

I could not find anywhere else on the internet where there is a concise summary of the essence of Buddha’s teaching that is useful for getting to grips with the main tenets of the teaching, how they fit together, and how they work. Many online resources focus on the great tradition of the Sutras. Wonderful though Sutras are, my gut feeling and my own feeling is that Westerners will need somewhere much more simple to start than Sutra stories in getting to grips with Buddhism.

I freely admit, however, that I wrote this document for my own benefit and pleasure. If it is useful for you, then all well and good and how delighting.


Fear is not much use.

We are afraid of…

…the impact we are having on the planet’s climate.
…the economic turbulence which will spin with every extra hurricaine and tornado the world faces.
…the demise in fossil fuels, and whether energy change will take away our assumed right to run automobiles and trawl the world looking to be entertained by primitives.
…the increase in theft due to the credit crunch.
…increasing political extremism.
…the implosion of governance systems which go to war without our consent.

…we know not everyone can live like we do in our country, yet we do not change how we live.
…we will not shore up the causes of that uncertainty, choosing instead to capitalise on uncertainty.

We are less afraid of AIDS or the nuclear threat, but we hold those fears in reserve.

But what does all this fear give us? Fear does not give us a resourceful mind to flex and adapt to a changing climate – to learn from climate how better to live our lives. It does not create fair economic systems, or social cohesion.

Fear is not much use as a tool. We have only to fear fear itself.

I will not be afraid of these things.

And then there was Religion.

Jesus, Buddha, and others, passed on great wisdom to some followers. The followers grasped the wisdom for themselves and found other followers. Soon there was a movement.

Those later followers wondered how to distil the wisdom to the rest of the world like they had been asked to do, and so lay stories and illustrative crafts emerged. Lay movements emerged. Buddha became a god to be worshipped. Jesus became a god to be idolised. Wisdom became substituted for the illustrative crafts. The meaning became clouded by the message. It has always been this way.

Wisdom may take many more iterations into religion, and out of it again, before we are all transformed into egoless mindful creatures of the universe.

Vacation from conformity

To ‘have a holiday’ can mean that to be at work is dissatisfactory, whereas to be off work is satisfactory.

It’s much better to be satisfied with work, and dissatisfied with holiday. In reality, many of us are dissatisfied with holiday. We came back to the same place as last year, but for some reason it was not as good. When we tried to recreate that nice day we had a year ago, it did not work. It was not as sunny. The food was not quite as good. There were too many other people.

To have a holiday is to chase after a momentary satisfaction. It is never possible to re-live something, and so there is pain and suffering.

But because for many of us it is not possible to be satisfied with work, we have to say that we were satisfied with our holiday, even if we were not. We are not satisfied with work in the same way that we are not satisfied with other people, or with what we own, or with the weather. The things we are satisfied about, we do not give much thought to.

Nirvana is boundless joy.

Enlightenment is not a bubble

My Aunt visits me regularly. We like to go out for coffees and lunches sometimes. It was she who introduced me to Eckhart Tolle, and it was Eckhart Tolle’s writings which led me to a ‘sudden awakening’. I am indebted to her; she is a skillful bodhisattva!

My Aunt thinks that enlightenment is like a bubble. If you have found this enlightenment bubble, then it does not matter what happens to you each day; you could have a bad run-in with a boss, a disagreement with a family member, someone could light your fuse, but you would remember your bubble and you would remove yourself from your immediate wish to feel all of those strong emotions. Instead you would replace them with calm, serenity, critical distance, and some compassion for yourself and for the other.

At least, I think this is how her bubble works; I am only guessing that this is what she means. However, I am cautious to regard enlightenment as a bubble. To be enlightened is to go deeper into our centres of pain – the relationships and the places that give us pain and suffering and grief – fully and deeply into them, so that we can understand all that there is to be understood about that pain and suffering, and from there we can start to release the energy of that suffering around that relationship or area and start to think more positively about it. This is the only way to be released from the perpetual cycles of suffering we are in; the network of suffering that is the human condition.

Considering that enlightenment is a bubble invites me to pretend that there is no pain or suffering. This is true; suffering is an illusion. But this is also not true; I cannot know for myself that I have foregone all suffering until I have gone into each area of my suffering fully and snuffed it out. Pretending that there is no suffering when I have not gone into the suffering and out the other side, in every area of my life, is not enlightenment. It is an emulation of nirvana, but it is not nirvana. It is looking for a shortcut that does not exist!

Enlightenment is more like a burning fire consuming all illusion until there is no illusion left. When all illusion is gone, there is just a calm glow radiating warmth and light. Which is best? A fire? Or a bubble? A bubble will feel nice today, but tomorrow when it pops the floodgates of pain and suffering will be open again. A fire will feel difficult to handle today, but tomorrow there will be less pain and suffering than there was today.