What does it mean to be a 21st century Buddhist? What does it mean to be a Dharma practitioner outside of traditionally Buddhist regions and cultures today? These are important and interesting questions that His Holiness the Dalai Lama asks in the Library of Wisdom and Compassion book series that he has written with Venerable Thubten Chodron. One thing it means is recognizing the core of Buddhist teaching vs. the cultural and social circumstances of history that have shaped the tradition. For example as 21st century Buddhists we work to create gender equality, racial equality, and to address other social, economic, and environmental issues as part of the practice, and also within Buddhism. One practice of this is called Engaged Buddhism.

Another thing it means is that it is up to us as Dharma practitioners, as Buddhists, to explain the basics of Buddhism when possible in order to help the Dharma take root wherever we live and practice.

Buddhism, H.H. the Dalai Lama reminds us, does not need to be thought of as only a philosophy, or only a religion, or only a science of mind, it is all of these things. Buddhism, history reminds us, has adapted and changed form and practice as it moved from India to Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, China, Japan, and to Africa, Australia, Europe, to North and South America, and across the world. And yet at the core of these cultural adaptations and syncretic forms of practice, Buddhism retains core teachings based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering in this world. Birth, death, age, sickness, the way we experience everything that we experience.
  2. There is a cause of suffering. Ignorance, greed, anger, desire, and other ways we do not see reality as it is.
  3. There is an end to suffering. Giving up the idea of a fixed idea of self provides a new view of the world, if ignorance is the cause of suffering our own wisdom can cause it to cease. We can be free: Nirvana.
  4. There is a path to be free. The Eightfold Path. It’s our responsibility to locate the causes and eliminate them.

The Eightfold Path to freedom from suffering, as described by scholar Robert Thurman (my paraphrasing). He uses the word “realistic” where you will often see the word “right.”

  1. Realistic World View – We are open to causation, ready to work on it, get rid of negative causation – this gives us an understanding of selflessness, our mistaken idea of our own absoluteness.
  2. Realistic Intention / Motivation – By reasoning everything is causal we recognize there are things we don’t control, we become conscious of that and ask if it really has to control us, or not.
  3. Realistic Speech – Speech that is beneficial and produces understanding and freedom, not harm and delusion, not creating disturbance between you and others.
  4. Realistic Action – Emphasizes physical action, living in a way that isn’t harming others.
  5. Realistic Livelihood How we’re earning a living, we do so without harming other beings.
  6. Realistic Effort / Creativity – Effort in finding out true reality, being positive ethically, discovering our own nature of mind.
  7. Realistic Mindfulness / Memory – Try to remember that we’re in the present.
  8. Realistic Concentration / Samahdi – One-pointed concentration, one-pointedness of mind.

We do not only practice the Dharma in order to free ourselves from suffering, we do it to free all beings from suffering. Our Dharma practice is a path to liberation for ourselves and for all beings. It is a bodhisattva path. We commit to doing this practice until all beings are free from suffering.

Because our Dharma practice is not only for ourselves, it is necessarily a part of our work toward social, economic, and environmental justice. We change ourselves in order to change the experience of the world for all beings, to free humans, animals, insects, and all life from their suffering.

Resources to Learn More

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, teacher and monk in the Tibetan tradition, and spiritual leader of the Gelug tradition.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, Bhikshuni (ordained Buddhist nun) in the Tibetan tradition and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey.

Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, teachers in the Tibetan tradition.

Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh, Zen Monk in the Vietnamese tradition and founder of the Plum Village tradition.