Lists: The Tofu and Potatoes of Buddhism

While I was going to community college, I took a class on “World Religions.” The text was Michael Molloy’s Experiencing the World’s Religions, which is a comely tome that has only received a more attractive cover as time and editions have gone by.


Notice the multicolored soothing waterfall.

It was an enjoyable class, and as sometimes happens, the class bonded as we probed the questions that really mattered. When it was time for the class to end, I asked a number of my different classmates about how they enjoyed it. I got the exact same response from every single one of them:

“The class explained the other religions really well, but was TOTALLY OFF about my religion!”

Now, what does that tell you?

I don’t really think the class, or the text, can be blamed. Religions are really complex things that operate on scriptural, traditional, personal, and community levels. Along the way different schemes are developed that help us understand things in more simple, streamlined ways. Like the “Five Pillars of Islam” or the “Five K’s of Sikhism” – these things are useful in gaining a categorical understanding of a religion, but leave out much of the aspects of a religious life.

One of the things that I find interesting about Buddhism is that so many of our lists, the kind of things that would and did appear in Experiencing the World’s Religions are very tofu-and-potatoes kind of Buddhist stuff. The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Four Immeasurable – these things are actually very important. However, they still fall victim to the same pitfalls as the other more artificially constructed religious analytical tools: they leave out the spaces in between that make a religious practice into a religious life.

I think this can be seen most aptly when trying to explain one’s religion to another – if you are explaining Buddhism to someone for the first time, and you start with something like the four noble truths and build towards Nibbana, you will wind up describing something, but it probably won’t be your practice. At least I have found that to be the case in my own life: I always get hopelessly muddled up.

How do you explain your practice to others?

One comment

  1. Harry says:

    Excellent post! I’ve really enjoyed reading you Dharma Folkses blog.

    I am a Jodo Shinshu minister of the BCA, and regarding the difficulty of explaining Buddhism: I feel your pain! I just gave a “tour”/lecture to a class from a local college, and didn’t find out until afterwards that they were from a Christian college! I would have approached things very differently had I known that.

    It is definitely easy to go overboard on doctrinal concepts when trying to explain Buddhism. Often, I think it depends on who you are talking to – maybe it’s best to try and figure out what they want to know and tailor the description to them? Yesterday when speaking to the Christian College kids, I wish I had gone much more basic and broken it down to just wisdom and compassion…

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