Zasep Rinpoche on Being Buddhist: “To begin, let us look at the question, what is Buddhism? Many people erroneously think that Buddhism is a religion similar to Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism that worships a supreme being or supreme beings who are separate from humankind. But Buddhism is very different from such theistic religions, be they monotheistic or polytheistic. While some aspects of Buddhism, such as the existence of holy texts, sacred places, temples, an ordained Sangha, established rituals and a rigorous ethical code, may make it appear similar to a religion, it is more accurately described as a way of life that is based on teachings of the historical Buddha, who lived sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.
Buddhists do not worship the Buddha in the way that Christians worship God, as a supreme being with the power to grant them salvation or send them to eternal damnation. We do not attain Buddhahood or Enlightenment through divine grace; we attain it through persevering with practices that give us insight into our minds and the nature of reality. No one can become God, but by putting the Buddha’s teaching into practice, we can all become Buddhas. Attaining Buddhahood is the ultimate do-it-yourself project.
We begin the journey towards Enlightenment by going for refuge; we are seeking shelter from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that is Samsara. We take refuge in the Three Jewels, which are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are not taking refuge in the historical Buddha as a god-like figure, but as an exemplar of great compassion and wisdom; we are also taking refuge in the Buddha within us, in our own natural potential to become enlightened. The Dharma is the teachings that tell us how to realize that potential; we take refuge in the Dharma as the path. We take refuge in the Sangha as the community that helps us as we make our spiritual journey. The taking of refuge in the Three Jewels is in no way akin to the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church: we are not “born again.” Rather, taking refuge is more like a signal that we are ready to begin the work we must do with our minds in order to realize our own Buddha Nature.
Just as they do not understand that Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life, many people in the West do not understand who or what the Buddha is. They think the Buddha was just a man, born in India around 2500 years ago, who became a great teacher. While this is true, there is more: the historical Buddha is a man who became awake to the true nature of reality and who taught others how to do the same. Buddha is actually a Sanskrit word meaning awakened or developed; the Tibetan equivalent is sang-gyey; sang means awakened and gyey means developed. Sang refers to awakening the consciousness or mind to see the true nature of reality; gyey refers to developing all the potential of our mind. Thus Buddha, sang-gyey, means the fully developed or awakened mind.
What is it to have an awakened mind? Just as when we wake from sleep to see the world around us, its sights, its sounds, its smells, so when we have awakened our minds, we see the true nature of reality. We see that nothing exists inherently; we see that everything is part of an endless web of interdependence and interconnection. We experience oneness.” — From Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, by H.E. Zasep Rinpoche
“If we follow the path of Dharma, living in accordance with good moral principles, always being mindful and compassionate, then gradually our mind transforms into that of a Buddha. We become who and what we already are, primordially speaking.”
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche