Someone asked this question, and I decided to discuss it in a post because the question itself reflects the kinds of barriers we face trying to understand other religions:
“I am a Christian but, having lived in India for quite a while, am interested in all religions. (By the way: I am also an anti-religionist.) My question is this: is Buddhism centered upon improving one’s self by doing good to others? Or, to put it another way, is Buddhism essentially self-centered and atheistic?”
From a Buddhist perspective, the question is based on a false dichotomy — that our only choices are “improving one’s self by doing good for others” or “essentially self-centered and atheistic.” The short answer, of course, is “none of the above.” But I’m not taking offense because I realize the question is not coming from a Buddhist perspective.
I started to reply to the comment, and then I decided to write the answer in a blog post, and eventually what came out was an essay, which I’m calling “How to Understand Buddhism: Tips for the Spiritual Seeker.” The answer begins with the observation that often questions about Buddhism are not answerable, because they come with assumptions that don’t apply. The “answer” then becomes an attempt to guide the questioner away from his assumptions.
The bigger problem is, of course, that much of Buddhism makes no sense until you’ve worked with it for awhile. If you just read some books about it your brain will try to make sense of it, because that’s what brains do. But without some personal experience and expert guidance nearly always your brain will be crafting “what makes sense” from assumptions that don’t apply.
The results often are ghastly. The Internet is well larded with essays and videos about what’s wrong with Buddhism, mostly made by people who don’t know dharma from doughnuts. And I’m not saying Buddhism is beyond criticism, especially since the practice does often fall short of the ideal. But too often people draw conclusions about Buddhism more from the clutter in their own heads and not from Buddhism itself. It’s frustrating.
There’s an old Zen saying, “empty your cup.” This is from a story about Master Nan-in (1868-1912), who one day was visited by a scholar with many questions about Zen. Without replying, Nan-in poured tea into the scholar’s cup. And when the cup was full, he kept pouring. As tea spread across the table, the scholar said, The cup is full! No more tea will go in!
Indeed, Nan-in said. Just as you are full of views and opinions. No more will go in until you empty your cup.