Buddhism is not the dharma. Buddhism is a religion, an institution. The dharma is not a religion. It has no such boundaries. The dharma is limitless.
The dharma is not limited to nor contained entirely within Buddhism, within one particular sect or all sects combined. In fact, before Buddhism became globalized in the last century, Buddhism was many different religions. I call them “dharmic cultures.” As modern globalized cultures, including Westerners, interacted with and assimilated these various dharmic cultures, they were brought together as the world religion known as “Buddhism.”
There have been many dharmic cultures. Some emphasized the teachings of the early followers of the Buddha. Some emphasized ’emptiness’ or the common nature of all reality. Some emphasized compassion and the Bodhisattva path, and some the divine qualities of the Buddha. Some emphasized esoteric practices such as mantras, deities and rituals. We have now lumped all these diverse dharmic cultures together as one world religion called ‘Buddhism’. There’s no way that all these diverse traditions, philosophies and practices constitute anything like a totally integrated “system” of dharma. Collectively, Buddhism is full of contradictory ideas and practices.
You’ve probably often heard Buddhist teachers say: “the Buddha was not a Buddhist,” or “the Buddha didn’t teach Buddhism.” And that would be true. Siddhartha Gotama taught the dharma, which are the cosmic, natural, and human truths that he discovered. And he taught a set of practices that helped one to realize these dharmas, these truths.
The Buddha did not study “Buddhism” to apprehend the dharma. The Buddha studied life; he observed the human condition, nature and his own inner experience to arrive at this wisdom. We have evidence that the Buddha studied and knew the various philosophies and religious practices of his day, and that was his starting point. But he ultimately rejected many of those ideas and practices and developed his own method of discovering these truths. In other words, the Buddha went “outside”, “post” and “beyond” the religious institutions of his day to discover these truths.
The dharma is not limited to what is taught in Buddhist religions or institutions. The dharma is discovered and understood by doing exactly what the Buddha did: observing life, nature, people, and contemplating the cosmos and the nature of reality. When we study science, society and culture, human consciousness, biology and natural systems, ourselves, we are studying the dharma, just as much as if we studied the sutras and practiced meditation.
Still, much of what the Buddha taught is contained within the religion known as Buddhism. It helps to study the Buddhist religion in order to begin to understand what the Buddha taught, the field of knowledge he was pointing towards. But the dharma is not limited to what Buddhism teaches, or any religious system. We have to begin by learning from other people, and what teachers know is formed by their particular lineages and traditions. When we study and practice within a religious institution such as Buddhism, we have to carefully separate what is the “religion” from what is “the dharma.” It’s very easy to confuse institutional Buddhism with the dharma.
Some teachers within a particular tradition will try to impose all sorts of tasks (retreats, courses, vows) and expectations on you which they say is required for you to know the dharma. This is simply not true, and it’s perfectly sensible to resist that kind of authoritarian conformity. Conforming to those expectations may be necessary to belong to a religion, but it’s not necessary to learn the dharma. Or they will tell you to study only from this particular teacher or lineage; don’t bother with other systems of learning, they’ll just lead to confusion. And this is also not true. One can learn the dharma from Buddhists and non-Buddhists, from many different people, faiths and systems of knowledge. Ultimately, one discovers one’s own path to the dharma within the context of life itself. Your own life is the dharma, your own life is the path to the dharma. I’ve learned that I have the power and wisdom to teach myself whatever I need to know about the dharma.
I no longer criticize certain teachers or practitioners for what they teach. Whatever they hold to be true is just one piece, one version of many diverse dharmic cultures. It’s something I can learn from, but in no way does any lineage or institution represent the complete truth about the dharma. No one teacher or lineage contains the dharma, or even “the way” to the dharma. Much of what can be known about the dharma won’t be found in Buddhism at all; it will be found in other forms of human knowledge and experience, and in one’s own life experience. That’s why I say trust your own intuition most of all.
Today we can glean the dharma from many different forms of Buddhism. All dharma teachings are available online and in print, in many different mediums, from all the major lineages and traditions, at the same time. All the various Buddhist sects can dialogue and learn from each other, and from other religions and philosophies. This multi-lineage presentation is a great advantage to the modern practitioner. It allows us to go outside one particular lineage or tradition, and thus distinguish the dharma from the religion.
My inclination has always been to go “outside”, “post” and “beyond” Buddhism. Breaking through the institutional limits of Buddhism led me to an experience of the dharma as vast and limitless. The dharma is as vast and limitless as the cosmos itself. It’s a free and wide open space of consciousness that’s beyond any human institution, beyond Buddhism.