It has been slightly more than ten years since I formally became a Buddhist (I'm saying formally because I was attracted to Buddhism since high school, back in the 1960s.).
During all these years one thing was quite clear: The teachings of the Buddha were radically different from the teachings of any other founder of a religion, philosophy, or spirituality, not only in his own time but pretty much till today.
For example, Buddhism is nontheist, which is often interpreted as meaning atheist, but that is simply a wrong interpretation: Buddhism neither teaches nor denies the existence of God, indeed, it pretty much considers either position extreme and unimportant.
Similarly, Buddhism has little to say about afterlife. While it does believe in heaven and hell (actually, many heavens and hells), those are not seen as the final and eternal destinations, but rather just different and temporary types of existence and life.
The Buddha did talk about Nirvana but as something we will understand once there. Unlike, say, a Christian who wants to go to heaven, a typical Buddhist expects to enter Nirvana eventually but is not actively working on getting there at the end of this life. In Mahayana, many Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow of postponing the entry into Nirvana until all sentient beings are ready to enter it.
Furthermore, Buddhism has no dogma. It is not faith based. While the Buddha taught many things, one can be a Buddhist without accepting them all.
Yet, whenever asked to explain what makes Buddhism so different, for all these years I found it very hard to explain.
Sure, I could talk about this aspect of Buddhism, and that aspect of dharma, but to summarize it in just a few words was unimaginable.
It finally dawned on me about a week ago: The difference is in the basic question.
Before I became a Buddhist, I was a Catholic priest. I studied theology, of course. The first thing I was taught was that all theology is based on a basic question (well, two questions):
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
While I do not claim to be an expert on all religions, these appear to be the basic questions of most of them.
As most major religions started long before quantum physics, they mostly explain the first question with the idea of God.
They also have various ideas on afterlife.
Their teachings are based on tradition and faith: We believe it because people of previous generations have believed it, and they could not all be wrong. We can neither prove nor disprove it, hence we believe it.
Futhermore, the answers are the same for everyone (since the questions ask where we come from and where we are going).
The Buddha took a different approach. He did not ask these two questions. Why wonder about the past and the future? How can we answer questions about things that do not even exist? After all, the past is gone, the future has not happened yet.
That is not to say that finding the answers to these questions is completely impossible. Rather, we need to answer a different question first.
The basic question the Buddha asked was: Where am I? Hence the radical difference between Buddhism and all other teachings.
Each one of us needs to answer to himself or herself, "where am I" first. Not "where are we", but "where am I". Because each one of us is somewhere else.
Only after we, each one of us separately, can answer "where am I," do we have a good reference point to work from and relate to.
Once the Buddha could figure out where he was, the rest of the questions fell right into place: He could go ask further questions, such as "Who am I?" and "Where do I come from?" and "Where am I going?"
Having found the answer to the basic question "where am I," the Buddha was enlightened. He was also able to help numerous others to find the answer on their own, and also become enlightened.
That is why Buddhism is not about a dogma--we all need to find the answers individually. It is not about the past or the future. It is about everyone finding his/her own place. Once we do that, everything else falls in place.
And that explains why the teachings of the Buddha are so different from those of any other teacher.