Jack Elias, CHT is a longtime Buddhist practitioner, author, and certified NLP practitioner. Jack is founder and director of the Institute for Therapeutic Learning. He was an early Western student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He writes Finding True Magic, the blog.

Recently, while reading Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s blog entitled “Is Buddhism a Religion?” I was surprised by the number of comments below the blog post that seemed to have a strident or combative tone. I was reminded of what my Buddhist teachers taught about how to relate to questions and the art of inquiry.

There are many perspectives you can take on the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?” A good Buddhist response to the question might be, “So what if it is? So what if it isn’t?” Once when asked “What is Zen?” my teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi answered, “Whatever you say, that is Zen. Whatever you say, that is not Zen.” Then, Roshi would say, “Do you understand?” Our blank stares gave the answer.

With a mischievous chuckle, Roshi would begin to explain that words can’t contain the whole truth. When we use words to talk about the truth, it’s like pointing a finger at the moon. So becoming attached to a particular answer to a question is like thinking that only your finger – and no one else’s – can point at the moon. If two people think this way, they end up fighting about their fingers, and forget all about the moon.

In the stream of comments on Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s blog post, there was more than one instance of furious finger-fighting. (Oh my god. I hope I’m not finger-fighting right now.)

An important element in a Buddhist approach to this or any question is to be mindful of the effect the question has on you. How and where does your mind move when you hear it and consider it? In what way are you invested in getting an answer to this question?

When I think of the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?” I see how answering either “yes” and “no” would leave out important aspects of Buddhism that are extremely rich, aspects I wouldn’t want to lose. As long as I keep in mind that yes is not a jail and no is not a jail, I’m free to appreciate that the answer is both yes and no. Yes and no are each a valid entryway into what Buddhism has to offer.

One person may hear a statement like ‘Buddhism is a religion’ and feel very comfortable, while another may hear it and “go ‘round the bend.” If you remember that words only have the meaning we give to them, then you can appreciate any question (or statement) as a mirror that you look into, to see how your mind is working.

If you try to settle a question with a final answer, or start defending a particular statement, you destroy the mirror. You miss the opportunity to see more deeply into the workings of your mind.

A while back, one of my hypnotherapy students became extremely angry at her fellow students for their lack of punctuality in coming to class. When she couldn’t take it another minute, she began voicing her frustration with them, defending her position with ideas of right and wrong, rude and polite, considerate and inconsiderate, and so on. Everyone in class became annoyed with her for making a mountain out of a molehill.

Because it’s an experiential class, I asked her to focus on her anger and look into it, to see if the anger might have a deeper cause than being offended by others’ rudeness. With a little help, she soon remembered being a little girl in Germany during World War II. She had been visiting her grandparents in the country and had missed the train home. Back in the city, much later than usual, she arrived to find that her home had been destroyed by Allied bombs and her parents killed. If only she had been on time! Maybe she could have had those last precious moments with her parents. She broke into sobs.

When her classmates heard this story and witnessed her grief, their irritation with her dissolved. And because she had discovered the real reason for her irritation with them — the real answer to the real question — she was released from her desperate obsession with being on time.

Everyone in the class now changed their attitude about being on time. Punctuality stopped being a rule to be enforced by some and selfishly ignored, or rebelled against, by others. Classmates stopped seeing each other as being right or wrong, or good or bad depending upon their choice to be on time or to be late to class. Because choosing to make the effort to be punctual was no longer a point of contention, it became an opportunity to support each other with compassion.

If you think of questions as a way to greater clarity and freedom, it changes the way you relate to them. Instead of trying to defend one right answer (for example, “punctuality” being the answer to “lateness”) you contemplate. You ask yourself, “Is this my real question? Is this the real answer?” In this inquiry, your questions and answers become stepping stones to a more profound Q & A.

Questions and answers in Buddhism are not meant to settle any matter. Their purpose is to sharpen the intellect and to awaken the best in the human heart/mind by removing confused thinking. When you use Q&A in this way, you find both healing and liberation.

So . . . Is Buddhism a religion? Is it important to be on time? Is reality for or against you?

May you discover why you care about the questions and answers you really care about. May you go beyond enforcing, ignoring, and rebelling against rules and doctrines. May your questions and answers become contemplations that bring you healing and freedom.

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  2. avatar Tyler Dewar says:

    Thank you, Jack. It’s helpful to be reminded that we don’t have to choose one answer and then work on aligning ourselves behind that conclusion. Waking up is not equal to running for office! Much appreciation.

  3. avatar Marcus says:

    Thx Jack, and you did it again :) . I do not know, why you can move myself so much. As I was in your classes twice already, I might need to come a third time. You always touch me and lead my way into my own mystery. May the light shine on all of us (or may we all realize moment by moment, that it is there all the time – shining all the time – from in to out – from out to in).

    Starting to inquire myself moment by moment, day by day.



  4. avatar fitri says:

    Anything that has to do with views and concepts is always multidimensional. Let it be the questions or the answers. When it comes to psychological problems, rarely that there is only one answer or cause that can be pin pointed. Pride, denial, shame, anger, anxiety, fear are some of the added elements, and each has its own causes and conditions. Often times we make ourselves believe that we have found one right answer, because we are desperate. We feel better if we think we know the answer–there’s a chance of “cure”. However, as we work on it, we find another problem, another question. The answer is not THE answer after all. To take the case of the lady who is attached to the idea of being on time as an example, maybe some questions can be asked. Is she the only daughter? Is she the eldest? Could it be that she feels it’s her responsibility to look after and take control of the family? Was she brought up in a strict discipline environment? Is she a perfectionist? etc. etc. (This is not to challenge your observation; this is just an example). The possibilities are endless, and interrelated. Each “answer” could be the right answer in its own right. At the end of the day, we just need to deal with all of them, each one of them. We need to accept the fact that there’s just never gonna be one good and right answer to things in this conceptual world.

    • avatar Jack Elias says:

      In a lecture on astronomy a scientist described how the earth orbits around the
      sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection
      of stars called our galaxy.
      At the end of the lecture, a little old lady atthe back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
      The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
      “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,”
      said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”

  5. avatar Angelica Medaglia says:

    “..yes is not a jail and no is not a jail.” I so often forget that! For little things, I run back and forth between yes and no. Is being indecisive another way to get at our emotions?

    Thank you for blog, Jack.

    • avatar Jack Elias says:

      Being indecisive, as any activity, does not require any particular emotion. You can get stressed, or you could have fun with indecision…really ham it up. Then you might come to some greater clarity about the whole display called “being indecisive. Good luck!

  6. avatar Nathan Stein says:

    Great post Jack, thank you. When I took your class some years back, the message to notice how and why your mind reacts to what it is presented with has been enormously valuable for me. Here I am reminded again that our finger pointing, points to our beliefs about something, and not the thing itself. Maybe, Q&A, referring to an inquiry process, could also refer to this paying attention to what is in the mirror of our reactions as a quality assuarance of life experience process. Namaste, Nathan.

  7. avatar Irene Colville says:

    Love your post Jack. I am always quietly amused at how important it seems to some people to categorise something/everything, and the fervour with which they seem to need to defend their chosen position.
    When reading the question “is Buddhism a religion” my thoughts were “I don’t know, because I don’t know what you understand by the words “a religion”. My sense is that it will be what you choose it to be”.

  8. avatar Andy Karr says:

    Hey Jack,

    Great post. Questions are so much more important than answers. They can open a space for wisdom.


  9. avatar Teresa says:

    Thanks Jack. This is very applicable to a large heated debate/disagreement within an organization that I am part of right now. I do believe we are caught up in finger pointing and defending good/bad instead of asking each other meaningful questions. :)

  10. avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

    Hiya Jack

    Perhaps the best question of all is “Why not?”

    Why not love?
    Why not forgive?
    Why not be happy?
    Why not let go of suffering?
    Why not awaken?

    best wishes to all


    • avatar SvR says:

      It won’t take much to
      Fix the world, just
      Let “or” be “and”
      And “I” be “we” and
      Add a not to why.

      It is this AND that
      We think, therefore we are.
      Why not love?
      Why not forgive?
      Why not be happy?
      Why not let go of suffering?
      Why not awaken?


  11. avatar Gloria says:

    It’s the questions that drive us, Neo. And sometimes they drive us headlong into what is, as is.

  12. avatar Raju Kumar says:

    Sir, Is there any similarity between the “Brahman” of Advaita vedanta and “Sunyata” of Buddhism. Are advaita vedanta and buddhism pointing to the same truth in different words?

    • avatar Jack Elias says:

      Sorry this took so long, Raju.
      The short answer – “Yes!”

      But on the other hand, there is no independently existing Advaita or Buddhist philosophy, only individual minds giving meaning to these concepts. There will always be discussion (even heated argument) about the concepts of Brahman and Sunyata.

      In experience, only Silence, Clarity, Spaciousness, Ease, and Love.

      Peace, Jack

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