And it has occurred to me that how we answer that simple question can set the direction for a person's whole understanding of Buddhism. In the case of Buddhist Ethics (where I work) this can be easily shown with some examples:
Damien Keown: "... Buddhism is a response to what is fundamentally an ethical problem - the perennial problem of the best kind of life for man to live." (The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p.1)While this seems to leave the terrain of the conversation rather open, when we look closely we see that he has not mentioned awakening, delusion, suffering, craving, or any other centrally Buddhist term. While these do come later, there also is a focus on the "best kind of life" throughout the book that lead him to see Buddhism as akin to virtue ethics.
Mark Siderits: "The Buddhist Enlightenment project is aimed at helping us overcome existential suffering, by dissolving the false assumption that there is an "I" whose life can have meaning and significance.": in this video, (5:22)Here Buddhism is a bit different. It is a "project" focusing on 1) existential suffering and 2) the "conceit I-am" (Pali: asmi-mana) that the Buddha posited as the central cause of suffering. Siderits takes the focusing on non-self and suffering toward a very utilitarian reading of Buddhist Ethics.
Alan Sponberg: "Just let go." (from a talk given at the local - Missoula, MT - FWBO seven or eight years ago)It's not difficult to see the appeal, nor the historical accuracy, of such a boiling-down of Buddhism. Dr. Sponberg's Dharma name happens to be Saramati, meaning roughly "he who gets to the pith of things." Interestingly, Sponberg is the only of the three that has managed to retire from teaching to live a life dedicated to his practice.
Through this meandering post comes a question: how would you boil down Buddhism? What aspect(s) of the Dharma are most pressing in your life and practice? What do you think your boiled down version of Buddhism says about you and the Buddhism you practice?