Buddhism for beginners
(and sceptical Westerners)
Now that Buddhism is such a fast-growing religion in the West, a lot of Westerners are attracted to its rational approach and rejection of an all-powerful deity. But all too often we Westerners quickly get stuck on the idea of rebirth and the various cultural traditions that have become a part of Buddhism in Asia.
I’ve been there myself – wondering if rebirth is for real, if karma is scientific, if Buddhism is rational, why I have to bow to a statue, and so on – and I almost gave up at one point. I’ve noticed also that some Westerners pop up on the Internet looking for others who’ve converted to Buddhism, hoping they can discover the trick to becoming a Buddhist despite a materialist upbringing.
So this page is a mixture of useful resources and my own personal experiences in fully accepting Dharma as a way of life. I hope it will be of some use to others on the same path.
-Where should I start?
-What is Buddhism?
-Are rebirth and karma for real?
-What is our purpose in life?
-What’s the difference between Theravada and Mahayana?
-Which tradition should I choose?
-How do I become a Buddhist?
-Which are good books to read?
Where should I start?
If there’s one place you should not start, it’s reincarnation/rebirth. Newcomers to Buddhism tend to open every book at the section on rebirth because what happens to us after we die is all-important in the monotheistic culture we come from.
But the Buddha wasn’t teaching rebirth as the goal of life. He said many times, “I teach suffering, and the way out of suffering.” That was his message, to make nirvana (Pali: nibbana) – the end of suffering – the goal. So the place to start is with the basics, the Four Noble Truths and a practice aimed at reducing suffering. If this seems worthwhile to you, you’re on your way.
In fact, the best way to start is by doing a lot of reading. You need to know about the basic principles of Buddhism, its founder, its history, the different traditions, and what it can do for you. Even though there’s a lot of stuff available free on the Internet, I still think a well-written book is the best way to go. For all of the above, try John Snelling’s The Buddhist Handbook : A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teaching, Practice, and History or Gill Farrer-Halls’ The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom (which is also a handbook). These two books are both excellent primers to start off with. There’s also a short overview titled What is Buddhism? from the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
For inspiring books written by Western monks who really understand Westerners’ problems, try Ajahn Sumedho’s The Mind and the Way : Buddhist Reflections of Life or Ajahn Jagaro’s True Freedom, which is available online:
-Chapter 1: True Freedom
-Chapter 2: Compassion – The Natural Expression of Awakening
-Chapter 3: Buddhism and God
-Chapter 4: Beyond Boredom and Depression
-Chapter 5: Buddhism and Vegetarianism
-Chapter 6: Death and Dying
Another book that’s a must-read is Thich Nhat Hanh’s little-known masterpiece, Old Path, White Clouds : Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, a beautiful and easy-to-read story of the Buddha’s life drawn from accounts in the Pali Canon and illustrated with line drawings.
For a thorough explanation of the nuts and bolts of the teachings and practice, check out Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere : Meditations on the Buddhist Path (very good at showing how ego rules our lives) or Henepola Gunaratana’s Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness : Walking the Buddha’s Path.
There are a lot of good books on Dharma (Pali: Dhamma), but I’d recommend starting of with the original Theravada Buddhism and checking out the Mahayana traditions like Zen and Tibetan when you have a grasp of the basics. What you read will depend on what particular problems brought you to Buddhism in the first place. Some authors, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, have written books on anger management.
But it’s important to practise too. In addition to following the Five Precepts, try practising Right Speech, generosity, compassion, being less self-centred, being less addicted to pleasures of the senses and being less concerned with possessions. And once you have a good grasp of the basic teachings and different traditions, it will be time to start meditating.
Your situation in life may affect your practice and progress. If you live near a temple or Buddhist group, you’ll be able to listen to Dharma talks, make Dharma friends and be with a community of like-minded people. If you don’t, there are always the Internet and Buddhist forums such as E-Sangha and the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
I personally live in a Buddhist country where the majority of people don’t understand the deeper teachings of Buddhism, so their focus is on making merit for a better rebirth and participating in ceremonies. So I rely a lot on the Internet, on Amazon and a few friends. I rarely go to temples.
What is Buddhism?
The following article is from the website of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. The author explains karma and rebirth in the traditionally accepted way and is somewhat sceptical about the origins of the Mahayana sutras, but otherwise it’s an excellent overview of Buddhism.
For more than 2,500 years, the religion we know today as Buddhism has been the primary inspiration behind many successful civilizations, the source of great cultural achievements and a lasting and meaningful guide to the very purpose of life for millions of people. Today, large numbers of men and women from diverse backgrounds throughout our world are following the Teachings of the Buddha. So who was the Buddha and what are His Teachings?
The man who was to become the Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama around 2,600 years ago as a Prince of a small territory near what is now the Indian-Nepalese border. Though he was raised in splendid comfort, enjoying aristocratic status, no amount of material pleasure could satisify the enquiring and philosophic nature of the young man. At the age of 29 he left palace and family to search for a deeper meaning in the secluded forests and remote mountains of North-East India. He studied under the wisest religious teachers and philosophers of his time, learning all they had to offer, but he found it was not enough. He then struggled alone with the path of self- mortification, taking that practice to the extremes of asceticism, but still to no avail.
Then, at the age of 35, on the full moon night of May, he sat beneath the branches of what is now known as the Bodhi Tree, in a secluded grove by the banks of the river Neranjara, and developed his mind in deep but luminous, tranquil meditation. Using the extraordinary clarity of such a mind with its sharp penetrative power generated by states of deep inner stillness, he turned his attention to investigate upon the hidden meanings of mind, universe and life. Thus he gained the supreme Enlightenment experience and from that time on he was known as the Buddha. His Enlightenment consisted of the most profound and all-embracing insight into the nature of mind and all phenomena. This Enlightenment was not a revelation from some divine being, but a discovery made by Himself and based on the deepest level of meditation and the clearest experience of the mind. It meant that He was no longer subject to craving, ill-will and delusion but was free from their shackles, having attained the complete ending of all forms of inner suffering and acquired unshakeable peace.
The Teachings of the Buddha
Having realized the goal of Perfect Enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next 45 years teaching a Path which, when diligently followed, will take anyone regardless of race, class or gender to that same Perfect Enlightenment. The Teachings about this Path are called the Dhamma, literally meaning “the nature of all things” or “the truth underlying existence”. It is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to present a thorough description of all of these Teachings but the following 7 topics will give you an overview of what the Buddha taught:
1. The way of Inquiry
The Buddha warned strongly against blind faith and encouraged the way of truthful inquiry. In one of His best known sermons, the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one’s beliefs merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition, because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out of trust in one’s teachers, elders, or priests. Instead one maintains an open mind and thoroughly investigates one’s own experience of life. When one sees for oneself that a particular view agrees with both experience and reason, and leads to the happiness of one and all, then one should accept that view and live up to it!
This principle, of course, applies to the Buddha’s own Teachings. They should be considered and inquired into using the clarity of mind born of meditation. Only when one sees these Teachings for oneself in the experience of insight, do these Teachings become one’s Truth and give blissful liberation.
The traveller on the way of inquiry needs the practice of tolerance. Tolerance does not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means one doesn’t get angry at what one can’t accept.
Further along the journey, what one once disagreed with might later be seen to be true. So in the spirit of tolerant inquiry, here are some more of the basic Teachings as the Buddha gave them.
2. The Four Noble Truths
The main Teaching of the Buddha focuses not on philosophical speculations about a Creator God or the origin of the universe, or on a heaven world ever after. The Teaching, instead, is centred on the down-to-earth reality of human suffering and the urgent need to find lasting relief from all forms of discontent. The Buddha gave the simile of a man shot by a poison-tipped arrow who, before he would call a doctor to treat him, demanded to know first who shot the arrow and where the arrow was made and of what and by whom and when and where … this foolish man would surely die before his questions could be well answered. In the same way, the Buddha said, the urgent need of our existence is to find lasting relief from recurrent suffering, which robs us of happiness and leaves us in strife.
Philosophical speculations are of secondary importance and, anyway, they are best left until after one has well trained the mind in meditation to the stage where one has the ability to examine the matter clearly and find the Truth for oneself.
Thus, the central Teaching of the Buddha, around which all other teachings revolve, is the Four Noble Truths:
1.That all forms of being, human and otherwise, are afflicted with suffering.
2.That the cause of this suffering is Craving, born of the illusion of a soul (see below, note 7).
3.That this suffering has a lasting end in the Experience of Enlightenment (Nibbana) which is the complete letting go of the illusion of soul and all consequent desire and aversion.
4.That this peaceful and blissful Enlightenment is achieved through a gradual training, a Path that is called the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path.
It would be mistaken to label this Teaching as ‘pessimistic’ on the grounds that it begins by centring on suffering. Rather, Buddhism is ‘realistic’ in that it unflinchingly faces up to the truth of life’s many sufferings and it is ‘optimistic’ in that it shows a final end of the problem of suffering – Nibbana, Enlightenment in this very life! Those who have achieved this ultimate peace are the inspiring examples who demonstrate once and for all that Buddhism is far from pessimistic, but it is a Path to true Happiness.
3. The Middle Way or Eightfold Path
The Way to end all suffering is called the Middle Way because it avoids the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Only when the body is in reasonable comfort but not over-indulged has the mind the clarity and strength to meditate deeply and discover the Truth. This Middle Way consists of the diligent cultivation of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, which is explained in more detail as the Noble Eightfold Path.
Right Speech, Action and Livelihood constitute the training in Virtue or Morality. For a practising Buddhist it consists of maintaining the five Buddhist Precepts, which are to refrain from:
1.Deliberately causing the death of any living being;
2.Intentionally taking for one’s own the property of another;
3.Sexual misconduct, in particular adultery;
4.Lying and breaking promises;
5.Drinking alcohol or taking stupefying drugs which lead to lack of mindfulness.
Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration refer to the practice of Meditation, which purifies the mind through the experience of blissful states of inner stillness and empowers the mind to penetrate the meaning of life through profound moments of insight.
Right Understanding and Thought are the manifestation of Buddha-Wisdom which ends all suffering, transforms the personality and produces unshakeable serenity and tireless compassion.
According to the Buddha, without perfecting the practice of Virtue it is impossible to perfect Meditation, and without perfecting Meditation it is impossible to arrive at Enlightenment Wisdom. Thus the Buddhist Path is a Gradual Path, a Middle Way consisting of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom as explained in the Noble Eightfold Path leading to happiness and liberation.
Kamma means ‘action’. The Law of Kamma means that there are inescapable results of our actions. There are deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others’ harm, one’s own harm, or to the harm of both. Such deeds are called bad (or ‘unwholesome’) kamma. They are usually motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. Because they bring painful results, they should not be done.
There are also deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others’ well being, one’s own well being, or to the well being of both. Such deeds are called good (or ‘wholesome’) kamma. They are usually motivated by generosity, compassion or wisdom. Because they bring happy results, they should be done as often as possible.
Thus much of what one experiences is the result of one’s own previous kamma. When misfortune occurs, instead of blaming someone else, one can look for any fault in one’s own past conduct. If a fault is found, the experience of its consequences will make one more careful in the future. When happiness occurs, instead of taking it for granted, one can look to see if it is the result of good kamma. If so, the experience of its pleasant results will encourage more good kamma in the future.
The Buddha pointed out that no being whatsoever, divine or otherwise, has any power to stop the consequences of good and bad kamma. The fact that one reaps just what one sows gives to the Buddhist a greater incentive to avoid all forms of bad kamma while doing as much good kamma as possible.
Though one cannot escape the results of bad kamma, one can lessen their effect. A spoon of salt mixed in a glass of pure water makes the whole very salty, whereas the same spoon of salt mixed in a freshwater lake hardly changes the taste of the water. Similarly, the result of a bad kamma in a person habitually doing only a small amount of good kamma is painful indeed, whereas the result of the same bad kamma in a person habitually doing a great deal of good kamma is only mildly felt.
This natural Law of Kamma becomes the force behind, and reason for, the practice of morality and compassion in our society.
The Buddha remembered clearly many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks, nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past life, Rebirth is an established fact which puts this life in a meaningful perspective.
The Law of Kamma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit. Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty; why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed whereas others enter deformed and diseased… The fruits of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how much better to learn about the need for generosity than to be reborn among the poor!
Rebirth takes place not only within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms, too, realms of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but we can come from any of these realms into our present life. This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues “How can there be Rebirth when there are ten times as many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?” The answer is that people alive today have come from many different realms.
Understanding that we can come and go between these different realms, gives us more respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them with us.
6. No Creator God
The Buddha pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind of being has the power to interfere in the working out of someone else’s Kamma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches the individual to take full responsibility for themselves. For example, if you want to be wealthy then be trustworthy, diligent and frugal, or if you want to live in a heaven realm then always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours from, or to put it another way there is no corruption possible in the workings of Kamma.
Do Buddhists believe that a Supreme Being created the universe? Buddhists would first ask which universe do you mean? This present universe, from the moment of the ‘big bang’ up to now, is but one among countless millions in Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha gave an estimate of the age of a single universe-cycle of around 37,000 million years, which is quite plausible when compared to modern astrophysics. After one universe- cycle ends another begins, again and again, according to impersonal law. A Creator God is redundant in this scheme.
No being is a Supreme Saviour, according to the Buddha, because whether God, human, animal or whatever, all are subject to the Law of Kamma. Even the Buddha had no power to save. He could only point out the Truth so that the wise could see it for themselves. Everyone must take responsibility for their own future well-being, and it is dangerous to give that responsibility to another.
7. The Illusion of Soul
The Buddha taught that there is no soul, no essential and permanent core to a living being. Instead, that which we call a ‘living being’, human or other, can be seen to be but a temporary coming together of many activities and parts – when complete it is called a ‘living being’, but after the parts separate and the activities cease it is not called a ‘living being’ anymore. Like an advanced computer assembled of many parts and activities, only when it is complete and performs coherent tasks is it called a ‘computer’, but after the parts are disconnected and the activities cease it is no longer called a ‘computer’. No essential permanent core can be found which we can truly call ‘the computer’, just so, no essential permanent core can be found which we can call ‘the soul’.
Yet Rebirth still occurs without a soul. Consider this simile: on a Buddhist shrine one candle, burnt low, is about to expire. A monk takes a new candle and lights it from the old. The old candle dies, the new candle burns bright. What went across from the old candle to the new? There was a causal link but no thing went across! In the same way, there was a causal link between your previous life and your present life, but no soul has gone across.
Indeed, the illusion of a soul is said by the Buddha to be the root cause of all human suffering. The illusion of ‘soul’ manifests as the ‘Ego’. The natural unstoppable function of the Ego is to control. Big Egos want to control the world, average Egos try to control their immediate surroundings of home, family and workplace, and almost all Egos strive to control what they take to be their own body and mind. Such control manifests as desire and aversion, it results in a lack of both inner peace and outer harmony. It is this Ego that seeks to acquire possessions, manipulate others and exploit the environment. Its aim is its own happiness but it invariably produces suffering. It craves for satisfaction but it experiences discontent. Such deep- rooted suffering cannot come to an end until one sees, through deep and powerful meditation, that the idea ‘me and mine’ is no more than a mirage.
These seven topics are a sample of what the Buddha taught. Now, to complete this brief sketch of Buddhism, let’s look at how these Teachings are practised today.
Types of Buddhism
One could say that there is only one type of Buddhism and that is the huge collection of Teachings that were spoken by the Buddha. The original Teachings are found in the ‘Pali Canon’, the ancient scripture of Theravada Buddhism, which is widely accepted as the oldest reliable record of the Buddha’s words. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Between 100 to 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic community) split over the political question of ‘Who runs the Sangha?’ A controversy over some monastic rules was decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs. From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha). Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving a philosophical justification for the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the allegedly ‘selfish’ Arahat. This group of monks and nuns were first known as the ‘Maha Sangha’, meaning ‘the great (part) of the monastic community’.
Later, after impressive development, they called themselves the ‘Mahayana’, the ‘Greater Vehicle’ while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada ‘Hinayana’, the ‘Inferior Vehicle’. Mahayana still retains most of the original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures these are known as the ‘Agama’ and in the Tibetan version as the ‘Kangyur’) but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed by layers of expansive interpretations and wholly new ideas. The Mahayana of China, still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects an earlier phase of this development, the Mahayana of Vietnam, Korea and Japan (mostly Zen) is a later development, and the Mahayana of Tibet and Mongolia is a much later development still.
Buddhism’s relevance to the world today
Today, Buddhism continues to gain ever wider acceptance in many lands far beyond its original home. Here in Australia, many Australians through their own careful choice are adopting Buddhism’s peaceful, compassionate and responsible ways.
The Buddhist Teaching of the Law of Kamma offers our society a just and incorruptible foundation and reason for the practice of a moral life. It is easy to see how a wider embracing of the Law of Kamma would lead any country towards a stronger, more caring and virtuous society.
The Teaching of Rebirth places this present short lifetime of ours in a broader perspective, giving more meaning to the vital events of birth and death. The understanding of Rebirth removes so much of the tragedy and grief surrounding death and turns one’s attention to the quality of a lifetime, rather than its mere length.
From the very beginning, the practice of meditation has been at the very heart of the Buddhist Way. Today, meditation grows increasingly popular as the proven benefits to both mental and physical well being become more widely known. When stress is shown to be such a major cause of human suffering, the quieting practice of meditation becomes ever more valued.
Today’s world is too small and vulnerable to live angry and alone, thus the need for tolerance, love and compassion is so very important. These qualities of mind, essential for happiness are formally developed in Buddhist meditation and then diligently put into practice in everyday life.
Forgiveness and gentle tolerance, harmlessness and peaceful compassion are well known trademarks of Buddhism, they are given freely and broadly to all kinds of beings, including animals of course, and also, most importantly, to oneself. There is no place for dwelling in guilt or self-hatred in Buddhism, not even a place for feeling guilty about feeling guilty!
Teachings and practices such as these are what bring about qualities of gentle kindness and unshakeable serenity, identified with the Buddhist religion for 25 centuries and sorely needed in today’s world. In all its long history, no war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism. It is this peace and this tolerance, growing out of a profound yet reasonable philosophy, which makes Buddhism so vitally relevant to today’s world.
Are rebirth and karma for real?
Is rebirth for real – either as a human or in one of the other realms? This is the question most Westerners ask as soon as they become interested in Buddhism. Karma (Pali: Kamma) – the law of cause and effect – operates across multiple lifetimes, but where’s the proof that there is any life other than the current one?
It’s a complex subject and each tradition has its own explanation. It isn’t uncommon for different teachers in the same tradition to have a different take on rebirth. One thing’s for sure, there is no scientific proof of rebirth (yet). There are rational explanations, but they all rest on unprovable assumptions.
One way to approach the question of rebirth is suggested by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who says, “You don’t have to believe in rebirth, you just have to take it as a working hypothesis.” Other teachers, such as Ajahn Summedho, have a similar view, that since we can never know what will happen after death, it makes sense to practise Dharma (Pali: Dhamma) and live this life in the best way possible.
Some well-known monks, Ajahn Brahm and P.A. Payutto among them, say that when meditators reach the third or fourth jhana (level of absorbtion) they are able to “read their past lives” as the Buddha did and experience the truth of rebirth. But this ability is by no means universal, even among meditation masters.
Another explanation championed by Buddhadasa, Thailand’s most revered monk, is that rebirth in a series of physical bodies is “conventional talk” to make the subject understandable for the masses, but in “Dharma talk” what the Buddha really meant was that each life was the arising of the ego in the mind. So we experience “death” and “rebirth” (of the ego) many times each day. Similarly, the six realms of existence all correspond to states of mind. In the same way, the cause and effect of karma can be observed in our own mental states – when we do good deeds it results in a wholesome mental state, when we do bad deeds, we experience unwholesome mental states.
This rational explanation of rebirth and karma doesn’t necessarily exclude the traditional view. It augments it. What works for me is to take both of them as working hypotheses and practise accordingly. Recalling the Buddha’s story about the man shot with a poisoned arrow, if we need to have every detail of the teaching proved to us at the outset, we’ll be dead before we start practising.
What is our purpose in life?
The traditional answer to this is that our purpose is to attain nirvana and stop the endless cycle of rebirths and suffering. But the idea of a general purpose for mankind suggests that someone or something created that purpose, which in turn suggests an omnipotent deity.
The way I think of it is that we have no pre-ordained purpose. We evolved, and here we are. Because we also evolved language and conceptual thinking, we got stuck with this concept of a self, an ego that makes us feel separate from everything else. The ego needs constant reassurance of its importance, which is why we cling to our views and defend them fanatically, and why we are constantly criticizing others. Our ego rules our lives. It is terrified of being snuffed out.
We handle this in different ways. Some of us have lots of kids so we can feel that a part of us lives on forever through our descendants. Some of us perform heroic deeds so that our names will live on in history forever. Some of us get onto Ripley’s Believe It Or Not with the world’s longest moustache or beating the world record for smashing melons with our head, or some such nonsense, so that we’ll achieve digital immortality. Some of us cling to the idea that a god will give us eternal life in some form after death.
For those of us who don’t find this pseudo-immortality or unguaranteed immortality satisfying, there’s a need to create our own purpose in life. This is where Buddhism fits the bill nicely. Instead of being ruled by the ego and its fears, get rid of it! Being rid of the ego and the suffering it brings is what Ajahn Jagaro called “True Freedom” – a very appealing idea for all of us.
If we don’t achieve true freedom in this life, we should get another chance in a future life. But simply diminishing the ego and increasing freedom in this life seems like a worthwhile purpose to me.
What’s the difference between Theravada and Mahayana?
To preserve the monastic order, the Buddha set down 227 rules for a bhikkhu (monk) to observe and 311 for a bhikkhuni (nun). Before his death (known as parinirvana) he said that some minor rules could be changed.
Within a short time of his passing away there was disagreement over what could be changed and different sects emerged. The more reformist sects later called themselves Mahayana (greater vehicle) and referred to the conservative sects as Hinayana (lesser vehicle). The only conservative sect remaining today is Theravada, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Theravada recognises the Pali Canon as its scriptures and a variety of ancient Theravadin commentaries.
Whereas Theravada spread to the south and east, Mahayana moved to the northwest through what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan and then across Central Asia to China, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. For historical reasons, the language of Mahayana scriptures was Sanskrit and that of Theravada was Pali. Hence the difference in spelling of some common Buddhist terms: Nirvana/Nibbana, Sutra/Sutta, Karma/Kamma, Dharma/Damma, etc. Westerners are more familiar with Mahayana Sanskrit terms.
Mahayana also has its own scriptures in addition to the Pali Canon, the most important of which is the Lotus Sutra. These sutras are purported to be the Buddha’s secret “higher” teachings, which were handed down only to those who were ready for them – an idea emphasised at the beginning of the Lotus Sutra.
Apart from a modified monastic code which made monasticism possible in harsh environments such as Tibet, Mahayana emphasises the Bodhisattva Ideal, where a man vows not to achieve final enlightenment until all sentient beings have been saved. So anyone helping others to achieve enlightenment can be considered a bodhisattva. In Theravada, the term bodhisattva usually refers only to the historical Buddha in his previous lives. Historically, some Mahayanists consider Theravadins to be selfish for seeking enlightenment only for themselves, while some Theravadins consider Mahayanists to have deviated from what the Buddha taught.
The various sutras and sects of Mahayana reflect different ways of reaching enlightenment appropriate for different people with different levels of ability. Because of this, a number of “mythical” buddhas and bodhisattvas are revered and used as objects of meditation. Theravadins revere only the historical Buddha and only his image is seen in temples.
Mahayana tends to emphasise the concept of sunyata (void-ness) in its teachings and tends to have a more specific idea of what passes from rebirth to rebirth (consciousness, comprising awareness and memory).
Personally, I found that the more I read about Mahayana and the Tibetan tradition known as Vajrayana, the more I accepted that all sects are going in the same direction and there is no point in considering any one of them better than another.
Which tradition should I choose?
I suggest reading about Theravada first and then investigating the other traditions to see which suits you best. Your decision may also depend on your Buddhist friends and what is available where you live.
As far as I know, the main traditions known in the West are Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren. One myth that seems to have grown up over the years is that with Mahayana one can reach enlightenment in one lifetime whereas with Theravada it takes aeons. This notion seems to have been pushed by the Chinese Zen patriarchs, in particular Huang Po, as illustrated in The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. In modern times the idea has been spread by influential author-scholar John Blofeld, who translated Huang Po’s works into English and wrote several excellent books on Buddhism. But it all seems pretty ridiculous because how could anyone know how many lives ago any particular person started consciously working towards enlightenment?
Blofeld followed Zen and then Tibetan Buddhist Tantrism, describing both as the “Short Path.” However, it isn’t difficult to see that any tradition that emphasises meditation – as the Buddha did – will be a short path. In the past century, the Thai Forest Tradition is a good example of a Theravadin tradition that produced a number of enlightened masters.
According to Blofeld, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism in particular offer ways of practice to suit people at every level. After all, not everyone has an aptitude for meditation. A lot of people prefer something simpler, such as praying, chanting, various forms of devotion and pilgrimages. He describes Zen and Theravada as “formless,” meaning the practice is mostly just you and your mind. But in fact there’s a lot more to both than just meditation.
Tibetan Buddhism seems to attract Westerners because there are now a lot of Tibetan lamas and monasteries in the West, because of the charisma of the Dalai Lama, because it can be a “Short Path,” because of its reputation for developing psychic powers and because of its many varied methods of practice. However, Tibetan Buddhism has absorbed much of the ancient, shamanistic Bon religion of Tibet, so it’s wise to read up on Tibet thoroughly before committing to it.
Zen attracts Westerners because it’s something of a “back to basics” tradition with an emphasis on meditation and very little ritual. Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is revered rather than the other mythical buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Mahayana sutras. Although it originated in China, the type of Zen practised in the West is mostly Japanese.
Theravada attracts Western practicioners because it is seen as the oldest and purest form of Buddhism, one that reveres only Sakyamuni and in theory concentrates on meditation. The Thai Forest Tradition which developed in the late 1800s was an effort to practise exactly as the Buddha did, wandering in the jungle and meditating in caves. Although the jungle is largely gone now, a number of Westerners joined Ajahn Chah’s international monastery in the 1970s and later spread the practice in other countries: Ajahn Jagaro and Ajahn Brahm in Australia, Thanissaro Bhikkhu in the USA and Ajahn Sumedho in the UK. For a brief look at the origins of this tradition, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Customs of the Noble Ones. For a more detailed treatment, read Forest Recollections.
Pure Land was once widespread in China and is still practised among Chinese around the world. A refined form of Pure Land (Jodo and Shin Jodo) developed in Japan and has spread to the West. Pure Land involves purifying the mind by chanting the name of the Amitabha (Amida) Buddha to gain help in reaching a realm after death from where it is easy to reach enlightenment. On a deeper level, Pure Land equals pure mind and Amitabha represents our own qualities rather than an external saviour. Pure Land is sometimes combined with Zen practice.
Nichiren is a homegrown Japanese tradition advocating chanting of a phrase hailing the Lotus Sutra. An offshoot of Nichiren is the lay organisation, Sokka Gakai International.
There are a few Buddhist sects and organisations that are controversial in some way, usually because of their founder/leader or his particular beliefs. Before getting involved with Sokka Gakai (SGI), the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), Shugden or Diamond Way (Karma Kagyu), you might want to google for information about their background.
How do I become a Buddhist?
Although there is a ceremony of taking the Three Refuges (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), there isn’t any “conversion” involved and you aren’t required to renounce any other religion or beliefs. In fact, it seems to be more of a social statement to show others that you have become a Buddhist.
In my opinion, once you accept the Buddha’s teachings as a way of life and try to follow the Five Precepts for lay people, you’re a Buddhist. For me, this involved a lot of reading Dharma and listening to Dharma talks on the Internet. Rather than read the scriptures (which are often difficult), I chose books by monks and nuns who already had a deep knowledge of Dharma through study and practice, and who had a talent for explaining it. I looked at how Buddhism developed over the millennia and decided to start off with Theravada, which is the original form of Buddhism based on the Pali Canon. Later, I investigated the various Mahayana traditions too.
It was obvious to me that reducing the power of the ego to control our lives was a foundation of Buddhism. For my practice, I concentrated on Right Speech (a component of the Noble Eightfold Path) because I thought it would give the fastest results. I expected if I started being nice to people, eventually they’d be nicer to me. That happened, but much more than that. I found myself examining my intentions every time I felt like defending my views, arguing with someone, contradicting them, criticizing them, comparing myself with them or judging them in any way at all.
Pretty soon it was obvious that much of what I said or did was designed to boost my sense of self-worth and that “true freedom” was to escape this tyranny of the ego.
Later I started meditating, since this is the only way to experience the truth of the teaching rather than just understanding them intellectually. Even though the majority of people born into Buddhism may not meditate, it’s essential for the serious Buddhist.
Some Westerners have a problem with whether they are or aren’t a Buddhist, usually because they still have some belief in god or because they haven’t come to believe in rebirth. The following talk by Ajahn Jagaro, a Western monk of the Thai Forest Tradition, will be helpful for anyone asking himself, “Am I a Buddhist?”
Am I a Buddhist?
by Ajahn Jagaro
Teaching people who have only recently encountered Buddhism I am often asked the question “How do you become a Buddhist?” or “How do you know when you are a Buddhist?” This type of enquiry is indeed healthy and to be encouraged not only amongst those new to Buddhism but also for people born and raised as Buddhists. So go ahead and ask yourself: “Am I a Buddhist?”
I expect that there will be many who will answer “Yes” and those who say “No”, but I wonder how many will be thinking “Oh … Ahm,.. I don’t know.” So let us contemplate this business of being a Buddhist a bit more.
To begin our enquiry it may be worthwhile to know what the Buddha said on the matter. The following episode is taken from the Buddhist scriptures (Anguttara Nikaya, Vol IV):
“Once, the Lord dwelt amongst the Sakyans in the Banyan Tree Monastery at Kapilavatthu, and while there, Mahanama the Sakyan came to him and asked;
“How, Lord, does one become a lay disciple?”
“When one has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, then one is a lay disciple”.
“How, Lord, is a lay disciple virtuous?”
“When a lay disciple abstains from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and drinking intoxicants, then he is virtuous.”
Here the Buddha clearly states that by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha one becomes a disciple or, in modern terminology, a Buddhist. The classical formula of going for refuge, which has been passed down from the time of the Buddha is as follows;
Buddham Saranam Gacchami (I go for refuge to the Buddha)
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami (I go for refuge to the Dhamma)
Sangham Saranam Gacchami (I go for refuge to the Sangha)
However one does not become a Buddhist through the mere repetition of these words nor by the performance of any other ceremony ritual or initiation. On the other hand, though one has not performed any ceremony or ritual, one may still be a Buddhist. Put simply, this means that no one can make you a Buddhist nor can anyone stop you from being a Buddhist. It is a volitional choice that one makes when one has sufficient confidence in the Teacher and the Teaching. In the commentaries to the scriptures it explains this as, “It is an act of consciousness devoid of defilements, motivated by confidence in and reverence for the Triple Gem”…
Here I would like to relate something of my own experience to help explain this point. When I first came in contact with Buddhism I did not consider myself a religious person. If anything, I thought of myself as an atheist and felt that religion had little relevance to real life. However, I did find the Buddha’s Teachings and in particular the practice of meditation very appealing. I had a desire to find out more about it and this lead me into a monastery where I was eventually ordained as a monk.
One day a young Thai student, wanting to practise his English, casually asked me “Are you a Buddhist?” But in my mind I wondered whether or not I was a Buddhist. I must confess that it was a strange position to be in – a Buddhist monk who doesn’t know whether he is a Buddhist! Yet that situation persisted for over a year before the meaning of both the question and the answer became clear to me.
During that year as I continued to study and practise the Dhamma I began to feel very comfortable with the teaching and increasingly confident that this was the way for me. With this came the conscious recognition that I had chosen the Buddha as my Teacher and considered him as the embodiment of the spiritual ideals of peace and liberation. I had also chosen to follow the path contained in his Teaching (the Dhamma) being confident that it would lead to liberation. And while on this path I would seek the guidance and try to emulate the example of all the noble disciples who constitute the Sangha. It was indeed wonderful to discover that I was a Buddhist and not just a Buddhist monk!
Now becoming a Buddhist does not mean that one has to either agree with or believe in everything that is taught or practised by all the countless Buddhist sects and groups throughout the world. Nor do we have to believe that it is the only way and that all the other religions are no good. It simply means that having looked at and probed into this teaching of the Buddha, having tried it and having seen that it does work, one has confidence in it and chooses to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Sangha.
However if you are still unsure as to whether you are a Buddhist or you are not, don’t worry about it, just keep on practising.
If you found this page useful or have any comments you can contact me at craigo@tale ofgenji.org.
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