FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BUDDHISM
What Is Buddhism?
Buddhism can be defined as the true state of the nature of the world, or as the Buddha’s teachings.
In the first definition, Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development to gain insight into the true nature of reality or Enlightenment. An enlightened being sees the nature of reality absolutely clearly, just as it is, and lives fully and naturally in accordance with that vision. This is the goal of the Buddhist spiritual life, representing the end of suffering for anyone who attains it. Buddhist practices like meditation are means of changing yourself to follow the path in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom leading to Enlightenment or Buddhahood.
In the second definition, Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings inspire us to take responsibility for our own lives by understanding cause and effect (karma). Buddha explained in great detail how we shape our future through our thoughts, words and actions. In Buddhism, compassion and wisdom go together. When we act from compassion, focusing on others rather than ourselves, the disturbing emotions that we all have, like anger, pride, attachment, and jealousy, loosen their grip, and wisdom has a chance to appear spontaneously. The teachings are beneficial in three achievement levels, depending on the particular practitioner:
1) Beneficial for this life and future lives,
2) Beneficial for liberation from cycles of rebirth which ends suffering (this is the highest aim of the Theravada tradition), and
3) Beneficial for the highest goal of Buddhahood (this is the highest goal of the Mahayana tradition).
Who was the Buddha?
Buddha is a Sanskrit word that means “awakened one.” Buddha is not a name, but a title of someone who has realized the enlightenment that ends the cycle of birth and death and which brings liberation from suffering.
According to Theravada Buddhists, there is only one Buddha, the man who lived about 25 centuries ago and whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism. He is sometimes called Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha. We also often refer to him as ‘the historical Buddha.’ Enlightened women and men who are not Buddhas are called arhats or arahants.
According to Mahayana Buddhism, including Vajrayana Buddhism, there could be infinite numbers of Buddhas, and also is the fundamental nature of all beings. In a sense, all beings have a Buddha nature and can become a Buddha in the future.
In Mahayana literature, there are many Buddhas who correspond to each other and represent different aspects of the teachings, such as Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light and the principal Buddha of the Pure Land School, the Medicine Buddha, who represents the power of healing, and Maitreya, who is the future Buddha,
The most important thing to understand is that the countless Buddhas are, ultimately, one Buddha. A person who has intimately realized the truth of the teachings is called a Buddha.
Do Buddhists believe that life is suffering?
No. This is a misunderstanding. As we all know, the Buddha did not speak English. He taught in the First Noble Truth that life is “dukkha.” There is no single English word that contains the same range of meaning as the Pali word “dukkha,” so what Buddha said was incorrectly translated as “life is suffering.” Since our temporary satisfaction is mainly based on clinging and desire in this life, perhaps a more literal and accurate translation of the First Noble Truth might be “life does not satisfy.”
In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha taught there are three kinds of dukkha. The first kind is physical and mental dissatisfaction and pain from the inevitable stresses of life, such as old age, sickness and death. The second is the dissatisfaction and distress we feel as a result of impermanence and change, such as the pain of failing to get what we want and of losing what we hold dear. The third kind of dukkha is a kind of existential suffering, the angst of being human, of living a conditioned existence and unpredictably being subject to the other two types of dukkha and to a rebirth.
The Second Noble Truth tells us that this very grasping, clinging or avoidance is the source of dukkha. The grasping or clinging actually provides only momentary relief or temporary satisfaction. What we desire is never enough and never lasts. The Third Noble Truth is about the end of dukkha. The Fourth Noble Truth assures us the Noble Eightfold Path is a way to end dukkha. As we practice, we develop a happiness that is not dependent on external objects or life events but results from a cultivated state of mind that does not come and go as circumstances change. Even physical pain becomes less stressful with the awareness of a cultivated mind.
So, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths is not “life is suffering,” but instead means we are never satisfied with our clinging and desire in this life, and a way of liberation is always available to us.
What is Karma?
In Buddhism, karma refers to those actions that spring from mental intent and bring about a consequence or result. Each time a person acts, there is an intention at the base of the mind that determines its effect. Karma also is the energy that drives Saṃsara, which is the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Karma is a result of the good or bad actions a person takes during his/her lifetime. Good actions, which involve either the absence of bad actions, or positive acts, such as righteousness, generosity and meditation create good karmas. The immediate results of good karmas bring about happiness to our life in the long run. Bad actions, such as lying, stealing or killing create bad karmas. The immediate results of bad karmas bring about unhappiness in the long run. The weight of karma that an action creates is determined by conditions like determined/intentional action, frequent/repetitive action, action performed without regret, action against extraordinary persons, and action toward those who have helped one in the past.
The Buddha taught that while we each have accumulated karma from previous lives as well as from the present one, karma is mutable. What he really referred to as karma appears to us as an intention which is the cause of action. This intention leads to action and determines what happens to you and how you move through space and time. This means you do not have to always follow your intention; therefore, every moment in your life is an opportunity for you to take positive action to change the results of karma. In other words, you can work with your karma to ensure a better future. Teachings about karma explain that our past actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and that our present actions will affect us in the future. For Buddhists, karma has implications beyond this life. For example, bad actions in a previous life can follow a person into their next life and cause bad effects, and usually is viewed by many people as ‘bad luck.’ On a larger scale, karma determines where a person will be reborn and their status in their next life. Good karma can result in being born in one of the heavenly realms. Bad karma can cause rebirth as an animal or torment in a hell realm.
Karma is not an external force and is not a system of punishment or reward. It is a natural law similar to gravity. Buddhists believe we are in control of our destiny. Buddhists try to cultivate good karma and avoid bad karma. However, the aim of Buddhism is to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether, not simply to acquire good karma and so to be born into a more pleasant state. These states, while preferable to human life, are impermanent.
Is it true that Buddhists believe that there is no such thing as “self”?
For Buddhists, the concept of no-self is critical for understanding how we cause ourselves suffering and, by extension, how to find release from it. When we find ourselves clinging to certain things, we remind ourselves that it too is “no-self,” and learn to let go. The Buddha himself refused to answer the question whether or not there is a self, saying that getting caught up in such quagmires leads us into endless confusion and distracts us from the path that leads to release from suffering.
Many Buddhists interpret the doctrine of no-self to mean that we have no fixed inherent, unchanging self. We construct our conception of self from physical and mental sensations, feelings, perceptions, interpretations, consciousness, and reactions that are actually processes, ever forming and changing. Our attachment to the idea of a fixed self causes great suffering and dissatisfaction.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to test out his teachings for themselves. Through this process, a self-tested realization of the Buddhist teachings, you can call it what you want: religion, no-self, emptiness, spirituality, philosophy. The labels are not what matters; it’s your actions, and the fruits of your actions, that count.
What is emptiness?
The English term “emptiness,” a translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata (sunnata in Pali), is one of the most misunderstood—and even off-putting—words used in Buddhism (right up there with rebirth!). It is misunderstood because it is not easy to grasp intellectually, and different schools of Buddhism interpret it differently. And it is off-putting because “emptiness” sounds so negative.
But “emptiness” does not refer to a grim void or a kind of nihilism. In the Pali canon, which comprises some of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha uses the term to describe how emptiness pertains to our conception of the self. In one famous story, the Buddha pointed to a chariot and asked, “Where is the essence of the chariot? Is it in the wheels? The seat? The axle? The cart?” Of course, none of the constituent parts contains the essence of the chariot, and each part broken down into smaller parts is devoid of that singular essence. Like the chariot, this “self” we cherish so devotedly is nothing more than a temporary coming together of various aggregates—empty.
Many people, including Buddhists, think the concept of emptiness is fascinating but confusing and difficult to explain. Our ordinary perception of reality is that all living beings and objects around us are existing by themselves and unrelated to each other. This is considered in Buddhism as a worldly viewpoint, which is not in accordance with reality.
Nirvana is a Sanskrit word for the goal of the Buddhist path: Enlightenment or awakening. In Pali, the language of some of the earliest Buddhist texts, the word is nibbana; in both languages it means literally “extinction” (like a lamp or flame) or “cessation.” It refers to the extinction of greed, ill will, and delusion in the mind, the three poisons that perpetuate suffering. Nirvana is what the Buddha achieved on the night of his Enlightenment: he became completely free from the three poisons. Everything he taught for the rest of his life was aimed at helping others to arrive at that same freedom.
In the Mahayana school, emphasis is often placed on the notions of emptiness, perfected spiritual insight, and Buddha-nature.
What emptiness actually meant is “everything is empty of inherent existence.” In other words, everything does not exist in accordance with our ordinary perception of reality. The Heart Sutra, in Mahayana scripture, explains the concept of emptiness to mean that everything, including all phenomena, in the world depends on something else; nothing exists in any autonomous, enduring manner. This is closely related to the expression ‘selflessness’ or ‘no-self,’ which refers to the point that we do not possess a permanent, unchanging self.
The realization of insight into the true nature of reality is the way in which we can achieve enlightenment and escape suffering, so the idea of emptiness or selflessness forms the basis of Buddhist philosophy.
How important is generosity in Buddhism?
Giving or Dana is the basic foundation of Buddhist practice and is of both great importance and significance in the spiritual development of its followers. Dana is a word in the Pali language meaning giving or generosity and refers to the act of intentionally giving something to another person. Dana is the first of the Four Principles of Service (sangahavatthu), and as the first of the Ten Perfections (paramita) which are the sublime virtues to be cultivated by all aspirants to enlightenment.
Generosity is the most exalted degree by those who follow the way of the Bodhisattva aimed at the supreme Enlightenment of perfect Buddhahood. It is a powerful and active spiritual practice of purifying and transforming the mind of the giver. Generosity developed through giving leads to experience of material wealth and being reborn in happy states.
The amount of merit gained varies according to three factors: the motive of the donor, the spiritual purity of the recipient, and the kind and size of the gift. Generosity associated with wisdom before, during and after the act is the highest type of giving. Giving helps to cultivate generosity and directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating the eradication of delusion. In accordance with the karmic law of cause and effect taught by the Buddha, an act of giving will yield benefits in the present life and in lives to come whether or not we are aware of this fact.
The gift of the noble teachings (dhamma-dana) is said by the Buddha to excel above all other gifts. If we are not qualified to teach the Dhamma, we can give the gift of the Dhamma in other ways, such as by donating Dhamma books, encouraging others to keep precepts, or giving money or labor to a meditation center or helping support a meditation teacher. This act is considered the gift of the Dhamma since the purpose of the center and the teacher is the transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.
What is the purpose of meditation?
While meditation is not unique to Buddhism, meditation is something that holds very deep importance in Buddhist teachings. Passages that advise on meditation practice can be found easily in the Buddhist scriptures. Indeed, the Buddha himself attained Enlightenment via meditation. Buddhist meditation is fundamentally concerned with transforming the mind and exploring other phenomena. According to Theravada Buddhism, there are two types of meditation: samatha meditation and vipassana meditation.
Meditation also plays a crucial role in the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha described as the path to end suffering. Samma Samadhi, or right meditation (also translated as right concentration or right focus), is one component of the Noble Eightfold Path, but to fully understand its significance requires an analysis of the path in its entirety.
Under the meditation umbrella, we find the techniques that the Buddha taught directly, as well as others that have been developed and transmitted by his wisest, most experienced followers. When Buddhism spreads to different lands, it takes on different flavors, and so does meditation. What Buddhist meditation techniques have in common is their purpose: to help us focus and increase our awareness and mental clarity. Right meditation actually helps our view become more right. As our view becomes more right, our intention becomes more right. As our intention becomes more right, our speech, action, and livelihood become more right, etc., creating a feedback loop of continuous improvement. Since our circumstances are always changing, meditation reinforces our ability to work with the present moment and gives us space to explore our minds. This has a positive impact on our relationships and our own well-being: we find that meditation helps us encounter life with an open and confident heart.
What is the purpose of chanting sutra and mantra?
Sutras are the “words of the Buddha” and were originally chanted or recited as a means of remembering the spoken teachings of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. A mantra is a sacred word, syllable, or phrase used as an invocation or as object of meditation. However, mantra is also a way to focus the mind and transform it from an ordinary state to an extraordinary one. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, certain mantras or dharanis (long mantras) may invoke enlightened energies or call on the help of buddhas and bodhisattvas for protection. In Theravada Buddhism, mantra-like practices are used simply to develop concentration in meditation.
Chanting involves a great deal of conscious effort for the beginner who is trying to memorize a chant, learn the right tone and tempo, and blend with the others in a group. But as we deepen in our practice, there is gradually less conscious effort and a greater sense of letting go into the flow of chanting. This is often accompanied by a shift in the physical center of chanting, as we feel it move from the throat to the heart to deep in the abdomen and, ultimately, into Buddha nature, the deep flow of the oneness of reality.
At the Thousand Buddha Temple, we start each day by chanting the Shurangama Mantra (Unsurpassed Spiritual Mantra), and the heart of the mantra one hundred eight times to pray for world peace, prosperity and happiness in the midst of tragedy and violence, and for those who are suffering through oppression or natural disaster throughout the world.
The Shurangama Mantra is the longest and most important mantra in the Chinese Tripitaka. According to Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, a monk of Chan Buddhism and a contributing figure in bringing Chinese Buddhism to the United States, Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed the Shurangama Mantra in order to protect of all of us who have brought forth the initial resolve to study the Way, to aid us in attaining Samadhi, to help us be at peace in body and mind, and to keep us out of trouble. Therefore we should never forget this Dharma.
When you memorize and recite this mantra daily, you can attain the mantra-recitation samadhi. Those who recite the Shurangama Mantra must be proper in their behavior, proper in their intent; must not have defiled thoughts, and must not do impure deeds. They should be very attentive to cultivating purity.
We also chant the Great Compassion mantra of Avalokitesvara twenty-one times at noon and dedicate the merit from the meditation to the benefit of all sentient beings. Meditating on or visualizing Avalokitesvara can bring compassion into your life—compassion for others, as well as compassion for you from others. The immediate benefits are purification of negative karmas, protection and healing.
Avalokitesvara (pronounced Av-ah-low-key-tesh-vah-ra) is also known as Guan Yin (Kuan Shi Yin) in China, Kanon in Japan, Chenrezig in Tibet, Natha in Sri Lanka, Lokanat in Burma, Lokesvara in Thailand, Quan Am in Viet Nam, and by many other names.
Reciting sutras or mantras daily can help us relieve daily stress, focus on the teachings, and plant the seeds of Enlightenment in our subconscious. Moreover, we recite mantras to educate our subconscious since our conscious mind is influenced by our subconscious; indeed, our subconscious exercises absolute control over our character.
According to The Law of Cause and Effect, is everything in this life predetermined by the previous causes?
Actually, every effect has a cause and a condition. A cause and a condition combine to make an effect. Due to this relationship, the Law of Cause and Effect can more clearly be known as the Law of Cause, Condition and Effect, whether you believe in any particular religion. This means everything in this life potentially is predetermined by previous causes, but this life also depends on the conditions and your current actions.
Spiritual practice includes choice. Therefore, you should not view karma as ideas about past lives or a law of predetermination. If you have this strict an idea of karma, there is no room for choice! You should understand karmas or your habits have an influence on your intention at the current moment. In other words, the teaching of karma is about the intentional choices you make in the present. The present moment is partly the result of our choices in the past and partly the result of our choices unfolding in the present. Intended acts of body, speech and mind have consequences; taking these consequences into account offers important guidance in our choices for action.
In meditation, we cease responding to the world habitually. Instead we watch the momentum of the mind: our desires, feelings, thoughts and intentions. Instead of acting on or reacting to them, we give them careful attention. When we do not reinforce them, they quiet down and no longer direct our lives. Also, if you are generating good actions, behaviors and thoughts like practicing Vipassana (Insight Meditation) this may prevent conditions for karmic fruits to ripen into experience. Also, you will create a lot merit or positive potential to generate good actions, behaviors and thoughts that will counteract and reduce the mental effect of the results of bad karma.
How can I help someone with the results of his own actions in the past?
You cannot change the karma of others, but you can have a positive influence on those around you. For example, you can provide an opportunity for someone to learn and practice Vipassana to create good karma (merit or positive potential) by generating good actions, behaviors and thoughts that will counteract and reduce the mental effect of the results of bad karma. Also, by practicing Vipassana, you can have a positive helpful effect on those around you.
What is the difference between rebirth and of reincarnation?
One central belief of Buddhism is often referred to as rebirth. Rebirth occurs to ordinary people — the concept that people are reborn after dying. In fact, most individuals go through many cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth. We are reborn according to the effect of our karma. We do not pick our parents, our friends, and the place we are born in, etc. Rebirth is an unconscious process, because our consciousness is asleep. In rebirth, a person does not necessarily return to Earth as the same entity ever again.
Reincarnation is what is done by extraordinary awakened masters who can choose to reincarnate at will, at the time and place of their choosing. In reincarnation, the individual may recur repeatedly; they are viewed as bodhisattvas to render service to humanity out of wisdom, compassion and love.
What is the cycle of rebirth?
Rebirth is the Buddhist belief in the continuity of one’s karma – which is one’s motivations and intentions – to a new fresh life at rebirth (Buddhism does not accept the immortality of soul or the idea that the body is a vessel for the soul, and that after death, the soul departs from the body, and moves to another body). Human consciousness persists during the initial stages of the rebirth transition through the life review, but one’s identity is gradually merging with that of the new life. This intermediate state of the rebirth process normally lasts approximately seven weeks.
Karma plays out in the Buddhism cycle of rebirth. There are six separate realms into which any living being can be reborn in Samsara:
- Naraka beings (Hells): those that live in one of many Narakas.
- Animals: sharing space with humans, but considered another type of life.
- Preta: Sometimes sharing space with humans, but invisible to most people; an important variety is the hungry ghost.
- Human beings: one of the realms of rebirth where attaining Nirvana is possible
- Asuras: variously translated as lowly deities, demons, antigods.
- Devas including Brahmas: Gods, deities, spirits, angels.
Samsara ends if a person attains Nirvana, the absence of desires and the gaining of true insight into impermanence and non-self reality. The realm of human is considered the highest realm of rebirth because it offers an opportunity to achieve Enlightenment (Nirvana) that is not an aspect in the other five realms. Given a great number of living things, to be born human is to Buddhists a precious chance at spiritual bliss, a rarity that one should not forsake.
Do Buddhists believe in God?
While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, but it is the one world religion that has no God. There is no divine creator god or Supreme Being in the Buddhist teachings, so Buddhism is often called a nontheistic religion. The historical Buddha began as an ordinary person, who gained awakening by training his own mind and apprehending the true nature of reality. His enlightenment was not bestowed through communion with a superior, external force but through his own efforts. And that is a major point of the Buddhist story. From the Buddhist point of view, a personal god is not necessary: we each have the raw material to achieve our own liberation.
Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. There is no belief in a personal god. Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent and that change is always possible. It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering. The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.
In practice, most Buddhist traditions have deities and other supernatural beings. Most Buddhist traditions have a cosmology populated with deities and other supernatural beings. Even the earliest Buddhist texts refer to the Indian gods and metaphysical creatures that made up the spiritual milieu of the time. Also, according to legend, the gods watched over the Buddha’s path – from past lives to Enlightenment – and rejoiced on the night of his awakening. But it is important to understand that in all these stories, the celestial beings themselves are still within the cycle of death and rebirth. They may have extraordinary powers, but they have not reached the Buddha’s level of attainment
Still, in many traditions, deities and other metaphysical beings offer significant help to practitioners. In some branches of Buddhism, such as Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (Shin or Jodo Shinshu), the devotion to the “other power” of the Amitabha Buddha forms the heart of the practice. Tibetan Buddhism features elaborate deities that appear in scripture and iconography. Many of these are considered Buddhas, and they are used for visualization practice, in which meditators imagine themselves to be these deities in order to realize their qualities.
What do Buddhists believe happens after death?
Most Buddhists believe that death marks the end of this life and the passage into the next. According to the Buddha, beings go through countless births and deaths until they gain Enlightenment. The Buddha taught that human beings are each born an infinite number of times, unless they achieve Nirvana. The Buddha taught his disciples not to fear death. This has been interpreted by Buddhists as suggesting that if they live well, their rebirth will be good. After his enlightenment, the Buddha could remember his previous lives.
We are reborn, according to Buddhist scripture, because of the clinging and desire in this life. This clinging and desire engine of the ego is so powerful that even when the body dies, the mind continues its clinging, desire and searching for a new life. In this way, according to Buddhism, it builds a bridge to another body and takes birth again.
The Buddha taught that the where, when, and how of rebirth is entirely determined by our accumulated karma. This means our actions in this and previous lives shape the outcome for the next life. Even at the point of death and thereafter, we can make choices that will have a positive or negative effect on our next life. Buddhists believe the attitude and intention of the mind at death is very important. The less fear and aversion we experience at death, and the more focus, calm, and equanimity we have, the more likely we will be reborn in good circumstances. Which is why preparing the mind for death through meditation is a core element of Buddhist practice.
Ideas about the details of what happens at death—for instance, what beings experience between death and the next birth—vary from tradition to tradition. Many Buddhist traditions teach that sending goodwill or chanting certain scriptures or prayers at the time of and following death can help the deceased on their journey to the next life. Buddhist scriptures also identify various heaven- and hell-like realms—sometimes considered to be states created by the mind—where we may take rebirth.
Why do Buddhists bow?
In western religions, usually bowing to an altar is an act of worship or supplication. This generally is not true of Buddhism.
In Buddhism, bowing is a physical expression of gratitude of the Buddha’s teaching. It is also a practice of dropping away the ego and whatever we are clinging to. When bowing to an image of the Buddha or another iconic figure, one is not bowing to a god. The figure may represent the teachings or Enlightenment. It may also represent our own Buddha nature. In that sense, when you bow to a Buddha figure you are bowing to yourself.
In Buddhism, the traditional gesture of reverence to the Triple Gem is to place the palms of both hands together and raise them high in front, usually up to the level of the forehead. In order to express deep veneration, a Buddhist may bow or prostrate before the image of the Buddha, members of the Sangha and the masters of the Teaching. When a Buddhist prostrates before an image, he acknowledges the fact that the Buddha has attained the perfect and supreme Enlightenment. Such an act helps the Buddhist to overcome egoistic feelings and he becomes more ready to listen to the Teaching of the Buddha.
Are all Buddhists vegetarians?
Not always. Vegetarianism is encouraged in most traditions but has not been a requirement. The early monks and nuns were allowed one meal a day, before noon, of what people could spare, and if what people could spare was meat, they were allowed to eat it. However, the Buddha instructed monks and nuns not to eat animals slaughtered specifically for them. As Buddhism spread into other countries, monasteries grew or purchased food, and vegetarian meals became the norm. Laypeople were not required to eat a vegetarian diet, but many chose to do so. In Tibet, with its limited arable land and challenging climate, a year-round vegetarian diet was not always possible, and Tibetan medicine suggested that eating meat had a beneficial and life-prolonging effect on the body. Even so, over the centuries a small number of Tibetan lamas avoided meat and encouraged their students to avoid it also.
Today, it is generally the case that vegetarianism is considered a personal choice in Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism. Vegetarianism is more common in the Mahayana school, and particularly in the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese traditions.
What role do ethics play in Buddhism?
Living ethically is a foundation of Buddhism for mind training and freeing ourselves from suffering. That is why the Noble Eightfold Path includes myriad guidelines and strategies for behaving ethically. A basic set of guidelines taken on by many new practitioners is known as the Five Precepts. Buddhists generally undertake to live by the Five Precepts, which are common to all Buddhist schools. The Five Precepts are training rules in order to live a better life in which one is happy and without worries. The Five Precepts are:
- To refrain from taking life.
- To refrain from taking that which is not given.
- To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct.
- To refrain from lying.
- To refrain from intoxicants.
The Buddha teaches us to examine constantly whether or not what we think, do, and say causes harm to ourselves and others. Buddhism promotes ethical conduct to such an extent because acting virtuously directly causes the freeing of the mind. The precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice. Living ethically the mind becomes freer and lighter, and it is easier to concentrate and see clearly. And as the Buddha taught, even if we do not become enlightened in this lifetime, only good can come from cultivating virtue.
Are there Buddhist holy places?
The pilgrimage is a concept that is developed by devotees and not prophets. According to his teachings, Buddha chose four spots for his followers to visit in future pilgrimages. These four spots are the locations of his birth, Enlightenment, first sermon and his death. Members of the Buddhist faith recognize these four holy places on earth and hold them dear to their hearts. Although it is not prescribed, many Buddhists make a pilgrimage to these four holy sites.
The four Buddhist holy sites are: Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born; Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree; Sarnath, India, where the Buddha gave his first teaching of the Dharma; and Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha passed away.
- Holy site of Lumbini: Siddhartha Gautama, who was given the honorific title of Lord Buddha (literally meaning the awakened one) was born in 623 BCE in Lumbini in what is now southern Nepal. This is verified by an inscription on a pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, an early convert to Buddhism in the third century. The Lumbini monuments were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.
- Holy site of Bodh Gaya: Bodh Gaya in the northeast Indian state of Bihar, is the center of the universe for Buddhists. It was here, under a spreading bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama spent six years meditating on the nature of life and the path to Nirvana. When the young ascetic attained the higher state known as Enlightenment, he became known as Lord Buddha. The Bo Tree and adjacent Mahabodi Temple were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2002.
- Holy site of Sarnath: The Dhamekh Stupa, built in 200 BCE, is located in Sarnath, 12 km from the Hindu city of Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It marks the place where Buddha delivered his first discourse on the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.
- Holy site of Kushinagar: Buddha died c. 487-483 BCE. His final days are described in the Pali text called the Great Parinirvana Sutra. On reaching the village of Kushinagar in the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, he instructed Ananda, his most faithful disciple, to prepare a bed for him with its head aligned towards the north. Above is the 61 meter-long reclining Buddha statue in the Mahaparinivana Temple in Kushinagar, depicting the Buddha on his deathbed in the paranirvana position, which all devout Buddhist hope to visit.
Do I have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist?
Many Western Buddhist teachers will tell you that there is no problem if you do not believe in rebirth. For the majority of Westerners, it is very difficult to imagine that there was a life before this one and that there could be a life after this one. But, a teacher might add, if you can keep an open mind about it, and conduct your life according to the Buddhist teachings in a way that will prepare you just in case you are reborn, well—you’ve got nothing to lose, except bad habits!
Most people can appreciate the many ways we “die” and are “reborn” from moment to moment. We change our minds, our emotions shift and our views and perspectives morph all the time. Each time we buy into a train of thought or a line of thinking or a notion, we are reborn in the world of that notion, in the world of that thought. And we eventually pass away out of the realm of that thought into another one.
By extrapolating from those “rebirths,” some people may begin to see how consciousness is a constant arising and falling away, a continuum of births and deaths. It becomes a lot easier to consider the Buddha’s teachings on karmic conditioning when you can see how everything arises and passes away.
So even if it is hard to buy into the notion of rebirth in the macrocosmic sense, we may be able to fathom it in the microcosmic world of our day-to-day lives. Many Buddhists also find that simply considering their lives in the context of rebirth, without necessarily believing in it, is a meaningful way to see their individual selves as embedded in a larger narrative.
Can anyone become enlightened?
Buddhism teaches that everyone has the capacity for awakening. By following the path of practice the Buddha laid out, we can all eventually free ourselves from suffering, no matter who we are.
That said, most schools of Buddhism also teach that we each achieve Enlightenment according to our karma—the consequences of our thoughts and actions—and we may have a pile of negative karma that will take a lot of work to clean up. The more skillfully we work at following the path, the better. It may take a long time, but we will get there.
It is true that some scriptures—and teachers in some traditions—posit that being born with a female body is the result of negative karma. A number of sutras contain stories and passages that suggest a male body is required in order to become fully enlightened. The Buddha’s own body reportedly bore “the 32 marks of the great man,” at least one of which pertains specifically to male physiognomy. But most scholars and teachers agree that these marks are not meant to be taken literally.
The teachings in which the Buddha says that both men and women can attain enlightenment far outweigh the contradicting ones. Female members of the Buddha’s own family who joined his monastic community became enlightened beings. The Buddha’s example shows that it is the mind that awakens, not the body—and the mind is beyond gender.