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BUDDHISM: Questions & Answers

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 1a. Who is Buddha? Was Buddha a God?

The Buddha nature and a capacity to become enlightened is present in all people. The Buddha was born as a person and became enlightened as a person with a purified mind. He set an example for us that we all can develop for ourselves following the path to enlightenment. He reminded us that we too, can become enlightened someday.

1b. Was Buddha a God?

No, he never claimed to be a god, a son of a god, or a messenger of a god. Buddha was born as a person and became enlightened as a person. He set an example for us to develop ourselves following the path to enlightenment. He reminded us that we too can become enlightened, setting and extending to all directions to deliver the infinite numbers of sentient beings.

2. Who is the founder of your temple?

Venerable Master Hsing Yun

3. What are the objectives of the temple?

    Serve as a spiritual and cultural center
    Propagate “Humanistic Buddhism
    Foster and Promote Inter-religious dialogue
    Building a bridge between the East and the West

4. Where does Fo Guang Shan come from?

Fo Guang Shan originated in Taiwan. We are an international organization with about 200 temples worldwide. Website:

5. What is Humanistic Buddhism?

Humanistic Buddhism encourages us to integrate Buddha’s teachings into our daily lives, for the benefits of all sentient beings, through kindness, compassion, joyfulness and equanimity. We need to take an active role and join others in the improvement of our present world via education, participation in charitable events and though cultivating (Buddhist practices in our daily lives) ourselves. Humanistic Buddhism has six fundamental characteristics.

    Emphasis on daily life

Objectives of Humanistic Buddhism:

    To propagate Buddhist teachings through cultural activities
    To foster talent through education
    To benefit society through charitable programs
    To purify human hearts and minds through Buddhist practice

6. What do the great bell and drum symbolize?

The morning bell awakens people from their delusive dreams. The evening drum rolls the sounds of the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha. The morning bell and evening drum serve to awaken the people, remind them to practice diligently and warn them not to become lazy. They help to awakening the deluded and confused sentient beings.

7. How do Buddhists practice with a rosary?

The “rosary” (actually called a mala) is a string of beads that serves as a counting tool and has become a symbol of practicing Buddhists. These beads are worn around the wrist or neck It is usually used during chanting and reciting sutras, moving one bead for each mantra or practice accomplished.

8. Why do Buddhists recite the Buddha’s name?

By saying the Buddha’s name we seek to eradicate our illusory thoughts, purify our minds, and help us return to our originally undefiled and unattached true nature.

9. When we apply the Buddhist concept of impermanence to life are we not overly pessimistic?

First of all, we must realize that impermanence and pessimism are two different subjects, just like permanence does not mean optimism. By understanding impermanence, we will not insist on life’s events happening exactly our way. We are able to appreciate our lives and will try to build good affinity with others. Furthermore, while all things are impermanent, that does not necessarily mean that they are worthless, but rather that clinging to them will eventually lead to our suffering. While all beautiful things are bound to fade, so too is all suffering. For this reason, if it weren’t for impermanence, none of us could become a Buddha, since we would all be eternally trapped in our ignorance! Thus, the view of impermanence is not pessimistic at all but rather highly realistic and even optimistic.

10. What does “ Bodhisattva “ mean? What does “Arhat” mean?

Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word with two parts. Bodhi means enlightenment, wisdom and the way. Sattva means sentient being. Bodhisattvas are motivated by great compassion towards all sentient beings and are committed to liberating all beings from suffering. Concurrently, Bodhisattvas develop themselves spiritually to reach enlightenment through practices such as giving, following precepts, endurance, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. They may be regarded as Buddhas in training. Arhats represent beings who are followers of Buddhism who have eradicated all defilement and have reached the level of enlightenment to be beyond the samsara process of rebirth. They are considered worthy of receiving offerings from people and celestial beings. However, they have not yet reached the full enlightenment worthy of to become a Buddha. Arhat was also one of the ten names given to the Buddha; therefore, we can say that all Buddhas are Arhats but not all Arhats are Buddhas.

11. What is the significance of the Dharma wheels?

The wheel, a weapon, originated from the fighting vessels in ancient India was used in battles that led to victory. In Buddhism, the three meanings of the wheel, crushing, perpetual movement and completeness, like a circle, are used to represent the significance of Buddha teaching the Dharma.

The Dharma is the all encompassing and perfect teaching which destroys worries and defilements of all sentient beings. It is perpetually moving without interruption. The Dharma wheel has eight spokes, which represent the Eightfold Noble Path, the core teaching of the Buddha on how to live a life that will lead to the end of suffering.

12. Why do Buddhists have images of Buddha?

The images of Buddha symbolize his extraordinary qualities and teachings. Seeing these images helps us to get in touch with our own Buddha nature. Buddha nature-the true, the spiritual essence of all things, exists everywhere. Most of us are so preoccupied with everyday matters that we rarely, if ever, give it much thought. The serene, compassionate face and composed posture of the Buddha image remind us of the spiritual side of life. It can ignite a spark of peace and insight within us. It is what they stand for that counts, not their physical apperance.

However, it is important to not be attached to the images of a Buddha. They are merely symbols that help us to develop wonderful qualities, but are also subject to the same laws of impermanence as everything else. There is an excellent story illustrating this point passed from the 8th century Zen master Danxia Tianran. On one very cold winter day, the legend says, Tianran picked up a wooden Buddhist statue and threw it into the fire. The temple director, understandable upset, asked Tianran what he was doing. Tianran replied, in a very serious voice, that he was looking for spiritual relics (a type of beautiful pearl-like crystal found after cremating a high-level spiritual being). To this the director replied testily, “how could you get a relic from a wooden statue?” Tianran happily replied, “well, since it’s just a statue, let’s throw some more in the fire!” This episode is a perfect example of the Buddhist attitude towards such images: they are just material things, but it is our mind — and the mind’s ability to use symbols to reach enlightenment — that makes them sacred.

13. Why do people bow before the Buddha?

We bow to express respect and appreciation for both the Buddha, our most compassionate teacher, and the Buddha nature within ourselves and others. Bowing is also a way to transcend pride and selfishness. The Buddha did not ask for others to bow before him nor ask for his disciples to build statues of him, but did permit the expression of respect in a beautiful way as a way for sincere disciples to gain merit. There are ways beautiful ways to express respect — such as hands placed together above the heart, offerings of incense, fruit, etc. — but all of these are merely convenient physical expressions of a sincere, respectful mental attitude. Furthermore, bowing is an excellent physical exercise that helps keep the body strong.

14. What do lotus blossoms signify?

The lotus blossoms grow out of — but not independent of — the mire. We should never distance ourselves from suffering and ignore the world in the name of practice. Just as lotus blossoms grow in the heat of the summer, we need to turn the bothersome troubles and defilement of our lives into opportunities to further our practice and cultivation. It also signifies the purity and righteousness of our inner Buddha nature. The lotus comes from the mud and grows straight and true to rise above the water, sublime and pleasing to see, spreading the beautiful fragrance throughout the world, just as the Buddha’s teachings of compassion and wisdom also spread throughout the world.

15. What is the symbol found on the chest of many of the Buddha statues?

This is a “svastika,” an ancient symbol found in several different cultures. In ancient Babylonia, it was used to depict the Sun’s movement. It is also found in ancient India as a symbol of life. In Buddhism it signifies purity, wisdom and propitiousness. The symbol should not be confused with the Nazi symbol, which is reversely tilted, and was used by Hitler to represent death. This is one of the thirty-two marks of Buddha. It is the result of Buddha’s eons of practice. It is a sign of propitiousness, purity and completeness. We are reminded of Buddha’s infinite wisdom and compassion when we see this symbol. The turning motion represents Buddha’s great power perpetually moving, manifesting and extending to all directions to deliver the infinite sentient beings.

16. Why do people chant?

When we chant we concentrate on Buddha’s teachings repeatitively, we also may gain wisdom through the meanings of the words. By being compassionate, we remember both our loved ones and all other beings. We then readily transfer our merits to all Dharma Realms. Chanting done with the utmost sincerity is certainly beneficial for others and ourselves, and can be a complete practice to reach enlightenment.

17. What does it mean to practice diligently?

The Sanskrit wordVirya“ means fortitude, or pure and unadulterated progress in cultivating the good and eliminating the evil. One is considered to practice diligently if one maintains concentration, and with persistent work with the right view, right understanding, and the right knowledge, he/she will eventually lead to attaining the enlightenment of Buddhahood.

18. Why do Buddhists practice vegetarianism?

To show compassion toward the animals that otherwise would have lost their lives for human consumption. A Buddhist strives to have compassion for all beings any time of the day. If all of us can stop killing of any kind, our world can be peaceful. Vegetarianism is thus a sincere prayer-in-action for this kind of a world to become reality.

19. Do Buddhists pray before a meal?

Buddhists usually fold their palms before eating while silently offering the meal to Buddha, dharma, Sangha, and all the living beings in all the Dharma realms. One needs to remember other beings when one is eating the food. One may silently wish that all sentient beings achieve full accomplishment and fulfill the Buddha’s Dharma practice. The dining hall in a Chinese monastery is usually referred to as “The Hall of Five Contemplations” because people are reminded to contemplate the following five aspects when they eat:

    To count the amount of merit and appraise the source
    To assess one’s own virtues, whether perfect or deficient to deserve the bestowal
    To guard one’s mind against faults, greed in particular
    To receive this food in order to accomplish spiritual work
    To receive this food as medicine for this weakening body

20. What are the hand gestures?

The hand gestures are referred to as mudras used to express different symbolic meanings such as delivering the suffering, promoting fearlessness, wisdom, etc. In esoteric Buddhism (one particular school of Buddhism practiced most by the Tibetans), different mudras are also employed as a part of spiritual cultivation.

21. What does praying mean in Buddhism?

The essence of Buddhism is the law of cause and effect. We pray to Buddha for Inspiration and Guidance not miracles and salvation. Buddha cannot save us; we must liberate ourselves from our problems and confusion. However by opening our hearts to Buddha and his teachings, our inner strength and confidence will be reinforced to assist us in our work.

22. Why do Buddhists fold their palms?

Folding palms is a graceful posture and a dignified way of greeting, which originated in ancient India. By bringing ten fingers together; we symbolically make all ten Dharma realms become one. We are reminded of the Buddha nature within every being, whether mundane or extraordinary. We need to adapt a respectful outlook in practicing the Buddha’s teaching and concurrently deliver others and ourselves. Furthermore, folding palms helps us concentrate our minds while praying and allows our hearts to be opened to Buddha’s pure, enlightened energy.

23. Why are people not supposed to enter through the middle door of the main temple?

The center doorway of the temple is reserved for the one who presides over the service.

24. Why do Monastics shave their head?

Monastics need to renounce all the mundane desires and longing, in order to more readily achieve purity, be free from delusions, remove hindrances and enter the way of practice. Once they shave their hair they can easily be distinguished from those who have not joined the Sangha.

25. Why do monastics have incense marks on their heads?

The custom of burning incense marks is unique to Chinese Buddhism. It did not exist in early Buddhism and also has not been practiced in other countries. When Buddhism reached China , monastics were held in high regard by society and the nation. During the T’ang dynasty, the imperial court ordered that incense mark burning was to be incorporated in the precept ceremony in order to prevent people from impersonating Monastics and as an affirmation of their faith.