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Buddhism - Frequently Asked Questions.

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 As a Buddhist I am occasionally asked questions about Buddhism - here are some of them, with my answers*.

Meditation - am I doing it right?

When I started meditating it was the one question I needed to know the answer to. This was probably because I had expectations and preconceptions about what I could achieve. But Soto Zen shikantaza and Vipassana meditation are about allowing the thoughts to arise and then letting them go away, without analysing them or getting caught up in them. So each time I meditate the experience is different - sometimes the bliss that expected, sometimes a daydream, sometimes reliving experiences .... and so on. Letting go of my expectations has allowed it to flow more naturally. I still don't know if I am doing it right, but I do know when I am not meditating!

Is meditating like daydreaming?

Daydreaming is something we do quite frequently without realising it. But because we all do it - it does make a good comparison!

There are three major types of meditation (to put it crudely, as it is much more subtle than that) - guided daydreaming, concentration and awareness.

In the guided daydreaming type we are guiding our thoughts and trying to generate specific emotions or feelings. This type of thing is "Imagine you are on a desert island... you can hear ... you can feel ..." or "imagine that there is a big blue lotus in your heart radiating kindness... feel the kindness going out to your parents ... your friends ... your enemies ..."

Concentration meditation is simply concentrating on one thing and excluding everything else - such as your breathing, a picture, a mantra (repeated phrase), a lit candle, counting the beads on a rosary or an activity (such as washing the dishes) . When we realise that we are dreaming then we know that we have stopped concentrating and we have to gently bring our attention back to the meditation!

Awareness meditation (such as vipassana or shikantaza) is perhaps the hardest to do, but sounds like it is the simplest! We simply observe what is going on in our mind without getting caught up in it - "not trying to think and not trying not to think". The moment when we realise that a thought has arisen and we are about to start daydreaming is very significant in this type of meditation.

So in answer to the question meditation is something more than daydreaming, but daydreaming can play an important part of it. And there are times when even the most experienced meditators sit on their cushion and just daydream!

How do I know when I am enlightened?

The big paradox of Buddhism is that if enlightenment is a selfless state then the self cannot experience it! So if I ask "am I there yet" then I certainly am not! Perhaps the literature and attitude we have in the west places too much emphasis of obtaining an "enlightenment experience", and if we let go of our preconceptions it might just happen more naturally?

Could send me a picture of all the possessions that a Buddhist would have?

There are no restrictions on possessions for Lay Buddhists. Whilst they may have books about Buddhism and statues of the Buddha, their possessions are essentially the same as anyone else! Ordained monks however accept a series of rules that may restrict the number of things they possess.

How do Buddhists feel about drinking coffee, tea, alcohol, and other stimulants and smoking?

I think that part of the answer is in the question - these things are stimulants or depressants and they have effects our mind. There are not rules in Buddhism that say 'thou shalt not....', but guidelines that we can choose to follow. One aim of Buddhism is to be able to reach enlightenment, though understanding our minds - we cannot do this if they are clouded by chemicals. The choice is ours. Some lay Buddhists choose to drink etc. in moderation to be sociable.

What things are Buddhists not allowed to eat?

It all depends on whether the Buddhist a lay person or ordained monk, and what Tradition they are from. Zen monks are vegetarian and should not eat garlic/chives/onions/leeks. Tibetans don't eat fish. Theravada monks eat whatever they are given unless they think that an animal has been killed specially for them. Lay people tend to make their own decisions about diet according to their circumstances.

Are Buddhists vegetarians?

Some are and some aren't. We all make our own decisions as lay people. Ordained monks (male or female) have to follow the rules of their particular traditions. Zen monks are veggies. Theravada monks beg for their food and eat whatever they are given. Tibetan Tibetan monks (i.e. ethnic Tibetan monks) tend to eat meat because their climate is too harsh to grow a variety of vegetables.

What clothes do Buddhists have to wear?

For lay people there are no rules, but they may chose to avoid leather and may chose to wear the colours of their particular monastic tradition. For ordained monks and nuns the colours of the robes are ususally dictated by tradition - for example - Theravadins it is usually a ochre or brown colour, Tibetan traditions it is yellow and maroon, Japanese Zen it is black and some other Japanese traditions wear white robes.

What do Buddhists believe about life after death and what is Nirvana?

The Buddhist concept is simple - but hard to understand. So you will find a lot of variation in the way it is put across to make it acceptable/accessible to the various cultures in which Buddhism thrives.

A major concept in Buddhism is "anatta" (or "anatman") - there is nothing that can be found that can be called an individual's Self or Soul. When we die something carries on BUT it is not a soul or self. Just as the physical elements of the body are recycled, then the energies we have created will be transferred into other life forms and will affect others in the future. One analogy I read recently is a lava-lamp - each blob leaves the mass at the bottom, behaves as a separate blob and then returns to rejoin the main mass at the bottom of the lamp.

Nirvana is not well defined - the Scriptures tell us what it is not, rather than what it is. It is achieved by totally letting go (not rejecting) the illusion of Self and all the selfishness that goes with it. Buddhists believe in Rebirth.

What does Buddhism say about sex?

Monastic Buddhists (monks and nuns) take a vow of celibacy, and there are rules in the Vinaya for them. For monastics - sex is seen as getting in the way of their intensive Buddhist practice and because they are celibate there are many rules governing conduct between the sexes. Also, monastics have decided to live in a separate community as part of their individual effort to train and cut the ties of lay life - entering into a sexual relationship will mean that they are taking on responsibilities of caring for and loving another individual again.

Lay people take vows to try not to do things that harm others (the Precepts) - this includes killing, lying, stealing, etc. and sexual abuse. Buddhism does not set down commandments " thou shalt not...." but rather when the individual accepts the precepts they "promise to train myself in the precept of .....". And it is seen as training - if we go "wrong", we say 'well I made a mistake and will try not to repeat it', and then get on with our lives.

From what I have seen of Buddhism it does not think that sex (in itself) is bad or shameful. It is a normal human activity. But like all other activities it can be misused if we harm others (physically or mentally) or become obsessed. Becoming obsessed with guilt about sex or judging others sexuality can, I suspect, be just as harmful.

Lay people are not expected to practice in the same way as monastics. We have to work, look after family and home, etc. It is for the individual to decide what is appropriate for their circumstances (which of course change from time to time).

One thing I found useful was something Zen Master Jiyu Kennett said one of her recorded Dharma talks: 'Buddhist is a religion for adults not children'. Adults make their own decisions, children get told what to do and what not to do. We adults should not expect others to make our decisions for us and not expect others to take the responsibility for our actions.

What do Buddhists think about same-sex realtionships?

Most western Buddhists are very tolerent people and do not discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. In my opinion relationships for lay Buddhists should be loving and supportive and not exploitative. I don't think that different rules apply to same-sex partnerships.

I am having trouble understanding exactly why women are not allowed to become Buddhist monks. Why are the nuns treated inferior to the monks?

It is not an easy question to answer - but I will try:-

I think that any concept of inferiority of women within Buddhism is cultural rather than religious in nature. When the Buddha lived over 2500 years ago women were treated in a less politically correct way than they are today. The Buddha did ordain nuns, but they were given more rules than monks. The Buddha was seen as rebelling against the orthodox religion of the time, and ignored some Social norms such as Caste - but perhaps womens' liberation was too big a jump!

Also - within most monastic communities (even today) sex and sexual attraction is seen as a distraction from the meditative life - so generally there are very strict rules for monastics about contact between the sexes to avoid this problem and any sexual abuse or accusations of abuse. (For example when a male Zen monk visits our meditation group he cannot spend the night in the same house as women unless there are other men present - a bit like the new rules for teachers on School trips!).

Within the various forms of Buddhism that developed :- The Theravada tradition lost its order of nuns - the rules stated that there had to be a certain number present to ordain someone, and at one stage there were not enough to continue the line. In the West, although they cannot ordain - women can be treated as serious-monastic-lay people (there is a correct term, but I forget it). Within the Tibetan tradition there are nuns. Within the Zen tradition that I follow women can become Monks and Zen Masters - there is equality (in the west at least).

What about karma and past lives?

People may experience memories of past lives. As far as I know memories of past lives are a byproduct of Buddhist/religious practice and are not the aim of it.

Everything that I do will have an effect. That is the law of Karma. But the point of Buddhism is to become enlightened, not to sit around wondering what Karma has caused things to happen to us. That would be a selfish waste of time. Instead we deal with things as they exist in the present moment. If we realise that we have made mistakes in the past we should learn from them and resolve to do better next time. Dwelling in the past or speculating about the future will not lead to enlightenment.

I was wondering in what ways do Zen and Tibetan Buddhism reflect and promote what the Buddha taught and in what ways do they alter or neglect what the Buddha taught?

The historical Buddha lived in India, and His teachings were not written down at the time. Over the last 2000 years scriptures have been written down and translated into different languages, sometimes from translations!

I would think that parts of the scriptures are very close to the original teachings - such as the precepts and rules for the monastic Sangha. Others incorporated folk tales. Others were added to reflect the philosophy of the time. Some were perhaps altered to suit the new countries and cultures that Buddhism spread into.

That process is going on now in the west - some translations of scriptures are literal and scholarly others attempt to make the essence of Buddhism understandable.

On the other hand the message of Buddhism is that every being has the ability to become an enlightened Buddha. So does it matter that the teaching has been added to by enlightened teachers who were/are doing their sincere best to help their students?

If enlightenment is possible and people achieve it then it is impossible for the true essence of the Buddhas to be ignored, neglected or hidden.

Do you have to be a Buddhist to do Buddhist meditation?

No, but it helps.

Anyone can do meditation. It can be used as a relaxation technique, or as part of a spiritual practice. Non-Buddhists can use Buddhist meditation techniques and their religious beliefs will not necessarily change as a result.

But meditation is not used in isolation within Buddhism. There is also a moral code of conduct and a community which can support our practice. These help to keep us on the right lines.

Sometimes disturbing things arise out of our meditations - at those times the precepts, teachings and community help us understand what is going on and stop us veering into extremes. If you are using meditation as a relaxation technique by yourself I recommend that you do not try advanced or esoteric meditations, even if they are available in books.

Can anyone become a Buddhist?

Yes. It is a religion/path open to all. It is very nonjudgmental and allows individuals to decide for themselves how much they wish to commit to the practice. You do not have to join a group. You do not have to find a teacher. But both these will help you on the way.

It is a very sensible religion - it does not tell you what to do or what to believe. It says - try it yourself and if it works and helps you then you are welcome to continue; if it does not work for you try something different.

You do not have to go through a ceremony to become a Buddhist, though special ceremonies exist in each school of Buddhism. These generally involve "taking refuge" and accepting the morality of the "Precepts".

How do I become a Buddhist?

There are different senses of "becoming a Buddhist". In one way you formally become a Buddhist through a Precepts Ceremony (see below). But in another sense we become Buddhists by accepting that there is something in Buddhism that we wish to follow. We see that it could be beneficial to ourselves and others, and we try to put it into practice. We may not accept all of it at once, there may be bits that we disagree with, and there will be many times that we drift off the 'path'.

Are there any courses in or near Hull that teach an introduction to Buddhism and meditation?

All of the local groups are affiliated to a particular sort of Buddhism and will teach you how to practice that particular type of Buddhism. There is no group offering an introduction to "general Buddhism". What you will get from each group is therefore biased - there is nothing wrong with that but you need to be aware of it (similarly you would not expect a Roman Catholic to teach you about Methodist Christianity!)..

Where can I take the Ceremony for Taking Refuge?

Formally "taking the Precepts" will vary from Tradition to Tradition. In the Tradition that I follow it is a ceremony performed once a year, and we are expected to have been involved in the training for a while beforehand (and there may be a lower age limit). Other Traditions may have precept ceremonies monthly.

"Shop around" and find what sort of Buddhism suits you. Then try to find a local group near your home and see what they do and what they say about "taking the precepts".

If you take the refuge/precepts does that mean you have to remain a Buddhist all of your life?

Taking the Precepts is a voluntary thing. It is you who makes the decision to try to keep to the Precepts; no-body is forcing you to; no-body will think badly of you if you don't manage to keep to them. But going through a Ceremony should be seen as making a public commitment - perhaps this is why in my Tradition you wait a while so that you can be sure that it is what you want to do.

If you find that Buddhism is not for you - then you just stop being a Buddhist. Nothing nasty will happen if you do that; it will not bring you "bad Karma". Even ordained monks may disrobe and return to lay life without any shame or sense of failure. We must all do what we think appropriate to our circumstances - and the major thing that the Buddha tells us is that our circumstances will change.

"Do No Harm" - how can I rationalize this?

In Zen the three Great Precepts are - cease to do evil, do only good, do good for others. So my interpretation is try not to deliberately harm others physically or mentally out of hatred; nor out of selfishness; nor through not thinking through the consequences of my actions. And the same applies to harming myself. And also remembering that the other extreme (of being a "do gooder" and being proud of helping others) is also a hinderence to enlightenment. But these are not "commandments" that are forced on me but a set of recommendations that I voluntarilly choose to follow and interpret the best I can.

Are you "bad" if you do not meditate everyday?

In Buddhism we do not judge each other (or try not too!). Yes - it is good to meditate and you will get benefits from it. But it is not 'bad' not to meditate! My advice is to do what you think best - if you can meditate then do so, but don't force it or have high expectations. Sometimes it is hard to fit it in to a busy day - don't worry.

Is it better to practice within a Group/Community or alone?

I have found pros and cons to group and individual practice. In Group practice there is support when you are struggling, and the oportunity to help others and beginners. But I have found that at certain times mixing with other types of Buddhist (i.e. not Soto Zen) confused my practice. When I practiced by myself I led myself up blind alley's on occasion because I had no one to ask whether I was doing it right. But I was able to get on with it without distractions.

There are Three Treasures or Refuges in the Zen Precepts - the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Sangha does offer support and advice and along with the Dharma keeps us on the right track. In Zen we accept the Boddhisattva Vow - to train for the the benefit of others not just for ourselves.

Being part of a Group does not stop us from practising by ourselves when we want to.

Is there a Buddhist Group or Temple near me?

If you live in the UK suggest that you contact the Buddhist Society in London who publish a Buddhist Directory.

How do Buddhists worship?

Buddhists do not "worship" the Buddha or deities. We do have ceremonies in which we pay homage to the Buddhas and teachers that have passed the religion on to us. We may also show our respect to our family, friends and the Buddhist community in gratitude for their help and compassion.

Many Buddhist Groups meet in members' homes or rented rooms. A meeting will probably include some scripture recitation, some meditation and a Dharma talk (perhaps a reading from a book or by listening to a recording, if a teacher is not available). There is also likely to be a cup of tea and some socialising.

Can you tell me where the 84 000 teachings of the Buddha are published?

There are said to be 84 000 teaching of the historical Buddha (particularly within the Tibetan traditions). Personally I suspect that 84 000 was the largest known number at the time - and today we would say that the teachings were infinite. There was also an emphasis on numbered lists - 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Ten Precepts .... Personally I think that this was because the teachings were being passed on orally and not written down - so it was a means of checking that something was not missed out (a bit like parity in computers!). I do not now of a book containing the 84 000 teachings (and I do not know if any modern scholar has counted them).

What is the difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Zen?

There are many different schools of Buddhism and several are now here in the west. They all are pointing at the same thing - complete enlightenment and an end to suffering. But each has developed its own way of getting there.

The differences may seem to be quite significant to the outsider or beginner, after a few year's of practice I have found that the differences become more subtle and less important.

There are obvious differences - Tibetan monks wear claret and amber coloured robes and their ceremonies seem to be very colourful; Zen monks wear black robes and we hear more about the strictness of their meditation than their ceremonies; Theravada monks wear orange/brown/ochre robes and live a simple life according to ancient traditions.

I know most about Zen - it comes in two main forms Soto and Rinzai. Soto relies on a simple meditation practice performed from the day you start until you die (or give up). Rinzai is famous for its Koan meditation - seeking to answer illogical riddles and checking the answers with a Zen Master (I strongly recommend you do not try to do it alone). Both place great importance in carrying the meditation into daily life.

Tibetan Buddhism seems to be gradational. Involving mastering one technique before progressing. There are several mediation practices involved including chanting mantras and visualisations. To do it properly the student builds a bond with a Guru. This involves a series of initiations or "empowerments". Some of the practices have been published - but I am told that to try them without a Guru to guide you is not recommended.

Theravada Buddhism seems to me to be a gentle and simple form. The most commonly used meditation seems to be very similar to Soto Zen's. And emphasis is also placed on awareness in daily life.

Is euthanasia compatible with Buddhist belief and practice? And

If an animal were fatally injured, would a Buddhist be allowed to kill it, to stop it suffering further?

The Buddhist Precepts are not 'commandments' but a set of guidelines that each Buddhist choses to accept and has to interpret according to their circumstances... There is a general morality in Buddhism that is summed up by the Zen Precepts of "cease to do evil, do only good, do good for others". Then there are more specific precepts such as "I undertake to train myself in the precept of not taking the life of other beings" (or words to that effect). And then for monastics there are many more rules.

So in answer to the two moral dilemas (above) - some Buddhists might kill if they thought it reduced the overall amount of suffering and others might refuse to. Generally there is a respect for all forms of sentient life. I think that would certainly be wrong to do these things out of selfish motivation though - to rid myself of the burden of caring for a relative or because the injured animal was delaying my important car journey, for example.

One Buddhist friend allowed the vet to 'put down' his pet dog who was suffering with terminal inoperable cancer and I know of some monks who cared for a very ill sheep that strayed into the grounds of their monastery until it died several weeks later. Both were acts of compassion and done selflessly.


[updated December 2005]

If you would like me to answer your questions then e-mail me (mike @ and I will try!