Frequently Asked Questions: Son Buddhism
While Buddhism has been in the United States for over a hundred years, it is still fairly new to this country in many ways. Not surprisingly, it seems that many people have some of the same good questions about the dharma (teachings of Buddhism). Some scholars estimate that there are over 26,000 denominations of Christianity and that there are even more types of Buddhism. Thus, for many of these questions it is impossible to generalize and depends on what specific lineage of Buddhism one is discussing. Thus I provide some fairly brief answers to twenty-one of the most frequently asked questions which can serve as a launching point for your own investigation.
1. Is Buddhism and/or Zen a religion?
Both Buddhism and Zen (which is one type of Buddhism) are religions. Lamentably in the
United States we have a common tendency to romanticize Asian culture. The martial arts and
Asian religions are two prime examples of this phenomenon. Buddhism and Zen are different
from what most people in the west assume religion to be. For example, Buddhism and Zen are
both generally classified as non-theistic (see question four below). Most schools of Buddhism
and Zen do not require belief in an overarching mythological narrative of the afterlife
(see question five below). But belief or non-belief in a God or Gods or concepts regarding
the afterlife do not qualify or disqualify a system as being a religion, just as a religion
does not have to posit the existence of karma or rebirth to be a religion.
Ninian Smart (see the Readings section of this site), one of the pioneers in the field of
comparative religion, posits seven dimensions which all religions generally share:
The ritual or practical dimension.
The ethical or legal dimension.
The experiential or emotional dimension.
The narrative or mythic dimension.
The doctrinal or philosophical dimension.
The institutional or organizational dimension.
The material or artistic dimension.
Most academic scholars of comparative religion either would assent to Smart’s definition or
offer their own fairly similar system. For example, Gary Comstock describes the seven
dimensions of religion as:
The cultus or ritual dimension.
The creed or belief dimension.
The uncanny or transcendent dimension.
The community or society dimension.
The code or morality dimension.
The course or history dimension.
The character or personal identity dimension.
Significantly, in Religious Autobiographies Comstock employs Zen as his main example
of the uncanny or transcendent dimension of religion because of its teachings regarding
emptiness and enlightenment.
I would suggest that Buddhism and Zen are the most self-deconstructing of all religions.
For example, in the Alagaddupama of the Pali canon, the Historical Buddha compares Buddhism
to a raft which carries us from the shore of suffering to the shore of liberation from
suffering. Once someone reaches the far shore of enlightenment, the raft is no longer needed.
Indeed, the raft might then be rendered cumbersome. That is not to diminish the importance of
Buddhism or Zen. Buddhists are just as committed to their spiritual path as believers of
other religious systems. The rituals, practices and beliefs of Buddhism are said to liberate
one from suffering and enable one to see reality directly. Generally, however Buddhists do
not cling to their way as the only way or seek to impose it on others. Buddhism advocates a
freedom from craving and delusion, and consequently, one does not want to engage in craving
or delusional perspectives towards one’s own Buddhist practice and beliefs.
A friend who is a Rinzai Zen priest from Japan once observed of Zen, Buddhism, and other
religions, “Zen is a mystical religion within a mystical religion.” Bodhidharma, regarded as
the founder of Zen in China is said to have defined Zen as:
A special transmission outside the orthodox teaching.
Nondependence on sacred writings.
Direct pointing to the human heart.
Realization of one’s own nature and becoming a Buddha.
Some Zen practitioners would argue that their style of Buddhism in particular is a renunciation
of rhetoric, texts and beliefs. Concepts thus are a hindrance to union with the thing in and
of itself. (For a fuller discussion of Zen in relation to Buddhism, please see the
History of Buddhism section of this site).
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2. What are the different types of Buddhism?
This is an excellent and complex question. Please see the History of Buddhism section of
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3. What is the Buddhist bible?
The answer to this question varies depending on the lineage. But in general, there is no
set of fixed canonical texts that are deemed to hold absolute authority such as the Torah,
the New Testament, or the Koran. The oldest Buddhist texts are the Pali canon which all
schools of Buddhism value to at least some degree. Theravada Buddhists are generally
fairly conservative in this regard and adhere primarily, and even at times exclusively,
to the Pali canon. But even in Theravada Buddhism, as it spread throughout South East Asia,
new texts (such as Jataka narratives) were composed and at times came to be highly regarded.
Thus, in addition to the Pali canon, most schools of Buddhism adopted their own sacred texts
which came to hold varying levels of importance. (For further discussion, please see the
History of Buddhism section and especially the discussion of the Pali canon).
4. Do Buddhists believe in a God?
Discussions along these lines are very complex, but in general it is fair to classify
most Buddhist systems of thought as non-theistic, meaning Buddhism is not reliant upon a
belief in a supreme deity or deities. Buddhists texts and philosophies are vast and in many
languages. Consequently, you will find Buddhists who are atheists, agnostics, theists,
polytheists etc. I cannot think of any Buddhist texts which argue for the existence of
theistic being, and similarly I can think of some texts which argue against this concept.
And yet some Buddhists view the Historical Buddha (or some other Buddha) as a God.
Shin/Pure Land Buddhism is perhaps the school which comes closest to echoing theistic
concerns (see the Readings section of this site).
Some possible philosophical objections to a belief in a God or Gods from a Buddhist
In some texts the Historical Buddha clearly eschewed speculation of
questions such as these and further said they were not relevant for the spiritual path;
many Buddhists adopt this position also
Most people’s beliefs in a God or Gods are clearly
anthropomorphic and culturally conditioned, while most of Buddhism seeks to experience
reality directly and liberated from concepts.
Similarly, most people’s belief in a God or
Gods is grounded in texts and rhetoric, whereas many schools of Buddhism (such as many Zen
lineages) believe ultimate reality cannot be expressed rhetorically.
5. What do Buddhists believe about the afterlife?
In some passages of the Pali Canon (oldest Buddhist texts) the Historical Buddha clearly
refuses to even discuss questions relating to the afterlife and says that they have nothing
to do with the spiritual path – that the spiritual path consists of overcoming suffering in
our own lives and the lives of others (See the Cula-malunkya Sutta of the Pali canon).
Despite foolhardy claims, theories of the afterlife cannot be proven; this is why it is
called faith. Thus, in a similar vein, many Buddhists see their spiritual task in relation
to questions regarding the afterlife, or lack thereof, as cultivating equanimity and joy in
the face of not knowing. However, some Buddhist texts clearly describe an afterlife based on
the concept of rebirth. In my own lineage of Zen, I know some monks who believe in rebirth
and some who don’t. On this question and others of this nature I would follow the Buddha’s
advice in the Kalama Sutta and trust your own experience rather than relying on blind faith
because a particular concept in your culture has been passed down to you.
6. Do Buddhists believe in miracles?
The best answer to this question is that it depends on what type of Buddhism you are
talking about and how you define miracles. In some places the Pali canon (oldest Buddhist scriptures) seems to reject even speculation about miracles. And yet, in other texts in the
canon, miracles are openly discussed as support for the teachings of Buddhism. I believe that
every moment of existence is a miracle. If we consider the evolution of a seemingly simple
fly, and the complex physics which enable it to fly, that to me is a miracle. Perhaps we should
not speculate too much on miracles until we fully understand this world in which we live. That
said, there do seem to be some events and phenomenon which defy our physical understanding
of the world, such as the Tendai Buddhist “Marathon Monks” of Mt. Hiei (see the fascinating
book by John Stevens). On the other hand, I am not convinced that just because we cannot
explain or understand something fully qualifies it as a miracle. Perhaps our scientific
understanding has not yet advanced to a point where it can answer certain questions.
The present reality of uncertainty does not mean that such questions can never be answered.
7. What is karma?
Karma is a Sanskrit word (Kamma in Pali) which literally means “deed”
or “action.” A belief in karma is extremely common in Asia, even for people who are not
Buddhist or Hindu, just as many Americans may believe in some type of a supreme being even
though they are not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. Theories of karma are fascinating and can
be very complex as they relate to how we understand questions of the afterlife, self, action,
autonomy and the universe. One fairly simple, though also fairly accurate, way to think of
karma is of its being akin to the old western adage “what goes around comes around.”
Similarly, some Buddhists see karma as an almost supernatural divine force of justice.
The seeming vagaries and radical injustices of the world are attributed to past lives and
deeds. On the other philosophical end of the spectrum, many Buddhists see karma as an
efficacious ethical metaphor whereby they seek to understand the myriad underlying
causes and conditions of an event in a humanistic light.
8. What is the difference between rebirth and reincarnation?
Just as Christianity and Islam emerged from Judaism, Buddhism emerged from Hinduism. The
vast system of philosophical and ritualistic practices that are classified as “Hindu” all
generally had some notion of reincarnation. An oft-cited metaphor to describe reincarnation
is just as one changes clothes from day to day, a soul travels from body to body as it lives
and eventually dies in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth into new life.
Hinduism has the notion of an atman or soul. The Historical Buddha taught the idea of anatman
(Pali anatta) which literally means “no-self” or no-soul. Generally the term reincarnation
is used for Hinduism while the term rebirth is employed in discussions of Buddhism.
The idea of no-self is extremely complex and debated within Buddhism, but can generally be
understood to mean that human beings, and other sentient beings, and perhaps even physical
objects, do not live in isolated, distinct, autonomous states of fixed “selves” or existence.
Rather, beings exist in an interconnected way. See for example Vietnamese Zen Master
Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on the nature of interbeing. As the distinctions between self
and other are much less fixed in Buddhism than almost all other religions and thought systems,
understandings of Buddhist rebirth can vary widely.
In traditional Buddhist cosmology there are six overarching realms of rebirth: the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the demi-God realm, and
the God realm, and a Buddha is a being who has escaped this near endless cycle of birth and
death. A general, though fair, statement is that some Buddhists understand the question of
rebirth to be a literal phenomenon whereby some aspect of a person (karma, consciousness etc.)
travels from life to life until they reach enlightenment.
Other Buddhists see rebirth as a skillful metaphor for the varying mental and emotional
states we travel through every day of our existence. It should be noted that many religions
have some notion of reincarnation or rebirth. For example, much Christian theology argues
that Jesus resided in heaven, then took on human form and was born to a woman, died, existed
in hell (see the Apostles Creed), returned to the earthly realm after three days, then
returned to the realm of heaven, and will come again for a final judgment. Many Christians
believe that when they die they will then be reborn in heaven or on earth with a new body
for a second judgment. These are all forms of either rebirth or reincarnation.
9. What is enlightenment?
Some lineages of Buddhism would consider it absurd to offer a definition of
enlightenment, particularly in a short answer, frequently asked question format!
The style of Buddhism I practice, Zen, is often intentionally hard to pin down rhetorically.
On the other hand, some schools of Buddhism are quite candid about offering their
understandings of enlightenment. Three other factors compel me to offer some initial thoughts
on this most complex of topics. First, it is one of the most frequently asked questions by
those who are new to Buddhism. Second, it is perhaps the ultimate goal of Buddhist
practitioners. Third, theologians and philosophers in other religious traditions are forced
to offer rhetorical positions all the time regarding complex questions about practice,
dogma and belief. Thus, I will list some of the definitions that are offered by the tradition
most frequently, though I do not purport to offer a complete catalogue of them.
Some of these definitions vary in seemingly subtle but significant ways. And it is important
to remember that one’s answer to this question relates directly to how one answers other
complex questions of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The Historical Buddha said that one
should teach in a way that can be understood by the person one is seeking to help. Thus,
Buddhist teachers will sometimes offer different, and even seemingly contradictory answers
to the question of what is enlightenment, a good example of this is the vast collection of
Some ways that Buddhist texts and teachers define enlightenment are:
Enlightenment is the transformation of and/or freedom from destructive emotional cycles
such as craving, aversion, greed, hatred and delusion.
Enlightenment is liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Enlightenment is experiencing and seeing reality directly.
Enlightenment is awakening to the Buddha nature that is already within us and inherent
in all beings and phenomena.
Enlightenment is complete and total equanimity and joy amidst the inevitable vagaries
Enlightenment is being fully, totally present in each moment of existence.
Enlightenment is a direct realization and manifestation of anatman, of no-self.
Enlightenment is being reborn in the Pure Land (often seen as a rough equivalent to a
belief in heaven).
10. Are there commandments in Buddhism?
In general, it is fair to say there are no absolute fixed set of prohibitions in Buddhism.
Perhaps the closest comparison to the Christian Ten Commandments is the Five Precepts of
Buddhism which are:
Do not kill.
Do not steal.
Do not commit sexual misconduct.
Do not lie.
Do not use intoxicants.
These Five Precepts are widely honored by the various forms of Buddhism, albeit they are
interpreted and followed in different ways. The Vinaya is the third section of the
Pali canon and enunciates the various rules and regulations that govern monks and nuns.
11. Do Buddhists eat meat?
In the Pali canon (the oldest Buddhist scriptures) the Historical Buddha was specifically
asked if all his disciples should be vegetarian, and he said no. However, Buddhism has a strong
emphasis on non-violence and compassion for all sentient beings, not just humans. Many
Buddhist teachers will say that vegetarianism is a more ethical lifestyle than eating meat,
but no teachers (that I know of) absolutely forbid the eating of meat.
My Master Monk Bop-hyun Sunim eats meat. I am a vegetarian. What matters most is your
intentionality – why you do what you do? As with all things, be mindful of the choices you
make, the factors which influence you, the actions you eventually take and then act
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12. What does Buddhism say about alcohol and drugs?
The most oft-cited teaching regarding alcohol and drugs is the fifth precept which is
generally stated as: Do not use intoxicants. Some Buddhist teachers interpret this literally.
Buddhism certainly places a premium upon focusing and understanding our minds and so it is
easy to see how alcohol and drugs can be seen as counter to the Buddhist path. On the other
hand, Buddhist teachers and texts frequently assert that all things, even the dharma
(the teachings of Buddhism) itself can be a source of attachment and “intoxication.”
One of the central teachings of the Pali canon (oldest Buddhist scriptures) is upaya
which translated means “skillful means.” In other words, the Historical Buddha urged his
disciples to not react in rigid systematic fashion but rather to assess each situation
individually and react mindfully depending on the unique variables of a particular situation.
In my own lineage of Zen, I know some monks who do not drink alcohol and some who do.
13. What is the attitude of Buddhism towards women?
The Historical Buddha rejected the caste system of ancient India. He taught that women
could be ordained and reach enlightenment, just as men could. While there has been
discrimination against women in Buddhism, just as there has been in all of the world religions,
scholars of comparative religion agree that on the whole Buddhism has not discriminated against
women as much as most other major religions. (For an exploration of how women were treated
in early Buddhism and Buddhist texts see The First Buddhist Women: Translations and
Commentary on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott in the Readings
section of this site). American Buddhist sanghas are particularly inclusive and affirming
of women in leadership roles. Perhaps the majority of Buddhist temples in America have a
woman as their main teacher or one of their leading teachers.
14. What does Buddhism say about abortion and sexuality?
To my knowledge there are no Buddhist texts which forbid abortion or could be interpreted
as forbidding abortion. I know some Buddhist monks who would object to abortion on a personal
level but I know of no monks who publicly call for it to be criminalized as do some
denominations of Christianity.
In many Buddhist countries the citizens may have strong feelings about abortion but they
do not seem to be at a cultural impasse as the various sides of this debate are in the
United States. The reasons for this are vast and varied, but perhaps one insight into the
reason why can be seen in mizuko kuyo which is a Japanese Buddhist ritual specially
conducted for a parent or parents who, for whatever reason, have had an abortion.
(For a full explication of mizuko kuyo see Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan by William R. LaFleur).
Central to the mizuko kuyo religious ritual are the mizuko jizo. The
mizuko jizo are small, stone statues, about two-feet high, which look like little
children. These statues of children are clothed in the traditional, foot-length robes of a
Buddhist monk. These mizuko jizo statues represent both wise Buddhist monks and
beloved children. Each mizuko jizo statue also signifies an aborted fetus or
miscarriage. A woman or couple will have a mizuko jizo statue erected as a testament
to the abortion experience which they and the fetus endured. The term Jizo itself
comes from the phrase Jizo Bosatsu, which literally means “the Earth Store Bodhisattva.”
A bodhisattva is spiritual being who seeks enlightenment for the benefit of humanity.
Jizo himself holds a special place in the Buddhist pantheon as a bodhisattva of great compassion, and a protector of infants. Jizo also helps individuals navigate the world of
pain and suffering towards enlightenment. The term mizuko literally means “children
of the waters.” People interpret the mizuko jizo in different ways. For some, by
praying to Jizo, the bodhisattva of compassion, and recalling mizuko, the source of
life, they literally seek a reincarnation for their aborted child. Others see the mizuko
jizo as a metaphor. They see the mizuko jizo as a spiritual rebirth, as a ritual
of mourning and loss, and the chance to learn, and grow, and become whole again. In either
case, the survivors are empowered by participating in a spiritual ritual specifically
tailored to their unique needs and beliefs in a time of great crisis and mourning. My friend
Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong proposes creating a similar ritual in his most recent
book A New Christianity for a New World (page 215).
Similarly, to my knowledge there are no strict rules and prohibitions that are formally
enacted in Buddhism regarding sexuality as can be found in many denominations of
Christianity. The most oft-cited teaching in this regard is the third precept which is
generally stated as: do not commit sexual misconduct. While individual teachers may condone
or endorse certain behaviors or acts, as a monk I personally believe one needs to cultivate
wisdom and compassion so one can act mindfully.
Most schools of Buddhism do, however, require their clergy, both monks and nuns, to be
celibate. Noted exceptions to this which do allow married clergy are many of the Japanese
forms of Buddhism and my lineage of Korean Zen, the Taego order.
15. What do Buddhists say about homosexuality?
The Pali canon (oldest Buddhist texts) says very little about homosexuality. Ordained
clergy are urged not to commit homosexual acts, but this is because the Pali canon dictates
that monks and nuns remain celibate. Interestingly, the punishments are more strict for monks
who break their vows of celibacy with a woman than with a man. To my knowledge there are
no other texts in Buddhism which address this question. Nor are there any type of
proclamations or rules forbidding homosexuality. There are monks in Asia who would frown
upon homosexual activity, but they are more influenced by cultural concerns than actual
Buddhist teachings. American Buddhist sanghas are typically quite welcoming and affirming
of homosexuality. I know of many Buddhist centers where the head teacher, or one of the main
teachers, is openly gay or lesbian.
16. Are Buddhists pacifists?
Many scholars of comparative religion argue that of the five major world religions Buddhism
has been on the whole the most peaceful. (Two texts which document how Buddhism has been
intimately linked to war and violence are Zen at War by Brian Daizen Victoria and
Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka by Stanley Jeyaraja
Tambiah. See the Readings section of this site for
fuller descriptions of these fine texts). Whether Buddhism’s comparatively good history of
pacifism and peace is because of the efficacy of its teachings and practices or because
historically it has been primarily a religion of less economically affluent nations is
subject to debate.
There is certainly a strong tendency towards pacifism in Buddhism. An oft-cited example of
this is His Holiness the Dalai Lama who consistently rejects calls for violence to free his
oppressed people in Tibet from their occupation by China. There are certainly numerous
examples of radical non-violence in early Buddhist texts. And yet, there are times that the
Historical Buddha himself is depicted as committing a violent act as a skillful means to an
end. This suggests that there is no one unified voice within the texts of Buddhism which
would eschew all forms of violence in all situations. I believe most Buddhist teachers and
practitioners would agree with His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he states:
History shows us that violence only engenders more violence and rarely solves
problems. On the other hand, it certainly creates unfathomable suffering. It is also
apparent that even when war seems wise and logical as a means to end a conflict,
we can never know for sure whether by putting out a fire we are in fact lighting a
17. Do Buddhists have emotions?
Surprisingly, I have been asked this question many times. The path of Buddhism is not to
deny or suppress our emotions. Rather the noble path involves directly facing and understanding
our emotions. When you are sad, be sad. When you are happy, be happy. Deal with your emotions
in healthful ways and seek to understand the causes and conditions which help to bring them
about. The Historical Buddha was not detached from the world but lived a life of social
engagement. The Pali canon (oldest Buddhist texts) frequently depicts the Historical Buddha
as being filled with joy and compassion. He also often expressed sadness at the plight of
suffering in the world and resolve to help overcome it.
18. What do Buddhists do at their religious services?
Just as Christian services can be radically different depending on the denomination,
the rituals and practices of Buddhist temples can also vary widely. The most common religious
practices of Buddhism are meditation, chanting and prostrations (bowing).
In the Pali canon the two primary forms of meditation that the Historical Buddha discussed
were sati or “mindfulness” which generates vipassana (Pali literally
“discernment” or “insight”) and jhana or “absorption” which generates samatha
(Pali literally “quiescence” or “stillness”). Mindfulness was originally unique to Buddhism
and came to be the main style of meditation for Theravada Buddhism. It is now very common in
the United States. It is so popular that even many non-Buddhists practice this style of
meditation. In mindfulness meditation the practitioner cultivates a radical sense of
awareness and insight of one’s various mental, physical and emotional states and then can
direct this mindfulness to external situations. The absorptive jhana style of
meditation actually predated Buddhism and could be found in various forms of Hinduism
and yoga. Early Buddhist texts described this jhana/absorptive style of meditation as
cultivating a radical state of concentration which fostered qualities such as calmness and
tranquility. This absorptive form of meditation became popular in East Asian and developed
into the various forms of Zen Buddhism. Both forms of meditation cultivated the qualities of
the other style, varying in how much they were stressed and the techniques which they employed
to cultivate them. (For a fuller discussion of this topic, see the History of Buddhism and the
Readings sections of this site). Zen koans, mantra recitation and visualization practices are also common forms of meditation in Buddhism.
The Historical Buddha taught that all things can be a form of meditation when done with the
proper intentionality. The key is to not just cultivate equanimity and compassion while one
is meditating but to take your spiritual practice out into the world so that you can help
yourself and others find joy.
Chanting involves the rhythmic repetition of various mantras or texts. Chanting can be
done alone or in groups, and with or without musical instruments. Understandings of chanting
and its benefits vary depending on the type of Buddhism. Some Buddhists view their chanting
practice to be much akin to prayer in religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Other Buddhists understanding chanting to be a form of meditation practice or method of
disciplining and training the mind. In a similar vein, many Buddhists will chant to
cultivate positive virtues and traits.
Prostrations are much more popular among Buddhist practitioners in Asia than the west.
Some Asian monks employ the adage “A day without bowing is a day without being a Buddhist.”
Prostration practices vary according to the school of Buddhism, but all forms of prostration
involve training and disciplining ones body in systematic fashion to overcome ones ego and
attachments. Bowing is a physical expression and cultivation of humility. Bows can vary from
a simple half-bow to going from a standing position to completely placing and extending one’s
body on the ground. Some Buddhists will bow when greeting a teacher or in front of a Buddhist
statue or temple. At times in my ordination training I did over 1,200 prostrations in day.
(Pictures of these three types of rituals can be seen in the Images
19. Can someone be a Buddhist and a Christian
The answer to this question will vary depending on the teacher. The reconciliation or
differentiation of Buddhist teachings with other religious systems of thought and practice is
a fascinating process. When seeking to practice Buddhism and another religion, I believe there
are certain foundational Buddhist ideas one should be mindful of, such as the teachings of
anatman (no-self), emptiness, karma and rebirth. Much of Buddhist thought suggests
that all things exist in a perpetual state of change and evolution. In a similar vein,
there is no teaching of a creator God or moment of creation in Buddhism. Buddhism teaches
that suffering comes from desire and delusion – not from some form of sin or punishment from a
supreme being or beings. Further, there is no notion of original sin in Buddhism.
Much of Buddhist thought seeks to liberate oneself from words and concepts. For example, in
the Cula-malunkya Sutta (in the Pali canon), the Historical Buddha tells a story of a
man who is shot with a poisonous arrow. Several people rush to his aid. But the injured man
refuses all help until his rescuers can answer his existential questions about life and
suffering. Consequently he dies. By telling this story the Historical Buddha is clearly
rejecting the type of metaphysical and belief-oriented speculations that most forms of modern
religion readily engage in.
When seeking to answer this complex question, one must also first investigate how they
understand concepts such as a supreme being or beings, the self, the afterlife and immortality
and how these are reconciled with Buddhist teachings.
That said, there are obvious avenues of intersection depending on what religious systems
of thought are being explored. For example, Shin/Pure Land Buddhism (perhaps the most common
form of Buddhism in East Asia) bears remarkable similarities with the Christian doctrine of
being saved by faith alone. Christian texts and theology can bear remarkable similarities to
Buddhist texts and philosophy (see
Comparative Religion in the Readings section of this site).
Many Christian theologians describe their belief in a supreme being in terms that bear
remarkable similarity to Buddhist teachings.
Paul Tillich famously asserted: “God must be understood as being itself.” He further
asserted: “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to
argue that God exists is to deny him.” For Tillich and many Christian thinkers such as
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ludwig Feuerbach and Gordon Kaufman, God is not thought of as a being which exists in space and time because that constrains God and is thus rendered limited and finite. Conversely,
all beings are finite, and if God is truly the creator of all sentient beings and the
universe, God by definition cannot logically be finite since a finite thing cannot be the
generator and sustainer of an infinite array of finite things and beings. Hence God is not a
being but rather the essence of being itself.
Offering a similar perspective the minister and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher asserted
in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers:
But concerning immortality, I cannot conceal that the way in which most people take it
and their longing after it is completely irreligious, exactly contrary to the spirit of
religion. Their wish has no other basis than their aversion to that which is the goal of
religion. Recall how in religion everything strives to expand the sharply delineated outlines
of our personality and gradually to lose them in the infinite in order that we, by intuiting
the universe, will become one with it as much as possible. But they resist the infinite and
do not wish to get beyond themselves; they wish to be nothing other than themselves and they
are anxiously concerned about their individuality. Recall how it was the highest goal of
religion to discover a universe beyond and above humanity, and its only complaint was that
this goal would not properly succeed in this world. But they do not want to seize the sole
opportunity death affords them to transcend humanity; they are anxious about how they will
take it with them beyond this world, and their highest endeavor is for further sight and
better limbs. But the universe speaks to them, as it stands written: “Whoever loses his life
for my sake, will find it, and whoever would save it will lose it.” The life they would keep
is lamentable, for if it is the eternity of their person that concerns them, why do they
not attend just as anxiously to what they have been as to what they will be? How does
going forward help them if they cannot go backward? In search of an immortality, which is
none, and over which they are not masters, they lose the immortality that they could have,
and in addition their mortal life with thoughts that vainly distress and torment them.
But try to yield up your life out of love for the universe. Strive here already to annihilate
your individuality and to live in the one and all . . .
God is not everything in religion, but one, and the universe is more; furthermore,
you cannot believe in him by force of will or because you want to use him for solace and
help, . . . Immortality may not be a wish unless it has first been a task you have carried out.
To be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite and to be eternal in a moment, that is
the immortality of religion (53-54).
All of the world religions are vast and complex historical traditions, so to try and
practice two religions simultaneously can perhaps be filled with pitfalls. At the same time,
there are undeniable parallels in many thinkers, texts and rituals of Buddhism with other
In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton observed,
“Zen has much to teach the West.” Merton continues by referencing and echoing Dom Aelred Graham who
“pointed out that there was not a little in Zen that was pertinent to our own ascetic and religious
practice. It is quite possible for Zen to be adapted and used to clear the air of ascetic irrelevancies
and help us to regain a healthy natural balance in our understanding of the spiritual life” (58).
In a similar vein, the noted comparative religion scholar and Christian believer Huston Smith reflected
that studying Buddhism helped to deepen his own personal Christian faith. It is important to remember that
in Buddhism, Christianity, and all other religions there are a wide variety of beliefs and practices.
Ultimately each person must find their own answer to this question. Assuredly, much of the answer lies with our
20. Do Buddhists seek converts and how does one become Buddhist?
Though there are exceptions, generally Buddhism is a non-proselytizing religion.
Everyone must find their own way. Conversion can be a hard process as religions can be seen
and experienced as very different from each other. Cultural differences can also be experienced
as barriers to conversion. However, if someone sincerely wants to convert, they should follow
their spiritual path.
Two common rituals for formally committing to the path of Buddhism are taking the precepts
and taking refuge in the Three Jewels. (For a discussion of the Five Precepts see question 10.
Are there commandments in Buddhism?). The Three Jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the dharma
and the sangha. In this case the Buddha refers to the Historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (
see the History of Buddhism section). The dharma refers to the teachings of Buddhism. The
sangha is the community of monks and nuns in Buddhism, and in a larger sense the Buddhist
community as a whole. Buddhist practitioners interpret the precise meaning taking refuge
21. What is suffering from a Buddhist perspective?
In the Majjhima Nikaya (of the Pali canon) the Historical Buddha declares: “I teach one thing, and one thing only, suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Duhkha is commonly translated from Sanskrit and Pali as suffering. Many scholars suggest a better translation of duhkha is “thirst.” Generally when one considers the question of suffering, one envisions obvious and overt forms of suffering such as disease, poverty, war, starvation and death. Certainly the Historical Buddha was concerned with the obvious types of suffering.
But the Historical Buddha was also addressing the much more subtle forms of suffering that are often
overlooked but still experienced on a very tangible level in our everyday lives. Most people tend to be
locked in the same negative thought patterns. If one is having a problem at work, experiencing tension
with one’s family, facing a lot of debt etc. he or she tends to fixate on this emotional state day after day after day in ones thoughts and emotions. The little things in life which we have trouble dealing with can sometimes prove to be more destructive than the more overt forms of suffering. With obvious forms of suffering, such as a major illness, there are often people and systems in place to help us. But we often ignore the subtle forms of suffering because we are not taught how to deal with them.
Because things are constantly changing, most people spend their time locked in an endless cycle of attachment, aversion and delusion. Even when things go well, everything is still subject to change. Thus, for most people life takes on a subtle yet unsatisfactory quality to it, a thirst which can never be fully quenched. No matter how much money, power or fame we may have, we will all still age and eventually die. Thus, people cling to things which they enjoy, resist things which they do not enjoy, and tune out phenomena which they deem to be minor and inconsequential. This process makes life seem akin to a roller coaster whereby one craves the highs and loathes the lows. It is exhausting. But it does not have to be this way.
Translated to English, the word Buddha literally means “awakened one.” When people asked the Historical Buddha who he was and what he had achieved he responded, “I have awakened.” The Buddha is said to have awakened to the true nature of reality and transformed all the suffering in his life. And in the process, he showed how other human beings could achieve the same spiritual liberation. One way to think of Buddhism is the cultivation of mindfulness and equanimity so that one maintains a sense of serenity and joy, even amidst the inevitable vagaries of human existence. And the various schools and teachers of Buddhism teach different ways to follow the same spiritual path.
Haemin Seunim on February 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm said:
On the FAQ page, you state, “To my knowledge there are no Buddhist texts which forbid abortion or could be interpreted as forbidding abortion.” Actually, there are early scriptural sources that state quite directly that abortion constitutes murder as consciousness enters the body-to-be (the fertilized egg) at the moment of conception. This includes the Vinaya which states that monks who help women have an abortion commit a parajika, thus destroying their ordination. Check out Buddhism and Abortion edited by Damien Keown. More scriptural sources are cited in James P. McDermott’s chapter in this volume.
I would agree, though, that there are no Buddhist leaders or groups calling for abortion to be made illegal. The response to abortion in at least some Buddhist countries on the part of the clergy seems to be rather pragmatic. In both Japan and S. Korea, temples often provide non-judgemental religious services for aborted children.
As for homosexuality, there is a story in the Vinaya of a man who requests ordination from the Buddha. The other monks know him and warn the Buddha that this man is known to expose his backside, bend over and offer sex to the monks. They urge the Buddha not to ordain him and the Buddha agrees. This seems to form at least some of the basis for barring homosexuals from receiving the full ordination in all of the Asian Buddhist traditions I am aware of, including our own Taego order. The confucian influence in East Asian Buddhism is also a contributing factor. In the Japanese traditions where the Vinaya is no longer used at all, while there may be no official rule against the ordination of gays and lesbians, if an openly gay man, holding his partner’s hand, approached a temple and requested ordination, he would most likely be turned down.
My personal interpretation of the story from the Vinaya cited above is that this man is barred from ordination not because he is gay, but because his motivation for ordination is not proper. He seems to want to ordain for the purpose of having sexual access to other monks. In other words, the description of this man is not indicative of all gay men. I would argue that because sexuality, gender/sex, race/ethnicity, nationality, etc… are all only aspects of a temporary identity, discrimination does not make sense. Anyone who’s motivation for ordination is improper, whether they are looking for sexual partners, cult leader-like status, an easy life living off of alms from laypeople or whatever, should not be ordained.
Our bishop, Ven. Jongmae Park, along with some of his colleagues in more than one Buddhist order, formed the Mook Rim Society to provide ordinations without such restrictions. As you mentioned, there are other options for ordination as well in the West. Bishop Park has also encouraged the Taego order to liberalize it’s rules for ordination in relation to sexual orientation and other issues.
It seems to me that the ability of gay men and lesbians to ordain in Buddhist orders in the West stems from the fact that many of these ordination are not registered with a parent organization in Asia. In addition, some ordination options, like the Mook Rim Society I mentioned are entirely independent of any Asian Buddhist order. I hope the trend toward greater inclusivity continues.