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Offline Sandra M. Lopes

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What Buddhism is Not
« on: January 23, 2014, 03:48:04 pm »
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the great Buddhist teachers of our time, has a lovely book called "What Makes You Not a Buddhist" (a free preview can be read here: Written in a light tone, but with strong undercurrents of irony, it approaches Buddhism from the other way: not saying what it is, but what it's not.

Inspired by him, I'll try to address a few key points about what Buddhism is not. These are the kind of things that popularly come up in everyday conversation when someone talks about Buddhism and just gets all the facts wrong. I have published another longer guide, too, which hopefully you'll also find useful...

The usual disclaimer applies: I'm not a qualified teacher and just a beginner really. If you believe I made a mistake in explaining anything, you're probably right — ask a qualified teacher to explain things properly to you. I just hope I might have made less mistakes and given more correct answers so that this text might be of some use to you!

Why do people misunderstand Buddhism so much?

Buddhism in the West is relatively recent. It was mostly brought to the West by the Theosophists in the later part of the 19th century, and they have re-interpreted it according to their own Esoteric Christian views of the universe, their Victorian morality, and their own societal background. When, decades later, some of the Buddhist teachings were translated again, people were still borrowing words and ideas and explanations by the Theosophists.

Later on, during the 1960s, a lot of religious and philosophies were imported from India into the West, and, once more, mixed up with popular superstitions and Christianity. This was the dawn of the New Age movements. They would happily confuse and mix up Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. They influenced a lot of further movements and appeared in popular culture, but most had no formal training (with a qualified teacher) and, as such, easily mixed up teachings from completely antagonistic sources. Even if nowadays people are aware that Hinduism is not the same as Buddhism, they still repeat Hinduist teachings believing that they are Buddhist. We'll see a lot of examples below.

Buddhism says that we have no soul and no self, and teaches people to destroy their selves

In the words of one of my teachers, "You cannot destroy something that never existed in the first place." Actually, the biggest confusion here is that Buddhist teachings tell us to observe what we call a self, and see how it doesn't exist by itself — it exists as a result of several circumstances, causes and conditions. Let's see a typical example: can a self exist without a body? We can easily refute that and say, "no, you need a brain, or there is nothing to 'create' a self with". What Buddhism says is that, because the 'self' requires a brain — and the brain requires a body; and the body requires parents to give it birth; and to maintain the body you need people to grow food and sell it to you so you can eat and remain healthy, etc. and so forth — it doesn't exist by itself. There is no intrinsic self.

Unfortunately, the affirmation that "there is no intrinsic self" is often rendered as "there is no self", and this is claimed to be Buddhism. Wrong. Conventionally, we all have selves, and refuting that would be solipsism :) But ultimately, that self depends on a lot of things, and, as such, it cannot exist "by itself".

Buddhists do, indeed, refute the notion of a "soul" — some kind of mystical/magical "thing" that exists by itself, is unchangeable/untarnished, eternal, immortal, and goes beyond death. The refutation is not trivial, but it relies upon looking at the contradiction in terms. If the soul is unchangeable, then how can it relate to something that is changeable — our body, our brain, our mind? Something that cannot change has no way to relate to something that changes all the time. Then we have to postulate where this "soul" resides: is it inside the body? Then how can it survive the body's death? Is it outside? Then how can it influence the body, if it's outside it? It's partially inside and partially outside? Then it has two parts joined together; it's a composite thing; so how can it be unchangeable? Similar questions are asked over and over again, and refutations are presented, until the questioning person is fully convinced that, no matter what qualities we attribute to this alleged soul, nothing can exist with such qualities.

Buddhism is a form of nihilism, as it refutes existence

A wise teacher of the 19th century used to say: "Existentialism is being as stupid as a cow (a cow believes that whatever appears to its senses, really exists). Nihilism is even more stupid than that."

One of the reasons that Buddhism is called "the Middle Way" is not necessarily because Buddhism strives for a balance in everything (it does, but not quite in the same way as, say, Taoism), but rather because, from a philosophical point of view, it lies between existentialism and nihilism, not accepting either and refuting both.

It's easy to refute existentialism, and this is why people tend to say that Buddhism is nihilist. You can just give one example: some people like chocolate, some hate it. If chocolate had an intrinsic existence, beyond the notion of flavour, then it would taste exactly the same to everybody. But because the experience of tasting chocolate requires a mind — and our minds are different — chocolate (and the pleasure of eating chocolate) doesn't exist intrinsically. It exists only as concepts in our minds, as related to chocolate itself. This is what is meant by "believing in appearances and not as things really are" — because chocolate appears to us as solid and with a particular taste, we think that these qualities are intrinsic to chocolate, and we become surprised how someone else can have a different opinion than ours. If existentialism were true, then chocolate would taste the same way for everybody.

However, just because chocolate tastes differently to everybody (or even to the same person! We can love chocolate as kids and hate it as adults; the chocolate might have remained the same, but our mind has changed!), it doesn't mean that "it doesn't exist". Rather, we can point at chocolate and say, "this is chocolate". We can attribute qualities to it. We can talk about chocolate. We can even discuss its experience. Most of us can agree that there is a chocolate bar on top of the table (assuming that we know what a chocolate bar is). So there is a conventional reality: the shared experience of the universe through our senses. It's not exactly the same experience (which refutes existentialism) but close enough for us to be able to discuss it (which refutes nihilism).

Nihilism also tends to claim that "things appear by chance". But when we observe the universe, this is clearly not the case. Every cause has an effect — it's just us that might not be paying attention to those causes, or there might be so many causes that we cannot list them all. Why does chocolate taste differently for different people? It's not "by chance", but because each of us has a different array of taste buds, has been differently conditioned socially to accept some foods and reject others, has different associations with chocolate (a kid might have tasted chocolate once and thrown up because it was spoiled, and, since then, hates chocolate), and so forth. There are always reasons. And the beauty of having all those reasons is that scientists can, indeed, figure out most of what's going on in the universe and explain the "why" and "how", and make accurate predictions: we can tell when the next full Moon will be, because we understand the causes and conditions that make the Moon turn around the Earth, and we will be able to predict Moon phases accurately — and not because we, "by chance", sometimes figure out things correctly.

Note that some nihilist scientists tend to convince us that there are, indeed, things that happen by chance, but they're committing a logical fallacy — Western philosophy has three distinct interpretations of what "chance" means, and only one of them applies to certain physical processes ("random" would be a more appropriate word for it). Buddhist philosophy and logic uses the same word and interpretation for everything that happens without cause, and refutes the existence of anything acausal (Western science actually does the same, but the context is not so clearly defined, thus the confusion).

Yeah, but Buddhism is always talking about "emptiness" and how "everything is empty". Surely that's nihilism?

This is one typical case of bad translations. The word "emptiness" has been used to translate "the quality of having no intrinsic existence", but, instead, of having a dependent existence. So it's really a question of understanding what the words mean! The tiny little word "intrinsic" gets almost always overlooked (or deliberately misquoted), and that word is what makes all the difference.

When Buddhism says that its core philosophy is "co-emergent interdependency", what it means is that things appear in relation to each other. There are no things that do not depend on anything; there are no acausal events in the Universe; there are no effects without cause, no causes without effects. So when a Buddhist says "everything is empty" what they mean is that "everything depends on a lot of things; nothing exists by itself".

Ah, so Buddhism is holistic: a belief that everything in the Universe affects us, and everything we do affects the Universe. Sorry, I can't "believe" that!

The problem with the word "holistic" is that it comes from the New Age groups. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is indeed holistic, but in the sense that we're more familiar with in science.

If you jump up, Earth's gravity pulls you back. But you also have mass, and so, you also attract the Earth towards you, while you're in the air. Of course we all know that our pull on Earth is so insignificant that we can completely oversee it in our calculations. But "insignificant" doesn't mean "it doesn't exist", it only means it's so small that we have no instruments to measure it. But the point here is that we do, indeed, pull the Earth a tiny bit out of orbit when we jump up and down.

But by doing so, Earth also wobbles a tiny bit in its orbit, and, by doing so, also influences the Sun out of its long march around the galactic centre. Sure, of course we all know that this minuscule wobble won't affect the Sun at all — it's so insignificantly small that we cannot measure it. You can go on and on — the Sun, moving slightly off its orbit will also pull the galaxy's centre towards it a tiny bit, thus making our own galaxy move a bit further or a bit closer to Andromeda, and so on and so forth. Of course we all know that this effect is so insignificant that even if all humans and animals coordinated their efforts to precisely jump up and down at the same moment, trying to get the Earth off its orbit, we would have no effect whatsoever, and our instruments wouldn't be able to measure the difference.

But we know that distant things affect us. The Moon causes tides, even though it's so far away from us; it also increases slightly our need to pee :-) Again, this might be insignificant (and obviously most people won't even notice any difference!), but tides can be measured, because its effects are big enough to register on our instruments. We also commonly say that "Earth's gravity pulls the Moon into orbiting our planet", when a more accurate description would be "Earth and Moon attract each other, and this pulls the Moon into a orbit around the centre of gravity of those two planets". Because the Earth is much more massive than the Moon, this centre of gravity is actually beneath Earth's surface — so we can safely disregard the issue and simplify things by saying "the Moon orbits the Earth".

Jupiter, which is a hugely massive planet, also has a gravity pull on Earth. But it's negligibly small. In fact, it has exactly the same attraction power as your nose attracting a huge mountain — clearly, the mountain won't be pulled towards your nose in a perceptible way!

What this means is that our perception of the universe is that everything affects every other thing, even across vast interstellar distances, but the effects are so small that we cannot measure them — but we can calculate them (if we're obsessive about it!). This is exactly what Buddhism claims, and it's "holistic" in the same sense that Western science is also "holistic": everything is interdependent, even though we might not know exactly the causes of things, or are unable to measure the effects because they're so small.

Isn't everything for Buddhists an illusion? Again, this would point towards nihilism

"Everything is an illusion" is actually an Hinduist aphorism, not a Buddhist one.

Buddhism gives a precise definition of what "illusion" means: things that are not what they appear. And, indeed, we can easily see how that's the case. Consider the classical Buddhist example of the rainbow: we all know that the rainbow doesn't exist, it's just a consequence of a lot of conditions that are "just right" — water vapour in the air, the Sun at a certain angle, and ourselves viewing it from the right place. As long as these conditions are maintained, the rainbow will be visible. As soon as the conditions change (say, the warmth of the Sun evaporates the water), the rainbow disappears. We all know that rainbows are optical illusions. Still, we can certainly enjoy them while they last, and find it amusing how our eyes (and mind) can be tricked into believing that there is "something out there", even if we all know perfectly well that there isn't.

What Buddhism says is that actually everything is just like rainbows. This is easy to explain for us Westerners, because we have delved deep into particle physics and know rather well that, at the microcosmic level, there is nothing else but mostly vacuum and a certain probability for particles to be in a certain position. What our senses experience as "solid" is nothing more than electromagnetic fields repelling each other — but such fields are just clouds of charged particles, exchanging information about the electromagnetic field. There is "nothing more" than that. Still, at the level of our brain, we're tricked to believe that things are solid.

We can rationally understand all this — after several semesters of writing equations of quantum mechanics :) — but it's a completely different thing to actually experience it. What our mind "believes" is that all these physical effects actually produce a universe that exists by itself, and this is what our mind thinks that the Universe is. We truly believe that none of those particles and field effects and whatever is there are required for the Universe to have this very solid appearance.

But we can go further on in our delusion. For instance, as said, we assume that chocolate has intrinsic qualities: it tastes nice. We're then shocked, surprised, or even horrified when someone tells us that they hate chocolate! How can that be? If chocolate truly existed by itself, then everybody would taste it the same way. So somehow chocolate "exists differently" from person to person, and we might not understand the causes why. To be tasty, not only we need chocolate, but we need to have our taste buds configured in a certain way, we have to be told what chocolate is and how to eat it, and we need an environment (a society, a family) that encourages us to eat chocolate because it's tasty. But if you remove all that, or change those conditions, then chocolate ceases to be tasty.

This contradiction about how the Universe looks to us, and how it actually is, is at the core of what Buddhism means with ourselves being deluded, i.e. tricked into believing in illusions. While we can all agree that rainbows are illusions produced by different causes, all of which must be present for the rainbow to appear, we have a lot of difficulty in applying the same reasoning to tasty chocolate. Or, for that matter, to other people. Just consider that your worst enemy is probably someone else's friend (or beloved son/daughter, or parent...). So is that person intrinsically evil at it appears to us, or is that "evilness" (which turns them into an enemy) is just something that applies to us — based on the causes of past actions we (and they) did, and how we interpreted them?

By questioning the intrinsic properties and qualities of things, people, and even our own minds, Buddhists try to pierce the veil of illusion and go beyond that, and look at things as they really are. We could perhaps say that "everything we perceive is illusion" which might be a bit more correct in Buddhist terms.

The good news is that you can, indeed, experience things as they really are. Again, we can all experience the rainbow as it really is — just an illusion. But when we realise how things really are, we tend to drop strong attachments and aversions to those things, because they don't feel so tremendously important as before. Again, a child who believes that the rainbow truly exists will be horribly disappointed when it disappears, and cry! The patient parents will then explain that the rainbow is an illusion, and it will only appear in certain cases. When it does, we should enjoy the pleasure of the rainbow while it lasts. When it goes away, it's pointless to be sad, because the rainbow was never there in the first place — and, more importantly so, new rainbows will surely appear again.

That's why most people who see a rainbow are happy, even though — or in spite of — they fully know it's an illusion. Illusions can be pretty and give us momentary pleasure, even more so, if we know they're illusions. Going to a magician show to see magical illusions is fun, even though we know that it's all tricks to deceive our mind. But we can still amuse ourselves while watching!

This is also why accomplished masters have such joy and happiness at everything; they can pierce through the veil of delusion of things, and see their true nature. Thus, they can enjoy not only rainbows, but everything around them, and have plenty of fun and pleasure — knowing however that none of what they perceive has any intrinsic existence. What joy it is to be in such a state of mind!

Buddhism is cool, but I don't wish my soul to merge with the One, I wish to remain myself, thank you very much

This is one of those cases of mixing up some schools of thought of Hinduism with Buddhism. Not only Buddhism refutes the existence of something immortal, eternal, and unchangeable that might be classified as "soul", but it also refutes any "merging" with anything else, like an Universal Conscience, a God, a Spiritual Essence, or whatever might be postulated to be around. Some Hinduism lineages do, indeed, believe that there is a God and that after death our soul somehow "merges back" with this God.

Buddhism, by contrast, refutes the idea of a "Creator God" which is the First Cause of everything and proposes co-emergent interdependency as the mechanism to explain the Universe. Also note that the idea of First Cause somehow implies Time, e.g. "first there was a Creator God, then there was a Creation", thus fixing Time as an absolute reference the need to put the question — "if anything requires a cause, then there has to be a First Cause".

Like Einstein, Buddhism doesn't view "time" as an absolute, but merely as a relative concept (this is so easy to see — when you're bored at school, an hour takes an eternity to pass; when you're having fun with your friends, the very same hour passes swiftly!); thus, the question "what comes before Creation?" doesn't make any sense, because that question implies an absolute time. Things merely appear because the necessary causes and conditions make them appear, and that's all that's needed.

The issue about "merging with the One", while central to some Hinduist schools, has echoes in some formulations, where Buddhists talk about the nature of mind. It is claimed that we all have the same nature of mind — i. e. even though our minds are completely different, they have the same nature. This is a more profound explanation and which is not very obvious. The typical analogy is that running water, ice, and water vapour all have the same nature, H2O. However, they're not "the same" thing. We know, from chemistry, that we can melt ice into water, and heat liquid water and get steam, and so forth — and we know it's always H2O even if it doesn't look like it.

Buddhism claims that the mind is a bit like that. Sure, we all have different thoughts, feelings, emotions, and so forth, and we can clearly distinguish between what is "our" mind and what are other people's minds — we know we're individuals. But the nature of that mind is the same. Well, one might ask — how do Buddhists know that? For instance, an European might have a "Type A Mind" and an Asian a "Type B Mind". Because we cannot "see" minds (we can only experience our own mind), we cannot refute that idea that people's minds might have different natures directly. Right?

Indeed! What Buddhism claims is that minds have certain properties, and through certain trainings and techniques, they can achieve certain states (like the ever-so-misunderstood "enlightened state"). Because any person who follows those trainings and techniques do, indeed, achieve the same states as described by the teachers, Buddhists can have a certain degree of confidence that everybody's nature of the mind is the same. If we had different natures of minds, then the trainings wouldn't work for everybody. In the past 2600 years, however, millions of people who have followed the trainings have reached the same conclusions, just as described by the Buddha. So we can have a very reliable evidence (repeated over and over again over the millennia) that we do, indeed, have a single nature of mind.

This is just one possible way of explaining things and perhaps not the most satisfactory one; Buddhist philosophy is deep and complex, and there are far better explanations! But at least this can point into the same direction.

Thus, it's not as if we Buddhists somehow "merge our minds into the One". What we do is to recognise that we all have the same nature of mind. And that's achieved through a special training, which is available to every sentient being. So we don't need to "believe" anything: we just follow the method, achieve the results, and can compare it on our own: Buddhism is a very experimental philosophy, nothing is taken for granted, and there is nothing to "believe" or "accept".

Buddhism "believes" in reincarnation without any solid evidence to back it up

This is another one of the tricky issues. Because Hinduism believes in reincarnation, it is commonly assumed that Buddhism does, too. In fact, Buddhist philosophy has used the same word — "reincarnation" — but with a completely different meaning. Also, because there are thousands of different ways to explain Buddhism to different people, sometimes there are a few oversimplifications that might induce people in error.

Because this pops over and over again, I'm always fond of saying that "Buddhism doesn't believe in reincarnation", which shocks most of the people that hear that — specially Buddhists! Reincarnation, as explained by classical Western philosophers, and Hinduist teachers, is the belief that somehow our soul goes from body to body, after death. In certain Hinduist schools, the actions we do in our lives will influence how the soul goes to the next body, and thus an ethical conduct is prescribed for believers to follow, in the hope that they might get a "better reincarnation" on the next life.

Buddhism is a bit more complex and quite different. For starters, since it refutes the soul, clearly there is "nothing" that can go from one life into the other! The 'self' and the mind disappear during death — that's why Buddhists talk of interdependence! — so what is there to 'go' to a next life?

There is, however, a subtle issue here. As we saw earlier, we are constantly creating causes and conditions for things to happen (even if we don't notice it); the 'glue' that holds the Universe together, if I can permit myself an analogy, is this principle of co-emergent interdependency. So our actions — the decisions we take, the emotions we feel, the feelings we have — will not only have some effect in the future (some of which are obvious: if I drive drunk, I might have an accident. Some are not: if I torture my children when they're teens, they might grow up hating me, and forget all about me when I'm old and frail. These are all consequences of our decisions), but it might even effect things beyond the physical life of our bodies.

If this is hard to imagine, just see how the lives of scientists and politicians of the past continue to influence us today, even though they're long dead. What would human rights be without the influence of Martin Luther King and similar humanitarians? Hitler has been dead for seven decades, but we still fear totalitarianism. The ideas of a Newton, a Darwin, or an Einstein, still influence science today. Art is still influenced by a Michelangelo. So it's clear that these influences from long-dead people still make themselves felt today.

You might say that this has nothing to do with "reincarnation" and I totally agree! It only shows that our actions do, indeed, influence what happens, even after our death.

So what Buddhism says is not that somehow "we" (this "self" we believe we have) reincarnates as someone else, but that the actions committed by this "self" will have an influence on subsequent rebirths. But it will not be the "same" person (because, as said, the "self" we have is dependent on our brain, our body, our family, our society... when all that disappears during death, there is nothing left to go on. In Buddhism terms: if we cut through the causes, then the effects will not appear.) If will be just another "self" that somehow results as a consequence of our actions, decisions, feelings, and so forth. If we were enlightened (more on that below!), we might be able to trace the origin of those causes to a different life, but, as we are usually obscured in our perceptions, we have absolutely no clue of what happened "before".

Here is my favourite analogy: imagine a sequence of unlit candles, all identical, standing side-by-side. We light the first, and it waves a bit in the breeze, giving some light, and melting wax. Before the first candle goes out, we get a stick and, pulling the flame from the first candle, we light the second one.

Now from the perspective of an outsider, since the candles are identical, they give the "same" light (the same intensity, brightness, colour, etc.). So we might think it's the "same" candle. But we know that this is not the case: the new flame might wave differently to the breeze, no matter how "identical" the candle might be it will burn slightly faster or slower, and so forth. However, we can say that the light of the second candle was caused by the light of the first one, because we used the dying flame of the first candle to light the second. In that way, the two candles are related — there is a relationship of dependency between both. There is causality: because the first candle burnt to the end, we had to light the next candle. But it would be stupid to claim "it's the same light, it's the same candle" because we know very well it isn't. Nevertheless, we can say that the nature of the light is the same: it requires wax and a wick to produce a candle's light, and, once lighted, the quality of the light is pretty much the same (an oil lamp would produce a different kind of light).

Buddhism says that each sequence of lives that is related in the same way as a sequence of candles being lighted one by one is "similar" to what the concept of reincarnation means in Buddhism. Different people, of course, have different sequences of lights — think of many parallel rows of candles, being independently lighted one by one. We cannot "switch" sequences — i.e. you can't start your life as a red candle and suddenly switch to become a green candle — but we can be mutually affected (the warmth of nearby candles will melt our wax).

While this analogy has a few flaws, it comes far closer to the explanation of what Buddhism means with "reincarnation". So when people ask me: "do you, as a Buddhist, believe in reincarnation?" I answer: "No. However, the actions I do in this life will influence future lives." The difference is quite subtle!

Don't judge, and you won't be judged.

Offline Sandra M. Lopes

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Re: What Buddhism is Not
« Reply #1 on: January 23, 2014, 03:48:30 pm »
What is "Enlightenment"? How do you know if someone is enlightened or not?

New Age groups promise enlightenment. Hinduism promises enlightenment. Even academic studies like to say that they can "enlighten" the students. The problem here is that this word has a lot of meanings!

Even different Buddhist groups will have slightly different answers — the core is the same, it's just the presentation that can be different, according to the ability of a student to understand. My own teachers tend to say that we're already enlightened; everybody has the same nature of the mind (also known as Buddha nature, if you prefer that expression), and that nature is, indeed, an enlightened one. However, due to our habitual tendencies, most of which coming from conditioned behaviour, we fail to recognise our own enlightened nature and are deluded. What Buddhist training does is to remove the habitual tendencies that cloud our recognition of this enlightened nature.

"Enlightenment" can thus be simply described as the ability to see things as they are, instead of how they appear to our perceptions. The most important thing to see as it is is our own self! (Probably it's also the hardest!)

So how does that work in practice? How can we remove something that is conditioned behaviour?

We do that all the time with mundane things! Someone who quits smoking or eating sugar/salt/fat products, are indeed applying themselves to break conditioned behaviour, and learn the opposite. Adulthood, for instance, can be described as a time when we break apart from the conditioned behaviour of having our parents supply all our needs, and strive to sustain ourselves. What the human species is actually quite good at is to train their minds to adopt or abandon behaviours, and turn them into "learned" or conditioned behaviours. So we already have a mind which is able to do that.

It's naturally much harder to remove the conditioned behaviours that make us believe in appearances and prevent us to look at things as they are, but, like any other kind of training, this is certainly possible to accomplish, as has been shown by so many masters in the past.

But I thought that enlightened beings had superpowers or, by contrast, would be in a vegetative stance, looking at nothing, and spending all their time saying "Om" or something like that...

Some Hinduist schools (not many, though) and most definitely many New Age groups like to imagine a certain kind of "enlightenment" where you develop some special "gift" which does, indeed, look like superpowers — like, well, levitation or reading people's minds. Other schools think that this vegetative, apathetic state, where you're "lost in your own mind", is somehow a sign of enlightenment.

Well, the latter is actually easy to accomplish, but it serves no purpose — what good is it to spend all your time doing nothing? How can you help yourself and others in a state of absolute apathy? Buddhism rejects that approach because it's completely non-functional and serves no purpose.

As for superpowers, well, one could consider that if you develop them in order to benefit other beings, they might be useful tools, but they shouldn't be considered anything but tools. Rather, the best "superpower" to develop is the ability to pay attention to everything. If you pay attention to your own words, for example, you will not risk offending others. If you pay attention to what they're saying, you might understand what they're feeling, and you might be able to help them and provide them with a little bit of happiness. So developing attention and mindfulness are definitely superpowers worth developing. Even on the most mundane terms these are quite useful: you are able to work better, be more considerate towards your colleagues, drive safer, enjoy less distractions, not get surprised so much, avoid being rammed over a SUV while you cross the street...

But ultimately what Buddhists really wish is to become better persons and gain the ability to help others to do that as well. If you take a look at what some great teachers actually do, is that they spread happiness around :) There are lots of very fun examples of ancient masters playing with kids and enjoying themselves as much as them. This is hardly the idea we have of those New Age groups, sitting cross-legged and murmuring strange words, but being completely alienated of their surroundings.

Buddhist enlightenment doesn't look so interesting, then... why should I follow it?

Motivation is, indeed, the driving force behind Buddhist training. If you have absolutely no motivation to improve yourself, and, through that training, help others to accomplish the same improvement, then probably you will not have the required motivation to study and practice Buddhism.

However, you can start with simple motivations. Consider your own case: you might be stumbling from relationship to relationship, always frustrated that "the same thing happens over and over again", and your heart has been broken so often that you get depressed and have little reason left to engage in yet another relationship. This is a typical case of an habitual tendency due to conditioned behaviour: it happens "over and over again" because that's how you're conditioned to react! By following a Buddhist training, you will learn how to recognise the core of this conditioned behaviour, erradicate it, and get yourself free from that habitual tendency — and enjoy the resulting relationship, free from any fears that "the same thing will happen again". The same applies to any other aspect of your life, of course, not just relationships.

The beauty of Buddhist training is that you get results even well before you're "enlightened". Just a little training is enough to recognise your habitual tendencies and learn techniques to deal with them. With more practice you will spot with pin-point accuracy the moment that your conditioned behaviour steps in, and, before you suffer its consequences, you can actually prevent it from happening and do something else instead. This is truly what is meant by "free will" — the ability to make functional, practical, pragmatic decisions, free from the conditioned behaviour that usually steps in automatically. That's definitely a superpower!

When you see accomplished masters in this technique, you'll see that they will deal with any situation with a smile — there is nothing that can affect them since they're able to spot their conditioned behaviour before it grabs hold of their mind, and just push it aside.

This is within your reach. And that can be your motivation.

And suuuuuure, if you really wish other kinds of superpowers, then that's also possible, but I most definitely won't talk you about them :-)

Buddhists venerate the Buddha (or even several Buddhas...) just like Hinduists venerate their Gods, Christians venerate their Saviour, Muslims their Prophet... I don't wish to venerate anyone

In the West, we have lost all respect for our own school teachers, but this is a rather recent development. A couple of centuries ago, even in the West, we would definitely respect our teachers, for their kindness and generosity of spending some time to get us to learn useful things for our lives. Nowadays we just think "it's their job, they're paid to do that anyway" and lost all respect.

In the East (even though this also becomes less true, as the East becomes more and more "Westernized"), showing respect to one's teacher is at the core of their traditional culture. So naturally a teacher is respected. We also used to bring apples to our teachers in grammar school as a token of gratitude :) Nowadays I guess this would be completely perverted in trying to manipulate the teacher to give us better grades... but it was not always so.

Buddhists don't "venerate" the Buddha in the sense of thinking that Siddhartha was some kind of super-being with special powers and that by making offerings and magical rituals, we can somehow get his blessings and perhaps something more. Instead, the Buddha is seen as a teacher who gave not only the example — by becoming enlightened — but also the methods and techniques to do exactly the same. In fact, the earliest stories of the historical Buddha tend to show that he was very reluctant to teach his techniques, because he feared nobody would understand them, and so it was a bit pointless for him to teach anything. He was fortunately persuaded to revert his decision, and, in token of our gratitude towards his generosity of sharing those teachings with us, Buddhists tend to make external displays of this respect. These can be formal and ritualized, but most Buddhists will also learn that the greatest form of respect and appreciation for his teachings is to put them in practice. Outwards signs are of little consequence if you're not interested in following the methods and techniques.

You can't learn math by placing apples on the teacher's desk. You really have to do your homework and get used to solving math problems. But when you understand how much you can do if you really know how to do math well, there is a feeling of gratitude towards the teacher who explained it to you so well. And then offering an apple actually makes sense. Bribing the teacher with apples expecting that this will magically turn you into a maths expert will not work — and the same applies to Buddhism as well.

"The best offering to a teacher or a Buddha is one's own practice".

Some Buddhists practice silent meditation, others seem to engage in very complex and colourful rituals. Which is the "real" Buddhism? I certainly don't want to adopt any other culture's rituals and look silly!

I have explained this further on my other thread, but, simply put, one thing that the Buddha realised very soon is that different people need different techniques. Why? Well, because we're all individuals, we all have different tendencies, we have different tastes, we have different issues to solve — and we have more affinity towards certain techniques and teachers than to others. As such, it's traditionally said that the Buddha taught 84.000 different methods to accomplish enlightenment (and, of course, as Buddhism spread to other countries and cultures, further teachers added many more). We don't need to master all of these! In fact, we should stick to one and make it work. Constantly switching from technique to technique might be pointless.

So, sure, if you like silent meditation, and doing silent meditation turns you into a better person, then by all means stick with it. Others, by contrast, might find it terribly boring, and dancing around in a ritualized way might work better for them. Others might prefer to chant the instructions so that they remember better what they're supposed to do. Some might prefer to meditate by themselves; others will notice that their training progresses better if they meditate with a support group. Each of us will definitely be more comfortable with some techniques than with others, and we should just stick to one and not discard the others — just be happy that the Buddha never said that there is "just one method" but, rather, "several methods" according to each of our differences.

This often seems confusing to people looking at Buddhism as a kind of weird religion, where each "sect" seems to have completely different ways to "venerate the Buddha". It's not so. At the core, all Buddhists are trying to accomplish the same goal: becoming better people by discarding their habitual tendencies and conditioned behaviour. How they accomplish that outwardly depends on one's predisposition to follow a certain technique instead of another.

Teachers tend to learn several techniques because they will never know in advance which of their students will prefer one method over another.

Buddhism is about taking silly vows and become a monk, so I'm not interested

First of all, nobody "forces" you to take any vows to start your Buddhist practice! It requires some extensive explanations on the vows before they are actually taken. Think of it like marriage! You can enjoy a relationship with your significant other for years and years and never take any vows.

Nevertheless, there is a purpose to the vows. It is exactly when one understands their purposes in great detail that it makes sense to take them. This means that they cease to be "silly" but actually make sense. Let's take an example: "Do not intoxicate your mind with alcohol/drugs". Once you understand that the whole purpose of Buddhism is to have a lucid mind, it makes little sense to get drunk or high and lose all your training that way. So this vow is a way to remember what you're actually pursuing. It is also said that the vows are not supposed to be a "burden" but the exact opposite: they're guidelines to make us more free, not to constrain us. If you're unable to understand that, then it's better not to take any vows. It's also stupid to take them due to "peer pressure" or something like that; you will most certainly break them afterwards, and it's pointless to take a vow that you're not willing to keep.

It's true that some teachers do, indeed, require some vows to be taken before they are able to give you a teaching. This is mostly to make sure that the student is indeed willing to follow the instructions and not merely wishing to listen to the teachings for the sake of accumulating knowledge and pure intellectual delight. Buddhism is also a philosophy, but one to be put into practice. We'll see this point later on. It is said that a teacher is required to teach everything they know to whomever asks for it, with only two exceptions: if the student does not show respect to either the Buddhadharma or the teachings. These are the only two cases when a Buddhist teacher refuses to teach. To ascertain that the student does, indeed, respect both the teachings and the teacher, it is customary to request some kind of vow. In most cases, for instance, the vow can simply be a compromise to practice every day what has been taught. After all, that's exactly why you're supposed to be requesting teachings: to put them into practice.

As for becoming a monk... different Buddhist traditions offer different explanations, and it is indeed correct that some schools tend to imply that the easier path towards enlightenment is to take vows as a monk. This is certainly correct for some schools, but not for all of them. The logic behind that is that monks have nothing else to do but to practice — all their basic necessities for life (food, shelter, clothing) are provided for them, so they have no distractions in their practice. In certain traditions it is even better to become a hermit: because monks still have some chores and have to interact with others, so there is still some time that is spent with mundane routines and not with formal practice. A hermit has nothing else to do but to practice.

Other traditions, by contrast, view the "householder way" (this means raising a family and doing business, i.e. pretty much leading a mundane life) is the hardest one to follow, but, if followed properly, it might be the fastest way to enlightenment. There is no contradiction here: because living a mundane life means less time for formal practice, you will have to do a lot of informal practice instead — practicing mindfulness at all times, at work, at home, even when watching TV or cooking dinner. This gives you far more opportunities to practice; but the obstacles are much greater; as a result, your initial progress might be harder, but then you'll progress much quicker, since you're already bringing to the daily routines what you're supposed to realize during formal practice.

So, to summarize: no, you don't need to be a monk or take vows to become a practitioner. There are plenty of examples of highly accomplished masters who weren't monks or haven't taken complex vows. This mostly depends on what schools they follow, and what lineage they're more comfortable with.

Among my own teachers, I believe that just one of them is a monk. Another one has technically taken ordination vows as a monk, but you would never guess it from the busy life he has, running his own organization. A third one has never taken ordination vows, but behaves as if he had — you don't need to take the vows formally to live as a monk (and, in a sense, it's better that way! It's the spirit of the vows that count, after all) — and used to work as a top lawyer full-time (now he's retired). A fourth one lives a regular life as a highly accomplished business person, with a family, in a very rich neighbourhood (although almost everything he owns is inhabited by Buddhist refugees...), and you would never guess he's a Buddhist teacher; he just doesn't look like one. Nevertheless, and even though he's slightly younger than me, all his students have this very strange impression that he might have been enlightened since birth. He's probably one of the most easy-going persons I know, apparently without a care in the world — the kind of person that faces adversity (like the death of his own youngest son) with the same ease as prosperity (as said, he's quite rich), and is affected by neither. He's incredibly funny when teaching while at the same time being quite strict in discipline and rituals. He's also the kind of teacher that has so simple answers to the most complex questions that it's always quite baffling. And finally, my first (and probably most influential) teacher is definitely not a monk — he's quite honest in saying that taking the vow not to have sex is not for him — but he has taken far more vows than most monks, and keeps them strictly, but he's probably one of the more anti-authoritarian persons I know: he truly only recognizes the authority of his own teachers, and nothing else. I have seen many people, some of them hierarchically quite at the top of the pyramid of Buddhist teachers, who would tell him to do this or that, because it would be more appropriate or more fitting, but he would just respectfully say that he only follows orders of his own teachers and from nobody else. I'm pretty sure that even if the Dalai Lama told him that he should shave his beard, for example, he would smile and very respectfully tell the Dalai Lama that, even though he values everything the Dalai Lama says, the Dalai Lama is not one of his teachers, so he would keep his beard until his own teachers told him otherwise. When he so respectfully disregards what such people tell him, the formal meetings usually end up with laughter and much slapping of backs — as it should be among true Buddhist practitioners.

These examples should just show that in Buddhism there is nothing you should be "forced" to do against your will, and that nobody has any "authority" over you. The only thing you should have is an open mind, and if some teacher tells you to do something, and provides you a thorough, logical explanation why it is necessary to do so, then you should reflect long and hard on that, and see if the explanation makes sense to you or not. If it does, then you'll be willingly following it, of your own free will, and not because you were "convinced", "persuaded", "cheated", or "blackmailed" into doing something.

Buddhism seems to be too intellectual: so much to learn just to do some silent meditation? That's not for me, I want something simple that I can understand quickly and get started

Good for you! That's actually the right spirit!

Buddhism is not intellectual. In fact, it is said that "being intellectual" is actually a huge handicap when starting to practice: one tends to get fascinated by the complexity and beauty of logical arguments and the vast amount of theory that Buddhism has developed over the past 2600 years, so it's easy to "forget" what we're supposed to be doing, and just wallow in "intellectuality", and skip the practice...

Needless to say, this will lead nowhere.

Again, the Buddha was quite clever to understand that different people require different approaches to their path. For some, all it takes is to have confidence in the teacher and its teachings to put it immediately into practice, and achieve realization very quickly that way. Most of us, however, were taught to do some critical thinking, to ask questions, to try to understand first how things work and why they work. Because of that, there is a vast amount of literature, at several levels of complexity, to explain everything.

Do you need to learn all of that to become a Buddhist? No! Nevertheless, it's important to at least have a vague idea of what you're supposed to be doing, and some confidence that what you're doing leads to results. You should just learn enough to understand those two things. Anything besides that is really unnecessary.

On the flip side of the coin, you might mistrust "too simple" instructions. Some amusing teachers tend to say that realizing the nature of your mind is so simple that if you happen upon it you might be shocked at how easy and simple it is, and completely mistrust Buddhist practice, by rejecting it as "too simple and obvious". Thus, vast amounts of literature has been written about the subject, so that you might build up your confidence — because in our mundane lives we expect important things to be well-documented, well explained, and logically and rationally argued. There are some Buddhist schools that do indeed encourage a deep study of the Buddhadharma — specially for those who are academically inclined and full of conceptual thought — because through it one will, at some point, have all that "baggage" of conceptual thought collapse by sheer weight, and clearly see what's beyond. Other Buddhist schools adopt precisely the opposite approach, and many realized teachers reached high levels of accomplishment through a simple instruction and practicing it for decades in retreat. Most of us will very likely be somewhere in the middle: we might frown at too simple instructions and discard them as being "silly", while at the same time getting scared off and overwhelmed by a vast library containing all the teachings of the Buddha and the major commentaries. The beauty of the Buddhist system is that you can learn as much as you're comfortable with — so long as you are aware that Buddhist practice is all about practice and not about reading books!

Buddhist also teaches that you cannot learn through books, which will make Westerners frown, specially in this era of self-help books hitting the bestseller lists so often. In Buddhism you learn from a teacher — books are merely a "memory aid". Once you have been given some instructions on how you should practice, then you might forget something, or have misunderstood something, and for those cases — and only them! — books are useful to help you to remember things correctly. In fact, this is exactly the same method that allowed you to go through most of school: you relied on your teacher to explain you things, and had the books to study on your own. But most of those books were meaningless unless you had a teacher to explain them to you. Later on, you acquired so much knowledge that you felt you could learn new things from books without having anyone to explain them to you — and, in fact, for most of us who keep studying for all our lives, this is the case. But it only works because in our pasts we had a teacher that told us the basics.

In Buddhism this is taken a step further, and students are even required to ask permission from a teacher before they start reading some books, because they're meaningless — or might induce students to interpret them wrongly — without having a teacher explaining fist what is meant. After the explanations, of course, the books are considered an excellent reference!


Anyway, you're welcome to ask further questions like the ones presented here, concerning your criticism of certain aspects of Buddhism, and I'll try my best to give an explanation, within my abilities.

I sincerely hope I haven't written too many errors above. If I made a mistake, please don't blame Buddhism, the Buddha, or my peerless teachers; it's all my fault really, for practicing little and writing too much about things I don't know!

May this text be helpful to some of you.
Don't judge, and you won't be judged.

Offline Anatta

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Re: What Buddhism is Not
« Reply #2 on: January 24, 2014, 12:48:01 am »

Buddhism says that we have no soul and no self, and teaches people to destroy their selves

In the words of one of my teachers, "You cannot destroy something that never existed in the first place." Actually, the biggest confusion here is that Buddhist teachings tell us to observe what we call a self, and see how it doesn't exist by itself — it exists as a result of several circumstances, causes and conditions. Let's see a typical example: can a self exist without a body? We can easily refute that and say, "no, you need a brain, or there is nothing to 'create' a self with". What Buddhism says is that, because the 'self' requires a brain — and the brain requires a body; and the body requires parents to give it birth; and to maintain the body you need people to grow food and sell it to you so you can eat and remain healthy, etc. and so forth — it doesn't exist by itself. There is no intrinsic self.

Unfortunately, the affirmation that "there is no intrinsic self" is often rendered as "there is no self", and this is claimed to be Buddhism. Wrong. Conventionally, we all have selves, and refuting that would be solipsism :) But ultimately, that self depends on a lot of things, and, as such, it cannot exist "by itself".

Buddhists do, indeed, refute the notion of a "soul" — some kind of mystical/magical "thing" that exists by itself, is unchangeable/untarnished, eternal, immortal, and goes beyond death. The refutation is not trivial, but it relies upon looking at the contradiction in terms. If the soul is unchangeable, then how can it relate to something that is changeable — our body, our brain, our mind? Something that cannot change has no way to relate to something that changes all the time. Then we have to postulate where this "soul" resides: is it inside the body? Then how can it survive the body's death? Is it outside? Then how can it influence the body, if it's outside it? It's partially inside and partially outside? Then it has two parts joined together; it's a composite thing; so how can it be unchangeable? Similar questions are asked over and over again, and refutations are presented, until the questioning person is fully convinced that, no matter what qualities we attribute to this alleged soul, nothing can exist with such qualities.

Kia Ora Sandra,

As usual the flower of wisdom blooms with your beautifully illustrated descriptions...It takes skill to pass on what your teacher taught you...and you most certainly have this, be it cloaked in a blanket of modesty ....

So I would like to just add a little of my 'self' in a nutshell.......

"It's not so much that I have a 'self', it's that I do 'self-ing'. The self has no inherent, unconditional absolute existence apart from the network of causes it arises from, in, and as !"

Metta Zenda :)
"The most essential method which includes all other methods is beholding the mind. The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included !"   :icon_yes:

Offline Sandra M. Lopes

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Re: What Buddhism is Not
« Reply #3 on: January 24, 2014, 04:44:49 pm »
'Self-ing' is good! I've heard the 'self' described in the following manner:

"The self is the intellectual tool we have to realize that the self doesn't exist inherently".

I think it was on this forum, but I'm not sure!
Don't judge, and you won't be judged.