An introduction to Buddhism

An introduction to Buddhism

 

Some interest in Buddhism is currently being disseminated worldwide, especially among persons seeking for answers amid our global era when ideologies clash with each other, when emerge fanatical conflicts and insane violence.

Why does this interest spread so quickly, particularly in the West?

Maybe it is owing to the fact that more and more people realize that Buddhism is a teaching that:

 

Emphasizes on compassion, tolerance and moderation.

Opens the way to a path leading to a clear personal and spiritual development.

Never gives rise to blind faith or to mindless worship.

Encourages questions and investigations concerning its own teachings.

Teaches us to be totally responsible of our actions.

Can be approached, realized and experienced with immediate results.

Tells that sincere votaries of other faiths are equally rewarded in the hereafter.

Is in profound harmony with modern science.

Anybody can get access to a happy hereafter.

Anybody ?

What do you mean to say by ANYBODY? Doesn’t Buddhism tell that only Buddhists are rewarded in the hereafter?

According to Buddhism, that which happens to us after this life doesn’t depend on our religion. In fact, there is no required condition to pray, worship or even follow Buddha’s teaching in order to reach a happy hereafter.

That which happens to us after this life depends on the manner we do behave in this present life.

The path leading to this hereafter isn’t cleared up by faith or worship, but by the fact to do good and to avoid evil.

Buddha never told something like « worship me and you’ll be rewarded ». He didn’t even threaten whoever wouldn’t believe in him and wouldn’t follow his teachings.

He told that no fault is committed owing to the fact of having doubts and asking questions to him, since most of people will need time so as to understand his teachings.

He insisted on the fact that each of us should search, understand and experience the truth by himself, and shouldn’t have a blind faith in whomsoever or whatsoever.

Thus Christians, Hindus, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Taoïsts and even those who are atheists, are entitled to get access to this happy hereafter after death. But also provided they have been good persons.

What do you mean to say by happy hereafter? It could be a space where we can be reborn after death. It can also be a state of consciousness.

For instance, a person with an irascible character may constantly be in a bad mood and easily let burst his/her anger. Such a person can at any time arouse in his circle of acquaintances, himself included, a deplorable mental state and some contrariety. Because of this state of consciousness, the life of that person who has an irascible character will look like hell whether for himself or else for his surrounding. On the other hand, if you take somebody who is always even-tempered, with a calm mind and who is always in peace with himself and others, it is useless to say that such a person and those surrounding him will experience a happy state in the afterlife.

Buddha’s teachings do enable us to experience bliss while showing us how to reach such states of consciousness.

Apart from states of conciousness, Buddhists do believe that there do exist several realms or spheres of existence in the universe, and these latter can be whether spots of suffering or else of happiness. Traditionally, realms of suffering (or lower worlds) include those of hell whereas the happy realms (or higher realms) are the human world and the celestial worlds.

The « realm » or «sphere of existence » into which we will be reborn depends on the kamma that we have accumulated for ourselves in this very life, as well as the kamma accumulated in previous rebirths. This kamma is the result of our usual actions and behaviour.

The size of the human population on earth isn’t immutable or static as a consequence, as if it revolved into an enclosed chamber, as rebirth isn’t confined within the sole mankind. Apart from our human « realm », there do exist in the universe numerous other spheres of existence where a rebirth can take place.

If we are reborn in a lower world, will we remain in it for ever?

Buddhists do believe that the span of time spent in a lower world will depend on the quantity of negative kamma which has been gathered.

There does exist no eternal suffering for whoever, whatever the quantity of evil that has been done.

Even though it could take a very long time, suffering will end up once the negative kamma will be exhausted.

Thus Buddhism doesn’t advocate for an unfair concept of endless chastisement as result of some bad actions endowed with a limited character.

Besides, Buddhism doesn’t « threaten » the followers of other religions of whatever punishment which could be. Each of us does enjoy the freedom to choose for himself different beliefs and a different path.

Will we remain in a celestial sphere for ever? Is Heaven the ultimate goal? Beings who have performed a lot of good and accumulated a lot of positive kamma may be reborn in a celestial world. Suppose we may not be able to realize Nibbâna, Buddha has encouraged all of us to live some righteous and virtuous lives in order to be reborn in a higher world, and all the more to prevent ourselves from a rebirth in a lower world.

Whereas a life in a lower world could last an extremely long period, it will not last for ever.

However, beings living in such celestial worlds will pass away once their positive Kamma will be exhausted.

As such, Buddhists do not consider a rebirth in a celestial world as the supreme goal. To most of Buddhists, the ultimate goal lies in realizing Nibbâna.

It is said that Nanda, Buddha’s stepbrother, was dissatisfied and told Buddha that he wanted to forsake the holy life. Buddha took him to one of the celestial worlds ans showed him all the blisses that it contained. Buddha promised to him that he will entitled to enjoy all such a bliss should he practise the Dhamma well. All this inspired Nanda and he practised with a lot of diligence in order to be reborn in this celestial realm.

Whereas he carried out his practice, Nanda found out in a gradual way that Nibbâna is a pleasure much greater than remaining in Heaven, and he then freed Buddha of his previous promise.

 

What is Nibbâna then?

 

If we are not committed to the practice of Buddhism (the path levelled by Buddha), Nibbâna is a concept which is difficult to grasp and to understand. It means trying to explain colours to a blind person or sounds to a deaf person. Conventional language can’t explicitly describe Nibbâna. It must be experienced in order to be understood.

However, in brief, Nibbâna is the complete absence of any desire and any suffering. It is realized by the one who has eradicated all aspects of greed, hatred and illusion. It is a state of permanent bliss and happiness through which a everlasting end is put to rebirths.

Buddha taught us how to reduce, and possibly put an end to greed, hatred and illusion whatever their manifestations might be. And this can be done by cultivating positive qualities such as generosity and kindness, patience and compassion, morality and wisdom.

Through the correct practice of Buddhism, it is thus possible for each to us to experience the peace and happiness of Nibbâna, even in our present life. Investigate, examine and try Buddha’s teachings for yourself!

Needless to wait for death, experience this happiness and that peace in this life itself, the taste of Nibbâna in this very life.

Simply be good! The advise of Buddha is to do good, avoid evil, and purify the mind.

In pragmatic terms of daily life, it means the practice of Dâna, Sîla and Bhâvanâ.

 

What is Dâna?

 

It simply means « to give » or to be charitable or else to help others. It can be practised under many shapes. You can do it through the discourse by making use of encouraging and kind words while addressing others. Even offering something as simple as a smile can help someone if it cheers him up or illuminates his day.

You can also offer a hand to whoever needs help. You may voluntarily propose your help or resources to the most needy. You may also share Buddha’s teachings with whoever seems to take interest into them. It is the most precious gift.

However, try to do all this without regrets, discriminations or backward thought. Practise Dâna with gentleness, compassion and empathy.

 

What is Sîla?

 

Its means « Morality » and Buddha advised us to observe the five precepts in order to develop Sîla:

  1. To abstain from killing any living being.
  2. To abstain from taking what is not given.
  3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.
  4. To abstain from lies and false speech.
  5. To abstain from abusive consumption of intoxicants and drugs.

These precepts are not commandments but rules that Buddhists decide to observe for themselves. They are observed not out of fear of a chastisement but because we are aware that such actions do hurt us as well as others.

For instance, given that we never wish to be killed or injured, we are aware that all other beings do not wish to be killed or injured too. Similarly, given that we do not wish to be the victims of a theft, adultery, lies and slanders, we should avoid to do such things to others.

Buddha also advocated for avoiding intoxicants and drugs. The reason for it is that once you have fallen prey to the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs, you are likely to commit some actions which you may have never committed under normal circumstances.

If you rule out of these precepts, the Buddhist way lies in being totally aware of it, in trying the best you can to correct your attitude, and then taking firm resolutions to observe such precepts.

Morality is the foundation on which all the rest does rest. Thus it is good to memorize the five precepts so that we focus all the time and mindfully our attention on them.

And as soon as the observance of the five precepts becomes an instinctive part of your behaviour, the development of their positive aspects will be done quite easily and naturally:

  1. The practice of non-violence and compassion.
  2. The practice of kindness and generosity.
  3. The practice of confidence and responsibilty.
  4. The practice of honesty and a pleasant speech.
  5. The practice of self-mastery and mindful attention.

 

What is Bhâvanâ?

 

Bhâvanâ means the practice of « mental culture » or simply meditation. Meditation can be conveived to be something that purifies the mind by more easily impregnating it with generosity and compassion, so that it will eventually reach wisdom.

Buddhist meditation is usually classified between two categories – Vipassanâ or insight meditation, and Samatha or meditation of mental calm. There do exist many forms of Samatha meditations ; Metta (benevolent love) is one of the most practised. All these forms of meditations have their own benefits.

However, it is usually conceived that only through the practice of Vipassanâ ( insight meditation ) we do succeed in totally knowing ourselves. And through all this we will be able to better realize and understand Buddha’s teachings as well as seeing things as they truly are.

Meditation can be considered as the loftiest form of Buddhist practice as Buddha himself has reached enlightenment through meditation.

We do not need at all a long meditation session for starting the practice. Even a short session of 10 or 20 minutes (every day rather) will do wonders. Do we need to worship Buddha, to go to the temple regularly or to make offerings or sacrifices?

Buddhists don’t worship Buddha. We consider him as our preceptor and thus we respect him as such. When Buddhists prostrate before a Buddha statue, it’s a mere way to show some respect. It is likened to the fact of greeting the flag of a country or standing when a national anthem is intoned.

There is also no strict need to go to the temple regularly. Numerous Buddhists, anyway, do it to meet other Buddhists or to learn more things about the teachings. There is, furthermore, no compelling need to make offerings, and Buddhists certainly do not make any sacrifice of whatever nature!

Buddha told that the best way to respect him lies in practising what he taught. It means a constant practice rooted in mindfulness, opposite to the fact to go to the temple once a week, and to adopt bad habits the rest of the time. What do Buddhist offerings mean?

Traditionally, incense sticks, candles, and flowers are the most common offerings. Learned Buddhists however will know that such artifacts are not really « offerings » but are in fact symbolic reminders.

For instance, incense sticks do symbolize, through the spread « fragrance », Buddha’s teachings that are disseminated in the world. Candles do represent his teachings that illuminate our path in darkness. And flowers do remind us that our lives are impermanent similarly to the flowers that we « offer ».

Flowers, when they are hatched, are beautiful and smell good, but they will fade and wither after a few days only. Similarly, each of us will age and will die. Consequently flowers remind us that we should dedicate as much time as possible to do good to others, and to practise Buddha’s teachings.

 

 

 

So what is Kamma at the depth?

 

Kamma literally means « intentional action », and this term refers to the principle of causes and effects. We believe that each intentional action will give rise to a corresponding fruit, whether in this life or in a future life.

Thus the fruits of Kamma should not be conceived as rewards or punishments for the actions which have been committed, but merely as fruits of such intentional actions.

Positive actions will possibly give rise to positive consequences, and negative actions will possibly give rise to negative consequences. Giving an ordinary example of the law of cause and effect appealing to the common sense, let’s take for instance a person who smokes, drinks and eats excessively without doing any daily exercise. As fruit of his actions, such a person will be likely to suffer from a heart attack or a heart disease and to eventually experience a very strong suffering. In the second place, a person who observes a careful diet and takes good care of his body will usually spend a life in a good state of health, even during his old age.

As a consequence, a person who has done a lot of good and who has accumulated a lot of positive Kamma will be likely to live a happy life and to take birth as a human being or in a celestial world in his next rebirth. Conversely, somebody who committed many negative actions and accumulated a lot of negative Kamma risks to live a life swamped with difficulties and then to be reborn in a lower world.

Kamma can also be perceived as seeds. You have the choice of the seeds which you wish to grow. As a consequence plant as many seeds as you can.

 

The importance of Kamma:

 

Kamma is the only thing that we truly possess, and which we take along with us life after life.

Each intentional action committed with the body, speech and thought is likened to a seed that has been planted and which will germinate when the conditions will be auspicious.

Thus as you sow so shall you reap.

What to do if we have done a lot of bad things? Can we ask from Buddha to forgive us?

Buddha is considered to be our teacher and not as someone whom we pray in order to be forgiven. Buddhists do not believe in external agents from whom we obtain forgiveness or whom we worship for attaining salvation.

Should Buddhists ask for forgiveness, then they should do it from the person whom they offended and not from a third party or external agent. If it wasn’t possible to be forgiven by the person whom we have offended or to make repair, we should then let things follow their natural course, learn from it and forgive ourselves, provided of course we are sincere on this matter.

Buddha does teach us that we are all responsible of our own actions, and that we are all able to fashion our destinies. We should thus consider things with caution before committing the least evil, and try instead to behave properly all the time.

If you are not sure that an action is good or bad, you can simply put into practice this rule taught by Buddha: if the action hurts whether yourself or others, or both; then you should avoid to commit such an action. If it is not the case, then commit it without hesitation.

Abraham Lincoln said:”When I do some good, I feel good.

When I hurt someone, I feel bad.

This is my religion. »

What can we do for vanquishing the negative Kamma accumulated by means of any bad action that we have committed ?

According to the law of cause and effect, negative Kamma cannot simply be wiped out by some positive Kamma. Any action committed deliberately will have its consequences whether in a close or else far future.

Buddha utilized the analogy of the salt in a river in order to advise us on the methods to utilize for reducing the effects of the negative Kamma. He told that whereas a soup spoon of salt poured into a cup will make the water taste very salty while the same quantity of salt will have practically no effect on the taste of the water if it is poured into a river.

Simply put and dilute all negative Kammas that you have accumulated while gathering more positive Kammas.

And some positive Kamma is accumulated by the practice of Dâna, Sîla and Bhâvanâ.

Buddha declared :

«Do not discredit merit by saying that it won’t happen to me.

By each drop of water the decanter is filled.

In the same way the Sage, by accumulating little by little,

Fills himself with some Good. »

 

BASIC BUDDHISM

 

Buddha

 

Gautama Siddhattha was born into a royal family about 2500 years ago. His father was the sovereign of a clan which reigned over a Northern Territory of India near the border of current Nepal. As unique son of this king, he lived an easy and luxurious life surrounded with wealth and women. However, even during his youth he became aware that he would meet no long-lasting satisfaction from such a life style.

He began to become aware that human life is inevitably subjected to disease, old age and death. At the age of 29 years old, being inspired by the vision of a hermit who had a noble and calmed face expression, he decided to renounce to his luxurious life style. He left his wife and his child under the hands of the royal family in order to search for the conditions of a long-lasting happiness. After six years of wanderings and severe ascetic practices he realized that neither a decadent life style nor extreme asceticism would give him the answers he was seeking.

He decided to pursue the « Middle Path » situated between these two extremes. He sat beneath the Bodhi tree, relaxed, took a good meal and took the resolution not to stand again from his sitting meditation as long as he wouldn’t find answers to his questions. After a night of profound meditation, a complete understanding arose in him. Since that day, the Prince was known under the name of Buddha, which literally means the « Awakened One ».

Buddha then spent the 45 following years to teach what he eventually succeeded in understanding. He established the community of monks known under the name Sangha, and Buddhism spread in North India. Some kings, nobles, merchants and peasants became his disciples and votaries, and even nowadays uncountable people all around the world benefit from his teachings.

He peacefully passed away in complete Nibbâna at the age of 80 years old.

 

The Four Noble Truths

 

Since Buddha reached enlightenment, he realized the Four Noble Truths.

All beings are subjected to Dukkha.

Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering” but indeed this term encompasses a wide diversity of negative feelings including stress, dissatisfaction and physical suffering. Dukkha exists as all beings are subjected to sickness, affected by the separation from dear ones, frustrated by the fact of not satisfying their desires and finally being subjected to old age and death.

Dukkha arises out of desire and craving. All beings are thirsty of pleasurable sensations and also wish to avoid unpleasant sensations. Such sensations can be whether physical or else psychological, and Dukkha appears when these desires and cravings are not satisfied.

Dukkha can be overcome through the eradication of desire and craving. Nibbâna is a state of inner peace where all greedinesses, hatreds and illusions, and through all this Dukkha, have been eradicated. There does exist an exit way from Dukkha, which is the Noble Eightfold Path. Dukkha can be reduced, weakened and eventually eradicated, and Nibbâna can then be realized by following this path taught by Buddha.

Buddhism is sometimes critized because it is conceived to be pessimistic as it seems to focus only on suffering instead of happiness and joy. Anyway, all conditions of happiness and joy are impermanent as all beings are subjected to sickness, old age and death, thus invariably to Dukkha.

Instead of this, Buddhism is in fact realistic as Buddha has taught us how to vanquish or reduce Dukkha, and how to reach the permanent bliss of Nibbâna. By following the Noble Eightfold Path taught by Buddha, Nibbâna can be experienced in this life itself.

 

The Noble Eightfold Path

 

Right understanding

To understand and to accept the Four Noble Truths.

 

Right thought

To Cultivate some thoughts of generosity, benevolent love and compassion.

 

Right speech

To avoid telling lies and slandering, to avoid harsh speech and malicious gossip. To cultivate a truthful, peaceful, gentle speech that is meaningful and which is relevant.

 

Right action

To abstain from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. To cultivate non-violence, honesty and faithfulness.

 

Right livelihood

To avoid professions involving killings (of men or animals), the sale of animal meat, trafficking in human beings, weapons, poisons and intoxicants. Also the occupations devoid of ethics, the ones which are immoral and illegal should be avoided too.

 

Right effort

To put into practice a mental discipline in order to prevent unhealthy thoughts from occuring, and to dissipate unhealthy thoughts which have already occurred. To develop some healthy thoughts, and to preserve the healthy thoughts that have already occurred.

 

Right mindfulness

To be totally mindful of one’s body, of physical postures and sensations. To be mindful of the mind and thoughts, of emotions and sentiments. To be mindful of Dhammas (phenomena).

 

Right concentration

To practise meditation in order to train the mind in concentration and to tame it in order to cultivate and obtain wisdom.

 

The three characteristics of existence

Buddha has also discovered that the whole of existence is endowed with three characteristics.

 

Anicca

All things are impermanent, and each phenomenon undergoes a process of change and transformation into something else. For instance, we are all subjected to the ageing process. Even stars and galaxies undergo the process of change.

 

Dukkha

Since things are impermanent, existence is subjected to Dukkha. There will always be craving for that which is pleasant, and aversion towards that which is unpleasant, resulting from the ever changing character of existence.

 

Anatta

There is no immutable and permanent Self. The « Self » to which we are conditioned to believe that it does exist only includes in fact mental and physical components, which are ever changing owing to causation.

 

Rebirth

Since there is no permanent and immutable Self, Buddhism denies the existence of an immortal and immutable soul which transmigrates from one existence to the next.

According to Buddhism, the mind or consciousness moves from one existence to the next. In a paradoxical way, a person who is 71 years old is neither different from, nor identical to the person he was when he was 20 years old. This difference and this similarity are both physical and psychological. Likewise, the mind or the consciousness that transmigrate from one existence to the next are neither different from nor identical to those pertaining to the previous existence. Buddha has also discovered that the whole of existence is endowed with three characteristics.

For instance, if the flame of a candle is utilized for lighting up another candle, the flame of the second candle is neither identical, nor different from the flame of the first candle. It is so even if the flame of the second candle takes its origin from the first candle.

The Kamma is transported along with consciousness to the next existence.

In the first place these concepts seem to be difficult to grasp. But with knowledge and understanding, and the practice of insight meditation, realization and understanding will possibly appear in the mind of the practitioner.

 

Buddhist texts

Buddha’s teachings, also known under the name Dhamma, were grouped into three separated sets of books. These books are collectively known under the name Tipitaka, or the three baskets. The total sum of material is vast and is estimated to contain the double of the contents of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Although changes and revisions are inevitable in the Tipitaka during its 2500 years of existence, we can estimate that up to 90 % of the teachings remain intact. The reason for that is that when it was recited it was so by several hundred of monks who recited it at the same time. When it was finally put down into writing around the year 80 before C.E., many groups of monks undertook this task in concord. It made all attempts of change or alteration of the Tipitaka very difficult to carry out. Some reproductions of the original texts have survived up to nowadays and are well preserved in Sri Lanka.

 

The Sutta Pitaka

Subdivided between five separate collections, the Sutta Pitaka contains all the sermons of the Buddha as well as several other discourses uttered by some of his disciples, who had high ranks in seniority. Buddha was very successful in spreading his teachings since he utilized the language of the common people, which is called Pali language.

He adapted the manner and the style of his discourses so that he utilized simple concepts with ordinary mortals, and more complex ideas when he was addressing more cultivated and intellectual audiences. He taught all from the peasant up to the kings.

Teachings range from directives designed to individual behavior up to ultrasophisticated commentaries on politics and social philosophy. They are pragmatic and can be gladly put into practice in daily life. And although they have been imparted more than 2500 years ago, such teachings remain as relevant as before in today’s world.

 

The Vinaya Pitaka

Also divided between five books, the Vinaya Pitaka establishes the rules and directives destined to the Sangha, that is to say the communities of monks and nuns. With each monk and each nun both enjoying equality of rights, the Sangha is probably the oldest form of organization governed by democratic principles, which remains even nowadays.

 

The Abhidhamma Pitaka

Known as Buddha’s deepest teachings, the Abhidhamma Pitaka constitutes a monumental, sophisticated and extremely complex approach of the Dhamma. It contains some Buddhist doctrines arranged and classified into an eminently and systematic set of seven books.

Although traditionally ascribed to Buddha, numerous commentators consider Abhidhamma, from now on, as the fruit of the work of later scholastic monks who have disseminated Buddha’s teachings through this amazing collection of documents.

It relates to the concepts of existence and reality. It analyses the process of human thought and examines the constituents of mind and matter. Many of its concepts, which do relate to reality and perception, have anticipated the works of quite a few modern thinkers and scientists.

 

Buddhist traditions

Why we do find different Buddhist traditions ?

Buddhism was established more than 2500 years ago, and in the course of this very long period, three main traditions have been developped. Such developments occurred because Buddhism adapted itself to the cultures and conditions of the various countries where it disseminated itself.

However, Buddha’s teachings have shown to us their resistance, as although external signs are dissimilar, the core of the doctrine remains identical among all various traditions. For instance, the acceptance of the core of doctrines, or « areas of congruence » between the various traditions was formally approved by the World Buddhist Sangha Council that was held in Sri Lanka en 1966.

Buddhists accept and respect diversity and consider various traditions as mere diversified paths leading to a unique goal. Usually, the various traditions assist and support each other along this path. In brief, which are these Buddhist traditions ?

 

The Theravâda tradition is the oldest and the most conservative one. It is the one which comes the closest from original Buddhism, the way Buddha himself taught it. It is simpler than other traditions from the view-point of the approach, with little focus on ceremonies and rituals, rather emphasizing discipline, morality and meditation practice as well.

 

The Mahâyâna tradition has started to develop itself in India between 200 before CE and 100 CE . It adapted itself to various Asian cultures while absorbing elements from Taoism and Hinduism. Mahâyâna Buddhism focuses on compassion and faith in order to help other beings to reach enlightenment. Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land sects are included in Mahâyâna Buddhism.

 

Vajrayâna or the Tibetan tradition arose in India around the year 700 after J.C., when some Indian Buddhist monks disseminated in Tibet a part of Buddhist teachings intermingled with some tantric practices. The whole merged with elements of the indigenous Bon religion, bestowing to Vajrayâna practices which are peculiar to it only.

It tends to trust more rituals, the utterance of mantras and visualizations. The most famous figure of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is the spiritual head of Vajrayâna Buddhism.

 

In Buddhism, the various traditions are conceived to be the various flavours of ice creams. It is at the depth the same thing as various tastes appealing to various kinds of people.

 

Why are same words spelled out differently among various Buddhist traditions ?

At Buddha’s time, the most common language was Pali, and it was opposed to Sanskrit, the latter being mainly utilized by Brahmins, the priests of Hinduism. Buddha chose to speak and teach mainly in Pali language since he wanted the largest number of people to be able to learn and benefit from his teachings.

The school of Theravada Buddhism utilizes pronunciations and spellings in Pali language, and Mahayâna Buddhism mainly utilizes Sanskrit language. Some examples of Pali spellings are Dhamma, Kamma and Nibbâna. The Sanskrit counterparts of these terms are Dharma, Karma and Nirvâna.

This booklet utilizes Pali language as this language is the closest from the one utilized by Buddha himself. More questions… and some answers.

 

Kamma, rebirth, and the inequalities of life

 

Buddhism and modern science

 

Buddhism and the myths of creation

 

Meditation and evil spirits

 

Gays and lesbians

 

Smoking and Buddhism

 

Ambition and contentment

 

Vegetarianism, monks and the limitation of meat consumption

 

The various spheres of existence

 

Famous Buddhist men and famous Buddhist women

Kamma, rebirth, and the inequalities of life

Does Kamma explain us why there are so many inequalities in life and around us ? People have always wondered about justice and life, and why beings were not born equal.

Some questions have always been asked regarding the fact that a person was in such a good health, whereas another one was born with so many physical ailments. Why is a person born in a very wealthy family, whereas another takes birth in an almost despicable poverty? Why is a person able to enjoy a long and happy life whereas another one will get his lifetime shortened due to violence or to an accident?

Buddhists don’t believe that such inequalities are due to random, nor to the inexplicable will of an almighty and invisible celestial being. We believe that Kamma , as causation law (of causes and effects), explains all these differences that do occur in the life of beings.

If we can’t remember events of our past lives, is it therefore fair to suffer, in this life, for what has been performed in a previous existence ?

Keep in mind the fact that Kamma doesn’t consist of a system of rewards and punishments. It is simply a natural principle according to which each intentional action will meet its corresponding result, when the conditions for it will be fulfilled.

Let’s take for example a person who is drunk, and who then stumbles and falls into a gap. He breaks his leg. That person will perhaps have no remembrance of the fact to have fallen and to have been injured, but he is still subjected to the painful fruit of his actions.

As mentioned previously, Kamma can also be akin to the plantation of seeds. If you plant a seed of apple tree, an apple tree will grow. If you plant a seed of oak, an oak will grow. It simply is the principle of causation.

Thus, justice and memory are not factors so that Kamma takes place and it does equally apply to all beings which have come to being.

If there is a rebirth, why then people can’t remember their past lives. The memory of past lives is deeply stored within the subconscious mind. In general we are unable to get access to such memories because our mind is not clear and sufficiently disciplined. For instance, very few of us are able to memorize what they did today itself or one month ago ! However, some researches have revealed that young children whose minds are reasonably clear, are able to spontaneously remember their past lives.

Western psychoanalysts from now on utilize methods of hypnotic regression to relieve their patients from their psychological problems, and some of these patients seem to be able to remember their past lives due to such a therapy. Monks who have a very disciplined mind and who are able to enter very deep states of meditation are also supposed to remember their past lives.

Should we know nothing concerning our future life, then why worrying about it ?

It would mean adopting a mildly selfish attitude. It would be similar to the attitude of irresponsible parents who will spend all they have without leaving anything for their children. They won’t know either, for sure, what will happen to their children. Responsible parents will do all they can to ensure the best for their offspring whether they are present for witnessing the result or not. We should adopt a similar attitude concerning the being of next life.

In any case, it is said in Buddhist texts that some celestial beings, as well as some beings born  in some lower worlds, are in fact able to remember their previous lives. Some of these beings have described the actions that bore fruits and thus conditioned their rebirth. There do also exist some motivations so that we give the best of ourselves in this life.

In all cases, as Buddhists, we should behave as good as we can in this life, whether we will reap the fruits of our action in a future life or not. There is a very meaningful saying in Buddhism, which calls for a reflection :

« If you wish to know the life style that you have experienced during your past life, look at your present life. If you wish to know the life style that you will experience in your next life, look at your present life. »

Is there a scientific proof of rebirths ?

There are in fact numerous well documented and investigated cases of persons, including many children, who remember their past lives. Since there are uncountable examples of trivial proofs of this phenomenon in the East, some studies have been done in this field by many Western researchers too.

This research was carried out on both Asian and Western subjects and it took place under certain scientific conditions and rigorous examinations. The conclusion which was the outcome of it was that rebirth is an attested and proved phenomenon.

For example, Carol Bowman has written books about children who are able to remember their past lives. These are not spiritual or religious books, but these are studies on well documented cases and based on empirical observations and researches made on hundreds of children.

The professor Ian Stevenson was an eminent psychiatrist and he was also the Director of the Studies on Perception Department at the university of Virginia in USA.. The publications of the Professor Stevenson, which are meant at first for scientific and academic circles, provide details on 3000 studied cases of persons who could remember their past lives.

Other famous and honorable researchers, being authoritative on the subject, are Dr. Jim Tucker, Dr. Raymond Moody and Thomas Shroder.

Henry Ford : « The work is useless if we can’t utilize our experience in another life.

Genius is the fruit of a long experience gathered during many lives.

Of this I am certain, we are here with a goal. We will tread our path again and again. Spirit and memory are eternal. »

 

Buddhism and modern science

Is Buddhism in conflict with modern science ?

Among all major religions of the world, Buddhist teachings do not significantly or importantly conflict with the discoveries of modern science. They are devoid of creation myths, and they don’t also try to ascribe supernatural causes to natural penomena.

They completely subscribe to the theory of evolution which demonstrates in a completely clear way the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. Thus, they do experience no difficulty while coping with the existence of remains of fossils, the dating done with carbon and the geologic proofs with which modern science applies to date the age of the earth which revolves around 4,5 billion years. These discoveries in fact confirm Buddha’s commentaries concerning the fact that the earth has existed over eons.

Buddha has specifically told that there do exist uncountable star systems, and that our world is similar to a speck of dust if compared with the size and diversity of the universe. He didn’t assert that the earth had been created by an invisible deity or that humans were a special creation of that deity.

Using modern astronomy, satellites and radio telescopes, we can observe the billions of stars and galaxies existing in the universe, and see clearly that Buddha made a very relevant observation of our place in the cosmos.

Buddha’s conception of time, in the context of the universe, seems to deeply be in harmony with modern science. Buddhism measures the scale of time of the universe in « kalpas », which are periods of time of immense size. He used the analogy of the silk cloth brushing the summit of the mountain once every hundred years. The time taken for a mountain to be reduced to powder approximately corresponds to the duration of a kalpa. Therefore Buddhist cosmology is in perfect harmony with the current scientific estimations of the age of the universe, which is about 13,7 billions of years.

Also very interestingly, Buddha has mentioned that the universe undergoes constant phases of contraction and expansion and that these cycles last immensely long periods of time, thus during many kalpas. It seems that he anticipated the vibratory theory of the universe more than 2500 years ago.

In one of his discourses, Buddha lifted a cup of water and told there do exist an uncountable number of living beings in water. Over a long period, nobody understood what he meant to say by that but today we can observe with a microscope that many micro-organisms do exist in each cup of water. Thus, there are perhaps many other things that Buddha asserted and which we are supposed to discover and understand.

William Shakespeare, in « Hamlet » :

« There do exist more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than those dreamed of in your philosophy. »

 

Buddhism and creation myths

In Buddhism, why don’t we find a belief in a supreme Deity who created the universe ? Buddhists tend to be quite realistic on this subject and they don’t believe in creation myths such as the universe arising from a cosmic egg or else created by an old man with a long white beard. If there is something that we believe in, it is that the universe has always existed.

If it is said that an omnipotent being or « intelligent designer » has created the universe, then the obvious question arises to know who has created or “conceived” such a being ? And if such a being has always existed, then wouldn’t it be more credible to say that the universe has always existed too? In any case, Buddhists certainly do not believe in such an ominiscient and almighty being who, for some reason, authorizes his creations to be tortured in an eternal hell (which this being has also created). And if this omniscient being knew in priori that most of its creations were intended to burn in hell for ever, then why does he keep producing so much suffering ? It is also difficult for Buddhists to believe in such a supreme being who somehow can be loving and forgiving, whereas at the same time he can be vengeful, unfair, ruthless and sadistic.

Buddha advised us not to feel concerned by such speculations, as they are ultimately unproductive. He tells the story of a man who, pierced by a poisoned arrow, didn’t want to extract the arrow unless he would know who had shot it, why someone shot him, and by which kind of poison the arrow was smeared. In the same way as the work of the doctor lies in extracting  the poisoned arrow and to treat the wound, and not to answer the inconvenient questions of the man ; the role of Buddha lies in showing us how to deliver ourselves from suffering and not to answer such speculative questions. Thus, he says that we should emphasize on that which is really important, which is our practice of Buddhism.

Therefore Buddhism doesn’t threaten unbelievers of eternal punishment in hell ? Certainly not! Such threats have been used in ancient times in order to keep the people on the right path and they were used in conjunction with the promise of rewards in heaven. This kind of approach was followed to make sure that the people unite in specific religious groups, amid threats of eternal chastisements and the assurance of rewards.

Buddhists do not accept this concept of a jealous god that punishes his creatures simply because the latter have chosen a different religion. Almost all civilized nations respect and guarantee freedom of thought and religious practices, as stipulated in the Charter of United Nations (Article 18). Torture furthermore is banned by all civilized nations of the world. Then how can a god, that has supposedly created all of us, show himself so little civilized ? Thus Buddhists consider such threats of eternal torture in hell truly difficult to accept.

For example, which kind of being will send or allow another being to burn in a hellfire for ever ? Let’s take for example a simple match that burns. Simply hold it under the palm of your hand. Can you endure the suffering even a few seconds ? Can you maintain this match under the palm of someone just for a minute by watching this person roaring with agony ? Can you impose to someone to undergo it for all eternity ? Such a wickedness lies beyond imagination.

Moreover, if it is in your power to put an end to such an intense and endless suffering, wouldn’t you do it ? Wouldn’t any healthy and rational being behave so ? There can never be any justification for such a ruthless cruelty, whatever its causes and circumstances might be.

Buddha never made any threat, or tried to force whoever to accept his teachings. He believed in the freedom of thought. He admitted that everybody wasn’t destined to accept his teachings, that beings differently progressed and that they may choose various paths each for himself. He preferred to explain his teachings in a logical and reasonable manner, and he wanted beings to understand and realize the teachings by themselves without fearing any punishment inflicted by him.

Buddhism doesn’t consist in threats and rewards, but in knowledge and understanding.

Albert Einstein :

«Buddhism has the features of that which could be expected from a cosmic religion for the future : it transcends a personal god, shuns dogma and theology ; it includes both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious approach rooted in the experience of all things, whether they are natural or spiritual, as a profound unity. Should there be a religion compatible with the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism. »

 

Meditation and evil spirits

Does meditation allow demons or evil spirits to permeate and possess the mind ?

Meditation has been practised under many forms, within very different cultures during thousands of years. It is taught and practised all over the world and it meets a lot of success, especially in western countries.

An increasing number of big international corporations send their personal staff and leaders for retreats and lessons. They acknowledge the benefits of meditation such as improvement of concentration and clarity of the mind, as well as a better management of stress, pain, annoyance and anger.

Specialists in neurosciences of the university of the Massachusetts medical school, while studying the electroencephalograms of persons who meditate regularly, have demonstrated that the latter have a more peaceful and calm mind than persons who do not meditate. Some researchers of the university of California, of the San Francisco medical centre, have demonstrated that, thanks to meditation, Buddhists are happier and more calm than other humans !

Certain persons will discourage us to practise meditation because of their irrational fears. It would be wise to treat such claim as insane superstitions.

 

Gays and lesbians

Can gays and lesbians become Buddhists ?

Sexual orientation doesn’t really matter in Buddhism. Buddha may ask who is the best among them : a gay who is morally upright or an heterosexual who is dishonest and a crook ? To Buddha, what really matters is the morality and virtue of a person, whether such a person treads the path of enlightenment or not.

Therefore, gays and lesbians who live a virtuous existence can certainly become Buddhists.

 

Smoking and Buddhism

Is smoking against Buddhism ?

Crudely speaking, we may say that Buddhism doesn’t consider the fact to smoke as morally incorrect.

However, some diligent Buddhist practitioners, who have this habit, try to remove it. The reason for it is that smoking involves a severe form of dependence and this attachment generates an extreme addiction. Also, smoking is as detrimental to oneself as it is to others due to the effects of passive smoking. Thus, if something is detrimental to oneself and to others too, it cannot be positively perceived in Buddhism.

 

Ambition and being contented with what we possess

Buddhism incites to content ourselves with what we have, but people have ambitions in their work and they also aspire to a better life for their families. How can these two tendencies become reconciled ?

Although it is true that Buddhism considers self-contentment as a virtue, it is also aware of the fact that each of us may follow a different path so as to reach a happiness and an inner peace peculiar to himself.

In such cases, Buddha recommends to follow the Middle Path.

Don’t be too ambitious because you could hurt or do harm to others by realizing your ambitions. But also do not be too self-contented with what you have because your bread and butter and your family could be very affected.

 

Vegetarianism, monks and limitation of meat consumption

Must Buddhists absolutely be vegetarian ?

In Buddhism, being vegetarian or not rests totally upon individual decision. What we focus on in Buddhism isn’t the purity of diet but mental purity. Of course, many Buddhists become possibly aware of the cruelty induced within us by the fact to eat meat, which is nothing else than the flesh of defenceless animals. Many Buddhists have succeeded in eradicating craving for and attachment to meat consumption, and have become vegetarian on their own. However, if becoming vegetarian isn’t convenient or is too difficult for you, then follow the path with which you feel the most comfortable. In any event, being vegetarian at least once or twice a month is a good way for practising compassion for all living beings, by consciously refraining from consuming meat at least on this/these day(s).

A book that extremely well deals with the subject of the Buddhist perspective to be vegetarian is the book written by Philip Kapleau titled  « Cherish every life ».

 

Why do some monks eat meat ?

Buddha refused to forbid meat consumption to his followers. He had very pragmatic reasons for behaving so as enough vegetable food wouldn’t have been available in certain inhabited areas, or could have been very rare in times of draught. For instance, vegetable food is  available in very limited quantities on a spot like Tibet.

Monks survive from alms and should alms be limited only to vegetable food, then it could be a very heavy burden for the laity who support the monks. Thus monks eat everything that is offered to them, even if it is meat, provided animals haven’t been killed especially for them.

Nowadays, indeed, many monks and temples prefer vegetarian food. However, we should notice that most of the monks of the Mahâyâna tradition are strictly vegetarian.

Are vegetarian Buddhists who eat false meat hypocrits ? Why supplying oneself with false meat ?

False meat is a popular vegetarian food prepared with gluten, soya beans or mushrooms, which imitates the appearance and taste of real meat. Vegetarian Buddhists are sometimes accused to be hypocrits since they advocate for the fact to shun meat consumption and still consume all sorts of such false meat. Vegetarians generally do not wish to eat something resulting from suffering and murders of defenceless animals. Thus, they do not consider false meat as « meat », but only as something bringing diversity to our diet.

False meat was originally created for attracting non-vegetarians to vegetarian food. For example, it can be consumed by meat eaters who want to become vegetarians, as such dishes provide an easier transition for becoming totally vegetarian.

In all cases, eating false meat is anyway infinitely better than eating animal flesh.

Buddha has declared :

« All beings love Life,

All beings love Happiness.

Relying on yourself in comparison,

You should neither hurt nor kill,

Or provoke an injury or a murder of another being. »

 

The various spheres of existence

Which are the various spheres of existence, are they real spots ?

Traditionally, Buddhists recognize six realms or spheres of existence. Theses are hell, the animal kingdom, the one of hungry ghosts, of demons, the human world and the celestial spheres. Some of these kingdoms, such as those of animals and hungry ghosts, encroach on our own.

It is said that there do exist different « levels » of celestial spheres or hells. To open a perspective on this subject, let’s take for example our world. There are currently 193 countries disseminated in seven continents. Living in a country in peace with a gentle climate is a situation quite different from living in a country torn by war and ravaged by hunger and diseases. It is obvious that even in our world, there are big differences between countries !

Thus a celestial sphere is a « place » much more pleasurable than the best country of our world, and a hellish world is a « place » where life conditions are much tougher than anywhere on earth. Even the different “levels” found within such kingdoms can be compared with the different countries existing on each continent where life conditions within certain countries can be « better » or « worse » than in others.

There is an alternative view-point that Buddha symbolically raised when he spoke about these different plans of existence. For example, a person who suffers from serious physical disabilities, serious illnesses, or who is mentally disturbed, can be considered as being « reborn” in an hellish world. Some people who live lives made of hardships, where their only concern lies in trying to take their next meal and to stay alive, can be considered as being “reborn” in the animal kingdom. Some people who constantly have burning and unfulfilled desires and who are never satisfied no matter what they possess, can be considered to live in the kingdom of hungry ghosts. Those who are particularly aggressive and who permanently fight for power and possessions may have entered the world of demons. And people who are born with a great physical beauty and an outstanding wealth can be considered as being “reborn” in the kingdom of heavens. For instance sport and cinema stars, who have milllions of fans and admirers, are often described as being gods !

Naturally the lower spheres of existence of hells, animals, hungry ghosts and demons are spots of suffering, and celestial worlds are spots of pleasure. However, Buddha told that these spheres of existence are not spots particularly favorable to the practice of Buddhism or for accumulating some positive kamma. The reason for it is that beings living in lower worlds do usually experience too much suffering, and celestial beings are too busy in attending their pleasures.

Therefore, owing to the fact that the human world contains both pleasure and suffering, it can be considered as the most auspicious place for learning and practising Buddha’s teachings. Also, the human world is the one that offers the best opportunity to do good and to gather some positive kamma.

However, Buddha also told that many celestial beings practise his teachings and are able to realize Nibbâna. He thus encouraged each of us to strive for having a good rebirth whether in a celestial world or else in the human world. Whether these six kingdoms are real or symbolic doesn’t really matter. What does really matter is to maintain a practice so as to book for « oneself » a good rebirth. It is very essential as only in a celestial world or in the human world can we learn and practise Buddha’s teachings, and thus realize Nibbâna.

 

Daily practice

Salutation, taking refuge and the five precepts.

 

There do exist no difficult or severe rules but a good daily practice may consist in beginning to show one’s respects to Buddha, taking refuge, and then taking the five precepts. You can do it in front of a Buddha image, but it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got any.

You can pay your respects to Buddha by expressing your gratitude to him, for his teachings, by reciting thrice with sincerity the traditional salutation :

Praise to him, The Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Fully Awakened One.

Or in Pali language:

Namo tassa, bhagavato, arahato, samma sambuddhassa.

Traditionally, Buddhists do assert themselves as such by reciting the taking of refuge in the triple gem of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Whereas you recite it, it can enable you to mentally visualize Buddha teaching the Dhamma to the Sangha.

To the Buddha, I go for refuge ;

To the Dhamma, I go for refuge ;

To the Sangha, I go for refuge.

For the second time, to the Buddha, I go for refuge ;

For the second time, to the Dhamma ; I go for refuge ;

For the second time, to the Sangha ; I go for refuge.

For the third time, to the Buddha, I go for refuge ;

For the third time, to the Dhamma ; I go for refuge ;

For the third time, to the Sangha ; I go for refuge.

Taking the five precepts may lie in simply reciting the following formula and mentally take the resolution to try to observe these rules of basic morality.

  1. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from killing living beings.
  2. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking what is not given.
  3. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from lies and false speech.
  5. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from abusive consumption of intoxicants and drugs.

 

Meditation

If there is sufficient time for meditation, then certain persons directly commit themselves to the path of the meditation practice that they chose such as Vipassanâ meditation, whereas others may begin by the practice of Metta at first. Alternatively, many people prefer to first practice Metta meditation after the main session as the mind is then more calm and well concentrated. Again these are individual choices, and keep in mind the fact that even a short meditation session can be very beneficial.

It will be good however to occasionally dedicate ourselves to some Metta meditation sessions. The goal is to cultivate qualities of benevolent love and compassion, and to radiate some Metta not only to persons who are dear ones, but also to all sentient beings that have come to being, whether they are small, of medium or big size, visible or invisible, close or remote, etc.

 

The sharing of merits

Meditation is a healthy action, and it sows some positive kamma. An excellent manner of concluding a meditation would be to share this positive kamma with others, also known as the practice of sharing merits.

Just share with all beings, at the mental level, the good kamma which you have accumulated. Do it with any person of your family who left this world too. It enables the meditator to cultivate generosity, and it enables also all sentient beings to share the happiness generated by your positive actions.

In fact, sharing merits can be done after all kinds of good actions. For instance, after you have performed some volunteer services for helping the most needy, after having made a donation for helping old people, the poor and the diseased, or even after having spoken about the Dhamma with anyone who is interested in it.

Each of us goes through ups and downs in this life. In periods of stress and difficulties, we should rather emphasize on the practice of Metta meditation and the sharing of merits. If it is necessary, after these practices, you could mentally require some help from any being who is likely to assist you during periods of tasks you may go through. Also depending on your past kamma, it would be possible that things soon begin to change for the best. If it is the case, don’t forget to be grateful and to send thanks.

 

Mindfulness

Something we often forget but which is extremely precious is the constant practice of mindfulness, or « sati ». It is in connection with the practice of Vipassanâ or insight meditation, which gradually increases mindfulness and the capacity to see things as they really are. This practice showed itself very beneficial for having a good health, enabling individuals to better manage and control stressful situations.

Sati can be practised not only at meditation time, but also, as each of us could, day and night. Be simply aware, when you remember the practice, of your posture and bodily movements, whether you walk, you stand, you seat and even you lie down. Even simply being conscious, at any time, of your breath, is a big step forward.

Be aware of your physical sensations (through the five senses), your thoughts, your mental sensations and emotions. Observe all phenomena, and note them without making judgements, whether the latter are positive, negative or even neutral.

It is merely a « step backward » or the observation in full awareness of what is going on. For example, when the phone rings, be mindful of the fact that you hear the sound, of your intention to reply, of the physical movement consisting in approaching from the phone, etc. You can also try to be totally mindful of the fact that you walk from one room to the next in your house !

Another interesting example, it is when you feel anger rising within yourself. Simply take a step backward and observe it. Divert your attention from the person or the situation with which you are angry and just recognize the anger as « anger ». Contemplate the source of such anger within yourself, why and what you are angry with, and try to “measure” the intensity of your anger.

It won’t be easy but possibly you’ll be able to observe how anger appears and disappears. In time you will be able to easily remain calm and mindful while facing all sorts of frustrations and difficulties.

The focus is on mindfulness in the « present moment ». The past, even the one of one minute ago, died and went away. Future hasn’t appeared yet, and won’t probably be at all what we expect. The idea is not to live in the past, or to dream about the future. Observe and live each present moment as it occurs. You will then live in a truthful way and you’ll be able to see life as it really is.

 

Learn and share the Dhamma

If you have time for it, try to learn at least a bit of the Dhamma every day. And as for all good things, share it with anybody who is interested too.

Buddha told that the only way to thank our parents who welcomed us into this world and who have taken care of us since birth, it’s inculcating and teaching them the Dhamma.

For those who have children, one of the most beautiful things to do for them is to share with them your knowledge of Dhamma, and to give them good foundations of teachings.

When you share the Dhamma, it’s a gift for this life as well as for many more lives to come.

 

Being gentle

Finally, be always open-minded, patient and humble. Treat everyone with respect, and each thing with kindness.

The Dalai Lama has declared :

« My religion is simple. My religion is kindness. »

With the practice of Dâna, Sîla and Bhâvanâ, Buddha gave us directives for attaining peace and happiness in this life, a favorable rebirth in the following life, and eventually the joy and liberty of Nibbâna.

These directives are quite easy to follow and are not very difficult to observe in daily practice. Each of us does mistakes, then if you fall once in a while, don’t worry too much about it, just try again. Try to tread the path of Buddha for yourself !

 

Practice of basic meditation

A practical guide for beginners and instructors

 

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