Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back to Buddha Basics

 Are these monks praying, and does it matter?

When filling in a census form, under the section 'Religion', I write 'Buddhism.' This may not, to the general reader, be much of a surprise, considering the fact that I am a Buddhist, and yet, many Buddhists would themselves feel uncomfortable with classifying Buddhism as a religion. Why? Well, if we take a typical dictionary definition of religion, we usually come up with something like the following (taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, in this case): 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods/a particular system of faith and worship.' If we examine this description of what religion is, and then compare it to our own understanding of Buddhism, do we find that the former sums up the latter or not?

First of all, is Buddhism 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power?' If we define the law of karma as such, then the 'superhuman controlling power' bit works, albeit loosely. However, look at those two words 'faith' and 'worship' - is Buddhism primarily a form of faith and worship? I've certainly never read of Buddhists having faith in or worshiping karma! However, for many Buddhists around the world, of whatever sect, faith in the Buddha, his disciples, the Teachings, gurus and teachers is an important aspect of Buddhism, expressed in acts of worship. And yet, others - in my opinion a small minority - would balk at the suggestion that they either have faith in the Buddha or worship him, let alone any of the other aforementioned objects of devotion.

This minority does appear to be predominant amongst Western Buddhists, not surprisingly given their rejection of faith-based religions such as Christianity and Judaism, along with the anti-superstitious feeling that the sciences promote in the Occident. In the Orient, where Buddhism has been practiced for the past two-and-a-half thousand years, such rejection of faith and worship is much rarer, although it is widely documented, due to the high-profile academic positions held by many of its proponents. In Japan, for example, the famous writer on Zen Buddhism D. T. Suzuki presented Buddhism as a fusion of spirituality and psychology, whilst his compatriots in the 'Kyoto School' of philosophy, including Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji, also described Buddhism in rationalistic and scientific ways.

But what of the second part of that Dictionary entry on religion above? It defined 'superhuman controlling power' not as the Buddhist notion of karma, but as 'especially a personal God or gods.' Even if we allow for faith and worship to be considered 'genuine' Buddhist practice, surely neither a god nor gods would be the object of such devotion? Well, again, the way that Amitabha Buddha is viewed and worshiped seems little different to a god, and even in the Pali Canon we find the Buddha acknowledging the existence, and sometimes the contemplation, of gods (although not the adoration of them). Again, modern-minded Buddhists might interpret the various non-historical buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, and spirits described in traditional Buddhist circles in mythological or psychological ways, but for most Buddhists such beings are believed in literally, making their experience of Buddhism very much a religion, not a philosophy or 'way of life.'

In the last part of the dictionary definition of religion cited above, we find 'a particular system of faith and worship.' We've already examined the use of the words 'faith' and 'worship' in relation to Buddhism, but what of the idea of it being a system? Well, this would appear to fit in with the philosophy and practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, with a fair definition of it as 'a system of spiritual/psychological liberation.' This would appear to offend few modern-minded Buddhists, but doesn't really begin to acknowledge the other more religious beliefs and practices found within Buddhist communities. We seem split between very different interpretations of what Buddhism is, all rooted in long-established scriptures and traditions, but diverging dramatically when present practices are examined.

So, is Buddhism a religion? Or, is it a 'system of liberation from suffering', or a complex set of philosophies, or a set of cultural practices? Maybe it's all of the above, and more. Perhaps this is the beauty of Buddhism, that we can experience it in the way that suits us best, depending on cultural, individual, and temporal conditions. The Buddha is seen to teach different 'levels' of Buddhism to different people in both the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, and within the living traditions of both major branches of Buddhism we find multiple forms of belief and practice. It is the conclusion of this writer - for the time being at least, for all things are impermanent - that Buddhism can be described as a religion, with some reservations regarding theistic terminology, as well as a branch of philosophy, and, most crucially, a way of life intended to end suffering. What do you think, dear reader? 
 Buddhism's Five Precepts

High Five for Buddha!

From the earliest known texts on the matter, Buddhism has considered morality an important part of the practice, presented in the simplest form for lay Buddhists as the Five Precepts. In some of these texts, the Buddha is often seen advising against the breaking of the Five Precepts at the risk of future woes, not only in this life, but in lives to come. Indeed, willful acts that do not conform to these precepts are often said by the Buddha to lead to the hell realms. So, if we want to avoid being reborn into disadvantageous circumstances, as an animal, or in the torments of Yama's underworld, we'd better make clear what these precepts actually are:

  1. To avoid killing sentient beings
  2. To avoid stealing
  3. To avoid sexual misconduct
  4. To avoid lying
  5. To avoid taking intoxicants

 Now, looking at each of the five precepts in turn will help us to determine why we should adhere to it, and what this entails. Starting with Precept #1, we need to establish what is meant by 'sentient beings,' thereby knowing what it is we shouldn't kill. Any creature that has a mind is considered a sentient being in Buddhism, and in the physical world this corresponds to any creature with a brain, no matter how small that being (or its brain) might be. So, unlike the Judeo-Christian commandment not to kill, the First Precept of Buddhism discourages us from willfully taking the life of any living creature, including all types of animals, birds, fish, insects, etc. Precept #2 encourages us to avoid stealing, that is taking anything that we haven't bought or been given, if we believe it to belong to somebody else. Taking wild fruit to eat would be fine, as long as we know it isn't on private property. So, obviously theft, mugging, and burglary are out of the question for a well-practicing Buddhist. But, what about finding money in the street and then keeping it, does that count as breaking the Second Precept? If we know the money doesn't belong to us, then it is against Precept #2, as is pilfering from the workplace as a 'perk of the job.'

The Third Buddhist Precept discourages 'sexual misconduct', a phrase that has been variously interpreted, depending on the culture and morality of the individual doing the interpreting. Does it only mean not committing adultery or raping someone? Some Buddhists think so, whilst at the other end of the moral spectrum there are traditionalists that consider any sex out of marriage to be breaking this precept. Somewhere between the two would seem more in line with the general 'thrust' of Buddhist morality, however. Loving sex between people committed to each other that has at least a modicum of wisdom and compassion thrown in somewhere would appear to be in line with Precept #3. For, whilst on the one hand a ceremony and a bit of paper do not necessarily indicate either wisdom or compassion, promiscuous sex would appear to have none of either.

Precept #4 guides us against lying, that is deliberately telling untruths. Again, as with Precept #1, the Fourth Precept is broader in scope than we might think at first, for this doesn't just include blatant lying such as perjury, slander, or inaccurate boasting. It also includes so-called 'white lies', as they are still denying the truth of the way things are, and therefore contradicting the Dharma. Telling an uncomfortable truth, keeping quiet, or changing the subject are always preferable if we take this precept seriously.
As to the Fifth Precept, to avoid taking intoxicants, this doesn't just mean not drinking alcohol. It includes not talking recreational drugs, eating magic mushrooms, or sniffing toxic glue. Precept #5 exists to help us avoid twisting perception so that we misunderstand the Dharma (the-way-things-are), and so that we don't break any other of the Five Precepts whilst 'under the influence.'

That's all well and good on the level of theory, you might well think, but what about the practical application of the Five Precepts: is it possible to live in the modern world whilst adhering to these five guidelines, and if it is, is anyone doing so? Taking a look around Thailand, the country often touted as the most Buddhist country on Earth, it would seem that the Five Precepts aren't widely followed. Animals are routinely slaughtered for food, and insects, particularly mosquitoes, are swatted by just about everyone, it seems. Stealing is a problem in the Land of Smiles, too, and sexuality has often been indulged in in Thai society - it's a sobering thought that despite the thousands of 'sex tourists' that come their exotic holidays every year, more than ninety per cent of prostitution in the Kingdom involves Thais only. Lying to 'save face' is an integral part of Thai culture, too - very few people speak the truth about themselves or others (or their country) when an untruth will make everyone feel better about themselves. And, as for not taking intoxicants, Thailand is one of the drug centers of the world, where narcotics are not only smuggled in and out of the Kingdom, but many locals are addicted, also. And, on any weekend take a stroll around the bars and nightclubs of any Thai town or city, and the drunkards are out in force!

And yet, there are lay Buddhists in this land, who like the best of the monks, keep the Precepts, and lead virtuous and harmless lives. Hard to identify, they are occasionally met whilst traveling, or visiting a forest temple, where many of the more dedicated lay Buddhists go to beef up their practice from time to time. In this world of multitudinous temptations, it would be somewhat naive to expect the majority of people to be keeping the Five Precepts, but it is encouraging nevertheless when such people are encountered, showing that virtue is not dead, and that the wholesome foundations that maintaining the Precepts gives us for the further cultivation of meditation and wisdom is achievable.

So, here in Thailand, there are Buddhists that benefit from their adherence to the Five Precepts, but then what of Westerners who have not grown up in a predominately Buddhist culture - can they too sustain such a practice? From my personal experience as a Western Buddhist, he simple answer is' "Yes!" The slightly more complicated response is that whilst it is possible for those of us born outside of Buddhist families to keep the Precepts, it isn't plain sailing. (And, neither is it so for many devout Thai Buddhists, either, for that matter.) Despite living in Thailand for the past few years, previously my wife (who is also Buddhist) and I lived in England, and we managed to cultivate the Precepts there too, despite the very different cultural backdrop. And, this shouldn't be too surprising when we remember that most Thais don't practice the Precepts, creating a society that looks at those of us that do live by them as oddities. Ultimately, it's up to each of us to make the commitment to keep the Buddhist Precepts or not, and whilst it's nice to have others around us doing the same, if we really, really care about it, we'll do it.

But, there's a question that arises here that needs to be addressed: why bother to maintain the Five Precepts at all? If it's not about fitting in with the morality of one's community, then we should look into the reasons for taking up the Precepts, albeit briefly. Well, returning to my own experience in these matters, there have been tangible results from keeping the Five Precepts which include a clearer conscience, confidence, and an increased measure of happiness or contentedness. Having a clear conscience that one is not behaving in the selfish and unwise ways that the Precepts discourage, means that less guilt is likely to arise in the mind, certainly regarding the most serious misdemeanors that humans can get up to. Cultivating the Five Precepts also leads to a confidence born from the fact that the (often negative) desires that arise in the mind do not have to be acted out, and that awakening to the way things are and responding appropriately is possible. The feeling of contentedness that comes out of a predominately guiltless and confident mind is a wonderful gift to possess that can not only be experienced by the bearer, but also shared with all sentient beings. This, coupled with the fact that by keeping the Precepts in the first place we are doing considerably less harm to others, makes us a positive not negative force in the world.

To sum up, then, the Five Precepts are not always that easy (or fun) to maintain, but when cultivated over some time, they bring real benefits to those of us that keep them, as well as to all other sentient beings. So, over to you dear reader - do you keep the Five Precepts, and if so, what is your experience with them? Please leave a comment on 'Buddha Space' by clicking on the link below. I look forward to your responses.

 Buddhism & Science: Exploring the Buddhaverse 

Space, the final frontier...

Space, we are told by scientists is so immense, so mind-bogglingly vast that it is as good as (or, in fact, actually is) infinite. It is full of billions galaxies that are in turn inhabited by billions of stars and planets, and, moreover, the new scientific theories of the multiverse  state that the universe in which all of this exists is just one of countless parallel universes. And, because space contains all of this stuff, it can kinda make one feel not so much tiny in comparison, but rather insignificant. For, in such an unimaginably infinite void, 'I' am just a tiny, albeit somewhat intelligent, animal scurrying around on the surface of Planet Earth along with nearly seven billion fellow human beings. We are like ants, nay microbes, in the sheer magnitude of this existence: so, in this light, how unimportant 'I' seem.

Despite the gloomy sentiments of the paragraph above, please don't despair, because space itself will now be shown to be the cure to this existential angst that contemplating it created in the first place! This more pleasing apprehension of space is not to be seen 'out there', however, but is to be experienced right here, where the feeling of 'I' occurs. And, thankfully, it doesn't require an extremely large and expensive telescope to be witnessed, either. All that is required to see the space at the heart of one's being is attention - even eyes aren't essential, in fact, for 'it' can be known just as well with eyes shut as open. To see what I mean, dear reader, I invite you to give a few minutes to investigate what lies at your very center:

Look at whatever is in front you - probably a computer screen at present - and notice its shape, size, colors, and its solidity. Now, turn your attention around to gaze back at what is doing the looking. Do you see 'you', dear reader, or do you see the space to which this little exercise is aimed at uncovering? What I mean to suggest, is that everything that you perceive right now is appearing in a spacious awareness located right where you are: do you see what I'm getting at? And, to show that this isn't a trick of the eyes, close them and pay attention to all the sounds that you can hear and that in which they arise. Do sounds not occur in a silent (spacious) awareness, too, along with all other physical and mental phenomena? Play with this exercise a short while, and see if you can find the space that lies behind the sense of 'I'.

Now, this space that we can experience in this present moment is also infinite, just as the 'outer' space described above. If you don't believe this, take a few more moments to explore it, and see if you can define it anymore than scientists can define that which contains the universe or multiverse. How big is it? Where does it begin and where does it end? Can it be timed or measured in any other way? I find not. This space is as infinite as the cosmic one that astronomers spend their days (and nights) staring at so intently. Moreover, this spaciousness is (thanks to the human mind) aware of itself; it can know that it is. And, because it has this capacity to know, it can be dubbed 'Buddha Space', for the term 'Buddha' comes from the root word 'budh', which means to be awake or to know.

In this context, the 'I' that can feel so minuscule and irrelevant when pondering the enormity of existence can be seen to be a valid vehicle for spacious awareness to know the universe and itself. 'I' do not have to feel so impotent in the face of the cosmos because at heart I am not 'I' but the spacious knowing that contains all that is experienced. Whilst over-identification with being this person can cause all kinds of problems for all concerned, seeing 'me' in its grander context as that which the monk Ajahn Sumehdo likes to call 'the knowing' is the beginning of awakening to our true nature, which is a vast and peaceful awareness. It is the 'Buddha Space' after which this blog is named, and if you are encouraged to take a peek back at what you truly are at heart by these words, then the blog has done its job, and 'I' can feel some pleasure from writing these small black squiggles, knowing that even they have some relevance in the vastness of this 'Buddhaverse.'

Back to Buddha Basics 

When this blog began, the first reflection was on the nature of the Buddha. This is such a crucial subject for Buddhists to consider that it’s worth meditating on again, as we enter a new calendar year, and make renewed commitments to walking the Buddha Way. As a teacher of English, I have often used basic question-and-answer formats to elicit responses from new students, giving them a chance to learn about their teacher and each other, whilst also giving me the opportunity to assess their verbal capabilities. These questions are simple queries such as ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘How old are you?’ With the replacement of the word ‘you’ with ‘Buddha’, we can use this format to explore our own understanding of the Buddha:

  • Who is Buddha?
  • Where does Buddha come from?
  • How old is Buddha?
  • What does Buddha do?
  • Where does Buddha live?

Although some of these questions may seem weird, over simplistic, or just plain daft, in their direct manner they do have the ability to help us to cut to the chase and perceive our essential understandings and experiences of the Buddha. It’s not the intention of this blogger to influence your initial responses to these questions, so I’ll refrain from expressing them just yet. This is because I’m fascinated in your answers to these five basic questions about the Buddha, dear reader, and would really appreciate it if you’d take the time to ponder them, and then write your answers in the comments section linked to below. In sharing our understandings of the word ‘Buddha’ we can help each other to open up to new ways of experiencing the Buddha and this can be a real boon to our living the Buddhadharma.


  1. Hi there, You've done a fantastic job. I will definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I'm sure they will be benefited from this web site.
    Also see my web site :: erinmore pipe tobacco

  2. Hi i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace, when i read this piece of writing i thought i
    could also make comment due to this good post.
    Have a look at my webpage ; samson tobacco

  3. 4 2011 he vaulted past Britney Spears in the Most Twitter Followers category.
    It all boils down to data, and more is constantly superior in these situations.
    Ask your friends and followers to digg, retweet a post for you because that will feature you on the Digg homepage and you will surely have increased number of followers on twitter.

    Also visit my website; Buy Twitter followers uk
    Also see my page :: Buy cheap Twitter Followers

  4. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book
    in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog.
    An excellent read. I'll definitely be back.

    Look at my web site; stylo-

  5. My brother suggested I may like this web site. He was totally right.
    This post truly made my day. You cann't imagine simply how a lot time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

    Stop by my web site: pod coffee maker

  6. Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?

    There's a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Thank you

    Feel free to surf to my homepage ... drip coffee

  7. Excellent website you have here but I was curious if you
    knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed here?

    I'd really love to be a part of online community where I can get advice from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Bless you!

    Feel free to visit my web site - business expense

  8. We absolutely love your blog and find most of your
    post's to be what precisely I'm looking for. can you
    offer guest writers to write content for you? I wouldn't mind publishing a post or elaborating on a lot of the subjects you write concerning here. Again, awesome web site!

    my blog post

  9. Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all of us you really know what
    you're talking approximately! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally consult with my website =). We could have a hyperlink trade agreement between us

    Feel free to surf to my site; please click the next website

  10. No question, this iѕ quite nice. Rarеly do I enсountеr a blοg that’s just as
    eԁucative and interesting on web 2.0 site, and let mе tеll yοu,
    you haѵe hit the nail on the heаd.

    Νot many individuals these days make an еffort to actually put
    some thought intо this issue. Ӏt's awesome that I was able to find this while searching for relevant topics.

    My web blog: 44245

  11. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a great way to pay for items on Amazon.
    There is something about knowing that there is money out there for
    you to earn if you just reach out and take it.

    As an Affiliate Sign up to be an affiliate for Amazon.

    Check out my web site :: make money online


Search This Blog