INTRODUCTION TO BUDDHISM
(Through commonly asked questions)
What is the difference between the two Buddhist traditions, Hinayana and Mahayana?
Although both the Hinayana and the Mahayana traditions are based on the teachings of the Buddha himself, the Mahayana or the greater vehicle as the name itself suggests is the vehicle of the bigger scope as compared to the Hinayana or the lesser vehicle. One must not mistake the terms bigger or lesser to mean inferior or superior, but rather a difference in terms of a bigger or lesser scope, the range of activities to be achieved. So while most of the practices are the same in the Hinayana and the Mahayana vehicles but from the point of what is to be achieved the scope of these practices varies. For example when the perfection of morality is practiced by the followers of the Hinayana the emphasis is in refraining from negative deeds, whereas for the Mahayana practitioners the practice of morality will include both the avoidance of negative deeds as well as the accumulations of positive merits.
In the Hinayana vehicle the aim of all the practices results in achieving liberation for oneself thereby achieving the state of an Arhat or the one who has conquered all afflictions. On the other hand in the Mahayana vehicle the aim is to achieve the full enlightened state of a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings thereby achieving the state of Buddhahood.
While the practice of wisdom or emptiness is practiced by both the Hinayana and the Mahayana practitioners, Bodhichitta is a practice which is unique and only found in the Mahayana tradition.
How can we believe in the past and future lives?
If we try to find some kind of tangible evidence of the past and future lives perhaps it is good to investigate studies from varies countries where some children in their very young age have clear memories from their past lives about who their parents were or some recognition of their house and other articles belonging to them in their previous lives.
Some evidence can also be gathered in the cases of some high incarnate lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions who leave written record of where and to whom they will be born in the future life. Based on such descriptions these lamas are then again found and recognized a few years after they pass away. Another proof comes from Tibetan lamas called “Tertons” or treasure discoverers who find treasures hidden by themselves in previous lifetimes, in different places like in caves, under the earth and so on.
However its important to understand when we refer to past or future lives we are not talking of for example“Ivana” as a person with her personality, coming back in another life again as the same“Ivana” , rather we are referring to the continuity of a mind stream.
Why is it that when three children are born to the same parents in the same environment, all three have different characters? For example one child is happier, one naughtier and one is crankier. Buddha accounted these differences to the karmic imprints in the mind streams of these three children. These mind streams hold karmic imprints which are a result of emotions and the resultant actions done in the past lifetimes. When the individual karma ripens, facilitated by the right conditions these are then the cause for different behaviors like that of the three children.
Whereas it is generally believed that conception of a child in the womb is mainly due to the meeting of the sperm and ovum, Buddhist add to this other factors which play a vital role- consciousness( subtle mind) and Karma. A consciousness which at some time separated from its former body and contains the karmic seed (a result of previous actions) this then enters the womb at the time of conception and joins with the uniting sperm and ovum, its new body.
How there is repeated birth and death, the Buddha propounded in detail in the teachings of the 12 links of dependent arising. One can be liberated from this endless cycle of birth and death by bringing an end to the production of the 12 links and then one achieves the state of Buddhahood.
As said by the Buddha, “to understand your previous actions look at your present life; to understand your future life look at the present actions.” Whatever we do however small, whether its good or bad will definitely have a result which too will be good or bad dependent upon the nature of its cause.
What is the meaning of Karma? Does not it imply something very passive?
To understand the term Karma, one needs to understand the law of cause and effect. Everything is a result of its respective cause. Like an orange seed is a cause of an orange plant and an orange seed cannot produce an apple plant, in the same way if we do good or bad the result will be either good or bad depending on the nature of its cause. So karma means action or the deeds of the individual which determine their experiences in this and future lives. Since karma refers to actions of which we ourselves are responsible, it is therefore not something which just happens, something helpless or something that is passive. It also does not only refer to something that we have done in the past, but every moment by doing something positive or negative either on the level of body, speech and mind we are creating the karma for the future. However when this karma will ripen and take effect is rather complex and dependent on the interplay of a number of factors such as coming together of different causes and conditions, intensity of the action, motivation when committing the action and so on.
Why is it that so many people who are really good, experience sufferings like sickness or some tragedy in the family, or even sudden death? Although the person is really good in this like he or she cannot hide from the karmas created in the past life. Bad karmas created in the past lives are a cause of the bad experiences in this life even though the person may be good natured. The same is true for bad natured people who have some good experiences in this life. We usually say, such a person is lucky. However the luck has its cause which are the good deeds done in the past lives. This clearly demonstrates how there is no escaping from the law of karma, it follows us like a shadow and is infallible.
If we say things happen due to karma or the law of cause and effect, then how does compassion come in?
If something bad happens to someone, although it is a result of something negative that person has done in the past, it is not that one ignores the situation saying, “It’s his or her karma”. Rather if you understand the meaning of karma and how we all accumulate negative karmas due to not being aware of both the actions themselves as well as their results(all triggered by our ignorance of how things really are), this understanding spontaneously brings forth the feeling of compassion for all beings. Compassion is the wish and action to free all beings from suffering and so with such an understanding you would help anyone in trouble. At the same time you would also strive to create a good karma for yourself, so you would be aware of all your actions and strive to benefit others.
What is the enlightened mind?
When we are talking about the mind in Buddhism, this does not refer to the brain. A brain stops to function in the time of death but the mind, subtle consciousness continues from life to lifetime. This consciousness is non material but in its essence clear and cognizing and experiences everything happiness as well as suffering. However the stream of consciousness can take a gross form like ordinary sense consciousness or it can be subtle like during the death process.
It would be useless to try and achieve the state of enlightenment or Buddhahood if we did not possess a cause similar to the result ( Buddhahood). This cause is a seed or potential within our subtle consciousness which is called our Buddha nature. This Buddha nature is of course not manifested due to being clouded by afflictions such as ignorance, anger, attachment etc. When some partial purification of the afflictions takes place we are on the Buddhist path and when complete purification has taken place, all defilements and even their subtle imprints have been removed then that is the state of the Buddha or the enlightened mind. In other words enlightened mind is the pure awareness of the mind which recognizes itself. Such a mind is free from any karmic imprints so there is no force which can continue the endless cycle of births and deaths. The enlightened mind is also free of any concepts so it is truly liberated and there is no need to make any effort, all manifested benefits for others take place spontaneously. It is only the enlightened mind that can see the conventional and ultimate truths simultaneously. So vast, deep and subtle are the qualities of an enlightened mind that it cannot be thought of with our gross minds or talked about in terms of concepts.
What is the criterion for being a Buddhist? What is refuge?
Going for refuge or turning the mind towards the three jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha is the basic criteria for being a Buddhist. So just reading books, attending some teachings or initiations, surfing through the Buddhist sections on the internet does not form the criteria for saying one has entered the Buddhist path.
The kind of person who can go for refuge is someone who having deeply understood the precious human life, impermanence, law of karma and suffering nature of samsara, wishes to renounce the worldly activities in order to liberate not just oneself but to liberate all beings as well. With such a motivation then one goes for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
One takes refuge in the Buddha, the enlightened one who is the supreme teacher endowed with all marks of realizations( 32 major and 80 minor) , who is liberated beyond samsara through supreme wisdom yet able to help all beings in limitless ways due to the power of compassion. By following the path one is able to achieve the state of a Buddha. Having taken refuge in the Buddha one of the things to be abandoned is that one cannot take refuge in any worldly beings or gods as they do not have the power to liberate us from the sufferings of samsara as they themselves are not beyond samsara. After going for refuge to the Buddha, one deeply respects every kind of representation of him whether it’s a statue, a picture even though it may be old or broken.
One takes refuge in the Dharma, the actual spiritual technique for transforming the mind or the true path to be followed to reach enlightenment. Buddha taught 84,000 types of Dharmas or ways to train the mind suited to the different natures of different people. Unique among the Dharma is the infallible teaching of the law of causality and the two truths- conventional and ultimate which are co-existent, interdependent and do not contradict each other. Having taken refuge in the Dharma one abandons harming others whether it’s on the level of body, speech or mind and pays full respect to all Buddhist scriptures. For example one is careful not to place the scriptures on the floor, step over then, and throw them around and so on. As representing the eloquent speech of the Buddha one places the scriptures with respect in high places over the level of ones head.
One takes refuge in the Sangha or those who aspire to the highest state of virtue referring to the Arya’s or noble beings who have the direct insight or the realization of emptiness. For example in the Mahayana path it refers to great bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and in the Hinayana vehicle it would refer to the actual Arhats or circle of disciples of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Having taken refuge in the exalted Sangha one should avoid being in the presence of people who discourage or disrespect the Buddha and his doctrine or avoid people in whose presence our negative behaviors increase. Having taken refuge in the Sangha one respects anything which is a symbol of the Sangha and one respects all members of the exalted and ordinary Sangha, and spiritual friends who have pure conduct and encourage us on the path to enlightenment. One also refrains from all negative activities such as causing disharmony or split in the Sangha.
The benefits of going for refuge in the three jewels are immeasurable. It forms the very basis of all Buddhist practices. It prevents us from doing harm and helps us accumulate merit, all good qualities. One cannot take the tantric initiations or any Buddhist practice however small it may be without having generated a mind which goes for refuge in the three jewels. It is like a foundation on which a house is built. The reason why the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are compared to jewels is because they are precious, rare, and stainless, they make one and others more beautiful and they do not change in terms of their values.
One must therefore always strive to keep the object of refuge in ones mind, have faith in them and not give them up even at the cost of ones life.
Does not the increase of wisdom, lead to a boost of ego and a feeling of pride?
It is good to distinguish between the terms intelligence as commonly used and the Buddhist term wisdom. Intelligence usually refers to more learning in a particular field whereby the person is more outspoken, has an ability to gasp the particular subject faster, has more skill in that area and demonstrates that kind of knowledge. Intelligence of this kind can be measured through the IQ levels or through varies test. A higher intelligence may make a person feel superior, proud and boost the ego due to being praised by others.
The Buddhist term wisdom refers to a state of mind which is free from wrong view or a kind of confusion about the way all phenomena including the “I“or the ego actually exist. All phenomena do not exist in reality as something which has an identity from its own side, permanent and solitary. This is a wrong view which leads to all kinds of exaggerated emotions and the subsequent wrong actions which are the cause of our sufferings. Common intelligence which humans are fortunate to have is used to understand through logic and reasoning the wisdom aspect. Then meditation is used as a tool to experience the wisdom itself. So wisdom is the sword that cuts the “I” or ego which we wrongly apprehend and around which we base all our activities. For example I wish, I do not wish, I want, not want and so on. Having seen the true nature of all phenomena one develops a greater sense of compassion for all being who suffer due to the state of confusion which even they are not aware off. Moreover if the “I” does not exist in the way we apprehend it to exist naturally then the other emotions such as pride, jealously etc which revolve around protecting this “I” also do not have the base to exist.
Love and compassion are spoken off in other religions; does the Buddhist concept of love and compassion differ in any way?
Although all religions aim to bring forth good qualities in people and so teach about love and compassion the Buddhist idea of love and compassion is a bit different in terms of its wider scope. In Buddhism we speak of love and compassion in terms of a mental state which is unbiased and extends equally towards all sentient beings whether they are humans (whether known or unknown to us), animals or from any other realms of existence.
Love means the wish that all sentient beings have happiness and the act of bringing such happiness to all sentient beings. Here happiness does not only refer to mundane happiness, a fulfillment of our wishes but to a state of true happiness which is beyond all suffering of samsara and is a permanent state. In other words final happiness refers to the state of enlightenment.
Compassion does not mean pity but refers to a wish that all beings be free of suffering and the act of bringing freedom from suffering for all beings. Here suffering does not only refer to mundane suffering like sickness, death, or suffering of change but rather refers to the main cause of all suffering, the wrong view of reality which we call ignorance. Knowing that all beings in the six realms are under the influence of this ignorance, we develop an unbiased compassion towards all beings whether they are rich or poor, friends or enemies and so on.
So here there is an intelligent love and intelligent compassion which is unbiased and developed based on several valid reasons and logic. This love and compassion forms the basis of the ability of the Buddha to benefit beings limitlessly even though he himself is liberated from the states of sufferings in samsara.
Why do we need to make offerings for Dharma teachings or to the Dharma centers when they organize some Dharma activities?
If the Dharma activities require some kind of organization which involves some expenses incurred, such as paying for fly tickets, teaching halls, arranging for transport etc, then it is but natural to help the organizations to cover the expenses. Such kind of organization requires a tremendous effort so the least one can do is to help cover some cost. This also shows our appreciation for such activities and can further encourage organizations of such events. For example when we go to the shop and want any article we do not hesitate to pay the amount for it, in the same way if we value the Dharma activities we should not hesitate to support it by making offerings. In the Mahayana doctrine the main aim is to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, it is rather a paradox to make such a wish, if we are not even motivated to help others to organize Dharma activities by making some offerings.
In the Buddhist Dharma, the guru or the person who teaches the Dharma is considered an object of refuge as without him the precious words of the Buddha will not be known to us. So he is a kind of representation of the Buddha himself. Making offerings to him is not only a way of showing your appreciation for the Dharma but moreover is a way of accumulating merit for helping yourself to progress on the path of the Dharma. So this giving has a two way benefit it helps another as well as helps oneself. Of course the path to enlightenment is so precious (since it brings freedom from all suffering for oneself and others) that no amount of money can be of any value in comparison to it. So here one should be happy to offer as much as one can and instead of looking at the amount should rather pay attention to ones motivation. It is not the amount but ones motivation that determines the benefit of the act of giving.
If you close your fist tightly and cannot give, unfortunately your palm of the hand is not open to take as well. Everything is dependent on one another.
Text written by Reena Šmalcelj- Vice president of Croatian Buddhist Society “Padmasana”
All Copy Rights reserved by the author and the Croatian Buddhist Society “Padmasana”
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