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Frequently Asked Questions

I am a beginner and want to find out more on Buddhism/meditation - what to do?
What is a Buddha?
Is Buddhism a different type of Hinduism?
Is Buddhist Tantra derived from Shivaism?
What is Buddhism - philosophy, religion or psychology?
God in Buddhism?
What about creation?
Heaven and hell?
Christianity and Buddhism?
Can there be one World Religion?
Why shave your hair, be celibate and put on robes to become a monk or nun?
Why Silence?
Do Buddhists eat meat, are they vegetarians?
Social engagement in Buddhism?
Women in Buddhism?
Buddhist marriage?
Buddhism and sex?
Tantra and sex?
If we are all reborn, how can the world population increase?
Free Tibet, what is the problem?
Where and when to find a guru?
Is emptiness the same as nothing?
Who is Enlightened in the World Today?
Karma versus free will?
Can Anger be justified?
More on Meditation?
How to be Compassionate to Enemies?
What is the meaning of life?
HH Dalai Lama "Meaning of Life"
Buddhism and Science?
Buddhism, Society & Politics?
What to do when people criticise Buddhism?
Buddhism and Other Religions
Sharing Buddhism
Monks and Nuns Robes
Controversial 'Buddhist' Teachers, Traditions and Centers
Some notes on Pure Land Buddhism.
Buddhism in the West
Can I do anything when someone is very sick, dying or even dead?
How to fight terrorists?
How do Buddhist prayers work, they don't believe in God, who do they pray to?
More Questions and Answers on the web

There is no such thing as a stupid question,
Only stupid answers; my apologies in advance...

Note: words in italics can be found in the Glossary.


Supposing you are a Westerner, and you know little about Buddhism:

  • If for whatever reason Buddhism appeals to you, obviously a bit of reading cannot do any harm. You could try a few introductory books from any tradition to get a closer idea of what Buddhism can mean for you (see for example the recommended booklist).
  • The ultimate introduction I have always found to be a week-long introductory course of sorts; ideally in a center where you would live in for the duration of the course. Buddhism is quite focussed around our own experience in meditation, and such a focussed environment for a week or so, combined with teachings and discussions can really get you 'into it'. (I have been director of Tushita meditation center in Dharamsala, India, where we concentrated on presenting 10-day intensive meditation courses, and I can guarantee you that the vast majority of people who attended got much more out of it than they ever expected.) It is highly likely that some kind of Buddhist center is not very far away from your home - you could try the very good Buddhist directory of BuddhaNet.
  • Try not to get confused with the various traditions: just go for what feels right and ideally do a course. Amazingly, it seems to me that at least 90% of the people stick to the tradition they started in - somehow karma seems to be at work there... Anyway, the biggest differences between the Buddhist traditions are usually more on the surface than in the ideas behind the appearances. Although for example in Zen you will find very little ritual etc., and in Tibetan Buddhism you may be overwhelmed by it, at the core of the practice are the same ideas, just different methods.
  • Once you decide to get involved with a specific tradition, make sure you are not dealing with a controversial/dubious teacher or school; although someone may wear Buddhist robes or calls him/herself a lama, guru or even Acharya, that does not make him or her a saint.... There are unfortunately a fair amount of questionable 'Buddhist' teachers and centers around the world; many of which are listed in Henry Chia's World of Buddhism - List of Controversial Buddhist Traditions. This is not to say that these necessarily lead you on a completely wrong path, but avoiding trouble is usually easier than fixing it!
  • Try to be critical at everything you see and hear, but do not be afraid to open yourself up, and give new ideas the chance to settle in; in other words, avoid accepting things before you have taken time to 'sit on it' (meditate), and also avoid rejecting things before you 'sat on them'. Especially if we grew up in a different religious tradition, our prejudices often go deeper than we think - be aware of your own mind.
  • It is very important to not expect instant miracles from practices like meditation - remember you did not learn to read and write in a few hours time - but it is very good to try and habituate yourself to some kind of daily session (if only 5 minutes) of meditation for maybe a month or so, and then decide if you want to continue. Of course, it is by far the best if you can start meditating after proper instruction from a qualified teacher, but the continuity of even a short daily meditation session is much more effective than once a week trying to sit for two hours.
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A Buddha is a person who has developed all positive qualities and has eliminated all negative qualities. A Buddha has been an "ordinary" living being, like you and me before he became enlightened or awakened. Enlightenment is compared to waking up, as a person makes a complete transformation in body and especially mind. A Buddha is said to be all-knowing. One could say that a Buddha represents the very peak of evolution. A Buddha is not omnipotent or all-powerful; otherwise the Buddha would have ended all suffering in the universe....

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha, lived about 2,500 years ago in India. However, he was not the first Buddha, and will not be the last either. The next Buddha who will (re-) start the Buddhist religion be called Maitreya and is expected in millions of years (many people proclaim to be Maitreya....). In the different Buddhist traditions, people can strive towards becoming a Buddha (Mahayana tradition) or stopping the cycle of uncontrolled rebirths by becoming an Arhat (see the page on Three Vehicles).
See more details on the Buddha page.

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Few scholars would disagree that at the time of the Buddha, a very heterogeneous and actively developing religious culture flourished in India. This generally accepted historical reality proves that Buddhism was neither real a protest against, or an offshoot of Hinduism (this view is even expressed for example in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica). Buddhism simply proved to be one of the more successful new schools of thought within a large variety of philosophies.

As debate is a very old traditional means of testing (spiritual) teachers in Indian culture, of course one can trace many philosophical works (especially in the Mahayana tradition), that could be interpreted as protesting against, or arguing with other traditions. Western philosophers may have misinterpreted these works as "protest", as such a thing is unthinkable within Western religious systems. The Buddha himself actually refused to argue on spiritual matters, he explained that he only presented what he had realised as the truth. On the other hand, Buddhism arose from an existing culture, and inevitably many elements of other contemporary traditions are found in Buddhism. In the same sense one could argue that Christianity would be an offshoot of (or protest to) Judaism and Islam is an offshoot of (or protest to) Christianity... However, the Buddhist teachings do have one clear political/social aspect in traditional Hindu India, and that is that in Buddhism people are all considered equal, which means that the Hindu caste-system is completely rejected.

It appears that Buddhism draws most of its inspiration from the religious culture of the Indus Valley civilisation; like the elements of renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and liberation. Also, many symbols of the Indus Valley civilisation have religious significance and are also sacred to Buddhism. They include the pipal tree (later known as the bodhi tree, or ficus religiosa), and animals such as the elephant and deer. On the other hand, aspects similar to the Aryan tradition can be clearly traced, especially in the rituals of tantric Buddhism. This in contrast to Hinduism, where many of the Aryan principles dominate, but also contains various elements of the Indus Valley Culture.

In some types of Hinduism, the Buddha is depicted as an Avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. Buddhists consider this to be without any base at all. But how to react to these kind of misrepresentations? As John Fleming stated in a recent discussion group: ".It would seem to me that any 'Buddhist' who would skirmish over Hindus claiming Buddha as a Hindu God has sadly completely missed the point of Buddha's message to humanity. In fact, how much more respect can Hindus show for Buddha (and still remain Hindus) then to give him the identity of their Vishnu?"

For more details, see the page on pre-Buddhist history. See also: Vedanta and Buddhism from the Access to Insight website

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It is often claimed that Buddhist tantra is a derivative from the tantric practices in Shivaism, but in fact, the reverse may also be true.

As Benoytosh Bhattacharyya notes in his 'Buddhist Esoterism':

"it is possible to declare, without fear of contradiction, that the Buddhists were the first to introduce the tantras into their religion, and that the Hindus borrowed them from the Buddhists in later times, and that it is idle to say that later Buddhism is an outcome of Shivaism. .. The literature, which goes by the name of the Hindu Tantras, arose almost immediately after the Buddhist ideas had established themselves."

Although there are striking external resemblances, the differences in methods and aims between the Buddhist and Hindu tantras are quite significant. They are certainly related, but the origin of both is probably impossible to trace, not in the least because of the .

For more details, see the page on pre-Buddhist history. See also: Vedanta and Buddhism from the Access to Insight website


The word 'religion' is defined in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as:

  1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
  2. commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
  3. a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  4. archaic :scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
  5. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith

Within above definitions, Buddhism can be called a religion. Often however, "service and worship of God" is mentioned, and Buddhism does not include belief in a creator-God.

Buddhism can be called a philosophy in a practical sense of the word. However, the Buddha repeatedly emphasised that his teachings were not intended as a doctrine, but should be considered as guidelines along the path of spiritual development, based on his own experience.

One could even call Buddhism a system of psychology as well. The main object of interest in Buddhism is how we can observe, analyse and change our own mind.

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We first need to distinguish two types of "god".
The first type is God as creator of the universe etc. This kind of God does not exist in Buddhism.
The second type is a divine or supernatural being, and of these one could simply say there are two kinds of gods in Buddhism:

Not all living beings live on planet earth, or would even be visible to us. One could say that these creatures live in different dimensions from us. See also 'Heaven and Hell' below. Some of these creatures experience because of their karma (past actions) almost exclusively happiness, and these are called Devas (Skt.) or gods. However, these gods are still within the cycles of uncontrolled rebirth and can be reborn in the 'lower realms' once their positive store of karma is exhausted.

If one defines a god as a supernatural being, one could say that a Buddha or an Arya being are "supernatural" in the sense that they are not bound to the same realms of cyclic existence as we are, and they are said to possess supernatural powers (siddhis).

A Buddha is said to know everything, but not omnipotent (all-powerful). The logical reasoning behind this last is that if a Buddha would be omnipotent, He/She would instantly remove suffering from the universe, because compassion for all sentient beings (wishing to free all from suffering) is the main motivation to become a Buddha.

See also the article by Bikkhu Dhammapiyo.

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So where does the world come from, if not from a creator-God? According to Buddhism, the cycle of life, death and rebirth does not have a beginning. The universe itself goes through cycles of birth and destruction, and matter/energy has no beginning.

The closest phenomena that comes to creation is the concept of karma in the consciousness of sentient beings: whatever we experience - be it happiness or suffering - is ultimately caused by ourselves in the past. This leads to the simple conclusion that nothing what we experience is ultimately caused by someone or something else; only we ourselves have created the causes for what happens to us now, and we are now creating the causes for what will happen in the future. The "others" or "physical circumstances" which appear to cause us happiness and suffering can be seen as merely circumstances which enable our own potentials to ripen. In that sense, we are the creators of our "own universe".

Better explained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from Consciousness at the Crossroads:

" ...when we ask, what is the substantial cause of the material universe way back in the early history of the universe, we trace it back to the space particles which transform into the elements of this manifest universe. And then we can ask whether those space particles have an ultimate beginning. The answer is no. They are beginningless. Where other philosophical systems maintain that the original cause was God, Buddha suggested the alternative that there aren't any ultimate causes. The world is beginningless. Then the question would be: Why is it beginningless? And the answer is, it is just nature. There is no reason. Matter is just matter.

Now we have a problem: What accounts for the evolution of the universe as we know it? What accounts for the loose particles in space forming into the universe that is apparent to us? Why did it go through orderly processes of change? Buddhists would say there is a condition which makes it possible, and we speak of that condition as the awareness of sentient beings."

See also the article by Bikkhu Dhammapiyo.

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It may come as a surprise, but heavens and hells exist in Buddhism, although they are different from the Christian descriptions. One could say that heaven and hell are different realms (dimensions), where beings live under respectively extremely happy and extremely suffering conditions. It is a logical consequence of the laws of karma. When one creates vast amounts of negative actions to others, one will harvest lots of suffering in the future - such a life could be in one of the hell realms. Similarly, many good actions can cause one to be reborn in a heavenly realm of happiness.

Life in heaven and hell, like all other realms (human, animal and preta) is a temporary situation, as they are are within the realm of uncontrolled cyclic existence. This means that a life in hell is not eternal (although it may feel like it), and neither is heaven.

The aim of a Buddhist should be to become at least free from death and rebirth, which is called Nirvana (Skt.) or Nibbana (Pali). A life in heaven is regarded a pleasant interval, but always with the fear of a future rebirth in a much less pleasant realm. The ultimate aim is to become a Buddha oneself in order to relieve all sentient beings from suffereing.

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Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way:

"We don't want to say that Buddhism is a kind of Christianity and Christianity is a kind of Buddhism. A mango can not be an orange. I cannot accept the fact that a mango is an orange. They are two different things. Vive la difference. But when you look deeply into the mango and into the orange, you see that although they are different, they are both fruits."

So Buddhism and Christianity by definition are different religions, and one should be careful when trying to "mix" them. For example, Buddhism does not believe in a "creator-God" who controls the world and similarly, Christianity does not believe in karma or rebirth. If one tries to mix the two into one personal religion, it is easy to get confused, as both philosophies do not really match. Sogyal Rinpoche puts it quite strongly in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

"The modern faddish idea that we can always keep all our options open and so never need commit ourselves to anything is one of the greatest and most delusions of our culture, and one of ego's most effective ways of sabotaging our spiritual search."

On the other hand, it may not be a bad idea to look at what we can learn from each other: the beautiful Christian practice of helping others in need is just as useful to Buddhists, as Buddhist meditation techniques can help Christians. Apart from the differences, one should recognise the many similarities as well. Ethics are defined quite similarly in both systems and the need for love and compassion are emphasised in both.

More in other pages:
"Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings" edited by Marcus Borg "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers" by Thich Nhat Hanh "Silent Mind, Holy Mind" by Lama Yeshe

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From Kindness, Clarity & Insight, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

"Q: Can there be a synthesis of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and all religions, gathering the best in all, forming a world religion?

A: Forming a new world religion is difficult and not particularly desirable. However, in that love is essential to all religions, one could speak of the universal language of love. As for the techniques and methods for developing love as well as for achieving salvation or permanent liberation, there are many differences between religions. Thus, I do not think we could make one philosophy or one religion. Furthermore, I think that differences in faith are useful. There is a richness in the fact that there are so many different presentations of the [spiritual] way. Given that there are many different types of people with various predispositions and inclinitions, this is helpful.

At the same time, the motivation of all religious practice is similar - love, sincerity, honesty. The way of life of practically all religious persons is contentment. The teachings of tolerance, love and compassion are the same. A basic goal is the benefit of humankind - each type of system seeking its own unique ways to improve human beings. If we put too much emphasis on our own philosopy, religion, or theory, are too attached to it, and try to impose it on other people, it makes trouble. Basically all the great teachers, such as Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, or Mohammed, founded their new teachings with a motivation of helping their fellow humans. They did not mean to gain anything for themselves nor to create more trouble or unrest in the world. Most importantly is that we respect each other and learn from each other those things that will enrich our own practice. Even if all the systems are separate, since they each have the same goal, the study of each other is helpful."

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In other words, why becoming a monk or nun?
Well, it is not to make your life easy and comfortable, but it is intended to stay focused on spiritual progress. Traditionally, one will live in a monastery or nunnery after ordination, and one is surrounded by others trying to do the same, which can help your own practice and understanding quite dramatically.

For many Westerners it proves quite a difficult step: there may be a language and cultural barriers to the tradition you have chosen. Also, walking around in robes in the West can prove quite a challenge.

Why shave your hair? It is a good antidote to pride and focus on one's outer appearance.

Why be celibate? Nothing wrong with sex - where else do people come from - but focus on sex and relationships does prove to be a major distraction to most of us.
Why put on robes? The robes are intended like a kind of uniform, by which people can easily recognise that you are a monk or nun; see also on monks and nuns robes.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche made these comments to a monk:

"Your being a Gelong [fully ordained monk] brings many extra benefits. I am saying this in a general way. There is much more benefit, visually. It says in the texts: 'The merit that a lay person can collect in one hundred years, an ordained person can collect in one day.' These are the benefits of living in ordination. Every day is like that."

For more on ordination, see the page on Sangha , more on precepts and vows on the resource page.

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There are several reasons why Buddhists tend to be fond of silence.

  • One refrains from lying or misleading others by speech.
  • One becomes more aware of the inner state of mind.
  • It is easier to control one's mind when not talking.
  • It's nice and quiet (sorry, just joking).

It is quite common that one remains silent during a retreat. In many practices, a vow of silence is advised so as to focus one's full attention to the state of mind. From my own experience, if one keeps silent one somehow builds up a lot of extra awareness and clarity of mind during a retreat. As soon as you start talking, quite a bit of focus can be lost in just minutes.

"Do not speak- unless it improves on silence."
Buddhist Saying
Do have a look at this article from Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

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Simple question, not necessarily a simple answer. Below I just tried to list a few notes.

  1. The Buddha himself never forbade eating meat.
    The Buddha even explained that monks and nuns should never refuse the food that is offered to them, including meat. He obviously did not say one should kill an animal for food. Killing is one of the five main precepts.
  2. The main precept of a Buddhist is not to harm others, including animals.
    Not harming others is essential in Buddhism, so one should never kill "sentient beings" (humans and animals). Eating meat from an animal which died a natural death is not by definition bad, but these days, we would not even want to eat that meat anyway for fear of disease...
  3. Asking people to harm others is very negative karma.
    Just like a general is responsible for the killing that his soldiers perform under his orders, so do we create very large negative karma when we instruct others to kill. So, for example going into a fish restaurant and selecting a live fish from a tank to be killed is even more negative karma than killing the fish yourself, as we are not just responsible for the death of the fish, but also create negative karma by asking someone else to kill.
  4. Different traditions vary in their reasoning.
    For example, the high altitude of Tibet causes that not many crops will grow, and in order to survive, people had to eat meat. Currently, Tibetans are enthusiastic meat eaters even if they live in India. Therefore His Holiness the Dalai Lama now encourages them to eat less meat and eggs.
    In the Chinese tradition, when people take the Bodhisattva precepts, it is automatically assumed that one will abstain from meat eating.
  5. Conclusion
    Killing of an animal is certainly not allowed. Meat eating is not explicitly forbidden, but ill-advised unless really necessary for survival.
    I must admit not being a vegetarian; I do have lots of weaknesses. What I did is to at least reduce my meat intake drastically and try to realise how hypocrite I am by still eating meat.

"Devadatta was the main pioneer for practice of Vegetarianism. ..., he strove for imposition of five extreme rules to the members of the Sangha, one of which was the rule to abstain absolutely from any food made of fish or meat. In response to this demand, the Gautama Buddha stated that the monks who felt comfortable, agreeable, and suitable to the rule may practice it. However, He rejected to validate and to apply the rule to all the monks compulsory."
Jan Sanjivaputta

"You should lose your involvement with yourself and then eat and drink naturally, according to the needs of your body. Attachment to your appetites--whether you deprive or indulge them--can lead to slavery, but satisfying the needs of daily life is not wrong. Indeed, to keep a body in good health is a duty, for otherwise the mind will not stay strong and clear."
The Buddha in Discourses II

"Killing and eating meat are interrelated, so do we have to give up eating animal products? I myself once tried to give it up, but health problems arose and two years later my doctors advised me to again use meat in my diet. If there are people who can give up eating meat, we can only rejoice in their noble efforts. In any case, at least we should try to lessen our intake of meat and not eat it anywhere where it is in scarce supply and our consumption of it would cause added slaughter."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama from The Path to Enlightenment

"For hundreds of thousands of years
the stew in the pot has brewed hatred and resentment that is difficult to stop.
If you wish to know why there are disasters of armies and weapons in the world,
listen to the piteous cries from the slaughterhouse at midnight."
Ancient Chinese Verse at Gold Mountain Monastery

But, despite many Tibetans defend the eating of meat (as was nearly impossible to avoid in traditional Tibet), apart from the Dalai Lama, other Tibetan teachers are also beginning to warn about the dangers of meat-eating. As a very informative example of this, please see the booklet The Udamwara lotus flower protecting the life of helpless beings - Statements from sutra relating to meat eating by Geshe Thubten Soepa. It is a 159Kb PDF file.

"You might not be attached to what you eat,
but they are attached to not being eaten."

Or a good statement from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles,
there is complicity."
Good articles are found at the Vegetarian Society .

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Most of the Buddhist practice focuses on one's own inner development. Engagement with others is mainly seen important in if one can help others. The best way of helping others is to help them on their path of spiritual progress. The second best way is helping them in daily life. However, if others do not improve their behaviour and way of thinking, helping people in difficult situations is like a hopeless uphill struggle. Without changing, people will continue to create causes for future suffering (karma) for themselves, and we cannot avoid all their suffering.

Therefore, building a hospital is a very good thing to reduce immediate suffering, but only spiritual progress can bring a definitive end to cyclic existence and all suffering of an individual, whereas the hospital can at best relieve temporary problems.
So the overall attitude is: it is best to help others in their spiritual progress, if that is not possible or appropriate try and help them with their current problems.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on non-violence from An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life:

"Nonviolence does not mean that we remain indifferent to a problem. On the contrary, it is important to be fully engaged. However, we must behave in a way that does not benefit us alone. We must not harm the interests of others. Nonviolence therefore is not merely the absence of violence. It involves a sense of compassion and caring. It is almost a manifestation of compassion. I strongly believe that we must promote such a concept of nonviolence at the level of the family as well as at the national and international levels. Each individual has the ability to contribute to such compassionate nonviolence.

How should we go about this? We can start with ourselves. We must try to develop greater perspective, looking at situations from all angles. Usually when we face problems, we look at them from our own point of view. We even sometimes deliberately ignore other aspects of a situation. This often leads to negative consequences. However, it is very important for us to have a broader perspective.

We must come to realize that others are also part of our society. We can think of our society as a body, with arms and legs as parts of it. Of course, the arm is different from the leg; however, if something happens to the foot, the hand should reach down to help. Similarly, when something is wrong within our society, we must help."
Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has extremely valuable ideas on socially engaged Buddhism: see for example his Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism.

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A hot topic. I am afraid that Buddhism also comes from, and lives in, a patriarchal society. It is my personal opinion as a man, that an attitude is prevalent of "all humans are equal, but women are a bit less equal than men". The reason I say this is that the Buddha clearly stated that all living beings (let alone humans) are equal but not the same. Women can just as well become liberated from cyclic existence (Arhat) or fully enlightened (Buddha). However, the Buddha himself was initially reluctant to ordain women, and with several ordination rules they can be said to be discriminated against. All of the main disciples of the Buddha were men, and so are almost all Buddhist saints and well-known teachers throughout history.

The current situation of Buddhist nuns in the world is quite sad. For example in Sri Lanka no nuns are ordained anymore as the lineage was lost and never restored, and in almost every tradition, nuns and nunneries are considered less important than monks and monasteries, sometimes to the point of neglect. In Tibet, the lineage for novice nuns is still intact, but the lineage for fully ordained nuns was lost and not restored. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is actively supporting the quest to re-establish the full nuns ordination.

Good starter pages on the web on women in Buddhism are the Sakyadhita page , women active in Buddhism, Buddhanet ; on feminism, see this article of the FWBO.

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Sorry, no such thing as a 'Buddhist marriage', really. Originally, marriage is just a contract between people, more for legal than any other reasons. Interestingly enough though, to have a sexual relationship with a person already married to someone else is clearly considered a major sexual offence in Buddhism as it harms the other's partner.
When Buddhists marry, they often request a teacher to bless them or perform prayers, but strictly spoken, a marriage is a worldly agreement between two people, usually based on attachment and desire, so it has generally little to do with spiritual advancement.

In practice, people who marry usually like to receive some sort of blessing on their relationship, and for this, sometimes special ceremonies are conducted.

See also the article Buddhist Views on Marriage , a dedicated page on the Lama Yeshe Archives, suggested ceremony and prayers at this page of the FPMT website, or the page on Buddhanet. For some more info and ideas, see the Khandro website under 'Buddhist wedding'.

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The search for a partner and sex tend to take up much of our energy. Our inborn urge for sex and a lasting relationship is very strong and can in that way be regarded as one of the major obstructions to a focus on spiritual progress.

Sexual misconduct is one of the five main precepts which one can take when becoming a Buddhist. The definition of what is misconduct and what is not is partly dependent on the culture where you live, but in general, non-harm to others is probably the best guideline.

In tantric Buddhism, there is much ado about sex, but often misunderstood. See the next query below.

Here you can find an interesting articles on Homosexuality and Theravada and Buddhist Sexual Ethics on Buddhanet.

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Part of the exercises in tantric practice involve controlling and transforming bodily energies. Sexual energy happens to be one of the strongest forms of physical energy. Simply said, it is built-in by nature to ensure the survival of our species. Also these sexual energies need to be completely controlled and transformed in order to become a fully enlightened Buddha. What is usually overlooked is that sexual practices in tantra should be free from the ordinary desires and lust, and generally only very advanced practitioners should try these practices after permission from their teachers. Arousal of the sexual energy is preferably done by merely visualising/imagining a consort. The bottom-line is that it has very little to do with ordinary sex.

In case you happen to hear of activities like 'tantra wokshop for couples or singles' or something of the kind, where people have actual sex with each other, you can be sure it has little or nothing to do with the traditional Buddhist practices.

The union of male and female is usually symbolic for the union of method (or compassion) and wisdom, or more specific, the union of bliss (male) and (the wisdom of) emptiness (female).

See also Keith Dowman's website for a more elaborate explanation.

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According to Buddhism, unless we achieve Arhantship or Buddhahood, we will be reborn, but not necessarily as human being or even in this same world. A simplified example: if we behave "like an animal", we create all the potential to be reborn as an animal. So we will not automatically be human next life. In the same way, an animal can come back as human next life. Apart from the earth, life is widespread in the universe, according to some, one could even speak of more simultaneous universes. Although the vast number of sentient beings is just about constant, the numbers within a specific species can vary from zero to zillions.

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Until the invasion of China into Tibet in 1959, Tibet has been a sovereign country for centuries. Being forcefully overrun by an other country is rarely pleasant, but for the Tibetans it turned into a real disaster in the years following the take-over. People died during the invasion, although few Tibetans (being Buddhist) fought. Later consequences of Mao's policies proved devastating to the country.

For example, the central Beijing government ordered that certain crops should be grown in Tibet. Many of these crops were simply not suitable for the high altitude climate, resulting in many Tibetans starving to death.

Possibly the best known disaster is the fact that in Tibet nearly all culture, philosophy and education was tightly related to Buddhism. As in Mao's China religion was considered a poison to the people, Tibetan Buddhism was almost literally wiped out. Of the estimated 6,000 monasteries, nunneries and temples only a handful were not fully destroyed. Monks and nuns were forced to break their vows and often killed if they were not prepared to break them. With the destruction of Buddhism, nearly all of Tibets cultural identity also vanished.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is probably the best known propagator to a peaceful solution for the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion, but the Chinese authorities have managed not only to ignore his efforts, but to virtually bully the rest of the world into silence on the subject. (Often along the lines of: "If you want to trade with us, shut up on human rights." This method even bullied the Americans into submission....)

A recent answer from the Tibetan government to one of the many absurd accusations by China:

"They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just a robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle darkness.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

For more info see the page of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Free Tibet page.

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This is not an easy to answer in general, as every individual is different. Especially, being unfamiliar with Eastern culture, many Westerners are confused with the issue of a guru or spiritual teacher.

Practically spoken, it is best to look for a Buddhist center not too far from where you live: the worldwide directory of Buddhanet is probably the best resource for that. Next, you may need to figure out which tradition appeals most to you: the peacefulness of the Theravada tradition, the strict discipline in Soto Zen, or the philosophy and ritual of Tibetan Buddhism, to name but a few? Often, people experience a feeling of 'coming home' with a certain tradition; just follow your intuition a bit, it usually helps a lot. The contact with older students is usually very important, you can informally ask questions, exchange views and hear others how they became interested etc. all this makes visiting a center really valuable.

To find your own personal teacher is usually a step that comes much later; after learning about the basics of Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps you feel a personal connection from the very first moment you enter a center, perhaps you need to wait for visitng teachers or go to other centers. It is often said that when a disciple is ready, the teacher will appear. If you cannot find a teacher, see if you fulfil the above requirements for a proper disciple, and work to improve your own attitude. Depending on your own karma, you may need to do quite a lot to find the right guru. Perhaps you are impatient and expect too much overnight, then doing self-study and questioning yourself what you really expect from a teacher may help.

"Don't worry. When the time is right, you'll meet your teacher. Buddhism doesn't believe that you can push other people: ' everybody should learn to meditate; everybody should become Buddhists.' That's stupid. Pushing people is unwise.
When you're ready, some kind of magnetic energy will bring you together with your teacher. About going to the East, it depends on your personal situation. Check up. The important thing is to search with wisdom and not blind faith. Sometimes, even if you go to the East, you still can't find a teacher. It takes time."
Lama Yeshe

"When we have prayed and aspired and hungered for the truth for a long time, for many, many lives, and when our karma has become sufficiently purified, a kind of miracle takes place. And this miracle, if we can understand and use it, can lead to the end of ignorance forever: The inner teacher, who has been with us always, manifests in the form of the "outer teacher," whom, almost as if by magic, we actually encounter..."
Sogyal Rinpoche
See also the page on A Teacher.

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Certainly not!

Buddhist philosophy presents a middle way between the two extremes of Nihilism and Materialism/eternity.

The statement "everything is empty" is often (mis-) used, leading to the impression that Buddhists are nihilists, as if they think that nothing exists at all. What is actually meant with the statement is "everything is empty of inherent existence"; in other words, everything does not exist in accordance with our "normal" perception of reality. Very closely related is the expression 'selflessness' or 'no-self', which refers to the point that we do not possess a permanent, unchanging self.

Our "normal" perception of reality is that living beings and phenomena are existing in and of themselves, as if they are unrelated to each other. This is considered in Buddhism as a materialistic/worldly viewpoint, which not in accordance with reality. The realisation of insight into the true nature of reality is the way in which we can achieve enlightenment and escape suffering, so the idea of selflessness or emptiness forms the basis of Buddhist philosophy.

If you think these words are confusing but fascinating, great! It is a very difficult subject to explain, and I sincerely hope you will want to get to the bottom of it!

Please refer to the Wisdom page and put some effort in understanding the concepts, as this realisation can end all your problems!
Also see my essay Mount Emptiness.

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The following answer is taken from Access to Insight.

Since I'm not enlightened, I'm not sure how valuable any of the following remarks are, but I offer them here nonetheless. First of all, I wouldn't be a Buddhist if I didn't think enlightenment were possible. In the suttas, the Buddha speaks again and again of the many rewards awaiting those who follow the Path, long before they reach nibbana: the happiness that comes from developing generosity; the happiness that comes from living according to principles of virtue; the happiness that comes from developing loving-kindness (metta); the happiness that comes from practising meditation and discovering the exquisite bliss of a quiet mind; the happiness that comes from abandoning painful states of mind; and so on. These can be tasted for yourself, to varying degrees, with practice. Once you've personally verified a few of the Buddha's teachings, it becomes easier to accept the possibility that the rest of his teachings are plausible -- including his extraordinary claim that enlightenment is real.

I honestly don't know how to recognise an enlightened person. After all, how can I see past my own delusion and defilements with enough clarity to judge the purity of another person's heart, that most secret corner of the psyche? I don't believe an enlightened person looks, walks, or talks a certain way. The Hollywood stereotype - a radiant complexion, an ever-present Buddha-smile, wise words (perhaps cloaked in cryptic koan-like phrases and mystical jargon, sprinkled with the occasional impish giggle), unusual clothing (probably imported from India), a charismatic character - I sincerely doubt that any of this has anything whatsoever to do with enlightenment. So it's probably best not to spend much time speculating on someone else's degree of enlightenment.

Your time would be far better spent looking into your own heart, asking yourself, "Am I enlightened? Have I made an end of suffering and stress?" If the answer is negative, then you have more work to do. When deciding whether to accept someone as your meditation teacher, instead of speculating on his or her degree of enlightenment, it's much more fruitful to ask yourself, "Does this person seem to be truly happy? Does he or she live in line with the precepts? Does he or she communicate the Dhamma in ways that I can understand? Is his or her interpretation of Dhamma a valid one?"
It may take a long time of close association with someone before you can begin to answer these questions with any confidence. But once you do find someone possessing this rare constellation of qualities, stay with him or her: he or she probably has something of genuine value to teach you.

Finally, one rule of thumb that I've found helpful: someone who goes around claiming to be enlightened probably isn't - at least not in the sense the Buddha had in mind.

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From Francis Story in 'Dimensions of Buddhist thought':

"If everything down to the minutest detail, were preconditioned either by Kamma or by the physical laws of the universe, there would be no room in the pattern of strict causality for the functioning of free-will. It would therefore be impossible for us to free ourselves from the mechanism of cause and effect; it would be impossible to achieve Nibbana. .the situation itself is the product of past Kamma, but the individual's reaction to it is a free play of will and intention."

In a slightly different way from Sogyal Rinpoche:

"We may idealise freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved."
Some interesting thoughts on free will.

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Allan Wallace writes in 'Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground up':

"Righteous hatred" is in the same category as "righteous cancer" or "righteous tuberculosis". All of them are absurd concepts.

This does not mean that one should never take action against aggression or injustice! Instead, one should try to develop an inner calmness and insight to deal with these situations in an appropriate way. We all know that anger and aggression give rise to anger and aggression. One could say that there are three ways to get rid of anger: kill the opponent, kill yourself or kill the anger - which one makes most sense to you?

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Meditation is a large and important subject; have a look at the theoretical meditation page, the practical meditation page. On the web: FAQ page of the Kargyu.org. A number of good articles on Psychotherapy and Meditation on Buddhanet.

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Someone asked the following question to His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

How does a person or group of people compassionately and yet straightforwardly confront another person or group of people who have committed crimes of genocide against them?

His Holiness: "When talking about compassion and compassionately dealing with such situations one must bear in mind what is meant by compassionately dealing with such cases. Being compassionate towards such people or such a person does not mean that you allow the other person to do whatever the other person or group of people wishes to do, inflicting suffering upon you and so on. Rather, compassionately dealing with such a situation has a different meaning.

When a person or group of people deals with such a situation and tries to prevent such crimes there is generally speaking two ways in which you could do that, or one could say, two motivations. One is out of confrontation, out of hatred that confronts such a situation. There is another case in which, although in action it may be of the same force and strength, but the motivation would not be out of hatred and anger but rather out of compassion towards the perpetrators of these crimes.

Realising that if you allow the other person, the perpetrator of the crime, to indulge his or her own negative habits then in the long run the other person or group is going to suffer the consequences of that negative action. Therefore, out of the consideration of the potential suffering for the perpetrator of such crimes, then you confront the situation and apply equally forceful and strong measures.

I think this is quite relevant and important in modern society, especially in a competitive society. When someone genuinely practices compassion, forgiveness and humility then sometimes some people will take advantage of such a situation. Sometimes it is necessary to take a countermeasure, then with that kind of reasoning and compassion, the countermeasure is taken with reasoning and compassion rather than out of negative emotion. That is actually more effective and appropriate. This is important. For example my own case with Tibet in a national struggle against injustice we take action without using negative emotion. It sometimes seems more effective."

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Big question, to which I can only give a simplistic answer here.
According to Buddhism, the universe has no beginning, neither has our individual mindstream a beginning or end. We are propelled through an endless number of rebirths (each containing problems of its' own) by the results of our own actions (karma). The actions which cause suffering and rebirth are based on ignorance; our not-knowing of how to end our problems. The main causes of rebirth are our attachment and other delusions by which we fix ourselves to the cycles of life and death. Once we developed the right kind of wisdom, we will be able to escape this cycle and enter Nirvana (no suffering) or Buddhahood.

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By H.H. the Dalai Lama:

"First, let me talk to the Buddhist practitioners in the audience about the proper motivation for listening to lectures on religion. A good motivation is important. The reason why we are discussing these matters is certainly not money, fame, or any other aspect of our livelihood during this life. There are plenty of activities that can bring these. The main reason why we have come here stems from a long-term concern.
It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.

Money has its uses, but it is limited. Among worldly powers and possessions, there are, doubtless, good things, but they are limited. However, from a Buddhist viewpoint, mental development will continue from life to life, because the nature of mind is such that if certain mental qualities are developed on a sound basis, they always remain and, not only that, can increase. In fact, once properly developed, good qualities of mind eventually increase infinitely. Therefore spiritual practice brings both long-term happiness and more inner strength day by day.
So keep your mind on the topics being discussed; listen with a pure motivation--without sleep! My main motivation is a sincere feeling for others, and concern for others' welfare.

Behavior and View

Meditation is needed in developing mental qualities. The mind is definitely something that can be transformed, and meditation is a means to transform it. Meditation is the activity of familiarizing your mind with something new. Basically, it means getting used to the object on which you are meditating.

Meditation is of two types--analytical and stabilizing. First, an object is analyzed, after which the mind is set one-pointedly on the same object in stabilizing meditation. Within analytical meditation, there are also two types:

  1. Something, such as impermanence, is taken as the object of the mind and is meditated upon;
  2. A mental attitude is cultivated through meditation, as in cultivating love, in which case the mind becomes of the nature of that mental attitude.

To understand the purpose of meditation, it is helpful to divide spiritual practices into view and behavior. The main factor is behavior, for this is what decides both one's own and others' happiness in the future. In order for behavior to be pure and complete, it is necessary to have a proper view. Behavior must be well-founded in reason, and thus a proper philosophical view is necessary.

What is the main goal of Buddhist practices concerning behavior? It is to tame one's mental continuum--to become nonviolent. In Buddhism, the vehicles, or modes of practice, are generally divided into the Great Vehicle and the Hearer Vehicle. The Great Vehicle is primarily concerned with the altruistic compassion of helping others, and the Hearer Vehicle is primarily concerned with the non-harming of others.
Thus, the root of all of the Buddhist teaching is compassion. The excellent doctrine of the Buddha has its root in compassion, and the Buddha who teaches these doctrines is even said to be born from compassion. The chief quality of a buddha is great compassion; this attitude of nurturing and helping others is the reason why it is appropriate to take refuge in a buddha.

The Sangha, or virtuous community, consists of those who, practicing the doctrine properly, assist others to gain refuge. People in the Sangha have four special qualities: if someone harms them, they do not respond with harm; if someone displays anger to them, they do not react with anger; if someone insults them, they do not answer with insult; and if someone accuses them, they do not retaliate. This is the behavior of a monk or nun, the root of which is compassion; thus, the main qualities of the spiritual community also stem from compassion.

In this way, the three refuges for a Buddhist--Buddha, doctrine, and spiritual community--all have their root in compassion. All religions are the same in having powerful systems of good advice with respect to the practice of compassion. The basic behavior of nonviolence, motivated by compassion, is needed not only in our daily lives but also nation to nation, throughout the world.

The other technique for developing altruism is called equalizing and switching self and other. Here, one should investigate which side is important, oneself or others. Choose. There is no other choice -- only these two. Who is more important, you or others? Others are greater in number than you, who are just one; others are infinite. It is clear that neither wants suffering and both want happiness, and that both have every right to achieve happiness and to overcome suffering because both are sentient beings.

If we ask, "Why do I have the right to be happy?" the ultimate reason is, "Because I want happiness." There is no further reason. We have a natural and valid feeling of I, on the basis of which we want happiness. This alone is the valid foundation of our right to strive for happiness; it is a human right, and a right of all sentient beings.
Now, if one has such a right to overcome suffering, then other sentient beings naturally have the same right. In addition, all sentient beings are basically endowed with the capacity to overcome suffering. The only difference is that oneself is single, whereas others are in the majority. Hence, the conclusion is clear; if even a small problem, a small suffering, befalls others, its range is infinite, whereas when something happens to oneself, it is limited to just one single person. When we view others as sentient beings, too, in this way, oneself seems not so important.

Let me describe how this is practiced in meditation. This is my own practice, and I frequently speak about it to others. Imagine that in front of you on one side is your old, selfish I and that on the other side is a group of poor, needy people. And you yourself are in the middle as a neutral person, a third party. Then, judge which is more important -- whether you should join this selfish, self-centered, stupid person or these poor, needy, helpless people. If you have a human heart, naturally you will be drawn to the side of the needy beings.

This type of reflective contemplation will help in developing an altruistic attitude; you gradually will realize how bad selfish behavior is. You yourself, up to now, have been behaving this way, but now you realize how bad you were. Nobody wants to be a bad person; if someone says, "You are a bad person," we feel very angry. Why? The main reason is simply that we do not want to be bad. If we really do not want to be a bad person, then the means to avoid it is in our own hands. If we train in the behavior of a good person, we will become good. Nobody else has the right to put a person in the categories of good or bad; no one has that kind of power.

The ultimate source of peace in the family, the country, and the world is altruism -- compassion and love. Contemplation of this fact also helps tremendously to develop altruism. Meditating on these techniques as much as possible engenders conviction, desire, and determination. When with such determination you try, try, try, day by day, month by month, year by year, we can improve ourselves. With altruistic motivation every action accumulates good virtues -- the limitless power of salutary merit."

A nice (non-Buddhist) view on the meaning of life by Robert Taylor.

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Some scholars have noticed in the last few decades that there are various similarities between modern science (especially physics) and Buddhism. Fritjof Capra started a virtual cult movement with his 'Tao of Physics' in that direction. Buddhism is not a very dogmatic religion, and the relativity of many of its ideas are not unlike many scientific developments since the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein. However, physics (by nature) leaves out the mind, and is therefore of low importance in Buddhism. Albert Einstein said of Buddhism:

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

Some interesting similarities:

  • We cannot observe matter on the smallest scale without influencing the results: 'objectivity' in its strictest sense is not possible.
  • The universe has no beginning or end, no creator-god.
  • All results have a similar cause (similar to karma).
  • The universe is infinite, and houses many more living creatures than we can see on earth.
  • Buddhist psychology is not incompatible with Western psychology; but has a clearly different emphasis though.

"Buddhist thinking relies more on investigation than on faith. Therefore, scientific findings are very helpful to Buddhist thinking. In my experience, Buddhist views may also give scientists a new way to look at their own field, as well as new interest and enthusiasm."

His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama

A very interesting article by Ajahn Brahmavamso.
Here are some thoughts of Bhikkhu Shravasti Dhammika.
See also the Life and Mind Institute

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Some thoughts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

"Politicians need religion even more than a hermit in retreat. If a hermit acts out of bad motivation, he harms no one but himself. But if someone who can directly influence the whole of society acts with bad motivation, then a great number of people will be adversely affected.

Many ancient Indian masters have preached nonviolence as a philosophy. That was a more spiritual understanding of it. Mahatma Gandhi, in this twentieth century, produced a very sophisticated approach because he implemented that very noble philosophy of nonviolence in modern politics, and he succeeded. That is a very great thing. It has represented an evolutionary leap in political consciousness, his experimentation with truth.

Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. When our community is in a state of peace, it can share that peace with neighboring communities, and so on.

Sometimes we look down on politics, criticizing it as dirty. However, if you look at it properly, politics in itself is not wrong. It is an instrument to serve human society. With good motivation--sincerity and honesty--politics becomes an instrument in the service of society. But when motivated by selfishness with hatred, anger, or jealousy, it becomes dirty.

In cooperation, working together, the key thing is the sense of responsibility. But this cannot be developed by force as has been attempted in eastern Europe and in China. There a tremendous effort has to be made to develop in the mind of every individual human being a sense of responsibility, a concern for the common interest rather than the individual interest. They aim their education, their ideology, their efforts to brainwash, at this. But their means are abstract, and the sense of responsibility cannot develop. The genuine sense of responsibility will develop only through compassion and altruism.

Sometimes we feel that one individual's action is very insignificant. Then we think, of course, that effects should come from channeling or from a unifying movement. But the movement of the society, community or group of people means joining individuals. Society means a collection of individuals, so that initiative must come from individuals. Unless each individual develops a sense of responsibility, the whole community cannot move. So therefore, it is very essential that we should not feel that individual effort is meaningless- you should not feel that way. We should make an effort."

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"That's their opinion. They're entitled to have it. Of course, we don't need to agree with it. Sometimes we may succeed in correcting another's misconceptions, but sometimes people are very closed-minded and don't want to change their views. That's their business. Just leave it.

We don't need others' approval to practice the Dharma. But we do need to be convinced in our hearts that what we do is right. If we are, then others' opinions aren't important.

Others' criticisms don't hurt the Dharma or the Buddha. The path to enlightenment exists whether others recognise it as such or not. We don't need to be defensive. In fact, if we become agitated when others criticise Buddhism, it indicates we're attached to our beliefs - that our ego is involved and so we feel compelled to prove our beliefs are right.

When we're secure in what we believe, others' criticisms don't disturb our peace of mind. Why should it? Criticism doesn't mean we are stupid or bad. It's simply another's opinion, that's all."

From: 'Working with Anger', by Venerable Thubten Chodron

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"When I was in Tibet I had little information, through books or from personal contact, about the nature and value of other traditions. Since I've become a refugee, I have had more opportunity to have closer contact with other traditions, mainly through individuals, and I have gained a much deeper understanding of their value. As a result, my attitude now is that each one is a valid religion. Of course, even from the philosophical viewpoint, I still believe that Buddhist philosophy is more sophisticated, that it has more variety or is more vast, but all other religions still have tremendous benefits or great potential. So on both bases, I think my attitude towards other religions is greatly changed. Today, wherever I go and whenever I meet someone who follows a different religion, I deeply admire their practice and I very sincerely respect their tradition."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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The Buddha never intended Buddhism to be a 'missionary' religion, in the sense that others 'must' be converted to Buddhism. Instead, he advised to only teach Buddhism when one is asked for it. So randomly trying to convert people to Buddhism is not a good idea, instead it can be a good practice of patience to wait until others show some interest, and even then share with modesty unless they show genuine interest. Of course, being able to offer others some teachings is considered very positive, as we all want to reduce our suffering and anything that can help others on their path is more then welcome.

When you first meet Buddhism and become fascinated with it, it may be very tempting to tell everyone you know about it, but before you know it, your enthusiasm may be interpreted in a very negative way; people may think, 'he/she really lost it now'. So it is much better to teach by example, so people start asking you questions as they see positive changes in you. Once you take up a regular meditation practice, it is likely that your attitude changes; a bit less angry, more helpful to others etc., and people who are open to it will begin to ask questions for sure.

It is good to consider beforehand how you would explain Buddhism to others in a very simple way, without much typical Buddhist terminology (don't start off with using Pali and Sanskrit words, unless you are talking to a scholar). That may also be a good test for yourself to see if you can really explain the essence of Buddhism in a couple of minutes - it may not be as easy as it looks. Obviously, you do not want to confuse others with your own vague ideas of what Buddhism may be, so make sure that what you explain is correct. And if you don't know the answer to a question, say so! That's much better then coming up with a 'fantasy' answer...

A more extensive online article by Tan Chade Meng can be found here.

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Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, designed the robe at the request of the Buddha. The pattern of the robe was taken from the pattern of the paddy fields in the Magadha Kingdom. It was accepted by the Buddha and had become standardized since then.

Traditionally, monks and nuns robes were saffron colored, however, over time the various different styles and colors of the robes developed in various countries; a great collection of images is found on Buddhanet. Normally the right shoulder is kept bare. See also the page on the monks robes.

Why don't monks wear ordinary clothes?

There are nine listed disadvantages of ordinary clothes; they relate to expense, maintenance, keeping clean, durability, restrictions of size and style, unsuitability for a life of simplicity, social implications, motivations of attractiveness and finally clarity of duties relating to dress.

There are also twelve qualities of the robes listed; these relate to cheapness; simplicity of making, of wearing, of mending and of fitting; suitability for a monk's lifestyle; ease of wearing and packing; not breaking any precept in their manufacture; causing very little envy; low temptation to thieves; low satisfaction to personal vanity and, finally, that there is less sense of personal possession.

There are also twelve qualities of the robes listed; these relate to cheapness; simplicity of making, of wearing, of mending and of fitting; suitability for a monk's lifestyle; ease of wearing and packing; not breaking any precept in their manufacture; causing very little envy; low temptation to thieves; low satisfaction to personal vanity and, finally, that there is less sense of personal possession. The Tibetan robes explained briefly:

  1. The shamtab, or lower robe (similar to a skirt), symbolises moral discipline. The four folds of the cloth symbolise the four noble truths. Two folds frontwards symbolise True Paths and True Cessations - which are to achieved - and two folds backwards symbolise true sufferings and true origins - to be abandoned.
    The shamtab also has two additional strips of material, one around the top and one around the bottom to symbolise conscientiousness, which protects our moral discipline.
  2. The donka, or upper garment (like a shirt) has a number of segments. The collar segments that form a 'V' around the neck symbolise the jaws of the lord of death, and should remind us that we could die at any moment and so must make every moment of our life meaningful.
    The two sleeves are said to resemble the trunks of elephants, and the arm holes the elephants eyes. In Buddhism the elephant sometimes symbolises ignorance. Since there are two main types of ignorance the two sleeves and their holes teach us that we should mainly strive to overcome the two types of ignorance. The donka has a thin blue thread on both sleeves, this symbolises Buddha's secret teachings and reminds us to practice them.
  3. The zen is a red robe worn over the donka which symbolises concentration.
  4. The chogyu, or yellow robe, symbolises wisdom. It is made from a complicated pattern of many different pieces of saffron-coloured cloth. The many different pieces stitched together represents Buddha's teachings on dependent-relationship. It is normally only worn by fully ordained monks and nuns, especially during teachings.

The typical maroon color of the Tibetan robes differs from the traditional saffron color in India simply because the yellow colorant was very hard to get and expensive in Tibet. A very direct quote from Lama Yeshe:

"When Buddhism went from India to Tibet, the monks' robes changed completely; there’s nothing Indian left. The same thing happened when Buddhism went to China and Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Of course, there are some similarities, but basically they are different. Why are they different? You cannot say their Dharma is bad Dharma. You cannot say that Tibetan Dharma is better, that it is better to wear Tibetan robes. That would just be an ego trip. Because climates and cultures vary, people compromise and come up with something that suits their environment."

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Unfortunately, there are teachers, traditions and centers which are questionable in the Buddhist world. There used to be a website listing most of the controversial traditions, but the webmaster was put under pressure to close it - very unfortunate indeed... It is always recommended to ask around a bit before seriously getting involved with a group or teacher. Simply said, if you discover a 'fundamentalist' kind of approach, and attitude of 'only we have the correct understanding of Buddhism' and strong aversion to other traditions, you would be well advised to double or triple check if there is no controversy around that group or teacher.

Most controversial groups may be fairly innocent for members, but excesses can happen when people do not show a healthy critical mind, just imagine how tempting it can be for a teacher to abuse the power he has among students when they accept absolutely everything that is said mindlessly. Please remember that when a teacher abuses power, on the other side are the students who have often all too willingly handed over that power and control. See also the pages on Spiritual Teachers and Controversy.

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Pure Land Buddhism is a popular sub-school in South-East Asia of the Mahayana tradition, in which practice is focused to being reborn in a so-called Pure Land. Simply said, a Pure Land is the world of a Buddha, still belonging to the realms within cyclic existence (samsara), but where one can practice to become a Buddha under virtually ideal circumstances. The Pure Land school is called Jodo in Japan. Usually, the practice focuses on Amitabha Buddha, and consists to a large extent on reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, and little emphasis is put on study and meditation.

Personally, I have no experience of this school, but perhaps you can find more information at the following links:
Young men's Buddhist Association of America
Dallas Buddhist Association
or this links page

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This is a vast subject, on which one can write entire books... Therefore just a small selection: this very interesting article by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gives a great critical reflection, especially on Tibetan Buddhism and some of its pitfalls. Or "Is Buddhism Surviving America?".

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Yes, you can always dedicate positive energy of your actions towards people in need, even after they died. In tantric Buddhism as practices in Tibet, usually the practice of Medicine Buddha is strongly advised. This can be a meditation, like you can find at Thubten Chodron's website, you can recite mantras or do the Medicine Buddha sadhana with visualisations etc. as described in these pages of Kopan Monastery. You can also check out the Dharma Haven website for resources.

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Compassion and understanding are the best weapons against terrorism.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Terror is in the human heart. We must remove this terror from the heart. Destroying the human heart, both physically and psychologically, is what we should avoid. The root of terrorism should be identified so that it can be removed. The root of terrorism is misunderstanding, hatred, and violence. This root cannot be located by the military. Bombs and missiles cannot reach it, let alone destroy it. Only with the practice of calming and looking deeply can our insight reveal and identify this root. Only with the practice of deep listening and compassion can it be transformed and removed.

Darkness cannot be dissipated with more darkness. More darkness will make darkness thicker. Only light can dissipate darkness. Violence and hatred cannot be removed with violence and hatred. Rather, this will make violence and hatred grow a thousand fold. Only understanding and compassion can dissolve violence and hatred. "Strike against terror" is a misleading expression. What we are striking against is not the real cause or the root of terror. The object of our strike is still human life. We are sowing seeds of violence as we strike. Striking in this way we will only bring about more hatred and violence into the world. This is exactly what we do not want to do.

Hatred and violence are in the hearts of human beings. A terrorist is a human being with hatred, violence, and misunderstanding in his or her heart. Acting without understanding, acting out of hatred, violence, and fear, we help sow more terror, bringing terror to the homes of others and bringing terror back to our own homes. Whole societies are living constantly in fear with our nerves being attacked day and night. This is the greatest casualty we may suffer from as a result of our wrong thinking and action. Such a state of confusion, fear and anxiety is extremely dangerous. It can bring about another world war, this time extremely destructive.

We must learn to speak out so that the voice of the Buddha can be heard in this dangerous and pivotal moment of history. Those of us who have the light should display the light and offer it so that the world will not sink into total darkness. Everyone has the seed of awakening and insight within his or her heart. Let us help each other touch these seeds in ourselves so that everyone could have the courage to speak out. We must ensure that the way we live our daily lives (with or without mindful consumption, with or without discrimination, with or without participating in injustice ...) does not create more terrorism in the world. We need a collective awakening to stop this course of self-destruction.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk in the Zen tradition, who worked for peace during the Vietnam War, rebuilding villages destroyed by the hostilities. In 1967, he was nominated by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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The idea of prayers is generally somewhat different then e.g. the Christian idea of a plea to God for help. In Buddhism we know we actually need to do everything ourselves, so we pray for inspiration and the ability we can walk the path without hindrances. Many different prayers exist, but often these are recitations to reconfirm one's dedication to the spiritual path and the vows one has taken, or simply to give a positive direction to our thoughts by reflecting on compassion and love.

Then there are other practices like recitation of texts. These common in probably all traditions of Buddhism. One can say they have several effects. Firstly, by reading a text, you will gradually understand the teachings in it, so that's pretty simple. Recitation makes reading a text somehow more intense, and not only yourself, but also animals around you can hear the texts, which can be like a blessing to them, or a kind of mental preparation for a later understanding of these texts. This extra effort of reciting to help others as well, creates positive karma for ourselves as well, so that we will be able to hear the teachings in the future for example.

In the Vajrayana (tantra) tradition, one can also recite mantras. That practice is difficult to explain simply, but one could say that one occupies the mind with the very positive energy of these sacred lines.

You can find some examples of Buddhist prayers on this index page. The various traditions in Buddhism also have a somewhat different approach; if you like to read a very thorough answer, do spend a few minutes on reading this very interesting discussion on thebuddhadharma.com.

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Return to What is Buddhism Index of Articles


  1. Counter-arguments and Objections to Buddhism - a very interesting page indeed!
  2. Nibbana.com
  3. Sangha Online
  4. Ajahn Chah (on Buddhanet)
  5. The Thai Tradition
  6. S.N. Goenka


Brief History of Symbolism in Buddhism
Symbols for the Buddha
The Three Jewels or Triple Gem
The Seven Jewels of Royal Power
The Eight Auspicious Symbols
The Buddhist Flag
The Swastika

This page may take some time to download as it contains many images....


Many Buddhist symbols need to be considered within the culture of the people who follow it. Therefore, many of the early symbols relate to ancient India and can be found in Hinduism as well, although possibly with a somewhat different meaning.

The historical Buddha lived around the sixth century BCE, but no Buddhist artifacts are known from before the third century BCE. In the scriptures, it is mentioned that the Buddha did occasionally use images like the 'Wheel of Life' to illustrate the teachings. The first archaeological evidence, mainly of ornamental stone carvings, comes from the time of the Emperor Asoka (273 - 232 BCE), who converted to Buddhism and made it a popular religion in India and beyond .

In the second century BCE, people started to excavate Buddhist monasteries in rock, creating a large amount of artwork to withstand the ages. Probably the earliest typical Buddhist monument is the stupa, which was often specially decorated. The first actual Buddha images appeared around the first century BCE, so until then the artwork was largely symbolic in nature.

With the appearance of Buddhist Tantra around the 6th century, a wealth of new artwork and symbolism appeared, as imagination and visualization form a major technique in meditation practices. From this moment on, a pantheon of deities and protectors appeared, together with a vast collection of symbolic items, such as the vajra and bell, mandalas etc.; see the page on Tantric Symbols. This tradition was mainly preserved in so-called 'Tibetan Buddhism', and partially in the Japanese Shingon tradition.


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It is said that the Buddha was reluctant to accept images of himself, as he did not like to be venerated as a person. To symbolise the Buddha in the very early art, one used mainly the Eight Spoked Wheel and the Bodhi Tree, but also the Buddha's Footprints, an Empty Throne, a Begging Bowl and a Lion are used to represent him.

The Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel or 'Dharmachakra' (Sanskrit) symbolises the Buddha's turning the Wheel of Truth or Law (dharma = truth/law, chakra = wheel).

The wheel (on the left and right) refers to the story that shortly after the Buddha achieved enlightenment, Brahma came down from heaven and requested the Buddha to teach by offering him a Dharmachakra. The Buddha is known as the Wheel-Turner: he who sets a new cycle of teachings in motion and in consequence changes the course of destiny.

The Dharmachakra has eight spokes, symbolising the Eight-fold Noble Path. The 3 swirling segments in centre represent the Buddha, Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the spiritual community).
The wheel can also be divided into three parts, each representing an aspect of Buddhist practice; the hub (discipline), the spokes (wisdom), and the rim (concentration).

The Bodhi Tree refers to the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment (See image on the right.).
Tree worship was already part of the existing culture in India, so the development of the bodhi tree and leaf as a devotional symbol was a natural one.

From a beautiful online book from the Stupa Page:

"After wandering the countryside for about six years the Buddha finally came to rest in a forest beside the Naranjara River, not far from modern day Bodhgaya. Sitting under a Bodhi tree, ardently practicing meditation, he finally realised his true nature. The next seven days were spent under the tree experiencing the bliss of freedom and contemplating the extent of his new understanding. The story then goes on to relate Bodhi tree in stone from Thailandfour other periods of seven days, each spent under a different tree - the Banyan, the Mucalinda and the Rajayatana tree and then once more back to the Banyan. Each of these 'tree scenes' has its own well known story which space here does not allow. The tree of enlightenment is called, in Latin, ficus religiosa, or sacred tree. It is also known as the pipal tree. For Buddhists it is generally called the Bodhi, or Bo tree. Bodhi is the Pali and Sanskrit word for enlightenment. There is a descendant of the original tree still growing at Bodhgaya and Bodhi trees are commonly found in Buddhist centres all over the world."

The Lion is one of Buddhism's most potent symbols. Traditionally, the lion is associated with regality, strength and power. It is therefore an appropriate symbol for the Buddha who tradition has it was a royal prince. The Buddha's teachings are sometimes referred to as the 'Lion's Roar', again indicative of their strength and power.

Lion-throne, with 8 SnowlionsThe image on the left shows a capital from a pillar of Asoka: the Lions of Sarnath. Sarnath is where the Buddha first preached, and these lions echo his teachings to the four quarters of the world, sometimes called 'the Lion's Roar'. The wheel symbolizes Buddhist law and also Asoka's legitimacy as an enlightened ruler.

Especially in Tibetan Buddhist art, lions are often depicted on the throne the Buddha sits on, but these are Snow Lions (mythical creatures), and they actually represent the eight main Bodhisattvas (students of the Buddha).

From the Tibetan Aid Project Page:

"Footprints of the Buddha traditionally symbolize the physical presence of the Enlightened One. This image was reproduced from a rubbing of an ancient stone imprint at Bodh Gaya, India, site of the Buddha's enlightenment."

The story goes that prior to his death the Buddha left an imprint of his foot on a stone near Kusinara, a reminder of his presence on earth.

These footprints often show Dharma-wheels on them, one of the so-called 32 marks of a Buddha. Other auspicious marks, like swastikas and lotuses etc. can sometimes be found, but they are not part of these special marks.

The Begging-bowl refers to the the story that shortly before the Buddha reached enlightenment, a young woman named Sujata offered him a bowl of milk-rice. At that moment, he was practicing austerity by eating extremely little. But he realised at that moment that he would need to have more strength for the final steps to enlightenment, and further fasting would only reduce his energy. After he reached enlightenment, he is said to have thrown away what little was left in the bowl to signify his renunciation of all material possessions. Finding the middle way between extreme austerity and complete attachment to life is an important principle of Buddhism.

The bowl also points to the monk's way of life; going from the monastery into the village each morning and living off what is put into it by lay people.

What seems a much later development is the depiction of the Buddha's eyes (especially on stupas), as is frequently seen in Nepal. They look in all four directions, representing the omniscient mind of a Buddha.

At exoticindiaart.com you can find a very interesting history of the development of the Buddha-image in art.

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The core of Buddhism is made up of the three pillars of the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (monks and nuns). Simply explained, one could say that without the historical Buddha Shakyamuni there would have been no Buddhist Dharma, nor Sangha. Without his teachings, the Buddha would not have made much of a difference, and also the spiritual community would not have existed. Without the Sangha, the tradition would never have have been transmitted through the ages. The Buddha would have been 'just' a historical figure and his teachings would have been 'just' books.
Obviously, the Triple Gem is usually represented as three jewels...
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Deer are a direct reference to the Buddha's first teaching in the Deer Park, Sarnath, also called Dharmachakra Parivartan. The suggestion is that so wondrous was the Buddha's appearance and peaceful his presence that even the animals came to listen. In the Tibetan tradition, a monastery which holds the Kangyur and Tengyur collections of texts would have this symbol of deer on both sides of the Dharma-wheel on the roof.

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Stupas generally represent the enlightened mind of the Buddha. They were constructed since the early days of Buddhism. One of the symbolic meanings is that they represent the five elements: the square base represents earth, the round dome is for water, the cone-shape is fire, the canopy is air and the volume of the stupa is space. Stupas are often used to store relics from important teachers.
On the subject of stupas, I can recommend a visit to the Stupa Page, which not only contains lots of information, but even a free downloadable book on stupas. Stupas come in many shapes and all sizes....
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Making offerings is a very common practice in the East. Every offering has a specific meaning, for example offering light is to dispel the darkness of one's ignorance, or offering incense to increase one's ethical behaviour. Offering is considered a good training against greed and attachment.

In Tibet, many or all of the offerings are often replaced by little bowls filled with water which symbolises the offering of water for drinking and foot-washing, flowers, incense, light, perfume and food. This relates to the ancient tradition of how a very important guest should be received.

The Eight Offerings:

Offering water to cleanse the mouth or face: It signifies auspiciousness or all the positive causes and conditions which bring positive effects. So, make an offering of water which is clean, fresh, cool, smooth, light, delicious, comfortable to the throat and stomach - these qualities are the qualities of auspiciousness.

Offering water to wash the feet: This is clear water mixed with incense or sandalwood which is made as an offering to all enlightened beings' feet. The symbolic meaning is purification. By cleansing the feet of the enlightened beings, we cleanse all our own negative karma and obscurations. By making offerings to clean the enlightened beings feet, we are really cleaning the "feet" of our own mind.

Offering flowers signifies the practice of generosity and opens the heart.

Offering incense symbolises moral ethics or discipline.

Offering light signifies the stability and clarity of patience, the beauty which dispels all ignorance.

According to Ven. Norlha Rinpoche: "It is also excellent to offer the butterlamps, candles or light because this act of offering this light symbolizes burning away our mental afflictions of desire, aggression, greed, jealousy, pride and so forth. The other part of the symbolism is that it is a way to burn away our illness."

"Offering butter lamps is the most powerful offering because their light symbolizes wisdom. Just as a lamp dispels darkness, offering light from a butter lamp represents removing the darkness of ignorance in order to attain Buddha’s luminous clear wisdom. The lamp offering is a sense offering to the Buddha’s eyes. Because Buddha’s eyes are wisdom eyes, they do not have the extremes of clarity or non-clarity. Our ordinary eyes, however, are obscured by the darkness of the two defilements –gross afflictive emotional defilements and subtle habitual defilements. While the Buddha does not have desire for offerings, we make offerings for the purpose of our own accumulation of merit & wisdom. Through the power of this accumulation, we can remove the cataracts of our ignorance eyes in order to gain Buddha’s supreme luminous wisdom eyes. When we offer light, the results are the realization of Clear Light wisdom phenomena in this life; the clarification of dualistic mind and the dispersal of confusion and realization of Clear Light in the bardo; and the increase of wisdom in each lifetime until one has reached enlightenment.

Traditionally, butter lamps are also offered as a dedication to the dead in order to guide them through the bardo by wisdom light. We can pray as well that this light guide all beings of the six realms, removing their obscurations so that they may awaken to their true wisdom nature.

With genuine faith & devotion, visualize that with your offerings, countless offering goddesses offer immeasurable light to all enlightened beings. You may recite the ‘Butter Lamp Offering Prayer’ from the Collection of Offering Prayers.”

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche

Offering of perfume or the fragrance from saffron or sandalwood. It signifies perseverance or joyous effort. Through that one quality, one develops all the qualities of enlightenment.

Offering of food which has a lot of different tastes signifies samadhi, which is a nectar or ambrosia to feed the mind.

Offering of musical instruments. There are different types of instruments -- cymbals, bells, guitars, lutes - - all of these are offered. Their nature is wisdom, which makes an offering to the ears of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and all the enlightened beings. Sound represents wisdom because wisdom is a special power of the mind which penetrates phenomena. Compassion is achieved through great wisdom; interdependence of all phenomena is realised through great wisdom. of course all phenomena have the nature of interdependence, causes and conditions, but sound is especially easy to understand.

The Eight Lucky Articles or Eight Bringers of Good Fortune to support the practitioner's efforts at reaching enlightenment. Each of these also represents an aspect of the 8-fold Noble Path:

The Mirror represents the Dharmakaya or Truth Body of the Buddha, having the aspects of purity (a mirror is clear of pollution) and wisdom (a mirror reflects all phenomena without distinction). Represents Right Thought.

Curd - just as this highly valued, pure white food is the result of a long process, so the clear nature of mind is revealed with practice over time as the defilements are dissolved. Represents Right Livelihood (no animal is harmed in its production).

Durva Grass is very resilient and is a symbol of long life. This is considered beneficial because one needs time to practice and attain enlightenment. Represents Right Effort.

The Wood Apple or Bilva Fruit is offered to remind the practitioner of the emptiness and conditioned nature of all phenomena in terms of dependent origination. Why the Bilva fruit was chosen to represent this is unknown. Represents Right Action - which bears the right fruit.

The Right-coiled Conch-shell represents the wish that the Buddhist teachings will be spread in all directions like the sounds emitted when the shell is used as a horn. Represents Right Speech.

Vermilion/Cinnabar are each red powders consisting of mercuric sulphide. In tantric Buddhist the colour symbolism, red represents control. Thus, this offering is concerned with having control over one's capacities which are to be put to the effort of gaining enlightenment. Represents Right Concentration.

White Mustard Seeds This relates to the Buddha's response to a woman who came to him distraught at the loss of her child. He instructed her to collect a mustard seed (as common as salt or pepper at the time) from every home that never had a bereavement. As she returned empty-handed, the Buddha showed her that she was not alone in her sorrow and that death is an inescapable part of life. Represent Right Understanding. Mustard seeds are also used in many rituals to expel demons. They therefore symbolise also wrathful means at overcoming obstacles.

Precious Medicine - ghi-wang, literally meaning "cow essence", is a soothing and strengthening medicine obtained from gallstones in cattle or elephants. The substance's ability to deal with physical suffering symbolises to include suffering as part of the practice of Dharma. It represents Right Mindfulness, which acts as an antidote to the disease of ignorance and the suffering that it causes.

The Five Qualities of Enjoyment are also used as offerings, as when they come into contact with our senses, they give rise to the negative consequences of attachment and craving:

The Mirror is a symbol for visual form.

The Lute symbolises sound.

The Incense Burner represents smell.

The Fruit refers to for taste.

The Silk relates to touch.

In offering these qualities, one meditates on their nature and the intention of abandoning craving

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The Seven Jewels of Royal Power are the accessories of the universal monarch (Skt. chakravartin). They represent different abilities or aids that a king must possess in order to stay in power and can be symbolically offered to the Buddha. These seven objects collectively symbolize secular power. They give the ruler knowledge, resources and power.

In the Buddhist interpretation a comparison is drawn between the outward rule of the secular king and the spiritual power of a practitioner. To the spiritual practitioner the Seven Jewels represent boundless wisdom, inexhaustible spiritual resources and invincible power over all inner and outer obstacles.
These seven jewels can also be found in the long mandala offering ritual.

The Precious Queen - who represents the feminine pole, where the chakravartin is the masculine aspect. Those working to abandon negative mental states regard her as mother or sister. Her beauty and love for her husband are representative of the radiating, piercing joy of the Buddha's enlightenment.

The Precious General symbolises the wrathful power to overcome enemies.

The Precious Horse is able to travel among the clouds and mirror the Buddha's abandonment of, or "rising above", the cares of worldly existence.

The Precious Jewel which is sometimes depicted on the back of the precious horse, deals with the themes of wealth and unfolding (power and possibility). The jewel is said to aid the Chakravartin (Wheel-turning or Buddhist King) in his ability to see all things like a crystal ball. In the same way, a Buddha can perceive all things; recognising the manifold connections between all events, the relentless chain of cause and effect, and the nature of compounded existence. The Jewel can also symbolise a Wish-granting Jewel, a mythical gem which fulfills all wishes.

The Precious Minister or Householder represent two different aspects of the rule of the chakravartin which are closely related. The minister aids the chakravartin in carrying out his commands expeditiously, while the householder provides the very basic support. The wisdom of the Buddha, like the minister, is always present to him who has realised it, allowing him to cut through the bonds of ignorance. While the householder represents the support of the lay community, without which the monastic community could not continue.

The Precious Elephant is a symbol of the strength of the mind in Buddhism. Exhibiting noble gentleness, the precious elephant serves as a symbol of the calm majesty possessed by one who is on the path.

Specifically, it embodies the boundless powers of the Buddha which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention, and analysis. The image at the right says it all: a stupa - symbolic of the mind of a Buddha with a basis of strong elephants.

The Precious Wheel, sometimes depicted on the back of the precious elephant, is the same as the Dharmachakra, or the Wheel of Truth above.

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This set of symbols is very popular in Tibet, but is also known in Sanskrit as 'Ashtamangala', ashta means eight and mangala means auspicious.

The Umbrella or parasol (chhatra) embodies notions of wealth or royalty, for one had to be rich enough to possess such an item, and further, to have someone carry it. It points to the "royal ease" and power experienced in the Buddhist life of detachment. It also symbolises the wholesome activities to keep beings from harm (sun) like illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth, and the enjoyment of the results under its cool shade.
The Golden Fish (matsya) were originally symbolic of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but came to represent good fortune in general, for Hindus, Jain and Buddhists. Within Buddhism it also symbolises that living beings who practice the dharma need have no fear to drown in the ocean of suffering, and can freely migrate (chose their rebirth) like fish in the water.

The Treasure Vase (bumpa) is a sign of the inexhaustible riches available in the Buddhist teachings, but also symbolises long life, wealth, prosperity and all the benefits of this world. (There is even a practice which involves burying or storing treasure vases at certain locations to generate wealth, eg. for monasteries or dharma centers.)

The Lotus (padma) is a very important symbol in India and of Buddhism. It refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. The lotus refers to many aspects of the path, as it grows from the mud (samsara), up through muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification), and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the (mud of) worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind.
An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.

From the website Exotic India Art:

"The lotus does not grow in Tibet and so Tibetan art has only stylized versions of it. Nevertheless, it is one of Buddhism's best recognized motifs since every important deity is associated in some manner with the lotus, either being seated upon it or holding one in their hands.
The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. Though there are other water plants that bloom above the water, it is only the lotus which, owing to the strength of its stem, regularly rises eight to twelve inches above the surface.
Thus says the Lalitavistara, 'the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it.' According to another scholar, 'in esoteric Buddhism, the heart of the beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the Buddha develop therein, the lotus blossoms; that is why the Buddha sits on a lotus bloom.'

Significantly, the color of the lotus too has an important bearing on the symbology associated with it:

  1. White Lotus (Skt. pundarika; Tib. pad ma dkar po): This represents the state of spiritual perfection and total mental purity (bodhi). It is associated with the White Tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is reinforced by the color of her body.
  2. Red Lotus (Skt. kamala; Tib: pad ma chu skyes): This signifies the original nature and purity of the heart (hrdya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities of the heart. It is the flower of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
  3. Blue Lotus (Skt. utpala; Tib. ut pa la): This is a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the preferred flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
  4. Pink Lotus (Skt. padma; Tib. pad ma dmar po): This the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it is associated with the Great Buddha himself."

Teoh Eng Soon, in his book The Lotus in the Buddhist Art of India, traces the first appearance of the lotus in Buddhist art to the columns built by Asoka in the 3rd Century BCE. However, the lotus is found frequently in the early Buddhist texts.

TheConch (shankha), which is also used as a horn, symbolises the deep, far reaching and melodious sound of the teachings, which is suitable for all disciples as it awakens them from the slumber of ignorance to accomplish all beings' welfare.

The Auspicious or Endless Knot (shrivatsa) is a geometric diagram which symbolises the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, it also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and the union of compassion and wisdom. Also, it represents the illusory character of time, and long life as it is endless.

The Victory Banner (dhvaja) symbolises the victory of the Buddha's teachings over death, ignorance, disharmony and all the negativities of this world, and victory over. The roofs of Tibetan monasteries are often decorated with victory banners of different shapes and sizes.

The Dharma-Wheel (Dharmachakra); it is said that after Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment, Brahma came to him, offered a Dharma-Wheel and requested the Buddha to teach. It represents the Buddhist teachings (see above).

You can find a good article on the eight auspicious symbols at exoticindiaart.com.

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A much more recent symbol is the Buddhist flag. It was in designed in 1880 by Colonel Henry Steele Olcott an American journalist. It was first hoisted in 1885 in Sri Lanka and is a symbol of faith and peace, and is now used throughout the world to represent the Buddhism.

The five colours of the flag represent the colours of the aura that emanated from the body of the Buddha when he attained Enlightenment.
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The Swastika is a well-know good-luck symbol from India. Unfortunately, it is too well known in the west, as the Nazis chose it as their main symbol. In Sanskrit, swastika means "conducive to well-being". In the Buddhist tradition, the swastika symbolizes the feet or footprints of the Buddha and is often used to mark the beginning of texts. Modern Tibetan Buddhism uses it as a clothing decoration. With the spread of Buddhism, it has passed into the iconography of China and Japan where it has been used to denote plurality, abundance, prosperity and long life.

(In India, Hindus use the swastika to mark the opening pages of account books, thresholds, doors, and offerings, the right-hand swastika is a solar symbol and the left-hand version represents Kali and magic. Among the Jains it is the emblem of their seventh Tirthankara. Other uses of the symbol: in ancient Mesopotamia it was a favourite symbol on coinage, In Scandinavia it was the symbol for the god Thor's hammer. In early Christian art it was called the gammadion cross because it was made of four gammas. It is also found in Mayan and Navajo art.)

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From about.com:

"There are two key mountains in Buddhist symbolism. The first is Vulture Peak in northern India where the Buddha is said to have delivered a number of sermons. Vulture Peak has particular significance in Mahayana Buddhism as one of its key texts, the Lotus Sutra, is said to have developed out of the Buddha's teachings at Vulture Peak [also the very important Heart Sutra was taught here]. The second belongs to Buddhist cosmology and is known as Mount Meru, the mythological center of the Buddhist universe and the link between the hells below the earth and the heavens above."

In China, there are the so-called four sacred mountains (not to be confused with the Taoist five sacred mountains). They are:

  • Pu Tuo Shan, Buddhist mountain of the east, Zhejiang province, 284 meters. Sacred to Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin
  • Wu Tai Shan, Buddhist mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 3061 meters. Sacred to Bodhisattva Manjushri.
  • Emei Shan, Buddhist mountain of the west, Sichuan province, 3099 meters. Sacred to Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.
  • Jiu Hua Shan, Buddhist mountain of the south, Anhui province, 1341 meters. Sacred to Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha.
See also this page from Sacred Sites.

In Tibet, the 6,600 meter high Mount Kailash is often identified as the mountain of the gods, and even Mount Meru (the axis of the universe) with its pyramid shape. See the page on Tibetan Symbols.

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This information comes from Ratna Henry Chia's World of Buddhism.

The Four Guardian Kings are the protectors of the four cardinal directions and are almost always found at the entrance to monasteries and temples. They each have two hands and are dressed in the ornate armour and clothing of a warrior king. They may be depicted either sitting or standing.

Dhritarashtra, the King of the East
white in color and plays a lute.
Virudhaka, the King of the South
blue in color and carries a sword and scabbard.
Virupaksha, the King of the West,
red in color and holds a small stupa in his right hand and a serpent in his left.
Vaishravana, the King of the North
yellow in color and carries a banner of victory in his right hand and a mongoose that vomits jewels in his left.
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Why Take Refuge?
The Buddha
The Dharma
The Sangha
Refuge Vows
Refuge Advice
Refuge Prayer
Refuge Prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh


Taking refuge" makes the difference between Buddhists and non-Buddhists. It is not even necessary to take refuge in a formal session with a teacher, but it may help to clarify your choice and to remember your commitment.

How do I become a Buddhist?

Once there was a man called Upali. He was the follower of another religion and he went to the Buddha in order to argue with him and try to convert him. But after talking to the Buddha, he was so impressed that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha.

But the Buddha said: "Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself."

Upali: "Now I am even more pleased and satisfied when the Lord says to me: 'Make a proper investigation first.' For if members of another religion had secured me as a discipline they would have paraded a banner all around the town saying: 'Upali has joined our religion.' But the Lord says to me: Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself."

In Buddhism, understanding is the most important thing and understanding takes time. So do not impulsively rush into Buddhism. Take your time, ask questions, consider carefully, and then make your decision. The Buddha was not interested in having a large number of disciples. He was concerned that people should follow his teachings as a result of a careful investigation and consideration of the facts.

From: Good Question, Good Answer by Bhikkhu Shravasti Dhammika

The idea behind taking refuge is that when it starts to rain, we like to find a shelter. The Buddhist shelter from the rain of problems and pain of life is threefold: the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma) and the spiritual community (the Sangha). Taking refuge means that we have some understanding about suffering, and we have confidence that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the "Three Jewels") can help us. We should however not be taking refuge in Buddhism to avoid problems in this very life, there are many non-religious organisations for that, but we should take refuge to avoid problems in future lives, or even better, to avoid future uncontrolled rebirths.

We like to be free from suffering, now and in future lives. When we understand the frustrating nature of all life, we like to be freed from cyclic existence in general. The best reason would be the wish to free all living (sentient) beings from suffering.

The analogy of sickness is often used; Buddha is the doctor; Dharma is the medicine; Sangha is the nurse; we are the patient; the cure is taking the medicine, which means practising the methods. Taking refuge is like unpacking the medicine and deciding to follow the doctor's advice. "To take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in someone who has let go of holding back just as you can do. To take refuge in the dharma is to take refuge in all the teachings that encourage you and nurture your inherent ability to let go of holding back. And to take refuge in the sangha is to take refuge in the community of people who share this longing to let go and open rather than shield themselves.The support we give each other as practitioners is not the usual samsaric support in which we all join the same team and complain about someone else. It's more that you're on your own, completely alone, but it's helpful to know that there are forty other people who are also going through this all by themselves. That's very supportive and encouraging. Fundamentally, even though other people can give you support, you do it yourself, and that's how you grow up in this process, rather than becoming more dependent."

From the book 'Start Where You Are' by Pema Chödrön

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Buddha means enlightened, awakened or omniscient One. A Buddha is a person who has purified all defilements and developed all good qualities. A Buddha is totally free from obscurations and suffering after travelling the entire spiritual path. A Buddha started as an ordinary person and generated infinite compassion and equanimity to arrive at a state of highest bliss, and omniscience. But, as the Buddha himself said: "I cannot do but point the way" - if we don't take the medicine, the doctor is helpless, but what better doctor could we have than an omniscient one?

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Dharma (Sanskrit) or Dhamma (Pali) means doctrine, law or truth. The word Dharma has many different connotations, but in the Buddhist sense, it refers to "what holds back the mind from suffering", or the Buddha's teachings. In this sense, the Dharma is the ultimate medicine against all suffering.

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The Sangha refers to the spiritual community. It is defined in various ways, like:

  • Whole community of ordained and lay Buddhists. This is however not the traditional use.
  • More restricted: ordained Buddhist practitioners (monks and nuns).
  • Most specific: persons who have direct perception of emptiness (ordained or lay).

The Sangha, are like other travellers on the same spiritual path, but we need their help like nurses with the correct medicine of good advice. They are our spiritual friends who can help us stay on the right path and can share their own experience.

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If we decide to go for refuge in the three jewels, we should also commit ourselves to the path we choose by keeping vows.
The one mandatory vow, always implicit in taking refuge, is not wanting to harm other sentient beings. Please note that depending on tradition and teacher, some differences can appear in the exact definitions of the vows.

Optional other vows are:

  1. Not killing: refers to humans and animals; it is both harming sentient beings.
  2. Not stealing: not taking what is not given; (this includes not paying taxes).
  3. No sexual misconduct: refers usually to committing adultery (having sex with others when married).
  4. Not lying: refers usually to not lying about spiritual attainments, but can include all lying.
  5. No intoxicants; refers traditionally to alcohol, but anything robbing clarity of mind (like drugs) is usually included.

Question: What is the difference between making a commitment by formally taking refuge (and precepts) and simply not harming? Why is the formal commitment important?
Answer: Suppose you make a commitment never to kill a dragon. Most people will never see a dragon in their entire lives; some think dragons don't exist. So, you might ask, why would anyone make a commitment not to kill a dragon? If you never kill a dragon, you aren't creating any non-virtue, yet at the same time you're not creating any virtue (merit). From the day you make a commitment not to kill a dragon, and continue to uphold that commitment, you're accumulating virtue. In taking refuge, you accumulate great virtue minute by minute as you uphold your vows.

From Chagdud Tulku: Gates to Buddhist Practice: Essential Teachings of a Tibetan Master

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  1. Primary guidelines
    1. To actualise refuge in:
      1. - Buddha: commit yourself to one master, the Buddha
      2. - Dharma: listen, study and practice Dharma to overcome your own delusion
      3. - Sangha: respect Sangha and train in accordance with their example
    2. Try to:
      1. - subdue the body, speech and mind, instead of letting our senses rule us, do not speak harsh, sceptical and avoid being judgmental.
      2. - practice ethics and vows.
      3. - be kind and considerate to any living being.
      4. - make special offerings on two special days of the year: the 15th of 4th lunar month (around May), to celebrate birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, and on the 4th of 6th lunar month (around July) to celebrate the first turning of the wheel - or the first teachings of the Buddha on the 4 Noble Truths in Sarnath.
  2. Secondary guidelines
    1. Referring to the refuge in the:
      1. - Buddha: do not follow other, lower beings as ultimate spiritual guides.
      2. - Dharma: do not harm or upset humans or animals.
      3. - Sangha: do not be negatively influenced by any extremists or others opposing our beliefs
    2. To show respect to the:
      1. - Buddha: respect all images of the Buddha, treat these as if they are Buddhas.
      2. - Dharma: respect texts, treat them with utmost care.
      3. - Sangha: respect even piece of robes and all who wear robes (despite behaviour)
  3. Six points of training:
    1. Take refuge in the Three Jewels, do not seek the source of your happiness and problems outside yourself.
    2. Offer the first part of food or drink to the triple gem, by blessing it before eating or drinking by reciting "Om Ah Hum".
    3. Encourage others to become inner beings (Buddhists) and to take refuge; but only when one is asked for advice.
    4. Recite the refuge prayer 3x in the day and 3x in the night.
    5. Follow the example of the Three Jewels, rely on them as the only trustworthy refuge objects.
    6. Never lose faith in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
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Traditional Refuge Prayers

Namo Buddhaya
Namo Dharmaya
Namo Sanghaya

I go for refuge to the Buddha,
I go for refuge to the Dharma,
I go for refuge to the Sangha.

or, the Tibetan (Mahayana) version:

Until I am enlightened,
I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Through the virtue I create by practising giving and the other perfections,
may I become a Buddha to benefit all sentient beings.

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Refuge Prayer by Thich Nhat-Hanh

At the foot of the Bodhi tree, beautifully seated, peaceful and smiling,
the living source of understanding and compassion, to the Buddha I go for refuge.
The path of mindful living, leading to healing, joy, and enlightenment,
the way of peace, to the Dhamma I go for refuge.
The loving and supportive community of practice, realizing harmony, awareness, and liberation,
to the Sangha I go for refuge.
I am aware that the Three Gems are within my heart, I vow to realize them.
I vow to practice mindful breathing and smiling, looking deeply into things.
I vow to understand living beings and their suffering, to cultivate compassion and loving kindness,
and to practice joy and equanimity.
I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon.
I vow to live simply and sanely, content with just a few possessions, and to keep my body healthy.
I vow to let go of all worry and anxiety in order to be light and free.
I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends and all beings.
I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly,
so that understanding and compassion will flower,
and I can help living beings be free from their suffering.
May the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha support my efforts.

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How to Meditate
Setting Our Motivation
Common Problems during Meditation
Post Meditation
"If there is something you truly want to know, then you truly want to listen to your own wisdom.
You know, meditation is learning how to listen with your own wisdom, so that you can see.
I think why meditation is amazingly important,
is that somehow our unconscious world is much bigger.
It is huge, universal, and we don't understand that one.
Meditation allows this world to be light and knowable, understandable.
That is why it is important.
Normally we are totally robbed by the egotistic, conventional mind,
not allowing the fundamental mind to be functioning.
That is why one should have confidence, truly... through experience,
one has confidence in one's spiritual journey."
By Lama Thubten Yeshe


"The most important thing is practice in daily life; then you can know gradually the true value of religion. Doctrine is not meant for mere knowledge, but for the improvement of our minds. In order to do that, it must be part of our life. If you put religious doctrine in a building and when you leave the building depart from the practices, you cannot gain its value."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from ' A Policy of Kindness'

I would strongly advise everyone to start with a serious course in meditation in a centre or group under the guidance of an experienced teacher, preferably at least with a few days in silence. This should give you a genuine feeling of the effect that meditation can have on the mind. Many people try to teach themselves meditation by reading books etc., but I can't remember ever meeting an enthusiastic self-taught meditator. So a proper course, if possible with a qualified teacher is invaluable. Furthermore, one should realise that continuity in meditation is considered essential: better five minutes a day, every day, than two hours once a week. For example, five minutes in the morning are likely to become longer over time, and can easily become part of your everyday life.

Many people discover it quickly becomes more essential and helpful than a good breakfast or 'the first cup of coffee' in the morning. In the evening, it can be a good way to stop the worries of the day and go to sleep in a comfortable state of mind. People who have problems getting to sleep may discover that with an evening meditation just before going to bed, the mind becomes much calmer and getting to sleep is no problem anymore. Ultimately, meditation can become a continuous state of mind, but that obviously takes a lot of training/habituation.

Before starting meditation, ideally we need to take care of a few things:

  • - a quiet place (using music is nice for relaxing, but not really meditation), switching off the phone will help
  • - make sure you are not too tired, early morning is generally said to be the best time.
  • - sit comfortable; most people like a cushion under their behind, the room is best not too warm or cold.
  • - wear loose, comfortable clothing.
  • - try to create continuity in time and place to become habituated to the circumstances of meditation.
The Body
  • - keeping the back straight, in whichever posture you meditate is most essential.
  • - try to be comfortable and physically relaxed, and avoid moving too much.
  • - keep the head straight, slightly bent forward, keep the teeth slightly apart, the tip of the tongue against the upper pallet.
  • - the eyes are best kept half-open (without really looking), but many beginners find that too distracting and close them.
  • - the shoulders should be relaxed and the hands can be put in one's lap.
  • - the legs can be in the full lotus (which not many Westerners manage), but also simply crossed. In fact, other positions like sitting on one's knees or on a bench are good as well. If all of these are too difficult, you can also use a chair, but remember to sit only on the front half of the seat, not leaning against the back rest to avoid a bent back, and keep the feet flat on the floor. Keeping the knees warm may help to avoid numbness of the legs.
  • - try belly-breathing; not breathing with the chest, but from the navel.
  • - always remember that the posture should enhance meditation, not be an obstacle! The Buddha even taught one of his disciples who had many problems with his posture to lie down with his back on a bed, and then he quickly made progress; however, most people tend to fall asleep - so it will not be suitable for everyone...
The Mind:
- be relaxed but at the same time awake and attentive: finding your balance here is not easy!
- be a careful observer of your own mind and thoughts; sometimes called the 'little spy inside':

From Ani Tenzin Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism:
"As we begin to develop awareness of the mind, the mind itself appears to divide into two. A new aspect of the mind arises. This is referred to variously as the witness, the seer, the knower, or the observer. It witnesses without judgment and without comment. Along with the arrival of the witness, a space appears within the mind. This enables us to see thoughts and emotions as mere thoughts and emotions, rather than as 'me' and 'mine.' When the thoughts and emotions are no longer seen as 'me' or 'mine', we begin to have choices. Certain thoughts and emotions are helpful, so we encourage them. Others are not so helpful, so we just let them go. All the thoughts and emotions are recognized and accepted. Nothing is suppressed. But now we have a choice about how to react. We can give energy to the ones, which are useful and skillful and withdraw energy from those which are not."

The Session:

  1. Try and set yourself a minimum time that you want to meditate and try to stick to that as a minimum, but also stop before you get completely tired.
  2. Motivation - to know what you are doing, most Buddhists will start with a refuge prayer, generating bodhicitta (for example using the prayer of the four immeasurables) and the seven-limb prayer (this contains the aspects of respectfulness towards the teachers, making (mental) offerings, admitting one's past mistakes, rejoicing in positive actions, asking the teachers to remain, requesting them to teach and dedicating the practice to full enlightenment). See the example meditations for a set of these prayers.
  3. Calming and clearing the mind - often using a simple (but often not easy) breathing meditation - see below.
  4. Optional for an analytical meditation: take specific object or technique and stay with that - avoid excuses to change the subject.
  5. Conclusion and dedication - to make impression on the mind

In short: meditation is a method to transform ourselves into the person we would like to be; don't forget what you want to be like, therefore we need to set the motivation which gives perseverance in the practice. Keep relaxed, don't push yourself and don't expect great experiences. A dedication at the end directs positive energy towards results.

The Tibetans traditionally advise the '6 Preparatory Practices' prior to the first traditional meditation session of the day:

  1. Sweep and clean the room and arrange the altar.
  2. Make offerings on the altar, e.g. light, food, incense, water bowls, etc..
  3. Sit in a comfortable position and examine your mind. If there is much distraction, do some breathing meditation to calm your mind. Then establish a good motivation. After that, take refuge and generate the altruistic intention by reciting the appropriate prayers.
  4. Visualise the 'merit field' in front of you with your Teachers, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc. If this is too difficult, visualise Shakyamuni Buddha alone and consider him the embodiment of all Buddhas, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community).
  5. Offer the seven limb prayer and do the mandala offering by reciting the prayers.
  6. Make requests to the lineage teachers for inspiration by reciting the requesting prayers. It is also good to review the entire graduated path to enlightenment by reciting for example, "Foundation of All Good Qualities". This helps you to understand the purpose of the particular meditation that you will do in the overall scheme of training the mind in the gradual path. It also plants the seed for you to obtain each realisation of the path.
Who better to teach meditation than Holiness the Dalai Lama?
A number of meditations are collected in the List of Sample Meditations. Top of Article


From Mind Beyond Death by Dzogchen Ponlop:

"We should think about how we can make the best use of our practice so that we get the most out of it in the short time we have in this life. We do not have the leisure of wasting our time here by delaying the benefits of our practice. We have to use these situations as effectively as we can.

Before you begin any practice, first think very carefully about your motivation. When we are engaged in the threefold process of study, contemplation and meditation, we should be very specific, very clear about why we are doing it. We should remind ourselves, "I am doing this to transcend my negative emotions and my ego-clinging." This is a general example of a specific intention. However, to be more precise, we need to consider the unique make-up of our own individual kleshas [intense states of suffering, and ignorance]. Once we have identified our strongest emotion, then we can focus on the practices that will alleviate it. We begin with whichever emotion is strongest for us and then we move on to the next strongest, followed by the next, and so on.

It is important for us to prioritize our practice in this way. We have to keep our intention very clear in all three phases--in our study, in our contemplation and in our meditation. During shamatha or other practices, when thoughts come up, we recall that our purpose is to overcome our disturbing emotions and kleshas. We have to have a sense of willpower or determination in our minds. In order for the remedy to work, we must tell ourselves, "Yes, I am going to transcend this anger. I am going to work with it." Otherwise, if we do not have a clear idea, if we simply sit there with an indefinite or vague intention, then the effect also will be vague. We may have sat for one hour and although that time will not have been wasted, because it was not directed in an intentional way, the experience will not be so sharp, to the point or effective."

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"Just as a writer only learns the spontaneous freedom of expression after years of often gruelling study, and just as the simple grace of a dancer is achieved only with enormous, patient effort, so when you begin to understand where meditation will lead you, you will approach it as the greatest endeavor of your life, one that demands of you the deepest perseverance, enthusiasm, intelligence, and discipline."
Sogyal Rinpoche


Physical pain is a common experience, especially when you are not yet used to the position. Instead of immediately moving at the first note of discomfort, remain seated, do not move and study yourself and the pain. How does pain really feel? Give yourself time to discover and explore the feeling. You can visualise your body as completely empty, or feel remote from the body, as if you are observing yourself from outside. When the pain is very strong and comes every session again, check your posture; experiment if you like to sit on a higher cushion or without, try different positions etc. Also yoga exercises can help a lot. Take a physical brief break by standing up, but try to keep in the meditative state of mind.

"Don't move.
Just die over and over.

Don't anticipate.
Nothing can save you now because you have only this moment.
Not even enlightenment will help you now because there are no other moments.

With no future, be true to yourself and express yourself fully.
Don't move."

Shunryu Suzuki

A note on numbness and 'falling asleep' of the legs

When Westerners first try to sit crossed legged for extended periods, usually we feel a prickling and later numbness in the legs. When unfolding your legs after some time, you may feel considerable discomfort - maybe your legs don't even want to support you for a few seconds. Don't worry about this: contrary to popular belief, this is not caused by a limited blood supply to the legs, which could be very harmful. Instead, this is a sign that nerves have been squashed a while; that is the reason for the prickling sensation; the nerve signals are coming through again. So numbness and 'sleeping' legs are no problem. I have heard occasionally of people damaging their knees while pushing themselves too hard (like can happen in intense Zen retreats) for much too long. If you really feel serious returning pains in the knees during sitting, you may want to go for a different sitting position (if need be a chair) as it is possible to damage your knees if you ignore body signals too much.

Sensual desire, attachment

A common disturbance is being drawn to someone or something; it is often not easy to forget about your lover or a piece of chocolate once the thought has come up. But you can try some of the following: realising that these things are so brief and come with problems attached. Fulfilling one desires is never enough, the next one will come soon. Looking at the reality of the object: a body is really not much more than a bag of skin filled with bones, meat, blood etc., chocolate makes you fat and unhealthy.

Distraction, restlessness, worry

The best way is not to give it attention, notice it but don't get involved. If it persists, usually it helps to add in a short period of breathing meditation as described above. Check with yourself if you are maybe pushing too hard, if so, relax a bit. You can remember that past and future don't exist, there is only the here and now. Restlessness from the past and worry for the future are illusions. Sometimes it helps to get the energy down from the head and to remember belly-breathing or focus on a spot just below the navel. You can also focus on an imagined black spot between the eyebrows. Persistent matters can be given a very short attention and the promise to deal with it later. It may even help to have a pen and paper at hand to make a very short note. However, make sure you don't start to write an essay - then it just becomes an escape from meditation. If everything else fails, try an analytical meditation on the problem or situation that distracts.

"When you are practicing Zazen meditation do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in and go out, it will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears that the something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind and if you are not bothered by waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer...Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise but they are just waves from your own mind, Nothing comes from outside your own mind...If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind."

Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

When we let go of wanting something else to happen in this moment, we are taking a profound step toward being able to encounter what is here now. If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only step from where we are standing. If we don't really know where we are standing - a knowing that directly comes from the cultivation of mindfulness - we may only go in circles, for our efforts and expectations. So, in meditation practice, the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all.
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Lethargy, drowsiness, sleepiness

Remember that death is certain, and this chance for meditation should not be missed. There is only the here and now, past and future are imaginations. Check your motivation for meditating. You can concentrate on a visualised white light between the eyebrows. Take a couple of deep breaths. If you are really tired, take a rest and continue later.

Despite of all these problems, do not let yourself get discouraged to easily; meditation is about habituation, so it may take a while to get used to. Don't condemn yourself when a session did not go well, rather try to find the cause and avoid it next time.

"Cultivating the mind is very much like cultivating a crop. A farmer must know the proper way to prepare the soil, sow the seed, tend to the growth of the crop, and finally harvest it. If all these tasks are done properly, the farmer will reap the best harvest that natures allows. If they're done improperly, an inferior harvest will be produced, regardless of the farmer's hopes and anxieties.
Similarly, in terms of meditation it is crucial to be thoroughly versed in the proper method of our chosen technique. While engaged in the practice, we must frequently check up to see whether we are implementing the instructions we have heard and conceptually understood. Like a good crop, good meditation cannot be forced, and requires cultivation over time."
B. Alan Wallace from Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up

Depression caused by meditation on suffering

"In discursive (analytical) meditations it is imperative that one's growing disenchantment with mundane existence is complemented with growing confidence in the real possibility of true freedom and lasting joy that transcends the vicissitudes of conditioned existence. Without this faith and the yearning for such liberation, the meditations may easily result in profound depression, in which everything seems hollow, unreal, and futile. Thus instead of polarizing one's desires towards the single-pointed pursuit of nirvana, one is reduced to a debilitating kind of spiritual sloth."
From Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention by B. Alan Wallace

Having mentioned this, I don't think this actually happens very often. Strange enough, dealing with our problems in life and giving them full attention in meditation will often provide a bit more space and clarity, away from worries and leading towards ways of dealing with them. I find that usually the not-dealing with our problems causes long-term frustrating and depressing situations.

Remember that we cannot avoid problems, but we can change our reaction to them. Be kind to yourself!

"So don't be in a hurry and try to push or rush your practice.
Do your meditation gently and gradually step by step.
In regard to peacefulness, if you become peaceful, then accept it;
if you don't become peaceful, then accept that also.
That's the nature of the mind.
We must find our our own practice and persistently keep at it."
Ajahn Chah, 'Bodhinyana'

Not too tight, not too lose.

The monk Sona came to the Buddha with a question on why he was not having success in his practice, the Buddha answered (adapted from Anguttara Nikaya by Nyanaponika Thera):

"Tell me, Sona, in earlier days were you not skilled in playing stringed music on a lute?"
"Yes, Lord."
"And, tell me, Sona, when the strings of that lute were too taut, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"
"Certainly not, O Lord."
"And when the strings of your lute were too loose, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"
"Certainly not, O Lord."
"But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound and was it easily playable?"
"Certainly, O Lord."
"Similarly, Sona, if energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax, it will lead to lassitude. Therefore, Sona, keep your energy in balance and balance the Spiritual Faculties and in this way focus your intention."

I can't meditate.

Beginners with meditation often get the feeling that they can't meditate; "I meditate for a week now, and still see no change", "I can't control my mind", "My mind is only getting crazier, I cannot get rid of my problems and thoughts".
To briefly comment on these in order:

  • Meditation requires patience - a few sessions will not undo a lifetime of opposite habits of excitement and confusion.
  • None of us can control our mind unless we train ourselves to do it - have you ever seen anyone playing the violin nicely without practice?
  • If it seems that our mind is getting worse, it usually means we just see our 'madness' better than before - the first step towards success!

A story by Master Shen-Yen (from Ch'an Newsletter July 1982):

"The purpose of cultivation is not to seek anything, but to discover the faults in our character and behavior. By opening ourselves to self-investigation, we hope to find out where our problems lie, and if, after searching within ourselves, we can see these faults and problems, this in itself is the fruit of the practice.
A woman on the last retreat said that the more she tries to get away from her faults, the stronger they seem to become. And the more she thinks about it, and wonders why she can't get rid of them, the more she gets disgusted with herself. She said, "Probably I just don't have the ability to practice meditation. A good practitioner is able to throw out their problems while practicing, and I'm not." At that time, I was standing up, and the light above cast a shadow of my body on the wall. I asked: "When I am standing still, is the shadow moving?" She said, "No." Then I walked slowly away, and the shadow followed me along. I walked quickly and the shadow kept pace with me. No matter how I tried, I could not get rid of it. Only if you turn the light out, or make your body disappear, will your shadow go away. Just like the shadow, our problems stick to our "self." Wherever there is a self, there must also be problems. But if you were to say, then, "I want to throw away my 'self'," that "I" who wants to get rid of the self indicates that the self is still there. This would amount to the self trying to throw away the self, which is impossible to accomplish. It would be just like trying to get rid of the shadow if your body is still there. If there is a subject, there is definitely an object. This being the case, is cultivation of any use? Of course it is, since we cultivate to discover our problems. Recognizing your problems shows you have made progress. Desiring to rid yourself of these problems may he a good sign, but actually that is not how we should approach it. The method of practice does not consist in throwing them out, but rather in decreasing the sense of self until it becomes so light that the problems will naturally disappear."

A mini-poem that catches a lot of the essence (unknown source):

"Too young to meditate...
Too bad to meditate...
Too in love to meditate...
Too busy to meditate...
Too worried to meditate...
Too sick to meditate...
Too excited to meditate...
Too tired to meditate...
Too late to meditate! "

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"After meditation, do not allow the feeling of resting evenly to dissipate, no matter what form of activity you engage in. Continually foster the feeling of knowing that all appearances, yourself, others, inanimate or animate, appear though they seem to be nothing - be like a child of illusion."
From: 'The Great Path of Awakening' by Jamgon Kongtrul

"Be on guard against thinking of Enlightenment as a thing to be grasped at,
lest it, too, should become an obstruction."
The Buddha

"Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help."
Thich Nhat Hanh

Return to What is Buddhism Index of Articles


The Five Aggregates
The Mind as our Software
Clear-light Mind
51 Mental factors:
- 5 omnipresent
- 5 determinative
- 4 variable
- 11 virtuous
- 26 non-virtuous
- 20 secondary non-virtuous

Religion does not mean just precepts, a temple, monastery, or other external signs,
for these as well as hearing and thinking are subsidiary factors in taming the mind.
When the mind becomes the practices, one is a practitioner of religion,
and when the mind does not become the practices one is not.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 'Deity Yoga'

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Understanding the functioning of our mind forms the basis of Buddhist philosophy and practice; as the first verse of the Dhammapada (quotations from the Buddha) states:

"All things are preceded by the mind, led by the mind, created by the mind."

Similarly, in the Abidharma (the earliest attempt at a systematic representation of Buddhist philosophy and psychology), the world is regarded as a phenomena originating in the mind.

Mind is defined in Buddhism as a non-physical phenomenon which perceives, thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment.

The mind is described as having two main aspects: clarity and knowing; meaning that the mind is clear, formless and allows for objects to arise in it, and that the mind is knowing, an awareness, a consciousness which can engage with objects.

"What is the mind? It is a phenonmenon that is not body, not substantial, has no form, no shape, no color, but, like a mirror, can clearly reflect objects."
Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The two main types of mind are explained as the conceptual and the non-conceptual. The conceptual is the "normal" mind aspect we use to survive in daily life, but is ultimately mistaken about the way in which reality exists. The non-conceptual type of mind is also called the Buddha nature, rigpa (Tib.), fundamental pure nature of mind which realises emptiness (see the page on Wisdom).

Study and training the mind in wisdom uses the conceptual mind, like preparing the mind before the underlying non-conceptual Buddha-nature of the mind can appear.
In Buddhist psychology, much emphasis is given to the so-called delusions, which we need to diminish and ultimately even eliminate for spiritual progress.

An over 1800 year old 'one-liner' by Nagarjuna:
"Without the discipline of guarding the mind, what use are any other disciplines?"

Ayya Khema:

"In Pali, heart and mind are one word (citta), but in English we have to differentiate between the two to make the meaning clear.
When we attend to the mind, we are concerned with the thinking process and the intellectual understanding that derives from knowledge, and with our ability to retain knowledge and make use of it.
When we speak of "heart" we think of feelings and emotions, our ability to respond with our fundamental being.
Although we may believe that we are leading our lives according to our thinking process, that is not the case. If we examine this more closely, we will find that we are leading our lives according to our feelings and that our thinking is dependent upon our feelings. The emotional aspect of ourselves is of such great importance that its purification is the basis for a harmonious and peaceful life, and also for good meditation."

For more information on counteracting these delusions, like anger and attachment, see the pages on delusions.

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A 'person' can be described as a number of phenomena into a single working unit. In Western philosophy, one usually refers to Body, Mind and (sometimes) Soul or Spirit. In Buddhism, the Five Aggregates (Skandhas in Skt.) are used to analyse a person. Please note that the terminology can be confusing, as e.g. the term 'Feeling' refers to something very specific here: :

  1. Form - the body (rupa Skt.)
  2. Primary Consciousness or Perception - the five sense consciousnesses (smell, touch, taste, seeing and hearing) and mental consciousness, in other words, direct perception (samjna Skt.)
  3. Feeling - this refers only to the mental separation of perceptions into pleasant, unpleasant and neutral (nothing more). (vedana in Skt.)
  4. Recognition, Consciousness, Discrimination or Distinguishing Awareness - in many ways similar to the discriminating intellect which makes us realise the difference between a chair and a flower. (vijnana in Skt.)
  5. Compositional Factors, Volition - these are all other remaining mental processes, in general "thoughts". (samskara Skt.)

To begin with, it is interesting to see that four out of five aggregates are concerning the mind, and they do not directly correspond to the divisions made in Western psychology at all. Furthermore, the distinctions in Buddhist psychology are made from the point of view of how to obtain liberation and buddhahood; certainly not to figure out how 'the brain works'.

Simply said, in Buddhism, the brain is regarded as a part of the body where many of the instructions of the mind are led to the other parts of the body, it is not regarded as the 'factory of thoughts'; thoughts are purely a function of the (non-physical) mind.

"From contact comes feeling.
From feeling comes reaction.
This is what keeps us in the cycle of birth and death.
Our reactions to our feelings are our passport to rebirth."
Ayya Khema

To use a simple example of how this works, let's say: something touches our hand:

  • - This is physical contact, and (as we know from Western science) our nerve cells pick up the movement of the skin, and translate it into energy (more subtle part of the Body).
  • - This energy is then picked up by Primary Consciousness/Perception, which is an aspect of the mind, in Buddhism, this is actually called the Contact (see below as the 5th. Omnipresent Mental Factor); the contact between the physical and the mental aspects.
  • - Next, the mental process of Feeling evaluates the Perception and decides it to be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  • - Simultaneously, Recognition/Discrimination gets to work in finding out what the thing is touching my hand, is it pressure or heat, etc. and is it related to other information; maybe I see a table near my hand and consider it likely that my hand must be touching the table.
  • - Based on the Feeling and Discrimination, the mind creates the Compositional Factors/Volition, which are for example, the reaction to the hand to withdraw if it is unpleasant, an instruction to the eyes to check what is touching the hand, possibly projections/thoughts like 'it must be this bothersome fly again' or 'I am touching the table I am walking past' etc.
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To illustrate the Buddhist approach to the mind, let us compare our body and mind to a computer. In this simile, the body is the hardware and the mind is the software.
As mentioned above, the mind is defined as a non-physical phenomena which perceives, thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment, not unlike computer software.

Although software needs to be imprinted or registered in something like the hard-drive before it can do anything, in itself, a program represents a lot of thinking by the software manufacturer. Without software (mind), the hardware (body) is just a 'dead thing'. The hardware (body) is of course important in what the computer can do; how fast it is, which programs can be run, and how the computer can interact with the world. However good the hardware is, it can ultimately only perform what the program 'knows'. The hardware can get damaged, or even 'die', and the software can be moved onto another set of hardware; not unlike rebirth!

The software needs to use the 'senses' of the hardware, like the keyboard, the mouse, a video camera, a modem etc. to receive 'input'; just like the mind needs the senses the receive the 'input' of the outside world.

This leads to an important observation: it is easy to recognise that a computer is not 'objective' about the world; depending on what kind of video camera, microphone or modem we connect it to, the input will be different. Similarly, our bodily senses cannot really be objective: people's ears are different, the eyes are different etc., so how can someone ever claim to be an 'objective observer'? Above and beyond that lies the software; the more advanced this is, the more 'intelligent' it will be able to read the world and determine what is the best thing to do. Similarly, the more advanced our mind is, the more intelligent and wise we will be, providing we are not hampered by serious physical problems. As the software actually determines what the hardware does, so is the mind the master of the body - within the physical limitations of the body. But the Buddha made it clear that a human body is the best type of available hardware!

There are limits to the development of the hardware; for example, the amount of electrical circuits on chips is getting larger and larger, but there are physical limits which the developers encounter. With the software, the limit appears to be much less clear; the first types of computers behaved with the intelligence of an on/off switch, but already they can beat a grandmaster at chess and nobody can say where it will end. Similarly, Buddhism teaches that there is no real limit to the development of our mind, and in fact omniscience is possible. At that stage, all our normal values and concepts dissolve as limited and non-objective. Buddhism encourages us to develop the software of our mind to enter into a different state which is beyond limitations, suffering and problems.

The method to develop our mind is summarised as study and meditation. Initially, we need to understand how the programs of our mind work and how they can be improved, and then do the reprogramming in meditation. This is why psychology and meditation are so important.

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In Tibetan Buddhism, often the so-called 'clear-light mind' is mentioned. This is the most subtle level of mind (see also death & rebirth), which we are normally not even aware of. It appears to the very advanced meditator and during the death process, but in this case, also only advanced meditators will be able to notice it. It is a non-conceptual, 'primordial' state of mind.

From a talk given by HH Dalai Lama. Oct. 11-14, 1991 New York City. Path of Compassion teaching preliminary to Kalachakra:

Question: When people hear of luminosity of clear light that dawns at the moment of death they ask why it is called clear light. What has this got to do with light as we know it?

Dalai Lama:

"I don't think that in the term clear light, light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realisation of Buddhahood, Buddha's wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light. Clear light is a state of mind which becomes fully manifest only as a consequence of certain sequences or stages of dissolution, where the mind becomes devoid of certain types of obscurations, which are again metaphorically described in terms of sun-like, moonlike and darkness. These refer to the earlier three stages of dissolution which are technically called, including the clear light stage, the four empties. At the final stage of dissolution the mind is totally free of all these factors of obscuration. Therefore it is called clear light. Sort of a light. It is also possible to understand the usage of the term clear light in terms of the nature of mind itself. Mind or consciousness is a phenomena which lacks any obstructive quality. It is non-obstructed."

A teaching from Venerable Ajahn Chah (Pra Bhodinyana Thera):

"About this mind... In truth there is nothing really wrong with it. It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it's already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. The real mind doesn't have anything to it, it is simply (an aspect of) Nature. It becomes peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid. Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness and sorrow, but the mind's true nature is none of those things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things, it forgets itself. Then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.

But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful... really peaceful! Just like a leaf which is still as long as no wind blows. If a wind comes up the leaf flutters. The fluttering is due to the wind -- the 'fluttering' is due to those sense impressions; the mind follows them. If it doesn't follow them, it doesn't 'flutter.' If we know fully the true nature of sense impressions we will be unmoved.

Our practice is simply to see the Original Mind. So we must train the mind to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them. To make it peaceful. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through."

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