Category Archives: Buddhism

Understanding Buddhism, Part I: The Diversity of Buddhist Practice

As I wrote in my critique of Todd May’s Death there are some misconceptions about Buddhism and its philosophy and practices that are widespread in Western sources.  Much of this is probably due to the works on Buddhism produced by Western scholars in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, which viewed Buddhism through a colonialist lens, with everything they perceived being positioned against a Judeo-Christian conception of reality.  These sources often viewed Buddhism as a nihilistic faith, a perception that would have been proven false had they engaged more deeply with Buddhist literature.  

Today, misconceptions of Buddhism have taken some additional forms, often inspired by a modern view of Buddhism as a ‘philosophy’ more than a religion.  There is a tendency to view Buddhists as largely secular, rational thinkers — introspective scientists probing the depths of the human mind.  Figures like the Dalai Lama present to us as benign, kindly monks promoting generally-acceptable ideas like the power of compassion, and they explicitly support other types of spirituality rather than positioning Buddhism as the One True Path.  As a consequence we believe that Buddhism sits comfortably within our Western materialist tradition, and some even go so far as to propose that core Buddhist concepts like rebirth and karma are metaphors rather than actual beliefs.  This way of thinking has led to the rise of Secular Buddhism, spearheaded by writers like Stephen Batchelor. 

Adding to the confusion, millions of people now practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — essentially Buddhist meditation stripped of all of its wider context; this further colours our perceptions, leading some to confuse these reduced practices with the whole of Buddhism.  In positioning Buddhism in this way we implicitly deny many centuries of Buddhist scholarship, the importance of esoteric practices and mysticism in Buddhism, and the deeply-rooted cultural influences that give each regional expression of the Buddha’s teachings their own vibrant traditions.

As another outgrowth of my own studies of Buddhist history, philosophy and practice, I decided to start putting together a summary of some common misconceptions about Buddhism found frequently in popular culture and Western scholarship.  I hope this may be useful for some of you out there who are interested in Buddhist traditions and practices, but mainly it will serve as a living reference document for myself, as my own understanding of Buddhism continues to evolve and deepen over time (hopefully).

Before I get started, a note about style.  When speaking of concepts drawn from the teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the Sutta Tipitaka, I will use terminology from the Pali language in which the suttas (sutras) were written.  When speaking of Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, I will use terminology derived from Sanskrit, as these terms are more commonly used in these contexts.  This is primarily for my own convenience, so that on later readings and edits I can quickly identify what sources are being discussed in any given passage.

One more note about books on the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), since I recommend a number of these below.  Traditionally any book containing the Buddha’s words or any Buddhist teachings should be treated with particular respect.  Such books should not be placed on the floor or stepped over, have other books or objects placed on top of them, and they should be kept on high shelves and preferably away from non-Dharma books.  When reading them, you should only do so while sitting upright or standing.  Whether you do all this or not is up to you, there are no Dharma Police to arrest you and there are no gods in Buddhism around to punish you, but just bear this in mind in case you have visits from serious Buddhists someday, who may notice this kind of thing.

Before getting to the misconceptions themselves, in this first article I’ll quickly summarise the major Buddhist traditions and their differences.  I will provide much more specific details here than in my previous introductory article on Buddhist thought and meditation.  In the second part of this series, we’ll build on these foundations and explore some common misconceptions about Buddhism.

Just to lay out my position up front: throughout these articles, I will make an argument that capital-B Buddhism is built on a foundation of an incredibly comprehensive, internally-consistent philosophy, and that anything we call ‘Buddhism’ must include, at a minimum, a coherent subset of that philosophy.  The Buddha himself urged his followers not to be fanatics, and to test all his statements using their own critical faculties; so in that respect, there is nothing wrong with being a Secular Buddhist, or with being a Christian who practices mindfulness meditation, or whatever else.  Problems do arise when we claim that these patchwork Buddhist practices *are* capital-B Buddhism, or that our own interpretation of Buddhist thought is the correct one, and that we have some special insight into the Buddha’s teachings that 2,500 years of Buddhist scholarship somehow missed.  Ultimately I feel we need to re-examine how Buddhism is taught in the West; have more respect for the Buddhist scholars who precede us; and make more efforts to learn how Buddhism is actually practiced by the cultures in which it thrives, rather than simply presenting it as an abstract philosophical framework.

The Buddhist Path to Liberation

Many of us, Buddhist or not, are familiar with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama is an incredibly charismatic person, and has single-handedly made the world aware of the fraught political situation in Tibet and has helped spread Tibetan Buddhism across the world.  His influence is so pervasive that many non-Buddhists perceive him as a sort of Buddhist Pope.

In reality, of course, there is no Buddhist Pope.  Buddhism takes many different forms in the numerous countries where it is practiced, and the Dalai Lama is connected only to Tibetan Buddhism.  Within the Tibetan context, the Dalai Lama comes from the Gelug tradition, which historically has been the most powerful and influential of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, but there are several other schools that have existed for just as long (or longer) and which have significant differences in how they practice compared to the Gelugpas.  

Before we dig deep into the complexities of Buddhist thought, we should start by clarifying what types of Buddhism exist, and develop some basic concepts of how each of these traditions view the teachings of the Buddha and the nature of existence.  In this way we can better appreciate the incredible diversity of Buddhist life in different traditions, and better understand how evolutionary steps in Buddhist doctrine have lead to very different approaches to practice.  Buddhism is traditionally divided into three ‘vehicles’, each of which builds on the foundation of the previous and extends it with new philosophical concepts and practices; below I will describe each of these vehicles in turn.

chaing-mai-buddha

A huge statue of the Buddha in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Early Buddhism (previously called ‘Hinayana’):

The first ‘vehicle’ in Buddhism is Early Buddhism, formerly known as Hinayana (‘the Lesser Vehicle’), which follows the original teachings of the Buddha as laid out in the very extensive suttas (sutras, or discourses) given by the Buddha during his lifetime, and subsequently recorded in the Tipitaka, which were written in the ancient Pali language.  These suttas focus primarily on the Buddha’s fundamental realisations about the nature of suffering, which he codified in the Four Noble Truths, and his prescription for ending suffering, The Noble Eightfold Path.  The early Buddhist practitioner seeks to become an arahant, an enlightened being who perceives the true nature of existence, is free of the ignorance that leads to suffering, and will reach nibbana (nirvana) and thus ultimate freedom from suffering at the end of their life.

Core philosophical concepts:

The Buddha’s original teachings gave us the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s explanation of the nature of human suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path, his prescription for ending that suffering and achieving nibbana (nirvana).  The Four Noble Truths can be expressed as follows:

  1. Suffering (dukkha) is an innate characteristic of existence in samsara.
  2. Suffering is due to attachment and desire — the desire for pleasure; the desire for existence; and the desire for non-existence.
  3. Suffering can be ended, by ending this attachment and desire.
  4. The way to end suffering is to practice the Noble Eightfold Path.

So, dukkha arises due to our desire for identity and constancy in a world that is constantly changing, and this desire and attachment causes us to perpetuate this suffering, in the form of continued existence in samsara — the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth that all sentient beings experience.  Samsara leads to endless suffering, as each rebirth is doomed to eventually age, decline, and die, only to start all over again.  By cutting off this desire and attachment, and by curing our ignorance of the nature of reality, we can end this suffering and free ourselves from cyclic existence.

The nature of each rebirth is determined by our kamma (karma), which is the only aspect of each life that persists to the next; in Buddhism each rebirth is a separate being and consciousness from the preceding one, as there is no soul or essence that transfers over (as would be the case in Hindu reincarnation, for example).  Kamma is understood as a cause-and-effect process; bad actions lead to suffering, good actions lead to a reduction of suffering.  Kamma is not a divine judgment on our behaviour imposed from outside, but instead exists in the outcomes generated by our actions that affect the world around us.  The only beings that may change our kamma are ourselves, by understanding the action of kamma and following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path provides the eight means by which we end craving and attachment:

  1. Right View — we must understand the functioning of kamma and the nature of dukkha (the Four Noble Truths), and avoid holding views of existence which enable attachment and craving.
  2. Right Intention — we must cultivate an intention of renunciation (abandoning craving), an intention of good will (metta, loving-kindness), and an intention of harmlessness (a compassionate wish that all beings be free of suffering).
  3. Right Speech — we must not lie, speak unkindly, or use our words to cause discord and suffering.
  4. Right Action — we must not kill or injure others, steal anything which is not ours, or engage in sexual misconduct (abuse, adultery, assault, etc.).
  5. Right Livelihood — we must earn our living legally, peacefully, without coercion or violence, and without trickery and deceit.  Our livelihood must not cause suffering for others.
  6. Right Effort — we must abandon our existing unwholesome mental states, and prevent the arising of other unwholesome mental states.  We must maintain and perfect our wholesome mental states, and generate wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen.
  7. Right Mindfulness — we must cultivate serenity and insight in the mind through the contemplation of the four foundations of mindfulness: the body; feelings; states of mind; and phenomena.
  8. Right Concentration — we must cultivate single-pointed mental concentration, progressing through four successive stages of increasing meditative absorption called the jhanas.

Note that the Noble Eightfold Path contains three elements focussed on meditational practice — Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration — but the rest of the path consists of actions we must take in everyday life and in our relationships with other people.  So the image occasionally presented of the Buddhist as a detached, cold, robotic meditator is not accurate; Buddhists must cultivate positive actions and qualities in all aspects of life, as well as within their minds.  Part of the path is to demonstrate good will and compassion for others, as well as refining our internal mental states.  The Noble Eightfold Path must be practiced in its entirety if one wants to achieve liberation.

The truth of suffering in Early Buddhism leads us to the three marks of existence: dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self).  Dukkha is the concept that all existence leads to suffering, due to our fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality and our grasping for solidity and changelessness in a world forever in flux.  Anicca is the concept that everything is impermanent and subject to decay and dissolution; on a human level we experience this as the reality of mortality, that all of us are born, will age and decline, and eventually die.  Anicca extends this to all things, including our own thoughts, which continually arise and disappear again from moment to moment.  Finally, anatta denies the existence of a permanent self.  This means not only that humans, and all sentient beings, do not have a permanent, changeless essence like a soul, but also that our perception of self is fundamentally illusory.  We perceive single unified selves, but in fact each of us is a constantly-changing bundle of perceptions interacting with the world, and on a fundamental level all phenomena are dependently arisen — they are the consequences of the interactions of various causes and conditions, rather than singular entities with an independent, absolute existence.

In modern times some Western scholars choose to believe that the Buddha talked about rebirth symbolically, but this is definitely not the case.  The suttas are nothing if not scrupulously clear, and whenever rebirth is mentioned it is described carefully and precisely, often with the phrase ‘after death and upon the break-up of the body, [thing happens]’.  Rebirth is very explicitly discussed throughout the suttas as a real process.  Some have argued that the Buddha included rebirth in the suttas simply because that was the default position in India at the time; this is also incorrect, and part of the reason rebirth is described so carefully and extensively in the suttas is that the Buddha’s position was novel and controversial.  Kamma likewise is often misinterpreted as a system of supernatural reward and punishment, but in the suttas it is simply portrayed as cause and effect, a spiritual equivalent to gravity or electromagnetism.  Kamma is determined only by our own actions and is not imposed by outside agencies or deities.   

In the early days of Buddhism, there were 18 schools of Buddhism with varying interpretations of the suttas.  Today only the Theravada tradition remains.  Theravada is widely practised in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, and in the West.  Mahayanists used to refer to Early Buddhism as Hinayana, which literally translates as ‘the Lesser Vehicle’, but today this term is considered derogatory because all three Buddhist ‘vehicles’ are capable of achieving enlightenment for their practitioners, and therefore none can really be characterised as inferior.  I will use the term ‘Early Buddhism’ to refer to the general category of traditions focussing purely on the Pali Canon, and ‘Theravada’ to refer to Early Buddhism how it is actually practiced today.  According to various sources, about one third of all Buddhists in the world today are Theravadins.

Within the Theravada tradition, there is a fairly widespread belief that achieving enlightenment is almost impossible unless one chooses to become a monk or nun.  As a result, in countries dominated by Theravada traditions like Thailand, lay practitioners are extremely reverent of the monastic community, and go to great efforts to pay them respect and help out with donations and so forth.  Many lay Theravada Buddhists focus on cultivating good karma so that they may be reborn as someone who is in a position to become ordained, and thereafter can focus on achieving enlightenment.

However, in the suttas there are prominent lay practitioners who are portrayed as arahants, or at least on the path to arahantship, which suggests that enlightenment is very much still achievable for laypeople with families, homes and jobs.  Naturally, becoming a monk and devoting onself to constant, unceasing practice of the Dharma makes achieving enlightenment much easier, but the suttas do suggest that laypeople can become enlightened as well.  This is also very much the case in the Mahayana sutras and the tantras; the Mahayana sutras feature numerous laypeople who are portrayed as just as wise as enlightened monks, and the history of Buddhist tantra is littered with lay yogis who are revered as enlightened beings.

Recommended Reading: 

In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikku Bodhi: a complete, detailed and readable introduction to the core of the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Suttas.  Perhaps the best introduction to the Pali Canon available today.

The Pali Canon, by the Buddha: the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, includes three parts:

  • Vinaya, a collection of teachings outlining the conditions under which monks and nuns should live.  The Vinaya justifies each rule of conduct in detail, and in essence aims to be a comprehensive document illustrating how a spiritual community should function. 
  • Sutta Pitaka, a huge collection of discourses delivered by the Buddha during his 45 years of teaching.  These are subdivided into various collections called nikayas.  Together they form an extremely clear and internally consistent statement of the core of Buddhist philosophy, and taken as a whole the suttas provide a complete path for liberation from cyclic existence.
  • Abhidhammaa collection of seven books that systematise the principles outlined in the suttas into a staggeringly complex and ambitious framework for analysing all conscious experience.  Reading commentary on these is absolutely essential in order to develop a useful understanding of the dense theories contained here.

All of these texts are freely available to read on Access to Insight or Sutta Central, or in hardcopy form in the series of fantastic hardcover volumes from Wisdom Publications.

Mindfulness in Plain English, by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana: the best guide to insight meditation (vipassana) practised in the Theravada tradition, but equally usable and applicable in all traditions.  The author’s related books on samatha, or single-pointed concentration (Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English), and metta, or loving-kindness meditation (Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta) are equally excellent, and owning these three books will give you a very comprehensive and practical guide to some of the most important meditation practices in Buddhism.

Teachings of the Thai Forest Sangha:  The Thai Forest tradition is quite popular in the West, and at the link you will find a huge collection of free ebooks with teachings from a number of monks in that tradition.  Ajahn Chah is particularly popular, but there’s tonnes of good stuff in there.  I recommend checking out some of these books to get a sense of modern Theravada practice.

Teachings of Thanissaro Bhikku:  Another treasure-trove of Theravada books and essays, including complete translations of the Vinaya and the Sutta Pitaka.  Thanissaro Bhikku is a very good communicator, so again I highly recommend these for some very readable explanations of Theravada philosophy and practice.

For more on Early Buddhist history, check the Buddhology section of the library at A Handful of Leaves, which includes a huge number of free downloadable books.

Tofukuji-Sanmon-M9589

Tofuku-ji, one of the five great Zen temples in Kyoto, Japan.

Mahayana Buddhism:  

Mahayana, like Early Buddhism, evolved in India and is believed to have first arisen around the 1st century CE.  The Mahayana traditions accept the entirely of the Early Buddhist teachings, but add to these numerous additional teachings in the form of the Mahayana Sutras.  The name ‘Mahayana’ means ‘Greater Vehicle’ in Sanskrit, and refers to the fact that Mahayana traditions go beyond seeking purely individual liberation and becoming an arahant.  Instead the Mahayanist strives to become a bodhisattva, a fully-enlightened being that remains in the suffering of cyclic existence (samsara) to help others, until all sentient beings are likewise liberated.  This altruistic motivation was seen by adherents as being of higher aspiration and quality than the individual liberation promoted in Early Buddhism, hence the name Mahayana (and the subsequent disparagement of Early Buddhism through the ‘Hinayana’ label).  In modern times most Mahayanists avoid such statements, and view Early Buddhism/Theravada as a valid path to liberation, and acknowledge the Pali Canon as being central to all Buddhist traditions.

Core philosophical concepts:

The Mahayana sutras build upon the foundations laid by the Tipitaka and incorporate some additional concepts that end up substantially evolving the Buddhist view of reality and mental factors.  However, the Mahayana traditions include a wide range of views, so here I will only outline a couple of critical concepts, and leave some of the finer doctrinal distinctions up to the reader to discover.

The Buddha outlined the concept of dependent origination in the Tipitaka, in which all phenomena arise through the interaction of causes and conditions.  The Mahayana texts extend this concept significantly, and explore the metaphysical consequences of this framework.  The resultant concept of shunyata (emptiness) is hugely important in the Mahayana literature, and has lead to the development of two major interpretations:

  • Madhyamika: Meaning ‘the Middle Way’, this school is largely credited to the incredibly influential texts written by Nagarjuna, great Buddhist scholar and sage (150 – 250 CE).  Nagarjuna used dependent origination to systematically refute any theories that proposed an inherent existence to any phenomena, including the Buddha and the Dharma themselves.  What makes this the ‘Middle Way’ philosophy is that the inherent emptiness of all phenomena does not mean they do not exist at all, but instead proposes that they have no inherent independent existence.  This concept is often presented as a dichotomy between relative existence — for instance, my sofa relatively exists because I can see it with my conceptual mind — and absolute existence, where we cannot find any specific property that absolutely defines a sofa, since they exist only as a confluence of causes and conditions, labelled by our conceptual mind.
  • Yogacara: Attributed to the Indian philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu, Yogacara proposes that all conditioned phenomena have no inherent existence but instead are simply outgrowths of the dependently-originated course of mental phenomena arising and falling.  In other words, external objects only apparently exist, but are in fact generated by mind alone.  For this reason Yogacara is often called the ‘mind-only school’.  This is a significant simplification of course, and numerous alternative interpretations have been proposed.  A ‘mind-only’ approach to existence has some fascinating repercussions when discussing other aspects of Buddhist thought and practice, such as karma and nirvana, so I highly recommend reading more on the topic.

Mahayana also introduces the concept of the tathagatagarbha (lit. ‘essence of the Thus-Gone one’), or the Buddha-Nature.  This idea asserts that all sentient beings share a fundamental nature which allows all of us to become Buddhas.  This stands somewhat in contrast to the Madhyamika philosophy, which focusses so directly on the emptiness of all phenomena, and some have proposed that tathagatagarbha edges perilously close to endowing all sentient beings with an independently-existing ‘self’ of sorts, which of course would go against the word of the Buddha himself.  In practice the tathagatagarbha serves more as a positive and hopeful expression of the capacity for all beings to achieve Buddha-hood, and suggests that we all may glimpse this fundamental purity of all beings when we clear our minds of defilements and obstacles.  Key sutras for further reading include the Tathagatagarbha Sutras, Nirvana Sutra, and Uttaratantra Sutra. 

Prominent Mahayana traditions:

Perhaps the most well-known Mahayana tradition for most Westerners is Zen Buddhism, a Japanese school of Buddhism that originated from Ch’an Buddhism in China, which was heavily influenced by Daoist philosophies.  Zen practice emphasises rigorous meditational practices, namely zazen (seated meditation) and shinkantaza (‘just sitting’, a form of meditation aimed at emptying the mind and not using any meditation object), and challenging one’s perceptions via koan practice (stories or questions designed to test a student’s understanding).  Zen practitioners generally value examination of mind and the nature of existence through direct experience above all;  encyclopaedic knowledge of doctrine and sutras is often de-emphasised in Zen practice.  Zen is said to be one of Japan’s largest cultural exports, and has had significant influence on Western popular culture. 

These days we tend to use ‘Zen’ as a term expressing a sort of ‘going with the flow’, but in reality Zen practice is very disciplined and often heavily ritualised (at least this tends to be the case in Japanese Zen centres, less so in Western ones).  Zen appears in two varieties: Rinzai, a school of Zen that focusses more on zazen, koans, and is known for being quite severe (as in, expect to be hit with a stick if you don’t sit properly); and Soto, which emphasises shinkantaza and is generally more accessible and a bit less formalised.  The experiential and minimalist approach of Zen has made it remarkably popular with Western practitioners, and its undeniable results lead to it being highly respected by other Buddhist traditions as well.

Of particular note is the Plum Village community of globally famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  Plum Village is a community of engaged Buddhists who reinforce the importance of expressing loving-kindness for others through charitable works.  Thich Nhat Hanh is very good at communicating the Buddha’s words to Westerners; in particular his book on the life of the Buddha Old Path, White Clouds, and his summary of Mahayana principles The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching are worth reading.  Plum Village is of course inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese Zen (Thiền) background, but has adopted its practices very skilfully to make them more compatible with Western lifestyles.  Some argue that Plum Village is perhaps too Western-friendly, and honestly I agree to an extent, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s expressions of Buddhist thought, mindfulness and compassion are superb even if I differ with him on some finer points.  

Alongside Zen and its variants, there are numerous Mahayana schools that developed in China, Korean, Vietnam and elsewhere; far too many to name here.  My experience of the Mahayana is largely defined by my experience of Zen and Zen-adjacent practices, so I will refrain from saying too much about other traditions.  Tibetan Buddhism is often referred to as Mahayana, but generally is classified separately as Vajrayana due to the focus on tantric practices.

Recommended Reading:

Mahayana Buddhism — The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams:  This excellent book summarises all the key points of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine and practice in detail, with exhaustive notes.  Highly recommended as a broad overview of the core of these traditions.

Mahayana Sutras:  There are hundreds of Mahayana sutras, and many of them are exceedingly long, so I do not recommend necessarily trying to read all of them unless you are seriously motivated.  However there are a few categories of sutras that are very valuable in terms of understanding Mahayana doctrine, and also are full of fascinating imagery and astounding cosmologies filled with Buddhas, bodhisattvas and their Buddha-fields.  For background on the bodhisattva ideals and the six virtues, check out the Prajnaparamita Sutras.  The Lotus Sutra is widely considered one of the most important sutras in East Asian Mahayana, and states that all paths in Buddhism eventually lead to Buddha-hood.  The Yogacara Sutras are critical for understanding the Yogacarin view of reality (unsurprisingly).  The Tathagatagarbha Sutras expound on the Buddha-Nature inherent to all sentient beings.  The lengthy Vimalakirti Sutra expresses numerous critical concepts in the Mahayana, including emptiness and the non-dual nature of phenomena, and explores them via debates between various powerful beings and the lay practitioner Vimalakirti.  This is possibly my favourite sutra.  A close second would be the Surangama Sutra, which is well over 400 pages long but covers an enormous amount of ground, from Buddha-Nature to 50 mental states that interfere with meditation and all kinds of other stuff.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindby Shunryu Suzuki:  This was one of the first books I read about Zen proper, and I still believe it’s an excellent first book on Zen thought and practice.  This book to me epitomises the Zen approach — austere, minimalistic, and focussed on developing wisdom through the practice of zazen.

Shobogenzoby Eihei Dogen (1200-1253):  The Shobogenzo is the masterwork of Eihei Dogen, father of the Soto Zen school.  This is a very long (1100+ pages) and deeply challenging work, so perhaps not for Zen beginners, but certainly should be read at some point by anyone with a substantial interest in the tradition.  Numerous commentaries and teachings on the text are available as well.  Dogen’s work is dense, poetic, and challenging, but it also expresses non-dual awareness and the experience of impermanence better than anything else I have read.  Well worth reading and contemplating.  Many Shobogenzo experts prefer the Gudo Nishijima translation, which is available in hardcopy or as 4 free PDF volumes from BDK America.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana, also referred to as Mantrayana or Secret Mantra, is the third ‘vehicle’ of Buddhist practices for achieving enlightenment.  The vajra is a powerful, mythical weapon found in the ancient Indian vedas, and is said to be indestructible, so Vajrayana is sometimes translated as ‘the Diamond Vehicle’ or ‘Indestructible Vehicle’.  Vajrayana is most associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though it also appears in other traditions such as Shingon Buddhism in Japan.  The Vajrayana builds on the foundations of the two previous vehicles — Early Buddhism and Mahayana — and incorporates all of their core ideas, but further extends on these concepts, particularly in relation to the tathagatagarbha (Buddha-Nature).

Practitioners of Vajrayana follow the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path (like Theravadins), and they aspire to be a bodhisattva and take vows to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings (like Mahayanists), but they add to this a substantial, intricate body of esoteric ritual designed to achieve Buddha-hood far faster than the Theravada or Mahayana.  Indeed, Vajrayana is said to be able to lead to enlightenment in a single lifetime, whereas becoming a bodhisattva in a Mahayana context may take ‘three incalculable eons’ (Buddhism loves talking about extremely long periods of time).  Vajrayana practitioners achieve this by following the teachings of the tantras, Buddhist texts laden with symbolism and unusual, often transgressive practices.  Tantric practices diverge from more traditional Buddhist practices by embracing mental states and behaviours normally considered negative — anger, desire, intoxication — and harnessing those states to generate realisations.  As stated in the Hevajra Tantra:

“Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence.”

Origins of Tantra

The true origins of tantra are shrouded in mystery.  The earliest Buddhist tantras appeared in around the 7th century CE, with most of those early texts focussed on the use of mantras and rituals to generate useful real-world consequences.  In the 8th and 9th centuries, the tantras developed toward higher ends, aiming to harness our innate Buddha-Nature and reach enlightenment at breakneck speed.  The Kalachakra Tantra, an incredibly comprehensive text that includes detailed descriptions of mystical cosmologies and astrological practices along with tantric ritual, appeared around the 10th century.  The Dalai Lama has given numerous initiations into Kalachakra Tantra practices for very large audiences.

According to Tibetan Buddhist scholars, Vajrayana was actually taught in secret by the Buddha himself to his closest disciples, and was kept hidden from the wider world until Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, revealed the tantric teachings in Tibet in the 8th century.  Some Tibetan historians claim that the appearance of Padmasambhava was foretold by the Buddha; others claim Padmasambhava was himself a reincarnation of the Buddha.  Academic historians question the veracity of these claims, of course, and propose that the Buddhist tantras emerged gradually from around the 1st century CE as an evolution of earlier Vedic practices.

Some Buddhist scholars have developed a narrative for how the Buddha may have taught the tantras during his lifetime.  They claim that the concepts and methods outlined in tantra likely derived from earlier practices, which the Buddha would have experimented with during his long search for enlightenment.  Tantra by nature is esoteric and kept secret by practitioners, and while Tibetan tantric practices are widely known today, some tantric practices are still highly secretive and virtually unknown to outsiders (as in Shingon Buddhism).  This suggests that the Buddha’s disciples may indeed have been able to keep tantric teachings secret for centuries after his death.  So if we accept these premises, perhaps it is possible that the Buddha may have developed tantric methods, transmitted them secretly, and left his later disciplines to determine when the time was right to reveal them.  Textual evidence is hard to decipher and nearly impossible to date, so quite possibly we may never be able to prove or disprove this account or the academic historical account.

In any case, there are numerous tantric texts and systems in evidence today, with around 3,000 tantric texts currently in the Tibetan canon.  Tantra remains a hugely active area of study and practice, and with Tibetan Buddhism having now spread across the globe, it is quite possible there are more tantric Buddhist students and practitioners now than at any other time in history.

Tantric practices

Tantric practices and texts are esoteric, meaning that many of them are not accessible to the average student of Buddhism.  Aspirants must be initiated into these practices by qualified teachers, gurus, who hold direct connections to lineages of tantric transmission going back centuries.  Traditionally these practices are kept secret so as to avoid damaging unprepared minds; tantric practices are considered very powerful, and require in-depth knowledge of complex symbolism and difficult philosophical concepts in order to be practiced correctly.  If someone practices tantra without the appropriate instructions and guidance, they may inadvertently create bad karmic results for themselves or others, including their guru.  Tantric texts themselves are typically very dense and cryptic, and often intentionally obscure their meanings with coded statements and metaphor, making them incomprehensible without the guidance of a guru.

Secrecy in tantra is further upheld by the vows taken by initiates called samaya.  Samaya requires that initiates undertake specific practices transmitted by the guru during the initiation in order for the practice to stay effective, and further demands that the initiate maintain strict spiritual and ethical discipline in perpetuity.  Breaking samaya is said to lead to severe karmic consequences for both the initiate and the guru, so gurus tend to be cautious about giving initiations to students they feel may not be able to keep samaya.  Typically samaya is only required for the two highest levels of tantric practice (there are four levels); for the lower two levels the initiate must take the bodhisattva vows.

Some specific lower-level tantric practices are fairly accessible, and may be practiced by even novice Tibetan Buddhists.  Typically these practices are mantra recitations, visualisation practices, or varieties of deity yoga.  In deity yoga, practitioners visualise themselves as specific enlightened beings in an effort to cultivate characteristics of enlightened beings in themselves.  Initiated tantric Buddhists may conclude these practices by visualising themselves taking the form of the deity directly (‘self generation’), whereas the uninitiated will be restricted to visualising the deity in front of them or on the crown of their head (‘front generation’).

A common question about deity yoga is whether Tibetan Buddhist deities are ‘real’ deities — do they really exist out there, ready to help us refine our minds and achieve liberation?  When we call them to being in our visualisations, are they really appearing in some way, or are we just fooling ourselves?  Most who ask that question end up being dissatisfied by the answer, given that producing an answer requires us to determine what is ‘real’ in Buddhism in general, and for Buddhists all things, including ourselves and the deities, are empty of inherent existence.  Asking if the deities are ‘real’ implies a materialist, dualist framework in which things are either fundamentally existent or non-existent, but Tibetan Buddhist thought doesn’t really support that view.  So perhaps we might just say that the deities are as real, or unreal, as the yogic practitioner — both are empty of inherent existence.  Of course there is a lot more to say on this topic — this is always the case with any topic in Buddhism.

Tantric practices also focus on the visualisation and manipulation of the ‘subtle body’, a complex psycho-spiritual ‘map’ of the body which includes numerous channels that direct energies throughout the body, and points of focus for these energies known as chakras.  The form of the subtle body varies widely between different tantras and practices, and sometimes has the seven chakras we may know from yoga and sometimes not, but in any case it’s not seen as a concrete map of our spiritual form, but instead a collection of useful symbols for aspects of phenomenal experience/consciousness that the tantric practitioner wishes to apprehend and manipulate.

Tantra in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is the most known and most developed tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, with each major Tibetan school incorporating numerous tantric texts and practices.  The intense imagery associated with the Tibetan traditions is derived from tantra, including the trappings used in rituals at all levels of practice, and devotional art like thangkas (detailed images of tantric deities used as an aid to visualisation) and mandalas (maps of the celestial dominions of tantric beings).

For the newcomer to Tibetan Buddhism, first encounters with the intensive ritual practices can be quite intimidating.  We are accustomed to the Dalai Lama and his extremely calm and light-hearted demeanour and his simple robes, so we can quite easily find ourselves taken aback when confronted with imagery like this:

dandapani-mahakala

“Hey what’s up? Don’t mind me, I’m just chillin’, wearing a crown of skulls and a belt of human heads, standing on a fresh corpse, surrounded by an aura of flames. You know, the usual.”

Couple these scary deities with rituals involving intensive chanting, lots of smoke and drums and bells, people waving daggers around, and drinking wine from skulls (yes, really), and it can all come across pretty weird and cult-ish.  But the imagery and ritual objects are not just intended for shock value — they are dense with layers of symbolism, and are all defined in reference to core concepts of Buddhist philosophy.  So in the image above, the deity’s crown of five skulls represents mastery of the Five Buddha Families; his flaming aura represents the light of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings); the corpse under his feet represents his conquering of attachment; and so on.  By visualising oneself as this being, with precise and detailed knowledge of all the qualities it represents, tantric practitioners believe we can cultivate these enlightened qualities within ourselves.  Similarly, mantra repetition cultivates states of mind that are receptive to the Dharma; prostrating ourselves repeatedly in front of symbolic deities generates humility, and so on.

All told, Tibetan Buddhism is quite a bit more Extreme Death Metal Buddhism than most outsiders commonly expect — ‘I just wanted a chill meditation session, what’s with all the skulls?!’  But this transgressive imagery and practice is the core of the tantras, where enlightenment can be reached not only by cultivating knowledge of suffering and non-self and the nature of emptiness, but also by harnessing our afflictive emotions and redirecting them in a positive way.  The tantras have in turn influenced the everyday practices of Tibetan Buddhism, even those that do not require initiation.  Thus, in the Tibetan traditions, we see the influence of tantric themes: meditation on death using very direct and visceral imagery is very common; many Tibetan meditation practices are highly ritualised and involves mantra recitations, dedications of merit, and prostrations; and rich visualisations are used much more than in other traditions in practices like guru yoga and tonglen.  Whether one is explicitly practicing tantra or not, Buddhist practice in the Tibetan traditions is often rich with vibrant colours, powerful imagery, intricate ritual objects and complex procedures.

This intense take on the path to enlightenment has appeared in Tibetan Buddhism since its early days.  Tibetan legends have long portrayed Buddhist practice as powerful but at times risky, compassionate but sometimes fierce.  Padmasambhava’s biography makes for incredible reading; according to Buddhist historians he was essentially an ancient Dharma sorcerer, flying all over Tibet like a yogic Superman, subjugating the local spirits and demons and swearing them into service of the Dharma.  Milarepa, another Tibetan Buddhist saint, began his life by using black magic (!) to murder his aunt and uncle for stealing his family’s fortune, along with numerous other people, only to later achieve enlightenment through Vajrayana practice.  In the Tibetan view, enlightenment is something fought for with intensive, powerful methods, and these practices are so powerful that even murders and black magicians can still use them to achieve enlightenment (assuming they also stop murdering/evil-wizarding, of course).  In taking on these commitments we also take greater risks, but the payoff is significant if one can truly reach enlightenment in a single lifetime.

The Effectiveness of Tantra

As we have seen, Vajrayana practitioners believe that these powerful tantric rituals enable them to potentially reach enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the three incalculable eons of following the bodhisattva path in standard Mahayana practice.  There are a number of arguments out there for why tantric practice is considered so effective, of which two in particular seem to recur in numerous sources.

First, tantric practices are transgressive — they use visceral imagery with images of corpses, skulls and severed heads; tantric deities are frequently depicted in sexual union with other deities, and visualisations of ritual sex are part of some high-level tantric practices; and other behaviours that go against the usual Buddhist moral precepts, like ingesting alcohol and meat, are also seen in some rituals.  This is not only because the tantras advocate the harnessing of afflictive emotions and behaviours for positive ends, but also because the very act of transgressing moral codes in this way promotes non-dual awareness.  We are conditioned to think of existence in terms of dualities: this thing exists or doesn’t exist; this behaviour is good or bad.  In tantra, flagrantly violating those categorisations forces the practitioner to abandon dualistic thinking, and in this way move closer to the pristine, clear light of the Buddha-Nature, which knows no such divisions between phenomena, as they are all empty of inherent, absolute existence.

Second, tantra is said to ‘take the result as the path’, as opposed to sutra Mahayana, which focuses on causes.  In sutra Mahayana, practitioners focus on developing the causes of awakening — the Thirty-Seven Factors of Awakening, the Six Perfections, and following the Bodhisattva Path.  In tantra, practitioners assume they have already achieved the goal of the path — they contain a Buddha-Nature, as do all sentient beings.  Visualising oneself as an enlightened deity and developing ‘divine pride’, in which the yogi sees themselves as inseparable from the deity and hence fully awakened, aims to remove the obscurations that hide their inherent Buddha-Nature from view.  Thus, the tantric practitioner makes Buddha-hood part of their practice directly, and in that way they ‘take the result [of Buddha-hood] as the path [to enlightenment]’, rather than patiently developing karmic seeds to allow that nature to ripen over many lifetimes.

Of course there is much more to say about all of these aspects, but I leave that to the experts who are capable of studying these arcane texts and unraveling the tangled history of tantric practice.  Weirdly, Buddhism studies at the turn of the 20th century largely ignored tantra, as biases in the Western scholarly community considered it in a way ‘impure’ compared to the crystal-clear, logically-consistent framework for enlightenment developed in the Pali Canon.  As a result, the academic study of tantric Buddhism is actually quite new, only really becoming a serious area of enquiry after the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile in 1959 and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism across the world.  If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of tantra, and about the evolution of these practices over the centuries, Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams has a concise summary of Vajrayana history and practice in the closing chapters, and The Origins of Yoga and Tantra by Geoffrey Samuel goes into intense detail on the development of tantra from its earliest appearances to the 13th century.  

Recommended reading:

Tibetan Buddhism is packed to the brim with complex imagery and symbolism, and has a seemingly endless supply of mind-boggling esoteric literature to study, so it’s a real joy to dive into if you like such things.  

Indestructible Truth and Secret of the Vajra World, by Reginald Ray: This two-volume set of detailed, yet approachable summaries of Tibetan Buddhist history, doctrine and practice are essential for the newcomer to the subject.  Reginald Ray has been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for a very long time, worked with many of the most famous lamas and teachers, and is an excellent source in general.  Check out his podcast and other stuff too.

The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhavaby Yeshe Tsogyal: this spiritual biography describes the incredible life of Padmasambhava, AKA Guru Rinpoche, who brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet.  His life story as depicted here is filled with fantastic deeds and the demolition and subjugation of ornery spirits and demons.  Guru Rinpoche’s influence on Tibetan Buddhism today remains prodigious, so understanding his life and teachings can be very insightful for the student of Vajrayana.

The Library of Wisdom and Compassionby His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron:  This remarkable series is intended to provide a comprehensive introduction to the whole of the Buddhist path, from the basics in volume 1 through to deep and complex investigations of core Buddhist philosophical issues in the following seven volumes.  Books 1 through 5 are available now, and book 6 is coming next summer.  The detailed academic investigation of Buddhism is broken up by chapters from both the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron sharing quite personal reflections on their own experiences in Buddhism, which gives the books a personal touch and a strong connection to real-world practice.  Highly recommended.

Library of Tibetan Buddhist Classics:  This series of books collects new, comprehensive translations and commentaries on crucial Tibetan texts ranging across a variety of traditions.  The texts include foundational commentaries for all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and tantric texts previously unavailable in English.  Just be aware that some volumes will contain material and rituals that should not be practiced without the guidance of an experienced teacher; indeed, some will insist that one should not read them at all without receiving the appropriate tantric empowerments from a guru.

Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel

Hopefully now you can see that the three main ‘vehicles’ of Buddhism are connected, with each subsequent vehicle building directly on the previous one.  Throughout the many Buddhist traditions, at a minimum they share the original teachings of the Buddha, as laid out in the Pali Canon — the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence, among other things.  The Mahayana extended this foundation, developing the Path of the Bodhisattva, sunyata (emptiness), and tathagatagarba (Buddha-Nature).  Vajrayana extended this further, with deeper examinations of the concept of emptiness, and working directly with the fundamental nature of mind and the innate Buddha-Nature of all beings.   

This three-part hierarchy of the Buddhist path to enlightenment is further reinforced by the common expression of these three vehicles as being Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.  Each turning corresponds to one cycle of teachings by the Buddha, each revealing extensions to the core teachings of the previous turning.  The Dalai Lama in Approaching the Buddhist Path defines the critical concepts the Buddha taught in each Turning of the Dharma Wheel as follows:

  1. The First Turning (Early Buddhism): defining the nature of suffering (the Four Noble Truths), the path to eliminating suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path), the Three Marks of Existence (dukkha, anicca, anatta), and the Thirty-Seven Aids to Awakening.
  2. The Second Turning (Mahayana): the Prajnaparamita Sutras (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), revealing that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence; defining the Six Perfections (generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability, wisdom) and the Bodhisattva Path.
  3. The Third Turning (Vajrayana): further interpretation of emptiness in all categories of phenomena; the pure, ‘clear light’ nature of mind, and the Buddha-Nature.

We can see from the clear connections between the three vehicles/turnings that while the Buddhist traditions differ hugely in their practices and approaches to enlightenment, there are core teachings common to all of them that all Buddhists accept, and these lie in the original teaching delivered by the Buddha.  For practicing Buddhists of any tradition these elements are essential to all paths to enlightenment.

amitabha-statue

A statue of Buddha Amitabha.

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism is somewhat hard to categorise in the typical three-vehicle structure, and is practiced in a very different way than the other traditions I have outlined above.  Many Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions have practices related to the Pure Lands — these are celestial realms linked to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  These practices can allow one to aspire to rebirth in a Pure Land, rather than the human world, which makes practice of the Dharma in that future life much easier, thereby accelerating the path to enlightenment.

However, Pure Land Buddhism takes this idea as the sole focus of practice.  In Jodo Shinshu, one of the most popular Buddhist traditions in Japan, adherents believe that the human world is simply too corrupt for any of us to have any hope of practicing enough Dharma to achieve enlightenment.  Therefore, our only salvation is to be reborn in a Pure Land where there is no such corruption, and at that point we can focus entirely on practicing the Dharma and achieving Buddha-hood.  As a consequence, Jodo Shinshu adherents do ‘the practice of no practice’, where they do not practice anything other than the repeated recitation of the mantra of Buddha Amitabha — namu Amida Butsu or ‘I take refuge in the Buddha Ambitabha’.  They believe that Buddha Amitabha made a Primal Vow to allow any beings that recite his mantra with true intentions to be reborn in his Pure Land, and thereafter practice Dharma in a pristine environment.

Essentially, this tradition is a kind of ‘faith alone’ form of Buddhism, in which meditation, the Noble Eightfold Path, and so on are left aside, and one simply relies on the grace of Buddha Amitabha to save them from this corrupt world in the next life.  This idea became very popular with people who did not want, or were not able, to practice intensive Buddhist activities like meditation, or those who had committed serious crimes and could see no way to redeem their karma in this life.

Jodo Shinshu and similar Pure Land sects can be considered Mahayana traditions, as they do believe that the Dharma is effective (just not here), and they certainly believe in the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Pure Lands found in the Mahayana Sutras.  But then, they do not actually practice anything else in those sutras, or in the Pali Canon for that matter.  Also, the Buddha was very explicit that blind faith was to be discouraged, and one should test all Dharma teachings (and teachers) for themselves and determine whether they were effective; this is of course impossible with Pure Land traditions like Jodo Shinshu, since the effectiveness of these beliefs cannot be determined until after death, whereas practices like meditation have benefits in this life that can be experienced and tested.  With all that in mind, to me Pure Land Buddhism of this type is a very different animal from anything present in the three vehicles, and is more akin to Christianity than any of the other forms of Buddhism.

I have to admit to a personal bias here, of course.  What attracts me to the teachings of the Buddha is that the practices they outline are accessible to everyone and described in a coherent and clear way, and they are testable and are subject to our own discernment and critical analysis.  While the truth that ‘everything is suffering’ sounds bleak, the Buddhist is ultimately empowered to change this state of affairs, and can do so without relying on any external teacher or authority if they so wish.  Not only that, but human existence is seen as very fortunate, even though many of us suffer immensely, because we have opportunities to improve ourselves and to end that suffering for ourselves and others.  In Jodo Shinshu the outlook is far bleaker, as even the Dharma cannot save us, since the world is simply too corrupt for us to be able to practice it successfully.  We have no power at all to change this — in fact, the tradition explicitly lays out a distinction between ‘self power’ and ‘other power’, and only other power can save us from suffering, in the form of Amida Butsu’s vow.  So in essence, Pure Land traditions eliminate the most meaningful element of Buddhism to me, which is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, and that means I tend not to engage with them. 

I hasten to add though that many Pure Land practitioners are heavily engaged in the study of Buddhist philosophy, and supplement their faith in Amida’s Vow with additional study of Buddhist principles in preparation for that future life in the Pure Land.  I also fully understand the difficulties Buddhist practices present for many people; not all of us are capable of meditation, or have the time and resources available to study the Dharma.  Across all Buddhist traditions there is broad agreement that practicing and studying the Buddha’s teachings to even the tiniest extent is better than not doing it at all, and one should simply try to do what they can in this life according to their own limitations.  So in that sense, even the ‘practice of no practice’ is still striving to create the conditions for future study of the Dharma, and is providing a connection to the Buddha’s teachings that is accessible to everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

The whole concept of Pure Lands in general is valuable to Theravada/Mahayana/Tibetan Buddhist practice, too.  In Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land elements exist as part of the typical framework of Buddhist practices — meditation and visualisation.  Visualising the Pure Lands reinforces the power of the Buddha’s teachings, by portraying planes of existence where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have transformed reality into blissful reflections of pristine Buddha-Nature.  Some Pure Land practices also function as ‘karmic parachutes’, where one can perform them at the time of death to shunt your mindstream off to a Pure Land if enlightenment has not been reached.  If there’s one thing Tibetan Buddhism loves, it’s optimising their practice to achieve powerful results, so Pure Land practices fit right into that.  

dalai-lama-gifu-soto

His Holiness the Dalai Lama joins two Soto Zen monks in paying respects to the Buddha, before addressing a meeting of 1,600 Soto Zen priests in Gifu, Japan in 2015.

A Note About Sectarianism

A natural question that may arise after reading all this is: what happens if someone follows the Buddha’s advice, studies the teachings and investigates everything for themselves, and discovers that none of the traditions out there completely match what works for them?  Alternatively, what if they want to participate in multiple traditions at once?

I’ll defer here to Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama of the Driking Kagyu tradition:

Seen from my point of view, the Buddha taught what we call Three Vehicles. Each of them contains a complete path for sentient beings to eliminate their negative emotions—desire, hatred, ignorance, pride, and envy—with all their 84,000 proliferations and variations. It is therefore entirely possible when someone practices free of laziness and procrastination any of these three paths to attain the same level as Buddha Shakyamuni.

Moreover, it is possible for any person to practice all three vehicles in combination without any conflict whatsoever. This is often the case in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, where many practitioners have practiced the three vehicles either separately or unified into a single system.

In the present time, when we see a growing interest in Buddhist practice all over the world, I find it important that people come to understand the primary emphasis and special qualities of each of these three vehicles. Free of bias, and with clarity, each person is then free to adopt what is closest to their inclinations — whether one of the vehicles alone or the three in combination.

In other words, Buddhists believe that all three vehicles can lead to liberation, and thus each is a worthy path to take.  As a consequence, Buddhists are welcome to partake of elements of some or all of the vehicles simultaneously.  There is no issue with going to a Zen temple for zazen one day and a Tibetan Buddhist puja on the next.  Buddhists often say that the Buddha taught 84,000 versions of the Dharma, each one adapted to the needs of a different audience.  He adapted his teachings to ensure that the truths of existence he offered could be put into practice, and made accessible to as many people as possible; he speaks in the suttas as well of the importance of testing all teachings we receive with our own experience and critical faculties, and not engaging in fanaticism.  With all that in mind, we might imagine that the Buddha himself would have had little patience for sectarianism.

Of course, if you venture into Buddhist forums around the internet and social media, you will certainly see infighting between traditions, and seemingly interminable debates on finer points of doctrine.  But when you venture into real-world Buddhist centres of all stripes, you are likely to find Buddhists being quite accepting of varied points of view.  When I attended three days of teachings by the Dalai Lama in Glasgow in 2004, I saw monks in the yellow robes of the Thai tradition, in the red and orange of Tibetan traditions, and the austere black and grey of Zen.  The Dalai Lama has been a strong supporter of unity across Buddhist traditions, and speaks often of the need to pay equal respect to the teachings of all three vehicles.  

The quote above comes from the foreword to a book by Ajahn Amaro called Small Boat, Great Mountain, a series of talks comparing the Tibetan teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, with similar concepts in Theravada Buddhism.  This book is a nice example of a fascinating dialogue between Buddhist traditions.

Next Steps

So, now that I have outlined some of the core elements of the three main Buddhist pathways to enlightenment, in the next article I will examine some of the more common misconceptions about Buddhist practice one tends to find in the media and popular culture.  Over time I will add more to this article, although it is already so long that I will try to avoid extending it to ridiculous levels.  At present I am planning to add some details on the Bodhisattva Path to the Mahayana section at some point, and after that I will see where it goes.  

 

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A critique of Todd May’s ‘Death’

Death (The Art of Living): Amazon.co.uk: May, Todd: Books

UPDATE 11 Dec 2020: I added a piece of Buddhist artwork depicting death meditation, and some details on the very significant role that mortality and impermanence play in various Buddhist traditions and practices.

Recently my wife and I re-watched the excellent series The Good Place, a comedy centred around the misadventures of four souls marooned in a confusing and flawed afterlife.  In addition to being simply funny and enjoyable, with great characters, the show stands out due to its surprisingly nuanced depictions of key concepts in ethics and moral philosophy.

One of the central characters of the show, Chidi Anagonye, is a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and ends up teaching the other characters about ethics in an effort to help them become better people.  Throughout the show he makes reference to numerous well-known works in ethics and moral philosophy.  I have read some of these already, but at one point he mentions the book Death by Todd May, and after having that on my reading list for some time I finally picked it up off my e-bookshelf last night and read through it.

I want to start by saying that the book, considered as a whole, is a highly readable reflection on the reality of human mortality, and manages to be at once both gentle and disarming.  This balance is hard to strike, and I’m genuinely impressed that the author was able to thread that needle so successfully.  I also applaud Todd May for expressing these concepts so clearly, and for translating difficult concepts into a form that’s highly accessible for non-philosophers.

The book consists of three parts: first, an investigation of the problems death presents for the human condition; second, a discussion of the problems that would be created by immortality; and third, an attempt to synthesise a point of view that accepts death as the central fact of human existence, without being overwhelmed by it.  The first part coalesces around the four central characteristics of death as outlined by Heidegger in Being and Time:

  1. Death is final — it marks the end of human existence and conscious experience.
  2. Death is not an accomplishment or a goal to reach, and dying is not a form of closure for our lives — it simply is an end.
  3. Death is both inevitable and uncertain, in that we cannot avoid it, and we can never know for sure when it may happen to us.
  4. These three facts about death lead us to search for meaning in life.

These four points provide a framework for Todd May to confront his readers with the grim reality of human mortality.  They underline his central thesis, which is that death is not merely an intruder that appears at the end of our lives, but in fact it is the most important defining element of human experience.  Everything that humans do — the relationships we form, the projects we undertake, the passions we indulge — are shaped by the fact that we are mortal, our time in this Universe is limited, and therefore we must try to make things happen before that time ends. 

May places this perspective, a frank assessment of the facts of human mortality, against the more typical response many of us have to thinking about death, which is to avoid it. He discusses Christian theology as an example, in which the terrifying reality of death is soothed in the minds of believers with the idea that death is not an end to their experience, but that the soul, the self, continues beyond death. He points out that this may be comforting even if one believes in Hell, because at least even in Hell there is no cessation of existence; Hell-bound souls continue to be, even if they do so in abject suffering.

From there he offers Buddhism as another example of the avoidance of the reality of death in religious thought, and here is where I must part ways with May’s take. He presents Buddhism as avoiding the final cessation of death via reincarnation:

When you’re reborn, it is into a different body.  It is your mind or your soul – again as in Christianity – that is. reborn. If your karma consists in what you have made of yourself in a particular life, your rebirth situates you in a particular karmic state in your next one.

In the past I have written extensively about Buddhist thought, and Buddhism has been an object of study for me since I was a teenager.  The characterisation of reincarnation May offers above is fundamentally at odds with the Buddhist concept of life, death and rebirth.  What he describes is reincarnation as in Hinduism, and indeed later in the book he explicitly conflates the two.  But in reality, Buddhist thought defines itself in opposition to Hinduism in this regard.

In Buddhism, the concept of anatta — non-self — is one of the three marks of existence, alongside anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (suffering).  The word anatta itself stands in opposition to the Hindu concept of atman, that within all of us lies an essence, a soul, which transfers from one life to the next.  In Buddhism, there is no eternal soul, and there is no essential self that transfers between existences.

May attempts to sidestep this a few pages later in the text:

There are those who study Buddhism who will want to take issue with the interpretation I have offered here. After all, they point out, for Buddhism the self is a myth. There is no self, only the ever-changing process of the cosmos. This is true. All Buddhist doctrine denies the idea of a distinct self. The significance of this denial, though, depends on one’s interpretation of Buddhism. For those who do not embrace the doctrine of reincarnation, it is easy to see how there is no self.

The central thrust of this paragraph is flawed, however; there are, by definition, no Buddhists who embrace the doctrine of reincarnation.  Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is not the same thing.  Reincarnation does rest on the concept that souls transfer between lives; one’s current life ends, and our essence moves on to another life, and there is a continuity of our essential self between those lives.  But that does not apply here, since Buddhism does not include reincarnation.

In Buddhism, the end of one’s current life is an actual end.  When I die, Eric Silverman will cease to exist; my consciousness and all my experiences will vanish along with my corporeal body.  My karmic actions, presuming I have not achieved enlightenment, will create the conditions for a rebirth, but that rebirth will be a different life.  Rebirths are linked by the causal processes of kamma (karma), not by a soul or identifiable, independently-existent self.

The central problem here is that May has dismissed anatta as if it were a quirk of interpretation, rather than the centrepiece of an extensive and coherent belief system.  Anatta is not a concept one can separate from the Buddhist view of the cosmos and our place in it; since the time of the Buddha this concept is central to Buddhism, and many of its practices rest on apprehending and experiencing the absence of self and the emptiness of existence.  Without anatta, we are no longer talking about Buddhism.

To further reinforce this point, I would stress that Buddhists of every stripe — Theravadins, Mahayanists, Tantric practitioners — all agree that anatta is a central component of Buddhist thought.  In 1967, a historic meeting of representatives from every major Buddhist sect agreed on a set of common beliefs: 

The Buddha is our only Master (teacher and guide)

  1. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha (the Three Jewels).
  2. We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God.
  3. We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth
  4. We accept the Four Noble Truths, namely duḥkha, the arising of duḥkha, the cessation of duḥkha, and the path leading to the cessation of duḥkha; and the law of cause and effect.
  5. All conditioned things (saṃskāra) are impermanent (anitya) and duḥkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anātma).
  6. We accept the thirty-seven qualities conducive to enlightenment as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.
  7. There are three ways of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment: namely as a disciple (śrāvaka), as a pratyekabuddha and as a samyaksambuddha (perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a samyaksambuddha in order to save others.
  8. We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

Note point 5, which explicitly includes anatta (written here in the Sanskrit as anatma) as a core belief common to all Buddhists.  Point 8 is also important, as it acknowledges that other forms of Buddhism may exist, but these must not be confused with core Buddhist principles.

So, in other words, the moment May proposes an interpretation of Buddhism which includes a soul or self, he has ceased talking about actually-existent Buddhism and begun talking about something else.

Ultimately, if we introduce reincarnation to Buddhism instead of rebirth, the whole edifice no longer functions, and the core concepts of mind and existence that define it no longer make sense together.  Reincarnation requires a soul to be transferred from one life to another, and anatta makes this impossible, so these two elements are mutually exclusive.

May continues along this line of reasoning, further conflating reincarnation and rebirth:

Things are more complicated with the doctrine of reincarnation, however. If, in a way, the self is an illusion, in another way it is not. As with the Christian doctrine we discussed, there must be something that survives death in order to get reincarnated. And that something must be continuous with the previous life, or else the nature of one’s reincarnation would be entirely arbitrary. We might put the point this way: the self is an illusion that only dissipates when one achieves nirvana.

Again this logic does not hold, although there is some room for argument here.  As described briefly above, in Buddhist thought the thread that links different lives is not an independently-existent soul or essence, but instead the karmic actions of one life create the causes and conditions for the next.  To expand a bit on this I will quote myself from that post of a few years ago:

It is this kamma that continues beyond death.  The Buddhist belief, at its core, is that once we die, the consequence of our kamma is that another birth takes place, and our little bundle of karmic pluses and minuses determines what kind of birth that will be.  This cycle is inevitable, and eternal, unless we are able to break free of this cycle via liberating ourselves from clinging to this world and become enlightened.

This cycle can be hard to conceptualise, so it’s often described using an analogy.  Imagine my life as a burning candle, with the flame representing my consciousness.  Right as the candle is running out, I use that flame to light the next candle.  The next candle lights up right as the old one burns out.  So my consciousness directly causes another, subsequent consciousness to arise in the next life, but my original consciousness burns out — the new one is a different consciousness, existing in a different body (which may or may not be human).  Kamma is what lifts the old candle to the new and causes the new one to light up.

The philosophical difficulty for Buddhists in this context is that logically we might expect that some causal agent would need to exist that creates the causes and conditions for the reborn consciousness to arise, rather than a mind arising from nothing yet still somehow being linked to a previous mind.  Kamma is posited to be the agent in this case, but how does a formation of karmic aftereffects lead to the creation of new mental events, a new consciousness?

There are several approaches to this, but the most common one I’ve seen in the Buddhist community is the concept of one’s existence as being a mindstream, a continuous stream of moment-to-moment sense impressions and mental events which continue across lifetimes, but like anything else has no inherent independent existence.  This stream is affected by our positive and negative actions during our various lives and is the ‘stuff’ that transfers the karmic ‘seeds’ one has planted in previous lives into that next existence.  In that sense, there is a continuity of mind at a fundamental level, but again this is not a soul or essence, and while my mindstream may continue after this life, Eric Silverman will not.  My death will be an end to my life, and only my karma survives me. 

Part of the source of confusion here may be that, as with any other conditioned thing, consciousness in Buddhism is actually a confluence of numerous causes and conditions.  Consciousness exists in different forms, and at different levels of subtlety, and these interact in different ways with the physical aggregates that form our body.  In Western theology we think of the mind as a singular entity, whereas Buddhism does not; this can lead us to think that the mindstream indicates a continuity of consciousness from one rebirth to another, whereas in Buddhism the continuity occurs at the subtlest levels of mind.  Since my lived experience as a human is defined by the grosser forms of consciousness as well as the subtler one, and those grosser forms interact inextricably with my physical form, in a fundamental sense my different rebirths are different existences, despite sharing at a deeper level a subtle continuity of mind.  This means that even though there is a link between this life and the next, that next life will be different from this one, with a different mind and experience, linked by kamma and the subtlest levels of mind.*

On that basis I reject May’s contention that Buddhists avoid the finality of death.  While there is a continuity of existence between lives, at the core this is not reincarnation, and does not require a self or soul to be transferred. 

In practical terms, Buddhists do take death as an end to life, and there are numerous traditional practices that confront this directly: Thai forest monks meditate in dangerous and scary places to contemplate the impermanence and eventual dissolution of all things; and monks of various traditions sometimes meditate in graveyards or near decaying corpses to confront the reality of our eventual death.  This practice is as old as the Buddha himself, and can be seen depicted in Buddhist art:

Tibetan Buddhists in particular view meditation on death and dying as a supremely important aspect of their practice.  Beyond the meditating-in-charnel-grounds stuff, which was recommended from the earliest days by the Buddha himself, there are other common practices of death meditation practiced in Tibet:

Another powerful technique for developing awareness of death involves visualizing oneself lying on one’s deathbed, with life slowly ebbing away. All one’s friends and relatives are gathered around, weeping and lamenting, and one’s body progressively degenerates. The glow of life fades from the face, and the pallor of death replaces it. Breathing becomes shallow. The lips dry up, slime forms on the lips, and the body becomes like a lump of flesh, unable to move freely. Bodily temperature drops, eyesight, hearing, and other senses lose clarity, and one becomes aware of past negative deeds…. Through cultivating this meditation one should develop a sense of urgency regarding religious practice and a poignant awareness of death. (John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, p 331)

These practices are considered so important that in some cases Buddhist teachers recommend they be practiced daily:

Atisa is said to have told his students that for a person who is unaware of death, meditation has little power, but a person who is mindful of death and impermanence progresses steadily and makes the most of every precious moment. A famous saying of the school he founded, the Kadampa, holds that if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted; if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted; and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted. (Ibid., p 326)

The Tibetans also produced the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol, lit. ‘Liberation Through Hearing at the Intermediate State), a detailed description of the processes the mind undergoes at the moment of death and during the intermediate state between lives (the bardo).  Tantric practices in Tibet go into exhaustive detail into the process of death, and view it as a vital opportunity to momentarily touch the subtlest aspects of mind and the Buddha-nature that pervades all of us.  

The bardo concept is also applied to the moment-to-moment deaths we all experience, as our consciousness changes, adapts and reforms itself continually:

Each moment is said to give us a glimpse of the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth, since every moment of mind passes away and is replaced by a successive moment. Reflection on one’s own mental processes graphically indicates the fleeting nature of consciousness: thoughts flow along in unending succession, each one giving way to its successor. Cognitions and emotions change in response to our experiences and perceptions, and even our most cherished ideas and aspirations are subject to change. Thus, for a person who has awareness of death, every moment becomes a lesson in death and impermanence. (Ibid., p 328)

Buddhists as a whole, and Tibetan Buddhists in particular, encourage continual awareness of death and its finality, and have developed detailed practices aimed not at avoiding death, but using its power to progress further on the path to liberation.  These practices are not particularly obscure; the Tibetan Book of the Dead is widely known through The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, an international bestseller.  Death meditation in the traditional form outlined by the Buddha is still practiced in Thailand, and the original sutras on death and impermanence are freely available in English.  That being the case, I struggle to understand how Buddhism can be characterised as a religion that avoids death; even a brief look at Buddhist literature on the topic shows that Buddhists confront death and mortality very directly, and specifically encourage adherents to develop a continual awareness that death stalks us all.**  

Unfortunately, this erroneous presentation of Buddhism’s attitude toward death is a continuing thread in the book, and at times presents what seems to me a rather colonialist view on Buddhism.  A vibrant and complex system of thought is lumped in amongst ‘Eastern religions’ with no attempt made to distinguish it from other, equally nuanced approaches to these critical human questions: 

In Eastern religions , as with the monotheistic tradition, death is ultimately something that is avoided. It’s not just that it can be avoided. It is essentially avoided. If we can put it this way, it is unavoidably avoided. Whatever happens to your body (or your bodies), you continue to exist.

This passage positions Buddhism — and all ‘Eastern religions’ — as avoiding death, and not only that, but forcing one to exist continually.  The core concept of Buddhism centres on breaking out of that cycle, so death is not ‘unavoidably avoided’ — the whole point of Buddhist practice is to achieve enlightenment, and thereby break the cycle of death and rebirth.  While it is true that one may be stuck in samsara forever if no action is taken, the moment one becomes a Buddhist, one is attempting to avoid this endless loop.

May goes on to contrast Buddhism with Taoism, claiming that Taoism is more consistent in its beliefs than Buddhism:

Taoism, like Buddhism, takes the concept of the self to be illusory. There is simply the unfolding process of the cosmos, and what appears to be a self is nothing more than a moment in that cosmic unfolding. But, unlike those Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, Taoism is more consistent in this regard. Reincarnation has implicit in it the idea of a self. That self may disappear again when it reaches nirvana, but at least it remains throughout a series of lives.

Leaving aside this additional wholesale dismissal of centuries of Buddhist thought on these issues, again the description of Buddhist beliefs here is not accurate.  As we know by now, Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation, and there is no independently-existent self or soul that remains throughout our numerous lives.  The elements of mind that continue to the next life do not include the grosser consciousnesses and physical aggregates of our previous lives, and therefore do not represent a continuation of the same existence in the way that a transference of self or soul would imply.

Taken as a whole, the overriding impression is that May has taken a view of Buddhist thought that seems quite common among Western thinkers.  Buddhism is a highly developed and systematic philosophical system, encompassing enormous numbers of sutras, commentaries and analytical works investigating the nature of the mind, consciousness, the nature of reality and the Universe.  Perhaps due to the systematic approach Buddhism takes to these questions, we have a tendency to view Buddhism as more of a ‘scientific’ take on these topics than other religions, and that leads some to conclude that we can carve off and recombine bits of Buddhist thought in whatever way suits our argument.

This is true to an extent, in the sense that Buddhists do not believe in a God or gods, or a system of divine judgment that sorts us into Heaven or Hell.  We must reap the consequences of our actions due to kamma, but kamma is more of a law of nature rather than a divine system of accounting.  Therefore, one can do whatever one likes with Buddhist thought from that point of view, since no one is watching, so if you don’t care about suffering or the conditions of your next rebirth, then there is nothing stopping you.

But there are certain aspects of Buddhism that cannot be separated out without dismantling the whole belief system.  Kamma (karma), dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and rebirth are among these; without these concepts, little of Buddhism remains.  Without kamma there is no need to practice the Noble Truths, and no next life for which to plant the seeds of good actions; without dukkha there is no need to seek liberation; without anatta we lose the balance between concerns of this life and the next that define the approach of Buddhism to human existence; and without rebirth there is no samsara to escape or dukkha to eliminate.  So when May denies anatta, he denies Buddhism, and presents instead a caricature which suits his argument but does not reflect the reality of Buddhist thought and practice.

Speaking more broadly, I wish that Western thinkers in general would examine why they feel able to dismantle Buddhism in this way, in a way that we do not see as often in relation to Western monotheistic traditions.  Taking anatta out of Buddhism is like taking Jesus Christ out of Christianity — self-evidently ridiculous, and in doing so we would no longer be talking about the same system of thought.  Yet we often see Buddhism approached like a menu of disparate concepts to be recombined at will.  I suspect that Buddhism being more distant, more ‘alien’ to us allows us to pry it apart without feeling we must maintain the integrity of these concepts. 

However, Buddhism has been highly accessible in the West now for decades, and one can easily find native Westerners who are serious Buddhist practitioners and monks/nuns throughout our hemisphere.  So why do so many thinkers not even take the step of contacting these practitioners to check their understanding?  To me it feels disrespectful, and dismissive of a way of life that defines existence for many millions of people.  To say we can extract what we like from Buddhism and discard the rest unmakes the hard work of not just the Buddha himself, but untold thousands of scholars and monks who succeeded him.  When discussing Christianity, we consider it as a system of thought and respect its great scholars of theology like St Augustine, St Thomas Acquinas, and Martin Luther.  When discussing Buddhism, why do we instead break it apart, and ignore great minds like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu and Buddhaghosa?   This disparity particularly stands out in this book, where ancient philosophers like Marcus Aurelius get their due, but Buddhist scholars of India existing at the same time bear no mention.  

What particularly disappoints me in this case is that May’s search for a synthesis, a viewpoint on death that accepts its finality while not being consumed by it, is what actually-existent Buddhism attempts to offer us.  The Buddha explicitly denies nihilism, which denies a purpose to existence and excuses numerous bad actions in one’s short life, and the existence of a soul/afterlife, which distracts one from the import of this life.  In Buddhism, when one dies, one’s existence in that form is over, so we must make the best use of our limited time; but that existence affects subsequent ones through kamma, so a single-minded focus on only our moment-to-moment struggles is not enough to achieve liberation.  Buddhism says that this life matters, death is an end, and yet we are not consumed by that thought; our karmic actions take root beyond this momentary existence, and though all things are impermanent and must end, we all have the ability to contribute to freedom from this suffering, not just for ourselves, but for all sentient beings.

Now I do not mean to suggest that May should take this view, or agree with this synthesis as the best one.  Nor does he have to present a detailed critique of Buddhism as a whole, particularly given just how dense Buddhist thought is on these questions.  But I would have liked to have read a version of this book that addresses the perspective of actually-existent Buddhism on a basic level, and apprehends it with the same sensitivity and care that he provides for other ways of thinking about death and mortality.  

At its core, May’s project is a worthy one.  I agree with him that avoiding the reality of death is problematic, and in doing so we deny the essence of what it means to be human.  I would even say that our experience of coronavirus this year has underlined the hazards of pushing death to one side; we have a well-developed ability to ignore death that does not actively affect us, and so we find ourselves shockingly adept at ignoring the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths we have caused due to the wilful incompetence of many of our governments.  If we sought not to ignore death, but to embrace it as a motivator for human existence, then perhaps we would have a wholly different reaction to the tragedies unfolding all around us.

My objection to May’s take is simply that, as a student of Buddhism, I would have liked to see its approach critiqued accurately in the context of this project.  Instead, we are given a version of Buddhism divested of its core concepts, and the incoherent result is dismissed as unhelpful and illogical.  For me, this seriously damages what is otherwise an accessible, empathetic and powerful take on the central importance of mortality in human existence.

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*I should note here that I’m providing a very basic explanation, and one coloured by my study of Mahayana traditions like Soto Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; for a more complete picture that includes other strands of Buddhist thought, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a nice article summarising concepts of mind in Indian Buddhism/Theravada.  For Mahayana/Vajrayana concepts, accessible works by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Approaching the Buddhist Path), Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching) are good starting points; alternatively, the brave may wish to start with Nagarjuna and go from there!

**Just to reinforce the point, here is a sample death meditation from the Dzogchen preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism (translated from Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse, by Jigme Lingpa):

Second, meditate on the impermanence of the beings that inhabit the universe. Even the sages and gods, with their eon-long life spans and majestic brilliance, cannot escape their own mortality. What, then, of those of us on earth, born as we are at the end of an age in a place where the life span is indefinite? We too will soon be dead.

What were once thriving villages and monasteries are now empty and deserted. Once inhabited by great individuals, they are now home to nothing more than birds and mice. Just look at your own parents, friends and relatives, fellow villagers, neighbors, pets, and so on. Of those that you can recall, most of them are now gone. Some of them were alive just last year, but this year they are no more.

More specifically, in your present circumstances you feed your body good food, dress it in the finest clothes and jewelry, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Despite all this, your life is getting shorter with each passing day. Death will arrive before long, and when it does, your breathing will become labored and your face will grow pale. Your limbs will twitch and your mind will grow delusional. In the end, you will end up a corpse, your body tied and covered with cloth. Cast naked into a charnel ground, your limbs will be hacked apart and eaten by vultures and wild beasts, with even your hair and bones torn apart and scattered here and there. When all this happens, your loved ones and possessions will not go with you, yet leaving them behind will seem unbearable. Your karma alone will dictate what happens. Such a time could even arrive today or this evening. You can’t be sure!

With a sense of urgency, think about how unbearable this actually is. As you continually familiarize your mind with this idea, when you move, sit, or lie down, you can even say to yourself, “This is my very last act in this world!”

This is but one of many examples of such practices.  Having seen how disarmingly, brutally direct these meditations are, how can we say that Buddhists avoid the reality of death and mortality?

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Buddhism and Meditation

As some of you are aware, I’ve been suffering with chronic pain for more than three years now.  It’s been an exhausting, distressing and confidence-shattering experience in many ways, and medical science still struggles to find solutions to this problem, so most days the best I can hope for is that things simply stay stable.  I have to accept that it’s quite possible I will never have a day in my life again where I feel totally healthy and pain-free.

In my own case, pain management experts within the NHS have been extolling the virtues of complementary therapies, most particularly mindfulness practices and meditation (with a side-order of yoga).  In the medical context, mindfulness and meditation have proven very successful in their own right, divorced from their original Buddhist context and presented in a Westernised, clinical framework.  Mindfulness has been shown to increase psychological well-being, reduce symptoms of stress, and crucially, reduce pain.

I have a long relationship with Buddhist thought and practice, having discovered both during a period of mental health difficulty as a teenager.  For a number of years after that I maintained an interest in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, practicing meditation regularly and reading thousands of pages of sutras, commentaries and guides to Buddhist thought.  Then, bizarrely, I moved to a country with a rich Buddhist tradition (Japan) and largely fell out of Buddhist practice.

Now that I’ve been reminded of the benefits of these practices I left behind, I’ve jumped back into mindfulness and meditation recently.  For me, while mindfulness has benefits even outside the Buddhist context, its benefits are much more far-reaching when that context is maintained.  Then mindfulness goes far beyond a calming influence, and becomes a means to re-orient your understanding of self, consciousness, and the nature of mental and physical suffering.  It’s also really interesting to read and nerd out on this stuff.

So, this is all a very long way of saying I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist stuff again and doing daily meditation.  Along the way I’ve been speaking to some people about it, and realised there are some major misconceptions out there about the nature of Buddhism and meditation.  So partly for those who are interested, and partly to put down in words my own understanding and remind myself of areas that require further study, I’ve decided to put together a little guide to the basics of Buddhist thought and hopefully provide you all some interesting stuff to read along the way.

Before I start all that, if you’re interested in practicing mindfulness and meditation, I can highly recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.  In my opinion it’s the most readable, detailed, and well-organised guide to Buddhist mindfulness practice available.  If you read this book and follow the advice within it, you’ll have all the tools you need to start an effective and comprehensive mindfulness practice in your daily life.

Also, a disclaimer: all of this represents my own understanding of core Buddhist principles and practices.  Don’t take my word as being 100% accurate.  Some of it is heavily simplified, some of it will have my own misconceptions layered in there.  Take it as one guy’s summary and fill out the gaps with more authoritative sources!

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Common Questions about Buddhism and Meditation

Doesn’t Buddhism involve worshipping the Buddha?  I thought you were an atheist.

I am an atheist, and lucky for me, Buddhists do not believe in a creator god.  The Buddha is not a god, he was a human who spent years struggling to understand his place in the world, and eventually achieved enlightenment, and offered the knowledge he gained to the world.  He’s an object of respect and admiration, but not worship as some of us might offer to figures like Jesus Christ — and worship would be somewhat antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings, which encourage us to strive for enlightenment on our own terms, and only follow those teachings which match our own experiences and critical analysis.

Doesn’t Buddhism require belief in a soul, so that reincarnation can work?  Again that seems antithetical to your scientific mindset.

Not at all.  There are three core concepts, the three marks of existence, that define the Buddhist concept of the world: anicca (impermanence); dukkha (suffering); and anatta (not-self).  In short, everything in the universe is subject to decay and eventual destruction (impermanence), our existence is plagued with feelings of unsatisfactoriness and discontent (suffering), and our concept of a defined, eternal ‘self’ is an illusion (not-self).

To unpack the ‘not-self’ concept a bit, Buddhists believe that we are not defined, separate individuals with a unique essence, or soul.  I, for example, was once a baby — I was tiny, looked really different, had no beard, and my brain couldn’t even properly encode memories.  Yet I still say that baby is ‘me’, despite having a different physical and mental existence in every aspect.  I have an innate tendency to believe that this highly changeable and temporary existence is somehow united by some unique, ineffable essence that makes me, me.  For some of us that essence is an eternal, non-physical soul.

Buddhists deny this, and say that this concept of self is an illusion.  Our existence is actually an amalgam of the five skandhas, or five aggregates: form (matter), or rupa; sensations (feelings), or vidana; perceptions, or samjna; mental activity, or sankhara; and consciousness, or vijnana.  These five aggregates constitute our experience of physical and mental existence, and create the illusion of self to which we cling.  Part of the Buddhist path to liberation is to realise that our existence is a consequence of the constant interaction of these five changeable aggregates, and further, that these aggregates are without fundamental independent existence.

So, the idea of an eternal, unchangeable ‘soul’ is actually incompatible with Buddhist thought.  The sense of self we have is the direct result of constantly changing interactions with our surrounding reality.  There is no eternal soul, and further there is no separate ‘spirit realm’ in which it could exist.

It’s worth noting that the Buddhist concept of these aggregates is broken down even further into extensive detail, but I won’t go into this here.  It’s extremely interesting though so I may do that — again for self-study reasons as well — in a later post.

Wait, hang on a minute — how does that work, don’t Buddhists believe in reincarnation?  How can we reincarnate if we don’t have souls?

No, they don’t.  Buddhists believe in a cycle of life, death and rebirth, called samsara.  Rebirth is not the same thing as reincarnation.  Reincarnation is something we see in other religions, wherein our eternal soul transfers into a new body after death and experiences a continued existence in another physical form.

Buddhism, as explained above, doesn’t accept the idea of a soul.  Buddhists believe that when we die, we die — our experience ceases completely, nothing is transferred beyond death.  When I die, the being known as Eric ceases to exist, my consciousness and self-identity as Eric dissipates, and my body becomes worm food.

However, that’s not the end of the story.  This is where karma, or kamma to stick to the Pali versions of terms I’ve been using, comes into the frame.  Our actions in each existence cause positive or negative kamma, not as some sort of supernatural judge of good or ill will in our beliefs and actions, but as a physical cause-and-effect relationship — if I do a good/bad thing, good/bad results will inevitably develop later.

It is this kamma that continues beyond death.  The Buddhist belief, at its core, is that once we die, the consequence of our kamma is that another birth takes place, and our little bundle of karmic pluses and minuses determines what kind of birth that will be.  This cycle is inevitable, and eternal, unless we are able to break free of this cycle via liberating ourselves from clinging to this world and become enlightened.

This cycle can be hard to conceptualise, so it’s often described using an analogy.  Imagine my life as a burning candle, with the flame representing my consciousness.  Right as the candle is running out, I use that flame to light the next candle.  The next candle lights up right as the old one burns out.  So my consciousness directly causes another, subsequent consciousness to arise in the next life, but my original consciousness burns out — the new one is a different consciousness, existing in a different body (which may or may not be human).  Kamma is what lifts the old candle to the new and causes the new one to light up.

Now there’s obviously a hell of a lot more to kamma, death and rebirth, but that’s the gist of it.  Rebirth is probably the hardest thing for Western Buddhists to get to grips with, and many people (including myself) choose to conceptualise rebirth largely as a reframing of the physical facts of death — so upon death, the matter of my body will inevitably become part of the environment and provide materials and energy for future beings, so in that sense I am ‘reborn’ and contribute to the arising of some future sentient being(s), and this then keeps happening over and over.  That framing is totally fine for many people, and still works alongside the importance of Buddhist ethics, meditational practice and kamma, so the whole edifice hangs together well enough.

Some then later go on to accept the whole picture of life, death and rebirth; personally I’m more willing to buy that picture than anything hinging on eternal souls, infinite punishments in Hell after death for finite crimes in this world, or various other things.  Buddhist rebirth also still accepts death as a real cessation of existence; only kamma continues to the next life, not the same consciousness and there’s no essential essence that transfers over.  But still it’s a pretty major leap.  Most people I’ve encountered online or elsewhere who properly believe in rebirth as Westerners came to that conclusion after years of meditative contemplation, so who knows, I may also decide such a thing a decade from now.

As a point of clarification — yes, the Buddha does say upon reaching enlightenment that he can see all his previous lives.  However, this is not because of direct recollection of those experiences through an eternal soul or directly transferred consciousness, but because he at that point attained perfect understanding of kamma and thus his own karmic history.  So he was able to see all that as an unfolding of karmic cause and effect across unimaginable aeons of time.  That’s the idea as I understand it, anyway.

And for the hell of it, an additional answer to an unasked question — what do I mean by ‘aeons’?  Well, Buddhism talks about a truly immense units of time called a kalpa.  How long is a kalpa?  Imagine a huge cube of granite, measuring 16 miles on a side.  Now imagine every 100 years, a man comes along and gently brushes a silk handkerchief against that mountain of rock.  A kalpa is how long it would take for the mountain to be completely worn away by that bit of silk.  So when Buddhists talk about long cycles of death and rebirth, they’re talking about really really long cycles.

Okay fine, so reincarnation isn’t a thing, it’s rebirth.  How do you explain the Dalai Lama, isn’t he supposed to be a reincarnation?

Well, we’re getting to the limitations of my knowledge here, but technically the Dalai Lama is not a reincarnation but is an emanation, specifically the 14th emanation of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kannon in Japanese Buddhism), the boddhisattva of compassion.  There’s a lot to explain here, much of which I don’t fully understand, so I won’t attempt to do all that.  I’ll do a bit of explanation, but bear in mind some of the details may be oversimplified or a bit ‘off’.

The gist of it is that Avalokitesvara is an enlightened being that can ’emanate’ into different physical existences.  So each Dalai Lama is essentially a physical manifestation of an enlightened Buddha, who put a bit of themselves into the Dalai Lama to hang about on the Earth and teach us Buddhist things.  After a Dalai Lama dies, the next one appears somewhere else, again as a manifestation of the same enlightened being.

This is why each new Dalai Lama is tested to see if they recall certain objects, places and people from their last incarnation — the idea as I understand it from the Dalai Lama’s own statements is that as an emanation of a higher-level being, that higher-level mindstream (another complicated Tibetan Buddhist concept) retains knowledge of experiences from their last go-round.  So the Dalai Lama’s existence is still compatible with Buddhist concepts of rebirth and not-self — he is not literally the same soul reincarnating around the place, but a manifestation of a larger being that creates different individuals in each emanation.  That larger being retains knowledge of the karmic processes of cause and effect that link each emanation, allowing the Dalai Lamas to remember things from previous incarnations.

Does that really make sense?  For me it’s pretty hard to swallow, perhaps because I’m viewing it from outside its original Tibetan context, where incarnate Lamas (tulku) are a major thing and have been for centuries.  Personally, viewed either way it doesn’t affect my opinion of the Dalai Lama himself, who I’ve had the great fortune to see speak in person at length for several days back in 2004.  He’s quite clearly an exceptional human being, and when he speaks about compassion I very much trust what he has to say, whether he’s an emanation of Avalokitesvara or not; his behaviour, knowledge and practice speak for themselves, independent of any other considerations.

OK fine, so I get that there’s no God, no soul, no self, and suffering is everywhere and we’re constantly reborn into that suffering forever, but honestly that sounds awful.  If all that’s true, then what’s the point of anything?  If we’re all doomed to just suffer and die over and over again, why bother with any actions at all?

This is a very good question, and a really common one.  It’s very easy to misconstrue Buddhist thought as being fundamentally nihilist.  The self is not real, there is no God, death is for-real death for the most part, and suffering is all we get.

But the Buddha very explicitly, and repeatedly, denies this interpretation.  He frames this debate as the idea that reality is absolute and real against nihilism, in which nothing exists.  Buddha’s way is called the Middle Way because it embraces neither sensual indulgence nor strict asceticism, and likewise here it straddles two extremes.  While everything is always changing and dependent on external causes and conditions to exist at all, that does not mean nothing exists; instead, it means that things — including ourselves — do not have an inherent, independent existence.

Imagine, for example, the chair you’re sitting on right now.  That chair was not always a chair, but was once bits of wood, which were once part of a tree, which grew out of some seeds, and so on.  The Buddhist might say that the chair is thus not an absolute, independently existent thing, but is instead the result of various causes and conditions that lead to its current existence as a chair.  What we call a chair is a product of conceptual thought, not absolute reality, because actually chairs are all differing composites of various other things and the events that caused them to exist.

Crucially, however, that does not mean the chair or the bits of wood or whatever don’t exist at all; it just means that we should avoid clinging to the chair as an independently-existing thing and instead accept it as a fundamentally impermanent agglomeration that will eventually decay and cease to exist in its present form.  So, things still exist in Buddhist thought, but are empty — not of existence as a whole, but of independent, absolute existence.  In relative terms — everyday terms — that chair still exists, as do we, and the causes and consequences of our actions every day.

To take it even further, because we ourselves are not-selves and are composed of the five skandhas roaming about the place, we are also interdependent on everything around us.  So in that sense, not-self and emptiness concepts mean we are less separate from the world than we are in traditions that hold we have a non-physical, eternal soul.  My existence is dependent upon, and intermingled with, the causes and conditions that also make up everything else, so in that context it’s extremely important I be mindful of my actions as I am also not absolutely existent independently, but am part and parcel of the swirling mess that is samsara.

OK right — I kind of get it.  Or maybe not.  But if I take it as read that stuff still exists, and things I do actually matter, then what do I do to avoid suffering?  If suffering is inevitable, as it sounds like it is, then what can I possibly do to not be miserable?

Now we reach the core of Buddhist actions, rather than just philosophising.  In his very first discourse after reaching enlightenment, Buddha laid down the core of Buddhist practice: the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Four Noble Truths are (roughly) as follows:

  1. The Truth of Suffering — there is suffering (dukkha)and it is everywhere.
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering — suffering comes from attachment, or grasping/clinging to sense-pleasures, desire for existence, or desire for non-existence.
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering — suffering can cease when we give up these attachments.
  4. The Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering — the way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

So all is not lost — yes, suffering is everywhere, and now we know that fundamentally suffering arises due to our desire to cling to aspects of existence even when existence is ultimately impermanent and constantly changing.  But we can end our suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha conveniently lays down shortly after this:

  1. Right View — basically, accepting the Four Noble Truths, and believing that there’s a way out of all this.
  2. Right Resolve — renouncing material attachments and devoting oneself to a more contemplative life.
  3. Right Speech — don’t lie, don’t speak ill of other people, and don’t say things that are not of benefit to others.
  4. Right Action — don’t kill people, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood — make your living without harming other sentient beings or doing other bad things.
  6. Right Effort — exert your will to avoid unwholesome states of mind that spawn ill will, desires for sense-pleasures, etc.
  7. Right Mindfulness — cultivate awareness of existence as being impermanent, full of suffering, and devoid of self (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
  8. Right Concentration — develop a ‘one-pointedness of mind’, or the centring of consciousness on a single object, without loss of focus.

So the way to end suffering is to lead an ethical life, refraining from absorbing ourselves in materialistic sense-pleasures and from causing harm to sentient beings, while also cultivating a concentrated, mindful consciousness.  In so doing we improve our kamma, reduce our attachment to the impermanent world around us, and develop experiential insight into the nature of mind and reality.  Eventually, if we do well enough, we can break the endless cycle of samsara and enter nirvana (nibbana), and we no longer suffer and instead experience unimaginable bliss.

I feel it’s important to note again here that in the context of the Buddha’s original sutras — called the Pali Canon and the core texts of Theravada Buddhism — the Buddha can’t help you with all this, as he’s not an interfering Christ figure or God.  Praying to him won’t do anything.  Ultimately the responsibility for your enlightenment — or lack thereof — rests with yourself and your own practices.  There are no supernatural authorities to reward or punish you; instead you simply reap the results of your good or bad actions through kamma.

This is not necessarily the case in Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, where Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are seen as enlightened beings that do in fact try to help the rest of us mooks achieve enlightenment.  But even in the most ritual-laden Tibetan practices, still these ‘deities’ are seen as ultimately symbolic of qualities we wish to cultivate in ourselves, rather than as real gods/goddesses or beings that can intercede directly in our affairs.

Wow, finally — that Right Mindfulness/Right Concentration stuff sounds like meditation to me, at last!  You started all this off with that and haven’t given me any details at all yet.  So get to it.

Sorry about that.  I like talking about Buddhist philosophy so I got a bit caught up.

Right, so from the start here I should say I’m again focusing on the Pali Canon and the original sutras from the Buddha.  So essentially I’m talking about meditation as practiced in Theravada Buddhism, which are practices also core to every Buddhist tradition.  There’s tons of other types of meditation in Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, but they differ widely and would make this post even more ridiculously long than it already is.

Right Mindfulness in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path can be cultivated via what we now call insight meditation (vipassana).  Insight meditation is about developing awareness in ourselves of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self.  The way this is done is deceptively simple, and it all starts with watching the breath.

This means that we sit in a comfortable, stable posture, and simply observe our breathing as it rises and falls.  Other thoughts will rise constantly, but rather than attend to them or explore them, we simply note their arrival and return to watching our breathing.  Physical pains may develop as we sit as well, and we do much the same: note the sensation, observe it as it rises and falls, don’t become involved, and allow it to pass.  As we do this over weeks, months and years, eventually we find it easier to redirect our attention away from the various thoughts and sensations that come and go, and we begin to understand that all mental phenomena — and indeed all phenomena — are like this.  Things come, and they go, and if we gently allow that to happen and return to focusing on the breath, we likewise train our minds to stop attending so much to impermanent, momentary thoughts and sensations.  In this way we develop mindfulness — a clear awareness of impermanence (anicca), direct experience of the way our mind clings and thus suffers (dukkha), and knowledge of not-self as we see our mind as it really is, composed of a mess of thoughts and sensations with no permanency or independent existence (anatta).

Now, having success with vipassana also requires that we develop concentration, or the ability to focus on a single object within our minds.  This is the other main type of Buddhist meditation, called samatha (sometimes translated as ‘calm abiding’).  In samatha, conveniently, we also can use the breath as an object of focus, but instead of trying to develop insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena and observing this process, we focus on developing single-pointed concentration on the breath.  If other thoughts arise, we note them, immediately drop them, and return to the breath.  Over time, we can maintain this focus longer and longer, and enter states of deepening concentration known as the four jhanas.  I won’t go into these much but will just quote the Buddha here:

[i] Here, the monk, detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first jhana, in which there is applied and sustained thinking, together with joy and pleasure born of detachment;
[ii] And through the subsiding of applied and sustained thinking, with the gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration;
[iii] And through the fading of joy, he remains equanimous, mindful and aware, and he experiences in his body the pleasure of which the Noble Ones say: “equanimous, mindful and dwelling in pleasure”, and thus he enters and remains in the third jhana;
[iv] And through the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the previous disappearance of happiness and sadness, he enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is without pleasure and pain, and in which there is pure equanimity and mindfulness.

Buddhism being Buddhism, of course, this is far from the end of the story.  There are four more jhanas beyond those, and the whole system is described differently in some Mahayana traditions and in Tibetan literature, so there’s tons more to discover on both main varieties of meditation.

Now these two meditation methods may seem rather closely related, or even hard to distinguish, and you’d be quite right — in fact in the early Buddhist canon the two seem to be intimately connected.  There’s a lot to talk about on this topic, which I won’t bore you with but instead will direct you to this free book on the close relationship between samatha and vipassanaA Swift Pair of Messengers.  Note however that this book assumes significant familiarity with meditational practices and Buddhist terminology, so it’s not recommended for beginners.

If you want to start practicing vipassana, again I’d direct you to Mindfulness in Plain English which is entirely about this kind of mindfulness meditation and is extremely clear and good.  Helpfully, the same author wrote a follow-up about samatha and the jhanas called Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, which is equally excellent.

Right, so there are two main kinds of meditation, closely related but with different ultimate goals.  But aren’t they both, ultimately, about withdrawing from the world?  In meditation are we not just hiding from reality?

No, completely the opposite.  Mindfulness and meditation are about creating awareness of the world, how it functions and how our minds perceive it and relate to it.  In deep states of meditation, one understands how our normal states of mind are constantly polluted with unwanted thoughts, desires, and constant noise.  Buddhists call this the ‘monkey mind’ — the tendency of our minds to leap heedlessly from thought to thought, like monkeys cavorting in the jungle canopy.  We never settle, never allow ourselves to perceive anything in and of itself, but instead coat everything with conceptual thought and wallow in endless diversions.

When you start meditating, it won’t be long before you see this ‘monkey mind’ in action and realise that you are completely insane in a way you’ve never noticed before.  Focusing on the breath sounds simple, and turns out to be almost impossible.  Our brains leap from tree to tree, never allowing us a moment’s peace.  You might snap back to the breath and realise you’ve been stuck in a sexual fantasy for the last five minutes without even remembering how you got there.  Or you may try to count your breaths and never get past three as the distractions come so thick and so fast.  You may even discover — this is my problem — that you can have two or three independent, completely fleshed-out trains of thought going simultaneously, and it all seems like an unstoppable cacophony.

But it’s important to be gentle with yourself, and simply allow these things to pass away, and say to yourself ‘OK I was distracted, that’s fine — now back to the breath’.  The simple act of redirecting your attention back to the meditation object is mindfulness!  You are being aware of your mind’s constant straying, and consciously moving back to moment-to-moment experience.  Keep doing that, keep redirecting yourself, and eventually that redirection will become easier and easier to achieve.  Each time you do it, you’re retraining your mind and developing a new habit: instead of getting lost in conceptual thought, retreating from the world and the realities of mind and life, you will redirect yourself back to experience.  Eventually, meditation will allow you to carry over this training into your everyday life, and your awareness of every moment of existence is enhanced.

So, ultimately meditation is not about retreating from reality.  Meditation is about being present in reality in a way we normally never are.  We train ourselves to experience moment-to-moment existence as it really is, observe the comings and goings of our thoughts and the world around us, and become more aware of our reality than before.

OK that sounds a bit more positive.  But what about compassion and loving-kindness and all the stuff the Dalai Lama talks about?  This all seems really inwardly-focused.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that — cultivating insight in one’s own mind naturally helps us to perceive the impermanence and suffering present in the world for everyone else, too.  As we become aware of our own crazy ‘monkey minds’ we understand how everyone suffers the same thing, and over time that helps us build compassion.

But yes, there are meditation methods specifically oriented around metta, or loving-kindness.  This is a Buddhist vision of compassion in which we experience pure, unconditional kindness toward all sentient beings; it’s often described as similar to the love a mother feels for her child.  In developing metta within ourselves, we attempt to give that same love to any and all sentient beings on Earth, whether they are friends, enemies, business competitors, or whatever.  Tibetan Buddhists like to say that, in all the hugely long kalpas of the universe’s history, all beings have at some point been our mother, so we should treat them with the same unconditional love and respect we do for our current mothers.

I’m truly becoming a broken record at this point, but our good friend Bhante Gunaratana wrote another helpful book on metta meditation, which again I highly recommend: Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta.  Again this is well worth picking up if you want a readable, approachable introduction to metta.

In essence, this kind of practice revolves around entering a calm, meditative state, and then beginning to imagine you are offering pure love and compassion to others, but always starting with yourself.  This can take different forms depending on the practitioner; you may mentally recite a series of well-wishing phrases to yourself, then to a close friend, then your whole family, then your enemies, then to the entire world, for example.  Or it may involve visualisations, like fondly remembering a moment of pure compassion and then imagining that radiating outward from your body to encompass the entire planet.  However you do it, the idea is to bring that genuine feeling of compassion into your mind, then imagine giving that out to the world.  Over time, this practice trains your mind to offer compassion as your default response to other people.

One kind of metta meditation I particularly like is tonglen, which is a Tibetan practice.  Tonglen, like many Tibetan practices, centres on visualisations which is a method that I find easier to focus on.  Again there are many variations, but a common method of tonglen is to imagine your own suffering as piping hot black smoke emanating your body and mind.  As you breathe in a deep breath, that black smoke enters your body and is transformed into cool, clear vapour.  Do this a few times, then imagine a wider group of people, like friends or family, and again take all their suffering into your lungs, and breathe out only cool, clear vapour.  Then you can expand further and encompass the suffering of all sentient beings.  In this way, tonglen is meant to help us face suffering in ourselves and others, and be willing to take it into ourselves and offer something positive in return.  Tibetans particularly endorse this practice for helping us deal with ill health, or even terminal illness in ourselves or others.  In a way it helps us ‘toughen up’ and develop the mental strength to absorb bad things selflessly and compassionately.  If our dearest friend is dying, we might do tonglen while imagining their terrible situation, in order to build our strength so we can face it with them.

Metta is a very positive meditation experience for most people, and in my experience can help us be more compassionate toward ourselves as well as others.  Some might find it easier to get started with than vipassana or samatha, as well, since it has a more emotional, everyday focus.

OK great, thanks for that.  That’s quite enough for now.  Why did you write so much of this, anyway?

I felt maybe someone might find it interesting, I guess, but mainly it’s for me.  Buddhism is complex and studying it alone is difficult, so I felt the urge to get these core ideas down somewhere for my future reference.  As time passes and I get some more structured Buddhist experience and tuition, I’ll come back to this and adjust anything that doesn’t convey things well or introduces oversimplifications or mistakes.  Eventually I’ll probably write further posts in the future exploring some more detailed aspects of Buddhist thought.

In any case, I hope someone found this interesting, and perhaps even might be inspired to try some mindfulness/meditation practice.  As I said, even divorced from the Buddhist context these practices are often very helpful for people.  And if you try them and do find Buddhist philosophy intriguing, I hope this gives you a good idea of the basics.

So let’s say I read this and I do find it interesting, where do I go from here?

As I mentioned above I’ve focused on core ideas from the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s original teachings and the core texts of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.  This text alone is rather huge — you can find authoritative, complete translations by Bhikku Bodhi in hardcover in five exceedingly large volumes (one of them exceeds 2000 pages!).  There’s a ton to study there for a start.  If you want a great introduction to the Pali sutras with insightful commentary and a reasonable page count, pick up In the Buddha’s Words, also by Bhikku Bodhi.  If you decide to get deep into sutra study, you can follow Bhikku Bodhi’s extremely thorough lectures on all the Middle-Length Discourses here.

Update 29/12/17: For a bit more challenging reading on Theravada, check out this thorough translation of the Visuddimagga, The Path of Purification, in PDF format (853 pages!).  This is an extremely in-depth meditation manual and explanation of the Abhidhamma, often referred to as the core of ‘Buddhist Psychology’.  Highly recommended for philosophers, but it helps to have read the Pali Canon first.  If you’re feeling brave, throw in the Vimuttimagga, another manual on the Abhidhamma, available as a 433-page PDF and in numerous other formats.  Finally, if you’re feeling experienced enough in vipassana to tackle an 800+ page manual on the subject that digs deeply into the Pali Canon and related commentaries, you can try A Manual on Insight Meditation.

Beyond Theravada, there’s the Mahayana tradition, the ‘Greater Vehicle’, which embraces later teachings that focus much more on the ideal of the boddhisattva, or someone who reaches enlightenment but delays entering nirvana to help other sentient beings end their suffering.  Famous sutras to read in this tradition include the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.  The Lotus Sutra in particular presents a pretty major reconceptualisation of the Buddha(s), and is rather huge to boot, so should keep you busy for awhile, particularly if you dig into the nearly endless commentaries.  If you want to be a completist you can read English versions of the eighty-five volumes (!) of the Taisho Tripitaka.  For more approachable summaries of what Mahayana is about, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a well-written but still dense summary of his view on the tradition in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  The Dalai Lama’s books also cover some key concepts of the Mahayana tradition, particularly loving-kindness/metta.

Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition, and probably one of Japan’s most famous exports.  It’s also the most popular form of Buddhism in the West.  Zen is known for its intense focus on zazen (sitting meditation), some rather crazy Zen masters, and mind-twisting koans that challenge the eager student’s perceptions of dharma.  If you want to read a classic of Zen thought, check out Dogen’s Shobogenzo, which is huge and dense but considered a masterpiece and the central text for Soto Zen.  For a more accessible intro to Zen, The Three Pillars of Zen is probably the best and most thorough.

Update 29/12/17:  Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery offers free PDFs of a number of books on Soto Zen practice here.  The page is helpfully laid out and suggests which books are best for beginners and for advanced practitioners.  The beginner books I’ve had a look at thus far (Zen is Eternal Life, Roar of the Tigress I, Serene Reflection Meditation) all seem to offer extensive introductions to both Soto Zen beliefs and practices, so do take advantage of these if you want a free intro to Zen thought.

After Mahayana comes Vajrayana, Tibet’s unique mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and yoga tantra.  Tantra came to Tibet back in the 8th century or so and melded with Mahayana practices and native Tibetan Bon shamanistic practices to produce a ritual-heavy esoteric tradition, characterised by heavy use of mantras, tons of ritual objects, and lengthy, complex tantric practices featuring detailed visualisations.  Vajrayana can be tough to get a grip on as it’s an esoteric tradition, meaning practitioners aren’t really supposed to talk about the tantric practices with non-practitioners, and you won’t normally be taught any of them unless you’ve received an initiation from a lama.  In order to be initiated you may be asked to complete the ngondro preliminary practices, which consist of things like 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mantra repetitions, and 100,000 of other stuff besides, although from what I understand you can sometimes start with tantra immediately once you start doing ngondro.

However, you can get a great historical summary of Tibetan Buddhism and a detailed survey of practices in the four major Tibetan traditions in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers.  Tibetan Buddhism is also gaining lots of Western adherents these days, largely thanks to the global adoration for the Dalai Lama, so various cities around the US and Europe actually have proper Tibetan monasteries now.  Like any Buddhist group they’ll be more than happy to have you join in, so if you read Powers’ book and find it interesting, look up your local Tibetan group, ring them up and ask to join a meditation or puja.  Some Tibetan sects also offer teachings online, or even tantric initiations/empowerments via webcam.

That basic idea works for any tradition, really — if you like what you read and want to try meditation under proper instruction and with encouragement from a group, find one in your area and give them a ring.  Just be careful to mind how you go, as some unscrupulous types do take advantage of new maybe-Buddhists seeking answers and try to suck them into some cultish stuff (looking at you, New Kadampa Tradition and Diamond Way Buddhism — don’t join these folks).  Remember that Buddhist Dharma teachings should be offered free or at cost, and Buddhists aren’t really into converting people and should welcome you to just sit and meditate in peace, whether you’re interested in Buddhist practices or not.  Retreats might cost more money, generally to cover accommodation and food, and the attendance of the teacher who may be travelling quite some distance.

A few things to remember, if you do go to a group — if you borrow or are given any Buddhist literature while you’re there, don’t leave it on the floor, step over it, or put things on top of it, this is disrespectful.  Put it on a table or shelf with nothing resting on top of it.  In Tibetan practices, don’t point your feet towards the altar or the lama either — be mindful of this if you need to shift positions while meditating, for example.  And of course, try not to disturb anyone who’s meditating, and please turn off your phone!

If you ultimately decide you want to be a Buddhist and do something ‘proper’ to mark that commitment, you can do what’s called ‘taking refuge’.  In doing this you pledge yourself to take refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and the sangha (the monastic community).  Most traditions will have some kind of ceremony for this.  This means you decide to trust that you can reach enlightenment as the Buddha did; that you understand the Four Noble Truths and will follow the Noble Eightfold Path; and that you will trust in those already following that path.  As usual, if you do this and then don’t practice or fall out of Buddhism, there aren’t any supernatural judgments awaiting you — it’s up to you to make good on that promise, or not.

It’s worth noting that major Buddhist figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have stressed that it’s not really important to ‘convert’ to Buddhism.  You’re a Buddhist once you start following Buddhist practices and teachings, you don’t have to prove that to anyone, since no god or gods are watching or judging you anyway.  You can even be a Buddhist while following other religions, though bear in mind some fundamental Buddhist concepts are quite at odds with certain religions (might be hard to still be a Christian if you don’t believe in a creator God or an eternal soul, for example).

Anyway, that’s more than enough for now.  If any of you decide to try meditation, good luck, and if any of the Buddhist philosophy stuff appeals to you, I hope you find some of these links and books interesting.

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