Month: January 2011

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense of the word in that one has to believe in God or gods. It is a doctrine taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha in the 6th century BCE. It is neither a dogma nor a revelation by a supernatural agency. Buddhism is a spiritual path based on personal inquiry an experience, self-knowledge based on the understanding of the human condition and suffering, and how to overcome it through wholesome living, spiritual cultivation and wisdom. The Buddha was, in effect, a great Siddha, an accomplished knower of truth, a healer of the spirit.

To a seeker of truth it is not important where an idea comes from. To understand truth, it is not necessary to know whether the teaching comes from the Buddha or anyone else. What is essential is seeing and understanding it. Most traditional Buddhists do not see Buddhism as a form of spirituality but understand it as a religion. There are also scholars who study Buddhism as a philosophy. Buddhism should not be treated as a religion or a philosophy. Our modern society needs a spiritual training process to bring about peace and harmony to all beings and Buddhism is exactly this. Buddhism as religion tends towards dogmatism, supernaturalism and the occult. Buddhism as a mere philosophy limits its benefits to man. We should live the truth to realise it. Thus, Buddhism is the raft that ferries us from the bondage of delusion to liberation.

Buddhism is neither an abstract philosophy based mere intellectual activity. Philosophy means the love of truth. It is the path of awakening to the truths of existence and laws of nature. The Buddha’s method of teaching was unique; he encouraged people to observe for themselves. He criticised the enslaving ways of the traditional religious authorities and emphasised the importance of observation and analysis.

“Do not believe in anything simply because you’ve heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken or rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. After observation and analysis, if you find anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

“If we could see the beauty of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.”
– Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)


Ariya and Anariya


The difference between these two groups in in terms of spiritual attainments. In Theravada Buddhism, there are four types of realized individuals:
1. Arahata – worthy one
2. Anagami – non returner
3. Sakadagami – once returner
4. Sotapanna – stream winner

All of the above would have experienced the “unconditioned reality” to varying extent, with the highest level of attainment reached by becoming a worthy one. At each level, defilements in varying stages are being uprooted with eventual termination of rebirth.

The ordinary folks include all good and foolish folks. In fact, you will rarely, if ever, come across a really evil person. We’d rather look at them as weak or “sick” and need compassion. Conversely, to be totally “good” is to have “realized”. Most would come in in-betweens.

Anyways, it’s not easy to know who has “realized” and guessing would not help to ascertain this either.

Alternatively, we could classify them as:
a. spiritually inclined beings
b. spiritually uninclined beings

Again, be careful how you respond to this. If you consider yourself spiritually superior, then pride may arise. But if you consider others more superior than yourself, you may develop inferiority complex. The solution to both situations is to replace them with humility and respect. Then the feeling of fellowship and faith will arise instead, and metta loving kindness follows. When metta loving kindness arises, we can make use of this as a common ground for civilized interfaith open dialogue.

Huayen on Indra’s Net

Best ground for civilized interfaith open dialogues

Today a lady was trying very hard to witness to me about her Christian faith. When I told her that I was a Christian, she felt sorry for me and said, “So, you’ve deserted the Lord!” She kept on asking questions such as, “Which church did you go to?” “Are you married?” “Are you divorced?” “What about your wife, does she believe in God?” “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “What’s your nationality?” She asked more questions than on a passport application survey! Her hands were shaky when she held up a piece of note with names of Christian magazines and churches, and she begged me to go buy one of those magazines to read. She tried to quote from the Bible but she couldn’t remember her lines, so she asked me to read the Book of John, Chapter 7, verses 16 through the end and Romans in the New Testament. She was evidently very startled. In short, there was no way she could understand why someone blessed with the love of God could leave the church in search for truth. When I explained to her that the name and the nationality didn’t matter, and asked her whether she had understood that, she finally gave up on me and left.

She reminded me of my college days when I had to go witnessing from city to city, state to state, travelling in a trailer home with a bunch of other young men and women. I circled each block knocking on doors to sell flowers to raise funds for the church. Each day I brought in US$200 tax free money as a volunteer working from 7 am to 7 pm. One day I would be in sunny California selling carnations from door to door, another day, on a bleak, chilly, and hungry Boston street corner distributing pamphlets for a spiritual talk by our “master,” and still another day on freezing New York streets, just wondering how I’d come that far.

An old lady on a scooter asked what happened. I told her she was witnessing.
“Was she a Jehovah’s witnesses?”
“No. She was just telling me how blessed she was by the grace of God.”
I replied.
“Then why did she feel sorry for you when you told her you were a Christian?”
“But I’m also Buddhist,”
I replied.
“That’s just it. There are people who just won’t accept other people’s faith and insist that theirs is the only true faith,” the lady said.

British Columbia is Indian land. The totem pole at YVR is a symbol that speaks to this fact. Our schools are secular and we don’t favor any particular religious to exclude others in order to maintain the multicultural fabric of the community. People are free to believe what they want to the extent that they don’t impose on others of their own religion. What then is the best common ground for civilized interfaith dialogues, programs, and activities? Or is there such a need? The above story was a clash between Christianity and Buddhism between two individuals that happened in Canada. Is that the only kind of dialogue we want? What about clashes between Christianity and Islam that continue to fuel the hatred among warring states today? Without dialogue, how are we to expect there will be lasting peace and harmony among people of different faiths, much less holistic harmony?

The world is getting smaller as travel, migration, and communications become more frequent. Cultures, customs, and even races will become mixed, but why is it so hard for faiths to merge? The main reason is that faiths are founded on myths and symbolism, and often set the criteria for cultural and moral codes for the individual, families, and the entire ethnic group. Through time a faith becomes the social fabric of a particular culture that weaves people together. The result is discrimination and prejudice. So the first step to secure the best common ground for civilized interfaith open dialogue is to decolor the ways we look at things. Do you have better ideas for building the best common grounds for civilized interfaith open dialogues? Any suggestions on how to improve the quality of such dialogues when we finally stand on some common ground?

On the second day, she called me up and told me she wanted to help me. I asked her how she got my number, and she said off the phone book. She said she wanted to help me leave Buddhism to return to Christianity. I told her that it was she who said I’d deserted the Lord. She asked me if I needed money for groceries and clothing because she saw me wearing only my robe and the funny sandals in winter without an overcoat. She didn’t know I was a monk. I asked her who wore those shoes and she said Buddhists. She said she had money and would treat me to a meal if I needed it. I politely turned her down. She wanted to meet me and give me some pamphlets to read. I said I’d done witnessing from way back in my college days. When I told her I went to the Catholic University of San Francisco, run by the Franciscan Brothers, she said she didn’t like Catholics because she’s a Christian and she didn’t want to listen to any evil talk that would harm her spiritual life. And there was evening, on the second day.

Written by Ven. Sakya Longyen
Huayen on Indra’s Net

You don’t have a soul

“You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” – C.S. Lewis

Well, at least that was C.S. Lewis’s assertion and most people’s unquestioned assumption. But it is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism that there is no independent, continuous and unbroken ātman (self). Even our body is only a collection of aggregates. If this is the case, who goes to heaven or hell, or is reborn into another life, assuming there are such things?

Yogācāra Buddhism posits anātman (no self) but admits the existence of a part of consciousness called the ālaya-vijñāna (all encompassing foundation consciousness) that is uninterrupted and that firmly records and stores the aftereffects of all our thoughts and deeds. The ālaya-vijñāna flawlessly retains all our experiences, recognises and contextualises things as we cognise them. Our experiences, according to their depth and significance upon our lives, are difficult to remove.

As noted, Yogācāra posits no self, nonetheless the part of our mind that reconciles our identity is called the manas, a deluded awareness that secretly, ceaselessly attaches itself to the notion of a continuous and unbroken self. The manas transforms objects of cognition by a deep attachment to the self, and by the resulting tendencies to protect and further that self. This is the part of you that says, “This looks so good to me and I like it!”

This ālaya-vijñāna and the manas together form our deep consciousness. They are followed by the six surface levels including the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousness, each is aware only of their own objects. It is only our ālaya-vijñāna, an incorporeal but ever ceasing and arising part of our deep consciousness that carries on from one life to another, not our soul, which in other religions and philosophies is the distinct, immaterial, but permanent entity of a human being which C. S. Lewis called “You”.

Written by Ven. Sakya Longyen
Huayen on Indra’s Net