Questions I Have Often Been Asked About Buddhism


I.             Is Buddhism a philosophy or a religion?

In order to answer this question, we must take the underlying assumptions behind the two possibilities—philosophy and religion—into account.

IF ‘religion’ must mean theism of some sort or another, then Buddhism is not a religion.

IF ‘philosophy’ must be divorced from ethical or spiritual discipline, then Buddhism is not philosophy.

So where does this leave us? I think questioning the assumptions behind the question. Buddhism is a path to liberation. Whether we choose to call it a philosophy or religion (or psychology) is entirely dependent on the assumed definitions of the words in question. Personally I prefer to say that it is the Path, or the Buddhadharma (that’s what it’s called in the East), and leave it at that. In my own conversation I freely refer to it as religion—because my own personal definition of ‘religion’ is, precisely, ‘a doctrine of liberation, the techniques for achieving that liberation, and the application of those techniques.’

II.          Was the Buddha a man or a god?

To begin with, the Buddha was not a god, or God.

However, the Buddha was not a ‘man’ in the sense of ‘ordinary human being’. He began life as an ordinary human being to be sure. At the age of 35, after a six-year period of spiritual quest (and, according to Buddhist doctrine, many aeons of previous lives in preparation), the monk Gautama achieved complete, full Enlightenment. He became a Buddha—a fully-enlightened being. (“Buddha” isn’t a name, but an epithet.) That places him, in a way, between notions of ‘man’ and ‘god’, but it is more accurate to say that he is transcendent to them both. The concept of buddha is not one which Western culture has a ready equivalent. So the Buddha was neither man, nor god: he was a buddha, the Buddha of our world-system. In the Theravada tradition he is referred to as bhagavato arahato sammasambuddha—Blessed One, Awakened One, Fully Enlightened One.

III.       Do Buddhists worship the Buddha?

Yes, Buddhists do worship the Buddha. Within a theistic context, this might seem as though Buddhists therefore deify the Buddha, given that worship in theistic cultures is reserved only for God, and not humans.

However, the Buddha was a fully-enlightened being. To the Buddhist, this is far more than being a god; in Buddhist thinking, gods are beings subject ultimately to impermanence and suffering just like the rest of us. A fully-enlightened being, a Buddha, has transcended all human limitations, has become a symbol for reality itself. Thus if a Buddhist were to be thinking of the Buddha as a god, then worship would be inappropriate. It is because the Buddha is a buddha that he is worthy of worship.

In the Anguttara Nikaya, one of the many collections of Buddhist scripture, a series of seven sutras (discourses) speak of the Buddha—often referred to as ‘Tathagata’, or ‘thus-existing One’—as follows:

Monks, there is one person whose birth into the world is for the welfare of many folk, for the happiness of many folk: who is born out of compassion for the world, for the profit, welfare and happiness of devas and mankind.

Who is that one person? It is a Tathagata who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened One. This, monks, is that one person.

Monks, the manifestation of one person is hard to be found in the world. Of what person? Of a Tathagata, who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened One. Hard to be found in the world is such.

Monks, one person born into the world is an extraordinary man. What person? A Tathagata, who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened One. Such a person born into the world is an extraordinary man.

Monks, the death of one person is to be regretted by many folk. Of what person? Of a Tathagata, who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened One. This, monks, is the one person.

Monks, there is a person born into the world who is unique, without a peer, without counterpart, incomparable, unequalled, matchless, unrivalled, best of bipeds he. Who is that one person? It is a Tathagata, who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened one.

Monks, the manifestation of one person is the manifestation of a mighty eye, a mighty light, a mighty radiance, of six things unsurpassed. It is the realization of the four branches of logical analysis: the penetration of the various elements, of the diversity of elements: it is the realization of the fruits of knowledge and release: the realization of the fruits of stream-winning, of once-returning, of non-return, of arahantship. Of what person? Of a Tathagata, who is Arahant, a fully Enlightened one.[1]

It can be understood that non-Buddhists might make the mistake of thinking that such descriptions apply to a divine being of some sort. But they are descriptions of ‘a’ Tathagata—i.e., any fully-enlightened Buddha who arises in the world.

IV.        Does Buddhism account for the origin of life or of existence in general?

Unlike many religions, Buddhism does not have a strong cosmological component. That isn’t to say that there is no such thing as Buddhist cosmology, but on the whole Buddhism simply accomodates the cosmology of the current culture as long as it doesn’t stand in direct contradiction to the Dharma.

Buddhism does not accept doctrines of a personal creator or First Cause and in fact considers such notions to be incoherent. Questions about the origin of life aren’t really germane to Buddhist practice—that is, there’s no objection to asking or contemplating such questions, but they have nothing to do with Buddhist practice per se and, if they develop into objects of intellectual and/or emotional attachment, can become active hindrances to the practice.

V.           Are Buddhists required to be vegetarians?

No, although many Buddhists the world over are vegetarian. Western Buddhists of all traditions are by and large vegetarian, but by choice and not by commandment.

Buddhist ethics is based upon the realization that we need to take responsibility for our own actions, actions which form a crucial aspect of our interrelatedness with the world. Buddhist ethics involves seeing that all our actions have consequences, either directly or indirectly, for ourselves and for others. Even the indirect effects of our actions are of concern to us with the network of cause and effect of which we are an inseparable part.

The Dhammapada, an ancient and beloved collection of short sayings of the Buddha, contains these verses:

All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. Those who consider this do not kill or cause to kill.

All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. Those who considers this do not kill or cause to kill.

We can do no greater harm than to kill another sentient being. Killing is the ultimate expression of indifference to the well-being of others. Buddhism does not make the kind of sharp distinction between humans and animals that is characteristic of some other religions.

There is no way to eat meat without killing animals, either through our own direct actions or indirectly through purchasing meat obtained by killing animals.

It is also the case that dairy products are the cause of a great deal of suffering on the part of the animals involved as well. Many Buddhists are vegans (not using any dairy products in addition to vegetarianism, and trying to avoid leather for belts and shoes, etc) as a way of trying to help alleviate this suffering.

Buddhists generally acknowledge vegetarianism as a desirable practice, even within contexts in which it isn’t practiced. Sometimes Buddhists will not be able to practice vegetarianism due to their surroundings (this was typically a problem for Tibetans.) It is sad to say, but in some Buddhist cultures vegetarianism is praised but not practiced, even though it is possible to do so.

VI.        What’s the Buddhist stance on drugs and alcohol?

This one’s actually pretty simple: intoxicants that cloud the mind should be avoided, period. There is also a sense that one should be cautious on the matter of substances such as caffeine or sugar, but they are not considered to cloud the mind and interfere with practice in the way that alcohol and drugs do. A bit of caffeine can help to awaken a drowsy mind, as we all know. Refreshments consisting of tea & cookies are more or less de rigeur at any Buddhist meeting here in the West.

The stance against booze and drugs isn’t out of some finger-wagging moral outrage. It is down-to-earth and practical: one can’t meditate effectively with even trace amounts of intoxicants in the system. Inebriation is also a prime factor in straying from the ethical trainings such as those against sexual abuse or theft.

Buddhist practice is all about facing our difficulties, seeing through our own greed, hatred, and delusion. Escaping via alcohol or drug use isn’t skillful means.

Once in a while somebody might talk about having some fabulous drug-induced peak experience, which they proceed to give some kind of faux-Buddhist spin. They may feel quite sincere about their experience, but whatever that experience may be, it isn’t insight.

There has been some debate concerning this issue amongst Buddhist newcomers in the West, but amongst committed practitioners it’s really a no-brainer. You just don’t do booze or drugs. (Prescribed medicenes are of course to be used as instructed.)

VII.     Are there sectarian divisions in Buddhism?

Most definitely. Buddhism is divided into many, many schools and traditions. (Note that we tend not to use the term ‘sect’ in relation to Buddhist schools.)

However, unlike many other religions, the Buddhist world has a long-standing and deep commitment to tolerance and mutual respect. Rivalry between Buddhist schools is restricted generally to discussions about differences in doctrine or interpretation. Religious persecution within the Buddhist world is virtually unheard of in 2500 years of Buddhist history.

Buddhism is a practice more than a doctrine or set of doctrines. The core practices of Buddhism are pretty much the same the world over, even though they may have different superficial appearances.

Here in the West, the various schools are even more aware of each other and are actively working together to promote the emergence of a Western Buddhism which may have many sub-dialects but which is overall in keeping with the long Buddhist tradition of inclusion and ecumenical fellowship.

VIII.  What is the position of women in Western Buddhism?

In modern Western Buddhism there is absolutely no barrier. Women are nuns, teachers, practitioners, in full equality. Women make up a significant majority in many modern Western schools, including my own (Vipassana.)

That hasn’t been true historically, to be sure. It is still not possible for women to be ordained as nuns in some parts of Asia. The late Roshi Jiyu Kennett of Shasta Abbey was the very first female Zen master to be given full Dharma transmission by a major Japanese temple (Soji-ji).

IX.        What’s the Buddhist stance on the subject of sexuality and sexual orientation?

Buddhist teaching about sexuality is ethical, not proscriptive: how is sexuality used so as to help, and not to harm? From a Buddhist point of view, gender distinction in issues of sexuality is unimportant. It’s the intention that matters, and not sexual orientation or sexual practices per se.

Ordained monks and nuns are expected to practice celibacy in most Buddhist traditions, although not all (Zen is a notable example.)

During meditation retreats, virtually all traditions require complete celibacy for laypersons and monastics alike.

It has been my experience that individual Buddhists may well be heir to the prejudices of their own cultures. Therefore certain biases may make themselves felt. This is especially true in those cultures which have been strongly patriarchal or hierarchic in nature (the culture of Tibet is one such example).

However, the Dharma does not take sides on any issues of human sexuality.

X.           Is it possible to be a Buddhist and believe in God?

Buddhism is not a religion of cognitive faith for the most part—cognitive faith being the acceptance of doctrines and views as true, or the existence of particular entities or states of being, without actual experience. Buddhism is an experiential religion, one in which the practices are used to their ends, discarded if not needed or after having filled their purpose.

This is not to say that Buddhism is without faith: quite the opposite. Faith in the Buddhist sense is trust in the benefits of practice: trust in the possibility of Enlightenment, trust that Enlightenment does actually represent the ideal of sentient existence, trust in the teachers who dispense the Dharma. Buddhist faith is affective faith—trust, or acceptance that a particular course of action will help achieve a specified outcome.

The core teaching of the Dharma—pratitya-samutpada, or ‘dependent origination’—utterly negates even the possibility for an eternal, creator God. If the teaching of pratitya-samutpada is truly applied and understood, it is virtually impossible to believe in such a creator God.

However, we Buddhists are all on the Path. Our practice develops and matures and changes. We all carry around a collection of mental concepts and opinions. Eventually all of our views and concepts are hindrances to let go of—but many of us are very, very far from that eventual goal. So an individual Buddhist may well carry a belief in a personal creator God, even while perhaps acknowledging the contradictions such a belief presents.

This is not a problem from a Dharma point of view. It doesn’t mean that one is a ‘bad Buddhist’ or ‘not really a Buddhist at all’ or a ‘closet Christian’ or any such thing. It is simply the place one is, at the present time. Eventually a view/concept of a personal creator God will be seen for the hindrance it is, and will be discarded.

Should this sound a bit arrogant or judgmental, keep in mind that “Buddhism” is also something that will eventually be seen for a hindrance, and will also be discarded. Any form of spiritual materialism is ultimately a hindrance, whether theistic or non-theistic.

XI.        Where do Buddhists stand on the subject of Christ?

Well, nowhere really.

That’s speaking from general terms. However, in terms of the individual there may be differing viewpoints (see my remarks above on believing in God.) From the standpoint of the Dharma, to speak of Christ as the ‘son of God’ is actually in some ways a little bit demeaning, given that a ‘god’ in the Buddhist sense is an impermanent being subject to decay and death, just like the rest of us.

However, Buddhists in general respect and admire Jesus of Nazareth, just as we admire Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Mohammed, and other great spiritual teachers. I have no problem myself with the thought of Jesus as an enlightened being; certainly he was no ordinary human being.

Before leaving this topic, it is worth stressing that Buddhists, as a whole, will go to great lengths to be respectful to and tolerant of Christianity and Christians.

XII.     Do Buddhists believe that ‘nothing really exists’?

No. It’s absurd, isn’t it?

The confusion comes from misunderstandings (sometimes from fairly good teachers!) of the doctrine of anatman, or no-self. Anatman is very much part of the teaching of pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination) and is in fact inescapable as understanding of dependent origination deepens.

The doctrine of anatman is that no phenomena—whether physical or spatial or energy or mental or you name it—are characterized by an unchanging, eternal essence. In terms of individual human beings, that means ‘no soul’. In terms of physical objects, it rejects the Platonic notion of ‘forms’. In terms of all things, it means that absolutely nothing is apart from conditioned existence—i.e., all phenomena, no matter what, are the products of an incomprehensibly vast network of causes and conditions, and are themselves causes and conditions for incomprehensibly vast other networks of phenomena, causes, and conditions. This applies to absolutely everything. (Everything!!) So nothing exists as an unchanging, eternal phenomenon. But things exist.

XIII.  So just what is Nirvana, anyway?

It’s not something wacky and out-there and blissed-out. Unless you are well-versed in the Buddhadharma, any definition you carry around about it is probably incorrect from the Buddhist viewpoint.

The word ‘nirvana’ (‘nibbana’ in Pali) literally means ‘extinguished’, like a candle flame. Specifically what are extinguished are the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.

Nirvana is full enlightenment, to put it simply—the cessation of all suffering. A fully enlightened being has achieved nirvana. There is a great deal to be said about it, needless to say (it’s the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, after all), but that will suffice for now.

[1] The Book of Gradual Sayings (Anguttara-Nikaya) Vol. I, translated by F.L. Woodward. Oxford, Pali Text Society 1932.