Monthly Archives: February 2017

Modern Buddhist Myths

The historical Buddha lived 25 or so centuries ago, in a time before the concept of “history” had been separated from mythology. For this reason, the Buddha’s life story preserved through the ages is more myth than biography. This is not to say the story isn’t true. As Joseph Campbell said, “Mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”  However, we don’t know how factual the story might be.

Here in the 21st century, we may believe that we have evolved beyond myth-making. But in fact, today new myths are being created to make the Buddha more palatable to our postmodern sensibilities.

For example, today it is widely claimed that the Buddha was opposed to all rituals and ceremonies, and that rituals and ceremonies performed by Buddhists today are a corruption of the original teaching. Is that true?

Neon Buddha in Las Vegas, copyright Marc Smith,, Creative Commons License

The Buddha’s Objection to Rituals

First, let’s define “ritual.” A ritual can be the prescribed order of any ceremony, religious or otherwise.

 A ritual could be any procedure carried out in a prescribed way. Rituals can have a supernatural purpose, such as evoking a spirit; or, they can also be intended to mark a change in someone’s life — marriage; high school graduation, fraternal initiation. It is unlikely any human society has ever been without rituals.

The Buddha disparaged rituals in several of his sermons. He was critical of the Brahmins of his day, whose chief function was performing rituals. The path is better walked with mental discipline and ethical living than with rituals, he said.

Yet according to the Vinaya-pitaka, the Buddha initiated some rituals and ceremonies himself. There was a brief ceremony that marked a disciple’s admission into the sangha, for example. Other ceremonies believed to date to the Buddha’s time include Kathina (the robe ceremony) and the observances at the beginning and end of Vassa, the rains retreat.

In the Vedic religions that pre-date Buddhism, the times of the full and new moons had long been set aside as holy days and observed with rituals and teaching. The Buddha and his disciples adapted this practice by making full and new moon days a time for public confession and atonement.

The Vinaya also spells out how to bow (and whom to bow to) and the proper way to fold one’s robe and put away one’s bowl. It even explains in detail the correct way to manage one’s robe while using a latrine. The disciples’ lives were ruled by protocols and rituals, it seems.

Is it possible some of these protocols and rituals were added after the Buddha’s life? Yes, that is possible. In the case of the eight Garudhammas — restrictive rules that apply only to nuns — I think it is probable. But it’s impossible to know for certain. And if we toss out the entire Vinaya, we’re tossing out a large part of the recorded teachings believed to have originated with the Buddha.

It’s tempting to declare the parts of the old scriptures that conform to our views as “original” and discard the other stuff as something added later. But without objective evidence, that’s not an honest way to read the old scriptures.

No Magic

One distinction about the Buddha’s rituals and protocols is that they have practical purposes. An initiate’s vows to keep the Precepts; bowing to one’s seniors; the ritual handling of Kathina cloth all functioned to maintain commitment and promote group harmony.  Unlike the rituals of the Brahmins, these rituals were not based on magical thinking or meant to bring about a supernatural result.

In the many centuries since the time of the Buddha, it’s certainly true that many rituals have been performed by self-identified Buddhists that were and are based on magical thinking and meant to bring about a supernatural result. The intelligent response to this is not to avoid rituals entirely but to discern which rituals may have practical applications and which do not.

The Buddha also advised his monks to not become attached to the taste of food. He was not telling them not to eat.

For more on what makes a ritual useful, see “Ritual and Buddhism.”

Did The Buddha Begin a Religion?

Another story I’ve seen kicking around on the Internet is that, on his deathbed, the Buddha directed his monks to “not turn my teachings into a religion.” I find this claim problematic on several levels, including the simple fact that there are no such words in the Parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka, which I believe is our only record of the Buddha’s last days.

“Religion” as most of us understand it is a western concept. The Buddha would have had no word for it. The closest word to “religion” in the Sanskrit or Pali of his day is dharma, or dhamma. And the Buddha asked his monks to preserve the dharma with great care. He certainly never said “don’t turn my dharma into a dharma.”

Some of this confusion about religion may date to the Kalama Sutta, in which the Buddha advised his listeners to not place blind faith in teachers or scriptures. This one piece of the sutta often is quoted out of context to claim the Buddha advised us to apply “common sense” or “reason” to determine truth. But if you read the entire sutta, it’s clear that’s not what he meant at all. What was most important was discerning wisdom, or direct insight. And this, he often taught, came from practice of the Eightfold Path.

Since the 19th century, when western scholars began to take Buddhism seriously, westerners often have treated Buddhism as a blank slate on which they could project their ideals of what a spiritual tradition ought to be. Historian David McMahan said of this,

“Orientalist scholars located ‘true Buddhism’ in the texts of the ancient past and delimited it to carefully selected teachings, excluding any consideration of living Buddhists, except reformers who themselves were modernizing their tradition in dialogue with western modernity. … sympathetic Orientalists presented the Buddha as a protoscientific naturalist in his own time.”

You’ve heard the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This means that if the Buddha you see conforms too neatly to your own desires and expectations, he’s not “real”; he’s a projection of your own desires and expectations. At the very least, when you meet such a Buddha, don’t get too attached.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of However, since has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Finding Your Spiritual Path

In truth, finding your spiritual path is simple.  Just look down and see where your feet are. There’s your path.

The cartoon cliché about finding a guru on the top of a mountain and asking for the meaning of life is just that — a cartoon cliché. The genuine spiritual path has no geographical boundaries. There is no wisdom hidden in some far corner of the earth that isn’t already within you. The answers you seek can’t be put into words.

So, what do you do? If the path is everywhere, how do you direct yourself? If wisdom is within you, how do you access it? If answers can’t be expressed in words, how will you understand them?

The Buddhist answer is: Practice. Through practice, we expand our capacity to perceive and understand.

What Do We Mean by “Practice”?

Among Buddhists, “practice” usually refers to a particular discipline, usually engaged in daily, that engages body and mind. The purpose of this is not to stuff new facts in our heads, or re-arrange our mental furniture to accommodate a new belief system.

The purpose is to engage our natural but under-used capacities to understand and perceive in different ways.

Daily meditation is a common practice, but there are also focused chanting practices and ritual practices. The forms these take vary from school to school.

Read More: What Does It Mean to Practice Buddhism?

So there you are, interested in Buddhism and maybe wanting to give it a try. How do you get started?

This seems to happen all kinds of ways. Some of us are drawn into Buddhism because we want to learn to meditate. Some of us are introduced to a chanting practice by a friend. Thanks to modern technology, instructions for both can be found on the Web.

Getting Started in Meditation

Each of the meditating schools of Buddhism has a somewhat different approach to meditation, but Lesson One is nearly always focusing on the breath. If you can breathe, you can meditate.

Sit comfortably erect in a quiet place; the ideal is to be upright and keep your muscles relaxed at the same time. If you aren’t sure what to do with your legs on a meditation pillow, it’s all right to sit in a chair. In most schools you will be told to not close your eyes, but to simply rest your gaze on the floor.

Now, breath normally and focus all of your attention on the sensation of breathing. Feel air going into your nose and down to your lungs, and out again. As thoughts come up to hijack your attention, acknowledge the thought and let it go. Then go back to breath focus.

Some people find it helpful to count breaths from one to ten, then going back to one. If you try this, what often happens is that you’ll realize you’ve gotten to 47 and were lost in thoughts about the utility bill. Acknowledge the thought, let it go, and then go back to one.

Do this for five to ten minutes a day to start. Set a timer so you don’t have to keep checking your watch.

If you do this faithfully every day, you will find that your ability to stay focused becomes stronger. At some point, however, to deepen the practice you’ll need to choose a particular form of Buddhist meditation. Usually there is a kind of progression of practice, in which you leave breath counting behind and go on to more challenging or expanding exercises.

The meditating Buddhist schools you are most likely to find in the West are Theravada (which teaches insight or Vipassana meditation); Zen; and several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Continue reading

Paying for Teachings

People are sometimes astonished when Buddhist teachers and dharma centers require a payment for teachings and retreats. Shouldn’t the dharma be free? Christian ministers don’t expect fees for sermons, do they?

In the West, we’re accustomed to attending services, Sunday schools, scripture study and prayer groups without being asked to pay an entrance fee. Unless you are a member of that congregation or synagogue you probably won’t be asked for money, other than to drop something into the collection plate at Christian services. However, it’s not unusual for Buddhist centers to station someone near the door before services to ask attendees to kick over a “suggested donation.” There is nearly always an admission fee for classes and retreats. What’s the deal?

Think of Buddhism as a Start-Up

Churches and synagogues in the West get funded all kinds of ways. Successful, long-standing institutions probably have endowments and investments. Some Christian denominations maintain a kind of financial pool, so that wealthy congregations help support newer and poorer churches.

The Catholic Church is its own banker. Most religious institutions in the West ask members to commit some part of their income to the synagogue or church. And, of course, churches are forever holding fund-raising activities.

It’s also the true that some Christian denominations require churches to be self-sustaining. And it should be added that after the 2008 financial crisis banks foreclosed on churches in the U.S. in record numbers. Still, a church or synagogue with a large and well-established congregation to support it can probably stay in the black, so to speak, without asking for door fees.

Most monasteries, temples and dharma centers in the West are entirely self-funded, with no financial ties to a bigger institution with endowments and investments to sustain them. Many either rent space or are paying off substantial mortgages. In those cases the money raised from fees is necessary to keep the facility operating. I’m sure there are exceptions, but the dharma centers I know of personally are entirely on their own financially, and most are barely squeaking by.

Dharma Business

I believe most Buddhist temples, monasteries and dharma centers in the U.S. qualify as 501(c)(3) charities under the tax code and are therefore tax exempt.

Some dharma centers in the West have money-making ventures on the side, ranging from restaurants and bakeries to mail-order businesses selling things like books, Buddhist art and meditation pillows. These usually are taxed separately as for-profit businesses. Some of these enterprises have been quite successful; others have not. Side businesses seem to work best for urban centers that can draw on a large pool of volunteers to provide free or cheap labor. I know of a rural Zen monastery in the U.S. that tried running a health food store in the community to raise funds, but the project was abandoned largely because it became a burden on the few people able to work at keeping it open.

S.N. Goenka’s Free Vipassana Retreats

Many point to the example set by S.N. Goenka (1924-2013) as the solution to too-expensive dharma. Goenka, a Burmese teacher and philanthropist, personally built a number of Vipassana meditation centers around the world that offer an entirely free ten-day course/retreat on insight meditation. Why can’t other Buddhist organizations do something like that?

For one thing, there seems to be a shortage of wealthy Buddhist philanthropists. And while Goenka’s gift to Buddhism is priceless, his retreat centers offer a limited solution. By most accounts the retreats offer video instructions; student access to one-on-one direction is limited. There is little to no support for spiritual development beyond the ten-day course. And a tradition that relies on working one-on-one with a teacher or guru over a period of years simply can’t fall back on canned lessons.

How Much Is Too Much?

In Asia, supporting the temples and monasteries with alms and donations is an essential part of lay practice, not an option. In some traditions laypeople give alms to receive merit, making almsgiving a privilege. Not being allowed to give alms is something like excommunication.

Especially outside of ethnic Asian communities, many dharma centers in the West often lack community support. These centers really need everyone who comes through the door to leave something in the bowl, or they won’t be there long.

But that takes us to the other side of the issue — when are teachers and dharma centers asking for too much? Within U.S. Zen there have been at least three teachers I know of who appear to have abused the good will of students, pushing them to make large sacrifices of time and money to realize the teacher’s ambitions for a bigger Zen center or some other glorious enterprise, not to mention one teacher’s infamous white BMW and another teacher’s three houses. But those are exceptions; most Buddhist teachers I know live very simply.

The spiritual world is full of con artists, no question. But there’s a huge gulf between a dharma center collecting $30 at the door for a meditation workshop and a teacher demanding a four-figure sum for personal access to him, which has happened.

In short, this issue is not going to go away anytime soon. I would ask you to be understanding if a temple asks a modest fee for something. On the other hand, if a fee is a genuine hardship for you, don’t hesitate to speak up and let the temple know. They may give you a discount, or they may rethink their fee schedule. I hope we all agree that lack of money should not be an impediment to learning the dharma.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of However, since has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Dedication of Merit

The dedication of merit is a spiritual practice that, as far as I know, is unique to Buddhism. Further, it appears to be a practice found in all schools of Buddhism. However, it’s often a practice overlooked by westerners who may find the whole idea of “merit” confusing.

The English word “merit” means to be good or worthy of praise. Buddhists sometimes speak of “making” merit, and describe merit as something one accumulates through good deeds.

But of course, to a Buddhist this also begs the question, “if the self is an illusion, who is it that accumulates? Who is it that is worthy?”

Read More: Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

It may help to look at the Sanskrit or Pali words translated as “merit,” which are punya or punna, respectively. These words are sometimes defined as an inner sense of well-being. This inner sense comes from doing the right thing.

The Theravada monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu said that developing merit provides an essential foundation for Buddhist practice. “To paraphrase a modern Buddhist psychologist, one cannot wisely let go of one’s sense of self until one has developed a wise sense of self,” he wrote.

However, other dictionaries define punya or punna as “actions leading to good fortune.” In some schools of Buddhism, practitioners traditionally were told that accumulation of merit would eventually lead to a more fortunate rebirth that allows for the realization of enlightenment. If this doesn’t work for you, just think of it as a kind of provisional teaching that is helpful for others.

But very simply, dedicating merit simply means to share the merit with others. The dedication of merit is one way to not “cling” to your good deeds, or to not allow your merit-making to turn into a strategy for constructing a self. For this reason, merit dedications are a common part of Buddhist liturgy.

How to Dedicate Merit

There are many merit-making chants, but before we get to those let’s look at intention and understanding.

It’s often taught that a proper dedication must be purified of the three conceptual spheres, or the three spheres of an action. These are (1) the individual performing the action, (2) the object or subject of the action, and (3) the action itself. To be purified of the three spheres means that one fully realizes that the self, the “others” receiving the merit, and the merit itself are empty of a permanent self-essence.

One way to understand this is to consider that the dedication is not about you or your merit or the recipient; it is about all beings in space and time. In their book Natural Great Perfection: Dzogchen Teachings and Vajra Songs, Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Lama Surya Das said,

“When we practice bodhicitta prayers or meditations, it may look like we are alone, like we are practicing for ourselves, but we are not practicing for ourselves, and we are not alone. All beings are interconnected, and in that sense they are present or affected. Milarepa sang, ‘When I am alone, meditating in the mountains, all the Buddhas past, present, and future are with me. Guru Marpa is always with me. All beings are here.'”

Two Dedication Chants

There are infinite chants dedicating merit, some brief and some long. This is from the Theravada Forest Monk tradition:

May all beings always live happily,
free from animosity.
May all share in the blessings
springing from the good I have done.

From Tibetan Buddhism, here is a short dedication attributed to Nagarjuna:

By this merit may all attain omniscience.
May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing.
From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death;
From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings!

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of However, since has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Four Reliances

The Four Reliances, sometimes called the Four Reliables, are a list of guidelines for a student of the Buddha Dharma. Versions of the Reliances can be found in several Mahayana Sutras.

The Sanskrit word translated into English as “reliance” or “reliable” is pratisarana, which means “leaning or resting upon.” The root word sarana means “refuge,” and it’s a word that also appears in the Going for Refuge liturgy.

Since the Reliances originated in Mahayana scriptures, it is unlikely they are the words of the historical Buddha. Scholars believe the scriptures associated with Mahayana Buddhism mostly were written four centuries or more after the life of the Buddha. However, these texts are respected for their deep wisdom, even if the author is unknown. (See also “Buddhist Scriptures: An Overview.”)  Continue reading

Amitabha, Buddha of Boundless Light

Amitabha Buddha is one of the most prominent “celestial” Buddhas of Mahayana. In China and Japan he is the principal Buddha of the Pure Land school and one of the most commonly represented figures in Buddhist iconography. He is also a popular object of devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism.

The name Amitabha is a compound of the Sanskrit words amita (infinite or boundless) and abha (“light”). Amitabha is the Buddha of Boundless Light.

According to tradition, many ages ago Amitabha was a great king who renounced his throne to become a monk named Dharmakara. Dharmakara vowed to become a buddha and maintain a paradise in which enlightenment was easily realized. He took 48 bodhisattva vows, pledging to help all beings on the path to awakening. Continue reading

Attachment to Buddhism, and Why It’s a Problem

Occasionally when Buddhist talk about the problem of attachment, someone will raise a hand and say, “Is it bad to be attached to Buddhism?” Yes, it is unskillful, in fact.

Then, often, the next comment is, “Well, then, I’ll stay away from dharma centers and not get attached!” Um, “staying away” also is attachment, sorry.

Reviewing “attachment” — It’s understood in Buddhism that in order for there to be attachment, you need two things — someone to attach and an object to attach to.

When a thing becomes something you have to have, or something essential to your self-identity — whether it’s religion or political opinions or avoiding authority figures or having to have a chocolate chip cookie right now — this is attachment.

In short, attachment is you relating to an object in a needy way. And this is a problem because it reinforces the sense of “I,” or the ego. which the Buddha said is the primordial ignorance that leads us to suffering (see Four Noble Truths).  Continue reading

Buddhists Don’t Have to Be Nice: Avoiding Idiot Compassion

“Buddhists are supposed to be nice.” How many times have you heard that one? Buddhists are stereotyped as always being pleasant, soft-spoken and calm, and we aren’t always.

Of course, the Buddha taught us to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. The practice of Right Speech requires abstaining from rude and abusive language. Isn’t that the same thing as being nice?

Maybe not. Many Buddhist teachers have said that being compassionate and being “nice” are two different things. Most of the time, “nice” is mere social convention. It says nothing at all about relating to other people except on a superficial level. Even sociopaths can be nice (I have seen this with my own eyes).  Sometimes the guy who is yelling and throwing furniture around is the one who caresContinue reading

What Buddhists Mean by Lineage

Infinite Buddhas - © Ronald Tan | © Ronald Tan |

© Ronald Tan |


Lineage is a word that comes up a lot in discussions of Buddhism, but the word is not always used to mean the same thing. What are Buddhists talking about when they are talking about lineage?

There are ordination lineages and teacher/transmission lineages, which are especially important in Zen. Sometimes in Tibetan Buddhism “lineage” refers to the lineage of reborn masters. Let’s take these one at a time.

Monk and Nun Ordination Lineages

Ordinations are the ceremonies confirming that a man or woman has entered the monastic orders. The many schools of Buddhism have different rules and orders of monasticism, but generally there are two levels of ordination, novice and full. Fully ordained nuns and monks also function as priests. They have full authority to give teachings and sermons and preside at ceremonies.

The procedure for ordination is recorded in the Vinaya-pitaka. The historical Buddha made the rules for ordination to maintain some kind of standard for admittance to the order, especially when he couldn’t be there personally.

Among the stipulations is a requirement that a certain number of fully ordained monks be present at the ordination of monks, and a certain number of fully ordained monks and nuns be present at the ordination of nuns. Adherence to this rule has created ordination lineages, meaning an unbroken line of ordination attendees going back to the historical Buddha himself. In some schools, only ordinations within a recognized lineage are considered authentic.

Buddhists also speak of ordinations according to what version of the Vinaya they are using. Because the Vinaya originally was preserved by being memorized and chanted — in at least two languages and probably more — some variations occurred. The three Vinaya monks’ lineage traditions recognized as unbroken are the Pali (authoritative in Theravada Buddhism), the Dharmaguptaka (used by Mahayana Buddhists in East Asia, including Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Vietnam) and the Mulasarvastivada (authoritative in Tibetan Buddhism).

Only the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition has an unbroken lineage of nun’s ordinations. This has created a problem for Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, because without an unbroken ordination lineage women cannot be fully ordained under the traditional rules.

Teaching Lineages in Zen and Esoteric Buddhism

If there’s one thing held sacred in Zen Buddhism, its teaching lineages. Zen has sometimes defined itself as “face to face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras,” and that’s taken pretty literally. Zen tradition requires students and teachers to work together, in person, usually over a period of years, until the student’s intuitive, perceptual realization of the Buddha’s teaching is at least equal to the teacher’s,

Traditionally, “dharma transmission” is the formal recognition by a teacher that a student has surpassed him in realization of the dharma. The faith of Zen is that the unbroken line of teachers and students goes back to the historical Buddha and the Buddhas before the historical Buddha, and in this way the living mind of Buddha is transmitted through the generations. Each Zen dharma heir comes with a lineage chart that lists his teacher, and his teacher’s teacher, and his teacher’s teacher’s teacher, going back to the Buddha.

The lineage charts are no doubt patched together in spots, and history records that occasionally dharma heirs turned out to be bozos. Still, the lineages and the teaching process surrounding the face-to-face transmission truly are the heart of Zen. People who presume to teach without formal transmission are rarely accepted by other zennies as legitimate teachers. I believe the lineage charts are accurate going back at least a thousand years, if not longer, which is nothing to sneeze at.

When we speak of esoteric Buddhism we’re usually talking about Tibetan Buddhism and the Japanese sect of Shingon. In many esoteric schools there are oral teachings that are not written down and may only be received from a teacher, and the lineages of the transmission of oral teachings are carefully maintained. There also are teacher lineage traditions that are similar to the Zen tradition.

Tibetan Tulku Lineages

Finally, in Tibetan Buddhism people sometimes speak of the succession of reborn teachers (tulkus) as lineages, although this is probably the least common usage of the word “lineage.” See, for example, the “The Succession of Dalai Lamas.

Continue reading

Review: The Making of Buddhist Modernism

Anyone trying to make sense of contemporary western Buddhism would do well to read The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan (Oxford University Press, 2008). McMahan, associate professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, provides a clear and readable story about how “modern” Buddhism came to be the way it is.

I very much appreciate that McMahan has tossed out the common conceit that “modernity” is exclusively the creation of the West, and that Buddhism will be “modernized” by making it more palatable to cultural westerners.

McMahan illustrates that in Buddhism, traditionalism/modernism, and Asian/Western, do not neatly fit into simple dichotomies or fall along a clearly defined continuum. There are several “modernisms” emerging in Buddhism, he says. And while this is a global phenomenon, Asian teachers have been the principal “modernizers.”

Continue reading