Monthly Archives: March 2017

Buddhist Teachings About Food

You may have heard that Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarians, which isn’t strictly true. But it might surprise you there are warnings in Buddhist sutras about eating garlic and onions. And drinking alcohol may or may not be allowed, depending on your particular school of practice.

So what are the diet rules for Buddhists?


Although vegetarianism is encouraged in all schools of Buddhism, in most it is a personal choice and not a strict requirement.

The first Buddhist nuns and monks who lived at the time of the historical Buddha were not vegetarians. Those ordained into the monastic sangha ate one meal a day, before noon, and they obtained all of their food by begging. They were not allowed to buy food, and they certainly couldn’t take food not offered to them. The rules of the Vinaya-pitaka provided they were to eat all of the food they received with gratitude. And if they were given meat, they were to eat the meat.

What about the First Precept — do not kill? Certainly the Precept has inspired many Buddhists to abstain from meat entirely. But there were reasons why a completely vegetarian diet might not have been practical for people traveling around northern India 25 centuries ago.

According to the early sutras, the Buddha attracted a substantial following. At times hundreds of disciples traveled with him from village to village, teaching and begging for food. Especially during colder months, these traveling mendicants might have depleted a community’s store of rice, vegetables and fruits pretty quickly. They were to take only what people could spare.

(This was possibly one reason the Buddha limited the monks to one meal a day, so they wouldn’t make a nuisance of themselves begging all day long and become burdens to their benefactors.)

Note that the rules about meat in the Vinaya applied only to monks and nuns. Buddhist laypeople often do choose to avoid meat, however, either all the time or on uposatha days.

There were some limitations, however. There were ten specific kinds of meat considered inappropriate to eat at all; these included horse, elephant, dog, snake, tiger, leopard and bear.

Further, monks were not to eat meat if they had reason to believe the animal had been slaughtered specifically to feed monks. And this takes us to the First Precept and why eating meat may not be a violation of it.

Killing and Not Killing

We may think that to eat meat at all is to be complicit in the animal’s death. A great many Buddhists see the issue that way. But in Buddhism, one’s intentions or state of mind are critical to whether an act is moral, or not. To kill an animal, or to observe an animal killed for one’s benefit, requires a cruel or callous state of mind. This makes the eating of such meat a very different act from simply accepting an offering of someone’s leftover mutton stew.

That said, other Buddhists would argue that to eat meat is to encourage others to kill. Making a living by producing or selling meet is one of the five kinds of work the Buddha specifically called out as being inappropriate for those seeking enlightenment (see “Right Livelihood“). If we all stopped eating meat then some would not have to defile themselves by being butchers.

Devadatta’s Rules

Devadatta was a disciple of the Buddha and also his kinsman by marriage. In the Pali scriptures, Devadatta is portrayed as jealous of the Buddha. At one point Devadatta suggested the lives of the monks and nuns could be more austere, and one of his proposed austerity rules was to give up eating meat entirely. The Buddha rejected this proposal.

Because this story appears only in the Pali scriptures and not in corresponding Chinese/Sanskrit versions, there is reason to think it was not in the original text. Still, there is a reason why the Buddha might have rejected an absolute rule about eating meat, besides the reasons already given.

Making a fetish out of rules or austerities is discouraged in Buddhism. This doesn’t mean the rules aren’t important, but attaching one’s ego to what a good Buddhist you are is counter-productive. From a spiritual perspective, it’s healthier to eat a little meat now and then than to become too self-righteous about avoiding meat.

Vegetarianism for Mahayana Monastics and Laypeople

As Buddhism moved into China early in the first millennium CE, Chinese culture forced monastics to make some changes. One of these was to become more self-sufficient. Monastic communities in China and elsewhere in east Asia produced or purchased food rather than beg for it. And if a monastic community purchased meat, it was fairly certain that an animal had been slaughtered just to feed monks.

Probably for that reason, for centuries Mahayana monasteries have tended to prepare only vegetarian meals. Some of the Mahayana sutras advise that a follower of the Buddha, lay or monastic, should refrain from eating meat entirely.

Still, vegetarianism remains a personal choice in most schools. Why not an absolute rule? This touches on how Buddhism understands renunciation. When someone personally realizes the wisdom of giving something up, he or she will do so willingly. To give something up because somebody says so isn’t the same thing.

Other Consumables: Intoxicants and Pungent Herbs

The Fifth Precept advises us to avoid “fermented and distilled” intoxicants. Generally, Theravada Buddhists interpret this precept to mean avoiding alcohol, and Mahayana Buddhists think it means to drink in moderation.

Read More: To Drink, or Not to Drink

Finally, we come to the five pungent herbs — onions, garlic, scallions, leeks and chives. Some scriptures advise avoiding these foods, first because they were thought to be aphrodisiacs; and second because bad breath offends people who might otherwise listen to you teach the dharma. This is a rule still observed in some schools and ignored in others.

[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 First Buddhist Council

After the historical Buddha’s death and parinirvana, it is believed that a meeting of senior monks was convened to discuss how to maintain the Buddha’s teaching. This First Buddhist Council was a pivotal event in Buddhist history that, legend says, impacts how Buddhism is remembered and taught to this day.

The First Buddhist Council is also called the Council of Rajagrha, because the council was said to have been held at the entrance of Sattapanni Cave, in Rajagrha, which today is called Rajgir. This community is in the modern-day Bihar state in northeastern India, bordering Nepal. The Council was held three months after the Buddha died, but exactly when that was is not clear. Historians believe it was some time in the 5th century BCE.

First Council at Rajagrha, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti. Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License.

The significance of the First Council is that it settled on the the canon of teachings collected in the Sutta-pitaka and the Vinaya, the rules of the monastic order. Historians today don’t believe the versions of these collections of texts we have today were actually finalized that soon, however. Perhaps only some preliminary “settling” was done.

Did the First Buddhist Council actually happen? I do not believe there is any contemporary documentation or archaeological evidence that corroborates Buddhist accounts, which mostly come from a section of the Pali Vinaya called the Cullavagga. I have read histories that say some sort of meeting probably did take place, while other historians are not sure.

What follows is how the story of the Council is remembered in Buddhism.

The Council Is Called

The Council was called by the disciple Mahakasyapa, sometimes referred to as Kasyapa. Shortly after the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa was startled to hear a monk named Subhadda say that, at least, now they wouldn’t have to follow the Buddha’s strict rules.

The Buddha was always going on about “This beseems you, this beseems you not,” Subhadda said. “Now we can do what we like.”

So it was that Mahakasyapa convened a great meeting of enlightened monks to decide how to keep the Buddha’s teaching and discipline alive in the world. So it was that places were prepared for 500 enlightened monks.

Of the monks called to the meeting, the participation of one was iffy. Ananda, who had been the Buddha’s attendant in the last years of his life, was not yet enlightened. The night before the Council was to begin, Ananda sat in meditation through the night and was enlightened by morning.

The Recitations

The Pali word translated as “council” is sangiti, which more literally means “communal recitation.” According to historian Damien Keown, this suggests the monks did not discuss and debate doctrine. Instead, they recited.

A disciple of the Buddha’s named Upali was called upon to recite the rules for the monastic order, which would be collected into the Vinaya-pitaka, or “basket of discipline.” Upali had been a low-caste barber who met the Buddha when he was asked to cut the Buddha’s hair. Some years later, when he became the Buddha’s disciple, the Buddha treated him as an equal of the highest-caste monks.

Upali repaid the Buddha for his courtesy by learning and keeping the Precepts. As the expert on rules, he was not always popular with other monastics. Once when the Buddha heard that Upali had been treated disrespectfully by other followers, he gave them all a lecture on the importance of the Precepts.

By the time of the Council Upali was in his 70s, and at first he declined Mahakasyapa’s invitation to the Council. But Mahakasyapa implored him to come, and so he relented and presented a recitation of the rules for the monastic orders. After this recitation the monks in attendance agreed that this rules as Upali had recited them were correct.

Then it was Ananda’s turn. As has already been said, Ananda had been the Buddha’s attendant in the last several years of his life and had spent more time with him than anyone else. Ananda was also the Buddha’s cousin and known for his ability to remember everything he heard.

Ananda proceeded to recite all of the Buddha’s sermons from memory, which would have taken several days. And, not to be picky, but Ananda was a great deal younger than the Buddha and hadn’t been around for his early sermons. In any event, Ananda’s recitation was accepted as accurate by the other monks.Finally, the monks agreed on how the Vinaya and Sutta-pitaka were to be organized.

The Vinaya and Sutta-pitaka were memorized and chanted by generations of monks before being committed to writing. Eventually the Abhidharma or Abhidhamma would be added to this canon to make up the Tipitika, or “three baskets,” that remain the main body of scriptures for Theravada Buddhism.

Read More: The Pali Canon or First Buddhist Scriptures

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

Eight Common Meditation Mistakes

There are many different ways to meditate. Even within Buddhism, the various meditation schools don’t all approach meditation exactly the same way. Further, the “best” way to meditate varies from one person to another; there isn’t necessarily any “one size fits all” practice.

However, having participated in a number of “introduction to meditation” classes and having answered lots of questions over the years, I’ve noticed some common problems that often come up, and not just among beginners. So, while the best meditation practice for you may not be exactly the same practice as mine, I can provide some general advice about avoiding these problems — or, how not to meditate.

1. Stress Reduction Versus Spiritual Practice

First, clarify why you are meditating. Meditation has been sold in the West as a stress-reduction technique. It can help reduce stress, but its original purpose is to help you wake up, not chill out.

If you are looking for a safe and natural practice to relieve stress, small daily doses of mindfulness may be just the thing.


If you are interested in Buddhist meditation as a spiritual practice, however, your approach to meditation will be somewhat different. And be advised that the experience of meditation will not always be relaxing. However, if you stick with it you probably will find that you cope with stress and “roll with the punches” much more skillfully than before.

Read More: The Mindfulness Controversy 1: Work and WarThe Mindfulness Controversy 2: Mindfulness Therapy.

2. Don’t Expect Bliss

The Sanskrit word for “meditation” is bhavana, which means “mental cultivation” or “mental development.” The word “mental” in this case does not refer just to thinking and reason, but to a wide spectrum of mind-body functions — sensation, awareness, emotions, attitudes, predilections.

Read More: The Misunderstanding of Mind; the Three Kinds of Mind

One way to think of bhavana is that it’s a kind of training. You are training mind to understand and experience in a different way. Contrary to popular notions of Buddhist meditation, however, the point is not to “bliss out” or go to some happy place away from your problems while you meditate. A regular meditation practice will enable you to confront the root causes of your problems and let them go, but this is the opposite of escapism.

If you are practicing in a school of Vajrayana Buddhism you may be instructed to visualize tantric deities or mandalas. However, most of the time in Buddhist meditation you are advised not to push yourself to conjure up visions or out-of-body experiences. You may have unaccountable sensory experiences, but most of the time these are just your neurons misfiring; they don’t mean anything. Don’t attach to them.

What about satori? Isn’t that supposed to be a rush? Perhaps, but there really is such a thing as premature satori, which happens when people push themselves into a deep meditative state before they are properly prepared for it. This is a bit like attempting to compete in a marathon without training for it. The results will be frustrating and best and dangerous at worse.

3. Don’t Judge

By “don’t judge” I mean don’t judge your meditation practice. If you’ve begun a meditation practice and you are fretting that it isn’t what you expected, stop fretting. If you are doing your best then your practice is fine; it’s your expectations that were screwy. Let them go. (However, see Item 7, below.)

More experienced meditators sometimes judge themselves during intensive meditation retreats. We may find ourselves slogging through meditation periods sleepy or uncomfortable, or unable to focus because we keep thinking about our jobs or marriages or the Visa bill. And when the period ends we are frustrated and unhappy with ourselves, because we think we aren’t doing it right.

This judging is a problem in two ways. One, if we hang on to that negativity it will spill over into the next meditation period and the one after that. Second, the truth is that sometimes the sessions when our knees ache and our mind will not be still are great training. It’s like lifting weights; when you struggle, you’re getting stronger. And sometimes a really “awful” meditation period will be followed by an amazing one. Just don’t judge.

4. Posture Is Important

Some schools of Buddhism are stricter about meditation body positions than others, and most give you a choice of leg positions and may even allow you to meditate in a chair. But that doesn’t mean teachers who insist on a particular body position and who correct you if you slouch are just being anal.

There are two primary reasons why some Buddhist schools make a big bleeping deal about meditation body forms. One reason is that schools in which the practice involves sitting still for long stretches of time have learned there are safe and not-so-safe ways to do that. Especially if you are in less-than-peak physical condition sitting still can be remarkably painful. And if you aren’t doing it right you could damage joints, squeeze organs or cut off circulation in limbs. Many generations of practitioners figured out exactly how to position themselves to avoid serious pain or injury, and this experience has given us the “approved” meditation positions.

The other reason is that body position really does affect meditation experience. Buddhist meditation isn’t something you do only in your head; it engages the entire body and mind. Experienced meditators nearly always come to appreciate that exactly how the spine is aligned, what hand mudra you use, whether the chest feels “open” or “closed,” all color the mind and can make a huge difference in the meditation experience.

5. It’s Not Outside, It’s Not Inside

Usually in beginner meditation class the teacher will explain that wisdom isn’t “out there” somewhere and is something you must find within yourself. This usually sets us up for a few years of prodding around inside ourselves, so to speak, looking for the elusive E (for Enlightenment) Spot.

The truth is, it’s not outside, it’s not inside. Or it’s both outside and inside; either one. “Outside” and “inside” are arbitrary designations that don’t signify anything important. When you’re ready the E Spot will be everywhere. Just practice.

6. Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose

The Buddha compared practice to a stringed musical instrument. If the strings are too tight they will break; if they are too loose they won’t play notes.

Sometimes people begin Buddhist practice with huge enthusiasm and set impossible meditation schedules and goals for themselves. And they burn out, and quit. This is like the tight string that breaks. And others sometimes don’t commit to practice and only meditate occasionally; this is being too loose.

People who are trying to fit a meditation practice into a life already stuffed with job, family and other obligations are advised to set a moderate meditation pace; say, five to ten minutes a day. You can always add time if you want to. But it’s better to meditate for five minutes every day than for two hours every Saturday.

7. The Role of a Teacher

There are many books and websites that provide good instructions for how to meditate. Even so, I strongly recommend seeking the guidance of someone recognized as a meditation master by an established school of Buddhism.

If you are committed to the do-it-yourself ideal, please note that I’m not saying you have to commit your life to a guru and live in an ashram. If may be that your meditation mentor is someone you see only once or twice a year at a weekend retreat. Having someone who knows you and who can give you one-on-one advice when you need it can make a huge difference, however.

Read More: Finding Your Teacher

There really are pitfalls and dangers on the meditation path, and the established traditions have cataloged these pitfalls and have worked out ways to deal with them. Because of the popularity of meditation a lot of people are teaching meditation and leading retreats who have no training in a Buddhist practice tradition and don’t fully appreciate what can go wrong, so watch out for this.

Read More: Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night

8. Don’t Wall Yourself Off

An important aspect of Buddhist meditation is loosening the bonds of ego. The Four Noble Truths teach us that our problems stem from the delusion that “I” am something enclosed within this skin, and everything beyond this skin is “other.”

For this reason, it’s long been recognized that if we practice only to benefit ourselves it’s probably not going to work. Although we all may begin practice seeking remedy for ourselves, if our practice is sincere we will become more sensitive to the suffering of others and wish to benefit them, also. Otherwise, our meditation practice can amount to marinating in our own egos, reinforcing the self-and-other dichotomy instead of dissolving it.

For this reason, the experience of meditating with others is hugely beneficial. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to join a sangha. Maybe just once a week or so you take part in a meditation group in your community.

One of the potential perils of a solo practice is that practice can become this intensely personal thing that is yours and yours alone and which may be compromised if shared with others. This is a common phase many of us go through, actually, but it’s important to not stick there.  One of the fruits of practice is a natural turning away from self-clinging as the wall between self and other dissolves. Sharing practice with others facilitates this.

On the other hand, if you remain stuck in “I can do this by myself” mode, you’re stuck, period. If you find yourself becoming edgy and self-defensive at the idea of meditating with others or consulting with a teacher, consider this a warning sign that there’s an unhealthy amount of ego-attachment in your practice.

Nearly all of us who engage in a meditation practice smack into one or more of these problems eventually; some of us smack into all of them. I hope you find this list helpful.

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

Buddhism in Cambodia

The population of Cambodia is approximately 95 percent Theravada Buddhist, as high a percentage as anywhere in Asia. Cambodian Buddhism is associated with the historic Ankgor Wat temple, a jewel of Khmer civilization. The Khmer, who have lived in what is now Cambodia since the 9th century, are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia.

Buddhism reached Cambodia before the Khmer, however. It is recorded that the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to that part of Asia in the 3rd century BCE (see “The Third Buddhist Council: Pataliputra II“). However, the mission seems to have failed.

There is evidence that Buddhism was being practiced in Cambodia by about the 3rd century CE. This was a Sanskrit lineage, possibly Sarvastivada or early Mahayana. Hinduism was also prevalent in the region, resulting in a kind of Buddhist-Hindu hybrid practice that included veneration of Shiva. Chinese travelers recorded that by the 5th century Buddhism was thriving in the region.

The first Khmer king, Jayavarman II (802-869), appears to have associated himself with Shiva, but he also was supportive of Mahayana Buddhism. By then the form of Mahayana being practiced also included elements of tantra yoga along with elements of Hinduism. This religious fusion was practiced by the Khmer through the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181–1215), a great patron of religion.

It was about this time that Theravada Buddhism was making gains among the Khmer, probably brought there by Sinhalese monks from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). One of Jayavarman VII’s sons became a monk and studied in Ceylon, and after he returned the Khmer began to convert to Theravada Buddhism.

Within a few decades, Mahayana had faded away was entirely replaced by Theravada.

Buddhist monks in front of the reflection pool at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo by Ekabhishek, courtesy Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License.

Angkor Wat

This famous temple complex is nearly 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, but when construction began it was at the heart of the Khmer civilization. Construction is credited to the Khmer King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1131 to 1150. The complex covers 200 acres and is surrounded by a moat.

The temple originally was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Much of the art in the temple, such as the bas-relief carving, depicts scenes from Hindu mythology. It was crafted at the height of Khmer culture and the quality of the art is superb.

By the time Jayavarman VII reigned in the late 12th century, the temple already was being rededicated to Buddhism. But in the 15th century the Khmer civilization collapsed, possibly in part because of food and water scarcity. Although some monks continued to live there, the surrounding population moved elsewhere. Slowly, the temple complex was reclaimed by the jungle.

The complex was unknown to the outside world until French explorers discovered it in the mid-19th century.

The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.

Cambodia After the Khmer Empire

After the Khmer Empire collapsed the population shifted to what is now Phnom Pehn. Buddhism continued to flourish and even proved to be resistant to the efforts of Christian missionaries, who began arriving in the 16th century.

Cambodian society and civilization were much disrupted by European colonialism, however, In the 19th century Cambodia became part of French Indochina, and monks occasionally stirred up resistance to the French.

However, the darkest phase of Cambodian Buddhist history took place under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which took control of Cambodia in 1975. The Khmer Rouge were determined to destroy Buddhism. In a very few years Cambodia’s monks had been either forcibly de-frocked or executed, and nearly every Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded and took control of Phnom Pehn. Buddhism continued to be suppressed during the Vietnamese occupation, however, which continued to 1991. When Cambodia returned to self-government, Buddhism was declared to be the state religion.

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