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His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

On a December night in 1999, 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje quietly slipped out of a window of Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet. For the next two days he rode in a car driven by monks, nonstop, until they reached a rugged and isolated area bordering Nepal. From there, going by foot, horseback, helicopter, train and finally taxi, the boy and his attendants traveled unnoticed through Nepal to India. They reached Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, on January 5.

His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

Every year, as many as 3,000 Tibetans evade guards and checkpoints and escape Tibet. But Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s escape made international headlines, because he is His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, the reborn head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism.

The teenage Karmapa arrived at Dharamsala exhausted, with blistered feet, and caught His Holiness the Dalai Lama by surprise. The defection also caused great consternation for the governments of China and India.

China had barred the Karmapa from leaving Tibet, and the defection was an embarrassment for Beijing. The government of China had hoped that a loyal and compliant Karmapa would help legitimize China’s rule over Tibet. Instead, once in Dharamsala the teenager spoke out about Tibet’s lack of religious freedom.

The government of India faced a dilemma. China warned India that granting asylum to the “living Buddha” would jeopardize relations between the two nations. But much of the rest of the world supported asylum for the Karmapa. New Dehli wavered for over a year before granting refugee status to the Karmapa in February 2001.

The Karmapas

Kagyu is one of the four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It is based on teachings brought to Tibet from India by Marpa Chokyi Lodoe (1012-1099). The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), founded a school of Kagyu called Karma Kagyu. The Karma Kagyu school claims an unbroken lineage of reincarnations of the Karmapa, the oldest such lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, to the present day.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, tried to continue his work in Tibet. But the situation in Tibet became increasingly unstable and dangerous. The 16th Karmapa, with a number of Karma Kagyu monks and teachers, left Tibet in 1959, as did His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa took the most sacred objects and artifacts of the Karma Kagyu lineage out of Tibet, also. The Karmapa established his new seat outside Tibet in Rumtek, a monastery in Sikkim that the 9th Karmapa had founded at the end of the 16th century.

Also, as the various traditions and schools of Tibetan Buddhism relocated outside Tibet, the Tibetan government in exile decided some administrative consolidation was in order. The government in exile appointed the Karmapa to be head of all schools of Kagyu, not just Karma Kagyu. Until his death in 1981, the 16th Karmapa provided leadership and teaching to the Kagyu tradition in exile.

The 17th Karmapa

The Karmapa lineage is said to be self-announced, because each Karmapa leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. Eleven years passed before the letter left by the 16th Karmapa was located. The letter provided a location, also seen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a dream, and the names of the next Karmapa’s parents. By means of these predictions, in 1992 a seven-year-old named Apo Gaga was identified as the 17th Karmapa.

The 17th Karmapa was born in eastern Tibet on July 26th, 1985. After his identification he was taken to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery and enthroned there in September 1992. He studied Buddhism at Tsurphu until his escape in 1999. By all accounts His Holiness is an intelligent, serious and sincere young man with particular interest in protecting the earth’s environment.

The Other 17th Karmapa

Although Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been accepted by a majority of Kagyu lamas and monasteries and by the Dalai Lama as the legitimate Karmapa, a substantial minority recognize another young man, Trinley Thaye Dorje, born in 1983 in Lhasa. Trinley Thaye was identified as the Karmapa by another reincarnated Karma Kagyu lama, the 14th Sharmapa, Mipham Chokyi Lodro. Trinlay Thaye Dorje escaped from Tibet in 1994 and currently lives in Kalimpong, India.

A great many devout and sincere people make elaborate arguments about the legitimacy of one Karmapa over the other. There are myriad accusations, claims and counterclaims. Ogyen Trinley, however, has the recognition of both the Dalai Lama and the government of China. Indeed, he is the only living tulku (reincarnated lama) to be so recognized; the Dalai Lama and China don’t agree on anyone else. Although previous incarnations of the Karmapa did not depend on China’s or the Dalai Lama’s recognition, the combined weight of their authority does give Ogyen Trinley an advantage.

Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, was asked about the controversy during Ogyen Trinley’s first visit to the United States. “The other Karmapa is a nice person, and he has followers in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Tibetans accept the Karmapa who is here now,” he said.

Although one hates to accuse the high officials of a major Buddhist school of being greedy, it appears the real bone of contention is over control of Rumtek Monastery and the many priceless art treasures, artifacts and relics therein.

Looking to the Future

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935. Although he is healthy as of this writing, his age gives concern to what will happen to Tibetan Buddhism once he is gone.

The lineage of Tibet’s second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, appears to be broken. The 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989. On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama identified a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. By May 17 the boy and his parents had been taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since. The Chinese government enthroned another boy, the son of a Communist official, in his place.

Understandably, the government’s Panchen Lama is not considered legitimate by most Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is deeply concerned that the Communist government of China will enthrone a false Dalai Lama when he is gone. (See also “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”) He has spoken of either choosing a successor before he dies or of being the last Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lamas, heads of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, have been spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet since the 17th century. Before that, at different times the heads of either the Kagyu or Sakya traditions held that authority. Back in the day the monasteries’ power was based on strategic alliances with various Mongol warlords.

Today there is speculation that before he dies, the Dalai Lama might name the third highest lama, the Karmapa, as the new spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. This would be extraordinary, as this authority has never changed hands peacefully. But these are extraordinary times.

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

Who Were the Buddhas Before Buddha?

Shakyamuni Buddha sometimes called Gautama Buddha, is said to be the Buddha of the current age. According to early Buddhist scripture, there were Buddhas in earlier ages as well, and there will be other Buddhas in future ages. For example, ancient sources say that Maitreya Buddha will be the Buddha of the next age.

But what about the earlier Buddhas? Is there anything we need to know about them?

Six Previous Buddhas

Probably the earliest source of information on previous Buddhas is the Mahavadana Sutta, or “Discourse on the Great Legend,” which is found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 14).

In this sutta, we find “our” Buddha, Gautama, in Anathapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove. After the Buddha and his disciples had enjoyed their daily meal, the subject of previous births arose. The Buddha offered to speak of his predecessors, and his disciples eagerly accepted the offer. The Buddha then told of six previous Buddhas. They all lived many eons, or kalpas, ago. A kalpa is a length of time that defies calculation; just know that one kalpa usually is a really, really long time.

Read More: About Time

The most striking thing about the stories of the six previous Buddhas is that their spiritual paths all followed the same course, all very much like the life of the historical Buddha. They were all born to high-caste families and raised in luxurious homes. Each married and had a son. Each encountered the Four Passing Sights — an elderly person, a sick person, a corpse, and a holy man seeking enlightenment. Disturbed by what he saw, each left home and became a wandering mendicant, looking for peace of mind.

Each realized enlightenment while meditating under some sort of tree. After enlightenment, each went forth to teach.

Do the six previous Buddhas have spiritual significance? That’s hard to say. Certainly you can practice for many years without bothering to learn about them. They do come up in many texts and in art and chanting liturgies, however, so it doesn’t hurt to be aware of who these Buddhas were.

Did they really live? Several of them lived so many kalpas ago they would have been genuinely prehistoric if they had. The point they seem to be making is that the dharma is likely to have been found and lost and found again many times in the great cycle of time. It’s also the case that great teachers of other spiritual traditions of India were said to have had similar predecessors.

The six previous Buddhas described in the Mahavadana Sutta are listed below.

Vipasyi or Vipassi. Vipasyi was born 91 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya (warrior) caste. His clan name was Kondanna. He was enlightened under a patali, or trumpet flower, tree.

Sikhi. Sikhi was born 31 kalpas ago, also to a family of the Khattiya caste. He also was of the Kondanna clan, and he was enlightened under a pundarika, or artemisia, tree.

Visvabhuj or Vessabhu. Visvabhuj also was born 31 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya caste. Also of the Kondanna clan, he was enlightened under a sal tree.

Krakucchanda or Kakusandha. Krakucchanda and the remaining three Buddhas were born during the current kalpa, but still an unimaginably long time ago. Krakucchanda was of the Brahmin, or priest, caste. He and the remaining three Buddhas also were of a clan called Kassapa. He was enlightened under an acacia tree.

Kanakamuni or Konmagamana. Another member of the Brahmin caste, Kanakamuni was enlightened under an udumbara, or cluster fig, tree.

Kasyapa or Kassapa. Another Brahmin, Kasyapa was enlightened under a banyan tree. He should not be confused with a disciple of the Buddha by the same name; the Buddha’s disciple Kasyapa usually is called Mahakasyapa, or Great Kasyapa, to distinguish him.

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

Tibet’s Declaration of Independence

In 1913, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama issued what many call a “declaration of independence” for Tibet from the Republic of China. The 13th Dalai Lama’s position was that the Gelugpa leadership of Tibet had a relationship with (but were not subjects of) the the Manchu Emperors of China, not the nation-state of China. When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, any ties between China and Tibet were severed, His Holiness said.

His Holiness Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

The proclamation, given to the people of Tibet, begins by affirming the Dalai Lama’s authority to rule Tibet. He evoked Tibet’s ancient kings and Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet, from whom the Dalai Lamas emanate. This part of the proclamation follows a tradition begun by the 5th Dalai Lama.

His Holiness then described the relationship with the Manchu emperors as a “patron-priest” relationship, which was something significant in the histories of both Tibet and China, going back to the time of Genghis Khan. High lamas of Tibet acted as spiritual advisers to Mongol and Chinese rulers, and in return received protection from their powerful disciples. For example, his patron/disciple Gushi Khan secured the leadership of Tibet for the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Sakya lama named Pagpa gave empowerments and teachings to Kublai Khan (1215-1294), which made the two patron and priest. Since Kublai Khan ruled China, and the Sakyas were the tenuous rulers of Tibet at the time, this patron-priest relationship is sometimes evoked by China today as part of its claim to Tibet. But historians tell us the Great Khan would not have seen Pagpa as his subject, but as his guru.

The 13th Dalai Lama’s proclamation begins:

“I, the Dalai Lama, most omniscient possessor of the Buddhist faith, whose title was conferred by the Lord Buddha’s command from the glorious land of India, speak to you as follows:

“I am speaking to all classes of Tibetan people. Lord Buddha, from the glorious country of India, prophesied that the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, through successive rulers from the early religious kings to the present day, would look after the welfare of Tibet.

“During the time of Genghis Khan and Altan Khan of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty of the Chinese, and the Ch’ing Dynasty of the Manchus, Tibet and China cooperated on the basis of benefactor and priest relationship. A few years ago, the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan endeavored to colonize our territory. They brought large numbers of troops into central Tibet on the pretext of policing the trade markets. I, therefore, left Lhasa with my ministers for the Indo-Tibetan border, hoping to clarify to the Manchu emperor by wire that the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. There was no other choice for me but to cross the border, because Chinese troops were following with the intention of taking me alive or dead.

“On my arrival in India, I dispatched several telegrams to the Emperor; but his reply to my demands was delayed by corrupt officials at Peking. Meanwhile, the Manchu empire collapsed. The Tibetans were encouraged to expel the Chinese from central Tibet. I, too, returned safely to my rightful and sacred country, and I am now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from DoKham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky.”

The remainder of the proclamation, which you may read on this page, lists the 13th Dalai Lama’s intentions for the future direction of Tibet.

Also in 1913, the provisional president of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, wrote the Dalai Lama asking for his allegiance to his “mother country.” The letter promised to overlook the Dalai Lama’s “former errors” and bestow on him a long title that began with “Loyal and Submissive Vice Regent.” His Holiness replied that he hadn’t asked for any titles, and that he “intended to exercise both temporal and ecclesiastic rule in Tibet.”

 [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 Fifth Dalai Lama

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The story of his life is pivotal to Tibet’s history. It is also a story of political intrigue that began before he was born and continued for many years after he died. He is remembered by Tibetans as the “Great Fifth.”

The Dalai Lama is a high lama of the Gelug school (also called Gelugpa) of Tibetan Buddhism.

Before the birth of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Gelug school had suffered a blow. Some years earlier central Tibet had split into two small, warring kingdoms, U and Tsang. The rulers of U were patrons of Gelugpa, but the rulers of Tsang supported another school, Kagyu. The strife escalated into fighting between monks of the two schools.

During the time of the short-lived 4th Dalai Lama, the king of Tsang defeated the king of U and proclaimed himself king of central Tibet. The Gelug school had lost its patron and found itself in a precarious position. The king of Tsang even banned Gelugpa from ordaining a 5th Dalai Lama.

A Lama Reborn

In 1617 a boy was born into a family of wealthy aristocrats and named Künga Nyingpo. This remarkable boy caught the attention of Karma Kagyu and other schools, but secretly an attendant of the 4th Dalai Lama had identified Künga Nyingpo as his master’s rebirth.

To complicate matters, when Künga Nyingpo was only three his father was been imprisoned for conspiring against the king of Tsang. The father would die in prison without seeing his son again. Künga Nyingpo’s mother raised the boy in seclusion in her family home, away from the king of Tsang’s court. A few years passed.

Some accounts say that Gelugpa kept its finding of the boy secret until the king of Tsang reversed the ban. Other accounts say that squabbling among the schools caused the king to relent and let Gelugpa have him.

When his identity as the 5th Dalai Lama finally was revealed, however, he had to go into hiding once again.

The Mongolian Connection

Years earlier, the 3rd Dalai Lama and a Mongol tribal leader named Altan Khan had forged an alliance. In fact, it was Altan Khan who coined the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” The Third gave Altan Khan teachings and initiations in return for Altan Khan’s patronage. The Mongol-Gelugpa alliance was reinforced when a Mongol boy was identified as the 4th Dalai Lama.

When the identify of the 5th Dalai Lama was made public, Mongols in Lhasa loyal to the old alliance wanted to take the boy to a Mongol stronghold. The Gelug elders were anxious for the boy to begin his life as a monk, however. To keep him from being spirited away by Mongol admirers he had to hide for another year.

At long last, the ten-year-old tulku was taken to Drepung Monastery, where the 3rd Panchen Lama ordained him as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Dalai Lama’s Education

Lobsang Gyatso had a precocious intellect and a love of study. By all accounts he mastered Buddhist philosophy easily. He also studied astrology, medicine and poetry.

At the age of 19 the 5th Dalai Lama became the student of Paljor Lhundrup, abbot of Pahongka monastery. Paljor Lhundrup was an unconventional teacher who combined Gelugpa with Nyingmapa, an older school of Tibetan Buddhism. Through Paljor Lhundrup, the 5th Dalai Lama secretly took up Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” a central practice of Nyingmapa that at the time was hotly criticized by the elders of Gelugpa.

A New Mongol Patron

Since the time of Altan Khan, Gelug Buddhism had spread throughout Mongolia. And as the 5th Dalai Lama grew to adulthood, a newly converted tribal leader of western Mongolia fought his way toward Tibet.

Gushi (sometimes spelled Gushri) Khan (1582-1655) and his army reached the edge of Tibet in 1637. Then Gushi Khan made his way to Lhasa to pay his respects to the Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama, now 20 years old, was impressed by the battle-hardened warrior, and the meeting went well.

The Dalai Lama accepted the patronage of Gushi Khan and gave him the title “Dharma King, Upholder of the Teachings.” He also gave Gushi Khan a gold statue of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school. A bond was formed between the lama and the warrior.

The Conquest of Tibet

At that time Gelugpa monasteries in eastern Tibet were suffering under a ruler who favored Bon, a religion indigenous to Tibet. With the Dalai Lama’s permission, Gushi Khan moved into eastern Tibet and secured the territory for Gelugpa. But Gushi Khan did not stop there. He and his army continued eastward into central Tibet, attacking and eventually deposing the king of Tsang.

Historians believe that the young Dalai Lama himself did not order the attack on central Tibet. Instead, permission to attack came from older Gelugpa lamas and from the Desi, an official appointed by the Dalai Lama to manage his political affairs.

However it happened, when the king of Tsang surrendered in April 1642, the Dalai Lama and Gushi Khan met once more, this time on a battlefield, to exchange titles and gifts. Here it was that His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama was proclaimed political and spiritual leader of Tibet.

But Tibet was not yet conquered. The 10th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school and his monks occupied a stronghold called the Encampment. The Dalai Lama sent a message to the Karmapa asking him to agree to not challenge Gelugpa authority, and in exchange the Encampment would be left alone. When the Karmapa refused, the Encampment was surrounded by Tibetan and Mongol soldiers. Soon the Encampment was destroyed, many monks were slaughtered, and the Karmapa was a refugee in the mountains of Bhutan.

A revolt by followers of Karma Kagyu and the king of Tsang was brutally repulsed by Gushi Khan, accompanied by the Desi. The king of Tsang was captured and killed. Kagyu monasteries were forcibly converted to Gelugpa. Teachings of other schools critical of Tsongkhapa and Gelugpa were banned. Even Nyingmapa lamas thought to have performed spells to repel the Mongols were imprisoned.

Potala Palace

In the spring of 1645 the 5th Dalai Lama climbed a hill overlooking Lhasa to stand in the ruins of an ancient palace. It had been the palace of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who lived in the 7th century and who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.There, in the presence of many monks and laypeople, the Dalai Lama performed a ritual to prepare the ground for the building of a new palace.
At some point in the proceedings a woman came forward to present a statue of Avalokiteshvara that had belonged to Songtsen Gampo. At that moment a soft rain began to fall, and the Dalai Lama told the assembly that Avalokiteshvara had come home.

The new structure that would be built on this sacred ground was Potala Palace. It would be the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of Tibetan government until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama would be driven into exile by the Chinese. Symbolically, the great palace tied the authority of the Dalai Lama to the ancient emperors and to Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet.

Although the 5th Dalai Lama moved into a section of the palace five years later, the entire structure took 45 years to complete.

Relations With China

In 1644, as the 5th Dalai Lama planned for the building of Potala Palace, the Ming Dynasty of China was toppled by invaders from Manchuria. The new Manchu dynasty would call itself the Qing Dynasty, and it would survive into the 20th century.

Advisers of the new Shunzhi Emperor — a child at the time — respected the military prowess of the Mongolians. The Qing court had no desire to make enemies of Gushi Khan and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Manchus also were Buddhists with ties to Tibetan Buddhism. Good relations with the Dalai Lama and his fearsome Mongol patron must have seemed a good idea on several levels. In the next few years three invitation to visit the Qing court were sent to the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness and a huge entourage finally began the journey to Beijing in 1652. When the Tibetans drew near, the Shunzhi Emperor sent horsemen with gifts to greet them and guide them to Beijing. The 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in January 1654.

The Qing court welcomed His Holiness with lavish ceremonies, and at one banquet the two rulers sat side by side on thrones. Today, China portrays this visit as one in which the Dalai Lama submitted to the rule of China, but most historians say that is nonsense. By all accounts, His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state with whom the Qing court wished to have friendly relations.

His Holiness remained in Beijing for two months, and then he began the long journey back home.

The Great Fifth Secures His Legacy

As time when on, the 5th Dalai Lama increasingly delegated political matters to the Desi so he could devote more time to meditation and to writing.

It appears the Dzogchen practice he began in his youth became more important to him as he grew older. He wrote of visions of Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingma school. He encouraged Nyingmapa lamas to gather together the records and teachings of the school to preserve them.

The Great Fifth was a prolific writer. His 24 volumes of written work include a history of Tibet and his own autobiography, the Dukulai Gosang.

The 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), was the 5th Dalai Lama’s teacher and ally. In fact, the title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was given to Lobsang Gyaltsen by the 5th Dalai Lama and conferred to his predecessors posthumously. When the 4th Panchen Lama died in 1662, the 5th Dalai Lama took charge of the search for his rebirth. This began the tradition of successive older Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas acting as mentors for the younger and determining the next lama’s rebirth.

Under the Great Fifth’s governance, the territory of Tibet expanded to include most of the Tibetan plateau. He and his advisers organized a functional bureaucracy, including a tax and census system. The nation forged by the 5th Dalai Lama survived into the 20th century.

The Great Deception

In 1679, the Great Fifth appointed a new Desi, Sangye Gyatso, and announced he was retiring from public life. The Great Fifth died three years later, at the age of 65.

What happened next was one of the most remarkable, and controversial, episodes in Tibetan history.

Desi Sangye Gyatso kept the Great Fifth’s death a secret for 15 years, while the 6th Dalai Lama secretly was identified and prepared for his position. According to some accounts, this was done at the request of the Great Fifth. Others think it was entirely the Desi’s idea.

In any event, the deception was carried out masterfully. People were told the Dalai Lama was in retreat and could not be disturbed. Sometimes his presence was suggested by laying his empty robes on his throne. When a face-to-face meeting was unavoidable, an elderly monk who bore a resemblance to the Great Fifth played the role.

The obvious reason for the deception was to prevent a power struggle that would throw Tibet back into political chaos. Some historians think there was concern the increasingly powerful Qing court in Beijing might try to interfere with the identification of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The deception worked. In 1697, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was announced and the 6th Dalai Lama was enthroned. The Great Fifth finally passed into history.

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

China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy

Since beginning his long exile from Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama  has served as the voice for Tibetans, both the 7.5 million governed by China and the roughly estimated 275,000 who have fled Tibet. He also has called for the preservation of Tibetan culture and the restoration of at least some Tibetan political autonomy.

For years, however, the government of China has refused even to speak to His Holiness. Beijing appears to realize that it needs Tibetan Buddhism on its side to make its rule of Tibet legitimate to the Tibetans. But for inexplicable reasons, Beijing cannot bring itself to work with the current Dalai Lama, who has publicly offered many concessions to Beijing.

Beijing has a plan, however, already in place. It has assumed authority to manage the rebirths of all Tibetan lama lineages, and it has declared it will name the 15th Dalai Lama after the 14th has gone.

Photo by Yancho Sabev, via Wikipedia Commons

Government-Managed Reincarnation?

In 2007 China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs released Order No. 5, which covers “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” In short, rebirths require a government permit. As ridiculous as this may sound to us, Beijing is deadly serious about this. Its aim is to be sure all religious authority within Tibetan Buddhism is under its control.

The current Dalai Lama appears to be in robust health. But what will happen when he’s gone, both to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet?

This much is certain, barring a radical change of leadership in Beijing: Within days, if not hours, of the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, the government of China will announce that it has begun the process of identifying the 15th Dalai Lama. And I doubt much time will pass before Beijing reveals the identity of the tulku and begins to prepare for his enthronement as Dalai Lama.

You might ask, since when does the government of China choose Dalai Lamas? Well, since never, in fact. But Beijing claims it has that power now, based on three arguments.

Patrons and Priests

First, China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet rests largely on the historical relationship between the Manchu emperors of China and the Dalai Lamas.

The Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912. Beginning with the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682), a patron-priest relationship developed between the succession of Dalai Lamas and the succession of Qing emperors. This meant that the emperor personally was a lay patron of the Dalai Lama and the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas, in turn, provided religious instruction, beneficial rituals and other spiritual services to the emperor. The Dalai Lama was considered the emperor’s guru, not his subject.

After that, the relationship between Tibet and China was complex. China sometimes sent military aid to Tibet; this was in China’s own interest, since Tibet was at its western border. China did not attempt to govern Tibet; nor did China ask for taxes or tribute from Tibet. However, the emperor did appoint “observers,” called ambans, who acted as the emperor’s eyes and ears in the Tibetan capital. And the ambans often did insert themselves into Tibetan affairs, both political and religious. Historians say they did not identify reborn lamas, however.

After the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, and China was (more or less) a republic, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a “Tibetan declaration of independence” saying that the patron-priest relationship had been with the individual Manchu emperors, not the government of China, and with the abdication of the last Qing emperor that relationship had faded “like a rainbow in the sky.”

However, from the time of Mao Zedong China has declared that not only were the Dalai Lamas the subjects of the emperors, the old patron-priest relationship carried over from the empire to the republic — whether the Dalai Lama agreed or not, apparently.

For more about the history behind China’s claims to Tibet, see “The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso: A Life in Turbulent Times” and “Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship.”

The Golden Urn

Late in the 18th century a messy spat involving high lamas of the Kagyu school and an invading army of Gurkhas caused the Qianlong Emperor to demand reforms in the process of choosing high lamas. A disproportionate number of high lamas were from the same aristocratic family; favoritism in the selection process was an open secret.

One of the reforms agreed upon was that the future rebirths of lamas would be chosen by means of drawing lots from a golden urn, to be kept at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The historical record reveals the Tibetans really didn’t use the urn that much, however. When they did use it they were able to rig the result, probably by making sure the lots all bore the name of the candidate already chosen. This token ceremony appears to have been carried out for the 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama was chosen, however, even a token ceremonial use of the urn had been abandoned.

Read More: The 8th Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn

Today the government of China possesses the golden urn — a couple of them, in fact — and insists that the rebirths of lamas may be recognized only by the golden urn lot-drawing method, because that is “traditional,” in spite of its not being traditional at all.

The Panchen Lama

The Panchen Lama is the second-highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the traditional duties of the Panchen Lama is to identify the rebirths of Dalai Lama. Likewise, one of the traditional duties of a Dalai Lama is to identify the rebirths of Panchen Lamas.

Read More: The Panchen Lama — A Lineage Hijacked by Politics

The current acting 11th Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, was chosen by the government of China, however.  Raised and trained by private tutors in Beijing, Norbu’s primary function is to issue statements praising the government of China for its wise leadership of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s choice  — a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — and his family were taken into Chinese custody in 1995, just two days after his identification as the 11th Panchen Lama became public. They have not been seen since.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the ducks are in a row — they have the golden urn and the Panchen Lama, and they have concocted a revisionist version of history that makes the Dalai Lamas vassals of China. In their minds, that gives them all the authority they need to choose the 15th Dalai Lama.

What the 14th Dalai Lama, and Tibet, Might Do

On July 6, 2015, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama observed his 80th birthday. He has lived longer than any other Dalai Lama except, possibly, the first, who is believed to have lived to age 83 or so. But he’s not going to last forever.

His Holiness has said, at various times, that he might choose a successor before he dies; he might come back as a woman; he might not come back at all.

Even if high Gelugpa lamas outside of Tibet identify a new Dalai Lama through traditional esoteric and mystic methods, in these fragile times Tibetan Buddhism can’t place itself on hold for 20 years until he grows up. It is expected that many of the Dalai Lama’s duties as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism will pass to His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The 17th Karmapa, the highest lama of the Kagyu school, is a young man already popular with Tibetans.

As for Tibetans, they have clearly never accepted the faux Panchen Lama, and it seems unlikely they would accept a faux Dalai Lama. China seems to be going to a lot of trouble for nothing. And with no living Dalai Lama to discourage violence, things may get worse for China and Tibet once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is gone.

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

How to Address a Buddha

It’s unlikely you’ll ever write a letter to a Buddha. But if you did, how would you address her or him? “Dear Buddha” might do. But maybe it should be “Dear Your Holiness” or “Dear Venerated One” or something formal.

What follows is a traditional list of ten epithets, or titles, for a Buddha. These titles can be applied to all Buddhas, although sometimes in the context of a particular scriptural passage they might refer to a specific Buddha. Some of these titles are rarely used and may be unfamiliar to you. Others you are likely to bump into frequently.

For an example of how some of these terms might be used in scriptures, see the Saleyyaka Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 41), which packs most of them into the second paragraph —

“And of that Master Gotama this fine reputation has spread: ‘He is indeed a Blessed One, worthy, & rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, a knower of the cosmos, an unexcelled trainer of those persons ready to be tamed, teacher of human & divine beings, awakened, blessed.”

The terms are alphabetized for easier reference. If you are looking for the name of a particular Buddha, see “A List of Buddhas: The Most Prominent Buddhas in Art and Scripture.”

1.  Anuttara

One who is supreme or unsurpassed; without equal. You might also have heard the phrase anuttara-samyak-sambhodi, which means “supreme perfect enlightenment“; and anuttara-yoga-tantra, the highest level of tantra.

2.  Arhat

Arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant  (Pali) is a word that pre-dates Buddhism. In early Vedic texts it means “one who cannot be killed.” When used in Buddhist texts it is thought to mean “one who is worthy.”

The classic definition of an arhat is one who has attained enlightenment. Some teachers may quibble over the word “attained,” In Theravada Buddhism an arhat is distinguished from a Buddha because there can be only one Buddha per world age. Thus, a being who realizes enlightenment while there already is a Buddha is called arhat. However, a Buddha also is an arhat and may be addressed as such.

3.  Bhagavan

Bhagavan means “lord” or “master.” The Buddha is addressed as “Bhagavan” in many sutras. When paired with the word lokanatha it means “World Honored One,” a common title for the historical Buddha.

 4.  Lokavit

Lokavit (Sanskrit) or Lokavidu (Pali) refers to “one who understands the world” or “knower of the cosmos.”

5.  Purusa-damya-sarathi

This means “tamer of men,”and it refers to the ability of a Buddha to quiet fears and agitation.

6.  Samyak Sambuddha

Some sources translate this title as “perfectly omniscient,” while others say it refers to a correctly (samyak) enlightened Buddha. In usage, it refers to one who has discovered the dharma teachings after they have disappeared from the world, and who has proclaimed those teachings to the world.

7.  Sasta deva-manusyanam

This means “teacher of gods and men.” This term is found mostly in the Sutta-pitaka.

8.  Sugata

Sugata (Sanskrit) or sugato (Pali) means “well departed” or “gone to a good destination.”

9.  Tathagata

Tathagata usually is explained as “the one who has thus come” or “the one who has thus gone.” This is one of the most common titles for a Buddha, and it can be found in both the Tipitaka and the Mahayana sutras. The historical Buddha referred to himself as Tathagata, and in some contexts the word might be referring to him. However, in other contexts it is referring to all Buddhas.

The precise meaning of the word is unclear. Many scholars relate it to tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness” and refers to reality as it is, without illusions. In this interpretation, a tathagata would be one who has realized the truth about reality.

The word is also sometimes explained as meaning “one who is beyond coming or going.

10.  Vidya-carana-sampanna

Vidya-carana-sampanna (Sanskrit) or vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno (Pali) refers to one who has perfect knowledge and conduct.

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

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.]