Category Archives: Buddhism

The Story of Khema

Khema was a beautiful woman and one of the principal wives of King Bimbisara of Magadha, a large kingdom in what is now northern India. It is said that Queen Khema loved beauty above all things, especially her own.

King Bimbisara admired the Buddha, and he cared enough about Khema to want her to appreciate him, also. He enticed her to visit Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the Buddha was staying, by praising the beauty of its gardens. She didn’t know she was going to hear the Buddha speak.

When Khema realized she’d been maneuvered into hearing a sermon, she was annoyed. But as the Buddha spoke, Khema noticed a woman standing next to him who was even more beautiful than she was. Khema was astonished and envious.

But as Khema watched, the woman aged before her eyes. Her skin wrinkled, her hair grayed, her body sagged. Khema realized this vision was a message to her, that her beauty and privilege were just temporary conditions that would soon crumble away.

Khema became absorbed in the Buddha’s words, and she passed through all the stages of enlightenment and became an arhat that very day.  The Buddha told King Bimbisara that Khema must either die and pass to final Nirvana (parinirvana), or she could live and be ordained a nun. The King gave permission for Khema to be ordained.

If you’ve noticed that people in these old stories from early Buddhist scripture realize enlightenment awfully easily, this is usually explained by the merit this individual accumulated in past lives. Khema’s prior lives appear in some of the Jataka Tales, usually as a virtuous woman and benefactor of the sangha.

Khema the Nun

The ordained Khema appears in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Khema Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44). In this sutta, a king named Pasenadi Kosala heard that an enlightened nun and disciple of the Buddha was nearby, and went to see her. The King questioned Khema about whether the Buddha did or did not exist after death, and Khema told him the Buddha had not declared whether he would exist or not exist.

The King clearly was frustrated by this answer. So Khema said, Let me ask you a question, great King. Can your accountants count grains of sand in the Ganges?

No, lady, they cannot, the King said.

Khema continued, Can your accountants determine the number of buckets of water in the ocean?

No, lady, the King said. The ocean is deep and boundless. It is hard to fathom.

Even so, Khema said, when the Buddha is freed from physical form, he is deep and boundless and hard to fathom, like the ocean. “The Tathagata exists after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata both exists and doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply.

The King bowed to Khema and departed. Some time later, he met the Budddha himself and asked the same questions, and he received exactly the same answers.

Khema’s Poem

A poem attributed to Khema appear in the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali Sutta-pitaka. The poem is in the form of a conversation with Mara, the demon trickster.

Khema wrote that Mara came to her in the form of a handsome man, and said, “You are young and beautiful, Khema, and so am I. Let us enjoy each other.” Khema responded,

Through this vile body, a host for disease and corruption,
I feel loathing. Lust is uprooted.
Lusts of the body and mind are cut away.
Don’t talk to me about sensuous pleasure!
Such things cannot delight me any more.

Khema became an important assistant to Maha Pajapati, the eldest nun, and along with another nun named Uppalavanna was named by the Buddha as the foremost in wisdom of all nuns.

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

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.]

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.]

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.]