Category Archives: Buddhism

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.]

The Four Reliances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Buddhists Mean by Lineage

Infinite Buddhas - © Ronald Tan | © Ronald Tan |

© Ronald Tan |


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

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

Monk and Nun Ordination Lineages

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Lineages in Zen and Esoteric Buddhism

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

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

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

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

Tibetan Tulku Lineages

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

Continue reading

Taking Refuge in Dharma

Taking Refuge in DharmaThe ceremony of Ti Samana Gamana (Pali), or “taking the three refuges,” is believed to have been established by the Buddha himself. According to the Pali Tipitika, the Buddha asked that this ceremony be used to ordain new nuns and monks into the monastic sangha. In most schools of Buddhism, taking the refuges and receiving the Precepts mark the formal commitment to walking the Buddhist path.

In its most basic form, the refuges ceremony consists of reciting these three lines:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

All of these three objects of refuge together make one refuge. Although this article will focus on taking refuge in dharma, it’s important to look at all of the refuges together to fully appreciate their significance.

Read More: Taking Refuge in Buddha

About the Dharma

The word dharma (or dhamma in Pali) is used in Buddhism to mean many things. Most often it is used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha.

However, it can also refer to the natural law that binds the universe together. Or, it might refer to manifestations of reality. Or, it might signify teaching, practice and enlightenment together.

Monk and scholar Walpola Rahula wrote,

“There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the non-conditioned, the Absolute Nirvana. There is nothing in the universe or outside, good or bad, conditioned or non-conditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term.” [What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1974), p. 58]

Read More: What Is Dharma in Buddhism?

The five disciples who attended the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Dharma as Refuge

If dharma includes everything in the universe, good and bad, how can it be a refuge? A refuge is supposed to be a place of safety, is it not?

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada monk and scholar, explained that dhamma as refuge refers to two things. At an elementary or mundane level, the dharma refuge is the Buddha’s teaching — “the conceptually formulated, verbally expressed set of doctrines taught by or deriving from the historical figure Gotama.” This teaching serves as our guide to the deeper level of dharma, which the Bhikkhu described as “a state of wisdom-consciousness that arises when all the requisite conditions for realization are fully matured.”

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the dharma refuge is found in our experience and our practice:

“Dharma books and tapes are valuable, but the true Dharma is revealed through our life and our practice. Whenever the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are practiced, the living Dharma is there. There are 84,000 Dharma doors. Sitting meditation is one door, and walking meditation is another. To take refuge in the Dharma is to choose the doors that are most appropriate for us. Dharma is great compassion,understanding, and love.” [The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1989), p. 153]

In her book Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron compared Buddha, dharma and sangha to the doctor, the medicine, and the nurse, and of course we are the patient. To take refuge in the dharma is to take refuge in the teachings that encourage us and nourish our inborn ability to let go of whatever is binding us to suffering.

Faith as Trust, Not Belief

Taking refuge in the dharma, then, begins with getting to know what the Buddha taught. This requires faith, but faith in the Buddhist sense means trust, not belief. Indeed, Buddhist doctrines don’t always make immediate sense; their wisdom is revealed as you practice them and observe them at work in your own life. To simply accept a doctrine as true without understanding it or testing it is not faith in the Buddhist sense.

Bikkhu Bodhi said, “As a factor of the Buddhist path, faith (saddha) does not mean blind belief but a willingness to accept on trust certain propositions that we cannot, at our present stage of development, personally verify for ourselves.”

This is a faith that leads to understanding. We may normally not want to accept something until we understand it. Buddhism asks that we consider doctrines provisionally until we realize the truth of them for ourselves. Nagarjuna said,

“One associates with the Dharma out of faith, but one knows truly out of understanding; understanding is the chief of the two, but faith precedes.”

As our personal, intimate understanding of dharma grows, the dharma becomes our true refuge.

Read More: The Faith of Buddhism

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

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Taking Refuge in Buddha

Possibly the oldest and most widely performed ceremony in Buddhism is called Ti Samana Gamana (Pali), or “taking the three refuges.” In most schools of Buddhism, taking the refuges is the first step in formally becoming a disciple of the Buddha. Most basically, the ceremony consists of reciting these lines:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Together, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.This article will explore the first treasure — I take refuge in the Buddha. What does that mean, and how does one do that? What is it to take refuge in the Buddha?

In her book The Wisdom of No Escape, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron wrote, “I’ve always thought that the phrase ‘to take refuge’ is very curious because it sounds theistic, dualistic, and dependent ‘to take refuge’ in something.” In other words, it sounds as if we’re asking some big Buddha in the sky to protect us. But that doesn’t sound very, well, Buddhist.

But Pema Chodron goes on to say, “The buddha, we say traditionally, is the example of what we also can be. The buddha is the awakened one, and we too are the buddha.”

Who Is the Buddha?

Keep in mind that the name “buddha” might signify many things. It may signify the historical Buddha, the man who realized enlightenment 25 centuries ago and left us his teaching. But it also might signify enlightenment itself. The name “buddha” is derived from the Sanskrit “bodhi,” which means “awake.” So, in a sense, to take refuge in the Buddha is to trust in our own awakening.

The Theravada Buddhist monk and scholar Bikkhu Bodhi wrote, “The Buddha serves as the indicator of refuge. He is not a savior who can bestow salvation through the agency of his person. Salvation or deliverance depends upon us, upon our own vigor and dedication in the practice of the teaching.”

The Buddha was a historical person. However, when we take refuge in Buddha we are not taking refuge in him “merely in his concrete particularity,” Bikkhu Bodhi said. “When we take refuge in the Buddha we rely upon him as a refuge because he embodies this attainment in himself. It is his Buddhahood that makes the Buddha a refuge.”

What Is Buddhahood?

Buddhahood can be understood many different ways. Theravada Buddhists usually describe Buddhahood as being purified of all defilements and perfect in all virtues. Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, speak of Buddha Nature as the fundamental nature of all beings. Buddha Nature is sometimes understood as a seed or potential for enlightenment, but sometimes it is understood as enlightenment itself, already present whether we realize it or not.

Read More: What Is Buddha Nature?

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,

“In Chinese and Vietnamese, practitioners always say, “I go back and rely on the Buddha in myself.” Adding ‘in myself’ makes it clear that we ourselves are the Buddha. When we take refuge in Buddha, we must also understand, ‘The Buddha takes refuge in me.’ Without the second part, the first is not complete.”

The American Zen teacher John Daido Loori wrote in his book The Heart of Being,

“The Buddha Treasure, from the perspective of the unified Three Treasures, is anuttara-samyaksambodhi, perfect enlightenment. No one is without it. It does not increase one bit in Buddhas, nor is it reduced one bit in ‘ordinary’ beings. It is our fundamental nature, the fundamental nature of each and every one of us. It is the essential reality of this great earth and of the universe.”

So, from this perspective we can understand “taking refuge in the Buddha” also as taking refuge in ourself. And this “self” is not separate from all other beings and from the cosmos, throughout space and time.

At this point you may be feeling a bit let down. We’ve gone from taking refuge in a serene celestial being to being tossed into the cold vastness of reality and told, “Here’s your refuge.” Here is where the other treasures, the Dharma and the Sangha, come in. The Three Treasures are one refuge, and looking at any one in isolation is not getting the whole picture.

What Refuge? The Role of Faith

A refuge is a place of safety where we trust we will not come to harm. We may appreciate that in this case we’re not talking about a physical place. Still, you may want to think of “buddha” as something out there that will somehow take away your anxieties. But remember, the Buddha taught that it’s our very grasping for things “outside” ourself that causes our dissatisfaction.

Read More: The Second Noble Truth

Striving for perfection is another dead end. In his book A Path With Heart, meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes that we cannot find the Buddha outside ourselves, and we cannot find the Buddha by attempting to transform ourselves into some kind of perfect being. He wrote,

“Whether we seek enlightenment through altered states or in community, or in our everyday life, it will never come to us when we seek perfection. If not, then where do we find the Buddha in the midst of this? The Buddha arises when we are able to see ourselves and the world with honesty and compassion.”

Seeing the world with honesty and compassion comes from the study and practice of the Dharma and the support of the Sangha.

If you are new to Buddhism, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha may be words that don’t seem to offer much of a refuge. So, in the beginning we need faith. Faith in the Buddhist sense is not about blindly accepting teachings; rather, it’s a matter of trust, including trust in ourselves to see the world with honesty and compassion.

Read More: The Faith of Buddhism

Taking refuge in The Buddha doesn’t mean your spiritual path will be without obstacles and problems. Indeed, when we practice Buddhism, it’s the obstacles and problems that become the stuff of our practice. To take refuge in Buddha is to have faith that you already have what you need to realize enlightenment. To take refuge in the Buddha is to allow the Buddha to arise.

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

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