Category Archives: Buddhism

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.

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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.]

Dogen’s Shobogenzo and Other Works

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, left us a large body of written work celebrated for its beauty, depth and subtlety.

However, the way Dogen’s writing is organized can be confusing. Often most of Dogen’s written work is lumped together under the title Shobogenzo, or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” However, Shobogenzo is not one single, definitive collection of Dogen’s work. There are several Shobozengos containing different numbers of texts, and there are important texts not included any of the Shobogenzos.

This article provides a brief overview of how Dogen’s writing has been collected.

Kana Shobogenzo

The Kana Shogogenzo is made up of shorter works referred to as fascicles, a term borrowed from horticulture. An example of a fascicle in the plant world would be a cluster of needles on a pine tree. In literature, a fascicle is a discrete section of a book that could be pulled out and published separately.

Most of the Shobogenzo fascicles originally were sermons that were recorded on scrolls by a student and edited by Koun Ejo, Dogen’s successor. After Dogen’s death, as Soto Zen spread through Japan, many scrolls were carried to new temples, then stored away and forgotten. When rediscovered centuries later, scholars were put to work trying to fit the pieces back into the whole.

The various Shobogenzos are distinguished by the number of fascicles they contain. When people talk about “the” Shobogenzo, usually they are referring to the 95-fascicle Shobogenzo. But there are other Shobogenzos containing 12, 28, 60, 75, and 80 fascicles.

75-Fascicle Shobogenzo. This Shobogenzo was compiled by Dogen’s disciple Senne, a work that was completed in 1263. The first fascicle is “Genjokoan,” one of Dogen’s most beloved texts. Other fascicles in this collection familiar to most Soto Zen students include “Uji” and “Zazenshin.”

95-Fascicle Shobogenzo. During the late Edo period of Japanese history, all Buddhist sects were required by the Tokugawa shogunate to define themselves and explain their basic teachings. To fulfill this requirement, the monk Kozen compiled all of Dogen’s work available to him into the 95-Fascicle Shobogenzo, published in 1690. Among the texts added to this Shogogenzo that were not in the 75-fascicle version is “Bendowa,” an important early work of Dogen’s that had been lost and re-discovered in the 17th century.

The 95-Fascicle Shobogenzo is considered authoritative by many scholars. However, other scholars point out that the fascicles from the earlier Shobogenzo were in a very different order, and the earlier version more likely reflects the order Dogen preferred.

12-Fascicle Shobogenzo. The 12 fascicles in this Shobogenzo are from the later years of Dogen’s life. The fascicles were compiled by Dogen’s successor Ejo, and the collection possibly was published in 1255. But for centuries only part of this Shobogenzo was known to exist. At long last a complete copy of the 12-Fascicle Shobogenzo was discovered at Yokoji temple, Ishikawa prefecture, in 1927.

Other Kana Shobogenzos. Through the centuries other attempts to reconstruct Shogobenzo have been made by monks and scholars. The best known of these are the 28- , 60- , and 84-Fascicle Shobogenzos, although there are others. Today these are mostly of interest only to historians.

Other Shobogenzos

Mana Shobogenzo. This is also called the Sambyaku-soku Shobogenzo or the 300-Koan Shobogenzo. It is a collection of koans, in Chinese and without commentary, compiled in three volumes of 100 koans each.

This text was lost for many centuries. The middle volume was discovered in 1934, and the remainder came to light in the 1980s, The discovery of the Mana Shobogenzo is significant primarily because it sheds new light on Dogen’s approach to koans.

Shobogenzo zuimonki. Sometimes called “Recorded Sayings” or “A Primer of Soto Zen,” the Shobogenzo zuimonki contains comments on institutional structure and instruction and several informal sermons. It was written by Dogen in the mid-1230s.

Not Shobogenzo

Not all of Dogen’s work is found in a collection with “Shogobenzo” in the title. Of the several other collections of Dogen’s poems, essays and sermons that have been compiled and published over the years, two are deserving of special mention.

The Eihei koroku, or “Extensive Record,” was written in Dogen’s later years as abbot of Eiheiji. It includes formal instruction to his monks, informal talks, and commentaries on koans. Many teachers and scholars consider the Eihei koroku to be as important as the Shobogenzo.

The well-known early work “Fukanzazengi” was written independently and later included in the Eihei koroku. However, parts of “Fukanzazengi” are repeated in fascicles collected in the 75- and 95-fascicle Shobogenzo, “Zazengi” and “Zazenshin.”

Another collection associated with Eiheiji is the Eihei shingi. The Eihei shingi is made up of essays collected in 1502 and published for the first time in 1667. Its most well-known essay is “Tenzokyokun,” or “Instructions for the Cook.”

Reading Dogen

Bound editions of the complete 95-Fascicle Shobogenzo are very expensive, but English translations can be downloaded free from the Web. The translation by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross is highly regarded for its accuracy. The Shasta Abbey translation is more readable but not always accurate. For a lovely, readable sampler of Dogen’s work, I recommend Moon in a Dewdrop, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

[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 Buddha’s Teachings on Tranquility


© Trevoux |

The Buddha spoke often of the importance of calmness and tranquility. Tranquility — passaddhi in Pali — is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, or mental states that support the realization of enlightenment.

Spiritual masters often are caricatured as being unceasingly tranquil, floating serenely in some blissed-out state detached from the edgy, messy world. And, of course, no living creature lives that way.

Whatever their spiritual status, living creatures must eat and wash and use the toilet. They stub their toes, catch the flu, and run out of mustard.

(There’s an ancient Zen story about a great master who was asked what he did before enlightenment. “I chopped wood and carried water,” the master said. And what did he do after enlightenment? “I chop wood and carry water,” he replied.)

Maybe because of the caricature, you don’t hear much about tranquility in present-day western Buddhism. Yet the Buddha said tranquility is very important. Note that he didn’t promise we would become wonderfully tranquil after enlightenment. He said that tranquility is to be cultivated in order to realize enlightenment.

The Importance of Tranquility

The Theravadin scholar Piyadassi Thera said,

“Hard it is to tranquillize the mind; it tre3mbles and it is unsteady, difficult to guard and hold back; it quivers like a fish taken from its watery home and thrown on the dry ground. It wanders at will. Such is the nature of this ultra-subtle mind. It is systematic reflection (yoniso manasikara) that helps the aspirant for enlightenment to quieten the fickle mind. Unless a man cultivates tranquility of mind, concentration cannot be successfully developed. A tranquillized mind keeps away all superficialities and futilities.”

 You might be thinking, “I meditate to reduce stress. Isn’t that the same thing?” Not exactly. Stress is, essentially, physiological arousal, or an overstimulated nervous system. Its opposite is relaxation.

Passaddhi, on the other hand, is calmness of mental properties — feeling, perception, volition — and consciousness. It’s an ability to be mentally and emotionally still, like a pond on a windless day.

There are two kinds of passaddhi, called kaya passaddhi and citta passaddhi. To understand these, refer to the Five Skandhas. Kaya passadhi relates to the second, third, and four skandhas (sensation, perception, mental formations) and citta passaddhi relates to the fifth skandha, consciousness or awareness.

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are sometimes described as a progression, with each quality drawing on the one that comes before it and leading to the one that comes after it. Tranquility comes after happiness, which in this case is a deep contentment that comes from putting aside selfish desire. What follows tranquility is concentration, a one-pointedness of mind in which subject and object are absorbed into each other. In the Eightfold Path and Mahayana Six Perfections, concentration is the wisdom path, the door to enlightenment itself.

How to Develop Tranquility

Along with developing the first four factors of enlightenment — mindfulness, investigation, energy, and happiness — daily meditation practice is highly recommended. The Buddha also taught that there are seven factors that develop and support tranquility. These are:

A Healthful Diet. Nutritious food keeps you healthy and supports vigorous practice. You might also consider avoiding sugar if it makes you hyper, or any food that gives you indigestion. See also “Buddhism and Vegetarianism.”

A Comfortable Climate. In these days of insulated and temperature-controlled homes, this one may be less critical than in the Buddha’s day. But if you are prone to seasonal allergies or affective disorder, it’s certainly a consideration.

Good Posture. This refers not just to correct meditation posture, but posture whenever you are standing or sitting. Keeping your hips, spine and head correctly aligned really does help your organs work efficiently and reduces tension in your body. It also enables diaphragmatic breathing, which may help lower blood pressure. But your posture should not feel rigid or forced, but natural, balanced, and comfortable.

No Burnout, No Sloppiness. The Buddha said that the effort put into practice should be like the string on a stringed instrument — tight enough to play a note, but not so tight it will break. The key word is sustainable — your daily practice should be one you can sustain, through weeks and months and years, without burning out. But don’t be a slacker, either.

Association With Calm People. The Buddha spoke of choosing congenial companions rather than people who leave one feeling agitated. Fast forwarding to contemporary life — these days, you may spend more time with co-workers than with companions. Do your best to reduce agitation and acrimony.

Directing the Mind to Tranquility. Be vigilant and mindful in practicing the first six factors.

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

Glossary of Defilements: Introduction to the Klesas

Klesa (Sanskrit, also spelled klesha; in Pali, Kilesa) are the afflictions or defilements that keep us from seeing reality as it is. You could think of the klesas as mental disturbances or unhelpful psychological habits.

The three primary klesas are the Three Poisons — greed, hate and ignorance. All the other defilements flow from those. In Theravada Buddhism, the most severe klesas are associated with the demon Mara and sometimes are called (in Pali) Kilesa-Maras.

Over the centuries various sages have proposed different lists of klesas, so there isn’t any one Official List of Buddhist Klesas. For example, the Pali Abhidhamma lists ten kilesas — using the Pali terms, these are greed (lobha), hate (dosa), delusion (moha), conceit (mana), wrong views (ditthi), doubt (vicikiccha), torpor (thina), restlessness (uddhacca), shamelessness (ahirika), and recklessness (anottappa). But in the Sutta-pitaka and in Mahayana scriptures there are other lists.

Beyond the Three Poisons — which you probably will hear about a lot no matter where you practice — the klesas are spoke of more in some traditions that in others. Depending on where you study and practice, you may hear about them a lot, or you may never hear them mentioned at all. These overlap a bit with the Five Hindrances, and like the hindrances, a review now and then doesn’t hurt, especially if you are going through a rough patch.

The defilements presented here are common ones taken from several sources. The names are Sanskrit; if the Pali differs from the Sanskrit that will be noted in the definition. Terms are in alphabetical order rather than order of importance.

 - © Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos

1.  Ahrika, Shamelessness

(In Pali, ahirika) No sense of shame or conscience.

2.  Anapatrapya, Recklessness

(In Pali, anottappa) A lack of propriety; a lack of regret over misconduct. Uninhibited in regard to how one’s actions might harm others.

3.  Auddhatya, Exciteability

(In Pali, uddhacca) Flightiness; a tendency to be easily distracted.

4.  Avidya, Ignorance

(In Pali, avijjaAvidya is blindness or being unaware of the truth of reality. It is the first link in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.

5.  Dvesa, Hate or Aversion

(Also spelled dvesha; in Pali, dosa) This hate, anger or aversion is one of the Three Poisons.

6.  Kudrsti, False Views

(In Pali, micchaditthi) Views and opinions that are tainted by the Three Poisons. The most damaging of these are a belief in a self (atman) that is either eternal or is annihilated at death. Kudrsti can also be a view arrived at through speculation, something the historical Buddha warned us about.

7.  Lobha, Greed

Lobha is also one of the Three Poisons. In particular, lobha is the sort of greed that chases after possessions for gratification.

8.  Mana, Arrogance

Arrogance or conceit. In particular, mana is a compulsion to be top dog; to have a higher status than everyone else.

9.  Moha, Ignorance or Delusion

 Moha and avidya are close to being synonyms. Moha is the primary klesa; the one from which all others flow. It is ignorance of the nature of reality and a belief in a permanent, individual self.

10.  Pratigha, Hatred

(In Pali, patigha) Hostility toward other people; a sense of frustration with others, a tendency to find fault.

11.  Raga, Greed

Also passion or desire. Associated with lobha, above.

12.  Styana, Laxity or Lethargy

Gloominess; inability to focus; withdrawal. This is something like depression, perhaps.

13.  Thina, Sloth or Torpor

Also dullness of mind or sluggishness.

14.  Trishna, Craving

(In Pali, tanha) Trishna is craving or “thirst” and is associated with the Four Noble Truths, in particular the Second Noble Truth. This isn’t one of the more common defilements, but I did find it on one list.

15.  Vicikitsa, Doubt

This is a doubt that leads to indecision. The doubter may be of two minds regarding doctrine, particularly about the Four Noble Truths, and this leads to vacillation in practice.

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

Investigating Dharma

The Buddha taught that there are seven factors that support awakening, or enlightenment. The second of these is, in Pali, dhamma vicaya. Vicaya refers to examination, analysis or investigation; dhamma is the Pali for dharma. In Buddhism, the word “dharma” most often refers to the teaching of the Buddha, but it can also refer to the nature of existence (see “What Is Dharma in Buddhism?”).

Notice that it says “investigation of,” not “belief in.” It cannot be stressed enough that the Buddhist path is not about adopting a belief system or accepting religious authority without question.

One of the most frequently quoted passages of all Buddhist scriptures is the Buddha’s advice from the Kalama Sutta — ” … don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'” Instead, judge for yourself what is true.

However, if you read the entire sutta you see that the Buddha provided rigorous criteria for making spiritual judgments. The Kalama Sutta is called a “charter of free inquiry,” not “a permission slip to believe whatever you like.”

Why Believing in a Doctrine of Enlightenment Is not Enlightenment

Buddhism is built upon the proposition that the way we perceive ourselves and everything else is an illusion, and waking up to reality requires discipline and determination.

The Buddha taught that because enlightenment is different from our conventional experience and and outside our usual points of reference, it cannot be imagined or “figured out.” It is perceived only by one’s direct, intimately experienced insight.

The Buddha himself could not give enlightenment to someone else merely by describing what it is. For this reason, the Buddha did not leave us with a belief system but with a path of disciplined practice.

Working With Buddhist Doctrines

So there you are, walking the path, and before long you bump into one doctrine after another. You’re told about the Three Poisons, the Four Truths, the Five Aggregates, the Six Perfections, the Seven Factors, the Eightfold Path, and on and on. And you might wonder, If I’m not supposed to accept these as beliefs, what do I do with them?

And the answer is, investigate them. But how? Many people stumble on this point. Either they accept the teachings as beliefs — which isn’t terribly useful — or they try to figure them out intellectually, which also isn’t terribly useful.

We humans usually learn new things by a process that draws on what we already know. As we listen or read or watch, consciously or unconsciously we classify the new thing according to our existing taxonomy of knowledge. Most of the time this is a reasonably useful learning strategy. But if the new thing is utterly unlike anything we already know, this strategy gets in the way.

Often, if something doesn’t immediately “make sense” — meaning that it doesn’t correspond to anything we already know — we are likely to reject it pretty quickly. Or, we “interpret” the new thing so that it does fit into what we already know. However, to do that we have to distort the new thing to make it fit, meaning we aren’t seeing it as it is, but as we think it’s supposed to be.

Much of Buddhist practice amounts to opening ourselves up to new ways of understanding. In particular the practices of mindfulness and concentration quiet our minds so that we stop judging and comparing and classifying.

Thich Nhat Hanh said,

“We need to empty our mind, and be free of thoughts, ideas, and perceptions in order to listen to a Dharma Talk (Buddhist teaching). Comparing what we hear with something we already had in mind, and drawing “right” or “wrong” conclusions is a mental habit that limits our capacity of listening. To agree or disagree with what is said does not help us learn anything new. To listen deeply, we do not engage our intellect while listening.

To “not engage our intellect while listening” does not mean blind acceptance. It just means staying open. A teaching that baffles you the first time you hear it may open the door to realization the third or fourth of tenth time you hear it.

Over the centuries the several schools of Buddhism have developed many different approaches to dharma. Some of these approaches may seem “out there” — Tibetan tantra, Zen koans. Others are more analytical. Most schools combine some amount of “book learning” with meditation or some other concentrated practice to transform consciousness. Most schools also recommend working personally with a dharma teacher who can guide you beyond the boundaries of your particular projected reality.

So, exactly how you investigate the dharma depends on the school in which you choose to practice. And it may take some time to get the hang of it. But the Theravadin teacher Piyadassi Thera (1914-1998) said,

“One who goes in quest of truth is never satisfied with surface knowledge. He wants to delve deep and see what is beneath. That is the sort of search encouraged in 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.]

The Role of Karma in Buddhist Morality

What is morality? How do we determine what actions are moral and which are not? These are questions philosophers and religious scholars have debated for centuries. What does Buddhism teach about the basis of morality?

Within the world’s religions, the basis of morality can be understood on many levels. At the most common — and I would say most superficial — level, morality often is judged by adherence to long-established external rules, such as the Ten Commandments.

And it can’t be denied that for centuries morality has been “sold” to laypeople by promises of a reward in heaven or a punishment in hell. It should be noted, however, that many of the great theologians have had other views on the matter.

More recently science has stepped in, suggesting that perhaps altruism is hardwired into human behavior, or that ultimately morality is about a kind of social self-interest. Psychologists have proposed a “moral foundations theory,” which says, for example,that some people frame moral questions in terms of fairness or caring, while others think in terms of loyalty and upholding traditional authorities.

Western philosophy has churned out many theories of morality. For example, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that moral law could be determined by reason, and the rightness or wrongness of an act was not determined by its consequences but whether it adhered to those imperatives determined by reason.

The basis of morality is important to understanding the Buddhist approach to morality.

I see people claim that Buddhist morality is no different from that of other religions, because the basic rules are about the same (don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal). But in Buddhism, the way the rules are understood and applied are considerably different.

Buddhist Morality

As in other traditions, Buddhist institutions often have resorted to promises or threats about a next life to market morality to the laity. But this is something like telling your four-year-old that the stork brought her baby brother. You figure you’ll give her the real story when she’s ready for it. So let’s assume we’re all ready for it and look at what the Buddha actually taught.

Although Buddhism has Precepts, the Precepts themselves are not the absolute basis of morality. You could say the real basis is deep insight into the causes of wrong-doing — the greed, anger, and ignorance that cause us to harm others and ourselves. Until we fully appreciate for ourselves the truth of the Four Noble Truths, until we tame our own restless, grasping impulses, we will continue to do harm. And this is true no matter how many rules we follow.

In spite of how we may rationalize our actions, or however much our actions may conform to external rules, ultimately the action is kusala (skillful; correct) when it is not conditioned by greed, hate, or ignorance. It is akusala (unskillful; evil) when the action is motivated by greed, hate, or ignorance. So one important distinction is that one’s personal motivations and intentions are an important part of the context of determining rightness or wrongness of an act. The same act might be kusala in one context and akusala in another.

Another important part of moral context is causality, which brings us to karma.


The Sanskrit word karma (or kamma in Pali) refers to volitional action. A doctrine of karma, then, is one that explains the effects of volitional action. Many religions of Asia have doctrines of karma. However, they are not the same doctrines.

This is an important point, because I hear people dismiss karma as superstitious nonsense when I can tell they don’t actually know what Buddhism teaches about karma. Especially if you are new to Buddhism, I suggest putting aside any concept of karma you might already have and approaching the subject with an open mind.

First, the Buddha taught that karma is a kind of natural law, not directed by any sort of supernatural intelligence. The is no Big Giant Karma Director in the sky handing out rewards and punishments.

© Scott Cresswell,

Karma can be understood on many levels, both mundane and mystical. At its most basic level, karma teaches us that the volitional actions created by our thoughts, words, and deeds have effects. These effects can be both immediate and far-reaching, and they can be both subtle and significant. And once set in motion, the karma of our actions can continue, triggering more actions and effects we may never know about.

It’s important to understand that, in Buddhism, karma is not fate. According to some other doctrines of karma, if you have done X amount of harmful things in the past you are fated to experience X amount of harmful things yourself. But in Buddhism, the effects of past actions can be mitigated by present action. We always have the choice to change course.

In his book The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character, Dale Wright says that karma is “a way to understand the relationship between moral acts and the kinds of life that they help shape.” In other words, an appreciation of karma is an appreciation of consequences, of cause and effect. The circumstances of our life right now are the result of all the choices we’ve made, all the thoughts and words and actions we have generated.

This appreciation of causality is critical to the Buddhist approach to morality. The Buddha taught his disciples to think and reflect on moral issues and not simply adhere to external rules, and consideration of the karmic effects of an action is central to that reflection. Although the Precepts provide guidance, ultimately the Buddhist practitioner is charged with analyzing his own intentions and motivations and considering possible consequences — and not just to himself — when making moral judgments.

Read More: Buddhism and Karma

Wisdom and Compassion

This is where wisdom and compassion come in. Wisdom, in this case, is the perception that self-and-other are not two, and beings are not just autonomous units living inside their skin-pods. Our lives are interconnected with the lives of all beings. And it is this sense of interconnection,coupled with an appreciation of cause and effect, that is the true core of Buddhist morality.

Read More: The Perfection of Wisdom

Compassion, in this case, is not just an emotion but a state of mind. It is an active caring and a willingness to bear the pain of others. In practice, wisdom and compassion give rise to each other and support each other. As the self-other dichotomy blurs, then caring for others is as natural as caring for oneself. And when we consider our volitional actions, we become more sensitive to how our volitional actions affect others.

At this point, the practitioner has put aside selfish concerns about a good or bad rebirth. Indeed, belief in rebirth really isn’t necessary to live a moral life.

Read More: The Importance of Compassion

This is an ideal, and human beings often fall short of ideals. You can find news stories about Buddhist monks and teachers involved in sex scandals and even encouraging violence — both of which violate the Precepts, big time. No moral system ever enjoys perfect compliance.

But long-time practitioners often say that an appreciation of karma, and an appreciation of how our actions affect everyone in the great web of being, has genuinely changed their behavior.

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