Quiz: Dalai Lama facts and trivia

Tenzin Gyatso, born Lhama Dhondup, and named Kundun after having been named the future 14th Dalai Lama (which he now is) is the leader of the Tibetan people in exile. He and his people have suffered greatly under Chinese rule. The troubles there are, unfortunately, not nearly over.

The Dalai Lama is known for his peaceful resistance of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and for his simple message of peace and kindness to all people.

But what do you know about his life, his family, his daily habits? How was he educated? In other words… are you up to speed on the trivia of his life? Do you have an intimate knowledge of his struggles and challenges? Take this test to find out.

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More about the life of H.H. the Dalai Lama

More about H.H. the Dalai Lama on life, Buddhism and peace – quotes

Inspiring quotes by the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a biography. 

See also my quiz about Buddhism in general: from India to Japan, from Tibet to Sri Lanka.

Vaibhasika – Buddhist Philosophy Quiz

The Vaibhasika are the first of the four Buddhist schools recognized by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are seen as a Hinayana school, i.e. they don’t aim at becoming a Buddha but ‘merely’ an arhat. The result is that one does attain liberation, but can’t help all sentient beings do the same.

In some ways the Vaibhasika philosophy is relatively easy to understand, but in others it’s alien to our modern perspective on things.

Aside from the quiz, which deals with the philosophy of the school, I’ve also added some historical perspective as this is usually missing from Tibetan Buddhist teachings. In that they follow their Indian teachers quite faithfully, unfortunately.

I’m creating this quiz as part of my study of the Buddhist Tenets through the FPMT Basic Program online. In that program Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen’s Presentation of Tenets is taught by Geshe Tsulga.

Mistakes are my own. Do let me know.

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Essential Vaibhasika Philosophy

The quiz above was made, for technical reasons, as a multiple choice quiz. That determines the sort of questions one can ask. The following are the main issues to be thought about when contemplating the Vaibhasika position on Buddhist philosophy.
  • Permanence vs Impermanence:
    Impermanent things are things that change in dependence on causes and conditions.
    Anything that doesn’t change in dependence on causes and conditions is called permanent.
  • Ultimate vs Relative Truth
    Anything that ceases to exist in the mind when divided into parts is a relative truth. Ultimate truths are those things which can’t be divided. This means most things are relative truths, but directionally partless atoms, temporally partless moments of consciousness and non-compounded objects are ultimate truths.
  • Selflessness
    The self is seen as consisting of the 5 aggregates or (in case of non-embodied beings) or mind alone. What should be meditated on is the fact that there this self changes, can be divided up into parts and is dependent on external factors.
    In Buddhist terminology: the self is not permanent, not indivisible and not independent.

Vaibhasika Philosophy on TIME

When I made the quiz, I based myself solely on the FPMT Basic Program module about the Tenets. The one question I was not certain about, was the one where I say that time is not permanent. Based on the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, specifically the entry on the Vaibhasika by Chris Bartley, I am now pretty confident I was right. However, the Vaibhasika position on time is a bit strange and my question approached it from an angle that they would not have taken. In order to understand the following quote, you have to know that the word ‘dharma’ here is a singular and it stands for any particular thing. In fact, I suspect that when Geshe Tsulga defines a ‘thing’ he is really defining a ‘dharma’. Since things come in singular and plural, you also have dharmas. Dharmas = things.

(p. 548) “On this view, past, present and future are different designations of dharmas with persisting, immutable identities. Thus there is the basis of a real continuum. Temporal sequence is a phenomenon relative to human experience. Accordingly, the Vaibhashikas do not include time as an independent category in their taxonomies of reality, temporal stages being reductively identified with the occurence of conditional events (samskaras).”

What’s more:

“While in respect of essence the fundamental entities exist immutably and eternally, they are actualized in the present.”

These fundamental entities are what we would call atoms. In the words of Geshe Tsulga: Directionally partless atoms.

Defining Vaibhasika

It’s no wonder Etienne Lamotte doesn’t talk about the Vaibhasika much. When you look at the definition of Vaibhasika in ‘Tenets’ there is nothing there that you could not also say of the Sarvastivada school of which it was a subschool, as was the Sautrantika, btw.

The definition of a Vaibhasika: one who propounds Hinayana tenets, and asserts external objects to be truly existent but does not assert self-cognizers. (From the FPMT material)

Vaibhasika in the context of the larger Buddhist Tradition

I have struggled with this for ages, but the following seems to be the long and short of it:

  • When Tibetan Buddhists talk about ‘Hinayana’, what they really mean is ‘Sarvastivada’.
  • Both Vaibhasika and Sautrantika are subschools of the Sarvastivadin school, according to Wikipedia

Note that the current Theravada school, the one existing Hinayana school, was split off from the Mahasangika, so it does not derive from the Sarvastivada. source: wikipedia

What is Vaibhasika?

The Vaibhasika are a school of Buddhist philosophy, as taught in Tibetan Buddhism. Their main source for this is probably Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa and the commentary on it (the Bhasya), combined with what schools of philosophy still existed when Buddhism came to Tibet. (4th century CE) As one of the two main subschools of Sarvastivada, Vaibhasika may have been as prominent in Indian Buddhism as Tibetan Budddhism suggests. From my perspective the Vaibhasika label is convenient from the point of view of trying to understand emptiness – emptiness of self (aka anatta in Theravada) in this case. The Vaibhasika don’t accept emptiness of external phenomena. Any explanation shorter than a 1000 words is going to lack nuance, but let me try anyhow:

What is the Vaibhasika philosophy on emptiness of self or anatta?

According to Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen (as explained by Geshe Tsulga) Vaibhasika philosophers believe that the five aggregates (skandhas) are the (only) self, the only person that can be found.

The five aggregates are: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), discrimination (samjna), compositional factors (samskara) and consciousness (Vijnana). In other words: According to the Vaibhasika the self consists of a body (rupa) and various aspects of what we would call consciousness (the other four skandhas). The crucial point is that this self is not permanent and changes continually. The sense of ‘I’ that we instinctively feel, is an illusion, it cannot be found outside the 5 aggregates, but it can also not be found in any of the skandhas individually. In the words of Guy Newland (translated from the Dutch Translation back into English) in his Appearance and Reality (Schijn en Werkelijkheid):

Proponents of the Vaibhasika school recommend meditating on the non-existence of a permanent, indivisible and independent self of persons. Of the 18 subsystems of Vaibhasika 13 state that this is only the most course form of anatta. The subtle absence of self that must be realized is the absence of a concretely existent or independent self of persons. (p. 29)

Note that this assumes the Vaibhasika are identical to a collection of 18 schools of Hinayana philosophy. However, there’s no reason to think those 18 schools thought they could be grouped together like that. The very fact that 13 of those schools disagreed on subtle absence of self with 5 others makes it even more clear that the unity of Vaibhasika is a scholarly invention. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a USEFUL scholarly invention for our purposes. The Hinayana schools disagreed on things we don’t think of as important. And if we do, we’re likely to disagree with all of them in one swoop, because we look at the world through the eyes of 20th and 21st century science. See: Appearance & Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems

About Vasubandhu and the Abhidharma Kosa

Given that the Abhidharma Kosa is such a central text – the source in fact for all the Indian and Tibetan philosophical debates on emptiness from the 9th century on, probably – a bit of information should be given. The Abhidharma Kosa is a philosophical text that is as concentrated as the works by Spinoza. Of course Vasubandhu didn’t write math in prose the way Spinoza did, but he does come quite close. This fits in the tradition of Indian sutra writing: composing texts short enough to memorize. The result typically needs a LOT of background knowledge to be understood. Fortunately Vasubandhu wrote a commentary on the Abhidharma Kosa: the Bhasya (literally ‘commentary’). The Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy has this to say about the importance of these works:

A great number of texts of the Theravada Abhidharma tradition are extant in Pali, and a great number of Sarvastivada Abhidharma texts exist in their Chinese translations. In Sanskrit and Tibetan, however, nearly all of the “Sravaka” Abhidharma texts that remain are the works of Vasubandhu and the commentarial traditions stemming from them. It is tempting to take this as evidence of Vasubandhu’s philosophical mastery, to have so comprehensively defeated his foes that his tradition dominated from the 9th century on. Yet we may equally take this as evidence not of the victory of Sautrantika, but of the influence of the rising popularity of Yogacara in India and Tibet. Vasubandhu, a great systematizer of mainstream Abhidharma, provided arguments and doctrines, and a life story, that paved the way to, and justified, the later dominance of Mahayana.

For a compilation of Abhidharma kosa translations and relevant extracts from the Bhasya see the Abhidharma Kosa Blog More about Vasubandhu

Did the Vaibhasika and Sautrantika schools of philosophy really exist?

This page was originally skeptical of the existence of the Vaibhasika.
It turns out History of Indian Buddhism. E. Lamotte, by a classic Buddhologist, is my source for my scepticism. Etienne Lamotte says:

Throughout all Buddhist literature, there is no systematic attempt to explain or prove, as a whole and in detail, the doctrines professed by a given sect. The great authors display absolute freedom in the choice of theories they describe, and reveal themselves in general to be eclectic. They are not sectarians working for a school, but scholars giving their personal opinions. Tradition makes Asvaghosa a Sarvastivadin and pupil of the Vaibhasika Parsa; but Asvagosha himself asserts, in the Saundarananda XVII, 18, that “Existence succeeds non-existence” a thesis that was formally condemned by the Sarvastivada.

And – about the greatest authority we have about the Vaibhasika in particular, Vasubandhu, he notes (and my teachers in Tibetan Buddhism concur)

The great Vasubandhu was, in principle, a Sarvastivadin-Vaibhasika, but in his Abhidharmakosa he frequently adopts the Sautrantika point of view. (all on page 522)

Still, if you look at the Abhidharma Kosa and the corresponding Bhasya, it really is quite clear that Vasubandhu himself wrote about existing Vaibhasika and Sautrantika positions. He was philosopher enough to include both points of view, but that doesn’t mean he made the traditions up.

All in all I think Lamotte is being overly skeptical here. It’s a scholar’s job, perhaps. Still, the Abhidharma Kosa gives voice to the existence of both schools as subschools of the Sarvastivada school of philosophy. Given it’s importance to later Tibetan Buddhist scholastics, it’s not surprising the two schools ended up so important in their debates.

It’s also, I think, historically significant that no non-sarvastivadin Hinayana philosophy survived in Tibet. We must suspect they weren’t taught in Nalanda either. These ideas came from somewhere. A historically existent school is the most logical explanation. 

A definition of Vaibhasika in historical perspective

Most people who write about the Vaibhasika follow tradition more closely. For instance the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy says in it’s introductory paragraph about the Vaibhasika (p. 548)

“Vaibhasika is a Buddhist school belonging to the Sarvastivada (Everything Exists) tradition, which basis itself not only on the canonical sutras of the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidharma Pitakas but also on the comprehensive Sarvastivadin taxonomic work from Kashmir, the Mahavibhasha (second century CE), which is in turn the model for Vasubandhu’s (fourth century CE) Sautrantika works Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmakoshabhashya.”

It continues to give a full explanation of the philosophy of this ‘school’.

Guy Newland notes, in his Appearance and Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems, that although Tibetan authors talk about Vaibhasika and Sautrantika as encompassing all the Hinayana schools of philosophy, Vaibhasika as they teach it is basically the Sarvastivada school from Kashmir. The Sautrantika’s started out as a subschool of the Sarvastivada. (p. 134, 135 Dutch edition – the afterword)

Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy is a great – if expensive – reference work. I turned to it when I was doubting my own doubts and it’s reference to the Vaibhasika included the reference to Etienne Lamotte – quoted above.

More Buddhist philosophy

Sunyata, Void, Emptiness: Buddhist philosophy

Articles on Sunyata. The terms Sunyata (or Shunyata), void and emptiness are synonyms in Buddhist philosophy. They are ways of expressing the sense that all we see, feel and observe is relative, in fact non-essential and not self-sustaining.

Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman [Buddha’s World]

A scholarly attempt to reconcile the difference between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the nature of the Self Learn more about the four schools of Buddhist philosophy as taught in Tibetan Buddhism.

See also: Books about Buddhist philosophy I can personally recommend.

How do Buddhists live? Buddhist lifestyle!

How to live like a Buddhist? Buddhists live all over the world. They live in all kinds of ways, so there is no simple all encompassing answer to the question how Buddhists live. Still, there are a few things to take into account:

  1. Real Buddhists have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha
  2. Many Buddhists meditate (though traditionally this was only done by a few monks)
  3. Buddhists will often vow to take on the Five Vows – pancha sila – either on religious holidays or throughout their life.
  4. Many Buddhists are vegetarians
  5. Buddhists often have rituals dedicated to the Buddha: puja rituals.

I’ll explain each of these.

1) Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha

A bit like baptism in Christianity, Buddhists have usually taken refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), Dharma (the teaching) and Sangha (the Buddhist community). This ‘triple gem‘ ritual is common to all types of Buddhism and therefore probably originated in early Buddhism. It’s basically a way of saying you believe that the Buddha was enlightened and will try to live up to his teachings (Dharma)and support those who try too (Sangha).

More about taking refuge

Refuge in the three jewels is the most important ritual in Buddhism

2) Meditation

Most people who call themselves Buddhists in the West, meditate. This is a modern development, because meditation used to be something done by the rare monk who had the time and inclination. Not even the majority of Buddhist monks meditated.

3) Pancha Sila – the Five Precepts

The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. To take Pancha Sila, that is, to vow to live according to the following rules of conduct, is a set of vows a lay-person may take on, to try and live by, to the best of their understanding. So here goes: Pancha ( = five ) Sila ( = discipline ), the Five Precepts:

  1. Do not take life
  2. Do not take what is not given
  3. Do not distort facts
  4. Refrain from misuse of the senses
  5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs

The first of these is the reason many Buddhists refrain from eating meat altogether, or at least on religious holidays.

Refrain from misuse of the senses is usually interpreted as being about sex. For most Buddhists it means being faithful to your spouse, or partner. For nuns and monks it’s more strict: they’re expected not to have sexual relations at all. Some people interpret this to mean that homosexual relations should be avoided. However, I don’t think that can be traced back to the Buddha.

4) Buddhism and Vegetarianism

Most Buddhists in the West are vegetarians, but many Buddhists in Buddhist countries are not.

In case of Tibetan Buddhism there is a good reason for this: animal food was simply the easiest to produce and keep in the harsh Himalayan climate.

In general though it depends no how strictly one takes the vow to not harm any sentient beings.

5) Puja: Worshipping the Buddha? 

Puja is a Hindu ritual in which the image of a God is cleaned and worshipped with candy, milk, flowers etc. There is often singing and chanting involved.

Puja in a Buddhist context surrounds Buddha images and statues, though pictures of the Dalai Lama or another spiritual teacher can get the same treatment.

The aim is not the worship of the person or the statue itself, but the spirit of Truth and Love that moved in that person. Many people believe that such rituals can help stimulate an attitude of devotion and this devotion itself can help bring about spiritual transformation.

More on the philosophy, practice, religious views and beliefs of Buddhism

Questions by readers (on a earlier version of this post)

What do Buddhists do in their daily life? 

Buddhists are people, so most of their lives are just like ours: work, school, eating, sleeping, etc.

Reader comments

This opened my appetite to learn more, especially because it proves once again how similar all religions are. “Do not take life” is the exact “Do not kill” of the Bible and it goes on with “Do not steal”, “Do not lie”, etc.

Pema Chodron – famous Buddhist teacher

A mother of two turned Buddhist nun. It’s not a common happening, and it was even more rare when Deirdre Blomfield-Brown did it, because the Tibetan Buddhist nun’s tradition no longer existed. So despite being a student of Mahayana Buddhism, she had to go around the world to Hong Kong where she was ordained in a Theravada lineage of Buddhism.

While this was a long journey, it is not as strange as it may seem at first sight: in Buddhism the teaching lineages are not the same as the lineages of monks and nuns. The latter have to do with ritual, not teachings.

However, it was ground breaking: she was the first western woman in the Vajrayana tradition to go for biksuni (nun) initiation.
Having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she knows what she’s talking about when she tells us to face up to the darkest in our lives.

What I admire about Pema Chodron is that she brings Tibetan Buddhism home to people. She’s so profoundly practical in her wisdom, down to earth, funny, honest – it just resonates. As Buddhism is becoming more popular every day, it is due to a large extent to Pema Chodron’s books: they offer practical advice on how to deal with the troubles and annoyances of daily life.

Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist, particularly she is a nun in the Vajrayana tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Most of her books are too general for this to be noticeable.

Her teachings


Like her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche her way of teaching is very down to earth. She has a knack for relating the deep philosophical teachings of Buddhism to every day life.

About Maitri

The basis of compassion, the seed of happiness or wellbeing, or being glad to be alive. Where does that come from? All of this has a lot to do with our relationship with pain, with difficulty. The Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was that in human life there’s pain and that’s inevitable. Growing old and dying are the most inevitable one. The more that you love, which brings happiness, but at the loss of that person there is pain. If you put your hand in fire that burns. So there’s a lot of discomfort in life.

The fundamental teaching of the Buddha was to not struggle against the pain in our life. We don’t like to hear that.

Pema Chödrön was born on July 14th 1936 in New York City. She attended Miss Porters School in Farmington, Connecticut and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. She worked as an elementary school teacher in California and New Mexico before her conversion to Buddhism. She has two children: a son and a daughter. Before her conversion to Tibetan Buddhism she was known as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown.

Following a second divorce, Chödrön began to study with Lama Chime Rinpoche in the French Alps. She became a Buddhist nun in 1974 while studying with him in London. She is a fully ordained bhikṣuṇī in a combination of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka lineages of vinaya, having received full ordination in Hong Kong in 1981 at the behest of the sixteenth Karmapa. She has been instrumental in trying to reestablish full ordination for nuns in the Mulasarvastivadin order, to which all Tibetan Buddhist monastics have traditionally belonged; various conferences have been convened to study the matter.


Ani Pema first met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972, and at the urging of Chime Rinpoche, she took him as her root guru (“Ani” is a Tibetan honorific for a nun). She studied with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, appointed Chödrön an acharya (senior teacher) shortly after assuming leadership of his father’s Shambhala lineage in 1992.

Trungpa Rinpoche appointed Ani Pema director of the Boulder Shambhala Center (then Boulder Dharmadhatu) in Colorado in the early 1980s. It was during this period that she became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. In 1984, Ani Pema moved to Gampo Abbey and became its director in 1986. There, she published her first two books to widespread critical acclaim. Her health gradually improved, she claims, with the help of a homeopath and careful attention to diet.

In late 2005, Pema Chödrön published No Time to Lose, a commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Her most recent publication is Practicing Peace in Times of War. She is currently studying with Lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, and spends seven months of each year in solitary retreat under his direction in Crestone, Colorado.

She continues to teach the traditional Yarne (Tib. rainy season; Sanskrit: Vassāvāsa) retreat for monastics at Gampo Abbey each winter. In recent years, she has spent the summers teaching on the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life in Berkeley. Pema was appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as “acharya” (senior teacher) in California. 


A reader says:

Pema Chodron is amazing, and a true inspiration. What I like best about her is her humanness, and how she helps us deal with the quiet foibles of being human. We listened to her tape on anger on a trip once, and my son who can be quite fiery was very effected. Somehow the way she explained the need for patience really got through. I have tremendous admiration for her.

Pema Chodron Books (My reviews)

More Pema Chodron


A bhikṣuṇī is a Buddhist nun.

The vinaya are the rules for monks and nuns. There are various lineages, which don’t have anything to do with being either a Mahayana or a Theravada Buddhist. Because the nun-tradition was lost in Tibetan Buddhism, Pema Chodron had to get her nun-initiation in another tradition of Buddhism. This is alright, because the rules of monasticism have nothing to do with beliefs (which is what distinguishes Theravada from Mahayana), only with practice. In all Buddhist traditions, the nun initiation has made a comeback. This is true not just for Tibetan Buddhism, but also for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka for instance.

Pema Chödrön is a member of The Committee of Western Bhikshunis which was formed in the autumn of 2005, to help further the cause of women in Buddhism.

Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy?

To me Buddhism is a religion – do you agree? There is a long tradition in the West to regard Buddhism as a philosophy. This tradition was started by Enlightenment philosophers (those who like rational thinking so much) who saw in Buddhism an ancient religion which fit their ideal of a rational way of life.

I asked my readers on a previous version of this page:

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

This were they’re answers:

  • 13% It’s a religion.
  • 39% It’s a philosophy
  • 48% It’s both

776 people voted in this poll.

What IS a religion?

The word religion is tough. This was discussed in various classes when I was studying religion-studies at Leiden University. It turns out scientists of religion have hashed out the definition of religion ever since they started studying religion outside the theology department. For our purposes the Polythetic definition of religion makes most sense: A religion is a social phenomena with at least some of the following attributes:

  1. A central concern with godlike beings and men’s relations to them.
  2. A dichotomisation of elements of the world into sacred and profane, and a central concern with the sacred.
  3. An orientation towards salvation from the ordinary conditions of worldly existence.
  4. Ritual practice
  5. Beliefs which are neither logical nor empirically demonstrable or highly probable, but must be held on the basis of faiths – ‘mystical notions’ but without the requirement that they be false.
  6. An ethical code, supported by such beliefs.
  7. Supernatural sanctions on infringements of that code.
  8. A mythology.
  9. A body of scripture, or similarly exalted oral traditions.
  10. A priesthood, or similar specialist religious elite.
  11. Association with a moral community, a church (in Durkheim’s sense).
  12. Association with an ethnic or similar group. (source)

Buddhism easily has the attributes 3, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10.

Discussion could be had about attributes 1, 2, 5, 7, 11 and 12. 

Is there a godlike being in Buddhism?

Yes, Buddha has become a pretty godlike being in most traditional versions of Buddhism. In modern Buddhism he is, after protestant example, again reduced to human size. In Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are certainly godlike, though never in the omnipotent monotheistic sense. 

A concern with the sacred? 

Yes, from the perspective of the study of religion, the Buddhist sangha functions not merely as a priesthood, but is also – in its concern with purity – concerned with the sacred. Buddhist temples and altars also demonstrate a concern with something sacred as differentiated from the ‘profane’ or the worldly.

In a Western context, the insistence that Buddhism be free of commercial concerns, like advertising and ideally being free (as if it’s teachers could live on air) is also evidence that there is something religiously sacred going on. Note that in an Asian context, no Buddhist would dream of going to the sangha for spiritual support, without donating something. So the shape this aspect is getting in Western Buddhism is in some ways more strict (and less realistic) than the traditional forms. 

Are there illogical and empirically undemonstrable beliefs in Buddhism? 

Well, karma may be highly logical, but it is certainly not empirically demonstrable. In fact, it is the most important of the traditional ‘hidden truths’ – that is, only a Buddha can fully see all karmic relations that cause things to be as they are. Although there are reasonings to support karma (as there are to support any aspect of Buddhist philosophy), ultimately karma has to be taken on faith. 

Are there supernatural sanctions on infringement of the moral code of Buddhism?

Again: yes, infringement of the moral code of Buddhism (however universal its strictures) results in bad karma. And since karma can’t be fully proven, it falls into this category. Buddhists will of course insist that negative karma has it’s own natural result: there is nothing supernatural about it. However, since it can’t be proven, it must be called ‘supernatural’ in this context. Do remember that there are all kinds of things that are true, yet not proven. 

Is there a church in Buddhism?

While of course, as in any religion, there is community in traditional Buddhism, it doesn’t function in the way a church does. Buddhism is not a membership religion. In fact, only Christian religions are membership religions. Even a Jew isn’t defined by membership of any specific group, and Judaism is a religion that grew up in the West, alongside Christianity. 

Is Buddhism associated with specific ethnic groups? 

Judaism can be defined by one’s birth. One is born a Jew or not. This could be discussed and given further nuance, but this is not the place. 

Some ethnic variations on Buddhism have become associated (more or less strictly) with a caste-like system in Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, since people of any ethnic background can become Buddhists, the main answer to this question is: 

No, Buddhism is not associated with specific ethnic groups. However, this is one attribute of religion not shared by Islam and Christianity either, so few people will think it is reason to see Buddhism as anything other than a religion. 

Back to my readers

My readers also got the chance to put it into words. First those who agree with me:

Buddhism is a religion. Duh.

It is both. Most if not all religions would qualify as philosophies too. But I think the people that don’t like to call Buddhism a religion, have a slanted and misguided definition of “religion” based on their limited experience within one or two religions (there are actually many). A religion is simply a recognized & established set of beliefs and customs aimed at the spiritual (life beyond the physical) and the overall well being of mankind, life, the universe, etc…

Buddhism is a religion which explains its beliefs with philosophical arguments. It looks to me like the creators of Buddhism realized people perform better when the motivations of their higher-ups are explained to them. People are more likely to conform to directions when the reasoning behind those directions has been explained.

More a religion than a philosophy. Why ? Because religion aims at pointing to the truth whereas philosophy is based on words. Like Lao tsu would say: more words count less. Hold to the center.

If you ask “IS” Buddhism a religion then of course it is. However, if a person does not know Buddhism, but spends their life attaining enlightenment and followed the lesson of Buddha without ever attaining the knowledge from the source, then one could argue that in essence that person is Buddhist. So I believe you have to ask the right question. Can Buddhism be a spiritual essence that a person can have without the label and dogma that people seem to want to apply to everything? Obviously Buddha was able to because Buddhism did not even exist yet. I ask the question can you be a Buddhist Christian? Buddhist Hindu? Buddhist whatever? Obviously you can subscribe to the philosophy of Buddhism, without being Buddhist. Just by asking the question implies that it at some circumstances is not. You cannot ask is Christianity, Islam, or Judea a religion or philosophy. A person can make anything a religion, and no doubt there are places in the world that practice Buddhism as a religion. So just for sake of answering the question, Yes, it is a religion, but in essence the question is a philosophical one.

I think that “religion” is in the heart of the one who is practicing it. When a person devotes themselves to a belief and commits to living their life in submission to a set of teachings, then that is their religion, regardless of whether it involves belief in the supernatural or not. The devotion to their practice that Buddhists follow in every area of their lives in their pursuit of enlightenment makes it a religion.

It is a religion with some interesting philosophical and psychological aspects. What gives it away is the reliance on revelation for knowledge of the core teachings – the three knowledges that the Buddga attained on the night he was enlightened. Obviously this is not revelation from God but it is still a supernatural source. Then there is the substance of that knowledge, which is entirely supernatural: the law of kamma, insight into the rebirth of beings in other (supernatural) planes of existence, and the Four Noble Truths (although these are arguably the least supernatural). The Pali Cannon makes it clear that the Buddha and early Sangha believed in many dieties, and also in supernatural powers being obtained by those on the path. In terms of practice, the Theravada and maybe Zen schools are the least religious if by that you mean devotional. Although Zen is clearly the odd one out, by the time you get to the Mahayana a lot of sects are as plainly religios as you can get, even involving worship of a Buddha and Boddhisattvas understood to be very god like beings. It is easy to see why this level of religiosity has been criticised as a degeneration of the historical Buddha’s teaching – in the Pali Cannon he is always referred to as just a man who has reached the end of the path, not someone divine.

I have an interest in Buddhism but I am an atheist. I think the challenge for people like me is whether Buddism still makes sense and has something valuable to offer without the law of kamma, rebirth, and dare I say it, Nibbana. What is left is fundamentally an analysis of existence in terms of the three characteristics of dukkha, no-self and impermanence, and a set of practices aimed at dampening down the dukkha, without there being a final, totally dukkha-free state of Nibanna. If those practices don’t reduce suffering in this very life then what value are they?

I say a religion – because to me the definition of religion is anything people embrace to try to grow spiritually. Which will naturally be different in different cultures. Anything that makes us more aware of our spirit is a GOOD thing. When people become more aware of spirit, and less focused on material things, then whatever venue they choose to explore that process in is VALID.

Buddhism is a religion. What else is it? There is a revered figure. There are rituals. There are hierarchies. There are doctrines.

Buddhism is essentially a philosophy.

I would think its more a philosophy. Religion to me rigid, strict and full of to many contradictions, along with man made dogma. Buddhism flows to me, seems more natural, and honest.

It could be taken as either – but to me a religion is just an older less rational form of a philosophy – both with many good messages however.

I say that Buddhism is a more like a Philosophy because Buddha was nothing but a Normal Man who was fully awake & became enlighten. He just want to help everyone to be come enlighten like him with his teachings because Buddha said that everyone can become a Buddha. This prove that Buddhism is more like a Philosophy because this Equality believe doesn’t exist in any religions around the world. In all other religions, No one can be greater or equal to God(s).

Buddhism does believe gods, just not the same way as other religions believe. Buddhism believes that Gods doesn’t have the power to save us, but only ourselves can save us because Gods are still in the “Circle of Reincarnation” just like us. The only way to get out of the “Circle of Reincarnation” is to believe in yourself, the Buddha, and his teachings…

Religion brings tonnes of crap to this world and I think buddhism is the only “religion” that has no fundamentalists who want to cause shit. Buddhists are atheists, they have no god or greater being. They aspire to be the best they can be: enlightenment = what we should all strive to. not to please some “omnipotent” “almighty” being but to better ourselves. fo sho.

There is a widespread confusion that needs to be cleared in order to make sense in any discussion relating to religion and philosophy.

First about religion. The etymology of the word religion originates in the Latin word “religare”, which means “to tie, to bind”. This implies that religion acts as a societal glue. But if religion acts as a societal glue it must necessarily be connected to political power…. Now if we observe religion from the viewpoint of the long history it is abundantly clear that religion arose as a tool of early kingdoms in their quest to preserve their power over their subjects. But why in the world was it so? The answer lays in the early kings’ observation that the physical force of their armies was insufficient to guarantee their continued control over their subjects. Armies were moving on foot and once in a corner of the kingdom to quell an insurgency they were unable to move timely to another corner to quell another. Successful kings were those who observed that they needed to glue the psyche of their subjects into obedience to maintain their power…

About philosophies. The etymology of the word philosophy originates from the Greek word “philosophia” (philo-loving and sophia-skill-wisdom) which translates as “search for a general understanding of reality”.

So how do religion and philosophy relate to each other?

Logic implies that philosophy comes first. Religion is, indeed, the accession of one philosophy to the status of imposed system of belief within a given society. In other words one specific philosophic system, among many others, is being catapulted in a position of “power belief” by the rulers of a given society and with time that particular philosophic system will be internalized in the minds of the subjects of that society as being the unique and absolute truth.

Back to Buddhism we have to observe the different nature of its different strands.

– I can’t speak of Buddhism in India, for, my knowledge of that country is limited.

– Tibetan Buddhism is undoubtedly a religion. Dalai Lama is the title of head of the political institutions while Punchen Lama is the title of spiritual leader.

– Chinese Buddhism is more of a philosophic system that occasionally was adopted by a given dynasty but never gained “power belief” status.

– Zen Buddhism is a transplant of Chinese Buddhism.

The “best religion of the world” idea came about as an extension of the Western dualistic good-bad ideological presentation of the conflict between the political arm of Tibetan Buddhism and China where the Dalai (political head) is wrongly being attributed the mantle of spiritual leader for the sake of the ideological argumentation.

Actually Lord Buddha didn’t tell anyone to make his teaching a religion with the time it came up as a religion. And it has a big knowledge of modern science too. as the conclusion I think we could consider it as a religion as well as a philosophy.

The most interesting part of Buddhism is it’s philosophy. Also: there is no belief in God in Buddhism – even though many Buddhists in Asia do believe in gods.

In conclusion

Any serious class on Buddhism should discuss this: that in the 19th century it was considered a philosophy – which is why Nirvana was translated as ‘enlightenment’ instead of ‘awakening’. It was hailed as the pinnacle of ‘rational philosophy’.

21st century religion studies does not make that mistake, but many western Buddhists still do. We can get out of the dichotomy simply by saying that what makes Buddhism relevant in our times is that it has a live contemplative tradition that doesn’t fit into our Western religious concepts any more easily than it fits into our academic philosophy. What it does do is fill a void in our culture where there is room for the subjective, not merely the objective side of life. When Christianity starts embracing it’s own contemplative history, perhaps the word ‘religion’ won’t be so controversial when applied to Buddhism. 

Best Books on Emptiness / No-Self doctrine in Buddhism

I have studied Sunyata (emptiness) for over a decade. I have received teachings, read transcripts and meditated on the topic. Emptiness is a topic that I find deepens with time. Each time I look at the topic, I find new levels, new nuances and more application to my daily life. The books that follow are the ones that I would recommend to get a full view of the topic from various perspectives. Amazon will help find related books within the tradition of each. 

Appearance And Reality: The Two Truths In The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems by Guy Newland.

I have a Dutch translation of this book and I have returned to it again and again as I studied the Gelugpa interpretation of the ‘Four Schools’ of Buddhist philosophy. 

Unlike traditional teachers on the topic, Guy Newland doesn’t let metaphysics or visions on the path distract him from the main philosophical meat. This book is a great introduction.

When I studied for the FPMT Basics Program Tenets course final exam a few months ago, I found that while Guy Newland was great to get me started, he does leave out a lot of the details I was expected to know. 

However, in a way that is a recommendation. Most people aren’t ready for that kind of detail. 

The Essentials Of Buddhist Philosophy

Junjiro Takakusu follows the outlines of a 13th century Japanese text on the same topic. The book is aimed at beginners, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple.

In fact, I don’t know how much of it I got on my first read more than a decade ago. However, judging by my notes, I did go through it all. I am sure it helped me read Guy Newland’s book from the perspective of general Mahayana Buddhism, instead of from a more culturally naive perspective. 

For me, as a Western Buddhist, I think it is very important to find the essence of topics like this. It is too easy to let the details of the way it is taught in a particular tradition get in the way of the gist of the topic. This book definitely helped me avoid that problem. 

The Power of an Open Question: A Buddhist Approach to Abiding in Uncertainty

As you can perhaps tell from the books I started with, my approach to emptiness was originally very intellectual. From reading the above books I had no idea that it could become personal and transformative. I had in fact no idea that it should. 

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel changed that. 

Perhaps that is enough to recommend it. Read my original review. Although at the time my review was tentative at best, in this list it is the most easily legible for an ordinary reader. 

Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun

I read Dan Lusthaus’ book in an illegal version on Scribd. 

Like the next book it is primarily aimed at scholars and very expensive. 

However, it helped me understand the Chittamatra philosophy more easily and has made that philosophy one of the schools of Buddhist philosophy that I most identify with. 

The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism

Peter Harvey was recently recommended to me by one of my teachers at Leiden University. His book takes a fresh and well argued look at the Pali Sutras and the early Theravada commentaries. 

However, he doesn’t draw from those sources to give a classic Theravada view. Instead he uses it as a window into early Buddhism and tries to answer the question: what did the Buddha actually mean? 

This is the only book on my list that I first read recently as well as the only book that is non-Mahayana. However, in terms of content it is surprisingly familiar. My main conclusion from the first half is that many of the themes that became prominent in the later Mahayana interpretations of Buddhism, were already present in the Hinayana sutras. 

This is a stronger claim than the one the Mahayana tradition itself usually makes! Of course the tradition claims that Mahayana Buddhism is real Buddhism. And of course it goes back to the Buddha, but mostly the difference between the two traditions is stressed and that starts with the Mahayana sutras. 

For me, and I suspect many modern Buddhists, the similarities are really more interesting. It turns out that the main perspectives of both Chittamatra and Madhyamaka are already present in the Pali sutras! I will let the reader decide on the differences. 

In the Selfless Mind Peter Harvey gives a convincing view of Buddhist psychology and the anatta (no-self, anatma) doctrine. He helps clarify the 5 aggregates (skandhas, personality factors), citta, vijnana etc. 

I think this book will prove to be a major force in Buddhist philosophy of the 21st century. Claims (as made by one reader on Amazon) that the book uses The Magic of the Mind: An Exposition of the Kalakarama Sutta by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda more than acknowledged makes the author less respected, but only strengthens its conclusions. 

Dependent-Arising and Emptiness: A Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation of Madhyamika Philosophy, Elizabeth Napper

Emptiness has all kinds of interpretations. In order to understand how they link together – where the differences are, and how those differences came to be – a historical perspective is often useful. In Dependent-Arising and Emptiness Elizabeth Napper gives us just such an overview, explaining the context of Lama Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the Madhyamika philosophy. However, she does more. She has also provided a translation of the first part of Lama Tsong Khapa’s chapter on emptiness in his Lam Rim Chenmo and of the commentatory literature around that book in the Gelugpa tradition. 


When I started reading the introduction it felt like coming home. Finally someone who gives the Indian and Tibetan context of these ideas. Finally someone who gives both the transliterated Tibetan and Sanskrit terminology. Finally someone who stays close enough to the teachings as the geshes give them, to make them actually accessible on paper. And yet, through all that, Elizabeth Napper also helps with the cross-cultural divide that is the eternal backdrop to such studies. 

This is not a book for everybody. However, if you want to understand how emptiness and nihilism are mutually exclusive, this may just be the book for you. 


The Buddhist philosophy of emptiness is not for the intellectually fainthearted. These books are listed in the order in which I read them. Depending on the intelligence and inclination of the reader, the order may work for them as well.

For those without my philosophical bent, I definitely recommend starting with The Power of an Open Question by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. It is the only book on the list that deals with emptiness as a living reality in our lives. As such, it is perhaps the most important one. After all, it may change your life, if you let it. 

However, if philosophy doesn’t scare you, do start with Guy Newland’s Appearance And Reality. He does a good job of summarizing traditional views of emptiness without getting history involved. 

Ultimately, I recommend not only reading books, but also attending classes and meditating on the topic. This is the traditional approach and does help to make the topic more real as well as relevant. 

Why Leave Cyclic Existence – and Emptiness (some questions)

Is suffering something to be avoided? Do we have to want to leave cyclic existence as Buddhists?

Most people aren’t really driven to leave cyclic existence. Traditionally most Buddhists were only invested in getting a good next rebirth – you know, by ethics and generosity. So if you can live with that option, you’re still a Buddhist in my book.

If my ‘self’ is empty, does that mean that helping people is useless too?

I can tell you that a proper understanding of emptiness doesn’t deny the conventional self. It merely addresses the story-telling self, the Ego if you will. That voice in you that interprets reality according to how your desires want it to be and sets itself up as an authority on your life – that self is definitely denied by Buddhism. That is: it isn’t what it seems. It doesn’t even have to be killed or anything. It really just doesn’t exist the way it appears. When you see that fact, realizing it deeply, the Ego loses much of it’s power.

The self that buys groceries? That self is totally fine. In fact, it exists the way it appears and it is necessary.

Don’t feel pressured to believe in something that is beyond you. Emptiness has always been an elite thing. Most Buddhists throughout time were illiterate farmers. They did not think about selflessness. They thought about how to get their rice to grow.

And hey – if it turns out you’re not really a Buddhist – as long as you make sure to guard your karma, you’re still fine from a Buddhist perspective.

The basic instruction in the Gelugpa interpretation of Emptiness (which includes 4 different interpretations in it’s turn) is that when you come upon an interpretation of emptiness that makes you doubt cause and effect, back-paddle. Cause and effect (which includes working for a better world) is more important than emptiness.You’re questioning your understanding of emptiness because you feel doing actual good in the world is more important. Which it is. It only interferes with selflessness if you start thinking ‘hey, look at me doing good’. However, if you notice that in yourself, don’t stop doing good. Just use it as a tool to remind yourself that you’re not quite a bodhisattva/arhat yet.

Emptiness is a very complicated topic. Do take other people’s interpretations of it with a grain of salt. I studied for over a decade and I still don’t have more than a grasp of the basics.

I grew up on a farm. My neighbors were great. They were real altruists and definitely selfless.

Selflessness in the ethical sense has very little to do with selflessness as in emptiness. It’s great when people are altruistic, of course. Great karma for them and great blessings for those around them. However, that doesn’t mean they have realized emptiness. So don’t get your terminology mixed up: people being altruistic is another topic than selflessness in the Buddhist philosophical sense.

In Mahayana Buddhist terms there are two things: (1) the method side of the path: things like ethics, kindness, generosity etc. That’s what those farmer neighbors of yours had and what you are probably doing fine on as well.

(2) The other side is the wisdom side – this is where Buddhist philosophy comes in. And on that side it really takes quite a lot of work. Not that living an ethical life isn’t work – but it’s a very different story. To realize emptiness fully is to have both an intellectual understanding AS WELL AS using that understanding to clean up your own personality. When that realization occurs, that is when the end of cyclic existence comes into view.

But why bother with wisdom at all?

From a traditional Buddhist perspective – Mahayana or Theravada – Without wisdom we’re stuck in cyclic existence. The Tibetan tradition would add that without wisdom kindness is often counter productive. These are two very different reasons. Many people are more ready for the second type than the first. Which is fine.
Why is wisdom important for me personally? Well, meditating on emptiness and applying it to my personality has helped me deal with a few self-delusions.

Kindness without wisdom leads to all kinds of problems. People giving unsolicited advice, for instance. Giving help short-term that only creates problems long-term. This is a very common mistake among amateur bodhisattvas (as one teacher of mine called us).

Buddhists I know often seem to use Buddhism to escape their situation. This denial of the inevitability and importance of suffering feels like a denial of the first noble truth of Buddhism.

In my experience, allowing myself to suffer helps me learn. When I cover it up, I stagnate.

Buddha too wanted to escape suffering. So in itself that is not a problem. What happens is that when people use the dharma to escape suffering, they are just covering it up, instead of using the dharma to deal with it. The story is that the Buddha rooted it out completely. You can’t root something out without confronting it.

When thinking about the path to enlightenment, I get confused. It feels like there is this huge distance between my situation now and Awakening. I like the idea better that I already have everything it takes and need only see it.

You are coming up on one of the things that differ between various traditions within Buddhism. The ‘you need only see it’ approach is very much Zen (also Dzog Chen). The path approach is more classical, so most Tibetan traditions as well as Theravada are on that line. It is just a preference, not an essential difference. You would not deny, for instance, that you still have personal problems, I think. So there is a path in the sense that you’re not a saint just yet and yet you have the potential to become one (using very Western terminology for once). 

So why should I want to leave cyclic existence anyhow? Do you honestly want to leave cyclic existence?

If you think the system through consistently, you will see that – once karma and rebirth are accepted – the urge to leave cyclic existence is really quite rational. If you take people in poverty, dealing with disease without proper healthcare, in war zones etc. into account, most of them would probably think it a nightmare to be asked to return again and again. 

However, from the position of relative wealth still prevalent in the West, this urge is definitely not one that comes naturally. That is the Buddhist answer.

As one of the topics of meditation in the Lam Rim I have trained to try and get a feel for it. I can’t honestly say I have internalized it. However, I do see that if karma is true, and rebirth is true, then the chances of being reborn as favorably as I was this time aren’t that good. I may be building enough good karma to prevent an unfortunate rebirth, but I can’t be certain. 

Why would you meditate on such a depressing topic?

Good question. Because if karma and rebirth are facts, then cyclic existence is a problem waiting to be solved. Just because my current life is too comfortable to make that too deeply felt, doesn’t make the problem less real. 

However, as I started out saying: nothing is mandatory. Meditating on cyclic existence isn’t mandatory either. You are completely free not to be a Buddhist, and if you are, to be your kind of Buddhist. 


The above is clearly only a summary of the doctrines of emptiness and cyclic existence. It may be enough to meditate on, but it certainly doesn’t replace the libraries of books written on each in Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism divides the philosophical interpretations of emptiness into four schools. However, each of these is separated into at least two others – with often diametrically opposed viewpoints. Japanese Buddhism made no attempt to simplify the topic into a mere four schools. Instead they have about a dozen main interpretations. 

If you haven’t been confused by emptiness, you haven’t even begun to understand it. 

Some emptiness terminology

 Anatma (Sanskrit) = Anatta (Pali) = literally NO (an) SELF (atma)

The no-self doctrine. As you can see above, the translation of anatma with ‘selflessness’ ads to the confusion about the topic. I prefer the translation ‘no-self’. This doctrine is common to all types of Buddhists, though the precise interpretation varies. 

Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Sunnata (Pali) = literally ZERO (sunya) NESS (ta – merely a suffix). 

Emptiness. In Mahayana discourse ’emptiness’ has come to refer to the lack of a ‘self of phenomena’. In other words: it refers to the fact that nothing exists the way it appears to us, not merely the Ego. 1) Phenomena don’t exist the way they appear to our senses and 2) we don’t really look with our senses all that clearly. Instead we see the world through the filter of our conditionings. 


I am using the word Ego here the way it is used in common discourse. Don’t get Jung or Freud involved when thinking about Emptiness. 

When we say ‘he has too much Ego’, we mean that he takes himself too seriously. The male Tibetan gurus who came to the West were quite confused by their, often female, students. Instead of having too much ego, they didn’t have enough: they lacked self-confidence despite all their accomplishments. In time the teachers found a way of fitting it in with their worldview as follows: the Ego of a lack of self-confidence. 

I think this is quite useful. Lack of self-confidence is a sense of ‘poor me’. We tend to see it as humility, but the effect isn’t good. Lack of self-confidence makes us avoid trying things we may be able to do. Humility on the other hand can co-exist with achievement quite peacefully. It merely means that we don’t make our accomplishments an Ego-thing. 

With this addition, Ego becomes something everybody has. Everybody has a story-line about themselves that is off from the reality. In my understanding, that is the ‘conceit of I’ that the realization of no-self will get rid of. 

[This is adapted from a Facebook group discussion. The Question-parts are rewritten from the original to respect their copyright.]

[Shown here is my amateur version of 4-armed Avalokiteshvara]

Commercial Intent – aka Buddhism, money and making a living (online)

As I write this, this blog has a whopping 4 visitors a day, on average. As a seasoned web professional of over 10 years, I knew that it was never going to get a lot of traffic overnight. Why not? Because I started this blog with the intent of simply writing about what I care about. My more general spiritual stuff gets posted on my All Considering blog which has over 500 subscribers and about a 1000 visitors daily and still doesn’t make a significant dent in my income. Still when I write about popular Buddhist topics like mindfulness, it gets posted there.

To make that even clearer: I have never decided the TOPIC of my spiritual writing by the kind of audience I expect it to pull in. If I were to do that, I would end up writing about how to make money by thinking positively (aka lying) or how to get your health back by doing puja’s (aka lying) or simply on how to become happy for ever more (aka lying). Instead I write about what I think about, believe in and have learned. 

This blog is for the stuff that is only interesting to a specifically Buddhist audience. And by that I mean the kind of Buddhist that has actually taken refuge, believes in karma and rebirth and studies Buddhist texts at least to some extent. It’s a small group. Far smaller than the audience of people like H.H. the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron. Of course it’s still a bigger group than my former sangha of theosophists, but I digress. 

The thing is – a few Buddhist sticklers have decided this blog is too commercial for their taste. Why? Because I link to pages with Buddhist merchandise, which signifies commercial intent in their eyes. 

And yes, I’ll readily confess, those pages make me a few dollars a month. 

Buddhism and money is a tricky topic. Ask any Buddhist scholar and they’ll tell you money and Buddhism go back a long way. Let’s get some facts out there:

  1. Buddhism was probably most popular in it’s Indian heyday (300 BC to 500 AD) among traders and merchants. 
  2. Originally the Buddha, monks and nuns begged daily for their food. Literally. In India roaming religious people were (and are) a normal part of the landscape. Lay people giving food to such people think it will be good karma for them to support them. 
  3. Not long after the Buddha’s death (and perhaps even before) donations from lay people became so large that it enabled monks and nuns to live in monasteries with their own land. That land could of course not be worked by the monks themselves, so they had people who did it for them living on the land. Any profit went to the sangha. Since monks aren’t supposed to touch money, they hired people to do it for them. (seeing a problem yet?)
  4. In all Asian countries where Buddhism is alive today, there is an active culture of giving TO the sangha. Monasteries are kept on such donations, often given for the purpose of specific prayers the monks are to recite for lay people’s worldly success or their deceased relatives. (most Western readers will now scoff)
  5. In the protestant West we got rid of monks and nuns centuries ago. We have a tradition of paid religious workers (ministers, priests). Salaried priests, as Blavatsky scathingly called them. When we go to a spiritual meeting, we expect part of the money to go to the teacher – unless we realize they’re a volunteer. 
  6. Professional Buddhists in the West are therefore not expected to be paid (you can’t pay for dharma after all), but their audience expects the money they paid to go into their pockets at least a bit. We expect salaried priests, after all. 
  7. Asking for donations is a taboo in many Western countries. It’s associated with charity, with not earning your keep, with super-rich tv-ministers. 
  8. Professional Buddhists do have rent or mortgage to pay, electricity bills etc and they inhabit bodies that require food. 

In short: Professional Buddhists are in a bind. They can’t really ask for money – though the ‘dana talk’ has evolved so that often money gets requested FOR them. They have all the costs of a human being living in a modern world, but since they gave up on a normal day job, it’s unclear where the money is to come from. 

When I started my business almost a decade ago I had been online for about 5 years already. I knew I wanted to spend as much time and energy on studying spirituality as I could manage, so I wanted my business to take up as little time as possible. For about 4 years now that dream is a reality: I can live off my online income mostly recommending worldly stuff like PCs and Christmas presents. As much as my personality will allow I can study and meditate and write about spirituality in general and Buddhism in particular. More about my online journey

Unlike some Buddhist teachers, I don’t ask for donations on my main site (at least not prominently enough to actually get me (m)any donations). Instead I have ads on there. The result is very similar though: I can offer dharma online for free. Those ads pay the webhosting bill, on average. 

Personally I think that as long as Western Buddhists aren’t prepared to financially support their sangha enough for them to live off donations, they have no right to decide on how Buddhist authors and teachers make their living. Deciding on someone else’s motive is even worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nun. The difference is immaterial for  purposes of this post though. 

Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world

As I sit here, I have a body. That’s perhaps self evident, but when most of our communication happens on screens, it might be easy to forget. I’m on both sides of that equation: I make a living online, which means I meet my colleagues on the online water coolers of Facebook and forums. On the other hand, when sciatica kicks in as it did last week, my body can not be ignored. Don’t worry: it seems under control, but it does reinforce the limitations of on screen living. Unless I ‘share’ those troubles, no one can see them.

In my community of online publishers Kathy McGraw recently noticed that it is hard to keep track of online friends when they go off the radar. We make these connections online, but our line to them is thin as spider silk: when they go offline for whatever reason, we have no way of knowing what happened to them and if they’re ok. Take the online world at face value and we’re all just bits and online conversations. And mostly filtered to share only the positive. When the real world interferes – when our embodiment forces itself on us – our online friends have no way of knowing what happened.

As a culture we’re coming to grips with the effects of living through screens. As concerned father Steve Almond writes in the New York Times. Will his daughter remember that actual cardinal that appeared on their porch railing in a flash of impossible red? 

The fact is: kids or adults, for many of us real-life-sensory experiences are no longer our primary access to the world. And I wonder what that does to our spiritual development and emotional health.

‘Just Sit’, as a Zen Buddhist instruction is probably a great way to get people to pay attention to themselves and develop some self-awareness and self knowledge. They will experience the body through the aches and pains of trying to sit in an unfamiliar position for an hour. But will it help people reconnect with the world through the senses?

One of my Tibetan Buddhism teachers Ondy Wilson often stresses how the Buddhist path is in moving from head to heart. That is, I think, moving from cerebral to fully felt and integrated emotionally. This is relevant for us Westerners because our education stresses the cerebral a lot.

Sitting still and studying Buddhism – however valuable those practices are – will not help much towards activating the heart chakra. Meditations like the ‘Nectar Rain’ meditation (*) do work very well, however I think there is a reason many of the so called ‘preliminary practices’ are physical. Continue reading Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world

Are gurus made up by people because of their need to follow?

There are basically two approaches to the ‘guru’ question. The first is that people simply need help on the spiritual path, which is why there are gurus. The second is that people create gurus by their need to follow someone. This second view leads to the conclusion that all gurus should just stop being gurus and let the people get back to their own devices.

This second view is roughly what the teachings of 20th century anti-guru Jiddu Krishnamurti amounted to. For instance he said:

If someone has helped you and you make of him your authority, then are you not preventing all further help, not only from him, but from everything about you? Does not help lie about you everywhere? Why look in only one direction? And when you are so enclosed so bound, can any help reach you? But when you are open, there is unending help in all things, from the song of a bird to the call of a human being, from the blade of grass to the immensity of the heavens. The poison and corruption begin when you look to one person as your authority, your guide, your saviour.

[Commentaries on Living, Commentaries On Living Series II, Chapter 45 ‘Help’]

The anti-guru as a guru

I wonder though: are people really so stupid that they stop listening to other people just because they listen to this one person?

Krishnamurti’s life makes it clear that just because a guru tells people to follow their own insight, that doesn’t mean he is no longer followed. He was followed. Several organizations did grow around his ‘teachings’. There were of course people who learned something from what he had to say and left. But there were also many who were addicted to his message and followed him around the globe.

It seems the guru phenomenon is simply a given. And it’s not all that different from people going to every Michael Jackson concert.

Some gurus and anti-gurus

Education and the Significance of Life, Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti to teachers and students at his schools. He was much concerned that education would not add to the conditioning of the students.
U.G. Krishnamurti (no relation) was even more radical than Jiddu Krishnamurti. If you want to think through the anti-guru position to it’s conclusion, U.G. is your man. For one thing: he did stop teaching when it became clear he was turning into a guru.
Eckhart Tolle, a modern guru. Would anybody think he meant you to stop listening to everybody else? But why should that stop him from teaching what he knows? A fun book to get you to enjoy the moment.

Learning devotion etc.

The traditional perspective on gurus is that they teach by example and the learning is partly due to the devotion the student feels for the guru.

One can wonder if one really gets to the depth of any spiritual tradition without the devotion to some teacher. Whether he (or she) be called guru, minister, rabbi or priest.

I wonder sometimes whether, especially for us individualistic Westerners, learning devotion isn’t an essential part of spiritual growth.

The guru In Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism it is very explicit that it’s the students who create the guru. It’s up to the students to see the guru as an emanation of the Buddha or even a physical Buddha him (or her-) self. When they do, the teacher becomes a guru – no longer merely someone who teaches facts about the tradition and inspires, but someone who embodies the divine for us and will help us reach enlightenment.

Though, of course, we still have to get there ourselves… This is a given. No guru can protect us from our mistakes, or make us meditate more, or give us realizations. What they can do is inspire us and guide us.

The real ones, the good ones, will know what we are ready for, won’t ask us more than we can give and will stimulate thinking for ourselves. Or, as teachers in my tradition have stressed, ‘if a teacher asks for money, run in the other direction’.

In my experience it can make a lot of difference to have a guru. Without a teacher it’s real tough to work on your own blind side.

So, how about it: do we create our own gurus?

From a sociological perspective the answer to that question is simply… yes. We do create our own gurus. The likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz, presidents Obama and Bush, Stephen Hawking and more: all are created as authorities by their audiences.

There’s no help for it. Were one of those to fall in public estimation, another would be found to take their place. I think it’s partly that having authorities helps us organize our world. It helps us in filtering information. After all, there is really too much information out there these days. Having authorities also helps us to not have to know about every topic there is. We’ll leave the fine art of physics to the scientists, the knowledge of how to improve our health to the doctors etc.

Television has of course changed that game. Oprah seems part of the family. Obama, his wife and children are too. Does that mean we agree with everything these people do? For most of us: of course not. But in each of these cases there are those who will justify everything these celebrities do, because it’s easier. Because they have ‘charisma’. Because there’s no harm in it.

In fact, even in Tibetan Buddhism – where guru yoga becomes a central part of the spiritual path – the answer to that last question is yes: we create our own guru. A teacher is YOUR GURU when you SEE him or her as such. Of course it’s wise to observe that person a while, ask around etc before taking them on AS your guru. It’s also important, once you’ve chosen someone to be your guru, to continue observing the relationship. Guru yoga is not about becoming a slave or anything like that. It’s still YOUR PATH. But those are two whole other topics.

More about Guru Yoga