Buddhist practices and religious beliefs

Beliefs and practices

In the West religion is often defined by what one BELIEVES, but many other religions are more easily defined by either community or what one DOES, aka practices and rituals.

Buddhism is perhaps most easily defined as a belief in a a path towards enlightenment, with the main teacher of this path being Gautama Buddha, aka Siddhartha.
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Bodhicitta meditation for skeptics

I’m a Mahayana Buddhist in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition has many features that baffle my scientifically trained mind. Unfortunately, some are at the heart of the tradition. Navigating my skepticism is part of the challenge of being a modern Buddhist.

However, I’m not quite as much a skeptic as the Bachelor’s. I do believe in rebirth, I do believe (with caveats) in the possibility to become a Buddha.

Those two beliefs are necessary for meditating on Bodhicitta in a way that approaches what the tradition meant by the word.

So let’s start with the basics: Bodhicitta is the Mind of Enlightenment. It’s the deeply felt intention or choice to become a Buddha to save all sentient beings from Samsara. It involves developing kindness for all beings, including your boss, and the awareness that nobody is going to be rushed to Nirvana. Patience is therefore an essential part of the story.

Note that in this tradition you are motivated to become a Buddha, not merely a Bodhisattva. A Buddha, after all, is more capable of helping people, being omniscient and all. A Bodhisattva is a being who is training to become a Buddha.

And that’s where my skepticism rears it’s ugly head: omniscient, all powerful – even accepting the limits of karma – do I really believe all that? Continue reading Bodhicitta meditation for skeptics

Buddhist shoes and other Buddhism do’s and don’ts

Buddhism is best known in the West for being a philosophy, perhaps a philosophy of life. However, it’s also – and perhaps primarily – a religion. And like all religions Buddhism has it’s sensitivities. There are certain things you just don’t do, and certain things that are taken for granted. This is true in any culture and Buddhist cultures are no exception.

A few things I learned in adapting myself to Tibetan Buddhism:

  • Don’t put your dharma books on the floor: it’s disrespectful
  • Do put your dharma books as high as you can manage when you’re not reading them.
  • Do put the image of your teacher higher than the image of the Buddha: the teacher is the one who gives you the Dharma.
  • Don’t put images of the Buddha in the bathroom: respect the image of the Buddha the way you would the live Buddha.
  • In fact, don’t put images of the Buddha in any place where you’d hesitate to put a picture of Jesus. Like on your shoes, or underwear. However stylish they may be, the above shoes are very disrespectful to Buddha and hence to Buddhists. You’re putting yourself above Buddha, literally. Not a good thing.
  • Walk clockwise around the mani wheel, and turn any mani wheel clockwise as well.
  • Don’t point your feet at the teacher or a Buddha image.
  • Take your shoes off in the temple (gompa)
  • Wear cloths to temples that don’t show too much of the body. Like you would at the Vatican, or visiting your grandmother.

Note that all of these things are about respect. That means that in practice it’s more important to act on such things in company then when alone.

Prostrating to the guru and other guru yoga practices explained

If you come to Tibetan Buddhism after having read one of the easily accessible books by the Dalai Lama you may be in for a shock: there are a LOT of rituals involved in Tibetan Buddhism. For Westerners the first responses will be alienation and curiosity.

To help you deal, here are some common practices. The main thing to remember is that this is about respect, not servility. A real spiritual teacher will help you develop your own wisdom and this includes your ability to think for yourself. (more about guru yoga)


When we prostrate to the guru, we’re really prostrating to the teacher as a vessel for the dharma.

Prostrating before teachers is about respect for that teacher. This does not imply listening without critical thought. In fact, my teacher stresses thinking for yourself every opportunity he gets.

Standing up when the guru comes into a room, passes by or leaves the room

Again: a mark of respect.

The guru sits on a throne

The oral tradition around my teacher has it that he didn’t want a throne to teach from. It was explained to him that the students would be sitting on chairs and would feel uncomfortable towering over him sitting on the floor.

That’s one explanation, but the fact is that in Tibetan Buddhism it is usual for the teacher to sit on a throne or pedestal. This is not as alien to Western culture as it might seem: in some classrooms at my old high school there were still pedestals for the teacher’s desk. The advantage is that the teacher can see the students better and they can see him or her better as well.

Incense and so on

All of the above is about respect. Respect for authority is a suspect attitude in Western culture these days. When a guru literally had incense burned in front of him as he walked into the room to teach, I felt a bit overwhelmed. However, for those with a Catholic background it is probably not at all offensive. In a Buddhist context it’s important to realize that it’s not so much the person of the teacher that is being honored, it’s the dharma, the teachings. That guru sat on a normal chair and wore normal clothes when he simply wanted to welcome everybody without giving any teachings. On that evening there wasn’t incense either.

How to do Guru Yoga in Tibetan Buddhism – guru yoga practice

For Westerners Guru yoga is difficult. It’s so difficult for us that the Dalai Lama teaches Guru Yoga at the end of the Lam Rim, even though it’s right at the beginning in every Lam Rim text.

Basically guru yoga can be translated as guru devotion. That is: devotion to your spiritual teacher.

On the most fundamental level this is natural. Of course you will be devoted to the person who guides you along the path, helps you become a happier and more balanced person and so on. Since most spiritual teachers have charisma, devotion to them is in some ways a matter of course.

However, as you read this you are probably conjuring up all kinds of images of guru’s misusing their disciples. The advice given in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is very simple: if your teacher behaves in a way that you cannot reconcile with his (or her) role as a spiritual teacher, keep your distance. Treat specific outrageous requests, like giving up all your money to him, as jokes.(*)

Of course the main way to prevent trouble is much simpler: only take on someone as your spiritual teacher if you feel you can trust them.

Summer 2012 I attended Lam Rim teachings on Lama Tsong Khapa’s Short Lam Rim text. During the course of those teachings he gave clear instructions on the levels of Guru Yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since these levels make sense in a general Buddhist setting I think it’s useful to share them here.

  1. When you take refuge or pratimoksa vows, like the lay vows, the teacher who gives you those vows becomes a guru for you on a very basic level. You’re only required to see him or her as a teacher, nothing more. This makes sense as those vows are common to all of Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism. Since guru yoga plays no part in Theravada Buddhism it would be a break with tradition if it were necessary to see the vow preceptor as a guru in a higher sense.
  2. When you take the Bodhisattva vows, you are expected to see the person who gives them to you as an emanation of the Buddha. This is still doable, because faults and mistakes come with the territory of emanations of the Buddha.
  3. When you take a tantric initiation, you are required to see the person who gives those vows as an actual Buddha. Any limitations you see in them will have to be seen as necessary for the development of the students.
There are all kinds of issues with devotion to the spiritual teacher that I won’t go into here, because Alex Berzin has created a whole book (available as a free ebook) on the topic. What it boils down to is simple, I think:
  • Don’t move too quickly. Some people who pose as spiritual teachers do misuse their position in all the ways that people in power tend to do. It’s better not to have a spiritual teacher at all than to have to break the relationship.
  • Keep as much distance as you need in order to be able to see that person as a Buddha. Seeing them brush their teeth may not be conducive to the relationship.
Dr. Berzin’s book is great to set the mind at ease on all the issues that may come up in trying to deal with guru yoga in a Western context. However, amid all the good advice one thing seemed missing to me: how to do the actual devotion part. I think for many people it’s not hard to feel thankful to the teacher. It’s also useful to remember that what we are doing is generally speaking not so much tantra as training for tantra, even if we have taken vows.
When  Kay Cooper and Gordon McDougall came to Amsterdam to teach the Tantra module of Discovering Buddhism I asked them about this and they shared what their teacher Geshe Tashi had said: the main thing is to stay present in the relationship with the master and practice what they teach.
The main thing about spiritual teachers is that they will teach what their students need to hear at that point in time. So if the teacher tells you something opposite to the above, as long as they’re not asking you for something unreasonable, take their advice as teachings and ignore the above.
If a spiritual teacher asks you to do something you can’t do: it’s perfectly alright to just not do it.


(*) My own teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, literally gave the advice to treat outrageous requests as jokes. I’ve heard several other teachers in the FPMT advise to just stay away from a teacher whose behavior you can no longer live with up close. Most of this post is condensed from my notes on the summer 2012 Lam Rim teachings he gave on the short Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, using the 3rd Dalai Lama’s Essence of Refined Gold and Trijang Rinpoche’s Lam Rim outlines. I did not check these notes against the audio files, nor did I check with the translator to see if I understood everything correctly. Mistakes are entirely my own responsibility.

Taking refuge: vows, commitments, belief and faith

Since I took refuge, I find myself explaining what that means to me to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Because, after all, I did not suddenly become less of a skeptic. There are aspects of the Buddhism I’m being taught that I don’t relate to much at all. The main example is, always, the enormous amounts of rituals in Tibetan Buddhism.

A practicing Buddhist friend of mine said yesterday that he hadn’t taken refuge. His reason? How could he take refuge in a Sangha consisting of some obvious fools? I told him: it’s not about promising to believe everything every monk comes up with. It’s about respect for those who practice Buddhism as a path. It’s about realizing that you don’t know which Buddhist fool is realized and which isn’t, so that respect is there as a precaution against disrespect towards an enlightened being.

Respect is a bit difficult for us Westerners, especially for Dutch people like myself. I was raised, as was my whole generation, on children’s books glorifying disrespect. I think the most famous example world wide is Pippi Longstocking(*). But let me tell you: compared to other characters in Dutch children’s books – Pippi is a veritable gold mine of good manners. Come to think of it, since my grandmother collected children’s books, I read stories from all over the world. Still, nothing beats the Dutch Annie M.G. Schmidt I think: not a bit of respect for adults in there to be found.

I’m in the mood for stories I guess. One story our Geshela (Sonam Gyaltsen) has already told several times in my hearing is about the famous Indian scholar-monk Atisha. He had studied and mastered all the Buddhist teachings available to him in India. Pondering how to gain enlightenment he walked around a stupa and had a vision of the characters in the decorations around the stupa talking to each other: ‘how can one gain enlightenment quickly? You need Bodhicitta!’. So he went to Sumatra, a perilous sea journey at the time, to study with the monk famous for that realization:  Dharmarakshita. Atisha studied with Dharmarakshita for 12 years.

The point? Well, Atisha had already realized the emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna and Dharmarakshita was a Chittamatrin of the Mind Only School. So the two differed in their opinion on one of the most basic philosophical points in Buddhism. Still, Atisha was a devoted student of Dharmarakshita.

This is a very relevant story for us Westerners, because we come to Buddhism with a mind full of Western knowledge. Do we have to leave that behind to take refuge? Absolutely not. Refuge is saying: “The Buddha became enlightened by a path I trust. I trust no other spiritual path as much, so I take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community he founded. I want to travel along that path as best I am able in this life”.

There are implications to the Refuge vows though and I do think some belief is necessary before taking refuge:

  • You have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist
  • You have to believe that Buddha really existed
  • You have to believe the dharma he taught can lead to enlightenment. However you can choose whichever Buddhist tradition you want to get there, from devotional Nichiren to meditational Zen, traditional Theravada or contemplative Gelugpa. In practice your beliefs and practices will probably be a mix.
  • You have to respect the sangha of ordained monks and nuns, knowing that while individually they’re simply people just like you, collectively they are necessary to preserve the teachings. Individually monks and nuns have to be respected for taking that step of renunciation from the world: that commitment in itself is worthy of respect, even in the case of monastics who can’t manage to live up to the ideals they’re trying to embody.
What becoming a Buddhist does NOT imply:
  • Believing that the earth is flat, that there is a mount Meru at the center with 4 continents around it, us living in the Southern continent. The Dalai Lama has made it very clear that whatever there is in Buddhist mythology that flatly contradicts the outcome (not the speculations) of Western science should be discarded. This is an obvious example.
  • Believing everything in the Buddhist sutras literally: Buddhist scholars past and present have realized that the dharma Buddha taught was not always clear, nor was it always internally consistent. The conclusion was: Buddha taught what was necessary for a particular audience. Since these texts were written down a few centuries after the Buddha passed away, it’s very likely that not all of the sutras contain the words as Gautama Buddha spoke them. Notwithstanding the quality of memory of the brahmin-born monks in his retinue. Of course there is even less certainty about the Mahayana Sutras.
Personally I believe there is real wisdom in the Buddhist teachings as they come down to us after more than 2000 years. It’s obvious that the cultures of Tibet, China, Japan and even Sri Lanka influences the Buddhism as it gets taught to us today. Similarly Western culture has been influencing Buddhist practice and doctrine for over a century. This is to be expected. In fact it’s to be cherished. However, each of us gets to decide which aspects of the Buddhist traditions we are taught will work in our lives and which won’t. We get to pick and choose as long as we don’t lose sight of the essentials.
Devotion is more central than most people in the West are comfortable with. I mention devotion without mentioning what one is devoted TO. The Buddha, as a perfected being full of loving kindness to humanity, is obviously the most ideal object of devotion one can think of. You would not be reading this if you thought Christ was more ideal – if you do, do become a Christian. That devotion is the essence of taking refuge.
Wikipedia, which after all represents the average voice of humanity on a topic, has this to say about the objects of refuge (checked Feb 2012):

The Three Jewels general signification is:

  • the Buddha;
  • the Dharma, the teachings;
  • the Sangha, the community of (at least partially) enlightened beings, often approximated to community of monks and nuns (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis).

(*) I do not mean to imply that Pippi Longstocking is Dutch. She was conceived by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren who also wrote other great books I liked a whole lot better as a child. Ronia the Robber’s Daughter comes to mind.

Universal Buddhist Refuge Prayer

In the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism of the FPMT one is expected to take refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) twice daily (three times each), especially if one has already taken refuge formally.

For me, as a former theosophist, anything sectarian is a problem. On the other hand, I did pick Buddhism as my spiritual path of preference for a reason and I do trust my teachers when it comes to the path to enlightenment and buddha-hood. So I took formal refuge and became a Buddhist.

In order to not lose touch with the foundation of my path: universal wisdom and remind myself of my new commitment, I composed the following refuge prayer for my daily practice:

“Till my enlightenment I take refuge in Buddha, all Enlightened beings and my own Buddha Nature;
I take refuge in the Dharma, the universal truth and the path towards enlightenment;
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of those who are ahead of me on the path.”

Refuge is a universally Buddhist ritual, practiced by Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhists alike. In itself it does not yet determine which type of Buddhism one has chosen.

In the FPMT taking refuge, like other vows, is sometimes also taken as choosing a particular guru as one’s teacher. This part is definitely not mandatory: no teacher would expect you to wait with taking refuge till you are ready to choose a particular teacher as ‘your teacher’.