WEET DEW OF THE DHARMA: Q & A

Q1: Is Buddhism a religion?
The Buddha’s basic quest was to relieve all beings of suffering, and to attain true, lasting freedom or happiness. Along the way he realized that ultimate freedom is not possible without understanding the nature of life, death, and the mind. To understand all of this is enlightenment. So Buddhism is a teaching, a way of seeing the truth, and a practice to live a life of purity. Because it does deal with issues of life, death, after-death, and ultimate reality, it is considered a religion; however, it does not presume a creator, and it states that everyone has the potential to become a Buddha.

Q2: Are you a Buddha yet? If not, is it possible for us ordinary people to become one, and how long does it take?
We say that the mind of an ordinary being is equivalent to that of the Buddha’s. However, ordinary people have not yet learned to uncover their true potential beneath the delusions and ignorance that we all have. When we do, we’ll be able to manifest all the merits, compassion, and wisdom of the Buddha. Then we are Buddhas ourselves (So the short answer is: no, I’m not yet a Buddha.)
How long does it take? In Zen (Chan) Buddhism, we say that enlightenment can be achieved in this life. However, to attain the perfection of the Buddha can take many lifetimes. From enlightenment to Buddhahood is the path from seeing the Truth to fully become one with the Truth.

Q3: Is it possible to get rid of suffering without conversion to Buddhism?
There are many kinds of suffering. Anyone can rid of suffering if they see the origin (cause) of the suffering and remove the cause. So anyone can benefit from the Buddhist teaching, from the practice of meditation, with or without “conversion”. However, complete freedom from suffering is only possible with ultimate enlightenment, which is what being a Buddha means.

Q4: Can a Christian, or a Muslim become Buddha if they practice Buddha’s teaching?
To practice the Buddha’s teaching is to get rid of suffering and attain enlightenment, regardless of one’s religious conviction. The stage of ultimate enlightenment (or ultimate reality) is so profound and inconceivable that all names such as “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Buddhist” or even “Buddha” become irrelevant at that point.

Q5: We often see statues of the Buddha with a wide waist. Was he slim or obese?
The statues of the “fat Buddha” actually have their origin in Chinese Buddhist history: a thousand years ago in China there was a wandering monk named “Qici” (pronounced “chi-tsi”), who was fat, affable, and wise. He always carried a bag with him, so he was also known as the “Bag Monk”. One day a disciple ask him, “What is the very essence of Buddhism?” The Bag Monk simply put his bag down on the ground. “Is this it? Is there anything else to do?” Then the Bag Monk picked up his bag and walked away. Another disciple asked, “Master, how old are you?” The Bag Monk answered, “this bag of mine is as old as the empty space.” When the Bag Monk passed away (around 900 C.E.), he left a poem, “Maitreya, Oh Maitreya/ He has a million incarnations/ He is always teaching the people/ But people never recognize the Maitreya.” Then he was thought of as an incarnation of the Maitreya Bodhisattva, the future Buddha. Since then Chinese artists always carved the Maitreya Bodhisattva in his image–a laughing monk with a big belly. Also, in the Chinese culture, having a “big belly” also means someone who is kind and tolerant, that he can “swallow anything”. The Maitreya statues from India, however, are always slim.

Q6: Does Buddhism encourage fasting, if so, for what reasons?
Occasional, short-term fasting can be useful to the Buddhist cultivation, to train our minds to not crave for food. Most Buddhist monks during Buddha’s time did not eat after midday. The “Eight Precepts” Observance (which the Zen Center just held over the past weekend), which includes no food after midday, is recommended for lay Buddhist six times a month.
The reasons for occasional fasting: reduce craving for food, cleansing the body, to have more time for meditation and Buddhist studies, to not indulge in physical pleasure. A body less burdened with food (especially sweet or fatty food) is more conditioned for calmness, fitness, and can actually be more energetic.
However, Buddhism does not encourage extreme forms of austerity, such as barely eating for extended periods of time, instead, we recommend the “Middle Way” approach.

Q7: How can I reconcile living in a fast-moving lifestyle and career, which emphasizes desiring more money and more possessions and applauds ambition, with Buddhism? I feel stuck between the two. I want to continue being ambitious and setting higher goals, yet are these desires or greed that will contribute to suffering?
Buddhism, which encourages calmness, compassion, and non-conflict, is not in contradiction to setting and achieving high goals nor against making money. Buddha was certainly a high-achiever, and extremely “ambitious” in wanting to bring everyone to enlightenment.
The key is intention. Have we set our goal to achieve personal fame, pleasure, or power? Then we’ll never be satisfied or happy for long. We’ll deepen our delusion and be further away from seeing our true nature. We’ll suffer more and make others suffer.
If we set our goals (whatever they are) to help living beings, bring them happiness and wisdom, then we can, and should, be ambitious! If you want to make lots of money (the right way) to help more people, by all means!
However, we should also know that while working hard on our goals, it is still possible to maintain a calm and clear mind, to maintain integrity and compassion, and achieve success. Our December 2nd workshop “Buddhism and Successful Careers” will cover this in detail.

Q8: Monks seem to live very simple lives, dedicated to study. What is the purpose of this? Is this related to the Middle Way?
We live simple lives because that is the way life is. It is our delusions that make things unnecessarily cluttered and complicated. The monks’ purpose is to discipline the mind, achieve great clarity and insight to reality.
The Middle Way is a view that encompasses all views, thereby avoiding all biases and extremes. In other words, to attain the Middle Way is to see the entire truth. To see the truth is to be truly free. And then everything in life becomes profound yet simple.

Q9: I cannot believe people get born in the world with so much to do and so many senses, but the goal in life is to shut everything down. Why?
If we can “shut down” our desires, that is great self-control, which is great power. The Buddhist practice is not to shut down everything, but to not cling to anything. That way, we can use all the resources of the world for the benefit of sentient beings without becoming enslaved by them. That is true freedom.

Q10: You called “greed”, “anger”, and “ignorance” the Three Poisons, being the causes of all suffering. Are there not other poisons, like ego and lust?
We use the terms “greed”, “anger”, and “ignorance” to represent three broad categories of afflictions. Ego and egotism is the result of ignorance of the “self”. In addition, confusion about life, lack of knowledge, misunderstanding, are all forms of ignorance. Lust, desire, craving, avarice, are all different forms of greed. Irritation, annoyance, rage, hatred are all forms of anger. Jealousy is a combination of greed (craving someone) and anger.
In our Sutra Study class, we are studying the 51 mental states, which goes into a much more detailed analysis of these various forms of “poisons”.

Q11: Is there a God?
Buddhism does not talk about a single, omnipotent creator. Instead, Buddha teaches that the essence of our being (the original nature, the true nature of our mind) is uncreated and undying. Some people see “God” as an all-encompassing (not the same as omnipotent) power of nature, then, it is not necessarily in conflict with Buddhism, as our mind really is all-encompassing, powerful and profound.

Q12: In the “Heart Sutra” it says, “there is nothing to attain”, and in another chant it says “I vow to attain the Buddha Way.” Is there a conflict?
When we attain Buddhahood (perfect enlightenment), we obtain great wisdom (the ability to see the Truth of nature), great compassion (willing to serve all beings), and great strength. Yet, all these are already in us even before our enlightenment, so we gain nothing new. Enlightenment means that you see your true nature, which is unborn, undying, and equal in every sentient being. From this you can see the true nature of all things (great wisdom), and since everyone is fundamentally equal, we naturally should treat others as we do ourselves (great compassion). And by seeing this truth, the delusions/poisons of the mind are removed, and the mind can exert amazing powers and influence in the world (great strength).
For example, imagine our mind as a supercomputer without an user’s manual. We turn it on, and after much struggle, is able to make it do addition and subtraction. Enlightenment is like finding the user manual (and discovering the true nature and potential of the supercomputer), and in time, all of the supercomputer’s power can be unleashed. So, have we gained something or not?

Q13: Does Buddhism have anything to do with Chinese horoscope/astrology (the 12 animals)?
Yes, in a section of the Great Collection Sutra, there is an account of how the buddhas and bodhisattvas (compassionate Buddhist saints) can teach even animals to practice Buddhism, that there are the twelve animals who practice compassion. They are even in the exact same order starting with the rat, with the exception of the lion in place of the tiger. These twelve animals are able to take turns, day by day, year by year, to teach their own kind compassion and the way to liberation.
However, there is no mention of the twelve animals having anything to do with astrology or horoscope in the scripture. The story in the sutra shows that every sentient being (being with consciousness) can become enlightened.
Why was the lion replaced by the tiger in the Chinese 12 animals? Lion is a symbol of power in Indian Buddhism; the Buddha is often compared to the lion. The Buddha’s lecture seat is called “lion’s seat”. However, lions are not native to China. They were introduced to the Chinese around 2000 years ago. The Chinese grew to be very fond of the lion (as seen in countless lion sculptures, the lion dance, etc.).

Q14: Is it possible to practice Buddhism (or aspects of it) without entering ¡§monkhood¡¨ or renouncing family life?
Yes, there are an estimated 300 to 500 million Buddhist around the world, and only a small fraction of those are Buddhist monks or nuns. Most of the lay Buddhists have families just like most other people.
Anyone who observes the Five Precepts: No killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying, no intoxicants, everyone can be considered a good Buddhist, or at least in accord with the Buddhist teaching.
In addition, by practicing Buddhist meditation to calm the mind, clear the mind, and purify the mind, people can come to understand themselves and their relationships and connections with others better, and attain better peace of mind and good karma.
Ultimately, when one can let go of all greed, anger, and turn their ignorance into wisdom, then true freedom is attained.
Monks or not monks, everyone can practice Buddhism. However, because of the way of life of a monk and the strict code one obeys, it is, in general, easier to make greater progress on the Buddhist path by becoming a monastic.

Q15: Do you think Jesus was influenced by Buddhist teachings?
The great India King Ashoka (273-232 B.C.E.) sent Buddhist missionaries east, south, and west of India, and there are records of Buddhism having reached as far as Greece and Egypt during the pre-Christian era. It is not impossible that Jesus had been exposed to some of the Buddhist teachings. Some scholars also believe that Jesus did travel to India and left trails of evidence along the way.
There are some interesting stories told by Jesus that bears striking similarity to stories told by the Buddha. For example, compare the parable of the Prodigal Son with the famous prodigal son story in the Lotus Sutra.
However, we cannot say anything for sure at this point. What is more important, I think, is to realize that some great teachers or masters of the world have all realized some important truths about life, and that these truths have much more in common (compassion, selflessness, giving, forgiveness, wisdom) than they are different.

Q16: Why do the Christians have the Bible and the Buddhists do not have some uniform scriptures?
Buddhist do have canonical sets of scriptures. In Theravada Buddhist, they are called the Tripitaka (Three Baskets: sutras, spoken by the Buddha; moral/ethical codes; and philosophical analysis of the sutras). Mahayana Buddhism contains many times the volume of Theravada scriptures, and they are generally accepted by all Mahayana schools.
Perhaps you are really asking: why is there not one single-volume Bible of Buddhism? The Buddha taught for 45 (some say 49) years, and a lot of his teaching have been preserved to today. This is good in that we have a great sutra treasury to study and learn from for a whole lifetime, but it can also be confusing to newcomers. That is why at the Zen Center we created the Level 1, 2 and more advanced Buddhism classes to teach people the important principles in an organized way.
While there are thousands of sutras and it can be bewildering, they all ultimately point in the same direction: understand your own mind, which will lead to the truth, which will then lead to true liberation.

Q17: Why are Buddhist scriptures written like a riddle? Why are they not written simply and clearly?
Some sutras (scriptures) are written very simply and clearly, such as this passage from the Sutra of the Eight Realizations:
Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei (attaining the absolute),
Body and mind are at ease and free.
Many sutras are difficult to understand because one does not understand the Buddhist terminology. Buddhism is a vast framework of philosophy and teaching about life, so it must create a system of terms to better express these profound ideas.
You also may be thinking about the Zen koans¡X”riddles” from the Zen masters that seem nonsensical, such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
These koans are neither games nor wisecracks nor attempts to confuse you. They are a unique way that the Zen masters of the past have devised to point to some paradox or ignorance in our belief system, an inconsistency in the way that we view and know the world. When you realize what the koans are about, you have gained some important insight about reality.

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