Frequently Asked Questions about Buddhism

I used to receive a lot of e-mails about this site.I tried to answer questions by e-mail individually,but I noticed that there were frequently asked questions, soI have put up some of the answers that I have proposed.

Please note that if you are using information on this web siteto write an essayon Buddhism for an Undergraduate University Course, it is goodKarma to reference your sources and very bad Karma not to do so!

Table of Contents

What does Buddhism say about Abortion?

Buddhism doesn't say anything in particular about abortion. Thereare Buddhists who no doubt stand on the "Pro Choice" side of the fence and others who take the "Pro Life" stance.

The important questions to keep in mind are: who is sufferingand what can be done to reduce suffering. The intentionhere is important. There are some circumstances, no doubt, wherean abortion, especially at the very early stages of pregnancy,may be the wise thing to do. If the child's life would befraught with suffering, for some reason; or if the parentswould suffer greatly as a consequence of having a child.

My personal view is this: bringing a human life into beingis a large responsibility and needs to be done with considerationand intent. If a woman becomes pregnant and does not want thechild, there is, it seems to me, a period of time before whichshe can chose to terminate the pregnancy without harming anysentient being (other than herself). A human embryo, at theearly stages of development is hardly much more than a groupof quickly differentiating cells in the woman's body.

However, there is a certain stage, between 8 and 12 weeks whenthe embryo becomes a fetus and beyond which the harm done toboth the fetus and the mother as a consequence of abortionis very great indeed and should be avoided for all butmedical (i.e. life threatening) reasons.

You might also wish to consider the response given to this question by the Buddhist monk Ajahn Viradhammo.

What is the Buddhist stance on Environmental issues

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the inter-dependenceof all things (the doctrine of interdependent origination).Therefore, Buddhism is at heart an ecological religion. Ourvery lives, the air we breathe, the water we drink the foodwe eat are all dependent on the environment and to harm theenvironment is to harm ourselves.

One of the principle Buddhist precepts is the reverence forlife and the intent to prevent all suffering. This preceptentails a regard for our environment: plants, animals andminerals. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.If we take care of the environment, we take care of ourselves.

How do people become Buddhist, what is the process?

There is no "process". But you need to adhere to the 5 preceptsand "take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha" (the "triple gem" as it is called). Theseare typically things you do with the assistance of a Buddhist monk or nun in amonastery or in a monastic setting but mostly this is an undertakingor a commitment you make with yourself to take a certain outlook on life. You arenot called upon to account to anyone but yourselffor this undertaking except if youbecome monastic or live in a monastery.

If people's souls are reborn into another womb when they die, then what happens to the body at death if there are not enough births at the time of their death? What if there's more births than deaths (as thereactually is)? How do these extra births get souls?

Personally, I don't believe in reincarnation so I don't worry about thelogical inconsistencies that there might be in this doctrine.

However, if you want to get into details, you should remember thatincarnation and re-incarnation don't necessarily happen from one humanlife to another but can happen from any animal life to another andfrom animal life to a human life. So to do your arithmetic preciselyyou would have to count every living being.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the movie "Little Buddha" it is possiblefor a being to be reincarnated into different bodies simultaneously,so I'm afraid that there is no law of conservation of souls or anythinglike that.

Finally, reincarnation is not a Buddhist idea but a Hindu one, whichthe Buddhists reinvented in the context of the other teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism isconverting many people all over the world. Why are so many western people converting?

I'm not sure I have a good answer to this question. But here's my guess.

There is a lot of wisdom in Buddhism and not a lot oftheology. Buddhism doesn't require any belief in God or angels or anythingyou can't observe for yourself. In the words of a monk I know"it's a do-it-yourself religion".<>There's a very good book by StephenBatchelor called "A History of Western Buddhism" which may be of use here.

I'm looking for information on Judaism and Buddhism

There are two books I know about: "The Jew in the Lotus" by Rodger Kamenetzand "Funny you don't look Buddhist" by Sylvia Boorstein.

I don't understand 'No Self' in Buddhism?

When a thought arises it arises in this mind-body system and ithas a cause (might be stimulated by a sight or a sound or something).Now this thought is observable. The question is what is doing theobserving?, A "me" that I can call self?

I think the Buddhist answer is "no". The knowing of theexperience or the thought or what have you is not personal; itdoesn't have an identity. It is a faculty: the faculty of awareness.

It's like sight. You are able to see the video screen you arelooking at in just the same way as anyone who has the abilityof sight is able to see it. This ability may get clouded withage (cataracts, lens deformation, accidents etc.) but it isn'timbued with anything like an identity--"my sight". Your abilityto see and my ability to see are in essence the same andindistinguishable (not *indexed* to any particular experience).

Similarly, awareness is not indexed to any particular thoughtor experience--in that sense it is impersonal.

This character of awareness is very hard to understand, sometimes,because much of the time, what we are aware of is labeled bythought "I hear... 'a train'"..."I see 'a computer'". Thoughtsof "I" and "a train" and "a computer" keep populating this fieldof awareness with such frequency and regularity that we end upbelieving in the permanence and solidity of these indexes and labels.

But the reality is quite otherwise. Try awareness of hearingunfamiliar sounds, for example. If you go camping in some strangeplace somewhere in the wilderness, whose sounds are unfamiliar,you may be able to listen to the sounds -- as SOUNDS -- withoutthe thoughts of "this is a so-and-so sound...." On the other hand,you might not be able to do this well at all. You might startworrying "this is a bear coming to get me" or you might startexperiencing fear about the unknown (in that case the thought of"me", "my life", "my health" will take centre stage). On theother hand, if you are able to focus single-pointedly (and thisis one of the virtues of meditation--that it trains the mind todo this one-pointed concentration) on the texture of the sound,on it's beginning and ending, on its pitch, on how it changesover time etc.) then all you will have is "awareness" and itsobject "the sound".

In reality that's all there is: awareness now of this experience(feeling, thought, sensation etc.) now. Some of these thought-experiences are highly dominant "I worry" "I need to do this""my house might be burning down" etc. have "self" as centrestage. This *is* a reality--the mind constructs the self asa real, enduring thing. But in fact these are Images. Imagesof self ("I am the great computer scientist" or "I am the unworthyhusband" or "I am the Buddhist meditation teacher" or whatever)which are easily destroyed into (for example) their opposites("I'll never be a great computer scientist" or "I am super-husband"or "I'm not a Buddhist"). This just goes to prove how illusorythese thoughts are. They don't really correspond to anythingat all, let alone something fixed and unchanging as they paradethemselves as. (Angry feelings are that way too: when you'reangry with someone it's very hard to remember that you are notalways going to feel that way towards that person, that indeedyou have felt and will again feel tenderness and love for thatperson--what you think and feel at that moment when you're angryis: "this may not have always been like that, but by golly, it'sgoing to stay like that now,... I'm not going to forgive so andso for this.... they're going to get it as soon as I get my handson them...." as thought this were the most important and mostreal thing in the world).

Once you taste some no-thought awareness, 'bare' awareness, yousee the impermanence of experience-phenomena and the impermanentnature of "I"-thoughts. It becomes very clear.

"talk.religion.buddhism" FAQ

Do Buddhists believe in God?----------------------------Buddhism has been characterized as 'atheist' by the Pope and others --but 'non-eternalist' is a more accurate term.  Deities are mentionedmany times in the scriptures.  People often interpret such referencesmetaphorically (especially in the West); but even if they are takenliterally, there is no conflict with the Teaching.However, the idea of an eternal Creator God is contrary to theBuddhist doctrines of anicca and anatta, and is flatly contradicted inscripture (see, for example, the second section of the BrahmajalaSutta, pp.75-83 of Walshe's translation of the Digha Nikaya).Theists, agnostics and atheists are all welcome within Buddhism (andin this group); Buddhists make up their own minds about the existenceor nonexistence of deities, if they get around to it.  Some peoplefind this question uninteresting, feeling that neither a 'yes' nor a'no' answer contributes meaningfully to the elimination of suffering.See also next item.Do Buddhists believe in a soul?-------------------------------Some would say that questions like 3.04 and 3.05 are in the samegeneral category as "Does Nonexistence Exist?"  Such questions areunanswerable.  But even if one does not take this stand, the semanticsof the questions are very difficult.In both cases, someone who answers with a categorical "yes" needs toreconcile the answer with the characteristics of conditionedphenomena: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and thenonexistence of a substantial Self (anatta).  Those who answer with acategorical "no" face a different set of problems, e.g. making surethat what they are negating is the same as what is being affirmed bythe people to whom they are speaking. Suffice it to say that there areways to give a coherent sense to either answer, if one is so inclined.Is there "something" that is experienced as a self having continuityin time -- a self with will, and joy, and pain?  Of course there is,there would be no need for the Buddha's teaching otherwise.  But isthere a permanent and substantial self?  Buddhist doctrine says no.It is not possible to deal with this question adequately in a FAQ.Those who are interested can try starting with _The Questions ofMilinda_, a classic Buddhist text in which the matter is considered insome detail (see for instance 'The Distinguishing Marks' beginning atpage 34 of I.B. Horner's translation).If there is no self, who am I talking to?-----------------------------------------The word 'self' has a multitude of meanings in English.  Not all ofthose meanings are relevant to the notion of self (//attaa//) that isnegated in the doctrine of anatta.Sometimes 'self' is used in English to suggest a permanent identity(or soul) of a type that would be foreign to Buddhist thought.  Atother times, 'self' is used only to denote a "conventional person" (asin "make yourself at home"); this usage presents no problems.Here is what the _Encyclopedia of Buddhism_ has to say on the subject(from G.P. Malalasekera's article on anatta):        Buddhism has no objection to the use of the words        //attaa//, or //satta//, or //puggala//, to indicate        the individual as a whole, or to distinguish, one        person from another, where such distinction is        necessary, especially as regards such things as         memory and kamma which are private and personal and        where it is necessary to recognize the existence of        separate lines of continuity (//santaana//).  But,         even so, these terms should be treated only as labels,         binding-conceptions and conventions in language,         assisting economy in thought and world and nothing         more.  Even the Buddha uses them sometimes.Do Buddhists believe in reincarnation?--------------------------------------People who ask this question usually mean transmigration of souls.People who answer it sometimes mean rebirth.  This can lead toconfusion.Buddhism does not teach transmigration of souls, nor does it teachagainst it (see 3.05).  As long as the 'soul' is regarded as just abundle of transient phenomena, subject to arising and passing away,transmigration is not objectionable.  Of course, that gives both'soul' and 'reincarnation' meanings quite different from the onesusually intended by people of other faiths, which can lead tomiscommunication; thus it is probably best to avoid this usage.If 'soul' is taken in its usual popular sense -- an eternal unchangingsomething, or a spark of an eternal unchanging perfect Someone -- thenthe scriptures and commentaries are unanimous in denying itsexistence:        For there is suffering, but none who suffers;        Doing exists although there is no doer;        Extinction is but no extinguished person;        Although there is a path, there is no goer.                -- Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga XIV 90 (tr. Nanamoli)Usually, someone who uses the word 'reincarnation' means the"re-instantiation" of a substantial and permanent personal essence ofsome kind -- an atman, or a soul in the sense of some Westernreligions.  The existence of such a thing is rejected in the suttas(except as a convention), and is categorically denied in theAbhidhamma.  Discussion of the transmigration of something thatdoesn't exist is pointless.Buddhism *does* teach liberation from rebirth.  Rebirth in thiscontext means bondage to the causes of suffering, not renewed physicalembodiment of a permanent spiritual substance in the form of an animalor human.If there is no self, what is reborn?------------------------------------One traditional view is that karma and its results "belong" to aparticular life continuum, not to the "person" identified with thatlife continuum in our minds at any particular time.  The standardcomparison is to a candle: if the flame from one candle is transferredto another, the second flame is "neither the same nor different"; itmay have different fuel, but it is still causally connected to thefirst flame.What does Buddhism say about sex?---------------------------------Monks, nuns and other ordained persons may (or may not) be expected toobserve strict celibacy, depending on the sect they belong to.The laity of most traditions are expected to observe the Precepts,which call for *nonharmful* sexual behavior.  At a minimum, this meansrefraining from sexual behavior that is a cause of non- mindfulnessand suffering, our own or anyone else's.  In some Buddhist countriesit may mean other things as well, reflecting the prevailing values ofthe cultures involved.  Such cultural overlays vary from country tocountry.If your interest is primarily cultural, you may be able to find aknowledgeable person in a pertinent soc.culture.* group.  Please donot crosspost soc.culture.* messages to t.r.b.  If you receiveinformation from soc.culture.* that you feel would be of generalinterest to readers of this newsgroup, please post a separate summaryto t.r.b. instead.What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?-------------------------------------------Homosexual behavior is off-limits to ordained persons in traditionsthat follow traditional monastic rules (Vinaya).  However, *all*sexual behavior is off-limits in this case; homosexuality is merelyone of the forms of proscribed behavior that is explicitly mentioned.Where lay people are concerned, Buddhism says nothing abouthomosexuality.  Individual Buddhists or Buddhist cultures may haveviews on the subject, but such views are not germane to this FAQ.  Agood historical overview can be found in _Buddhism, Sexuality andGender_ (Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ed.); see booklist in Part 3.As a general rule, Buddhists of most major traditions do not regardsexual orientation as being terribly relevant to practice as long asone's sexual behavior is in line with the precepts (see 3.07).What does Buddhism say about morality in general?-------------------------------------------------In Buddhism, unwholesome behavior is not a sign of defection to thecamp of a sinister being.  Nor is it a "sin" that brings upon us thewrath of a vengeful God."Immoral" behavior is a product of mistaken view.  It is wrong notbecause it violates some external set of laws handed down from onhigh, but because it strengthens the bonds of clinging and engenderssuffering.  In Buddhism, unwholesome impulses are not things to beviolently suppressed by a schizoid act of will; they are to be notedand understood.  As we come to recognize how mental defilements giverise to unwholesome attitudes, we will be able to work on developingwholesome attitudes instead.If our behavior does harm, we can try to avoid the twin pitfalls ofself-protection and self-flagellation; both reinforce the myth of asubstantial self.  We can acknowledge errors, try to make amends, andtry to have compassion for ourselves as well as others.So much for unwholesome behavior -- what about wholesome behavior?For Buddhists, morality (sila) is behavior that is consistent with theEightfold Path (see glossary) -- in particular with those parts of thePath that are concerned with body, speech and livelihood.The moral code of Buddhism is summarized in the Precepts (seeglossary).  The Precepts are not "commandments" in the sense of someWestern religions.  They are rules of training, intended to help usmove closer to liberation and compassionate action.Are all Buddhists vegetarians?------------------------------No.  The First Precept admonishes us to refrain from killing, but meateating is not regarded as an instance of killing, and it is notforbidden in the scriptures. (We are speaking here mainly of the Paliscriptures.  Some of the Mahayana scriptures, notably the LankavataraSutra, take a strong position in favor of vegetarianism.)As recorded in the Pali scriptures, the Buddha did not prohibitconsumption of meat, even by monks.  In fact, he explicitly rejected asuggestion from Devadatta to do so.  In modern Theravada societies, abhikkhu who adheres to vegetarianism to impress others with hissuperior spirituality may be committing an infringement of themonastic rules.On the other hand, the Buddha categorically prohibited consumption ofthe flesh of any animal that was "seen, heard or suspected" to havebeen killed specifically for the benefit of monks (Jivaka Sutta,Majjhima Nikaya 55).  This rule technically applies only to monastics,but it can be used as a reasonable guide by devout lay people.To understand this "middle path" approach to meat-eating, we have toremember that there were no "Buddhists" in Shakyamuni's time.  Therewere only mendicants of various kinds (including the Buddha'sdisciples), plus lay people who gave them alms out of respect withoutnecessarily worrying about the brand name of the teachings.If meat was what a householder chose to offer, it was to be acceptedwithout discrimination or aversion.  To reject such an offering wouldbe an offense against hospitality and would deprive the householder ofan opportunity to gain merit -- and it could not benefit the animal,because it was already dead.  Even the Jains may have had a similaroutlook during the same period of history, despite the strict doctrineof ahimsa.Vegetarianism could not become a source of serious controversy in thebhikkhu sangha until the rise of fixed-abode monastic communities inwhich the monks did not practice daily alms-round.  Any meat providedto such a community by lay people would almost certainly have beenkilled specifically for the monks.  That may be one reason for thedifference in Mahayana and Theravada views on meat eating -- thedevelopment of monastic communities of this type occurred principallywithin Mahayana.The issue of meat eating raises difficult ethical questions.  Isn'tthe meat in a supermarket or restaurant killed "for" us?  Doesn't meateating entail killing by proxy?Few of us are in a position to judge meat eaters or anyone else for"killing by proxy."  Being part of the world economy entails "killingby proxy" in every act of consumption.  The electricity that runs ourcomputers comes from facilities that harm the environment.  Books ofBuddhist scriptures are printed on paper produced by an industry thatdestroys wildlife habitat.  Worms, insects, rodents and other animalsare routinely killed en masse in the course of producing the staplesof a vegetarian diet.  Welcome to samsara.  It is impossible for mostof us to free ourselves from this web; we can only strive to bemindful of entanglement in it.  One way to do so is to reflect on howthe suffering and death of sentient beings contributes to our comfort.This may help us to be less inclined to consume out of mere greed.All of that having been said, it cannot be denied that the economicmachine which produces meat also creates fear and suffering for alarge number of animals.  It is useful to bear this in mind even ifone consumes meat, to resist developing a habit of callousness.  ManyBuddhists (especially Mahayanists) practice vegetarianism as a meansof cultivating compassion.  The Jivaka Sutta hints that one could alsomake a good case for vegetarianism starting from any of the otherbrahmaviharas (see Glossary).  Interestingly, it is loving-kindnessrather than compassion that is mentioned first in the Jivaka Sutta.If you are considering trying out vegetarianism for the first time, wesuggest discussing it with someone who has experience.  There are afew issues that ought to be considered regarding balanced diet, etc.Aren't you being a bit obsessive about not-self?------------------------------------------------Maybe so.  It is possible to get carried away with the doctrine ofanatta, seeing it as justification for a view that is very close toscientific materialism.  Suffice it to say that this is not how mostBuddhists see things.  It would be very difficult to put together anykind of coherent doctrine of moral responsibility if a person was justa disaggregated assemblage of momentary phenomena.  However, thedoctrine of anatta tends to receive strong emphasis among Buddhistsfor several reasons.First, many people who seek to understand Buddhism come from religiousbackgrounds in which it is customary to speak of a permanent soul.  Ofcourse it is not necessary to be a Buddhist to study Buddhism, anddisbelief in a soul is not a "requirement" for intellectualunderstanding (any more than belief in one is a requirement for anintellectual understanding of Christianity).  But understanding is notlikely to be furthered if one attempts to find an "esoteric" souldoctrine of some kind in the teaching.Second, although Buddhism does not agree with the moral nihilism thatsome persons see in science (or at least in positivism), it seems thatscientific scepticism is more easily reconciled with anatta than withat least some of the religious alternatives.Finally, anatta is proclaimed in the scriptures as one of the twodistinctive teachings of the Buddhas (the other being the Four NobleTruths, see Majjhima Nikaya 56.18 [I.380]).  Much of Buddhist thoughtis consistent with other systems of Indian religion and philosophy;but these two doctrines are unique.
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Started March 1997. Last modified, September 2005.

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