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Buddhism - Overview

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"Be a light unto yourself" said Buddha to his disciples who had asked him in his final hour to make plans to enable the continuity of his order. No single person should lead the followers, but rather the teachings laid out in his talks and speeches, the so-called Dhamma, should become the guiding light of their behavior. The preservation of the teachings was to become the responsibility of the Buddhist community, the Sangha - Sangha means literally "community" in Sanskrit.

The followers of the Enlightened One committed themselves to the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. In a narrow sense the Sangha was comprised simply of monks and nuns (Pali: bhikkhu and bhikkhuni) and the novitiates (Pali: samanero and samaneri). In a broader sense, however, it also included all beings who had achieved an insight into the nature of the conditioned and dependent nature of all appearances and who were on the way to release themselves from all worldly desires.

• What is the First Noble Truth?

The first truth is that life is suffering i.e., life includes pain, getting old disease and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This is an irrefutable fact that cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad. lnstead, Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.

• What is the Second Noble Truth?

The second truth is that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectation, if we want others to like us, if we do not get something we want,etc. In other words, getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness. A lifetime of wanting and craving and especially the craving to continue to exist, creates a powerful energy which causes the individual to be born. So craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.

• What is the Third Noble Truth?

The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained that true happiness and contentment are possible. lf we give up useless caving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free. We then have more time and energy to help others. This is Nirvana.

• What is the Fourth Noble Truth?

The fourth truth is that the Noble 8-fold Path is the path which leads to the end of suffering.

• What is the Noble 8-Fold Path?

In summary, the Noble 8-fold Path is being moral (through what we say, do and our livelihood), focussing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.

• What are the 5 Precepts?

The moral code within Buddhism is the precepts, of which the main five are: not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct and sensual overindulgence, to refrain from untrue speech, and to avoid intoxication, that is, losing mindfulness.

• What is Karma?

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life. Karma underlines the importance of all individuals being responsible for their past and present actions. How can we test the karmic effect of our actions? The answer is summed up by looking at (1) the intention behind the action, (2) effects of the action on oneself, and (3) the effects on others.

• What is Wisdom?

Buddhism teacher that wisdom should be developed with compassion. At one extreme, you could be a goodhearted fool and at the other extreme, you could attain knowledge without any emotion. Buddhism uses the middle path to develop both. The highest wisdom is seeing that in reality, all phenomena are incomplete, impermanent and do no constitute a fixed entity. True wisdom is not simply believing what we are told but instead experiencing and understanding truth and reality. Wisdom requires an open, objective, unbigoted mind. The Buddhist path requires courage patience, flexibility and intelligence.

• What is Compassion?

Compassion includes qualities of sharing readiness to give comfort sympathy, concern, caring. In Buddhism, we can really understand others, when we can really understand ourselves, through wisdom.

• How do I Become a Buddhist?

Buddhist teachings can be understood and tested by anyone. Buddhism teaches that the solutions to our problems are within ourselves not outside. The Buddha asked all his followers not to take his word as true, but rather to test the teachings for themselves. ln this way, each person decides for themselves and takes responsibility for their own actions and understanding. This makes Buddhism less of a fixed package of beliefs which is to be accepted in its entirety, and more of a teaching which each person learns and uses in their own way.

The Three Marks of Existence

Buddhism has been described as a very pragmatic religion. It does not indulge in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is no theology, no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha. Buddhism takes a very straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based on wishful thinking, at all. Everything that the Buddha taught was based on his own observation of the way things are. Everything that he taught can be verified by our own observation of the way things are.

If we look at our life, very simply, in a straightforward way, we see that it is marked with frustration and pain. This is because we attempt to secure our relationship with the "world out there", by solidifying our experiences in some concrete way. For example, we might have dinner with someone we admire very much, everything goes just right, and when we get home later we begin to fantasise about all the things we can do with our new-found friend, places we can go etc. We are going through the process of trying to cement our relationship. Perhaps, the next time we see our friend, she/he has a headache and is curt with us; we feel snubbed, hurt, all our plans go out the window. The problem is that the "world out there" is constantly changing, everything is impermanent and it is impossible to make a permanent relationship with anything, at all.

If we examine the notion of impermanence closely and honestly, we see that it is all-pervading, everything is marked by impermanence. We might posit an eternal consciousness principle, or higher self, but if we examine our consciousness closely we see that it is made up of temporary mental processes and events. We see that our "higher self" is speculative at best and imaginary to begin with. We have invented the idea to secure ourselves, to cement our relationship, once again. Because of this we feel uneasy and anxious, even at the best of times. It is only when we completely abandon clinging that we feel any relief from our queasiness.

These three things: pain, impermanence and egolessness are known as the three marks of existence.

The Four Noble Truths

The first sermon that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment was about the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is frustrating and painful. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, there are times when it is downright miserable. Things may be fine with us, at the moment, but, if we look around, we see other people in the most appalling condition, children starving, terrorism, hatred, wars, intolerance, people being tortured and we get a sort of queasy feeling whenever we think about the world situation in even the most casual way. We, ourselves, will some day grow old, get sick and eventually die. No matter how we try to avoid it, some day we are going to die. Even though we try to avoid thinking about it, there are constant reminders that it is true.

The second noble truth is that suffering has a cause. We suffer because we are constantly struggling to survive. We are constantly trying to prove our existence. We may be extremely humble and self-deprecating, but even that is an attempt to define ourselves. We are defined by our humility. The harder we struggle to establish ourselves and our relationships, the more painful our experience becomes.

The third noble truth is that the cause of suffering can be ended. Our struggle to survive, our effort to prove ourselves and solidify our relationships is unnecessary. We, and the world, can get along quite comfortably without all our unnecessary posturing. We could just be a simple, direct and straight-forward person. We could form a simple relationship with our world, our coffee, spouse and friend. We do this by abandoning our expectations about how we think things should be.

This is the fourth noble truth: the way, or path to end the cause of suffering. The central theme of this way is meditation. Meditation, here, means the practice of mindfulness/awareness, shamata/vipashyana in Sanskrit. We practice being mindful of all the things that we use to torture ourselves with. We become mindful by abandoning our expectations about the way we think things should be and, out of our mindfulness, we begin to develop awareness about the way things really are. We begin to develop the insight that things are really quite simple, that we can handle ourselves, and our relationships, very well as soon as we stop being so manipulative and complex.

The Five Skandhas

The Buddhist doctrine of egolessness seems to be a bit confusing to westerners. I think this is because there is some confusion as to what is meant by ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different from the Freudian ego. The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental events classified into five categories, called skandhas, loosely translated as bundles, or heaps.

If we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that "in the beginning" things were going along quite well. At some point, however, there was a loss of confidence in the way things were going. There was a kind of primordial panic which produced confusion about what was happening. Rather than acknowledging this loss of confidence, there was an identification with the panic and confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first skandha, the skandha of form.

After the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it feels about the formation of this experience. If we like the experience, we try to draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it away, or destroy it. If we feel neutral about it, we just ignore it. The way we feel about the experience is called the skandha of form; what we try to do about it is known as the skandha of impulse/perception.

The next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we can put it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we would have a whole bag of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha of concept.

The final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of consciousness. Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions around and around. This makes ego feel solid and real. The churning around and around is called samsara -- literally, to whirl about. The way ego feels about its situation (skandha of feeling) determines which of the six realms of existence it creates for itself.

The Six Realms

If ego decides it likes the situation, it begins to churn up all sorts of ways to possess it. A craving to consume the situation arises and we long to satisfy that craving. Once we do, a ghost of that craving carries over and we look around for something else to consume. We get into the habitual pattern of becoming consumer oriented. Perhaps we order a piece of software for our computer. We play with it for awhile, until the novelty wears out, and then we look around for the next piece of software that has the magic glow of not being possessed yet. Soon we haven't even got the shrink wrap off the current package when we start looking for the next one. Owning the software and using it doesn't seem to be as important as wanting it, looking forward to its arrival. This is known as the hungry ghost realm where we have made an occupation out of craving. We can never find satisfaction, it is like drinking salt water to quench our thirst.

Another realm is the animal realm, or having the mind like that of an animal. Here we find security by making certain that everything is totally predictable. We only buy blue chip stock, never take a chance and never look at new possibilities. The thought of new possibilities frightens us and we look with scorn at anyone who suggests anything innovative. This realm is characterised by ignorance. We put on blinders and only look straight ahead, never to the right or left.

The hell realm is characterised by acute aggression. We build a wall of anger between ourselves and our experience. Everything irritates us, even the most innocuous, and innocent statement drives us mad with anger. The heat of our anger is reflected back on us and sends us into a frenzy to escape from our torture, which in turn causes us to fight even harder and get even angrier. The whole thing builds on itself until we don't even know if we're fighting with someone else or ourselves. We are so busy fighting that we can't find an alternative to fighting; the possibility of alternative never even occurs to us.

These are the three lower realms. One of the three higher realms is called the jealous god realm. This pattern of existence is characterised by acute paranoia. We are always concerned with "making it". Everything is seen from a competitive point of view. We are always trying to score points, and trying to prevent others from scoring on us. If someone achieves something special we become determined to out do them. We never trust anyone; we "know" they're trying to slip one past us. If someone tries to help us, we try to figure out their angle. If someone doesn't try to help us, they are being uncooperative, and we make a note to ourselves that we will get even later. "Don't get mad, get even," that's our motto.

At some point we might hear about spirituality. We might hear about the possibility of meditation techniques, imported from some eastern religion, or mystical western one, that will make our minds peaceful and absorb us into a universal harmony. We begin to meditate and perform certain rituals and we find ourselves absorbed into infinite space and blissful states of existence. Everything sparkles with love and light; we become godlike beings. We become proud of our godlike powers of meditative absorption. We might even dwell in the realm of infinite space where thoughts seldom arise to bother us. We ignore everything that doesn't confirm our godhood. We have manufactured the god realm, the highest of the six realms of existence. The problem is, that we have manufactured it. We begin to relax and no longer feel the need to maintain our exalted state. Eventually a small sliver of doubt occurs. Have we really made it? At first we are able to smooth over the question, but eventually the doubt begins to occur more and more frequently and soon we begin to struggle to regain our supreme confidence. As soon as we begin to struggle, we fall back into the lower realms and begin the whole process over and over; from god realm to jealous god realm to animal realm to hungry ghost realm to hell realm. At some point we begin to wonder if there isn't some sort of alternative to our habitual way of dealing with the world. This is the human realm.

The human realm is the only one in which liberation from the six states of existence is possible. The human realm is characterised by doubt and inquisitiveness and the longing for something better. We are not as absorbed by the all consuming preoccupations of the other states of being. We begin to wonder whether it is possible to relate to the world as simple, dignified human beings.

The Eightfold Path

The path to liberation from these miserable states of being, as taught by the Buddha, has eight points and is known as the eightfold path. The first point is called right view -- the right way to view the world. Wrong view occurs when we impose our expectations onto things; expectations about how we hope things will be, or about how we are afraid things might be. Right view occurs when we see things simply, as they are. It is an open and accommodating attitude. We abandon hope and fear and take joy in a simple straight-forward approach to life.

The second point of the path is called right intention. It proceeds from right view. If we are able to abandon our expectations, our hopes and fears, we no longer need to be manipulative. We don't have to try to con situations into our preconceived notions of how they should be. We work with what is. Our intentions are pure.

The third aspect of the path is right speech. Once our intentions are pure, we no longer have to be embarrassed about our speech. Since we aren't trying to manipulate people, we don't have to be hesitant about what we say, nor do we need to try bluff our way through a conversation with any sort of phoney confidence. We say what needs to be said, very simply in a genuine way.

The fourth point on the path, right discipline, involves a kind of renunciation. We need to give up our tendency to complicate issues. We practice simplicity. We have a simple straight-forward relationship with our dinner, our job, our house and our family. We give up all the unnecessary and frivolous complications that we usually try to cloud our relationships with.

Right livelihood is the fifth step on the path. It is only natural and right that we should earn our living. Often, many of us don't particularly enjoy our jobs. We can't wait to get home from work and begrudge the amount of time that our job takes away from our enjoyment of the good life. Perhaps, we might wish we had a more glamorous job. We don't feel that our job in a factory or office is in keeping with the image we want to project. The truth is, that we should be glad of our job, whatever it is. We should form a simple relationship with it. We need to perform it properly, with attention to detail.

The sixth aspect of the path is right effort. Wrong effort is struggle. We often approach a spiritual discipline as though we need to conquer our evil side and promote our good side. We are locked in combat with ourselves and try to obliterate the tiniest negative tendency. Right effort doesn't involve struggle at all. When we see things as they are, we can work with them, gently and without any kind of aggression whatsoever.

Right mindfulness, the seventh step, involves precision and clarity. We are mindful of the tiniest details of our experience. We are mindful of the way we talk, the way we perform our jobs, our posture, our attitude toward our friends and family, every detail.

Right concentration, or absorption is the eighth point of the path. Usually we are absorbed in absentmindedness. Our minds are completely captivated by all sorts of entertainment and speculations. Right absorption means that we are completely absorbed in nowness, in things as they are. This can only happen if we have some sort of discipline, such as sitting meditation. We might even say that without the discipline of sitting meditation, we can't walk the eightfold path at all. Sitting meditation cuts through our absentmindedness. It provides a space or gap in our preoccupation with ourselves.

The Goal

Most people have heard of nirvana. It has become equated with a sort of eastern version of heaven. Actually, nirvana simply means cessation. It is the cessation of passion, aggression and ignorance; the cessation of the struggle to prove our existence to the world, to survive. We don't have to struggle to survive after all. We have already survived. We survive now; the struggle was just an extra complication that we added to our lives because we had lost our confidence in the way things are. We no longer need to manipulate things as they are into things as we would like them to be.

Buddhism — Major Differences From Other Religions

1. There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly Judgement Day.

2. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.

3. No saviour concept in Buddhism. A Buddha is not a saviour who saves others by his personal salvation. Although a Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha as his incomparable guide who indicates the path of purity, he makes no servile surrender. A Buddhist does not think that he can gain purity merely by seeking refuge in the Buddha or by mere faith in Him. It is not within the power of a Buddha to wash away the impurities of others

4. A Buddha is not an incarnation of a god/God (as claimed by some Hindu followers). The relationship between a Buddha and his disciples and followers is that of a teacher and student.

5. The liberation of self is the responsibility of one's own self. Buddhism does not call for an unquestionable blind faith by all Buddhist followers. It places heavy emphasis on self-reliance, self discipline and individual striving.

6. Taking refuge in The Triple Gems i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; does not mean self-surrender or total reliance on an external force or third party for help or salvation.

7. Dharma (the teachings in Buddhism) exists regardless whether there is a Buddha. Sakyamuni Buddha (as the historical Buddha) discovered and shared the teachings/ universal truths with all sentient beings. He is neither the creator of such teachings nor the prophet of an almighty God to transmit such teachings to others.

8. Especially emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism, all sentient beings have Buddha Nature/ Essence. One can become a Buddha (a supreme enlightened being) in due course if one practises diligently and attains purity of mind (ie absolutely no delusions or afflictions).

9. In Buddhism, the ultimate objective of followers/practitioners is enlightenment and/or liberation from Samsara; rather than to go to a Heaven (or a deva realm in the context of Buddhist cosmology).

10. Karma and Karma Force are cornerstones in Buddhist doctrines. They are expounded very thoroughly in Buddhism. Karma refers to an important metaphysical concept concerned with action and its consequences. This law of karma explains the problem of sufferings, the mystery of the so-called fate and predestination of some religions, and above all the apparent inequality of mankind.

11. Rebirth is another key doctrine in Buddhism and it goes hand in hand with karma. There is a subtle difference between rebirth and reincarnation as expounded in Hinduism. Buddhism rejects the theory of a transmigrating permanent soul, whether created by a god or emanating from a divine essence.

12. Maitri or Metta in Pali (Loving Kindness) and Karuna (Compassion) to all living beings including animals. Buddhism strictly forbids animal sacrifice for whatever reason. Vegetarianism is recommended but not compulsory.

13. The importance of Non-attachment. Buddhism goes beyond doing good and being good. One must not be attached to good deeds or the idea of doing good; otherwise it is just another form of craving.

14. In Buddhism, there is consideration for all sentient beings (versus human beings, as in other religions). Buddhists acknowledge/accept the existence of animals and beings in other realms in Samsara.

15. No holy war concept in Buddhism. Killing is breaking a key moral precept in Buddhism. One is strictly forbidden to kill another person in the name of religion, a religious leader or whatsoever religious pretext or worldly excuse.

16. Suffering is another cornerstone in Buddhism. It is the first of the Four Noble Truths. Sufferings are very well analysed and explained in Buddhism.

17. The idea of sin or original sin has no place in Buddhism. Also, sin should not be equated to suffering.

18. Buddhist teachings expound no beginning and no end to one's existence or life. There is virtually no recognition of a first cause — e.g. how does human existence first come about?

19. The Dharma provides a very detailed explanation of the doctrine of anatman {anatta in Pali} or soullessness , i.e. there is no soul entity (whether in one life of many lives).

20. The Buddha is omniscient but he is not omnipotent. He is capable of innumerable feats but there are three things he cannot do. Also, a Buddha does not claim to be a creator of lives or the Universe.

21. Prajna [ Panna in Pali ] or Transcendent Wisdom occupies a paramount position in Buddhist teachings. Sakyamuni Buddha expounded Prajna concepts for some 20 years of his ministry. One is taught to balance compassion with prajna i.e. emotion (faith) with rationale (right understanding / truth / logic).

22. The tradition and practice of meditation in Buddhism are relatively important and strong. While all religions teach some forms or variations of stabilising/single-pointedness meditation, only Buddhism emphazises Vipassana (Insight) meditation as a powerful tool to assist one in seeking liberation/enlightenment.

23. The doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness is unique to Buddhism and its many aspects are well expounded in advanced Buddhist teachings. Briefly, this doctrine asserts the transcendental nature of Ultimate Reality. It declares the phenomenal world to be void of all limitations of particularization and that all concepts of dualism are abolished.

24. Conditioned Arising [ Paticcasamuppada in Pali ] or Dependent Origination is another key doctrine in Buddhism. This doctrine explains that all psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other; this at the same time describes what entangles sentient beings in samsara.

25. The concept of Hell(s) in Buddhism is very different from that of other religions. It is not a place for eternal damnation as viewed by 'almighty creator' religions. In Buddhism, it is just one of the six realms in Samsara [i.e. the worst of three undesirable realms). Also, there are virtually unlimited number of hells in the Buddhist cosmology as there are infinite number of Buddha worlds.

26. The Buddhist cosmology (or universe) is distinctly different from that of other religions which usually recognise only this solar system (Earth) as the centre of the Universe and the only planet with living beings. The Buddhist viewpoint of a Buddha world (also known as Three Thousand-Fold World System) is that of one billion solar systems. Besides, the Mahayana Buddhist doctrines expound that there are other contemporary Buddha worlds like Amitabha's Pure Land and Bhaisajyaguru's world system.

27. Samsara is a fundamental concept in Buddhism and it is simply the 'perpetual cycles of existence' or endless rounds of rebirth among the six realms of existence. This cyclical rebirth pattern will only end when a sentient being attains Nirvana, i.e. virtual exhaustion of karma, habitual traces, defilements and delusions. All other religions preach one heaven, one earth and one hell, but this perspective is very limited compared with Buddhist samsara where heaven is just one of the six realms of existence and it has 28 levels/planes.

Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

TOPIC

THERAVADA BUDDHISM

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM

The Buddha

Only the historical Gautama (Sakyamuni) Buddha and past buddhas are accepted.

Besides Sakyamuni Buddha, other contemporary buddhas like Amitabha and Medicine Buddha are also very popular.

Bodhisattvas

Only Maitreya bodhisattva is accepted.

Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are four very well known bodhisattvas besides Maitreya.

Objective of training

Arahant or pacceka-buddha.

Buddhahood (via bodhisattva path).

Organisation of Buddhist scriptures

The Pali Canon is divided into 3 baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of 5 books, Sutta Pitaka of 5 collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of 7 books.

The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis. It is usually organised in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have.

Concept of Bodhicitta

Main emphasis is self liberation.
There is total reliance on one-self to eradicate all defilements.

Besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings.

Trikaya concept

Very limited emphasis on the 3 bodies of a buddha. References are mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya.

Very well mentioned in Mahayana buddhism. Samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body completes the Trikaya concept.

Transmission route

Southern transmission: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia.

Northern transmission: Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia.

Language of dharma teaching

Tipitaka is strictly in Pali. Dharma teaching in Pali supplemented by local language.

Buddhist canon is translated into the local language (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. Original language of transmission is Sanskrit.

Nirvana
(Nibbana in Pali)

No distinction is made between nirvana attained by a buddha and that of an arahat or pacceka buddha.

Also known as 'liberation from Samsara,' there are subtle distinctions in the level of attainment for the three situations.

Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples

Basically historical disciples, whether arahats or commoners.

A lot of bodhisattvas are introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of these are not historical figures.

Rituals and liturgy

There are some rituals but not heavily emphasized as in Mahayana schools.

Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphais on the use of rituals; e.g. Rituals for the deceased, feeding of Petas, tantric formalities (in Vajrayana).

Use of Mantras and Mudras

Some equivalent in the use of Parittas.

Heavily practised in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism. Other schools also have included some mantras in their daily lithurgy.

Dying and death aspects

Very little research and knowledge on the process of dying and death. Usually, the dying persons are advised to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness.

The Vajrayana school is particularly meticulous in these areas. There are many inner and external signs manifested by people before they die. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased's next rebirth.

Bardo

This in-between stage after death and before rebirth is ignored in Theravada school.

All Mahayana schools teach this after death aspect.

One meal a day practice

This the norm among Theravada sanghas.

This is a highly respected practice but it is left to the disposition of each individual in the various sanghas.

Vegetarianism

This aspect is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practised, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated

Very well observed in all Mahayana schools (except the Tibetans due to the geographical circumstances). However, this aspect is not compulsory.

Focus of worship in the temple

Simple layout with the image of Sakyamuni Buddha the focus of worship.

Can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the 3 Buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha) and one hall for the 3 key bodhisattvas; besides the protectors, etc.

Schools/Sects of the tradition

One surviving major school following years of attrition reducing the number from as high as 18.

8 major (Chinese) schools based on the partial doctrines (sutras, sastras or vinaya) of the teachings. The four schools inclined towards practices like Pure Land/Amitabha, Ch'an, Vajrayana and Vinaya (not for lay people) are more popular than the philosophy based schools like Tien Tai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika.

Non Buddhist influences

Mainly pre-Buddhism Indian/Brahmin influences. Many terms like karma, sangha, etc were prevailing terms during Sakyamuni Buddha's life time. References were made from the Vedas and Upanishads.

In the course of integration and adoption by the people in other civilizations, there were heavy mutual influences. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism which in turn had an impact on the indigenous beliefs. This scenario was repeated in Japan and Tibet.

Buddha nature


Absent from the teachings of Theravada tradition.


Heavily stressed, particularly by schools inclined practices.



• Do Buddhists pray?

Buddhists don’t pray to a Creator God, but they do have devotional meditation practices which could be compared to praying. Radiating loving-kindness to all living beings is a practice which is believed to benefit those beings. The sharing of merit is a practice where one dedicates the goodness of one’s life to the benefit of all living beings as well as praying for a particular person.

In Tibet prayer is going on most of the time. Tibetans pray in a special way. They believe that when certain sounds and words, called mantras, are said many times, they arouse good vibrations within the person. If a mantra is repeated often enough it can open up the mind to a consciousness which is beyond words and thoughts.

In Japan millions of Buddhists pray to Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. They believe that Amida has created a Pure Land in the west and that those who have faith and repeat Amida’s name in prayer will go there. Yet they also believe that Amida is really within them.

• Why do Buddhists chant?

It reminds one of the Dharma so that it is not forgotten; when meditation is not possible and when bare mindfulness does not give much consolation, it can be used to great advantage as an extension of meditation into words to produce calm, some peace within; and certainly, it expresses one’s strong confidence in the Dharma. Reciting the same chants day after day also has an advantage - the making of wholesome repetitive karma which of course will bear very good fruit.


Universal Loving Kindness (Karaniya Metta Sutta)

In our daily lives we meet all kinds of people. Some are pleasant and some are ill-disposed. There are also moments of anxiety, moments of stress, and circumstances which are perplexing. On encountering unpleasant people, and in difficult times, a recital or perusal of the Sutta will produce beneficial results. The practice of what is contained in it will induce a tranquil state of mind, give us self-confidence, and help us to overcome difficulties.

This is a Sutta (a Discourse) that was delivered by the Buddha to a set of his disciples who had gone to meditate in a forest close to the Himalayan mountain range. They complained that they were being disturbed by some spirits of the forest. The Buddha exhorted them to follow this course of conduct. They went back to the same abode, and putting the advice into practice, found that they were not disturbed anymore.

Homage to Him, the Worthy One, the Exalted One, the Fully Enlightened One.

I go to the Buddha as my refuge

I go to the Dhamma as my refuge

I go to the Sangha as my refuge

The Five Precepts

1. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from destroying the life of living beings.

2. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking things not given to me.

3. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.

4. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from false speech.

5. I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking intoxicants - foundations of slothfulness.

Karaniya Metta Sutta

Universal Loving Kindness

This must be done to gain the State of Peace.

One must be able, upright and straightforward;

Pleasant in Speech, mild and not proud.

Easily contented and easily supportable;

Not caught up in too many "duties" and frugal in one's wants.

Calm in mind, discriminative and courteous;

Not closely attached to households.

Avoiding any mean deeds blameworthy by the wise.

Thinking always thus: "May all beings be happy and safe,

May they all have tranquil minds.

Whatsoever pulsates with the breath of life -

the frail or strong, without exception -

the long, the large, the medium-sized, the short, the thin or fat.

Those visible, and those invisible, those living far away or nearby;

Beings who are already born and those yet unborn.

May they all be happy!

May no-one deceive another, nor despise him in anyway anywhere.

Let no-one wish another ill, owing to anger or provocation.

Just as a mother would protect her son - her only son - with her life -

even so let him cultivate this boundless love to all living beings.

Radiating with a full heart loving thoughts of kindness towards all the world,

free from anger, malice or anxiety - above, below and in all directions.

And while standing, walking, sitting or reclining - still free from drowsiness -

let him maintain this state of mindfulness - termed the "Highest Living"

And living free from mere views, being virtuous, perfect in insight,

free from the lust of sexual desire,

never again shall he be entangled in the round of rebirth.

Hate is never overcome by hate

By love alone it is quelled.

This is a truth of ancient date.

Today still unexcelled.

Avoidance of evil,

Performance of good deeds,

Purification of one's thoughts.

This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

May all beings be happy !

Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body or speech is likely to be harmful to one's self or to others and thereby avoiding any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind. A mind that is skilful avoids actions that are likely to cause suffering or remorse.

Moral conduct for Buddhists differs according to whether it applies to the laity or to the Sangha or clergy. A lay Buddhist should cultivate good conduct by training in what are known as the "Five Precepts". These are not like, say, the ten commandments, which, if broken, entail punishment by God. The five precepts are training rules, which, if one were to break any of them, one should be aware of the breech and examine how such a breech may be avoided in the future. The resultant of an action (often refereed to as Karma) depends on the intention more than the action itself. It entails less feelings of guilt than its Judeo-Christian counterpart. Buddhism places a great emphasis on 'mind' and it is mental anguish such as remorse, anxiety, guilt etc. which is to be avoided in order to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind. The five precepts are:

1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.

2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended that it is for you.

3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature.

4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.

5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.

These are the basic precepts expected as a day to day training of any lay Buddhist. On special holy days, many Buddhists, especially those following the Theravada tradition, would observe three additional precepts with a strengthening of the third precept to be observing strict celibacy. The additional precepts are:

6) To abstain from taking food at inappropriate times. This would mean following the tradition of Theravadin monks and not eating from noon one day until sunrise the next.

7) To abstain from dancing, singing, music and entertainments as well as refraining from the use of perfumes, ornaments and other items used to adorn or beautify the person. Again, this and the next rule.

8) To undertake the training to abstain from using high or luxurious beds are rules regularly adopted by members of the Sangha and are followed by the layperson on special occasions.

Laypersons following the Mahayana tradition, who have taken a Bodhisattva vow, will also follow a strictly vegetarian diet. This is not so much an additional precept but a strengthening of the first precept; To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. The eating of meat would be considered a contribution to the taking of life, indirect though it may be.

The Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, are governed by 227 to 253 rules depending on the school or tradition for males or Bhikkhus and between 290 and 354 rules, depending on the school or tradition for females or Bhikkhunis. These rules, contained in the Vinaya or first collection of the Buddhist scriptures,, are divided into several groups, each entailing a penalty for their breech, depending on the seriousness of that breech. The first four rules for males and the first eight for females, known as Parajika or rules of defeat, entail expulsion from the Order immediately on their breech. The four applying to both sexes are: Sexual intercourse, killing a human being, stealing to the extent that it entails a gaol sentence and claiming miraculous or supernormal powers. Bhikkhunis' additional rules relate to various physical contacts with males with one relating to concealing from the order the defeat or parajika of another. Before his passing, the Buddha instructed that permission was granted for the abandonment or adjustment of minor rules should prevailing conditions demand such a change. These rules apply to all Sangha members irrespective of their Buddhist tradition.

The interpretation of the rules, however differs between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. The Theravadins, especially those from Thailand, claim to observe these rules to the letter of the law, however, in many cases, the following is more in theory than in actual practice. The Mahayana Sangha interprets the rule not to take food at an inappropriate time as not meaning fasting from noon to sunrise but to refrain from eating between mealtimes. The fasting rule would be inappropriate, from a health angle, for the Sangha living in cold climates such as China, Korea and Japan. When one examines the reason that this rule was instituted initially, the conclusion may be reached that it is currently redundant. It was the practice in the Buddha's time for the monks to go to the village with their bowls to collect food. To avoid disturbing the villagers more than necessary, the Buddha ordered his monks to make this visit once a day, in the early morning. This would allow the villagers to be free to conduct their day to day affairs without being disturbed by the monks requiring food. Today, of course, people bring food to the monasteries or prepare it on the premises so the original reason no longer applies. As many of you would be aware, in some Theravadin countries, the monks still go on their early morning alms round, but this is more a matter of maintaining a tradition than out of necessity. Also, a rule prohibiting the handling of gold and silver, in other words - money, is considered by the Mahayana Sangha a handicap were it to be observed strictly in today's world. They interpret this rule as avoiding the accumulation of riches which leads to greed. Theravadin monks tend to split hairs on this rule as, although most will not touch coins, many carry credit cards and cheque books.

Let me now deal briefly with the Buddhist attitude to violence, war and peace. The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

The first precept refers to the training to abstain from harming living beings. Although history records conflicts involving the so-called Buddhist nations, these wars have been fought for economic or similar reasons. However, history does not record wars fought in the name of propagating Buddhism. Buddhism and, perhaps, Jainism are unique in this regard. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has never suggested armed conflict to overcome the persecution and cruelty perpetrated by the Communist Chinese occupation forces. He has always advocated a peaceful and non-violent solution. Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia has urged Cambodians to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and to unify to re-establish their nation. He has written:

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion. Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world.

Going back to the early history of Buddhism, Emperor Asoka, who, after a bloody but successful military campaign, ruled over more than two thirds of the Indian subcontinent, suffered great remorse for the suffering that he had caused, banned the killing of animals and exhorted his subjects to lead kind and tolerant lives. He also promoted tolerance towards all religions which he supported financially. The prevalent religions of that time were the sramanas or wandering ascetics, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains. He recommended that all religions desist from self praise and condemnation of others. His pronouncements were written on rocks at the periphery of his kingdom and on pillars along the main roads and where pilgrims gathered. He also established many hospitals for both humans and animals. Some of his important rock edicts stated:

1. Asoka ordered that banyan trees and mango groves be planted, rest houses built and wells dug every half mile along the main roads.

2. He ordered the end to killing of any animal for use in the royal kitchens.

3. He ordered the provision of medical facilities for humans and beasts.

4. He commanded obedience to parents, generosity to priests and ascetics and frugality in spending.

5. All officers must work for the welfare of the poor and the aged.

6. He recorded his intention to promote the welfare of all beings in order to repay his debt to all beings.

7. He honours men of all faiths.

Not all Buddhists follow the non-violent path, however. A Buddhist monk, Phra Kittiwutthi of the Phra Chittipalwon College in Thailand, is noted for his extreme right-wing views. He said that it was not a breech of the first precept to kill communists. He said that if Thailand were in danger of a communist takeover, he would take up arms to protect Buddhism. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai peace activist, reports in his book, "Seeds of Peace" that Phra Kittiwutthi has since modified his stance by declaring "to kill communism or communist ideology is not a sin". Sulak adds that the monk confessed that his nationalist feelings were more important than his Buddhist practice and that he would be willing to abandon his yellow robes to take up arms against communist invaders from Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. By doing so, he said, he would be preserving the monarchy, the nation and the Buddhist religion. In contrast to the views of Phra Kittiwutthi, Sulak Sivaraksa reports that the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is of the view that 'preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated towards peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.

In conclusion, I will briefly mention some other issues mentioned in the Syllabus.

The third precept on training in restraint of the senses includes sexuality. A Buddhist should be mindful of the possible effects on themselves and on others of improper sexual activity. This precept would include adultery because this also breeches the precept of not taking what does is not freely given. A relationship with someone who is committed to another is stealing. Similarly in cases of rape and child abuse, one is stealing the dignity and self respect of another. One is also the cause of mental pain, not to mention physical pain so one is causing harm to another living being. Therefore, such behaviour is breaking several precepts.

Marriage is not a sacrament in Buddhism as it is in other religions. Marriage is governed by civil law and a Buddhist is expected to observe the prevailing law in whatever country they live. In the Theravadin tradition, monks are prohibited by their Vinaya rules to encourage or perform a marriage ceremony. The rule states:

Should a Bhikkhu engage to act as a go-between for a man's intentions to a woman or a woman's intentions to a man, whether about marriage or paramourage, even for a temporary arrangement, this entails initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha.

In many Theravadin countries, the couple will, following their marriage in a civil ceremony, invite the monks to their home to perform a blessing ceremony. They will offer food and other requisites to the monks and invite their family and friends to participate. In the Mahayana tradition the same rule conveys an entirely different meaning. It reads:

Should a Bhikkshu, seek to establish a conducive situation by means of which a man and a woman engage in sexual misconduct, either by himself, by order, or by means of messages, and as a result of his activities the man and woman should meet, he has committed an offence.

This rule does not preclude marriage but, rather, deals with the monk assuming the role of a procurer for immoral purposes. In Western countries, following the Christian precedent, many Mahayana monks become registered marriage celebrants so that, if called upon, a marriage ceremony can be performed in the temple. Generally, in countries where the law allows, Buddhists accept de-facto relationships. Promiscuity would be frowned upon as sexual misconduct but an ongoing relationship between two people, either within or outside of marriage would be considered moral conduct. As one of the essential Buddhist teachings is that everything is impermanent and subject to change, the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship between a couple would be understood in this light, so divorce would not be considered improper.

As far as bioethical questions are concerned, it is mainly a matter of the attitude of the different traditions or schools of Buddhism. This is tied to the concept of rebirth and when it occurs. According to the Theravadin tradition, rebirth occurs immediately upon death. The body of the deceased is no longer considered as a part of the former being, so such things as autopsies, organ transplants etcetera are allowable. In fact, many Theravadins, especially in Malaysia, encourage the donation of human organs as being the highest form of giving. Often, especially at Vesak, the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, blood donations are performed in the temple grounds. The Mahayana, on the other hand, believes that there is an intermediate state between incarnations, known as Antarabhava. Most people following this tradition try to avoid touching or moving the body for, at least eight hours after death. This, of course, means that the organs would by then be useless for transfer to another human being.

The Buddhist work ethic and business and professional ethics would, ideally be closely tied to respect for the environment. It is well described in E.F.Schumacher's book "Small is Beautiful":

"While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is the Middle Way and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well being. The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and non-violence. From an economist's point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern - amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfying results."

Ken Jones in a paper called "Buddhism and Social Action" comments: "Schumacher outlines a 'Buddhist economics' in which production would be based on a middle range of material goods (and no more), and on the other a harmony with the natural environment and its resources.

The above principles suggest some kind of diverse and politically decentralised society, with co-operative management and ownership of productive wealth. It would be conceived on a human scale, whether in terms of size and complexity or organisation or of environmental planning, and would use modern technology selectively rather than being used by it in the service of selfish interests. In Schumacher's words, 'It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way, between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding Right Livelihood'".

Despite the theory surrounding Buddhist business practice, greed still seems to be the order of the day in many Buddhist countries. In Thailand, a monk in the north, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo, has been leading a campaign against the environmental vandalism of the timber industry. Tree felling in Northern Thailand has caused erosion, flooding and has economically ruined small farmers. For his environmental efforts, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo has had death threats and was recently arrested. In Japan, another country where the majority of the population is Buddhist, the killing of whales and dolphins is still prevalent. Animals seem to find no place in the group culture of Japanese society.

As may be seen from the foregoing, Buddhist ethical principles are very noble and in an ideal world their practice would lead to peace and harmony but, unfortunately, as the Buddha has taught, people are motivated by greed hatred and delusion - even Buddhists.

Upon the Full Moon of the month of Visakha, now more than two thousand five hundred years ago, the religious wanderer known as Gotama, formerly Prince Siddhartha and heir to the throne of the Sakiyan peoples, by his full insight into the Truth called Dharma which is this mind and body, became the One Perfectly Enlightened by himself.

His Enlightenment or Awakening, called Sambodhi, abolished in himself unknowing and craving, destroyed greed, aversion and delusion in his heart, so that "vision arose, super-knowledge arose, wisdom arose, discovery arose, light arose - a total penetration into the mind and body, its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation which was at the same time complete understanding of the "world," its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation. He penetrated to the Truth underlying all existence. In meditative concentration throughout one night, but after years of striving, from being a seeker, He became "the One-who-Knows, the One-who-Sees."

When He came to explain His great discovery to others, He did so in various ways suited to the understanding of those who listened and suited to help relieve the problems with which they were burdened.

He knew with his Great Wisdom exactly what these were even if his listeners were not aware of them, and out of His Great Compassion taught Dhamma for those who wished to lay down their burdens. The burdens which men, indeed all beings, carry round with them are no different now from the Buddha's time. For then as now men were burdened with unknowing and craving. They did not know of the Four Noble Truths nor of Dependent Arising and they craved for fire and poison and were then as now, consumed by fears. Lord Buddha, One attained to the Secure has said:

"Profound, Ananda, is this Dependent Arising, and it appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this law that the world resembles a tangled skein of thread, a woven nest of birds, a thicket of bamboo and reeds, that man does not escape from (birth in) the lower realms of existence, from the states of woe and perdition, and suffers from the round of rebirth."

The not-understanding of Dependent Arising is the root of all sorrows experienced by all beings. It is also the most important of the formulations of Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment. For a Buddhist it is therefore most necessary to see into the heart of this for oneself. This is done not be reading about it nor by becoming expert in scriptures, nor by speculations upon one’s own and others’ concepts but by seeing Dependent Arising in one’s own life and by coming to grips with it through calm and insight in one’s "own" mind and body.

"He who sees Dependent Arising, sees the Dharma."

IGNORANCE (avijja)

Represented by an image of a blind woman who blunders forward, unable to see where she is going. So ignorance is blindness, not seeing. It is a lack of insight into the reality of things.

This Pali word "avijja" is a negative term meaning "not knowing completely" but it does not mean "knowing nothing at all." This kind of unknowing is very special and not concerned with ordinary ways or subjects of knowledge, for here what one does not know are the Four Noble Truths, one does not see them clearly in one’s own heart and one’s own life. In past lives, we did not care to see 'dukkha' (1), so we could not destroy 'the cause of dukkha'  (2) or craving which has impelled us to seek more and more lives, more and more pleasures. 'The cessation of dukkha' (3) which perhaps could have been seen by us in past lives, was not realised, so we come to the present existence inevitably burdened with dukkha. And in the past we can hardly assume that we set our feet upon the 'practice-path leading to the cessation of dukkha' (4) and we did not even discover Stream-entry. We are now paying for our own negligence in the past.

And this unknowing is not some kind of first cause in the past, for it dwells in our hearts now. But due to this unknowing, as we shall see, we have set in motion this wheel bringing round old age and death and all other sorts of dukkha. Those past "selves" in previous lives who are in the stream of my individual continuity did not check their craving and so could not cut at the root of unknowing. On the contrary they made kamma, some of the fruits of which in this present life I, as their causal resultant, am receiving.

The picture helps us to understand this: a blind old woman (avijja is of feminine gender) with a stick picks her way through a petrified forest strewn with bones. It is said that the original picture here should be an old blind she-camel led by a driver, the beast being one accustomed to long and weary journeys across inhospitable country, while its driver could be craving. Whichever simile is used, the beginninglessness and the darkness of unknowing are well suggested. We are the blind ones who have staggered from the past into the present— to what sort of future?

Depending on the existence of unknowing in the heart there was volitional action, kamma or abhisankhara, made in those past lives.

VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS (sankhara)

Represented by a potter. Just as a potter forms clay into something new, an action begins a sequence that leads to new consequences. Once put into motion, the potter's wheel continues to spin without much effort. Likewise, an action creates a predisposition in the mind.

Intentional actions have the latent power within them to bear fruit in the future - either in a later part of the life in which they were performed, in the following life, or in some more distant life, but their potency is not lost with even the passing of aeons; and whenever the necessary conditions obtain that past kamma may bear fruit. Now, in past lives we have made kamma, and due to our ignorance of the Four Noble Truths we have been "world-upholders" and so making good and evil kamma we have ensured the continued experience of this world.

Beings like this, obstructed by unknowing in their hearts have been compared to a potter making pots: he makes successful and beautiful pottery (skillful kamma) and he is sometimes careless and his pots crack and break up from various flaws (unskillful kamma). And he gets his clay fairly well smeared over himself just as purity of heart is obscured by the mud of kamma. The simile of the potter is particularly apt because the word 'Sankhara' means "forming," "shaping," and "compounding," and therefore it has often been rendered in English as "Formations."

Depending on the existence of these volitions produced in past lives, there arises the Consciousness called "relinking" which becomes the basis of this present life.

CONSCIOUSNESS (vinnana)

'The rebirth consciousness or "consciousness that links on", is represented by a monkey going from window to window. This represents a single consciousness perceiving through the various sense organs. The monkey represents the very primitive spark of sense-consciousness which is the first moment in the mental life of the new being. 

This relinking consciousness may be of different qualities, according to the kamma upon which it depends. In the case of all those who read this, the consciousness "leaping" into a new birth at the time of conception, was a human relinking consciousness arising as a result of having practiced at least the Five Precepts, the basis of "humanness" in past lives. One should note that this relinking consciousness is a resultant, not something which can be controlled by will. If one has not made kamma suitable for becoming a human being, one cannot will, when the time of death comes round, "Now I shall become a man again!" The time for intentional action was when one had the opportunity to practice Dhamma. Although our relinking- consciousness in this birth is now behind us, it is now that we can practice Dhamma and make more sure of a favourable relinking consciousness in future—that is, if we wish to go on living in Samsara.

This relinking-consciousness is the third constituent necessary for conception, for even though it is the mother’s period and sperm is deposited in the womb, if there is no "being" desiring to take rebirth at that place and time there will be no fertilisation of the ovum.

Dependent upon relinking-consciousness there is the arising of Mind-body.

MIND - BODY (nama-rupa)

Depicted by people sitting in a boat with one of them steering. The boat symbolises form, and its occupants, the mental aggregates.

This is not a very accurate translation but gives the general meaning. There is more included in rupa that is usually thought of as body, while mind is a compound of feeling, perception, volition and consciousness. This mind and body is two interactive continuities in which there is nothing stable. Although in conventional speech we talk of "my mind" and "my body," implying that there is some sort of owner lurking in the background, the wise understand that laws govern the workings of both mental states and physical changes and mind cannot be ordered to be free of defilements, nor body told that it must not grow old, become sick and die.

But it is in the mind that a change can be wrought instead of drifting through life at the mercy of the inherent instability of mind and body. So in the illustration, mind is doing the work of punting the boat of psycho-physical states on the river of cravings, while body is the passive passenger. The Tibetan picture shows a coracle being rowed over swirling waters with three (? or four) other passengers, who doubtless represent the other groups or aggregates (khandha).

With the coming into existence of mind-body, there is the arising of the Six Sense-spheres.

SIX SENSE - SPHERES (salayatana)

Depicted by a house with six windows and a door. The senses are the 'portals' whereby we gain our impression of the world. Each of the senses is the manifestation of our desire to experience things in a particular way.

A house with six windows is the usual symbol for this link. These six senses are eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind, and these are the bases for the reception of the various sorts of information which each can gather in the presence of the correct conditions. This information falls under six headings corresponding to the six spheres: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles and thoughts. Beyond these six spheres of sense and their corresponding six objective spheres, we know nothing. All our experience is limited by the senses and their objects with the mind counted as the sixth. The five outer senses collect data only in the present but mind, the sixth, where this information is collected and processed, ranges through the three times adding memories from the past and hopes and fears for the future, as well as thoughts of various kinds relating to the present. It may also add information about the spheres of existence which are beyond the range of the five outer senses, such as the various heavens, the ghosts and the hell-states. A mind developed through collectedness (samadhi) is able to perceive these worlds and their inhabitants.

The six sense-spheres existing, there is Contact.

CONTACT (phassa)

A couple embracing depicts the contact of the sense organs with there objects. With this link, the psychophysical organism begins to interact with the world. The sensuous impression is symbolised by a kiss. This indicates that there is a meeting with an object and a distinguishing of it prior to the production of feeling.

This means the contact between the six senses and the respective objects. For instance, when the necessary conditions are all fulfilled, there being an eye, a sight-object, light and the eye being functional and the person awake and turned toward the object, there is likely to be eye-contact, the striking of the object upon the sensitive eye-base. The same is true for each of the senses and their type of contact. The traditional symbol for this link shows a man and a woman embracing.

In dependence on sensuous impressions, arises Feeling.

FEELING (vedana)

Symbolised by an eye pierced by an arrow. The arrow represents sense data impinging on the sense organs, in this case the eye. In a very vivid way, the image suggests the strong feelings which sensory experience evokes - although only painful feeling is here implied, both painful and pleasant are intended. Even a very small condition causes a great deal of feeling in the eye. Likewise, no matter what kind of feeling we experience, painful or pleasurable, we are driven by it and conditioned by it.

When there have been various sorts of contact through the six senses, feelings arise which are the emotional response to those contacts. Feelings are of three sorts: pleasant, painful and neither pleasant nor painful. The first are welcome and are the basis for happiness, the second are unwelcome and are the basis for dukkha while the third are the neutral sort of feelings which we experience so often but hardly notice.

But all feelings are unstable and liable to change, for no mental state can continue in equilibrium. Even moments of the highest happiness whatever we consider this is, pass away and give place to different ones. So even happiness which is impermanent based on pleasant feelings is really dukkha, for how can the true unchanging happiness be found in the unstable? Thus the picture shows a man with his eyes pierced by arrows, a strong enough illustration of this.

When feelings arise, Cravings are (usually) produced.

CRAVING (tanha)

'Represented by a person drinking beer. Even though it harms you, no matter how much you drink, you just keep on drinking. Also known as attachment, it is a mental factor that increases desire without any satisfaction.

Up to this point, the succession of events has been determined by past kamma. Craving, however, leads to the making of new kamma in the present and it is possible now, and only now, to practice Dhamma. What is needed here is mindfulness (sati), for without it no Dhamma at all can be practiced while one will be swept away by the force of past habits and let craving and unknowing increase themselves within one’s heart. When one does have mindfulness one may and can know "this is pleasant feeling," "this is unpleasant feeling," "this is neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling"—and such contemplation of feelings leads one to understand and beware of greed, aversion and delusion, which are respectively associated with the three feelings. With this knowledge one can break out of the Wheel of Birth and Death. But without this Dhamma-practice it is certain that feelings will lead on to more cravings and whirl one around this wheel full of dukkha. As Venerable Nagarjuna has said:

"Desires have only surface sweetness,

hardness within and bitterness deceptive as the kimpa-fruit.

Thus says the King of Conquerors.

Such links renounce they bind the world

Within samsara’s prison grid.

If your head or dress caught fire

in haste you would extinguish it.

Do likewise with desire.

Which whirls the wheel of wandering-on

and is the root of suffering.

No better thing to do!"

L.K. 23, 104

In Sanskrit, the word trisna (tanha) means thirst, and by extension implies "thirst for experience." For this reason, craving is shown as a toper guzzling intoxicants and in the picture has been added more bottles representing craving for sensual sphere existence and the craving for the higher heavens of the Brahma-worlds which are either of subtle form, or formless.

Where the kamma of further craving is produced there arises Grasping.

GRASPING (upadana)

Represented by a monkey reaching for a fruit. Also known as clinging, it means mentally grabbing at an object one desires.

This is the mental state that clings to or grasps the object. Because of this clinging which is described as craving in a high degree, man becomes a slave to passion.

Upadana is fourfold: 1. Attachment to sensual pleasures; 2. Attachment to wrong and evil views; 3. Attachment to mere external observances, rites and rituals; and 4. Attachment to self, an erroneous lasting soul entity. Man entertains thoughts of craving, and in proportion as he fails to ignore them, they grow till they get intensified to the degree of tenacious clinging.

This is an intensification and diversification of craving which is directed to four ends: sensual pleasures, views which lead astray from Dhamma, external religious rites and vows, and attachment to the view of soul or self as being permanent. When these become strong in people they cannot even become interested in Dhamma, for their efforts are directed away from Dhamma and towards dukkha. The common reaction is to redouble efforts to find peace and happiness among the objects which are grasped at. Hence both pictures show a man reaching up to pick more fruit although his basket is full already.

Where this grasping is found there Becoming is to be seen.

BECOMING (bhava)

Represented by a woman in late pregnancy. Just as she is about to bring forth a fully developed child, the karma that will produce the next lifetime is fully potentialized though not yet manifest.

With hearts boiling with craving and grasping, people ensure for themselves more and more of various sorts of life, and pile up the fuel upon the fire of dukkha. The ordinary person, not knowing about dukkha, wants to stoke up the blaze, but the Buddhist way of doing things is to let the fires go out for want of fuel by stopping the process of craving and grasping and thus cutting off Ignorance at its root. If we want to stay in samsara we must be diligent and see that our 'becoming', which is happening all the time shaped by our kamma, is 'becoming' in the right direction. This means 'becoming' in the direction of purity and following the white path of Dhamma-practice. This will contribute to whatever we become, or do not become, at the end of this life when the pathways to the various realms stand open and we 'become' according to our practice and to our death-consciousness.

In the presence of Becoming there is arising in a new birth.

BIRTH (jati)

This link is represented by the very explicit image of a woman giving birth to a child.

Birth means the appearance of the five aggregates (material form, feeling, perception, formation and consciousness)in the mother’s womb.

Birth, as one might expect, is shown as a mother in the process of childbirth, a painful business and a reminder of how dukkha cannot be avoided in any life. Whatever the future life is to be, if we are not able to bring the wheel to a stop in this life, certainly that future will arise conditioned by the kamma made in this life. But it is no use thinking that since there are going to be future births, one may as well put off Dhamma practice until then—for it is not sure what those future births will be like. And when they come around, they are just the present moment as well. So no use waiting!

Venerable Nagarjuna shows that it is better to extricate oneself:

"Where birth takes place,

quite naturally are fear,

old age and misery,

disease, desire and death,

As well a mass of other ills.

When birth’s no longer brought about.

All the links are ever stopped."

L.K. 111

Naturally where there is Birth, is also Old-age and Death.

AGEING AND DEATH (jara-marana)

The final link is represented by a dying person. Ageing is both progressive, occurring every moment of our lifetime, and degenerative which leads to death.

In future one is assured, given enough of Unknowing and Craving, of lives without end but also of deaths with end. The one appeals to greed but the other arouses aversion. One without the other is impossible. But this is the path of heedlessness. The Dhamma-path leads directly to Deathlessness, the going beyond birth and death, beyond all dukkha.

We are well exhorted by the words of Acharya Nagarjuna:

"Do you therefore exert yourself:

At all times try to penetrate Into the heart of these Four Truths;

For even those who dwell at home,

they will, by understanding them ford the river of (mental) floods."

L.K. 115

This is a very brief outline of the workings of this wheel which we cling to for our own harm and the hurt of others. We are the makers of this wheel and the turners of this wheel, but if we wish it and work for it, we are the ones who can stop this wheel.

Do you Buddhists believe in rebirth as an animal in the next life? Are you going to be a dog or a cow in the future? Does the soul transmigrate into the body of another person or some animal? What is the difference between transmigration and reincarnation? Is it the same as rebirth? Is karma the same as fate? These and a hundred similar questions are often put to me.

A gross misunderstanding of about Buddhism exists today, especially in the notion of reincarnation. The common misunderstanding is that a person has led countless previous lives, usually as an animal, but somehow in this life he is born as a human being and in the next life he will be reborn as an animal, depending on the kind of life he has lived.

This misunderstanding arises because people usually do not know-how to read the sutras or sacred writings. It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people. The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha, the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we cannot understand it rationally.

Herein lies our problem. A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality. However, if we learn to go beyond or transcend the parables and myths, we will be able to understand the truth.

People will say "If such is the case why not speak directly so that we will be able to come to an immediate grasp of the truth?" This statement is understandable, but truth is often inexpressible. [Ed comment: we as human beings are limited in understanding "Buddha Knowledge". We cannot speak TRUTH, only words ABOUT Truth) Thus, writers and teachers have often resorted to the language of the imagination to lead the reader from a lower to a higher truth. The doctrine of reincarnation is often understood in this light.

What Reincarnation is Not

Reincarnation is not a simple physical birth of a person; for instance, John being reborn as a cat in the next life. In this case John possesses an immortal soul which transforms to the form of a cat after his death. This cycle is repeated over and over again. Or if he is lucky, he will be reborn as a human being. This notion of the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism.

Karma

Karma is a Sanskrit word from the root "Kri" to do or to make and simply means "action." It operates in the universe as the continuous chain reaction of cause and effect. It is not only confined to causation in the physical sense but also it has moral implications. "A good cause, a good effect; a bad cause a bad effect" is a common saying. In this sense karma is a moral law.

Now human beings are constantly giving off physical and spiritual forces in all directions. In physics we learn that no energy is ever lost; only that it changes form. This is the common law of conservation of energy. Similarly, spiritual and mental action is never lost. It is transformed. Thus Karma is the law of the conservation of moral energy.

By actions, thoughts, and words, man is releasing spiritual energy to the universe and he is in turn affected by influences coming in his direction. Man is therefore the sender and receiver of all these influences. The entire circumstances surrounding him is his karma.

With each action-influence he sends out and at the same time, receives, he is changing. This changing personality and the world he lives in, constitute the totality of his karma.

Karma should not be confused with fate. Fate is the notion that man's life is preplanned for him by some external power, and he has no control over his destiny. Karma on the other hand, can be changed. Because man is a conscious being he can be aware of his karma and thus strive to change the course of events. In the Dhammapada we find the following words, "All that we are is a result of what we have thought, it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts."

What we are, then, is entirely dependent on what we think. Therefore, the nobility of man's character is dependent on his"good" thoughts, actions, and words. At the same time, if he embraces degrading thoughts, those thoughts invariably influence him into negative words and actions.

The World

Traditionally, Buddhism teaches the existence of the ten realms of being. At the top is Buddha and the scale descends as follows: Bodhisattva (an enlightened being destined to be a Buddha, but purposely remaining on earth to teach others), Pratyeka Buddha (a Buddha for himself), Sravka (direct disciple of Buddha), heavenly beings (superhuman [[[Wikipedia:angels|angels]]?]), human beings, Asura (fighting spirits), beasts, Preta (hungry ghosts), and depraved men (hellish beings).

Now, these ten realms may be viewed as unfixed, nonobjective worlds, as mental and spiritual states of mind. These states of mind are created by men's thoughts, actions, and words. In other words, psychological states. These ten realms are "mutually immanent and mutually inclusive, each one having in it the remaining nine realms." For example, the realm of human beings has all the other nine states (from hell to Buddhahood). Man is at the same time capable of real selfishness, creating his own hell, or is truly compassionate, reflecting the compassion of Amida Buddha. Buddhas too have the other nine realms in their minds, for how can a Buddha possibly save those in hell if he himself does not identify with their suffering and guide them to enlightenment.

The Lesson

We can learn a valuable lesson from the teaching of reincarnation.

In what realm do you now live? If you are hungry for power, love, and self-recognition, you live in the Preta world, or hungry ghosts. If you are motivated only by thirsts of the human organism, you are existing in the world of the beast.

Consider well then your motives and intentions. Remember that man is characteristically placed at the midpoint of the ten stages; he can either lower himself abruptly or gradually into hell or through discipline, cultivation and the awakening of faith rise to the Enlightened state of the Buddha.

Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.

What is the cause of the inequality that exists among mankind?

Why should one person be brought up in the lap of luxury, endowed with fine mental, moral and physical qualities, and another in absolute poverty, steeped in misery?

Why should one person be a mental prodigy, and another an idiot?

Why should one person be born with saintly characteristics and another with criminal tendencies?

Why should some be linguistic, artistic, mathematically inclined, or musical from the very cradle?

Why should others be congenitally blind, deaf, or deformed?|

Why should some be blessed, and others cursed from their births?

Either this inequality of mankind has a cause, or it is purely accidental. No sensible person would think of attributing this unevenness, this inequality, and this diversity to blind chance or pure accident.

In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve. Usually, men of ordinary intellect cannot comprehend the actual reason or reasons. The definite invisible cause or causes of the visible effect is not necessarily confined to the present life, they may be traced to a proximate or remote past birth.

According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, "nature and nurture", but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.

Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:

"What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord," questioned he, "that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?"

The Buddha’s reply was:

"All living beings have actions (Karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states."

He then explained the cause of such differences in accordance with the law of cause and effect.

Certainly we are born with hereditary characteristics. At the same time we possess certain innate abilities that science cannot adequately account for. To our parents we are indebted for the gross sperm and ovum that form the nucleus of this so-called being. They remain dormant within each parent until this potential germinal compound is vitalised by the karmic energy needed for the production of the foetus. Karma is therefore the indispensable conceptive cause of this being.

The accumulated karmic tendencies, inherited in the course of previous lives, at times play a far greater role than the hereditary parental cells and genes in the formation of both physical and mental characteristics.

The Buddha, for instance, inherited, like every other person, the reproductive cells and genes from his parents. But physically, morally and intellectually there was none comparable to him in his long line of Royal ancestors. In the Buddha’s own words, he belonged not to the Royal lineage, but to that of the Aryan Buddhas. He was certainly a superman, an extraordinary creation of his own Karma.

According to the Lakkhana Sutta of Digha Nikaya, the Buddha inherited exceptional features, such as the 32 major marks, as the result of his past meritorious deeds. The ethical reason for acquiring each physical feature is clearly explained in the Sutta.

It is obvious from this unique case that karmic tendencies could not only influence our physical organism, but also nullify the potentiality of the parental cells and genes – hence the significance of the Buddha’s enigmatic statement, - "We are the heirs of our own actions."

Dealing with this problem of variation, the Atthasalini, being a commentary on the Abhidharma, states:

"Depending on this difference in Karma appears the differences in the birth of beings, high and low, base and exalted, happy and miserable. Depending on the difference in Karma appears the difference in the individual features of beings as beautiful and ugly, high-born or low born, well-built or deformed. Depending on the difference in Karma appears the difference in worldly conditions of beings, such as gain and loss, and disgrace, blame and praise, happiness and misery."

Thus, from a Buddhist point of view, our present mental, moral intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies, both past and present.

Although Buddhism attributes this variation to Karma, as being the chief cause among a variety, it does not, however, assert that everything is due to Karma. The law of Karma, important as it is, is only one of the twenty-four conditions described in Buddhist Philosophy.

Refuting the erroneous view that "whatsoever fortune or misfortune experienced is all due to some previous action", the Buddha said:

"So, then, according to this view, owing to previous action men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, covetous, malicious and perverts. Thus, for those who fall back on the former deeds as the essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor effort to do, nor necessity to do this deed, or abstain from this deed."

It was this important text, which states the belief that all physical circumstances and mental attitudes spring solely from past Karma that Buddha contradicted. If the present life is totally conditioned or wholly controlled by our past actions, then certainly Karma is tantamount to fatalism or determinism or predestination. If this were true, free will would be an absurdity. Life would be purely mechanistic, not much different from a machine. Being created by an Almighty God who controls our destinies and predetermines our future, or being produced by an irresistible Karma that completely determines our fate and controls our life’s course, independent of any free action on our part, is essentially the same. The only difference lies in the two words God and Karma. One could easily be substituted for the other, because the ultimate operation of both forces would be identical.

Such a fatalistic doctrine is not the Buddhist law of Karma.

According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (niyama) which operate in the physical and mental realms.

They are:

  1. Utu Niyama - physical inorganic order, e.g. seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., all belong to this group.
  2. Bija Niyama - order of germs and seeds (physical organic order), e.g. rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar-cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
  3. Karma Niyama - order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level so does Karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.
  4. Dhamma Niyama - order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth, my be included in this group.
  5. Citta Niyama - order or mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, etc., including telepathy, telaesthesia, retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading and such other psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science.

Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves. Karma as such is only one of these five orders. Like all other natural laws they demand no lawgiver.

Of these five, the physical inorganic order and the order of the norm are more or less mechanistic, though they can be controlled to some extent by human ingenuity and the power of mind. For example, fire normally burns, and extreme cold freezes, but man has walked scatheless over fire and meditated naked on Himalayan snows; horticulturists have worked marvels with flowers and fruits; Yogis have performed levitation. Psychic law is equally mechanistic, but Buddhist training aims at control of mind, which is possible by right understanding and skilful volition. Karma law operates quite automatically and, when the Karma is powerful, man cannot interfere with its inexorable result though he may desire to do so; but here also right understanding and skilful volition can accomplish much and mould the future. Good Karma, persisted in, can thwart the reaping of bad Karma, or as some Western scholars prefer to say ‘action influence’, is certainly an intricate law whose working is fully comprehended only by a Buddha. The Buddhist aims at the final destruction of all Karma.

WHAT IS KARMA?

The Pali term Karma literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal, or physical, is regarded as Karma. It covers all that is included in the phrase "thought, word and deed". Generally speaking, all good and bad action constitutes Karma. In its ultimate sense Karma means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute Karma, because volition, the most important factor in determining Karma, is absent.

The Buddha says:

"I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition is Karma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought." (Anguttara Nikaya)

Every volitional action of individuals, save those of Buddhas and Arahants, is called Karma. The exception made in their case is because they are delivered from both good and evil; they have eradicated ignorance and craving, the roots of Karma.

"Destroyed are their germinal seeds (Khina bija); selfish desires no longer grow," states the Ratana Sutta of Sutta nipata.

This does not mean that the Buddha and Arahantas are passive. They are tirelessly active in working for the real well being and happiness of all. Their deeds ordinarily accepted as good or moral, lack creative power as regards themselves. Understanding things as they truly are, they have finally shattered their cosmic fetters – the chain of cause and effect.

Karma does not necessarily mean past actions. It embraces both past and present deeds. Hence in one sense, we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are. In another sense, it should be added, we are not totally the result of what we were; we will not absolutely be the result of what we are. The present is no doubt the offspring of the past and is the present of the future, but the present is not always a true index of either the past or the future; so complex is the working of Karma.

It is this doctrine of Karma that the mother teaches her child when she says "Be good and you will be happy and we will love you; but if you are bad, you will be unhappy and we will not love you." In short, Karma is the law of cause and effect in the ethical realm.

'KARMA AND VIPAKA

Karma is action, and Vipaka, fruit or result, is its reaction.

Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, even so every volitional activity is inevitably accompanied by its due effect. Karma is like potential seed: Vipaka could be likened to the fruit arising from the tree – the effect or result. Anisamsa and Adinaya are the leaves, flowers and so forth that correspond to external differences such as health, sickness and poverty – these are inevitable consequences, which happen at the same time. Strictly speaking, both Karma and Vipaka pertain to the mind.

As Karma may be good or bad, so may Vipaka, - the fruit – is good or bad. As Karma is mental so Vipaka is mental (of the mind). It is experienced as happiness, bliss, unhappiness or misery, according to the nature of the Karma seed. Anisamsa are the concomitant advantages – material things such as prosperity, health and longevity. When Vipaka’s concomitant material things are disadvantageous, they are known as Adinaya, full of wretchedness, and appear as poverty, ugliness, disease, short life-span and so forth.

As we sow, we reap somewhere and sometime, in his life or in a future birth. What we reap today is what we have sown either in the present or in the past.

The Samyutta Nikaya states:

"According to the seed that’s sown,

So is the fruit you reap there from,

Doer of good will gather good,

Doer of evil, evil reaps,

Down is the seed and thou shalt taste

The fruit thereof."

Karma is a law in itself, which operates in its own field without the intervention of any external, independent ruling agency.

Happiness and misery, which are the common lot of humanity, are the inevitable effects of causes. From a Buddhist point of view, they are not rewards and punishments, assigned by a supernatural, omniscient ruling power to a soul that has done good or evil. Theists, who attempt to explain everything in this and temporal life and in the eternal future life, ignoring a past, believe in a ‘postmortem’ justice, and may regard present happiness and misery as blessings and curses conferred on His creation by an omniscient and omnipotent Divine Ruler who sits in heaven above controlling the destinies of the human race. Buddhism, which emphatically denies such an Almighty, All merciful God-Creator and an arbitrarily created immortal soul, believes in natural law and justice which cannot be suspended by either an Almighty God or an All-compassionate Buddha. According to this natural law, acts bear their own rewards and punishments to the individual doer whether human justice finds out or not.

There are some who criticise thus: "So, you Buddhists, too, administer capitalistic opium to the people, saying: "You are born poor in this life on account of your past evil karma. He is born rich on account of his good Karma. So, be satisfied with your humble lot; but do good to be rich in your next life. You are being oppressed now because of your past evil Karma. There is your destiny. Be humble and bear your sufferings patiently. Do good now. You can be certain of a better and happier life after death."

The Buddhist doctrine of Karma does not expound such ridiculous fatalistic views. Nor does it vindicate a postmortem justice. The All-Merciful Buddha, who had no ulterior selfish motives, did not teach this law of Karma to protect the rich and comfort the poor by promising illusory happiness in an after-life.

While we are born to a state created by ourselves, yet by our own self-directed efforts there is every possibility for us to create new, favourable environments even here and now. Not only individually, but also, collectively, we are at liberty to create fresh Karma that leads either towards our progress or downfall in this very life.

According to the Buddhist doctrine of Karma, one is not always compelled by an ‘iron necessity’, for Karma is neither fate, nor predestination imposed upon us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one’s own doing reacting on oneself, and so one has the possibility to divert the course of one’s Karma to some extent. How far one diverts it depends on oneself.

Is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion?

The Buddha provides an answer:

"If anyone says that a man or woman must reap in this life according to his present deeds, in that case there is no religious life, nor is an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow. But if anyone says that what a man or woman reaps in this and future lives accords with his or her deeds present and past, in that case there is a religious life, and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of a sorrow." (Anguttara Nikaya)

Although it is stated in the Dhammapada that "not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, or entering a mountain cave is found that place on earth where one may escape from (the consequences of) an evil deed", yet one is not bound to pay all the past arrears of one’s Karma. If such were the case emancipation would be impossibility. Eternal recurrence would be the unfortunate result.

WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF KARMA?

Ignorance (avijja), or not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of Karma. Dependent on ignorance arise activities (avijja paccaya samkhara) states the Buddha in the Paticca Samuppada (Dependent Origination).

Associated with ignorance is the ally craving (tanha), the other root of Karma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes. All good deeds of a worldling (putthujana), though associated with the three wholesome roots of generosity (alobha), goodwill (adosa) and knowledge (amoha), are nevertheless regarded as Karma because the two roots of ignorance and craving are dormant in him. The moral types of Supramundane Path Consciousness (magga citta) are not regarded as Karma because they tend to eradicate the two root causes.

Who is the doer of Karma?

Who reaps the fruit of Karma?

Does Karma mould a soul?

In answering these subtle questions, the Venerable Buddhaghosa writes in the Visuddhi Magga:

"No doer is there who does the deed;

Nor is there one who feels the fruit;

Constituent parts alone roll on;

This indeed! Is right discernment."

For instance, the table we see is apparent reality. In an ultimate sense the so-called table consists of forces and qualities.

For ordinary purposes a scientist would use the term water, but in the laboratory he would say H 2 0.

In this same way, for conventional purposes, such terms as man, woman, being, self, and so forth are used. The so-called fleeting forms consist of psychophysical phenomena, which are constantly changing not remaining the same for two consecutive moments.

Buddhists, therefore, do not believe in an unchanging entity, in an actor apart from action, in a perceiver apart from perception, in a conscious subject behind consciousness.

Who then, is the doer of Karma? Who experiences the effect?

Volition, or Will (tetana), is itself the doer, Feeling (vedana) is itself the reaper of the fruits of actions. Apart from these pure mental states (suddhadhamma) there is no-one to sow and no-one to reap.

CLASSIFICATION OF KARMA

(A) With respect to different functions, Karma is classified into four kinds:

1. REPRODUCTIVE KARMA

Every birth is conditioned by a past good or bad karma, which predominated at the moment of death. Karma that conditions the future birth is called Reproductive Karma. The death of a person is merely ‘a temporary end of a temporary phenomenon’. Though the present form perishes, another form which is neither the same nor absolutely different takes its place, according to the potential thought-vibration generated at the death moment, because the Karmic force which propels the life-flux still survives. It is this last thought, which is technically called Reproductive (janaka) Karma, that determines the state of a person in his subsequent birth. This may be either a good or bad Karma.

According to the Commentary, Reproductive Karma is that which produces mental aggregates and material aggregates at the moment of conception. The initial consciousness, which is termed the patisandhi rebirth consciousness, is conditioned by this Reproductive (janaka) Karma. Simultaneous with the arising of the rebirth-consciousness, there arise the ‘body-decad’, ‘sex-decad’ and ‘base-decad’ (kaya-bhavavatthu dasakas). (decad = 10 factors).

(a) The body-decad is composed of:

  1. The element of extension (pathavi).
  2. The element of cohesion (apo).
  3. The element of heat (tajo).
  4. The element of motion (vayo).

(b) The four derivatives (upadana rupa):

  1. Colour (vanna).
  2. Odour (gandha).
  3. Taste (rasa).
  4. Nutritive Essence (oja)

These eight (mahabhuta 4 + upadana 4 = 8) are collectively called Avinibhoga Rupa (indivisable form or indivisable matter).

(c) Vitality (jivitindriya) and Body (kaya)

These (avinibhoga 8 + jivitindriya 1 + Kaya 1 = 10) ten are collectively called "Body-decad" = (Kaya dasaka).

Sex-decad and Base-decad also consist of the first nine, sex (bhava) and seat of consciousness (vathu) respectively (i.e. eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body).

From this, it is evident that the sex of a person is determined at the very conception of a being. It is conditioned by Karma and is not a fortuitous combination of sperm and ovum cells. The Pain and Happiness one experiences in the course of one’s lifetime are the inevitable consequence of Reproductive Kamma.

2. SUPPORTIVE KARMA

That which comes near the Reproductive (janaka) Kamma and supports it. It is neither good nor bad and it assists or maintains the action of the Reproductive (janaka) Karma in the course of one’s lifetime. Immediately after conception till the death moment this Karma steps forward to support the Reproductive Karma. A moral supportive (kusala upathambhaka) Karma assists in giving health, wealth, happiness etc. to the being born with a moral Reproductive Karma. An immoral supportive Karma, on the other hand, assists in giving pain, sorrow, etc. to the being born with an immoral reproductive (akusala janaka) Karma, as for instance to a beast of burden.

3. OBSTRUCTIVE KARMA OR COUNTERACTIVE KARMA

Which, unlike the former, tends to weaken, interrupt and retard the fruition of the Reproductive Karma. For instance, a person born with a good Reproductive Karma may be subject to various ailments etc., thus preventing him from enjoying the blissful results of his good actions. An animal, on the other hand, who is born with a bad Reproductive Karma may lead a comfortable life by getting good food, lodging, etc., as a result of his good counteractive or obstructive (upabidaka) Karma preventing the fruition of the evil Reproductive Karma.

4. DESTRUCTIVE (UPAGHATAKA) KARMA

According to the law of Karma the potential energy of the Reproductive Karma could be nullified by a mere powerful opposing Karma of the past, which, seeking an opportunity, may quite unexpectedly operate, just as a powerful counteractive force can obstruct the path of a flying arrow and bring it down to the ground. Such an action is called Destructive (upaghataka) Karma, which is more effective than the previous two in that it is not only obstructive but also destroys the whole force. This Destructive Karma also may be either good or bad.

As an instance of operation of all the four, the case of Devadatta, who attempted to kill the Buddha and who caused a schism in the Sangha (disciples of the Buddha) may be cited. His good Reproductive Karma brought him birth in a royal family. His continued comfort and prosperity were due to the action of the Supportive Karma. The Counteractive or Obstructive Karma came into operation when he was subject to much humiliation as a result of his being excommunicated from the Sangha. Finally the Destructive Karma brought his life to a miserable end.

(B) There is another classification of Karma, according to the priority of effect:

  1. WEIGHTY (GARUKA) KARMA.

This is either weighty or serious – may be either good or bad. It produces its results in this life or in the next for certain. If good, it is purely mental as in the case of Jhana (ecstasy or absorption). Otherwise it is verbal or bodily. On the Immoral side, there are five immediate effective heinous crimes (pancanantariya karma): Matricide, Patricide, and the murder of an Arahant, the wounding of a Buddha and the creation of a schism in the Sangha. Permanent Scepticism (Niyata Micchaditthi) is also termed one of the Weighty (garuka) Karmas.

If, for instance, any person were to develop the jhana (ecstasy or absorption) and later were to commit one of these heinous crimes, his good Karma would be obliterated by the powerful evil Karma. His subsequent birth would be conditioned by the evil Karma in spite of his having gained the jhana earlier. Devadatta lost his psychic power and was born in an evil state, because he wounded the Buddha and caused a schism in the Sangha.

King Ajatasattu would have attained the first stage of Sainthood (Sotapanna) if he had not committed patricide. In this case the powerful evil Karma acted as an obstacle to his gaining Sainthood.

  1. PROXIMATE (ASANNA) KARMA OR DEATH-PROXIMATE KARMA

This is that which one does or remembers immediately before the moment of dying. Owing to the great part it plays in determining the future birth, much importance is attained to this deathbed (asanna) Karma in almost all Buddhist countries. The customs of reminding the dying man of good deeds and making him do good acts on his deathbed still prevails in Buddhist countries.

Sometimes a bad person may die happily and receive a good birth if he remembers or does a good act at the last moment. A story runs that a certain executioner who casually happened to give some alms to the Venerable Sariputta remembered this good act at the dying moment and was born in a state of bliss. This does not mean that although he enjoys a good birth he will be exempt from the effects of the evil deeds which he accumulated during his lifetime. They will have there due effect as occasions arise.

At times a good person may die unhappy by suddenly remembering an evil act of his or by harbouring some unpleasant thought, perchance compelled by unfavourable circumstances. In the scriptures, Queen Mallika, the consort of King Kosala, remembering a lie she had uttered, suffered for about seven days in a state of misery when she lied to her husband to cover some misbehaviour.

These are exceptional cases. Such reverse changes of birth account for the birth of virtuous children to vicious parents and of vicious children to virtuous parents. As a result of the last thought moment being conditioned by the general conduct of the person.

  1. HABITUAL (ACCINA) KARMA

It is that which on habitually performs and recollects and for which one has a great liking. Habits whether good or bad becomes ones second nature, tending to form the character of a person. At unguarded moments one often lapses into one’s habitual mental mindset. In the same way, at the death-moment, unless influenced by other circumstances, one usually recalls to mind one’s habitual deeds.

Cunda, a butcher, who was living in the vicinity of the Buddha’s monastery, died yelling like an animal because he was earning his living by slaughtering pigs.

King Dutthagamini of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was in the habit of giving alms to the Bhikkhus (monks) before he took his own meals. It was his habitual Karma that gladdened him at the dying moment and gave him birth in the Tusita heaven.

  1. RESERVE OR CUMULATIVE (KATATTA) KARMA

This literally means ‘because done’. All actions that are not included in the aforementioned and those actions soon forgotten belong to this category. This is, as it were the reserve fund of a particular being.

(C) There is another classification of Karma according to the time in which effects are worked out:

  1. Immediately Effective (ditthadhammavedaniya) Karma.
  2. Subsequently Effective (uppapajjavedaniya) Karma.
  3. Indefinitely Effective (aparapariyavedaniya) Karma.
  4. Defunct or Ineffective (ahosi) Karma.

Immediately Effective Karma is that which is experienced in this present life. According to the Abhidhamma one does both good and evil during the javana process (thought-impulsion), which usually lasts for seven thought-moments. The effect of the first thought-moment, being the weakest, one may reap in this life itself. This is called the Immediately Effective Karma.

If it does not operate in this life, it is called ‘Defunct or Ineffective’ Karma.

The next weakest is the seventh thought-moment. Its effect one may reap in the subsequence birth. This is called ‘Subsequently EffectiveKarma.

This, too, is called Defunct or Ineffective Karma if it does not operate in the second birth. The effect of the intermediate thought-moments may take place at any time until one attains Nibbana. This type of Karma is known as ‘Indefinitely Effective’ Karma.

No one, not even the Buddhas and Arahantas, is exempt from this class of Karma which one may experience in the course of one’s wandering in Samsara. There is no special class of Karma known as Defunct or Ineffective, but when such actions that should produce their effects in this life or in a subsequent life do not operate, they are termed Defunct or Ineffective Karma.

(D) The last classification of Karma is according to the plane in which the effect takes place, namely:

  1. Evil Actions (akusala kamma) which may ripen in the sentient planes (kammaloka). (Six celestial planes plus one human plane plus four woeful planes = eleven kamaloka planes.) Here are only four woeful kamalokas.
  2. Good Actions (kusala kamma) which may ripen in the sentient planes except for the four woeful planes.
  3. Good Actions (kusala kamma) which may ripen in the Realm of Form (rupa brahamalokas). There are four Arupa Brahma Lokas.

QUESTIONS ON THE THEORY OF KARMA

Question: Do the Karmas of parents determine or affect the Karmas of their children?

Answer: Physically, the Karma of children is generally determined by the Karma of their parents. Thus, healthy parents usually have healthy offspring, and unhealthy parents have unhealthy children. On the effect or how the Karma of their children is determined: the child’s Karma is a thing apart of itself – it forms the child’s individuality, the sum-total of its merits and demerits accumulated in innumerable past existences. For example, the Karma of the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhattha was certainly not influenced by the joint Karma of his parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. The glorious and powerful Karma of our Buddha-to-be transcended the Karma of his parents which jointly were more potent than his own.

Question: If the Karma of parents do not influence those of their children, how would the fact be explained that parents who suffer from certain virulent diseases are apt to transmit these evils to their offsprings?

Answer: Where a child inherit such a disease it is due to the force of the parentscharacteristics because of the force of the latter’s Utu (conditions favourable to germination). Take, for example, two seeds from a sapling; plant one in inferior, dry soil; and the other in rich, moist soil. The result is that the first seed will sprout into a sickly sapling and soon show symptoms of disease and decay; while the other seed will thrive and flourish and grow up to be a tall and healthy tree.

It will be observed that the pair of seeds taken from the same stock grows up differently according to the soil into which they are put. A child’s past Karma may be compared to the seed: the physical disposition of the mother to the soil; and that of the father to the moisture, which fertilised the soil. Roughly speaking, to illustrate our subject, we will say that, representing the sapling’s germination, growth, and existence as a unit, the seed is responsible for one-tenth of them, the soil for six-tenths, and the moisture for the remainder, three-tenths. Thus, although the power of germination exists potentially in the seed (the child), its growth is powerfully determined and quickened by the soil (the mother) and the moisture (the father).

Therefore, even as the conditions of the soil and moisture must be taken as largely responsible factors in the growth and condition of the tree. So must the influences of the parents (or progenitors, as in the case of the animal world) be taken into account in respect to the conception and growth of their offspring.

The parents’ share in the Karma determining the physical factors of their issue is as follows: If they are human beings, then their offspring will be a human being. If they are cattle then their issue must be of their species. If the human being is Chinese, then their offspring must be of their race. Thus, the offspring are invariably of the same genera and species, etc., as those of the progenitors. It will be seen from the above that, although a child’s Karma is very powerful in itself, if cannot remain wholly uninfluenced by those of it parents. It is apt to inherit the physical characteristic of its parents. Yet, it may occur that the child’s Karma, being superlatively powerful, the influence of the parent’s joint Karma cannot overshadow it. Of course, it need hardly be pointed out that the evil influences of parents can also be counteracted by the application of medical science.

All beings born of sexual cohabitation are the resultant effects of three forces:

  1. The old Karma of past existence;
  2. The seminal fluid of the mother, and
  3. The seminal fluid of the father.

The physical dispositions of the parents may, or may not, be equal in force. One may counteract the other to a lesser or greater extent. The child’s Karma and physical characteristics, such as race, colour, etc., will be the produce of the three forces.

Question: On the death of a sentient being, is there a ‘soul’ that wanders about at will?

Answer: When a sentient being leaves one existence, it is reborn either as a human being, a celestial being, (Deva or Brahama), and inferior animal, or a denizen of one of the regions of hell. The sceptics and the ignorant people held that there are intermediate stages – antrabhava – between these; and that there are being who are neither of the human, the celestial, the Deva or the Brahma worlds nor of any one of the stages of exist recognised in the scriptures – but are in an intermediate stage. Some assert that these transitional stages are possessed of the Five Khandhas ( Five Aggregates: they are Matter (rupa); Feeling (vedana); Perception (sanna); 4. Mental-activities (sankhara); and Consciousness (vinnana).

Some assert that these beings are detachedsouls’ or spirits with no material encasement, and some again, that they are possessed of the faculty of seeing like Devas, and further, that they have power of changing at will, at short intervals, from one to any of the existence mentioned above. Others again hold the fantastic and erroneous theory that these beings can, and so, fancy themselves to be in other than the existence they are actually in. Thus, to take for example one such of these suppositious beings. He is a poor person – and yet he fancies himself to be rich. He may be in hell – and yet he fancies himself to be in the land of the Devas, and so on. This belief in intermediate stages between existences is false, and is condemned in the Buddhist teachings. A human being in this life who, by his Karma is destined to be a human being in the next, will be reborn as such; one who by his Karma is destined to be a Deva in the next will be appear in the land of the Devas; and one whose future life is to be in Hell, will be found in one of the regions of hell in the next existence.

The idea of an entity or soul or spirit ‘going’, ‘coming’, ‘changing’ or ‘transmigrating’ from one existence to another is an idea entertained by the ignorance and materialistic, and is certainly not justified by the Dhammas that there is no such thing as ‘going’, 'coming’, ‘changing’, etc., as between existences. The conception, which is in accordance with the Dhamma, may perhaps be illustrated by the picture thrown out by a cinema projector, or the sound of emitted by the gramophone, and their relation to the film or the sound-box and records respectively. For example, a human being dies and is reborn in the land of Devas. Though these two existences are different, yet the link or continuity between the two at death is unbroken in point of time. The same is true in the case of a man whose further existence is to be in hell. The distance between Hell and the abode of man appears to be great. Yet, in point of time, the continuity of ‘passage’ from the one existence to the other is unbroken, and no intervening matter or space can interrupt the trend of a man’s Karma from the world of human beings to the regions of Hell. The ‘passage’ from one existence to another is instantaneous, and the transition is infinitely quicker than the blink of an eyelid or a lightening-flash.

Karma determines the realm of rebirth and the state of existence in that realm of all transient being (in the cycle of existences, which have to be traversed till the attainment, at last, of Nibbana).

The results of Karma are manifold, and may be effected in many ways. Religious offerings (dana) may obtain for a man the privilege of rebirth as a human being, or as a deva, in one of the six deva worlds according to the degree of the merit of the deeds performed, and so with the observance of religious duties (sila). The jhanas or states of absorption, are found in the Brahma world or Brahmalokas up to the summit, the twentieth Brahma world: And so with bad deeds, the perpetrators of which are to be found , grade by grade, down to the lowest depths of Hell. Thus are Karma, past, present and future were, are, and will ever be the sum total of our deeds, good, indifferent or bad. As was seen from the foregoing, our Karma determines the changes of our existences.

"Evil spirits" are, therefore, not beings in an intermediate or transitional stages of existence, but are really very inferior beings, and they belong to one of the following five realms of existence:

1. World of Men: 2. The Lowest plane of deva-world; 3. The region of hell; 4. Animals below men, and 5. Petas (ghosts).

Number 2 and 5 are very near the world of human beings. As their condition is unhappy, and they are popularly considered evil spirits. It is not true that all who die in this world are reborn as evil spirits; nor is it true that beings who die sudden or violent deaths are apt to be reborn in the lowest plane of the world of devas.

Question: Is there such a thing as a human being who is reborn and who is able to speak accurately of his or her past existence?

Answer: Certainly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and is in accordance with the tenets of Buddhism in respect to Karma.

The following (who form, an overwhelming majority of human beings) are generally unable to remember there past existences when reborn as human beings: Children who die young. Those who die old and senile. Those who are addicted to the drug or drink habit. Those whose mothers, during their conception, have been sickly or have had to toil laboriously, or have been reckless or imprudent during pregnancy. The children in the womb, being stunned and started, lose all knowledge of their past existence.

The following are possessed of a knowledge of their past existences, viz: Those who are not reborn (in the human world) but proceed to the world of the devas, of Brahmas, or to the regions of Hell, remember their past existences.

Those who die suddenly deaths from accidents, while in sound health, may also be possessed of this faculty in the next existence, provided that their mothers, in whose womb they are conceived, are healthy. Again, those who live steady, meritorious lives and who in their past existences have striven to attain, often attain it.

Lastly the Buddha, the Arahantas and Ariyas attain this gift which is known as pubbenivasa abhnna (Supernatural Power remembering previous existences).

''''Question: Which are the five Abhinna? Are they attainable only by the Buddha?

Answer: The five Abhinna (Supernatural Powers): Pali - abhi, excellent, nana, wisdom) are:

Iddhividha = Creative power;

Dibbasola = Divine Ear;

Cetopariya nana = Knowledge of others’ thoughts;

Pubbenivasanussati = Knowledge of one’s past existence;

Dibbacakkhu = The Divine eye.

The Abhinna are attainable not only by the Buddha, but also by Arantas and Ariyas, by ordinary mortals who practise according to the Scriptures (as was the case with hermits etc, who flourished before the time of the Buddha and who were able to fly through the air and traverse different worlds).

In the Buddhist Scriptures, we find, clearly shown, the means of attaining the five Abhinna. And even nowadays, if these means are carefully and perseveringly pursued, it would be possible to attain these. That we do not see any person endowed with the five Abhinna today is due to the lack of strenuous physical and mental exertion towards their attainment.

NATURE OF KARMA

In the working of Karma there are maleficent and beneficent forces and conditions to counteract and support this self-operating law. Birth (gati) time or condition (kala) substratum of rebirth or showing attachment to rebirth (upadhi) and effort (payoga) act as such powerful aids and hindrances to the fruition of Karma.

Though we are neither the absolutely the servants nor the masters of our Karma, it is evident from these counteractive and supportive factors that the fruition of Karma is influenced to some extent by external circumstances, surroundings, personality, individual striving, and so forth.

It is this doctrine of Karma that gives consolation, hope, reliance and moral courage to a Buddhist. When the unexpected happens, and he meets with difficulties, failures, and misfortune, the Buddhist realises that he is reaping what he has sown, and he is wiping off a past debt. Instead of resigning himself, leaving everything to Karma, he makes a strenuous effort to pull the weeds and sow useful seeds in their place, for the future is in his own hands.

He who believes in Karma does not condemn even the most corrupt, for they, too, have their chance to reform themselves at any moment. Though bound to suffer in woeful states, they have hope of attaining eternal Peace. By their own doings they have created their own Hells, and by their own doings they can create their own Heavens, too.

A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the law of Karma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on him for his own emancipation. Instead of making any self-surrender, or calling on any supernatural agency, he relies on his own will power, and works incessantly for the well-being and happiness of all. This belief in Karma validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasm, because it teaches individual responsibility.

To the ordinary Buddhist, Karma serves as a deterrent, while to an intellectual, it serves as in incentive to do good. He or she becomes kind, tolerant, and considerate. This law of Karma explains the problem of suffering, the mastery of so-called fate and predestination of other religions and about all the inequality of mankind.

When you read books about meditation, or often when meditation is is presented by different groups, much of the emphasis falls on the techniques. In the West, people tend to be very interested in the "technology" of meditation. However, by far the most important feature of meditation is not technique, but the way of being, the spirit, which is called the "posture", a posture which is not so much physical, but more to do with spirit or attitude.

It is well to recognize that when you start on a meditation practice, you are entering a totally different dimension of reality. Normally in life we put a great deal of effort into achieving things, and there is a lot of struggle involved, whereas meditation is just the opposite, it is a break from how we normally operate.

Meditation is simply a question of being, of melting, like a piece of butter left in the sun. It has nothing to do with whether or not you "know" anything about it, in fact, each time you practice meditation it should be fresh, as if it were happening for the very first time. You just quietly sit, your body still, your speech silent, your mind at ease, and allow thoughts to come and go, without letting them play havoc on you. If you need something to do, then watch the breathing. This is a very simple process. When you are breathing out, know that you are breathing out. When you breath in, know that you are breathing in, without supplying any kind of extra commentary or internalized mental gossip, but just identifying with the breath. That very simple process of mindfulness processes your thoughts and emotions, and then, like an old skin being shed, something is peeled off and freed.

Usually people tend to relax the body by concentrating on different parts. Real relaxation comes when you relax from within, for then everything else will ease itself out quite naturally.

When you begin to practice, you center yourself, in touch with your "soft spot", and just remain there. You need not focus on anything in particular to begin with. Just be spacious, and allow thoughts and emotions to settle. If you do so, then later, when you use a method such as watching the breath, your attention will more easily be on your breathing. There is no particular point on the breath on which you need to focus, it is simply the process of breathing. Twenty-five percent of your attention is on the breath, and seventy-five percent is relaxed. Try to actually identify with the breathing, rather than just watching it. You may choose an object, like a flower, for example, to focus upon. Sometimes you are taught to visualize a light on the forehead, or in the heart. Sometimes a sound or a mantra can be used. But at the beginning it is best to simply be spacious, like the sky. Think of yourself as the sky, holding the whole universe.

When you sit, let things settle and allow all your discordant self with its ungenuineness and unnaturalness to disolve, out of that rises your real being. You experience an aspect of yourself which is more genuine and more authentic-the "real" you. As you go deeper, you begin to discover and connect with your fundamental goodness.

The whole point of meditation is to get used to the that aspect which you have forgotten. In Tibetan "meditation" means "getting used to". Getting used to what? to your true nature, your Buddha nature. This is why, in the highest teaching of Buddhism, Dzogchen, you are told to "rest in the nature of mind". You just quietly sit and let all thoughts and concepts dissolve. It is like when the clouds dissolve or the mist evaporates, to reveal the clear sky and the sun shining down. When everything dissolves like this, you begin to experience your true nature, to "live". Then you know it, and at that moment, you feel really good. It is unlike any other feeling of well being that you might have experienced. This is a real and genuine goodness, in which you feel a deep sense of peace, contentment and confidence about yourself.

It is good to meditate when you feel inspired. Early mornings can bring that inspiration, as the best moments of the mind are early in the day, when the mind is calmer and fresher (the time traditionally recommended is before dawn). It is more appropriate to sit when you are inspired, for not only is it easier then as you are in a better frame of mind for meditation, but you will also be more encouraged by the very practice that you do. This in turn will bring more confidence in the practice, and later on you will be able to practice when you are not inspired. There is no need to meditate for a long time: just remain quietly until you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence. That is the main point.

After that, some integration, or meditation in action. Once your mindfulness has been awakened by your meditation, your mind is calm and your perception a little more coherent. Then, whatever you do, you are present, right there. As in the famous Zen master's saying: "When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep". Whatever you do, you are fully present in the act. Even washing dishes, if it is done one-pointedly, can be very energizing, freeing, cleansing. You are more peaceful, so you are more "you". You assume the "Universal You".

One of the fundamental points of the spiritual journey is to persevere along the path. Though one's meditation may be good one day and and not so good the next, like changes in scenery, essentially it is not the experiences, good or bad which count so much, but rather that when you persevere, the real practice rubs off on you and comes through both good and bad. Good and bad are simply apparations, just as there may be good or bad weather, yet the sky is always unchanging. If you persevere and have that sky like attitude of spaciousness, without being perturbed by emotions and experiences, you will develop stability and the real profoundness of meditation will take effect. You will find that gradually and almost unnoticed, your attitude begins to change. You do not hold on to things as solidly as before, or grasp at them so strongly, and though crisis will still happen, you can handle them a bit better with more humor and ease. You will even be able to laugh at difficulties a little, since there is more space between you and them, and you are freer of yourself. Things become less solid, slightly ridiculous, and you become more lighthearted.


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