Friday, 23 September 2011

Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism
edited by
John T. Bullitt

Over the years I've received scores of e-mail queries from people seeking answers to basic questions about Buddhism. Here are my answers to some of the most common ones. These answers reflect my own opinions and interpretations and in no way represent a "definitive" Theravada Buddhist point of view. My hope is that these answers, along with the accompanying links and references to suttas and other texts, will serve as useful hints to steer you towards finding answers of your own.

Buddhist doctrine and terminology

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
The Buddha referred to his teachings simply as Dhamma-vinaya — "the doctrine and discipline" — but for centuries people have tried to categorize the teachings in various ways, trying to fit them into the prevailing molds of cultural, philosophical, and religious thought. Buddhism is an ethical system — a way of life — that leads to a very specific goal and that possesses some aspects of both religion and philosophy:
It is a philosophy.
Like most philosophies, Buddhism attempts to frame the complexities of human existence in a way that reassures us that there is, in fact, some underlying order to the Universe. In the Four Noble Truths the Buddha crisply summarizes our predicament: there is suffering, it has a cause, it has an end, and there is a way to reach the end. The teachings on kamma provide a thorough and logically self-consistent description of the nature of cause-and-effect. And even the Buddhist view of cosmology, which some may at first find farfetched, is a logical extension of the law of kamma. According to the Dhamma, a deep and unshakable logic pervades the world.
It is not a philosophy.
Unlike most philosophical systems, which rely on speculation and the power of reason to arrive at logical truths, Buddhism relies on the direct observation of one's personal experience and on honing certain skills in order to gain true understanding and wisdom. Idle speculation has no place in Buddhist practice. Although studying in the classroom, reading books, and engaging in spirited debate can play a vital part in developing a cognitive understanding of basic Buddhist concepts, the heart of Buddhism can never be realized this way. The Dhamma is not an abstract system of thought designed to delight the intellect; it is a roadmap to be used, one whose essential purpose is to lead the practitioner to the ultimate goal, nibbana.
It is a religion.
At the heart of each of the world's great religions lies a transcendent ideal around which its doctrinal principles orbit. In Buddhism this truth is nibbana, the hallmark of the cessation of suffering and stress, a truth of utter transcendence that stands in singular distinction from anything we might encounter in our ordinary sensory experience. Nibbana is the sine qua non of Buddhism, the guiding star and ultimate goal towards which all the Buddha's teachings point. Because it aims at such a lofty transcendent ideal, we might fairly call Buddhism a religion.
It is not a religion.
In stark contrast to the world's other major religions, however, Buddhism invokes no divinity, no supreme Creator or supreme Self, no Holy Spirit or omniscient loving God to whom we might appeal for salvation.[1] Instead, Buddhism calls for us to hoist ourselves up by our own bootstraps: to develop the discernment we need to distinguish between those qualities within us that are unwholesome and those that are truly noble and good, and to learn how to nourish the good ones and expunge the bad. This is the path to Buddhism's highest perfection, nibbana. Not even the Buddha can take you to that goal; you alone must do the work necessary to complete the journey:
"Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge."
DN 16
Despite its non-theistic nature, however, Buddhist practice does call for a certain kind of faith. It is not blind faith, an uncritical acceptance of the Buddha's word as transmitted through scripture. Instead it is saddha, a confidence born of taking refuge in the Triple Gem; it is a willingness to trust that the Dhamma, when practiced diligently, will lead to the rewards promised by the Buddha. Saddha is a provisional acceptance of the teachings, that is ever subject to critical evaluation during the course of one's practice, and which must be balanced by one's growing powers of discernment. For many Buddhists, this faith is expressed and reinforced through traditional devotional practices, such as bowing before a Buddha statue and reciting passages from the early Pali texts. Despite a superficial resemblance to the rites of many theistic religions, however, these activities are neither prayers nor pleas for salvation directed towards a transcendent Other. They are instead useful and inspiring gestures of humility and respect for the profound nobility and worth of the Triple Gem.


According to Buddhist cosmology, every living being dwells in one of thirty-one distinct "planes," of which our familiar human plane is but one. Some of these realms are home to beings (the devas) with unusual powers and extraordinarily subtle and refined physical bodies — or even no body at all. Their god-like status is, however, short-lived; like all living beings, they are mortal and ultimately subject to death and rebirth in other planes according to the purity and skillfulness of their actions (kamma). One of these devas, the Great Brahma, is so clouded by his own delusion that he believes himself to be the all-powerful, all-seeing creator of the universe (see DN 11).

Is Vipassana the same as Theravada?

The Pali word vipassana — often translated as "insight" — has a variety of meanings. First, it refers to the flash of liberating intuitive understanding that marks the culmination of Buddhist meditation practice.[1] In the Pali discourses vipassana also refers to the mind's ability to witness clearly as events unfold in the present moment. In this sense it is a skill that a meditator develops using a broad arsenal of meditative tools and techniques. With practice, this skill can bring the meditator to the threshold of liberating insight.[2] In its third meaning, one that has become especially popular in the West in recent years, "Vipassana" (usually with a capital "V") refers to a system of meditation — vipassana bhavana, or "Insight Meditation" — that is based on an interpretation of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), the Buddha's concise "how-to" guide to the development of mindfulness (sati).[3]
Followers of the popular Vipassana movement often cite the Satipatthana Sutta as the essence of the Buddha's teachings; some even claim that the instructions it contains are the only ones necessary for achieving liberating insight. Theravada Buddhism, by contrast, embraces the thousands of discourses of the Pali canon, each highlighting a different aspect of the Buddha's teachings. In Theravada each discourse supports, depends upon, reflects, and informs all the others; even a discourse as important as the Satipatthana Sutta is seen as but a single thread in the Buddha's complex tapestry of teachings.
Although many students do find all they want in Vipassana, some have a nagging sense that something fundamental is missing. This reaction is hardly surprising, as the Satipatthana discourse itself was delivered to a group of relatively advanced students who were already quite experienced and well established in the path of Dhamma practice.
Happily, all those missing pieces can be found in the Pali canon. In the Canon we find the Buddha's teachings on generosity and virtue, the twin pillars upon which all spiritual practice is built. His teachings on the recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha serve to strengthen the development of saddha (faith, confidence), which provides a potent fuel to sustain Dhamma practice long after we return home from that meditation retreat. In the Canon we also find his teachings on the drawbacks of sensuality and the value of renunciation; on developing all the factors in the Eightfold Path, including those that are seldom explored during organized Vipassana retreats: right speech, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration (meaning jhana). And there is much, much more.
In Theravada, the path to liberating insight does not boil down to a single meditation technique or to being continuously mindful. The path to Awakening is full of surprising twists and turns but, thankfully, the Buddha left for us an assortment of tools to use and skills to learn to help us safely make the journey.
See also: "What is Theravada Buddhism?"


Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines by Nyanatiloka (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988).
See "One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice" (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The modern Vipassana movement grew out of the tradition of Satipatthana Vipassana, a meditation system based on the Satipatthana Sutta and developed by Burmese monks in the early 20th century. By the 1950's the Burmese teachers Sayagyi U Ba Khin (a layman; 1899-1971) and Mahasi Sayadaw (a monk; 1904-1982) had independently codified and institutionalized these teachings, making them widely accessible across South Asia and, eventually, the West. The Satipatthana Vipassana approach to meditation continues to enjoy widespread popularity among laypeople in the West. See Satipatthana Vipassana: Insight Through Mindfulness by Mahasi Sayadaw (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1990) and The Essentials of Buddha Dhamma in Meditative Practice by U Ba Khin (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981).

If we're all reborn when we die, how does Buddhism explain the world's increasing population?

According to Buddhist cosmology, when a living being[1] passes away he or she is reborn into one of thirty-one distinct "planes" or "realms" of existence, of which the human realm is just one. An increase in the human population simply implies that creatures from other planes are being reborn into the human realm at a rate faster than humans are dying. Likewise, a decline in the human population would imply that humans, upon death, are taking rebirth in other planes (or exiting samsara altogether) at a rate faster than other creatures are taking rebirth as humans. These sorts of population shifts have been occurring for countless eons and in themselves hold little cosmic significance.


Except an arahant, a fully-enlightened being. Arahants have escaped the round of rebirths once and for all and, upon death, are not reborn.

If there's no self, then who gets enlightened?
If there's no self, then what gets reborn?
If there's no self, then why...?

Nowhere in the Pali canon does Buddha categorically declare, without qualification, "There is no self."[1] Any question that begins along the lines of, "If there's no self..." is thus inherently misleading, dooming the questioner to a hopeless tangle of confusion — "a thicket of [wrong] views" [MN 2]. Such questions are best put aside altogether in favor of more fruitful lines of questioning.[2]


See "The Not-self Strategy" and "No-self or Not-self?" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
See "Questions of Skill" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I hear the word "sangha" used a lot these days in Buddhist circles. What does it really mean?

The Pali word "sangha" literally means "group" or "congregation," but when it is used in the suttas, the word usually refers to one of two very specific kinds of groups: either the community of Buddhist monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis), or the community of people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening. In recent decades, a new usage of the word has emerged in the West, one that seems to have no basis in classical Theravada Buddhist teachings: the usage of the word "sangha" to describe a meditation group or any sort of spiritual community.[1] It sounds innocent enough, but this particular usage can — and often does — lead to profound confusion concerning one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the Buddha's teachings, the going for refuge in the Triple Gem.
The act of going for refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha[2] marks a major turning point in one's spiritual development, the real start of the journey down the Buddhist path.[3] It helps foster a healthy attitude towards Buddhist practice by encouraging the development of right view, and serves as a constant reminder both of the goal of practice and of the means to achieve that goal. It is therefore crucial to be clear and precise about the meaning of the refuges, lest we end up heading down a road quite different from the one the Buddha had in mind.
In taking refuge in the Sangha, we set our inner sights on the ideal community of Noble Ones (ariya-sangha) — those monks, nuns, laywomen, and laymen who, throughout history, have by their own diligent efforts successfully carried out the Buddha's instructions and gained at least a glimpse of the supreme happiness of nibbana. If this is the direction in which we also wish to go, then it is to these individuals that we should turn for refuge:
The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples who have practiced well... who have practiced straight-forwardly... who have practiced methodically... who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types [of noble disciples] when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.
But going for refuge doesn't stop there. We are also asked to turn to the monastic community (bhikkhu-sangha) for refuge, for it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of this 2,600-year-old institution that we are fortunate enough today to be able to hear the teachings. Moreover, the living example of the monastic community serves to remind us of the immense value of generosity, of living a morally upright life, of renunciation — in short, it reminds us that it is indeed possible to live a life fully in tune with every aspect of the Buddha's teachings. In reality, of course, not every monk or nun necessarily lives up to the Buddha's high standards of conduct. For this reason it is to the institution of the Sangha that we turn to refuge, not to the individual members themselves. This is the Sangha to which lay people have turned since the time of the Buddha:
I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.
So it is these exceptional groups of people — the ariya-sangha and the bhikkhu-sangha — that define the Third Gem and Refuge; it is to these groups that we are asked to turn for refuge, not to some vaguely defined community of like-minded Dhamma friends and fellow meditators. In which group would you rather put your trust?
In an effort to resolve this confusion, some writers have proposed various alternatives to the word "sangha" to describe gatherings and communities of Dhamma companions.[4] But this still leaves me wondering why we must invoke the Pali language here at all. Does a meditation group really need a special name? Why not simply call it a "meditation group" and leave it at that?
"Sangha" is an important term with a rich and precise meaning. It stands for something truly extraordinary and brilliant that can constantly remind us of the highest and most excellent possibilities the Path has to offer. Let's use it well.


The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), p. 307.
Here I follow the convention of capitalizing "Sangha" when referring to the third object of refuge.
See Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997).
Two such proposals are parisa (the "fourfold assembly": monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunis), male lay followers (upasakas), and female lay followers (upasikas), regardless of spiritual attainment; see Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997)) and gana (chapter; quorum; gang).

What's the difference between a Buddha and an arahant?

The attainment of arahantship and Buddha-hood are identical: the attainment of the Deathless (Nibbana) and the complete and irreversible eradication of the defilements, the underlying cause of suffering. It is the Buddha who (re-)discovers the Dhamma on his own; it is the arahant who puts his teachings into practice and follows in his footsteps.
Here is the Buddha's answer to this very question:
[The Buddha:] "So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released?"
[A group of monks:] "For us, lord, the teachings have the Blessed One as their root, their guide, & their arbitrator. It would be good if the Blessed One himself would explicate the meaning of this statement. Having heard it from the Blessed One, the monks will remember it."
"In that case, monks, listen & pay close attention. I will speak."
"As you say, lord," the monks responded.
The Blessed One said, "The Tathagata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path.
"This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released."

Who is Maitreya (Metteyya)?
Have there been other Buddhas?
What's a "Private Buddha" (paccekabuddha)?

According to Theravada tradition, many Buddhas have come and gone over countless eons.[1] Every once in a great while, after a long period of spiritual darkness blankets the world, an individual is eventually born who, through his own efforts, rediscovers the long-forgotten path to Awakening and liberates himself once and for all from the long round of rebirth, thereby becoming an arahant ("worthy one," one who has fully realized Awakening). If such a being lacks the requisite development of the paramis (perfections of character), he is unable to articulate his discovery to others and is known as a "Silent" or "Private" Buddha (paccekabuddha). If, however, his paramis are fully developed, he is able to deliver his message (sasana) to the world and is called, simply, a Buddha.
Some of a Buddha's followers may themselves become arahants, but they are not Buddhas, because they required a Buddha to show them the way to Awakening. (All Buddhas and paccekabuddhas are arahants, but not all arahants are Buddhas or paccekabuddhas) No matter how far and wide the sasana spreads, sooner or later it succumbs to the inexorable law of anicca (impermanence), and fades from memory. The world descends again into darkness, and the eons-long cycle repeats.
The most recent Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama in India in the sixth century BCE. He is the one we usually mean when we refer to "The Buddha."[2]
The next Buddha due to appear is said to be Maitreya (Skt; Pali: Metteyya), a bodhisatta currently residing in the Tusita heavens. Legend has it that at some time in the far distant future, once the teachings of the current Buddha have long been forgotten, he will be reborn as a human being, rediscover the Four Noble Truths, and teach the Noble Eightfold Path once again. Although he plays an important role in some Mahayana Buddhist traditions, whose followers appeal to him for favorable rebirth and salvation,[3] he plays an insignificant role in Theravada. I believe he's mentioned only once in the entire Tipitaka, in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26; The Lion's Roar on the Turning of the Wheel):
[The Buddha:] And in that time of the people with an eighty-thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now.
The Long Discourses of the Buddha (formerly Thus Have I Heard), Maurice Walshe, trans. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987), p 403f.
That jolly fellow with the large belly who appears in Chinese and Japanese art — and whose image adorns countless lawns and living rooms in the West — is Budai (Hotei), a Boddhisatta often identified as Maitreya from a previous lifetime. [4]


DN 14 and DN 32 mention six previous Buddhas: Vipassi, Sikhi, Vessabhu, Kakusandha, Konagamana, and Kassapa. MN 116 includes a long list of past paccekabuddhas.
The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), pp. 105-6.
Ibid., p. 106. See also "Budai" in Wikipedia.

Practical Buddhism

How can I find other people with whom to study Dhamma and practice meditation?
  • Ask around.
  • Browse through the listings of Dhamma centers and meditation groups that are published in magazines and websites. Here are some possible sources:
  • Explore your local universities or community colleges. Do they have any Buddhist groups or clubs? Visit the student lounges, cafeterias, libraries, campus bookstore, etc. — anywhere you might find bulletin boards with announcements of campus events.
  • Look for flyers posted at local bookstores, natural food stores, "New Age"-type shops, etc.
  • Start a meditation group or Dhamma study group in your own living room. Advertise it with a flyer posted at one of the places mentioned above (ask for permission first!). You may be the only one attending for awhile, but be patient.
  • Check the telephone book (Yellow Pages), and look under "Churches" (Thai temples? Vietnamese temples?) or "Meditation." Even if you don't see exactly what you're looking for, you may at least be able to contact someone who can give you some ideas of whom to call. Someone at a Hindu ashram or a Benedictine monastery may have some suggestions.
  • More and more hospitals and health clinics offer stress-reduction and pain-control programs that make use of simplified meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhist traditions. The person in charge of one of these programs may know of ongoing Buddhist meditation groups or Dhamma centers in your area.
  • Write to someone at a monastery or Dhamma center in a neighboring city, state, province, etc. and ask for his or her suggestions.
  • Ask around.
There are no meditation centers or other Dhamma students nearby. How should I study Dhamma on my own?
Are you sure there aren't any meditation groups or centers nearby? Even in areas dominated by other religious traditions there may be a few other people quietly and inconspicuously practicing Dhamma by themselves. With a little patient detective work you may be able to find them (see "How can I find other people with whom to study Dhamma and practice meditation?," above). But if you really are alone, don't despair. Although having a supportive community of like-minded Dhamma friends can be a tremendous boon to your practice, you can still make headway on your own:
Observe the precepts.
Moral conduct — codified in Buddhism as the five precepts — is the absolute bedrock of spiritual progress. Get to know the five precepts well and make an effort to follow them. Learn which ones are most difficult for you to keep and what situations put you in danger of breaking them. Make adjustments in your behavior accordingly. When you break a precept, just pick yourself up, reflect on why you fell short, and make the determination not to let it happen again. Challenge yourself with the precepts, but be patient: perfecting one's morality is a lifelong practice. (See also: "The Healing Power of the Precepts.")
Choose your company with care.
The Buddha pointed out that we tend to pick up the qualities — both good and bad — of the people with whom we associate (see Iti 76). If we care about developing good qualities in ourselves, it's therefore imperative that we associate as much as possible with good people and stay away from those who have little respect for the the precepts and wisdom. But remember that Buddhists don't have a monopoly on goodness of character; you'll find plenty of people from all walks of life who have admirable attributes such as generosity, patience, kindness, truthfulness, and so on. Get to know these people and see what you can learn from them about developing goodness in yourself.
Read, read, read.
Nowadays there are countless books and pamphlets on Buddhism, transcribed Dhamma talks, translated suttas, etc., available both in print and on the Internet. Some of them are wonderful, some are rubbish; developing the discernment to distinguish one from the other is itself a crucial aspect of learning Dhamma. The Buddha's own test of authenticity is invaluable in sorting the wheat from the chaff (see AN 8.53 and the Study Guide "Recognizing the Dhamma"). Here are some good starting points:
Take a class.
If at all possible, take part in an introductory meditation workshop or retreat conducted by an experienced teacher. Even if you have to travel a long distance in order to attend, you may be rewarded with enough helpful advice to nourish your meditation and your studies for a long time to come.
Even if you don't have a community of friends, you can still learn to ask yourself good questions — questions that will propel you deeper in your understanding of Dhamma (see "Questions of Skill"). Who was the Buddha? What did he accomplish? What is the goal of Buddhist practice? What is enlightenment? Why is morality the foundation of the Buddha's teachings? What is the purpose of meditation? What is wisdom? Am I honestly following the path that the Buddha laid out? What is the role of faith? If you can keep questions like these alive in your heart, you're bound to stay on track.

I want to become a Buddhist. How do I do that?

It begins with one deceptively simple act: making the inner commitment to "take refuge" in the Triple Gem, to accept the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha as your source of spiritual guidance.[1] This act is what makes one nominally "Buddhist." But going for refuge also implies a willingness — if only provisional, at first — to accept the cornerstone of the Buddha's teachings: the law of kamma. According to this universal principle, if you act unskillfully and make poor ethical choices, you are bound to suffer the consequences; if you choose wisely and act in line with the noblest ideals, you stand to benefit accordingly.[2] In other words, your happiness ultimately depends on the quality of your choices and actions; you alone are responsible for your happiness. Your first act after seeking refuge should therefore be to resolve to observe the five precepts — the five basic principles of living that can help prevent you from making grossly unskillful choices. This is where the practice of Buddhism begins.
You don't need a formal public ceremony or "initiation" to make any of this official. There are no equivalents in Buddhism to Christianity's "baptism" or "confirmation" rituals. You don't have to dress differently or wear a badge that says, "I am now a Buddhist." The practice of the Dhamma is a private matter and no one needs to know about it but you. Many Buddhists do, however, find it invaluable to renew their commitment to the Triple Gem and to the precepts from time to time in a more formal way, enlisting the help of a good friend, a respected meditation teacher, or a member of the monastic community (Sangha) as a witness.[3] Administering the refuges and precepts to laypeople is a duty that Buddhist monks are glad to perform.
Many people find it difficult to sustain their commitment to the Dhamma on their own, without the support of like-minded friends and companions. (It can be hard to stick to the precepts if you're surrounded by people who see no harm in telling lies, or in having a secret romantic affair now and then, or in going out drinking all night.) You may have to do a little patient detective work to find this kind of support (see How can I find other people with whom to study Dhamma and practice meditation?, above).
Having taken these first steps, you can proceed along the Buddhist path in your own way and at your own pace. Although you can learn a great deal about Dhamma on your own, your understanding will grow by leaps and bounds once you find a good teacher — someone whom you trust and respect, who keeps to the precepts, and who understands the Dhamma and can communicate it clearly.[4] Other aids to progress in understanding the Dhamma are these: deepening your understanding of the precepts; studying the suttas;[5] getting to know monks or nuns (the Sangha) and becoming acquainted with their traditions; developing a keen, discerning ear that can recognize which of today's popular spiritual teachings actually ring true to what the Buddha taught;[6] and learning meditation. How you proceed is entirely up to you, but the bottom line is this: learn what the Buddha taught and put it into practice in your life as best you can.
If you ever decide that the Buddha's teachings aren't for you, you are free to walk away at any time and find your own way. There is no ceremony for renouncing the Buddha's teachings. Just remember: your happiness is in your own hands.


See Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
See the opening verses of the Dhammapada.
For the standard Pali formula for requesting the refuges and precepts, see A Chanting Guide: Pali Passages with Translations.
See "Admirable friendship (kalyanamittata)" in the Path to Freedom pages.
See "Befriending the Suttas: Tips on Reading the Pali Discourses."
See the Study Guide "Recognizing the Dhamma," prepared by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
See also: "Lay Buddhist Practice" in the General Index

I'd like to have a Buddhist wedding. Any suggestions?

In the world of Theravada Buddhism marriage is regarded as a civil contract, not as a spiritual or religious union. Thus there is no standard Buddhist liturgy for marriage. You may simply include whatever texts or passages you and your spouse-to-be find inspiring.
A wedding is an excellent time to formally renew your commitment to both the Triple Gem and the five precepts. In Buddhist countries a couple might pay a visit to the local monastery shortly before or after their wedding to offer food to the monastic community, recite the refuges and precepts in a formal way, receive a little Dhamma instruction, and possibly receive a blessing or two from the monks. If such a visit isn't possible for you, you might put together your own refuges and precepts ceremony (use the formal ceremony as a guide). You might also consider reciting the "Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection," the Maha-mangala Sutta, or any other passages that inspire you.

What were the Buddha's views on divorce?

In Theravada Buddhism divorce (like marriage) is regarded as a civil matter, rather than a religious or spiritual one. I don't know of any suttas in which the Buddha expresses an opinion about divorce. The Buddha did, however, have some suggestions about how a couple should behave while they are married (see DN 31).
For some observations on how divorce is understood in Sri Lanka, see The Position of Women in Buddhism, by Dr. (Mrs.) L.S. Dewaraja. For more about marriage in general, see A Happy Married Life: A Buddhist Perspective, by K. Sri Dhammananda.

What were the Buddha's views on sexual orientation and gender identity?

From what I've read in the suttas, the Buddha gave no indication that one's sexual orientation or gender identity has any bearing on one's spiritual practice. The five precepts, which form the most basic foundation of a moral life in Buddhism, encourage the abstention from "sexual misconduct," a term that generally refers to sexual activity between two people outside of a long-term committed relationship. It has nothing to do with "orientation."
The Buddha did, however, have strong words to say about sexuality/sensuality in general, as it is one of the most powerful expressions of human craving and attachment. And craving — the second Noble Truth — is a root cause of human suffering. The Buddha was very clear: if you're genuinely concerned about your long-term happiness, then it's worth reflecting deeply on the value of engaging in any activity — be it sexual or non-sexual — that feeds your cravings:
Even if it's with pain, you should abandon sensual desires if you aspire to future safety from bondage. Alert, with a mind well-released, touch release now here, now there. An attainer-of-wisdom, having fulfilled the holy life, is said to have gone to the end of the world, gone beyond.
It is worth noting that the Buddha explicitly discouraged his followers — men and women, alike — from dwelling on their sexual identity (AN 7.48). Although in this particular sutta he was describing heterosexuals, the message clearly applies to us all.

What were the Buddha's views on abortion?

Practicing Buddhists observe the five precepts as a foundation for the moral life that spiritual progress requires. The first of these precepts is to "refrain from destroying living creatures." Because Theravada Buddhism regards human life as beginning at the moment of conception,[1] killing a fetus implies killing a human being, making abortion patently incompatible with the first precept.
One indication of the seriousness with which the Buddha regarded abortion is found in the Vinaya, the collection of texts that define the conduct and duties of Buddhist monastics. According to the Vinaya, if a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni should facilitate an abortion, or if a woman should get an abortion based on their recommendation, then that bhikkhu or bhikkhuni is immediately expelled from the Sangha, having broken one of the four cardinal rules of monastic conduct.[2]


According to the Pali texts, conception occurs when three things are simultaneously present: the mother (i.e., a fertile egg), the father (a sperm cell), and the gandhabba (the kammic energy of the being that is seeking rebirth). If all three successfully coincide, human consciousness arises in the fertilized ovum and rebirth occurs. For a description of this process, see the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38). See Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of this sutta (along with helpful footnotes) in "The Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha" (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).
This rule (Parajika #3), which applies equally to bhikkhunis as well as bhikkhus, states:
Should any bhikkhu [or bhikkhuni] intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (thus): "My good man, what use is this wretched, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life," or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he [she] also is defeated and no longer in communion.
Pr 3
The word-commentary to this rule makes clear that abortion counts as "intentionally depriving a human being of life." See The Buddhist Monastic Code, Vol. I

How should I teach Buddhism to my children?

The Buddha's advice to parents is straightforward: help your children become generous, virtuous, responsible, skilled, and self-sufficient adults [see DN 31 and Sn 2.4]. Teaching Buddhism to one's children does not mean giving them long lectures about dependent co-arising, or forcing them to memorize the Buddha's lists of the eightfold this, the ten such-and-suches, the seventeen so-and-sos. It simply means giving them the basic skills they'll need in order to find true happiness. The rest will take care of itself.
The single most important lesson parents can convey to their children is that every action has consequences. Each moment presents us with an opportunity, and it is up to us to choose how we want to think, speak, or act. It is these choices that eventually determine our happiness. This is the essence of kamma, the basic law of cause and effect that underlies the Dhamma. It also happens to be the message behind one of the few recorded teachings the Buddha gave to his only child, Rahula.[1] This sutta — the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta (MN 61) — offers parents some important clues about teaching Dhamma to young children — in terms of both the content of what to teach and the method to use.
In this sutta the Buddha reprimands the seven year old Rahula for telling a small lie. The content of the Buddha's lesson here is clear and simple: it concerns right speech, and helping Rahula keep himself true to the fundamental principles of virtue. There are several noteworthy aspects to the Buddha's method. First, by artfully drawing comparisons to an everyday utensil (in this case, a water dipper), the Buddha makes his point in vivid and age-appropriate language that Rahula can easily understand. Second, the Buddha doesn't launch into a long-winded abstract lecture on the nature of kamma, but instead keeps the lesson focused on the immediate issue at hand: choosing your actions carefully. Third, although the five precepts do indeed constitute the fundamental framework for moral conduct, the Buddha does not mention them here — presumably because some of the precepts (concerning sexuality and using intoxicants) are simply not relevant to most seven year olds. (Perhaps the Buddha had more to say about the precepts by the time Rahula was a teenager.) Fourth, the Buddha keeps Rahula engaged during the lesson by asking him simple questions; this is no dry, soporific lecture. And finally, the Buddha takes advantage of the opportunity presented by this "teaching moment" to expand into deeper territory, to explain to Rahula the importance of reflecting inwardly before, during, and after performing an action of any sort — whether of body, speech, or mind. The Buddha thus places Rahula's original small misdeed into a much broader context, transforming it into a lesson of deep and lasting significance.
Although most of us who are parents can only dream of teaching our children as consciously and effectively as the Buddha did, we can still learn from his example. But before we can translate his example into action, there is one crucial point to recognize: the Buddha's instructions to his son were given by someone who really knew what he was talking about; Rahula's teacher was someone who truly practiced what he preached, a role model par excellence. So the message is clear: if we hope to instruct our children about matters concerning the path of Dhamma, we had better be sure that we ourselves are practicing on that path. If you extol the virtues of skillful qualities such as generosity, truthfulness, and patience, but your children only see you being stingy, overhear you telling lies, or see you losing your temper, then your message will be lost. Of course, you need not have perfected the Dhamma in order to instruct your children, but for your instruction to carry any weight your children must be able to witness firsthand that you are earnestly striving to put these same teachings into practice yourself. And if you can inspire them by your example and give them the skills they need to know to live in tune with the Dhamma, then you've given them a rare gift indeed:
The wise hope for a child
of heightened or similar birth,
not for one
of lowered birth,
 a disgrace to the family.
These children in the world,
 lay followers,
consummate in virtue, conviction;
generous, free from stinginess,
shine forth in any gathering
like the moon
when freed from a cloud.
Iti 74
If you're looking for books to read to (or with) a younger child, I recommend the series of colorfully illustrated Jataka[2] story books and coloring books available from Dharma Publishing. These books (in the "Jataka Tales Series") recount stories of the Buddha's former lives and provide many opportunities for discussion of basic moral principles with children. They are most appropriate for children under 10.


Seven years after leaving his home and family to begin his spiritual quest, Siddhattha Gotama — now the Buddha — returned on the first of several visits to his family to teach them Dhamma. The only suttas that record the Buddha's instructions to his son Rahula are these: MN 61 (Rahula is 7 years old), in which the Buddha explains the importance of self-reflection before, during, and after performing any action; MN 62 (age 18), in which the Buddha teaches him breath meditation; MN 147 (age 20, just after his ordination as a bhikkhu), in which the Buddha queries him about impermanence, and Rahula thereby becomes an arahant (this sutta is identical to SN 35.121); SN 22.91 (= SN 18.21) and SN 22.92 (= SN 18.22), in which the Buddha answers his questions about uprooting I-making and conceit; and Sn 2.11, in which the Buddha praises to him the virtues of the homeless life.
The Jataka, or "Birth Stories," is a book in the Khuddaka Nikaya that recounts tales of the Buddha's former lives prior to his final rebirth as Siddhattha Gotama. In previous lives he was born a human, or a bird, or a monkey, etc.; in each life he dedicated himself to developing and strengthening a wholesome quality of mind (parami). One Jataka story might be about developing patience, the next about developing generosity, and so on.

Are Buddhists vegetarian?

Some are, some aren't. From the Theravada perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is purely a matter of personal preference. Many Buddhists (and, of course, non-Buddhists) do eventually lose their appetite for meat out of compassion for the welfare of other living creatures. But vegetarianism is not required in order to follow the Buddha's path.
Although the first of the five precepts, the basic code of ethical conduct for all practicing Buddhists, calls upon followers to refrain from intentional acts of killing, it does not address the consumption of flesh from animals that are already dead. Theravada monks, however, are clearly forbidden to eat meat from a few specific kinds of animals, but for reasons not directly related to the ethics of killing.[1] Monks are free to pursue vegetarianism by leaving uneaten any meat that may have been placed in the alms bowl, but because they depend on the open-handed generosity of lay supporters[2] (who may or may not themselves be vegetarian) it is considered unseemly for them to make special food requests. In those parts of the world (including wide areas of south Asia) where vegetarianism is uncommon and many dishes are prepared in a meat or fish broth, vegetarian monks would soon face a simple choice: eat meat or starve.[3]
Taking part in killing for food is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided. This includes hunting, fishing, trapping, butchering, steaming live clams, eating live raw oysters, etc.
And what about asking someone else to catch and kill the animal for me? On this point the teachings are also unambiguous: we should never intentionally ask someone to kill on our behalf. We should not, for example, order a fresh steamed lobster from the restaurant menu. The Dhammapada expresses this sentiment succinctly:
tremble at the rod,
hold their life dear.
Drawing the parallel to
neither kill nor get others to kill.
And what about purchasing meat of an animal that someone else killed? Is this consistent with the Buddhist principles of compassion and non-harming, a cornerstone of right resolve? This is where things get tricky, and where the suttas offer only spotty guidance. In the Buddha's definition of right livelihood for a lay person, one of the five prohibited occupations is "business in meat" [AN 5.177]. Although he does not explicitly state whether this prohibition also extends to us, the butcher's clients and customers, it does place us uncomfortably close to a field of unskillful action.
To summarize what the suttas tell us: it appears that one may, with a clear conscience, receive, cook, and eat meat that either was freely offered by someone else, or that came from an animal who died of natural causes. But as to purchasing meat, I am just not sure. There are no clear-cut answers here.
We are all guilty of complicity, in one way or another and to varying degrees, in the harming and death of other creatures. Whether we are carnivore, vegan, or something in between, no matter how carefully we choose our food, somewhere back along the long chain of food production and preparation, killing took place. No matter how carefully we trod, with every step countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet. This is just the nature of our world. It is only when we escape altogether from the round of birth and death, when we enter into the final liberation of nibbana — the Deathless — can we wash our hearts clean, once and for all, of killing and death. To steer us towards that lofty goal, the Buddha gave us very realistic advice: he didn't ask us to become vegetarian; he asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, this is challenge enough. This is where we begin.


Theravada monks are forbidden to eat raw meat or fish, as well as the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, and panthers. See the description of "staple foods" in chapter 8 of The Buddhist Monastic Code. A monk who eats any of those kinds of meat commits an offense that he must confess to his fellow monks.
See "The Economy of Gifts" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Monastics within some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do practice vegetarianism. See Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (fifth edition) by R.H. Robinson, W.L. Johnson, & Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2005), p. 213.

Are there any enlightened people in the world nowadays?
How can I tell who's really enlightened?

I wouldn't be a Buddhist if I didn't think enlightenment were possible. The Buddha himself observed that as long there are people practicing correctly in line with the noble eightfold path, there will continue to be enlightened beings in the world (DN 16). Even better evidence of the reality of enlightenment lies in the "gradual" nature of the Buddha's teachings. In the suttas, the Buddha speaks again and again of the many rewards awaiting those who follow the Path, long before they reach nibbana: the happiness that comes from developing generosity; the happiness that comes from living according to principles of virtue; the happiness that comes from developing loving-kindness (metta); the happiness that comes from practicing meditation and discovering the exquisite bliss of a quiet mind; the happiness that comes from abandoning painful states of mind; and so on. These can be tasted for yourself, to varying degrees, through Dhamma practice. Once you've personally verified a few of the Buddha's teachings, it becomes ever-easier to accept the possibility that the rest of his teachings are plausible — including his extraordinary claim that enlightenment is accessible to us.
It's probably best not to spend too much time speculating on someone else's degree of enlightenment, simply because our own delusion and defilements are bound to cloud our vision and distort our assessment of others' attainments or lack thereof. Our time is far better spent looking inwards and asking of ourselves: "Am I enlightened? Have I made an end of suffering and stress?" If the answer is negative, then we have more work to do.
Some lines of questioning regarding someone else's purity are, however, well worth pursuing — especially when deciding whether or not to accept that person as your teacher: "Does this person seem to be truly happy? Does he live by the precepts? Is her interpretation of Dhamma a valid one? Can I learn something of real value from him?" It can take a long and close association with someone before you can begin to answer these questions with any confidence (AN 4.192). But if you do find someone possessing this rare constellation of good qualities, stay with that person: he or she probably has something of lasting value to teach you.
Finally, one rule of thumb that I've found helpful: someone who goes around claiming to be enlightened (or dropping hints to that effect) probably isn't — at least not in the sense the Buddha had in mind.
See also: "Recognizing the Dhamma" (Study Guide)

What are some good beginning books on Buddhism?

  • Buddhist Dictionary, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980). A classic handbook of important terms and concepts in Theravada Buddhism. A valuable reference for newcomers and veterans, alike.
  • Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (fifth edition) by R.H. Robinson, W.L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2005). An excellent introductory college-level text that traces the evolution of all the major schools of Buddhism from their beginnings to the present day.
  • Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001). An excellent guide to bringing the eightfold path into one's daily life.
  • The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations (second edition) by John S. Strong (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2002). A very useful anthology of excerpts from key Buddhist texts representing all the major schools of Buddhism. Although intended primarily as a companion to Robinson & Johnson's The Buddhist Religion (fourth edition) (see Buddhist Religions, above), it stands well on its own.
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1992). A clear and helpful introduction to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
  • Noble Strategy: Essays on the Buddhist Path by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1999; available from Metta Forest Monastery). A fine collection of introductory essays, which are also available individually here on the website.
  • Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) (1996; Available from Metta Forest Monastery). A collection of short essays and readings from the Pali suttas that explain the basic principles of living and practicing the path of Dhamma.
  • What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula (New York: Grove Press, 1986). An overview of the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, including chapters on each of the Four Noble Truths, along with excerpts from selected suttas and the Dhammapada. For several decades, a standard introductory text. Readily available at many bookstores.
  • See also "Beginnings," which includes suggested readings on beginning meditation practice.

Where can I find a copy of the complete Pali canon (Tipitaka)?

Print editions:
If you're thinking of purchasing your own printed copy of the Tipitaka, be forewarned: the Pali canon is huge; owning a complete set is a serious commitment. The Pali Text Society's edition of the Tipitaka (English translation) fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space, and costing about US$2,000. Moreover, a few of the more obscure books in the Tipitaka are simply unavailable in English translation, so if you really must read the entire Tipitaka, you'll just have to learn Pali. The PTS has for over a century been the leading publisher of the Tipitaka, both in romanized Pali and in English translation, but many of their translations are now badly out of date. Much better translations of several portions of the Canon are now available from other publishers. Here are my recommendations for printed translations that add up to a useful — if incomplete — version of the Tipitaka:
  • Vinaya Pitaka. The Book of the Discipline, I.B. Horner, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993) [6 vols]. To study the many rules for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis that are scattered throughout the Vinaya Pitaka, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu's The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volume I: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained and The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volume II: The Khandhaka Training Rules Translated and Explained
  • Sutta Pitaka. An excellent anthology of selected suttas and texts from the five Nikayas is Handful of Leaves, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. (Santa Cruz: Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, 2003) [4 vols.]. Translations from specific portions of the Nikayas include the following:
    • Digha Nikaya: The Long Discourses of the Buddha (formerly titled Thus Have I Heard), Maurice Walshe, trans. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987) [1 vol.]
    • Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995) [1 vol.]
    • Samyutta Nikaya: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000) [2 vols.]
    • Anguttara Nikaya: The Book of Gradual Sayings, F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1994) [5 vols.] An excellent anthology of about one-fifth the entire Anguttara Nikaya is Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi's Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999).
    • Khuddaka Nikaya (for a more detailed list, see the Khuddaka Nikaya page):
      • Khuddakapatha: Handful of Leaves (Vol. 4), Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. (Santa Cruz: Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, 2003) [1 vol.]
      • Dhammapada: Dhammapada: A Translation, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. (Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1997; available from Metta Forest Monastery); The Dhammmapada: Pali Text and Translation with Stories in Brief and Notes, prose translation by Narada Thera (Buddhist Missionary Society, 1978; available from Pariyatti Books) [1 vol.]
      • Udana: The Udana and the Itivuttaka, John D. Ireland, trans. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1998) [1 vol.]
      • Itivuttaka: Itivuttaka: This Was Said by the Buddha, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. (Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 2001) [1 vol.] or Handful of Leaves (Vol. 4), Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. (Santa Cruz: Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, 2003) [1 vol.]
      • Suttanipata: The Group of Discourses (2nd ed.), K.R. Norman, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2001) [1 vol.]
      • Theragatha, Therigatha: Elders' Verses, prose translation by K.R. Norman (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1992) [1 vol.]
      • Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Patisambhidamagga, Buddhavamsa, Cariyapitaka, Nettippakarana, Petakopadesa, Milindapañha: translations, of varying quality, are available from the PTS.
      • Apadana, Niddesa: I'm unaware of any English translations of these books.
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka. The essence of Abhidhamma philosophy is contained in the first and last of the Abhidhamma's seven books; only rarely do scholars and students wade into the murky waters of the middle five. So, begin with these two books:
    • Dhammasangani: Buddhist Psychological Ethics, Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, trans., 3rd ed. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993) [1 vol.]
    • Patthana: Conditional Relations, Ven. U Narada, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993) [2 vols.]
    These books are difficult reading; you'll welcome the sober guidance of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, a medieval commentary by Acariya Anuruddha. By far the best translation of this work is A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, translated and edited by Mahathera Narada and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993). [1 vol.]
Electronic editions:
Several complete Pali-only versions of the Tipitaka (in roman and other scripts) are available on-line and on CD-ROM. As far as I know, Access to Insight has the largest online collection of English language Tipitaka texts.


What's the relationship between "dana" and "fundraising"?
They are entirely unrelated — or at least they should be. Alas, in recent years the notion of dana seems to have been co-opted by many Buddhist organizations in the West as just another fundraising gimmick, designed to appeal to our better nature. How many times have we read fundraising letters from Buddhist organizations that open with the familiar preamble: "Dana, or generosity, is the ancient tradition that has kept the Buddha's teachings alive for over 2,500 years..."? How many times have we seen long "wish lists" in these letters detailing exactly what material goods are needed? And how many times have we heard meditation centers ask for "suggested donations" to pay for their teachings? To my mind, these valiant efforts at drumming up material support for Buddhist causes only dampen the true spirit of dana, that weightless, heartfelt, and spontaneous upwelling of generous action that lies at the very root of the Buddha's teachings. Giving of any kind is unquestionably good. The Buddha encourages us to give generously whenever anyone asks for help [Dhp 224]. And even the smallest of gifts, when offered with a generous heart, has tremendous value: "Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit" [AN 3.57]. But the actual rewards of giving depend strongly on the climate in which the giving occurs. The giver and the recipient — the donor and the organization — share an equal responsibility in fostering a climate that makes the most of generosity. If both are serious about putting the Buddha's teachings into practice, they would do well to consider the following points: First, the benefits of giving multiply in accordance with the purity of the giver's motives. A gift we give half-heartedly yields modest rewards for all concerned, whereas a gift given with genuine open-handedness, "not seeking [our] own profit, not with a mind attached [to the reward]," is of far greater value [AN 7.49]. If we give with an expectation of receiving something from the recipient in return — membership benefits, a certificate of appreciation, a book, a meditation course, etc. — we shortchange ourselves, and dilute the power of our generosity. Buddhist organizations should therefore be cautious about rewarding gifts with these sorts of perquisites. Second, the Buddha does not encourage us to ask for gifts. In fact, he says quite the opposite: he encourages us to make do with what little we already have [AN 4.28]. This theme of contentment-with-little echoes throughout the Buddha's teachings. To my mind, a fundraiser's long "wish list" of needed items conveys a sense of dissatisfaction, and thus seems at odds with this message. Donors most enjoy giving when they know that their gift — no matter how humble it may be — is truly appreciated by the recipient. If I have only a small gift to give, I wonder if it will be appreciated — or even noticed — by an organization with ambitious fundraising goals or a long and expensive list of needs. An organization can promote the Buddha's teachings most effectively, and inspire the greatest confidence among its supporters, by keeping its needs modest and its requests rare. Third, the purity of the recipient also matters [SN 3.24]. When we give to virtuous people — those who, at the very least, abide by the five precepts — we not only acknowledge their intention to develop virtue (sila), but we also reinforce our own resolve. Giving to virtuous people is thus a powerful kammic force whose benefits extend far beyond the moment of giving itself. Generosity and virtue are deeply intertwined; when we learn to exercise our generous impulses skillfully, and give where the gift reaps the greatest fruit, we make the most of them both. Whether we are giver or recipient, we stand to benefit most from generosity when we take virtue seriously. Finally, an appeal to fledgling Buddhist groups and organizations: please be very, very patient, and resist the temptation to make your organization grow. The success of a Buddhist organization should never be measured in conventional commercial terms: number of members, number of downloads, number of courses taught, amount of money raised, etc. Its success can only be measured by how well it embodies the Buddha's teachings. If it does good work that is rooted firmly in the principles of virtue, people who recognize virtue when they see it will inevitably take notice and be inspired to lend a hand with unbounded generosity. Any organization that can do this much passes on to others, in the most direct way possible, the priceless tradition of generosity, which is the heart and soul of Dhamma — the greatest gift of all [Dhp 354]. See also:
Is there anything wrong with selling Dhamma books?
What's the big deal about giving them away free of charge?
There's nothing inherently wrong with selling Dhamma books. Indeed, many commercial publishers provide a valuable service by producing high-quality Dhamma books that are easier to find in bookstores than their free, privately printed cousins. But that accessibility comes at a steep price. A commercial publisher that lives by its bottom line is inevitably forced to make editorial choices based on what will or will not sell books. The result of this pressure is often a book that presents a watered-down version of Dhamma, a Dhamma that may sound joyous, uplifting, and pleasing, but which lacks the cutting edge of truth. It is unlikely, for example, that people would flock to the bookstore and empty their wallets to read about the Buddha's crucial teachings on renunciation, the drawbacks of sensuality, or the value of reflecting on the unattractiveness of the body. The market for people willing to spend money on this kind of truth is, alas, unprofitably small. But there is another, deeper reason to think twice about selling Dhamma books. Since the Buddha's time, the teachings have traditionally been given away free of charge, passing freely from teacher to student, from friend to friend. The teachings are regarded as priceless, and have been conveyed to us across the centuries by an unbroken stream of generosity — the very foundation of all the Buddha's teachings. That tradition continues with the production of free Dhamma books. From the author, the stream flows onwards through those who give their time to editing, typesetting, and printing the book; through the donors who sponsor the printing; and through those who take care of distribution and mailing. If you are fortunate enough to receive a book borne on this stream of generosity, you learn an important lesson of Dhamma long before you even open the cover. The instant someone puts a price tag on a Dhamma book, you not only have to pay money for it, but you get a little bit less in return: you get a book that is merely about Dhamma, instead of one that is itself an example of Dhamma in action. Which one do you think has greater value? So keep this in mind the next time you find yourself spending money in exchange for the Dhamma — whether it is in the form of a book, an audio tape, a CD-ROM, a Dhamma talk, a meditation class, a retreat. The old adage still applies: caveat emptor — Let the buyer beware.END=NAM MO SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA.( 3 TIMES ).

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