This series titled Practical Companion is for intermediate practitioners. If you are following this series all the way until here, thank you.
So far, we have roughly talked about the 3 main categories of Buddhism and their different approach to Dharma propagation.
Buddhism in a Nutshell
The ultimate goal In Buddhism is Nirvana (enlightenment/awakened). Therefore, it will be weird if any “Buddhist” organization doesn’t talk about it. If any teachers purposely sidetrack Nirvana then in the Buddhist community we believe that it is caused by the influence of Mara ( a celestial being who is against nirvana).
Sidetrack Nirvana means that the teacher intentionally direct a student’s attention or goal away from Nirvana.
The above is different from Mahayana approach to Buddhism.
In Mahayana Buddhism, a student is not receptive to the Traditional Buddhist sutta. Such sutta talks about renunciation and removal of oneself from craving and desires of mundane activities. Many lay followers in Buddhism “brush off” such sutta as only for the monks. They are also not receptive to meditation. Thus, Buddhist practice is limited to an occasional visit to the temple to pray for boons.
The Mahayana approach made use of such desire creatively to bring the lay Buddhist back onto the spiritual path. For example, if one fears death, Mahayana Buddhism promises a Pureland (Buddhist paradise), provided that one practice mind training in the form of Chanting. If one fears adversity in life, Mahayana Buddhism has a pantheon of Bodhisattvas to cater to our every need and desire. Again provided we do some mind-training practices.
In the above situation, it starts from a mundane goal and brings us back onto the path. Conversely, if a student is already intended to Nirvana, Mara influences will discourage that and advice the student to focus on something else. The difference can be subtle and hard to identify. So we need to observe carefully.
One of the characteristics of enlightenment is the absence of craving (attachment), hatred (aversion), and ignorance. Ignorance refers to the inability to see inherent sufferings in Samsara, ignorance of non-self (aka emptiness), ignorance of the 4-noble Truths, etc. It doesn’t mean we become all-knowing, clairvoyant, or omnipotent, with abilities to summon spirits or talk to dead people.
If any Buddhist group or teacher is not teaching enlightenment as a goal but defining enlightenment as achieving some supernatural ability, like opening the 3rd-eye; then there is a chance that the group might be dubious.
Buddha is not a God-like being. That means Buddhists do not pray to Buddha and ask for boons. Instead, Buddha taught karma and how we can create our own happiness by doing the right things. Nonetheless, various teachers do not oppose prayers. This is simply because they understand that prayer is a coping mechanism for many people.
Having said that, if a Buddhist teacher teaches a God-like Buddha and position himself or herself to be a god-like being, or a representative, an agent, an envoy, or a messenger of a god-like Buddha, then you might want to be careful. This is because Buddha never taught any of that!
A compassionate and responsible Buddhist teacher may let you engage in ritual, prayer, and worship for a little while out of compassionate consideration. However, they will slowly steer you away from such indulgences if they have the opportunity to do so. Much like how the adults slowly reveal that Santa Claus is not real?
The teachings of Buddha are known as Dharma. The ultimate goal is to show us the method for attaining enlightenment. In the interim, Dharma shows us how to lead a happy life by avoiding bad actions, speech and thoughts. Not all Buddhist scriptures are real. It is well known that monks or rich sponsors in the ancient past had fabricated sutras to help them achieve their personal agendas or spread personal opinions about societies.
The spiritual practices of Dharma involve 2 main types of meditations.
Type 1: Meditation that quiets our busy minds to stop delusive thoughts. Once we do that successfully, we enter a state of tranquility known as Jhana or Samadhi. Chanting a mantra is for this purpose too. It is not a “secret code” for communicating with a god-like Buddha or “summoning” a Buddha into your presence.
Type 2: Meditations that direct our minds to observe our state of being and existence. This will lead to wisdom. For example, seeing the inherent characteristic of Samsara. Seeing the reality of non-self. Please note that this is not a thinking process.
We have to practice to see spiritual results. If you consider 1 and 2 carefully, you will realize that it can be done without spending a single cent! That’s why Buddha can attain enlightenment after renouncing all material possession.
Therefore, if any Buddhist group or teacher says that happiness can be bought through donations or buying blessed holy artifacts, then you probably want to be careful?
The ultimate objective of practicing Dharma is enlightenment and not praying for mundane success.
Buddha teaches Karma. Therefore, Buddhism encourages moral conduct. If your Buddhist group or teachers deny the importance of morality and good conduct, then you might want to be careful? For example, Buddhism is strongly against intoxicants. No Buddhist teacher will ask you to smoke weed to experience Buddhahood. Nor will any Buddhist deity encourage you to drink alcohol by quoting “emptiness” as a justification. Not to mention that there are “teachers” who encourage promiscuity among students and the teacher?
In gist, Buddhist practices consist of 1) practicing morality 2) Developing Jhana 3) realizing wisdom. Any practices that is missing any one of the 3 is considered incomplete.
Foremost, please note that Buddha encourages all of us to use common sense to determine the character of the person whom we are dealing with. And this includes our teachers, monks, and nuns. In Theravada sutta, it is absolutely clear that only moral people who have the right views and understanding of Dharma and who train their minds are deserving of our respect and alms or donation.
Training of mind includes the development of 1) loving Kindness, 2) compassion, 3) Appreciative Joy 4) equanimity 5) Uninterruptible focus 6) Wisdom
Buddhism does not encourage fear. We do not threaten you with divine retribution for offending Buddha. Nor do we encourage you to be a submissive servant of Buddha and his monastic orders.
Men and women with ulterior motives would want you to think otherwise. This is so that they can exploit you financially or physically.
Many beginners are unaware of this and they misguidedly believe that they should treat their Buddhist teachers or monks and nuns like “god”. That is very wrong.
Please note that no Buddhist teacher will ask you to commit a crime or an act of terrorism. If they do, then they are not Buddhist. Just walk away. And if you are threatened, call the police to help you escape! There is nothing wrong with reporting to the police. Again. the Theravada sutta is very clear about this. The Buddha, although fully awakened, had already set a precedent by inviting the village head (judge), and the public (as witnesses). medical experts, etc to hear a complaint against a nun for immoral conduct. That means, there is no such thing as keeping things under wrap and behind closed doors to protect the good name of Buddhism. When people complained against the monastic orders, Buddha set new rules to guide the behaviors of monks and nuns so that they do not become a burden to society.
The monastic communities or Buddhist teachers have to be moral, kind, compassionate, etc. to earn our respect. We respect them to be earnest practitioners who are practicing full-time for enlightenment. Out of that respect, we offer alms and donations to support their spiritual practices. When they teach, we listen with respect but we also have to think and determine if their opinions and views make sense. Then we try to practice the sensible things that they taught. We are free to ask them questions to clarify our doubts. There is no such thing as Buddha’s commandment in Buddhism.
No sane teachers, ( be it monks, nuns, laymen, or laywomen) would set themselves up as “enlightened” beings. If they are wise, they will not claim themselves to be celestial Buddha or Bodhisattva. The logic is very simple. 1) The Theravada Sutta denied that possibility because Buddha exited Samsara. 2) The Mahayana Sutra proclaimed any such people to be Mara in guise. 3) They are setting an extremely high standard for themselves. An enlightened being will give you anything! All their worldly possession and even their life! I don’t think any of those cult leaders can do that.
Buddha did not demand anything from people. He did not instruct anyone to Build him a monastery or cast his statue. All donations of land and buildings were donated voluntarily because the lay people witnessed the rough living conditions of Buddha and his monks. Thus, donations by laymen such as Anathapindika were motivated by respect and love.
SO DO YOU SEE? There is a very healthy system of check and balance in real Buddhism when we do not mistake Buddha to be a god and his monastic orders to be God-man? The relationship between Buddhist clergy and Buddhist layman should be healthy and respectful.
We should be wary of any demanding Buddhist teachers, monastic or lay, demanding money and services from you.
Last but not least, Buddhism is about renunciation and “letting go”. Thus, any Buddhist teachers that instill a cult-like sense of “belonging” or “isolation” from the outside world are probably walking the wrong path? A Buddhist teacher will not group and surround themselves with “servant-minded” devotees.
Buddha encouraged common sense, This is well documented in the Kalama Sutta,
He did not instruct anyone to treat Him like a God and worship Him like one. If Buddha did not do that, no Buddhists should ever qualify to be treated like a god? Simple logic, right?
There is no single Holy Book in Buddhism. Buddha taught extensively and His words are found in various suttas and sutras.
To practice concentration, we need to focus on 1 method instead of “hopping” around. If we do breathing meditation, then we should just stick to it. If we practice a mantra, then we should stick to one. The idea is to still all thoughts and experience Jhana/ Samadhi. If we keep changing our method, the mind cannot be stilled. In this case, less is more. Stick to 1. Thus, a Mahayana sutta advocating a particular method will try to convince you that that is all you need. Make sense?
But Jhana/ Samadhi is not all there is to Buddhist practice. It is just a stepping stone. The next milestone after that is to gain insights. (aka wisdom). That is the real unique practice of Buddhism. Without this practice, wisdom will not arise. And without wisdom, there is no Nirvana.
To obtain good knowledge about Buddhism, it is best to read extensively and include the Theravada traditions too. I know many people attribute Theravada Buddhism or the Pali canon as “Basic”. Don’t be haughty and rob ourselves the opportunity to read a “direct” form of Dharma presentation.
Morality is absolutely important to our practices. We can start small but we need to start somewhere.
The objective of the previous few posts in this series is about examining our practices. Are we missing something? Are we in a real Buddhist organization and not a cult? Are our teachers deserving of our respect and donations? Is our Buddhist education complete? Buddhism as taught by Buddha is actually very woke and modern. As long as we are alive, it is never too late to improve our knowledge and upgrade our situations.
Help spread wisdom and right understanding.
May all be well and happy.