Buddhism is a religion that has captured the imagination of Westerners and has been incorporated into our lifestyle.
In fact, Buddha statues have become ‘decorations’ in people’s homes, terms like ‘karma’ are used casually, and short snippets of the Buddha’s sayings are plastered into memes and graphics on social media.
But are some perceptions of Buddhism by Westerners accurate? Sometimes not!
Let’s go through five in this article that I hear often.
“Buddhism is Only About Suffering”
While Dukkha (commonly translated as ‘suffering’) gets plenty of attention, especially from beginners, it’s actually not what Buddhism is all about.
Dukkha is almost like the condition – you’re sick. But if you just focus on the fact you’re sick you’ll never get better. Especially if you don’t know the cause you’ll just stay or keep getting sick!
The Buddha is explaining the effect here (Dukkha), but what is the cause? It’s belief in an unchanging, permanent, independent ‘self‘. When we cling and crave things that reinforce this, we experience Dukkha. Even more specifically, the temporary condition that causes ‘self’ (the Five Aggregates) is Dukkha.
But there is another part to this story. What Buddhism is really about (if we could just narrow it down) is Dependent Origination. This is what the Buddha discovered at the time of his awakening and can be sort of considered the ‘glue’ that binds all of the Buddhist religion, teachings, and practice together.
Dependent Origination is often referred to as ’cause and effect’, but it can have a much deeper meaning. All phenomena (which include humans) arise and fall due to dependent origination. We are created due to an almost unimaginably long series of events and will cease to be at some point in time – all due to causes and conditions. Similar to ‘seeds’ in the ground, the plant did not just magically appear, and nor did the seed. The plant is also dependent on a variety of causes and conditions to ‘be’, to ‘grow’, and to continue to ‘exist’. But at some point, causes and conditions will cause the plant to end in its current form, just like us.
“Buddhist Practice is Only Meditation”
The image most people have of Buddhism is meditation. In fact, the perception that monks, nuns, and laypersons meditate as their primary practice is so ingrained that it becomes an obsession for most beginners.
Here’s the kicker: Meditation is not only a modern practice in Buddhism but it is also not widely practiced!
Only in modern times did laypersons, and even most monks and nuns, start to explore meditation. While certain schools that focused on meditation (such as Ch’an, Zen, Seon, and Thien), they also had numerous other practices such as chanting, recitation, sutra studies, ceremonies, and much more.
It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that meditation started to be associated with Buddhism due to the monks in Burma who created the modern Vipassana (Insight) meditation movement. Even then, the vast majority of Buddhist laypersons and even monastics rarely practiced ‘sitting’ meditation, which is what most persons associate with Buddhism.
The Buddha talked about meditative concentration and discipline and not exclusively on sitting meditation. Even in the Buddha’s time, not all monks practiced sitting meditation at all times. And in the centuries since the Buddha’s time, sitting meditation was often reserved for more senior monks or on certain occasions or times.
So what do most Buddhists do? It often depends on the tradition and if they are a layperson or monastic.
Chanting and recitation of sutras are by far the most common practices. Another popular practice is focusing on an image of the Buddha (or other figures in Buddhism) and chanting or reciting a particular mantra. For laypersons, a practice they could incorporate anytime, anywhere, and with severe time constraints was important.
While this sounds “non-Buddhist” and “non-Meditative”, it actually is just in a different way.
When one focuses on an image of a Buddha and the qualities of a Buddha, it is helping that person focus on the most wholesome qualities imaginable: that of a Buddha. And that in turn helps with removing delusion, greed, and anger (the three poisons/fires) which is a major hindrance in Buddhism.
As Buddhists practice this technique, they are able to change their conduct and morality and in turn gain wisdom in the process. And that completes the Buddha’s eightfold path (wisdom, conduct, and morality) which is the Threefold Training – the practice of all Buddhists!
“Buddhism is Only for Monks and Nuns”
I often see posts, tweets, and comments from people wanting to become Buddhist monks or nuns right away. The problem? Most are not even Buddhists or have had limited exposure. What they have seen is an idealized world of monastics in social media posts, memes, movies, and the imagination.
They also sometimes believe that Buddhism is only for monastics. That being a layperson is not really a Buddhist, and if you are serious – you should become a monastic.
However, the majority of Buddhists around the world are laypersons.
While becoming a monastic is the ultimate step for someone on the Buddhist path it isn’t necessary in many traditions. In fact, you won’t find Buddhists in Asia signing up in droves to become monks or nuns. Why? Because certain traditions, such as Mahayana, provide a path for laypersons to achieve enlightenment also. While becoming a monastic is still seen as an important step, it’s not the only one. Monastics in different traditions may have to attend various schools (universities) to prepare themselves before ordination. Are you ready for four years or more of intensive study, practice, and lifestyle before becoming an ordained monastic? For those who are ready, that will be gladly accepted.
In some countries that practice Theravada, laypersons enter a type of temporary ordination as monks. It’s not a lifelong commitment (although it could be if they wanted), but more along the lines of a rite of passage or like going to college. It’s expected culturally, but not required. This is often why you see images of massive numbers of monks (to include children, young persons, etc.) in Theravada countries. It’s an important part of the culture.
So, what should one do? Become a good layperson, in my opinion. This begins with understanding what Buddhism is all about, attending services, talking to monastics, and attending short-term retreats (where you can experience some parts of monastic life for a day, weekend, or even a month). If you really want to become a monastic, then it’s best to start talking to them about it! From there, you can be guided on this path which can often take time to ensure you are really ready for what it means to become a monastic.
And that idealized vision you may have of monks sitting alone on a mountain somewhere meditating? Not quite. Monks and nuns have hundreds of precepts (rules/guidelines) to follow. Contrast that against the typical five (“5”, not “hundreds”) precepts laypersons follow. No chores? Think again. Monastics have to clean, teach classes, attend and/or lead ceremonies, rituals, chanting, interfaith dialog, oversee different parts of the temple, study, learn, and much more. But for those who are truly yearning for that lifestyle take that with a smile on their face.
Finally, the belief you can become a monastic for “free” is another misconception. In Buddhist-heavy countries, those ordaining have the benefit of layperson benefactors or family members to support them and the temple. In Western countries, where Buddhism is not as supported, to become a monastic you may need to fund this transition yourself. It’s expensive to have a building or temple, food, healthcare, and more to support the practice.
This isn’t meant to discourage you, but instead to encourage you to engage with your Buddhist tradition and monastics as a layperson. If your engagement, faith, devotion, and practice is energized as a layperson and frequently attending, volunteering, participating, and studying with your temple – and you want to take the next step – you’ll be in a much better position for that tradition.
“Buddhists Believe in Reincarnation”
The most frequent topic I see talked and asked about in the West is “reincarnation” in Buddhism. Mostly with people asking what “they” will be reborn as. Or what “they” were in the past.
Buddhism does not have “reincarnation” but “rebirth”. While they may sound similar, they are fundamentally different. And for the Western audience, this is important.
In short, “reincarnation” revolves around the transmigration of some sort of permanent and unchanging “self” into a new existence. The Buddha strongly said “no” to this. In fact, the Buddhist teaching of “nonself” is all about this!
The Buddha taught that there is no permanent, independent, unchanging “self”. The belief in “self”, however, is a major contributor to all the Dukkha (suffering) we have in our life. This was in contrast to other religions of the time, which is why “rebirth” is different.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the two:
Reincarnation / Transmigration
- A major part of Hinduism
- Your permanent and unchanging “self” or “soul” (ātman) is reborn again in a new body
- Karma: Past actions influence the present, and present actions influence the future (i.e., you’re punished or rewarded in your next life based on what happened in the past, and vice versa)
- A major part of Buddhism
- Concept of “non-self” (anattā in Pāḷi and anātman in Sanskrit) in Buddhism which emphasizes there is no “independent” and “permanent” self
- Ignorance creates desire and unsatisfied desire cause rebirth
- Rebirth happens moment-to-moment and after death
- Karma: Actions influence the present and future (actions are stored in the Alayavijinana or “Store Consciousness”)
- Alayavijnana is the force, or energy, which creates rebirth
- Only the Alayavijnana (“Store Consciousness”) continues in the cycle of rebirth (last to leave your body and first to arrive in the next body)
- The cycle of Rebirth can be transcended
So, why is reincarnation so strongly associated with Buddhism? Largely due to “reincarnation” is a readily known word with Westerners, and “rebirth” (in the Buddhist context) not, that people gravitate to what they know – even if it’s wrong. Reincarnation also feeds into our belief in self, and it may feel better to some when exploring Buddhism compared to the slap in the face of the reality that rebirth presents.
We also have Tibetan Buddhism which presented a picture of reincarnation due to how the Dalai Lama lineage is explained. Since the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is essentially the most well-known Buddhist in the world by Westerners, the ‘surface level’ understanding of the Dalai Lama lineage and continuation is more easily accepted by Westerners as “reincarnation”.
And finally, when Buddhism was being brought to the West, Asian Buddhist teachers faced the challenge of explaining these teachings to an audience who had no (or limited) exposure to Buddhism or Asian culture, history, and teachings. Some used (and continue to use) “reincarnation” as a sort of ‘grease on the wheels’ in getting the message across. Western practitioners, teachers, and even academics readily accepted this world.
It can be argued that, in the Buddhist context, both words are fine to use. There is some truth to this but it would expect the listener to understand the meaning of the teaching in the first place. Most Westerners do not, and if they hear “reincarnation” instead of “rebirth” they may (and often do) think about themselves in the context of “self”, “I”, “me”, etc., which can make understanding this fundamental part of Buddhism more challenging.
“Buddhism is a Way of Life or Philosophy”
I saved the best for last.
Buddhism is a “way of life” or “philosophy” has become as rampant in the minds of Westerners as any virus unleashed in the world. Any statement of Buddhism being a religion gets challenged with those two statements.
First, let me be clear: Buddhism is a religion. Full stop.
But we also need to stop thinking of what makes or constitutes a “religion” using our Western ideas and preconceptions. I will explain more about why Buddhism is a religion, but let’s first talk about why some may want to remove that word from it.
Every religion has philosophy in it and a way of life, so why do people want to strip religion out of Buddhism? And why does Buddhism needing to be a religion even matter?
Let’s start with why the whole “way of life” or “philosophy” argument came to be.
Westerners who began to adopt Buddhism were often looking to escape the religion they grew up in, the ideas of organized religion, or were mesmerized by something that wasn’t being practiced by others (scarcity). Atheists also found a home with Buddhism and worked to make it “intellectual” and “secular” perhaps believing they were stripping away all that ‘cultural’ Buddhism that made it a religion as they found its ‘true’ meaning.
Buddhism does have a cultural aspect to it because the traditions we have now all exist and were developed in Asian countries. Buddhism’s core always remains the same but can adapt to most any culture. But those cultural beliefs and traditions are often ‘foreign’ to Westerners who desire to strip away that part (or the parts they don’t like, to be more specific).
This takes us to a fork in the road.
My last paragraph eluded to the fact that Buddhism can adapt culturally, so why doesn’t that make sense to ‘adapt’ it to a Western country and ‘discard’ any of that Asian cultural parts?
The problem is that several things occur. Certain fundamental teachings are stripped away and discarded as ‘cultural’ or not ‘scientifically proven’. And the religious portion of it then comes under fire. “Why do we need monks and nuns? Why temples? Why ceremonies? Why Rebirth? Why Karma? Why Bodhisattvas? Why this and why that?! Can’t we just have a secular or non-religious Buddhism? After all, the Buddha didn’t try to establish a religion…just take a look at the Sutras!”
While it is true the Buddha didn’t wake up one day and think “let me start a religion”, nor was he a diety or god, but he did do one big thing: he decided upon his enlightenment, after an initial hesitatncy of how difficult this might be for laypersons, to walk this path anyways.
That path included going right to his former disciples to teach, and accept them as monks. If he wasn’t trying to start a religion, he might have told them right there “thanks, but no thanks – have a nice day”. Instead, he created the sangha (community of monastics), rules and regulations (precepts), ordination ceremonies and practices, accepted females (nuns), spurred on numerous other sanghas (and visited and reached them), created a daily alms practice so monastics would interact with laypersons, and much more.
As Westerners our fundamental problem is that we have a preconceived idea of what a ‘religion’ is, and that is largely based on the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Because Buddhism does not have a creator god as a central figure, it immediately comes under attack as to what a ‘religion’ is supposed to be.
Buddhism is a complete religion with everything you would expect:
- A central religious figure which is the Buddha
- Salvific teachings / a salvation message that you can transform suffering and end wrong actions, which leads to the end of rebirth
- An explanation of existence and life after death which includes Samsara, Nirvana, Karma, Rebirth, etc.
- Monks and nuns
- Temples and organizations
- Rituals include religious services, funeral services, chanting, meditation, pilgrimage, etc.
- Ceremonies include the Triple Gem (becoming a Buddhist), Five Precepts, etc.
- Structure and methods of practicing the religion
- Faith in the Buddha’s teachings, even when we do not understand it all
- Cultural inclusion, holidays, beliefs, etc. (might also be the national religion or a major religion)
- Holy pilgrimage places with most ancient ones found in India and Nepal
- Heavenly and supernatural beings such as gods, Bodhisattvas, demons, etc.
- Scripture related to future Buddha’s (i.e., prophecies)
- Analysis and philosophy of the scriptures, teachings, and religion.
Why does any of this matter? Simply that religion is the glue that helps bind all this together.
The Buddha is our doctor helping to heal us. The Sutras (teachings) are like the medical textbooks with the cure. The sangha is where the monastics are as if they are the Buddha’s nurses or physician assistants. And the Temples are like hospitals for the sick (“us”). And other laypersons are “dharma friends” who are also “sick” with Dukkha like us, but at different stages where we find support from them as we walk the path towards enlightnment.
While we are more “digital” nowadays, and information at our fingertips via the internet, we shouldn’t look away at what makes Buddhism “Buddhism”. Getting caught in our own belief that we can find the real Buddhism is more of an ego trip, in my opinion, that gets us even more into delusion.
“Faith” might get a stern gaze from some, but in Buddhism it’s essential. We have no idea if what the Buddha said is true despite him telling us to verify what he taught. We are often so covered with delusion we would spend our entire lives trying to do that before we were satisfied enough to walk the path in Buddhism.
So, give Buddhism a little faith and attended that ceremony, or ritual, and talk to a monastic. You might be surprised at what you learn!
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