Q: Why do you wear clothes (the robes) that set you apart? Isn't that a form of pride?
A: Buddha has decreed that the Sangha (monastics) should wear different robes from the laity. This is to remind ourselves: 1. Not to indulge in secular desires; 2. Not to forget our vow of devotion to the Buddhist practice. The Dhammapada (Words of the Buddha) says, "He who dons the robe without even cleansing himself of sensuality, who is devoid of self-restraint and truthfulness, is indeed not fit for the robe." It is an honor to wear the robe, not to be proud of it and develop arrogance, but to keep us on guard of the precepts we are to follow and the goal (of enlightenment) we try to achieve.
Q: How do you forgive when someone has done wrong to you? How can one forgive infidelity in a relationship?
A: People are imperfect. The mind is insatiable. That is why we need to practice restraint to be free. We have done wrong to others also, consciously or mindlessly. When we do, we would like others to forgive us. In the same way, we should forgive others. Infidelity can hurt a lot, but if we don't forget and let this go, it will continue to hurt much longer. As Buddha says, you've been shot with an arrow once (by the infidelity or the hurtful event), don't stick a second arrow into the same wound (by keep reminding yourself and feeling resentful). It is the self that benefits the most when we forgive and forget, because then we can learn from the experience, and go on with our lives peacefully.
Q: What would a Buddhist do if they saw somebody beating a child so badly that he could be seriously injured?
A: By all means, save the child! The Buddhist teaching of peace, nonviolence, and acceptance is not to be passive or inactive, but a principle that should be followed with wise discernment. It may be karma that this is happening to the child, but if we do nothing that would be cruelty to the child. Karma can be changed! Evil and harm need to be stopped, not with a mind of hatred, but with intelligence and compassion.
Q: How do Buddhists feel about eating meat? Do you have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist?
A: You don't have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist, or to learn and practice Buddhism. However, we do encourage people to become vegetarians. The primary reason is out of compassion--no animal that crawls on the ground, flies in the air, or swims in the water, wants to be killed. Observe honestly and you will see that they have emotions, they feel pain, they want to live. There are many other reasons to be vegetarians, for health reasons, for environmental reasons, for economical reasons, etc. If you find it difficult to give up meat for now, at least avoid the following: killing the animal yourself, seeing the animal being killed, or have the animal killed for you. This way at least you'll avoid the worse karma. If you think vegetarian food is bland, come to the Sunnyvale Zen Center and you'll change your mind!
Q: Are there ways to find peace other than through Buddhism?
A: We need to understand the nature of peace. Buddhism says that peace in the external world is possible only when there is peace inside our hearts. The outside world is a reflection of our collective mentalities and karmas. Lasting, true peace within can only come from understanding of truth--the truth shall set you free. When we are deluded about ourselves and about others, our mind is not at ease, and we create harm. Therefore Buddhism stresses the importance of self-reflection, the importance of learning to be calm and mindful. This is so we can gain the insights that we are interconnected and affect each other in a very deep way, that benefiting others is truly benefiting oneself. Peace is never won with anger or weapons. This teaching about peace is taught by the Buddha, but I can certainly imagine others (non-Buddhists) who are able to come to the same realization.
Q: Where do you go when you attain nirvana?
A: Nirvana is not a place that you go to. Nirvana is a state free from all suffering. Equivalently, nirvana is ultimate bliss, ultimate peace. It is a state of mind, an eternal state of mind attained by completely eradicating the roots of suffering--that is, greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, jealousy, and erroneous views. It is attained by the correct perception of reality (enlightenment). If our mind is free from these poisons, we will be in bliss--in nirvana, wherever we are.
Q: When a person accepts Three Refuges and becomes a Buddhist believer, does that mean that s/he accepts all teachings without question? How can a person become a Buddhist believer without spending years reading and learning about the teachings?
A: Ideally, when people take the Three Refuges, they have learned and understood enough Buddhism so that they are convinced that this is a truly enlightening path. Buddha encourages people to examine his teachings. When you do so honestly, you will find that they make sense (even if it is against common sense sometimes), and that they do contain profound wisdom that can help us sort through the puzzles of life. There is certainly some faith involved, but even science involves faith (faith in causality!). There have been hundreds of great masters in the Buddhist tradition, exemplifying the Buddhist virtue and wisdom with their actions and words. This is strong evidence that the Buddhist path is attainable.
Q: Siddhartha wasn't the 'first' buddha. I have read that there were many buddhas before him. Where did these other buddhas fit into the story? What did Chinese buddhists believe in before Shakyamuni and why was he so prominent in Buddhist history?
A: In Buddhist view this world is not the only world, there are many worlds (galaxies, if you will) out there and these worlds are constantly in the process of formation, change, and destruction. (Which correspond to current scientific understanding.) There are buddhas’ teaching in other worlds currently, and there have been countless buddhas in the past. However, often great periods of time--eons--elapse between each buddha’s appearance. Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha is the "historical" buddha of our civilization. In times between buddhas, there are bodhisattvas in the world who teaches the ten virtues (no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no slandering, no swearing/cursing, no gossiping, and freeing the mind from greed, anger, and ignorance). These bodhisattvas teach according to the culture and the people of that time. This is one of the reasons Buddhism is very tolerant of other religions; it views the other sages as bodhisattvas.
Q: There is mention of heaven and hell in Buddhist scriptures. This is very similar to Christianity. Both Christ and Siddhartha had unusual births from Virgin mothers. There is much interplay between entities in heaven/hell and the people on earth. If we consider this, how does causality explain this phenomenon? More importantly, why do present day Buddhists need to know this? This is very similar to the Original Sin that the Christians believe in. From time of Adam and Eve the Christians believe that they pay for the original sin although they didn't participate in it. If we believe in causality or reincarnation, doesn't that mean that we accept burden of responsibility of a previous reincarnation although we don't recall who or what we were?
A: Heaven and hell in Buddhist teaching are caused by our own karma (actions, deeds), much in the same way that we create our living condition. If you find descriptions of Buddhist hell improbable, just look at our animal farms, slaughter houses, or countries fighting each other. We do create living hell for others. Then hell will be waiting for us. On the other hand, we create our own future heaven by our good deeds. This is just causality. However, the Buddhist goal is to transcend heaven and hell (or earth) and attain absolute peace of mind--nirvana.
About reincarnation, you may not remember your previous life, but when you were living your previous life, your feelings were just as real as now. It was still "you" that were living that identity. In fact, what we call past lives are just streams of mental events flowing through the present mind. They are always, and can only be, experienced in the present mind. Mental experiences are always in the present, although they change constantly. Don't think of rebirth as a "soul" going from one life to another as the wheel of time turns; rather, it is a never ending sequence of mental experiences going through your mind which is always in the present. Time is experienced as a sequence of events. No mather what you become, even at your death, your mind is still experiencing in the "now". What others view as death, to your mind it is just another set of mental events that come and go. In your future, it is still this "present mind" of yours and nobody else's. So you are still responsible for your karma, even if you don't remember your previous lives or deeds (some people do remember). Say you didn't pay the income tax in 1990, IRS will still come to hunt you whether you remember it or not. Not remembering is no excuse. There is no escape--unless you realize the emptiness of all dharmas.
Buddha was not born from a virgin mother, however, virgin birth (or raising the dead, or other miracles) do occur in Buddhism. The fifth Chinese Zen Patriarch is said to come from a virgin mother. And there were "lotus-born" sages. There is much more about this world and our mind that current science cannot yet explain. It is possible to understand supernormal phenomena with the Buddhist practice, but that's another topic.
What may be considered "Original Sin" in Buddhism is "Ignorance". The technical term is "Original Ignorance" or "Beginningless Ignorance" which we all have. From ignorance comes greed and anger, and jealousy and pride, and from these come misdeeds that lead to suffering. But we are very much the participants ourselves. We are responsible for our own deeds.
Q: What is karma?
A: "Karma" means "action", actions of the body, speech, and mind. These actions generate reactions / influences on both the doer and the rest of the world. Because the principle of causality (specific causes lead to specific consequences) is always at work, when we say "karma" we sometimes refer to not only the action itself but its consequences. Therefore, "good karma" is defined as those actions that bring happiness (to humans and animals and other sentient beings), and "bad karma" are the actions that bring suffering. To be aware of our karma is to be conscious of the interactions between cause and effects, and not to do foolish acts that bring about suffering.
Q: What are sentient beings? Why do we refer to "sentient beings" instead of "human beings"?
A: "Sentient beings" refer to all living beings that have "sentience", or, "awareness" / "mind" / "feelings", those which can feel pain and pleasure. Human beings, animals, insects, and others not seen by the ordinary eye ("heavenly beings", ghosts, and beings in hell) are sentient beings. Plants are not sentient beings (despite what some new findings seem to suggest, there is no real evidence that plants have sentience.) All sentient beings may become enlightened (and therefore, become Buddhas). Killing a sentience being cause various degrees of pain and suffering, and therefore is bad karma.
Q: What is the purpose of chanting in Buddhist services?
A: Chanting serves many purposes. When everyone chants in harmony, our individual differences are melted away, and we are unified. The words in chanting are usually confessions (to repent our misdeeds) or praises to the Buddha or bodhisattvas. So chanting is a way to remove karmic obstacles, to cultivate respect, and to diminish arrogance. When we chant, each syllable should be chanted from the heart, with sincerity and concentration, so it is also a form of meditation.
Q: Buddhism seems to be a religion with many teachings and philosophy. Does it have a most important book like the Bible in Christianity?
A: The entire collection of Buddhist teachings is called Tripitaka (Three Canons), consists of sutras (scriptures spoken by the Buddha), vinaya (precepts and regulations), and treatises or commentaries on the sutras (works by Buddha's disciples or later masters). Buddha taught for nearly 50 years, and with the long history (2500 years) of Buddhism, the Tripitaka is very very big--a standard Tripitaka edition has a hundred volumes with about a thousand pages of small print per volume. It would take years to just read through them once. There are, however, among the thousands of sutras, some that are very popular and have had very important influences, such as The Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra, Shurangama Sutra, Dhammapada, Platform Sutra, Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters, etc.
The sutras vary widely in style, content, and approach, and may seem to be different philosophies, but there is a central unifying truth in all of them. Buddha was an expert teacher and believed we should teach people with different abilities and inclinations in different ways, while never straying away from the central principle.
Q: What is life? What is the Buddhist perception of life?
A: I'm supposed to answer this in one hundred words or less?! :-) There are two ways to view life. First, what ordinary people perceive as life: birth from the womb, growing old, and death of the body, called "fragmentary life-span." Second, the arising and ceasing of single thoughts, called "momentary life-span." The ordinary, fragmentary life-span is but the accumulation of momentary life-span. Indeed, each moment we die and are reborn again. Death is nothing mysterious, nor is it the end. The ordinary eye sees the fragmentary life-span, and wonders what happens to the dead. For the person who is going through death (and rebirth), it is just a stream of momentary experiences of the mind, as it always has been. However, for most the death-experience is a shocking one. Living is dying, dying is living. So the awakened person lives in the present moment, while the deluded clings to the past. In fact, what the mundane person sees as reincarnation, the enlightened sees a stream of never-ending momentary experiences of the mind.
Q: How does causality explain why bad things happen to good / kind people?
A: Until we become Buddhas, nobody is perfect. We are "good" when we have good thoughts and perform good deeds. We are "bad" when we are selfish, greedy, angry, and therefore do things that hurt others. All of us have done harm to other living beings, people, and animals, intentionally or unintentionally. Therefore, when bad things happen to us, we should not feel it is unfair or be angry. Instead, we should remind ourselves that in our ignorance we have also hurt others and made others suffer in the past. Therefore, we should be even more diligent in our efforts to improve ourselves and be kind and forgiving to others.
Q: What are the red and yellow tablets on the sidewalls of the Buddha Hall?
A: This is one of our traditions wherein Buddhists make donations to the monastery and pray for their loved ones. They make a contribution and we set up a tablet, at their request, with their names or the names of their relatives or dear ones. The red tablets are for the well-being of the living, and the yellow tablets are for the deceased. During our daily cultivation and all services we dedicate the merits to them. The tablets stay up for a month.
Q: Is "emptiness" when we realize that the ego no longer serves us? Is it the same as being liberated?
A: "Emptiness" is to understand that all phenomena have no independent, intrinsic characters. All perceived characters are conditioned upon many varying factors. Is water good or bad? It depends on how you use it. Is "water" a solid, a liquid, or a gas? It depends on the temperature. Water is empty.
The "ego", or our idea of the "self", is also empty. It is ever changing, undefinable, a mixture of many people's views of yourself. It has no intrinsic existence. Yet "I" feel hurt, "I" feel offended, "I" desire this and that. When we say that, it is the ego speaking. To see the emptiness of the ego is enlightenment. To penetrate the illusion of the ego and to be free from the delusive, confused, manipulative ego is liberation.
Q: What/Who keeps track of good or bad karma on behalf the sentient beings? Is there a universal force to keep tabs on us?
A: The consequences of our karmas (in general, suffering for bad karma, happiness for good karma) arise naturally from the way people and things interact with each other, not unlike the physical law “for every force there is an equal and opposite force.” Observe carefully and deeply and you will see that it is so. No one dictates, controls, or keeps track of karma. Like the sun, which doesn’t think “I need to rise every morning so the plants can grow,” it happens that way from the natural interactions between the stars and planets. Buddha does not make it happen, he simply discovers and describes the karma laws.
In Buddhism there is mentioning of a “King Yama” who judges people in the afterworld based on their deeds in their lifetime. This need not be fantasy. In the human world, laws and court systems evolve and we have human judges trying to maintain justice; there is no reason similar state of affairs cannot arise for “the afterworld,” as in Buddhism there are many more states of existence than human existence.
Q: Are eggs and milk included in vegetarian diet? Are there other non-meat restrictions?
A: Buddhism encourages vegetarian diet out of compassion for the animals. Eggs may be fertilized and therefore have consciousness, so we don’t eat eggs. Milk does not involve killing of the animal, so dairy products are fine.
We also do not use garlic and onion, because they increase lust when cooked and increase bad temper when eaten raw, and they leave a strong odor. Nor do we use alcohol because it is intoxicating.
These are general guidelines rather than strict rules; these foods may be used if one has special health conditions. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. It is up to us individually to make the decision.
Q: Can a Buddhist be pro-choice about abortion in cases where the woman’s health is at risk or in cases of rape/sexual abuse?
A: Generally, there is consciousness after conception, so willful abortion is considered killing. This issue is to be taken seriously.
However, we live in a world where often a clear-cut right-or-wrong decision is not possible. One needs to consider individual circumstances and make the decisions carefully.
There is no highest decision body in Buddhism that dictates what stance to take on these complicated issues. Instead, we aim to make people understand the karma consequences involved in each decision. For example, if a woman were raped and became pregnant, if she can, through her Buddhist practice, let go of her anger, keep and raise the child in peace, then this would be the best situation where she managed to turn “bad karma” into “good karma.” If she were unable to do this and went through with the abortion, she should seek refuge in the Buddha’s teachings, learn of ways to pacify herself and quench the enmity the aborted child would have toward her.
We should also look deeper into the causes of these problems: delusion, lust, disrespect, and anger, and work on transforming these mental-tendencies in each one of us into wisdom, discipline, respect, and compassion.
Q: What is the difference between "concentration" and "awareness"?
A: You are probably referring to the two main aspects of Buddhist meditation: first, the discipline to still the mind; second, the discipline to perceive truthfully. The first discipline is known variously as the practice of stillness, concentration, stability, or samatha. The second discipline is known variously as the practice of awareness, mindfulness, contemplation, insight meditation, or vipassana. Concentration means to be able to focus on one thing deeply, without being distracted. This brings calmness and stability of the mind. Mindfulness or clear perception/contemplation brings insight, understanding, and wisdom. Both disciplines are complementary and crucial to the Buddhist meditation practice.
Q: Is Buddhism considered a religion, a philosophy, or both?
A: Buddhism is a teaching to help us see reality, understand life, and attain inner peace. Because it deals with "truth" and "life" and "spirituality," it is a religion. Because of the vastness and profundity of the teaching, many study it as philosophy. Most importantly, the Buddhist teaching is to be practiced and applied in our daily lives.
Q: If one committed intentional killing of human beings, how can one ask for forgiveness?
A: Intentionally killing human beings, either for self-gain or out of vengeance, is the gravest of all killings, and difficult to repent. However, one can still work on rectifying the bad karma by making an utmost sincere effort in admitting one's error, in giving up one's selfish desires, in protecting lives, and by practicing unconditional compassion. Ultimately, one transcends all karma (good or bad) by attaining complete enlightenment.
Q: Buddhism teaches non-attachment. When we visit the graves of past loved ones, does this mean we are not letting them go?
A: One can care without attachment. When we remember our past loved ones, if we still have feelings of loss, sadness, resentment, etc., then there is attachment. Instead, we can remember their merits and be grateful for the time shared together, understand that what is gone is gone, that we are all continuing on our individual paths, and peacefully wish for their ultimate liberation, then we turn the attachment into something positive for all involved.