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Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism by
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: What is Theravada Buddhism?
Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
Is Vipassana the same as Theravada?
If we’re all reborn when we die, how does Buddhism explain the world’s increasing population?
If there’s no self, then who gets enlightened?/what gets reborn?/why…?
I hear the word “sangha” used a lot these days in Buddhist circles. What does it really mean? What’s the difference between a Buddha and an arahant?
Have there been other Buddhas?
What’s a “Private Buddha” (paccekabuddha)? Who is Maitreya (Metteyya)?
How can I find other people with whom to study Dhamma and practice meditation?
There are no meditation centers or other Dhamma students nearby. Can I study Dhamma on my own?
I want to become a Buddhist. How do I do that?
I’d like to have a Buddhist wedding. Any suggestions?
What were the Buddha’s views on divorce? I’d like to arrange a Buddhist funeral. Any suggestions?
What were the Buddha’s views on homosexuality? What were the Buddha’s views on abortion? How should I teach Buddhism to my children? Are Buddhists vegetarian?
Are there any enlightened people in the world nowadays? How can I tell who’s really enlightened?
What are some good beginning books on Buddhism? Where can I find a copy of the complete Pali canon (Tipitaka)?
What’s the relationship between “dana” and “fundraising”?
Is there anything wrong with selling Dhamma books? What’s the big deal about giving them away free of charge?
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.
1. 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).
“The Dhamma: Is it a Philosophy?” in Buddhism in a Nutshell, by Narada Thera “Is it a Religion?” in Buddhism in a Nutshell, by Narada Thera “Two Faces of the Dhamma,” by Bhikkhu Bodhi “The Five Spiritual Faculties,” by Bhikkhu Bodhi “Opening the Door to the Dhamma: Respect in Buddhist Thought & Practice,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. “The Road to Nirvana is Paved with Skillful Intentions,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.