November 18, 2013

10 Misconceptions about Buddhism

Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

1. All Buddhists meditate.
Meditation is often identified as the central practice of Buddhism. However, the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated. Meditation has traditionally been considered a monastic practice, and even then, a specialty only of certain monks. It is only since the 20th century that the practice of meditation has begun to be widely practiced by laypeople.

2. The primary form of Buddhist meditation is mindfulness.
In fact, there are hundreds of forms of Buddhist meditation, some for developing deep states of concentration and mental bliss, some for analyzing the constituents of mind and body to find that there is no self, some for meeting the Buddha face to face. The practice of mindfulness as it is taught in America today began in Burma in the early 20th century.

3. All Buddhists are vegetarians.
Bhikṣu, the Sanskrit term translated as “monk,” literally means “beggar.” Buddhist monks and nuns originally begged for their daily meal (and some still do) and therefore were supposed to eat whatever was offered to them, including meat. According to some sources, the bout of dysentery that the Buddha suffered before he entered nirvana occurred after he ate pork. In the centuries after the Buddha’s death, vegetarianism began to be promoted in some Buddhist texts. However, even today, not all Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarians. For example, in China they are; in Tibet they are not.

4. All Buddhists are pacifists.
It is often said that a war has never been fought in the name of Buddhism. It is unclear what “in the name of” might mean, but there have been many battles between Buddhists (with some Buddhist monasteries having their own armies). There have also been wars of Buddhists against non-Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists fought bravely against British forces that invaded Tibet. During World War II, many Japanese priests, including Zen masters, supported the military expansion of the Japanese empire.

5. Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion.
Buddhism has many philosophical schools, with a sophistication equal to that of any philosophical school that developed in Europe. However, Buddhism is a religion, by any definition of that indefinable term, unless one defines religion as belief in a creator God. The great majority of Buddhist practice over history, for both monks and laypeople, has been focused on a good rebirth in the next lifetime, whether for oneself, one’s family, or for all beings in the universe.

6. The Buddha was a human being, not a god, and the religion he founded has no place for the worship of gods.
Buddhism has an elaborate pantheon of celestial beings (devas, etymologically related to the English word “divinity”) and advanced spiritual beings (bodhisattvas and buddhas), who occupy various heavens and pure lands and who respond to the prayers of the devout.

7. Zen rejects conventional Buddhism. Zen masters burn statues of the Buddha, scorn the sutras, and regularly frequent bars and brothels.
Zen monks follow a strict set of regulations, called “pure rules,” which are based on the monastic discipline imported from India. Most Zen monks have engaged in extensive study of Buddhist scriptures before beginning their training in the meditation hall. And although one of the Four Phrases of Zen is “not relying on words and letters,” Zen has the largest body of written literature of any tradition of East Asian Buddhism.

8. The Four Noble Truths are noble.
The famous phrase “Four Noble Truths” is a mistranslation. The term “noble” in Sanskrit is aryan, a perfectly good word meaning “noble “ or “superior” that was ruined by the Nazis. Aryan is a technical term in Buddhism, referring to someone who has had direct experience of the truth and will never again be reborn as an animal, ghost, or hell being. The four truths of suffering, origin, cessation, and path are true for such enlightened beings. They are not true for us; we don’t understand that life is suffering. So the term means, the “four truths for the [spiritually] noble.”

9. Zen is dedicated to the experience of “sudden enlightenment,” which frees its followers from the extended regimens of training in ethics, meditation, and wisdom found in conventional forms of Buddhism.
Zen monks routinely expect to spend decades in full-time practice before they will be able to make real progress in their meditation.

10. All spiritual traditions, Buddhism included, are different paths to the same mountaintop.
Many great Buddhist figures, from the Japanese Zen master Dogen to the current Dalai Lama, state unequivocally that enlightenment is accessible only to those who follow the Buddhist path. One can get only so far (generally, rebirth in heaven) by following other religions; only Buddhism has the path to liberation from suffering. All roads may lead to the base camp, but only Buddhism leads to the summit.

These and many other misconceptions about Buddhism are dispelled in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, co-written and edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies.

Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.


Read about common misunderstandings of Buddhism in the Tricycle column "What the Buddha Never Said":
"You Deserve Your Love and Affection"
"I Teach Only Suffering and the End of Suffering"

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aldrisang's picture

I was with this article until #6, talking about celestial beings and advanced spiritual beings "who respond to the prayers of the devout". If you believe this, I can suggest a lot of other religions that make similar claims. My understanding of Buddhism is that it's supposed to clear away delusion; someone dropped the ball here...

Wisdom Moon's picture

Why is this delusion for you?

aldrisang's picture

The bigger question is why it's not delusion for you.

wilnerj's picture

But what is delusion (Skt. moha) if not the belief and attitude that the self is permanent.

aldrisang's picture

Yes! That is, but it's only the core delusion.

Wisdom Moon's picture

That is what you earlier on called 'deflection' :)

ravasb's picture

Western religion in many is deistic, salvation based, and exclusive. How is the author's' description of Buddhism different?

aldrisang's picture

Depending on your definition of salvation, Buddhism has always been that -- salvation from suffering. It's just not anything like the Christian stuff. =P

moiraot@comcast.net's picture

What Mr. Buswell and Mr. Lopez are referring to in this article and in their books is not the teachings of the Buddha, rather how certain religions practice what is referred to as Buddhism. The Buddha never taught much of what is part of the Mahayana (Tibetan, Zen, etc.). No doubt there is a degree of influence of the Buddha's teaching in many of these religions, but not all religions that consider themselves "Buddhist" hold even a trace of what the Buddha taught in their "faith." Trycicle paints a very confusing picture for the same reason the authors present the confusion central to these Buddhist religions: the teachings of the Mahayana are an interpretation and embellishment of the essential teachings of the Buddha bearing little resemblance to what the Buddha actually taught, a simple and direct way of awakening in this lifetime. The authors, Trycicle Magazine, and most all of what is presented as "Buddhism" today is merely what has developed by confused individuals banding together to form religions based on a mish-mosh of what the Buddha actually taught, cultural influences and fantasy. To prove this point: how many of these so-called experts or so-called pure schools of Buddhism develope awakened people? How many awakened during the Buddha's time? What is the difference? There is the truth of the Buddha's teaching and then there is Buddhism. How people practice Buddhism has made Buddhism what it is today. The Buddha did in no way seek to start a religion, rather he taught a way for ordinary people through ordinary means to awaken to the true nature of reality. The rest of this is observation and commentary on delusional religious practice.

childish's picture

Amen.

wilnerj's picture

There is no such thing as Buddhism. It is just a term for scholars to categorize ideas. But there is the Buddhamarga.

And I tried to delete this response but to no avail. What use is there in none erasable words? Why cannot these words appear and disappear without a trace just as birds in flight that stir the air leave no trail? Such is the limitation of this media.

jmalcomson's picture

"Many great Buddhist figures, from the Japanese Zen master Dogen to the current Dalai Lama, state unequivocally that enlightenment is accessible only to those who follow the Buddhist path. One can get only so far (generally, rebirth in heaven) by following other religions; only Buddhism has the path to liberation from suffering. All roads may lead to the base camp, but only Buddhism leads to the summit."
I feel this is an oversimplification. I leave it up to the Dogen scholars to debate this statement, however when it comes to the Dalai Lama, who encourages people to dig deep into the religion they grew up in, I find it hard to believe that he says you can't become enlightened unless you are a Buddhist. Is this what he tells his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu? I agree that the mountaintop is not a great analogy, however everyone has Buddha nature. So, therefore people could come about enlightenment without being a Buddhist. Just as a person might go to heaven without ever encountering the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps I have taken a logical compassionate leap of faith. Do you think Dogen and the Dalai Lama would take this leap if I asked them?

Hktony's picture

Surely the 4 Noble Truths are the only way to enlightenment. Or why do we have 4 Noble Truths and the 8 Foldpath. It could be one practices the 4 Noble Truths without knowing they are the 4 Noble Truths but that would make you a Buddha. Or perhaps you are a Buddha by accidently practicing the 4 noble Truths without knowing you are a Buddha.???
I am pretty sure it is stated in the suttas that the 4 Noble truths are the only way to enlightenment.
If you dont accept the teaching as taught by the Buddha then what are you practising it?

aldrisang's picture

The Buddha wasn't a Buddhist before his enlightenment. Enlightenment is an awakening to how things truly are, and that is possible to anyone at any time (given the right conditions). It's not necessary to be a Buddhist, though it helps. Take Eckhart Tolle as another example; severe existential crisis can do the same work as years of study and meditation. Buddhism itself even describes those who awaken without a teacher, and I believe Jack Kornfield mentioned having conversations with such people in one of his novels.

It's said often, perhaps not often enough, not to mistake the finger (teachings) for the moon (reality). The teachings are _not_ "essential", they are "very helpful", just as having a personal guide to help you through a minefield is recommended but not necessary (strictly speaking). In both cases you're much better off with a guide, but that doesn't mean you can't get lucky without one!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good analogy, life as minefield. Once you successfully get across, it's no use memorizing your route as the next field over is laid out different.

aldrisang's picture

Row row row your boat, leave it at the shore... verily verily verily verily suffering no more!

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Time to disembark. Lucky for you the river isn't mined," gloats our guide, Charon.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Any oversimplification is remedied by understanding that "enlightenment" has many levels and meanings that depend on the philosophical zeitgeist with which the term is associated.

celticpassage's picture

...On the other hand, perhaps one cannot state the case too strongly.
Enlightenment is generally talked about in an objective sense.
If it were reduced to a socially-relativistic phenomenon, then it would loose any real meaning, akin to the word 'spiritual' today (or in the 70's).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point. Bodhi is grasping the workings of life. In this case, mileage varies per individual. And Buddhism boils down the objective experience of life (common to all beings in all times) to birth, aging, illness and death.

rosemary.franklin's picture

How many angels on the end of a pin? I am thoroughly enjoying the counting.

celticpassage's picture

I'm living proof that a Zen master follows #7 with gusto, especially the last two. lol

Darrell Kitchen's picture

Since this article references Sanskrit words, and omits references to Pali words, then I have to surmise this was written by one whose knowledge is only limited to Mahayana Buddhist views and practices. Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism does not references Sanskrit, except on a rare occasion to bring an understanding on the similarities between both the word itself and its interpretation.

That being said, this article is being completely biased in most of the points listed to the Mahayana point of view. In the Theravada Buddhist practice meditation is extremely important and an integral part of the practice. And while there are those that practice Buddhism as a religion, there are some who understand that Buddhism is not necessarily so. Anything becomes a religion when one develops, practices and adheres to rituals that make it a religion.

celticpassage, in his reply (November 19, 2013, 10:28 am) only pointed out the mentality of either the writer or a combination of both writer and source. Buddhism is not the "ONLY WAY" to enlightenment, or Nibbana. Classic example is the enlightenment of Sidharta Gautama, who became the Buddha of this dispensation, and the other Buddha's before him. Also the appearances of Paccekabuddha (Sanskrit: Pratyekabuddha) who become enlightened without the teachings of Buddhism or even exposure to Buddhist practices or beliefs.

Seriously this and other articles posted by Tricycle should have research in both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism before posting articles like this and giving the masses the idea that this is how Buddhism is portrayed. It does more harm than good.

Wisdom Moon's picture

Buddhism is the only path to enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha didn't attain enlightenment through his own power but through three countless great aeons of Buddhist practice. In previous lives he followed countless Buddhist teachers. Pratyekabuddhas are solitary practitioners having gained all the knowledge and conditions to do so through their practice of Buddhist teachings in previous lives. It is utterly impossible to achieve enlightenment without following Buddha's teachings. In fact, many Vajrayana Buddhists assert that it is impossible to achieve enlightenment specifically without the practice of Buddha's Tantric teachings, so there are many different views within Buddhist traditions.

aldrisang's picture

Every single thing you've said is an unjustified belief; it's simply amazing.

Wisdom Moon's picture

Your beliefs are similarly 'unjustified' when examined - how can you prove that enlightenment is possible without being a Buddhist and without having a Teacher? It's simply your assertion that this is true. We each have our own beliefs which are either supported by valid reasoning or not.

aldrisang's picture

That's a deflection. This reminds me of someone coming from another religion, Christianity, where they thought everything they read in the Bible was the authoritative Word of God... and having become disillusioned with that, have placed similar unjustified authority in everything recorded in Buddhist scripture and tradition ("transference"). That's not the way to become free of delusion, and it would be better to burn (or give away) those scriptures than to use them in that fashion. The Dharma is about how _reality_ is, it's not some secret that's unavailable to all humans, and there have been those who have awakened without being Buddhist first (such as Eckhart Tolle, and the Buddha himself).

Just how much does the truth matter to you? If you have any thought of awakening whatsoever, the truth should be right at the top of your list, and your method of determining truth from falsehood is of great significance.

Wisdom Moon's picture

I agree with you, that the method of determining truth is the most important thing. Having established logically and experientially that the Buddha is a completely reliable source of guidance we can believe what he teaches without it being our direct experience. In time, it will be. Unless there are valid reasons for dismissing the more religious or metaphysical aspects of Buddhism, objections are just an expression of subjective dislike. It's important to be able to discard our own ideas and to weigh things evenly with intelligence to find the truth.

Dolgyal's picture

"Discard our own ideas" is reminiscent of the Hare Krishna cult dictate: 'don't speculate.' which I suppose in NKT parlance is 'don't be self-cherishing.' I would need to discard my ideas before following a guru who received money from an opium dealer and war criminal, as Pobangka Dechen Nyingpo did. I don't accept Pobangka's tainted disciples either.

Wisdom Moon's picture

If you're going to insult a holy being, at least get their name right!

Dolgyal's picture

That Pobangka had a financial, political and no doubt 'spiritual' dalliance with Liu Wenhui 刘文辉, an opium dealing Nationalist Chinese warlord who invaded sovereign Tibetan territory in the 1930's is a well established historical fact, rendering this particular "holy being" rather like Pope Pius XII–a collaborator with a genocidal maniac.
By the way, its ཕ་བོང་ཁ the letter 'ba' in Tibetan is pronounced as 'wa'.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If I may, Buddhism was incorporated by various cultures that believed in deities (Brahmanism, Bon, Shinto, etc.). Buddhism itself posits no such super-natural beings external to human life. These were added later.

Wisdom Moon's picture

That's not what it says in the Sutras. What evidence do you have that these beings do not exist? Surely not just because you can't see them? It then follows that anything I cannot perceive directly doesn't exist which is patently untrue.

aldrisang's picture

This is what I was trying to get through to you WM: you're putting authority on the scriptures and taking all things as true until proven false, instead of taking things as "maybe true" and working toward proving them (or not). You need to have some initial confidence that the Buddha knew what he was talking about when it comes to suffering, and that because others have awakened it's also possible for you... but that doesn't mean you take everything at face value and fight to hold those as beliefs. You're taking Buddhism in the same way others take Christianity: as something to believe in and invest your entire identity in.

aldrisang's picture

I'm going to let you go now WM (you're the only one who can change your mind), but I strongly recommend you search the internet for logic fallacies, reason fallacies, and skepticism and make sure that you take those into account. Taking things at face value is the exact reason we're caught up in such delusion in the first place. The same argument you just put forth, "what evidence do you have that [such-and-such] doesn't exist?" is what Christians use to defend belief in their God and can similarly be used to defend belief in Shiva, Vishnu, Ra, Quetzalcoatl, Hades, and every other god humans have invented (or anything else for that matter, such as pixies and Bigfoot) -- we need to learn the error of such thoughts and arguments, not be taken in by them. There are right ways and wrong ways of justifying beliefs. Good bye, and I wish you all the luck in the world... though it will more likely be a matter of you putting forth _effort_ to discerning truth from falsehood. Namaste.

Dolgyal's picture

You will have to allow for some distortion from WM, a fundamentalist Pobangkaist rather than an actual Buddhist.
"Instead of Tsongkhapa, (Phabongkhapa) replaced the central guru figure with himself and the main protector of the Gelugpa, the Dharma-King Damchen Chögyal (Skt: Yama Dharmaraja), was replaced with Dorje Shxxxen."
quoted from 'Exorcising Luther: Confronting the demon of modernity in Tibetan Buddhism', by Simon Francis Stirling Daisley, University of Canterbury, 2012.

aldrisang's picture

I think I'm just going to leave WM alone now, Dolgyal, but thanks for the info! It would require a long conversation to get anywhere, and this isn't the place. You can't make someone care about the truth that much, they have to be driven to see.

Dominic Gomez's picture

When I was a child I would ask God, "If you are real, come down here and shake my hand." Still waiting, and not even a text message.

aldrisang's picture

[don't need this]

Dolgyal's picture

How do you square these rather fervent fundamentalist statements with your stated political views: "The Dalai Lama has been and remains a conniving politician - sorry, but that's how it is. Politicians are often regarded as being 'economical with the truth'. The Dalai Lama has lied ...He is also covertly involved in promoting self-immolation as a spiritual action and is secretly behind protests in Tibet. He has also been completely duplicitous regarding his admiration for Chairman Mao and his sympathy with communism. He cannot be trusted."
I thought NKT did not mix politics and religion...how hypocritical is that?

Wisdom Moon's picture

:-) thanks, it's nice to know I have an ardent follower!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sounds like the jury is still out on what enlightenment actually is.

Wisdom Moon's picture

According to the Mahayana tradition, enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from mistaken appearance and that functions to bestow inner peace on each and every living being every day.

Darrell Kitchen's picture

To be honest, I'm not even sure why you even replied to my comment, or what your motivation is in doing so. Did you not read what I posted? All of it, not just a select sentence?

It focused mostly on how biased these articles are toward Mayahana views and omit, or at the very least demonize Hinayana views.

In order for these articles and/or author(s) to establish what Buddhism is, they need to research both schools of Buddhism, not just the one. Buddhism is not ALL about Mahayana ... neither is it ALL about Hinayana. However, and this is directly from the mouth of the Dalai Lama, to me (personally, in front of an entire auditorium of people), "Theravada Buddhism is the root practice of Buddhism." It is where it started before the great schism that brought about Mahayana and Hinayana separation.

If you are going to pressure the masses into believing that Buddhism is all about your own personal views of the Mayahana school, you then become no better than the other religions that pressure the masses into believing their religion is the one and only true way.

There needs to be a balance in these articles from both schools. Not a single-sided view and then saying "This is what Buddhism is ..." or " ... what it's all about."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Enlightenment as wisdom that can see through false assumptions (appearances). Fair enough.

Dolgyal's picture

Wisdom Moon, that is all very airy-fairy new age, however in the real world, even the supposedly infallible and perfect make ethical mistakes and moral blunders. For example, the sectarian evangelist Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo had a form of patron-priest relationship with Liu Wenhui 刘文辉, an opium dealing Chinese warlord in the 1930's. Pabongka supported the secular ambitions of the warlord in exchange for support for the establishment of the supremacy of the Gelug in Kham. He preached many times for Liu Wenhui and his supporters and some of these sermons and letters are preserved in writing.
In his 2011 book ‘Tibet: A History’, Sam van Schaik writes “in his sermons to the warlord– also to the warlord’s wife, who had been particularly impressed by the charismatic monk– Pabongka explained the supremacy of the Gelug philosophical approach and the shortcomings of the other schools.” Furthermore, Van Schaik's analysis reveals that Pabongka tried to lure Liu Wenhui, already an extremely wealthy major drug dealer, into promoting Gelug sect hegemony. Pabongka writes to Liu Wenhui:
“there are many in Tibet who are deeply attached to false schools…In your territory, if you were to establish anew the essence of Buddha’s teaching, the teachings of Tsongkhapa, then your good luck would be such that hundreds of millions of gods like Brahma and Indra could not compete with it”
Drug dealer and war criminal? No problem, we want your money!

Dolgyal's picture

Further to this post, I am quoting Julio Springer Pitanga from Wisdom Moon's favorite website:
“…the hostility against Dorje Shxxxen comes not only from the side of the Dalai and his Nyingmapa and rime medieval witch-hunting sectarianist associates, but also from their bosses, the Westerner imperialists, themselves already unhappy since the 30s of the last century with the good relationship between Pabongkha Rinpoche and the patriotic warlord Liu Wenhui, a major obstacle to the British penetration into Tibet.”
Response: Patriotic to whom? Liu Wenhui (Pobangkha’s foreign patron) invaded sovereign Tibetan territory, brutally killing and terrorizing everything in his path. Moreover, that Liu Wenhui was a major opium dealer is beyond doubt–there are numerous academic studies that document this fact.
So just how lucrative was the illegal drug trade in the 1930's? Below is a description of Liu Wenhui's residence, now a museum:
“The former residence of Liu Wenhui, covering an area of more than 40 mu, a gross area of 23,833㎡, a floor area of 8,626㎡ and holding 27 courtyards and 200 rooms, was started to construct in 1938 and completed in 1942. It is twin mansion combined by 2 gates both of which have courtyards, gardens, tennis courts, etc. inside. Besides, there are pavilions for moon watching, opera performance stage, treasure house, etc. Characteristics of feudalistic mansions and features of Western castles form the unique style of the mansion and make it a representative modern architecture combining both Chinese and Western elements.”
http://www.jc-museum.cn/en/m4_41.html
Now wonder the traitorous Pobangkha pursued him with such ardor!

Belmontl's picture

Best "defination"... (see Ken Wilber..especially Google stopping his Brian waves)
Waking Up-- horizontal development-- haviing instant access to all the major States of Consciousness (gross, subtle, causal, witnessing and Nondual) what all the great practioners can do... States of consciousness ...come and go...have a beginning and end in temporal time...all people have access to all states
And
Growing Up-- There are at least 7major Stages of Consciousness (archaic , magic, warrior, mythic, rational, post modern, integral) that have unfolded over the last 20k years (and that we as humans develope to and through )... See Spiral Dynmaics, Integral Thieory, Stages of Faith (James fowler, Orders of Conscioisness (Robert kegan)
All humans are born at fulcrum 0.. There is a different "Kosmic address" (shown in the Wilber -Combs Matrix) for each Sttate of conscious "interpreted " or enacted at Each Level of Consciousness (....thus a casual experience/state at a mythic level us different then at a post modern level) ...
Thus this defination shows Enlightment would be Nondual state at the highest Level of consciousness (eg Post integral)
Non static.... Buddha had mastery of all states... Yet highest level at that histoic time...may have only been Tradtional.... Higher stages are ever evolving....
Thus the Enlightenemnt of tomorrow....woud be qualitivily different then the enlightenment of today

celticpassage's picture

Doesn't sound like a definition, but more like gobbledygook.

drleroi's picture

As has been stated by many, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as enlightenment, only enlightened action. Witness the very human misteps of many of our favorite teachers. Apparently, having a documented attested enlightenment experience does not mean all following actions are enlightened. Still human, all of us, as best I can tell.