November 18, 2013

10 Misconceptions about Buddhism

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

In the new series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism, scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. will expand on one of these popular misconceptions on the Tricycle blog every Thursday.

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 as 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. Read more . . .  

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. Read more . . .

3. All Buddhists are vegetarians. 
Bhikshu, the Sanskrit term translated as “monk,” literally means “beggar.” Buddhist monks and nuns originally begged for their daily meal (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. Read more . . .

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 supported the military expansion of the Japanese empire. Read more . . .

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, for one’s family, or for all beings in the universe. Read more . . . 

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; the name is 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. Read more . . .

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 a celebrated verse in Zen speaks of “not relying on words and letters,” Zen has the largest body of written literature of any tradition of East Asian Buddhism. Read more . . .

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.” Read more . . . 

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. Read more . . .

10. All spiritual traditions, Buddhism included, are different paths to the same mountaintop. 
Many great Buddhist figures 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. Read more . . .

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. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

Image: Oración by César González Palomo

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jeffreyjoemiller's picture

"Despite this wealth of philosophy, Buddhism is also a religion by any definition of that indefinable term—unless one narrowly defines religion as belief in a creator god."

But is it a religion when viewed from outside of "any definition of that indefinable term"...stepping back from the "it's religion because religion says it's religion" reification.

What if the religious bits (miracles and magic, rebirth, etc...) are allegorical and the subtextual meaning / function of these allegories have been forgotten in modern literal readings of them? What if 'religious' mythology was wholly symbolic...a mnemonic technical language (the terms and narrative components only understood by the techocrats) that discretely encodes information / data / knowledge in narrative forms, in order to store it in the greatest number of biological hard drives, while at the same time the narratives operate as social management tools without the hard drives comprehending the information being stored. All ancient mythology was multilayered...face value reading for the common people, and encoded meaning for the learned few.

Keto's picture

Deleted. The comment is on #6, sorry about the duplicated post.

ErwinOwin's picture

There is a lot of misconception of Buddhism in the world.
Lets not go to world. Even I though all buddhist have to meditate intencely. But it was great to hear there are different types and level of meditation.

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...

wsking's picture

May I please say something here? Please see my post about "Ji-riki" and "Ta-riki".
Not everything that exists is perceivable to human senses. We all know that. Dogs howl at sound we can't hear, cats see in the dark where we can't, elephants can feel vibrations fifty miles away through their feet. Migrating animals are so sensitive they can locate places only by tone of light and magnetic fields they can follow for thousands of miles. I certainly am not that sensitive, are you? but they are. Even so, we arrogantly assume they can't feel pain or fear, or love their lives and families.
And not everything that exists is perceivable to ordinary human consciousness. But when you have been meditating for a long time, become clairvoyant and omniscient, attained a whole rainbow of spiritual gifts, (see Patanjali) and attained the level of Arhant, you definitely are not an ordinary human being anymore and are much more sensitive than ordinary people. So why shouldn't someone at that level perceive other forms of existence and tell us?.
Maybe we are the ones who dropped the ball, or never picked it up. Maybe its a good idea to leave space about something we don't know, to respect the people who left us these "myths and legends" and really think about them. They may have some hidden implications we have not yet understood or recognized. Remember the Northern Lights? The Native American legends pointed to the truth we have just "discovered" scientifically.
So I am suggesting that a little less cultural arrogance, a little more respect, and a willingness to entertain realities beyond what we currently can perceive might prove to be interesting and useful in the long run. Maybe we have experienced them, but just never thought about what happened, because we have no cultural context. Think back, especially when you were very little and outdoors. Just sayin'.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism teaches the oneness of life and environment (non-dualism). Jiriki and tariki are two sides of the same coin (i.e. life itself).

shane's picture

"Someone dropped the ball here" - buddhism's been around in a vast array of cultural forms over the last two and a half millennia or so. It wasn't wrapped up after the death of the Buddha to be delivered to modern westerners in a neat little package.

James Mullaney's picture

Recommended reading: 'Buddhist Goddesses of India' by Miranda Shaw.

Also, see: deity yoga.

cwaccardo's picture

Well, I reckon the validity of their claim is dependent on what denomination of Buddhism they're discussing. "Buddhism" as a single, monolithic entity isn't really a thing, so I think the writer's assertion is solid in thought, but needs some better vocabulary to clear it up; ie: "Certain schools/denominations of Buddhism have deity figures, etc etc."

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?

rgneuman1's picture

Buddhism's salvation is internal, not external. One cannot be saved by others or by a higher power, but rather by finding and realizing the extant wisdom in ourselves. By seeking to understand the roots of our suffering in attachment or craving, including craving an identity of ourselves as separate, disinct from others, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and find the strength to face our suffering and sit with it as the Buddha did, as a constant companion and instructor.

Western religions encourage believers to diminish their potential in favor of outside assistance from a higher power. It is not believed possible in them to save oneself.

wsking's picture

In Japanese Pure Land Buddhism its called, "Ji-riki" and "Ta-riki", self-power and other-power. That is, one can meditate on the teaching of the Buddha and follow the paramitas, but there are times in life when a little outside power/help is greatly desirable, as every woman in childbirth knows! In step the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools with great and compassionate Buddhas dwelling in their Pure Lands who answer prayers, committed to helping specific populations; beings in hell, unborn babies, babies lost thru one means or another, students sweating exams, travelers, businessmen, monks trying to attain insight, people drowning in stormy seas, etc.
Most powerful and famous among them are:
1 Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, who is Kuan Yin in China and Kannon Bosatsu in Japan.
2. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who is Jizu Bosatsu in Japan.
3. Yamantaka Bodhisattva, who is Daiitoku Myoorai Bosatsu in Japan.
4. Amitabha Buddha/ Amito-fo/ Amida Budho, the particular favorite of the Pure Land schools.
It is also believed that help and blessings miraculously appear after chanting certain sacred texts and sutras, particularly the Sukhavati-vyuha and the Lotus of the Pure Land Sutras.Two books available thru Amazon or your local university library are John Blofeld's "Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Powers of Kuan Yin" and Stephen Beyer's "Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet:. Both books are full of true stories of salvation in a tight pinch. The Sukhavati-vyuha, both Greater and Lesser versions, and the Lotus Sutras are also available. You will enjoy. Promise!

Dominic Gomez's picture

And when internal change takes place, the external changes as well. Like a shadow following the body.

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'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


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.

mindlessbuddha's picture

oh my! Please be more karmically conscious, and do your homework before you commit words and ideas to a public space. You have no idea about whom or what you are typing. Your ignorance is glaringly obvious. There are specific academic conventions that contribute to why they chose Sanskirt over Pali, and it has nothing to do with their ignorance of Pali. Both these men are fluent in multiple canonical languages. I believe Dr. Buswell is even ordained as a Thai forest monk. Have you even looked at the various dictionaries and encyclopedias they have created? Are you familiar with their work at all? Obviously not, or you would not make such comments. This can be extended to many of the comments in this thread.

There is a reason why a great number of vinaya deal with the mouth and words. Truly disturbing. What is your intention in making this comment? misleading people on the path can be one of the worst karmic actions a person can perform. please be careful.

poetess1966's picture

First, the Theravada and Hinayana are NOT the same. The Theravada is not one of the Hinayana schools, there were approximately 18 Hinayana schools including the Sthaviravādins and the Mahāsāṃghikas. There are no Hinayana schools in practice today. It is a mistake to call the Theravada Hinayana. Theravada was developed in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century B.C. and at that time there were NO Hinayana schools in practice. Nor was the Mahayana in practice either. In 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists unanimously decided that the term Hinayana would be dropped when referring to any modern form of Buddhism. The Hinayan has been seen as a derogatory term for more than 4 centuries. Hinayana means "Lesser Vehicle", thus suggesting the adherents are "lesser" practitioners.

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.

shane's picture

This has nothing to do with "your" beliefs versus someone else's. It's a historical study of the way the phenomenon called Buddhism has been portrayed and characterised over time.

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.