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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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 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.”
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
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.

celticpassage's picture

Having an 'enlightenment experience' is fun but essentially meaningless in itself and certainly doesn't always imply significant change in the person's behavior. As well, 'enlightenment' doesn't remove human qualities (especially given that there are many degrees of 'enlightenment').

Dominic Gomez's picture

What does "enlightened action" look like?

drleroi's picture

Like pornography, I know it when I see it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One man's pornography is another woman's selfie.

celticpassage's picture

The same as 'unenlightened' action

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank God someone can see the difference!

celticpassage's picture


mahakala's picture

Bodhi is an abstract noun formed from the verbal root budh (to awake, become aware, notice, know or understand) corresponding to the verbs bujjhati (Pāli) and bodhati or budhyate (Sanskrit). Also from the same root are the Sanskrit words bodha (also meaning knowledge or intelligence) and buddhi which is the exact equivalent to the Greek word nous.

The soteriological goal of Indian religions is liberation or moksha (also called mukti). Liberation is simultaneously freedom from suffering and the endless round of existences. Within the Sramanic traditions one who has attained liberation is called an arhat (Sanskrit; Pali: arahant), an honorific term meaning "worthy" acknowledging the skill and effort required to overcome the obstacles to the goal of nirvana.

According to the Buddha the path to liberation is one of progressively coming out of delusion (Pali: Moha). This path is therefore regarded as a path of awakening. Progressing along the path towards Nirvana one gains insight into the true nature of things. A Buddha is one who has attained liberation and an understanding of the causal mechanism by means of which sentient beings come into existence. This mechanism is called pratitya samutpada or dependent origination. The knowledge or understanding of this is called bodhi.

thanks wikipedia!

celticpassage's picture

#10 is interesting.
Shows the typical religious propensity to proclaim that true salvation is obtained only by following that religion's path.

cheryl.cummins's picture

Why are you bothering to read so called Buddhist magazines when you clearly are a self righteous bigot - HHDL does not advocate that view, he has been misrepresented however you gleefully and ignorantly grasp this point.

The rest of the so called 'myths' are not actual myths and contain a lot of truth for many Buddhists who follow the Buddha's five precepts - back to the drawing board Tricycle, very poor and disappointing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Different paths to the same base camp to gear up for the rest of the journey. Some equipment seriously outmoded.

rosemary.franklin's picture

You are my hero. Zing.

ruthyeo's picture

Sadly, so true.....

savethedreams's picture

I'm not sure If I agree with everything stated but I will accepted it in my path.

tlewis's picture

If only the authors of articles in Tricycle showed consistent awareness of these important historical facts, offered here by two of the premiere scholars of Buddhism today. A recent issue had a preposterous debate on whether Buddhism was or was not a religion.I hope that Tricycle will raise awareness, and not stir the pot of misunderstanding and misconception.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi tlewis, maybe you are thinking of the special section in the current issue of Shambhala Sun?

James Shaheen's picture


Is there a particular article you have in mind? You're probably not referring to Houston Smith's article in the fall of 2001 ("Spirituality vs. Religion"), in which Smith writes:

"I am concerned about the relationship between “spirituality” and “religion” and the way those terms are being used because it’s become increasingly common for spirituality to indirectly denigrate religion."

Or Robert Bellah's "The R Word" (Spring 2008), in which Bellah writes:

"In our current atmosphere of cultural polarization, the term religion has become highly contested. Just how contested was brought home to me in April 2006, when, during a public lecture I gave at the University of Montana in Missoula, a man in the audience sharply questioned my very use of the word. I said that I was simply following a long history of usage, that I knew that some people contrast spirituality, which they see as good, with religion, which they believe is bad, but that I had never found that dichotomy helpful, as spirituality until recently was always considered an aspect of religion, not a rival to it."

We've been pretty clear on this issue for a very long time but have not devoted a lot of ink to the discussion of whether Buddhism is a religion. Like Bellah, we haven't found the discussion particularly helpful and so it has not been a focus of ours. Rather, we've chosen to take a look at the need people have to make the distinction and discuss whose interests the distinction serves. So, I'm not entirely sure what you're referring to.

Just the same, thanks for commenting.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Dear tlewis,
I assure you there's no such article. Tricycle has published countless articles that support the view that Buddhism is a religion.
Alex Caring-Lobel

sharmila2's picture

Nicely said. We could use more nuts-and-bolts articles like this in the often airy-fairy milieu that is modern American interpretation of the teaching.