Frequently Asked Questions about
Buddhism, the Buddha and Dharma
Who is the Buddha?
What are the Three Jewels?
What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings?
Why are there many Buddhist traditions?
What are the various Buddhist traditions?
What does the imagery in tantric art mean?
What is the purpose of reciting mantras?
Who is Shakyamuni Buddha?
What do these titles mean? – Geshe, Rinpoche, Lama, Venerable
What is Bodhicitta?
Who Is the Buddha?
There are many ways to describe who the Buddha is, according to different ways of understanding. These various interpretations have their sources in the Buddha’s teachings.
One way is to see the historical Buddha who lived 2,500 years ago as a human being who completely cleansed his mind of all defilements and developed his full potential. Any being who does likewise is also considered a buddha, for there are many buddhas, not just one.
Another way is to understand a particular buddha or buddhist deity as omniscient mind manifesting in a certain physical aspect in order to communicate with us and all ordinary beings.
Yet another way is to see the Buddha – or any of the enlightened buddhist deities – as the appearance of the future Buddha that we will become once we have properly and completely engaged in the path to cleanse our mind of defilements and develop our full potential.
What Are the Three Jewels (of Refuge)?
The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is one who has purified all the defilements of the mind, the afflictive emotions, the imprints of the actions motivated by them and the stains of these afflictive emotions. Also he is one who has developed all good qualities, such as impartial love and compassion, wisdom – knowing all existence, and skillful means of guiding others.
The Dharma embodies the preventive measures which keep us from problems and suffering. This includes the teachings of the Buddha, as well as the realisations of those teachings, the cessations of problems and their causes and the realisations or paths which lead to those cessations.
The Sangha are those beings who have direct non-conceptual perception of emptiness or ultimate truth. On a relative level, sangha also refers to the ordained people who put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.
The Dharma is our real refuge, the medicine we take which cures our problems and their causes. The Buddha is like the doctor, who correctly diagnoses the cause of our problems and prescribes the appropriate medicine. By assisting us in the practice, the Sangha is similar to the nurse who helps us take the medicine.
Taking refuge means that we rely wholeheartedly on the Three Jewels to inspire and guide us towards a constructive and beneficial direction that we can take in our life. Taking refuge does not mean passively hiding under the protection of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Rather, it is an active process of taking the direction they show and improving the quality of our life.
What Is the Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings?
Simply speaking, this is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is: “Abandon negative action; create perfect virtue; subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha”. By abandoning negative actions (killing, etc.) and destructive motivations (anger, attachment, close-mindedness, etc.), we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, like impartial love and compassion, and do actions motivated by these thoughts. By subduing our mind, we cut away all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful by understanding reality.
The essence of Buddha’s teachings is also contained in the three principles of the path: definite emergence, the dedicated heart and the wisdom realising emptiness. Initially, we seek definitely to emerge from the confusion of our problems and their causes. Then, we see that other people also have problems, and with love and compassion, we dedicate our heart to becoming a Buddha so that we are capable of helping others extensively. In order to do this, we develop the wisdom understanding the real nature of ourselves and other phenomena.
Why Are There Many Buddhist Traditions?
The Buddha gave a wide variety of teachings because sentient beings (any being with a mind who is not a Buddha, including those in other realms of existence) have different dispositions, inclinations and interests. The Buddha never expected us all to fit into the same mould. Thus, he gave many teachings and described various ways of practising so each of us could find something that suits our level of mind and our personality.
With skill and compassion in guiding others, the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times, each time setting forth a slightly different philosophical system in order to suit the various dispositions of sentient beings. The essence of all the teachings is the same: the wish definitely to emerge from the cycle of constantly recurring problems (samsara), compassion for others and the wisdom realising selflessness.
Not everyone likes the same kind of food. When a huge buffet is spread before us, we choose the dishes that we like. There is no obligation to like everything. Although we may have a taste for sweets, that does not mean that the salty dishes are not good and should be thrown away!
Similarly, we may prefer a certain approach to the teachings: Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayana, and so on. We are free to choose the approach that suits us best and with which we feel the most comfortable. Yet we still maintain an open mind and respect for other traditions. As our mind develops, we may come to understand elements in other traditions that we failed to comprehend previously.
In short, whatever is useful and helps us live a better life, we practise, and whatever we do not yet understand, we leave aside without rejecting it.
While we may find one particular tradition best suited for our personality, do not identify with it in a concrete way: “I am a Mahayanist, you are a Theravadin,” or “I am a Buddhist, you are a Christian.” It is important to remember that we are all human beings seeking happiness and wanting to realise the truth, and we each must find a method suitable for our disposition.
However, keeping an open mind to different approaches does not mean to mix everything together at random, making our practice like chop suey.
Do not mix meditation techniques from different traditions together in one meditation session. In one session, it is better to do one technique. If we take a little of this technique and a little from that, and without understanding either one very well mix them together, we may end up confused.
However, a teaching emphasised in one tradition may enrich our understanding and practice of another.
Also, it is advisable to do the same meditations daily. If we do breathing meditation one day, chanting the Buddha’s name the next, and analytical meditation the third, we will not make progress in any of them for there is no continuity in the practice.
What Are the Various Buddhist Traditions?
Generally, there are two divisions: Theravada and Mahayana.
The Theravada lineage (Tradition of the Elders), which relies on sutras recorded in the Pali language, spread from India to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc. It emphasises meditation on the breath to develop concentration and meditation on mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena in order to develop wisdom.
The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition, based on the scriptures recorded in Sanskrit, spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Although in the Theravadin practice love and compassion are essential and important factors, in the Mahayana they are emphasised to an even greater extent.
Within Mahayana, there are several branches: Pure Land emphasises chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha in order to be reborn in His Pure Land; Zen emphasises meditation to eliminate the noisy, conceptual mind; Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) employs meditation on a deity in order to transform our contaminated body and mind into the body and mind of a buddha.
What Does the Imagery in Tantric Art Mean?
Vajrayana deals a lot with transformation, and therefore, symbolism is widely used. There are representations of some deities, which are manifestations of the Buddha, that are expressing desire or wrath.
The sexual imagery is not to be taken literally, according to worldly appearances. In Vajrayana, deities in sexual union represent the union of method and wisdom, the two aspects of the path that need to be developed in order to attain enlightenment.
Wrathful deities are not monsters threatening us. Their wrath is directed toward ignorance and selfishness, which are our real enemies. This imagery, when properly understood, shows how desire and anger can be transformed and thereby subdued. It has deep meaning, far beyond ordinary lust and anger. We should not misinterpret it.
What Is the Purpose of Reciting Mantras?
Mantras are prescribed syllables to protect the mind. What we want to protect our mind from are attachment, anger, ignorance, and so on. When combined with the four opponent powers, mantra recitation is very powerful in purifying negative karmic imprints on our mindstream. While we recite mantras, we should also be thinking and visualising in a beneficial way so that we are building up constructive habits in the mind.
In the Vajrayana practice, mantras are recited in Sanskrit, rather than being translated into other languages. The reason for this is that there is a special beneficial energy or vibration that is induced by the sound of the syllables. While doing recitation, we can concentrate on the sound of the mantra, on its meaning, or on the accompanying visualisations that the master has taught.