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An Introduction to Buddhism

To do no evil; To cultivate good; To purify one’s mind: This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

–The Dhammapada

The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya tribe of Nepal, in approximately 566 BC. When he was twentynine years old, he left the comforts of his home to seek the meaning of the suffering he saw around him. After six years of arduous yogic training, he abandoned the way of self-mortification and instead sat in mindful meditation beneath a bodhi tree.

On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened one.

The Buddha wandered the plains of northeastern India for 45 years more, teaching the path or Dharma he had realized in that moment. Around him developed a community or Sangha of monks and, later, nuns, drawn from every tribe and caste, devoted to practicing this path. In approximately 486 BC, at the age of 80, the Buddha died. His last words are said to be…

Impermanent are all created things;

Strive on with awareness.

Table of Contents


The Life of Siddhartha Gautama

A Map of Buddha’s World

The History of Buddhism

Buddhist Hymns and Prayers

Including the Mahamangala Sutta

The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom

The Four Noble Truths The Eightfold Path The Kalama Sutta

Buddhist Cosmology

The Universe The Trikaya Buddha Families

The Wheel of Life


Dependent Origination Samyojana Dharmas Skandhas

The Basics of Buddhist Morality

Pancha Shila The Paramita The Brahma Vihara The Sigalovada Sutta The Ten Duties of a King The Metta Sutta

The Basics of Buddhist Meditation

Terms Basic Meditation The Ananda Sutta Obstacles

Instructions for Living a Good Life

Three Short Sutras Living in Tune Sister Soma An Angry Person Lesson for Rahula The Monk with Dysentry

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by C. George Boeree.

Traducción al español por José Silvestre Montesinos

*The pages of this web site were written for the students of my class on Buddhist Psychology.  Although the religious aspects of Buddhism are discussed, I am far more interested in presenting Buddhism’s philosophical and psychological side.  It is not necessary to believe in heavens or hells, in gods, demons, or ghosts, or even in rebirth or reincarnation in order to benefit from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.  I myself believe in none of these things, and yet have learned a great deal from the sutras — far more than from any other source.  I encourage all of you to become familiar with Buddhism, and I humbly suggest that these pages are a good place to begin!

Wishing: In gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease.

– The Metta Sutta


The Life of Siddhartha Gautama

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

Dr. C. George Boeree

Shippensburg University

There was a small country in what is now southern Nepal that was ruled by a clan called the Shakyas.  The head of this clan, and the king of this country, was named Shuddodana Gautama, and his wife was the beautiful Mahamaya.  Mahamaya was expecting her first born.  She had had a strange dream in which a baby elephant had blessed her with his trunk, which was understood to be a very auspicious sign to say the least.

As was the custom of the day, when the time came near for Queen Mahamaya to have her child, she traveled to her father’s kingdom for the birth.  But during the long journey, her birth pains began.  In the small town of Lumbini, she asked her handmaidens to assist her to a nearby grove of trees for privacy.  One large tree lowered a branch to her to serve as a support for her delivery.  They say the  birth was nearly painless, even though the child had to be delivered from her side.  After, a gentle rain fell on the mother and the child to cleanse them.

It is said that the child was born fully awake.  He could speak, and told his mother he had come to free all mankind from suffering.  He could stand, and he walked a short distance in each of the four directions.  Lotus blossoms rose in his footsteps.  They named him Siddhartha, which means “he who has attained his goals.”  Sadly, Mahamaya died only seven days after the birth.  After that Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s kind sister, Mahaprajapati.

King Shuddodana consulted Asita, a well-known sooth-sayer, concerning the future of his son.  Asita proclaimed that he would be one of two things:  He could become a great king, even an emperor.  Or he could become a great sage and savior of humanity.  The king, eager that his son should become a king like himself, was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in him taking up the religious life.  And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces, and was prevented from experiencing much of what ordinary folk might consider quite commonplace. He was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices. Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.

Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man.  As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war.  When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of a beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom by besting all competitors at a variety of sports. Yashodhara was her name, and they married when both were 16 years old.

As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about the world beyond the palace walls.  He finally demanded that he be permitted to see his people and his lands.  The king carefully arranged that Siddhartha should still not see the kind of suffering that he feared would lead him to a religious life, and decried that only young and healthy people should greet the prince.

As he was lead through Kapilavatthu, the capital, he chanced to see a couple of old men who had accidentally wandered near the parade route.  Amazed and confused, he chased after them to find out what they were.  Then he came across some people who were severely ill.  And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river, and for the first time in his life saw death.  He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along:  That all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.

Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh.  The peaceful look on the monks face would stay with Siddhartha for a long time to come.  Later, he would say this about that time:

When ignorant people see someone who is old, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too

will be old some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I

couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with youth anymore. When ignorant people see someone who is sick, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be sick some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with health anymore. When ignorant people see someone who is dead, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be dead some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After than, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with life anymore. (AN III.39, interpreted) At the age of 29, Siddhartha came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been.  He had discovered suffering, and wanted more than anything to discover how one might overcome suffering.  After kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula goodbye, he snuck out of the palace with his squire Chandara and his favorite horse Kanthaka.  He gave away his rich clothing, cut his long hair, and gave the horse to Chandara and told him to return to the palace.    He studied for a while with two famous gurus of the day, but found their practices lacking. He then began to practice the austerities and self-mortifications practiced by a group of five ascetics. For six years, he practiced. The sincerity and intensity of his practice were so astounding that, before long, the five ascetics became followers of Siddhartha.  But the answers to his questions were not forthcoming.  He redoubled his efforts, refusing food and water, until he was in a state of near death . One day, a peasant girl named Sujata saw this starving monk and took pity on him. She begged him to eat some of her milk-rice.  Siddhartha then realized that these extreme practices were leading him nowhere, that in fact it might be better to find some middle way between the extremes of the life of luxury and the life of self-mortification.  So he ate, and drank, and bathed in the river.  The five ascetics saw him and concluded that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and taken to the ways of the flesh, and left him. In the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha decided that he would sit under a certain fig tree as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come.  He sat there for many days, first in deep concentration to clear his mind of all distractions, then in mindfulness meditation, opening himself up to the truth.  He began, they say, to recall all his previous lives, and to see everything that was going on in the entire universe.  On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha finally understood the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.” It is said that Mara, the evil one, tried to prevent this great occurrence.  He first tried to frighten Siddhartha with storms and armies of demons.  Siddhartha remained completely calm.  Then he sent his three beautiful daughters to tempt him, again to no avail.  Finally, he tried to ensnare Siddhartha in his own ego by appealing to his pride.  That, too, failed. Siddhartha, having conquered all temptations, touched the ground with one hand and asked the earth to be his witness. Siddhartha, now the Buddha, remained seated under the tree — which we call the bodhi tree ­- for many days longer. It seemed to him that this knowledge he had gained was far too difficult to communicate to others.  Legend has it that Brahma, king of the gods, convinced Buddha to teach, saying that some of us perhaps have only a little dirt in our eyes and could awaken if we only heard his story.  Buddha agreed to teach. At Sarnath near Benares, about one hundred miles from Bodh Gaya, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long.  There, in a deer park, he preached his first sermon, which is called “setting the wheel of the teaching in motion.”  He explained to them the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  They became his very first disciples and the beginnings of the Sangha or community of monks. King Bimbisara of Magadha, having heard Buddha’s words, granted him a monastery near Rahagriha, his capital, for use during the rainy season.  This and other generous donations permitted the community of converts to continue their practice throughout the years, and gave many more people an opportunity to hear the teachings of the Buddha. Over time, he was approached by members of his family, including his wife, son, father, and aunt.  His son became a monk and is particularly remembered in a sutra based on a conversation between father and son on the dangers of lying. His father became a lay follower.  Because he was saddened by the departures of his son and grandson into the monastic life, he asked Buddha to make it a rule that a man must have the permission of his parents to become a monk. Buddha obliged him.

His aunt and wife asked to be permitted into the Sangha, which was originally composed only of men.  The culture of the time ranked women far below men in importance, and at first it seemed that permitting women to enter the community would weaken it.  But the Buddha relented, and his aunt and wife became the first Buddhist nuns. The Buddha said that it didn’t matter what a person’s status in the world was, or what their background or wealth or nationality might be.  All were capable of enlightenment, and all were welcome into the Sangha.  The first ordained Buddhist monk, Upali, had been a barber, yet he was ranked higher than monks who had been kings, only because he had taken his vows earlier than they!

Buddha’s life wasn’t without disappointments. His cousin, Devadatta, was an ambitious man.  As a convert and monk, he felt that he should have greater power in the Sangha.   He managed to influence quite a few monks with a call to a return to extreme asceticism. Eventually, he conspired with a local king to have the Buddha killed and to take over the Buddhist community. Of course, he failed.

Buddha had achieved his enlightenment at the age of

35.  He would teach throughout northeast India for another 45 years.  When the Buddha was 80 years old, he told his friend and cousin Ananda that he would be leaving them soon.  And so it came to be that in Kushinagara, not a hundred miles from his homeland, he

ate some spoiled food and became very ill.  He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died. His last words were…

Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness.

Copyright 1999 by C. George Boeree

The Buddha’s World

The History of Buddhism

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

Soon after Buddha’s death or parinirvana, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa.  Upali recited the monastic code (Vinaya) as he remembered it.  Ananda, Buddha’s cousin, friend, and favorite disciple — and a man of prodigious memory! — recited Buddha’s lessons (the Sutras). The monks debated details and voted on final versions.  These were then committed to memory by other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains.  It should be noted that Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years.

In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment. The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years after the first.  After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha — “the great sangha.” They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia.

The traditionalists, now referred to as Sthaviravada or “way of the elders” (or, in Pali, Theravada), developed a complex set of philosophical ideas beyond those elucidated by Buddha.  These were collected into the Abhidharma or “higher teachings.”  But they, too, encouraged disagreements, so that one splinter group after another left the fold.  Ultimately, 18 schools developed, each with their own interpretations of various issues, and spread all over India and Southeast Asia.  Today, only the school stemming from the Sri Lankan Theravadan survives.


One of the most significant events in the history of Buddhism is the chance encounter of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka Maurya.  Ashoka, succeeding his father after a bloody power struggle in 268 bc, found himself deeply disturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the land of the Kalingas.  Meeting Nigrodha convinced Emperor Ashoka to devote himself to peace.  On his orders, thousands of rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha, in the brahmi script — the first written evidence of Buddhism.  The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka’s empire.

There is a story that tells about a poor young boy who, having nothing to give the Buddha as a gift, collected a handful of dust and innocently presented it.  The Buddha smiled and accepted it with the same graciousness he accepted the gifts of wealthy admirers.  That boy, it is said, was reborn as the Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka sent missionaries all over India and beyond.  Some went as far as Egypt, Palestine, and Greece.  St. Origen even mentions them as having reached Britain.  The Greeks of one of the Alexandrian kingdoms of northern India adopted Buddhism, after their King Menandros (Pali:  Milinda) was convinced by a monk named Nagasena — the conversation immortalized in the Milinda Pañha.  A Kushan king of north India named Kanishka was also converted, and a council was held in Kashmir in about 100 ad. Greek Buddhists there recorded the Sutras on copper sheets which, unfortunately, were never recovered.

It is interesting to note that there is a saint in Orthodox Christianity named Josaphat, an Indian king whose story is essentially that of the Buddha.  Josaphat is thought to be a distortion of the word bodhisattva.

Sri Lanka and Theravada

Emperor Ashoka sent one of his sons, Mahinda, and one of his daughters, Sanghamitta, a monk and a nun, to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) around the year 240 bc.  The king of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiyatissa, welcomed them and was converted. One of the gifts they brought with them was a branch of the bodhi tree, which was successfully transplanted. The descendants of this branch can still be found on the island.

The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century bc.  During this time as well, and for the first time, the entire set of Sutras were recorded in the Pali language on palm leaves.  This became Theravada’s Pali Canon, from which so much of our knowledge of Buddhism stems.  It is also called the Tripitaka (Pali:  Tipitaka), or three baskets:  The three sections of the canon are the Vinaya Pitaka (the monastic law), the Sutta Pitaka (words of the Buddha), and the Abhidamma Pitaka (the philosophical commentaries). In a very real sense, Sri Lanka’s monks may be credited with saving the Theravada tradition:  Although it had spread once from India all over southeast Asia, it had nearly died out due to competition from Hinduism and Islam, as well as war and colonialism.  Theravada monks spread their tradition from Sri Lanka to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, and from these lands to Europe and the west generally.


Mahayana began in the first century bc, as a development of the Mahasangha rebellion.  Their more liberal attitudes toward monastic tradition allowed the lay community to have a greater voice in the nature of Buddhism.  For better or worse, the simpler needs of the common folk were easier for the Mahayanists to meet.  For example, the people were used to gods and heroes.  So, the Trikaya (three bodies) doctrine came into being:  Not only was Buddha a man who became enlightened, he was also represented by various god-like Buddhas in various appealing heavens, as well as by the Dharma itself, or Shunyata (emptiness), or Buddha-Mind, depending on which interpretation we look at — sort of a Buddhist Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

More important, however, was the increased importance of the Bodhisattva.  A Bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment, but who chooses to remain in this world of Samsara in order to bring others to enlightenment. He is a lot like a saint, a spiritual hero, for the people to admire and appeal to.

Along with new ideas came new scriptures.  Also called Sutras, they are often attributed to Buddha himself, sometimes as special transmissions that Buddha supposedly felt were too difficult for his original listeners and therefore were hidden until the times were ripe.  The most significant of these new Sutras are these:

Prajñaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom, an enormous collection of often esoteric texts, including the famous Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra.  The earliest known piece of printing in the world is, in fact, a copy of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China in 868 ad.

Suddharma-pundarika or White Lotus of the True Dharma, also often esoteric, includes the Avalokiteshwara Sutra, a prayer to that Bodhisattva.

Vimalakirti-nirdesha or Vimalakirti’s Exposition, is the teachings of and stories about the enlightened householder Vimalakirti.

Shurangama-samadhi or Hero’s Sutra, provides a guide to meditation, shunyata, and the bodhisattva.  It is most popular among Zen Buddhists

Sukhavati-vyuha or Pure Land Sutra, is the most important Sutra for the Pure Land Schools of Buddhism.  The Buddha tells Ananda about Amitabha and his Pure Land or heaven, and how one can be reborn there.

There are many, many others.  Finally, Mahayana is founded on two new philosophical interpretations of Buddhism: Madhyamaka and Yogachara.


Madhyamaka means “the middle way.”  You may recall that Buddha himself called his way the middle way in his very first sermon.  He meant, at that time, the middle way between the extremes of hedonistic pleasure and extreme asceticism.  But he may also have referred to the middle way between the competing philosophies of eternalism and annihilationism — the belief that the soul exists forever and that the soul is annihilated at death. Or between materialism and nihilism….  An Indian monk by the name of Nagarjuna took this idea and expanded on it to create the philosophy that would be known as Madhyamaka, in a book called the Mulamadhyamaka-karika, written about 150 ad.

Basically a treatise on logical argument, it concludes that nothing is absolute, everything is relative, nothing exists on its own, everything is interdependent.  All systems, beginning with the idea that each thing is what it is and not something else (Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle), wind up contradicting themselves.  Rigorous logic, in other words, leads one away from all systems, and to the concept of shunyata.

Shunyata means emptiness.  This doesn’t mean that nothing exists.  It means that nothing exists in and of itself, but only as a part of a universal web of being.  This would become a central concept in all branches of Mahayana.  Of course, it is actually a restatement of the central Buddhist concepts of anatman, anitya, and dukkha!


The second philosophical innovation, Yogachara, is credited to two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu,  who lived in India in the 300′s ad.  They elaborated earlier movements in the direction of the philosophy of idealism or chitta-matra. Chitta-matra means literally mind only.  Asanga and Vasubandhu believed that everything that exists is mind or consciousness.  What we think of as physical things are just projections of our minds, delusions or hallucinations, if you like.  To get rid of these delusions, we must meditate, which for the Yogachara school means the creation of pure consciousness, devoid of all content.  In that way, we leave our deluded individual minds and join with the universal mind, or Buddha-mind.


The last innovation was less philosophical and far more practical: Tantra.  Tantra refers to certain writings which are concerned, not with philosophical niceties, but with the basic how-to of enlightenment, and not just with enlightenment in several rebirths, but enlightenment here-and-now!

In order to accomplish this feat, dramatic methods are needed, ones which, to the uninitiated, may seem rather bizarre. Tantra was the domain of the siddhu, the adept — someone who knows the secrets,  a magician in the ways of enlightenment.  Tantra involves the use of various techniques, including the well-known mandalas, mantras, and mudras.  mandalas are paintings or other representations of higher awareness, usually in the form of a circular pattern of images, which may provide the focus of one-pointed meditation.  Mantras are words or phrases that serve the same purpose, such as the famous “Om mani padme hum.”  Mudras are hand positions that symbolize certain qualities of enlightenment.

Less well known are the yidams.  A yidam is the image of a god or goddess or other spiritual being, either physically represented or, more commonly, imagined clearly in the mind’s eye.  Again, these represent archetypal qualities of enlightenment, and one-pointed meditation on these complex images lead the adept to his or her goal.

These ideas would have enormous impact on Mahayana.  They are not without critics, however:  Madhyamaka is sometimes criticized as word-play, and Yogachara is criticized as reintroducing atman, eternal soul or essence, to Buddhism.  Tantra has been most often criticized, especially for its emphasis on secret methods and strong devotion to a guru.  Nevertheless, these innovations led to a renewed flurry of activity in the first half of the first millenium, and provided the foundation for the kinds of Buddhism we find in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in east Asia.


Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti had a dream which led him to send his agents down the Silk Road -­the ancient trade route between China and the west — to discover its meaning.  The agents returned with a picture of the Buddha and a copy of the Sutra in 42 Sections.  This Sutra would, in 67 ad, be the first of many to be translated into Chinese.

The first Buddhist community in China is thought to be one in Loyang, established by “foreigners” around 150 ad, in the Han dynasty. Only 100 years later, there emerges a native Chinese Sangha.  And during the Period of Disunity (or Era of the Warring States, 220 to 589 ad), the number of Buddhist monks and nuns increase to as many as two million! Apparently, the uncertain times and the misery of the lower classes were fertile ground for the monastic traditions of Buddhism.

Buddhism did not come to a land innocent of religion and philosophy, of course.  China, in fact, had three main competing streams of thought:  Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion.  Confucianisim is essentially a moral-political philosophy, involving a complex guide to human relationships.  Taoism is a life-philosophy involving a return to simpler and more “natural” ways of being.  And the folk religion — or, should we say, religions — consisted of rich mythologies, superstitions, astrology, reading of entrails, magic, folk medicine, and so on.  (Please understand that I am simplifying here:  Certainly Confucianism and Taoism are as sophisticated as Buddhism!)

Although these various streams sometimes competed with each other and with Buddhism, they also fed each other, enriched each other, and intertwined with each other.  Over time, the Mahayana of India became the Mahayana of China and, later, of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Pure Land

The first example historically is Pure Land Buddhism (Ching-T’u, J: Jodo).  The peasants and working people of China were used to gods and goddesses, praying for rain and health, worrying about heaven and hell, and so on.  It wasn’t a great leap to find in Buddhism’s cosmology and theology the bases for a religious tradition that catered to these needs and habits, while still providing a sophisticated philosophical foundation. The idea of this period of time as a fallen or inferior time — traditional in China — led to the idea that we are no longer able to reach enlightenment on our own power, but must rely on the intercession of higher beings.  The transcendent Buddha Amitabha, and his western paradise (“pure land”), introduced in the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, was a perfect fit.


Another school that was to be particularly strongly influenced by Chinese thought was the Meditation School — Dhyana, Ch’an, Son, or Zen.  Tradition has the Indian monk Bodhidharma coming from the west to China around 520 ad.  It was Bodhidharma, it is said, who carried the Silent Transmission to become the First Patriarch of the Ch’an School in China:

From the very beginning, Buddha had had reservations about his ability to communicate his message to the people. Words simply could not carry such a sublime message.  So, on one occasion, while the monks around him waited for a sermon, he said absolutely nothing.  He simply held up a flower.  the monks, of course, were confused, except for Kashyapa, who understood and smiled.  The Buddha smiled back, and thus the Silent Transmission began.

Zen Buddhism focuses on developing the immediate awareness of Buddha-mind through meditation on emptiness.  It is notorious for its dismissal of the written and spoken word and occasionally for his rough-house antics.  It should be understood, however, that there is great reverence for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, even when they are ostensibly ignoring, poking fun, or even turning them upside-down.

Zen has contributed its own literature to the Buddhist melting-pot, including The Platform Sutra, written by Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, around 700 ad., The Blue Cliff Record, written about 1000 ad., and The Gateless Gate, written about 1200 ad.  And we shouldn’t forget the famous Ten Ox-Herding Pictures that many see as containing the very essence of Zen’s message.

The Blossoming of Schools

During the Sui dynasty (581-618) and T’ang dynasty (618-907), Chinese Buddhism experienced what is referred to as the “blossoming of schools.”  The philosophical inspirations of the Madhyamaka and Yogachara, as well as the Pure Land and Ch’an Sutras, interacting with the already sophisticated philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism, led to a regular renaissance in religious and philosophical thought.

We find the Realistic School, based on the “all things exist” Hinayana School;  the Three-Treatises School, based on Madhyamaka; the Idealist School, based on Yogachara; the Tantric School; the Flower Adornment School (Hua-Yen, J: Kegon), which attempted to consolidate the various forms; and the White Lotus School (T’ien-T’ai, J: Tendai), which focused on the Lotus Sutra.

All the Chinese Schools had their representatives in neighboring countries.  Korea was to develop its own powerful form of Ch’an called Son.  Vietnam developed a form of Ch’an that incorporated aspects of Pure Land and Hinayana.  But it was Japan that would have a field day with Chinese Buddhism, and pass the Mahayana traditions on to the US and the west generally.


Again, we begin with the legendary:  A delegation arrived from Korea with gifts for the Emperor of Japan in 538 ad., including a bronze Buddha and various Sutras.  Unfortunately a plague led the Emperor to believe that the traditional gods of Japan were annoyed, so he had the gifts thrown into a canal!  But the imperial court on the 600′s, in their constant effort to be as sophisticated as the courts of their distinguished neighbors, the Chinese, continued to be drawn to Buddhism.

Although starting as a religion of the upper classes, in the 900′s, Pure Land entered the picture as the favorite of the peasant and working classes.  And in the 1200′s, Ch’an, relabeled Zen, came into Japan, where it was enthusiastically adopted by, among others, the warrior class or Samurai.

Zen was introduced into Japan by two particularly talented monks who had gone to China for their educations: Eisai (1141-1215) brought Lin-chi (J: Rinzai) Ch’an, with its koans and occasionally outrageous antics;  Dogen (1200-1253) brought the more sedate Ts’ao-tung (J: Soto) Ch’an.  In addition, Dogen is particularly admired for his massive treatise, the Shobogenzo.

Ch’an has always had an artistic side to it.  In China and elsewhere, a certain simple, elegant style of writing and drawing developed among the monks.  In Japan, this became an even more influential aspect of Zen.  We have, for example, the poetry, calligraphy, and paintings of various monks — Bankei (1622-1698), Basho (1644-1694), Hakuin (1685-1768), and Ryokan (1758-1831) — which have become internationally beloved. One last Japanese innovation is usually attributed to a somewhat unorthodox monk named Nichiren (1222-1282). Having been trained in the Tendai or White Lotus tradition, he came to believe that the Lotus Sutra carried all that was necessary for Buddhist life.  More than that, he believed that even the name of the Sutra was enough!  So he encouraged his students to chant this mantra:  Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, which means “homage to the Lotus Sutra.”  This practice alone would ensure enlightenment in this life.  In fact, he insisted, all other forms of Buddhism were of little worth. Needless to say, this was not appreciated by the Buddhist powers of the day.  He spent the rest of his life in relative isolation.  The Nichiren School nevertheless proved to be one of the most successful forms of Buddhism on the planet!


Finally, let’s turn out attention to the most mysterious site of Buddhism’s history, Tibet. Its first encounter with Buddhism occurred in the 700′s ad, when a Tantric master, Guru Rinpoché, came from India to battle the demons of Tibet for control.  The demons submitted, but they remained forever a part of Tibetan Buddhism — as its protectors!

During the 800′s and 900′s, Tibet went through a “dark age,” during which Buddhism suffered something of a setback.  But, in the 1000′s, it returned in force.  And in 1578, the Mongol overlords named the head of the Gelug School the Dalai Lama, meaning “guru as great as the ocean.”  The title was made retroactive to two earlier heads of the school.  The fifth Dalai Lama is noted for bringing all of Tibet under his religious and political control.

The lineage continues down to the present 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, born 1935.  In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of his people and nation, which had been taken over by the Communist Chinese in 1951.

The West

It was in the latter half of the 1800′s that Buddhism first came to be known in the west.  The great European colonial empires brought the ancient cultures of India and China back to the attention of the intellectuals of Europe. Scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts.  Adventurers explored previously shut-off places and recorded the cultures.  Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions.

In England, for example, societies sprang up for devotees of “orientalia,”  such as T. W. Rhys Davids’ Pali Text Society and T. Christmas Humphreys’ Buddhist Society.  Books were published, such as Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem The Light of Asia (1879).  And the first western monks began to make themselves know, such as Allan Bennett, perhaps the very first, who took the name Ananda Metteya.  In Germany and France as well, Buddhism was the rage.

In the United States, there was a similar flurry of interest.  First of all, thousands of Chinese immigrants were coming to the west coast in the late 1800′s, many to provide cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries.  Also, on the east coast, intellectuals were reading about Buddhism in books by Europeans.  One example was  Henry Thoreau, who, among other things, translated a French translation of a Buddhist Sutra into English.

A renewal of interest came during World War II, during which many Asian Buddhists — such as the Zen author D. T. Suzuki — came to England and the U.S., and many European Buddhists — such as the Zen author Alan Watts — came to the U.S.  As these examples suggest, Zen Buddhism was particularly popular, especially in the U.S., where it became enmeshed in the Beatnik artistic and literary movement as “beat Zen.”

One by one, European and Americans who studied in Asia returned with their knowledge and founded monasteries and societies, Asian masters came to Europe and America to found monasteries, and the Asian immigrant populations from China, Japan, Vietnam and elsewhere, quietly continued their Buddhist practices.

Today, it is believed that there are more than 300 million Buddhists in the world, including at least a quarter million in Europe, and a half million each in North and South America.  I say “at least” because other estimates go as high as three million in the U.S. alone!  Whatever the numbers may be, Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.  And, although it has suffered considerable setbacks over the centuries, it seems to be attracting more and more people, as a religion or a philosophy of life.



Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala. The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Copyright 1999 by C. George Boeree.


Buddhist Hymns and Prayers On Opening the Sutra

The Dharma incomparably profound and exquisite Is rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of kalpas; We are now permitted to see it, to listen to it, to accept and hold it; May we truly understand the meaning of the Tathagata’s words!


All the evil karma ever committed by me since of old, On account of greed, anger, and folly, which have no beginning, Born of my body, mouth, and thought -­I now make full open confession of it.

The Threefold Refuge

I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha.

I take refuge in the Buddha, the incomparably honoured one; I take refuge in the Dharma, honourable for its purity; I take refuge in the Sangha, honourable for its harmonious life.

I have finished taking refuge in the Buddha; I have finished taking refuge in the Dharma; I have finished taking refuge in the Sangha.

The Four Great Vows

However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them; However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them; However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them; However incomparable the Buddha-truth is, I vow to attain it.

The Teaching of the Seven Buddhas

Not to commit evils, But to do all that is good, And to keep one’s thought pure -­This is the teaching of all the Buddhas

The Gatha of Impermanence

All composite things are impermanent, They are subject to birth and death; Put an end to birth and death, And there is blissful tranquility.

[The preceding quoted in D. T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism. N.Y.:  Grove, 1960.]

Mahamangala Sutta

[Discourse of Supreme Happiness]

The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

The Four Noble Truths

  1. Life is suffering;
  2. Suffering is due to attachment;
  3. Attachment can be overcome;
  4. There is a path for accomplishing this.


1. Suffering is perhaps the most common translation for the Sanskrit word duhkha, which can also be translated as imperfect, stressful, or filled with anguish.

Contributing to the anguish is anitya – the fact that all things are impermanent, including living things like ourselves.

Furthermore, there is the concept of anatman – literally, “no soul”. Anatman means that all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing — including ourselves — has a separate existence.

2. Attachment is a common translation for the word trishna, which literally means thirst and is also translated as desire, clinging, greed, craving, or lust. Because we and the world are imperfect, impermanent, and not separate, we are forever “clinging” to things, each other, and ourselves, in a mistaken effort at permanence.

Besides trishna, there is dvesha, which means avoidance or hatred. Hatred is its own kind of clinging.

And finally there is avidya, ignorance or the refusal to see. Not fully understanding the impermanence of things is what leads us to cling in the first place.

  1. Perhaps the most misunderstood term in Buddhism is the one which refers to the overcoming of attachment: nirvana. It literally means “blowing out,” but is often thought to refer to either a Buddhist heaven or complete nothingness. Actually, it refers to the letting go of clinging, hatred, and ignorance, and the full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and interconnectedness.
  2. And then there is the path, called dharma. Buddha called it the middle way, which is understood as meaning the middle way between such competing philosophies as materialism and idealism, or hedonism and asceticism.  This path, this middle way, is elaborated as the eightfold path.


The Eightfold Path

  1. Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths.
  2. Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.


These two are referred to as prajña, or wisdom.

  1. Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.
  2. Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
  3. Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.


These three are refered to as shila, or morality.


  1. Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one’s mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.
  2. Right mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention on one’s body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.
  3. Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.


The last three are known as samadhi, or meditation.

The Kalama Sutta

In the Kalama Sutta, we find the Kalamas, a people of apparently skeptical natures, asking Buddha for guidance in distinguishing good teachers from bad ones, and proper teachings from evil ones.  The Buddha answers in three parts, which are treasures of wisdom.  First, he outlines the criteria we should use to distinguish good from bad teachers and teachings:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain…. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher….’

“What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?” — “For his harm, venerable sir.” — “Kalamas, being given to greed, hate, and delusion, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, hate, and delusion, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?” — “Yes, venerable sir….”

“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are

censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. ”

Next, Buddha presents The Four Exalted Dwellings or Brahma Vihara:

“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who in this way is devoid of coveting, devoid of ill will, undeluded, clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells, having pervaded, with the thought of amity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of amity that is free of hate or malice.

“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of compassion, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of compassion that is free of hate or malice.

“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of gladness, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of gladness that is free of hate or malice.

“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of equanimity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of equanimity that is free of hate or malice.

And finally, Buddha reveals how, no matter what our philosophical orientation, following this path will lead to happiness, The Four Solaces:

“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an

undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now.

“‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.

“‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. “‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him.

“‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.

“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”

(quotations adapted from The Anguttara Nikaya 3.65, Soma Thera Trans., emphases added.)

For other original sutras concerning the basics of Buddhist wisdom, see the following:

Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion – An Analysis of the Path – Ignorance – Assumptions – The River – The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya – The Dhammapada –

Resources Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Rahula, Walpola (1959). What the Buddha Taught. NY:  Grove Press. Gard, Richard (1962). Buddhism. NY:  George Braziller. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala. The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica. Access in Insight: Gateways to Theravada Buddhism. (


Buddhist Cosmology

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

Dr. C. George Boeree

Shippensburg University

The following sections explain some of the concepts and ideas in Buddhism that  are taken by most Buddhists as metaphorical or even plain mythological.  Nevertheless, these things show up even in the most sophisticated texts, and so the student of Buddhism should be familiar with them — even if they seem at times to take away rather than contribute to the deeper meaning of the Dharma.  Westerners are often less comfortable with these things than are easterners, who have grown up with these terms.  But a little thought and the reader will recognize that we have very similar concepts in the west, which we use in a similar fashion:  Heavens and hells, ghosts and angels, the trinity, the saints….  Whether we take them literally or not, they are a part of how we tell our stories.

The Buddhists, following the traditions of their Indian fore-fathers, saw the universe as infinite in time and space, and filled with an infinite number of worlds like our own.

Above our ordinary world, there are two realms:  the realm of form (rupa-dhatu) and the even higher realm of formlessness (arupa-dhatu). Below these is the realm of desire (kama-dhatu) which contains six domains (gatis), each with its own kinds of beings:

  1. Devas or gods.
  2. Asuras or titans (or jealous gods, or demigods),
  3. Manusyas or humans.
  4. Tiryaks or animals.
  5. Pretas or hungry ghosts.
  6. Narakas or demons (hell beings)


All of the above, even the realms of form and formlessness, are in samsara , imperfect existence, and therefore governed by karma and its fruits (vipaka).

The world extends around Mount Meru.  Above the peak is the realm of the Buddha fields (or heavens).  On the upper slopes you find the gods.  The titans live on the lower slopes.  Animals and humans live on the plains around the mountain.  Hungry ghosts live on or just below the surface.  And hell is deep under the earth.  All this is surrounded by a great ocean.

Time in Buddhist cosmology is measured in kalpas.  Originally, a kalpa was considered to be 4,320,000 years. Buddhist scholars expanded it with a metaphor:  rub a one-mile cube of rock once every hundred years with a piece of silk, until the rock is worn away — and a kalpa still hasn’t passed!  During a kalpa, the world comes into being, exists, is destroyed, and a period of emptiness ensues.  Then it all starts again.

Some of the actors in the Buddhist mythological drama include…

Brahma — the supreme deva, who convinced Buddha to teach. Indra — a major deva, originally the Hindu sky god. Prajña — goddess of knowledge.  Buddha’s mother was considered an incarnation. Mara — a deva associated with death and hindrances to enlightenment.  It was Mara who tempted Buddha under the bodhi tree. Yama — the king of the 21 hells (see image above). Nagas — great serpents (or dragons, or water creatures). The king of the Nagas protected Buddha from a storm. Gandharvas — angelic beings who provide the gods with music



In Mahayana and especially Vajrayana, the idea of the Buddha and his Dharma evolved into a more elaborate system called the Trikaya, or three bodies of Buddha:

  1. Nirmanakaya — The earthly Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas), especially as personified by Siddhartha Gautama. In Tibet, the intentional human embodiment of a reborn master.
  2. Sambhogakaya — Buddhas in their heavens, the result of accumulated merit.  Or, in Zen, enlightenment. In Tibetan buddhism, this refers to the means of achieving the Dharmakaya, i.e. the power of meditation on the various visualized dieties called yidams which are archetypal symbols of different qualities of enlightenment.
  3. Dharmakaya — The teachings of the Buddha, and the true nature of the Buddha, which is everything. Buddha mind, or Shunyata.


In Tibet, they also refer to the body, speech, and mind of a master.  And they are represented by the mudra, the mantra, and the mandala, respectively.

Buddha Families

Transcendent (or Dhyani) Buddhas

These symbolize aspects of enlightened consciousness:

  1. Vairochana — center, white, tathagata family, ignorance and wisdom, the primordial Buddha.
  2. Akshobhya –east, blue,  vajra (diamond) family, aggression and mirrorlike wisdom.
  3. Ratnasambhava — south, yellow, ratna (jewel) family, pride and equanimity.
  4. Amitabha1 – west, red,  padma (lotus) family, passion and discriminating awareness, governs the present age.


1.       Samantabhadra Krakucchanda
2. Vajrapani Kanakamuni
3. Ratnapani Kashyapa
4.  Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin)2 Shakyamuni       (Siddhartha Gotama)
5.       Vishvapani Maitreya       (the future Buddha)3

5. Amoghasiddhi — north, green, karma family, envy and all-accomplishing wisdom. Bodhisattvas and Buddhas


Corresponding to these five transcendent Buddhas, there are five Bodhisattvas and five earthly Buddhas:


1 Amitabha is the transcendent Buddha of the Western “Pure Land.” Amitabha rules over this period of time.

2 Avalokiteshwara (Chenrezi, Kwan Yin, Kwannon) is the boddhisattva of compassion.  Avalokiteshwara is often represented by a female figure, or an ambiguous one, in the  Mahayana tradition.  (See image at right)

The Taras are a set of 21 female saviors, born from Avalokiteshwara’s tears. Green Tara and White Tara are the best known.

3 Maitreya is the future Buddha, who will be born 30,000 years from now. The

Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Rahula, Walpola (1959). What the Buddha Taught. NY:  Grove Press. Gard, Richard (1962). Buddhism. NY:  George Braziller. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala. The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.


The Wheel of Life

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University


Samsara is this world, filled as it is with so much pain and sorrow.  All beings in this world are subject to the law of karma. Karma means volitional act, that is, something you do, say, or think that is in fact in your control.  Any such act has moral consequences, called vipaka, which means fruit.  In traditional Buddhism, this consequences can occur in this life, or in a future life.

Most Buddhists believe in rebirth.  For many, rebirth is no different from what the Hindus believed, i.e. reincarnation or transmigration — moving from one’s old body at death to a new body at birth or conception.  A little more precisely, rebirth is nothing more than the transmission of one’s karma. Buddha likened it to the flame that passes from one candle to another.  So the idea of an immortal soul, a continuing personality, is definitely not part of the rebirth idea.

Rebirth and similar concepts are not a part of most westerners’ cultures, so many western Buddhists, as well as some eastern Buddhists, take rebirth as a metaphor, rather than literally. Buddhism has never been a particularly literalist religion, so this is not at all taboo.  In fact, Buddha often avoids discussing the reality of one metaphysical idea or another as irrelevant to the practice of the Dharma.

The image to the right is the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which represents Samsara.  In the very center, there is a rooster chasing a pig chasing a snake chasing the rooster — craving,

hatred, and ignorance.  Around that are people ascending the white semicircle of life, and others descending the black semicircle of death.  The greatest portion of the Wheel is devoted to representations of the six realms — the realm of the gods, the realm of the titans, the realm of humans, the realm of animals, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the realm of demons — each realm looked over by its own boddhisattva.  The outermost circle is the 12 steps of dependent origination.  The entire Wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death.


This is dependent origination, also known as conditioned arising, interdependent arising, conditional nexus, causal nexus….  It refers to the idea that, as long as we remain ignorant, clinging, and hateful, we will continue to create karma, and so continue to be reborn into this world full of suffering and pain.  It is described using the metaphor of a wheel of life, wherein one thing inevitably leads to another.

“All psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other…” which is what entangles us in samsara. (The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion)

  1. Ignorance (avidya).  “A” is ignorant of the dharma.  The blind man cannot see the truth
  2. Impulses (samskara).  “A” therefore has intentions (karma), good, bad, or neutral, and acts on them.  A potter creates a new pot from clay and water.
  3. Consciousness (vijñana).  These create a new conscious being, “B,” who enters a womb.  A monkey, with no self control, jumps from one branch to another.
  4. Name and form (namarupa).  “B” takes form.  Three or four men in a boat:  The body is the vehicle that carries us through life.
  5. The six bases (shadayatana).  “B” comes into a world of objects ready to be experienced.  House with doors and windows:  The senses let in the world, like windows let light into a house.
  6. Contact (sparsha).  “B” has contact with that world of objects.  Lovers symbolize the intimate contact between world and mind.
  7. Craving (trishna).  “B’s” perceptions give rise to desires.  A man drinking:  The promise of satisfaction only leads to intoxication. Y
  8. Clinging (upadana).  Desire leads “B” to cling to life, even at death.  Like a monkey clinging to a fruit tree, we cling to things.
    1. Becoming (bhava).  And another conscious being, “C,” is begun. A pregnant woman:  A new life has begun
    2. Birth (jati).  Thus, “C” is born.  A woman gives birth.
    3. Old age and death (jara-maranam).  And “C’s” birth leads inevitably to his or her old age and death. An old man carries a corpse to its resting place. And the cycle continues, one thing leading to another..



The Ten Fetters (Samyojana) bind us to samsara.

  1.   Belief in a separate personality or individuality (drishti)
  2.   Doubt that has no desire for satisfaction (vichikitsa)
  3.   Uncritical attachment to rules and rituals (silabbata-paramasa)
  4.   Sensuous craving (kama-raga)
  5.   Ill will, wishing harm on others (vyapada)
  6.   Craving for a higher material existence (rupa-raga)
  7.   Craving for non-material existence (arupa-raga)
  8.   Conceit or egotism (mana)
  9.  Restlessness (udhacca)
  10.   Ignorance (avidya)



Dharmas are the ultimate elements or particles of the universe .  A little like atoms, they are very small, but they exist for only a split second, in keeping with the doctrine of impermanence. And while atoms are purely material, dharmas include all phenomena, mental and physical.  I like to think of them as little flashes of colored light, and I would translate the word as scintilla.  Don’t get confused between these and the Dharma, meaning the teachings of the Buddha!

Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Buddhists thought there were four basic elements:  earth, water, air, and fire. The dharma theory turns these elements into qualities, or even verbs:  fire becomes hot becomes burning; air becomes cool becomes blowing….  Ultimately, then, all “things” are nothing more than bundles of these qualities or actions, and are “empty” inside.  This led to one of the most important ideas of the Madhyamaka School of Mahayana Buddhism: Shunyata, which means emptiness.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the dharmas were considered something more like phenomena than atoms, and the Yogachara School took the change even further, and considered them something more like ideas in the universal mind.

The Skandhas

Skandhas or aggregates are the parts of the self.  Sometimes they are called the aggregates of attachment, which bring about suffering.  Just like a car is nothing more than the sum of its parts, so we are nothing more than the sum of our parts.  There is no atman, meaning soul, self, or ego, holding the pieces together.  Nevertheless, just like the car can run despite being nothing but a collection of pieces, so we can live as a person.

Traditionally, there are five skandhas:

  1. The body, matter or form (rupa).  Includes the body and the sense organs.
  2. Feelings or sensations (vedana).  Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, coming out of contact between sense organs and objects, plus out of the contact between mind (manas) and mental objects (ideas, images…).
  3. Thoughts or perceptions (samjña).  Recognition of objects — form, sound, smell, taste, bodily impressions, mental objects.
  4. Will, mental acts, or mental formations (samskara).  Volition, attention, discrimination, joy, happiness, equanimity, resolve, exertion, compulsion, concentration, etc.
  5. Consciousness (vijñana).  Awareness prior to recognition — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, kinesthesia, ideation.


The last four are called naman, name, meaning the psyche. Namarupa (name-form) is therefore the buddhist term for the person, mental and physical, which is nevertheless anatman, without soul or essence.

Ayatana is the six fields of naman: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and mind, as well as the objects of these six senses.

The Yogachara school adds alaya-vijñana, a “storehouse” consciousness, similar to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.  What is stored there are called bijas or seeds, which are inborn and result from our karmic history. They combine with manas or ego-mind to form the illusion of ordinary existence.  By stilling mind, storehouse consciousness becomes identical with tathagata, “suchness,” or the Buddha-mind.

Chitta means mind or consciousness.  In Yogachara, everything is ultimately chitta.  For this reason, Yogachara is also called the chitta-matra, “nothing but consciousness,” or idealistic school.

For more original sutras on the nature of samsara, rebirth, and karma, please see the following:

The Hole – Fallen on Hard Times – Happy – Mother – Living in Tune – Sister Soma – The Monk with Dysentery – Old Age –

Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Rahula, Walpola (1959). What the Buddha Taught. NY:  Grove Press. Gard, Richard (1962). Buddhism. NY:  George Braziller. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala. The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Buddhist Morality

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

The Pancha Shila

The Pancha Shila, or five moral precepts:

  1. Avoid killing, or harming any living thing.
  2. Avoid stealing — taking what is not yours to take.
  3. Avoid sexual irresponsibility, which for monks and nuns means celibacy.
  4. Avoid lying, or any hurtful speech.
  5. Avoid alcohol and drugs which diminish clarity of consciousness.


To these, monks and nuns add…

  1. One simple meal a day, before noon.
  2. Avoid frivolous entertainments.
  3. Avoid self-adornment.
  4. Use a simple bed and seat.
  5. Avoid the use of money.


Full monastic life adds over two hundred more rules and regulations!

The Paramita

The Perfections or Virtues — noble qualities that we should all strive to achieve.  Here are two versions:

  1.   Generosity (P: dana) 1.  Generosity (dana)
  2.   Moral discipline (P: sila) 2.  Moral discipline (shila)
  3.   Patience and tolerance (P: khanti) 3.  Patience and tolerance (kshanti)
  4.   Wisdom or (full-) consciousness (P: pañña) 4.  Energy (virya)
  5.   Energy (P: viriya) 5.  Meditation (dhyana)
  6.   Renunciation (P: nekkhamma) 6. Wisdom or (full-) consciousness (prajña)
  7.   Truthfulness (P: sacca) 7.  Skilled methods (upaya)
  8.   Determination (P: adhitthana) 8.  Vow or resolution (pranidhana)
  9.   Loving kindness (P: metta) 9.  The ten powers or special abilities (dashabala)
  10.   Equanimity (P: upekkha) 10.  Knowledge (jñana)


The Brahma Vihara

The Brahma Vihara are the four “sublime states” to which we all should aspire.  They are the great signs of the Bodhisattva, who vows to remain in samsara — this world of pain and sorrow — until all creation can be brought into the state of Nirvana together.

  1. Maitri is caring, loving kindness displayed to all you meet.
  2. Karuna is compassion or mercy, the kindness shown to those who suffer.
  3. Mudita is sympathetic joy, being happy for others, without a trace of envy.
  4. Upeksa is equanimity or peacefulness, the ability to accept the ups and downs of life with equal dispassion.


The Sigalovada Sutta

This Sutra is a record of the words of the Buddha to Sigalo, a young middle class man, who was on his way to worship the six directions, east, west, north, south, up, and down.  His father had died and asked him to worship in this very ancient fashion in remembrance of him.  The Buddha, wishing this ritual to have more meaning for the young man, advised him in detail about how to live a good life as a layman.  He phrased himself, as he apparently so often did, using lists, and begins by warning him against many of the evils of the layman’s life.

The four vices:

  1.   The destruction of life
  2.  Stealing
  3.   Sexual misconduct
  4.  Lying


The four things which lead to evil:

  1.   Desire, meaning greed, lust, clinging
  2.   Anger and hatred
  3.  Ignorance
  4.   Fear and anxiety


The six ways one dissipates ones wealth:

  1.   Drinking and drugs
  2.   Carousing late at night
  3.   Wasting away your time at shows
  4.  Gambling
  5.   Keeping bad company
  6.  Laziness


And he provides details regarding these last six that demonstrate the manners in which drink, etc., lead to one’s downfall.

Then he provides a lesson on friendship — how to distinguish good friends from bad friends. There are four types that are not really your friends, but will make your life miserable in the long run:

  1.   The leech who appropriates your possessions
  2.   The bull-shitter who manipulates you
  3.   The boot-licker who flatters you
  4.   The party-animal who encourages you to do the same


A good friend, on the other hand, is one who…

  1.   is always ready to help you
  2.   is steady and loyal
  3.   provides good advice
  4.   is sympathetic


The Buddha even gives some advice regarding one’s finances:

  1.   One quarter of your earnings should be used to cover your expenses.
  2.   Two quarters should be re-invested in your business.
  3.   One quarter should be put into savings for times of need.


Finally, the Buddha discusses how one might best benefit from worshipping the six directions.

Regarding the east, a child should be good to his or her parents:  support them, help them, keep their traditions, be worthy of your inheritance, and offer alms in their honor when they die.

A parent should be good to his or her children as well:  keep them from getting into trouble, encourage them to be good, train them for a profession, make sure they are suitably married, and provide a good inheritance.

Regarding the south, a student should be good to his or her teachers:  show respect, work hard, and be eager to learn.

A teacher should be good to his or her students:  teach them well, make sure they understand, help them achieve their goals.

Regarding the west, a husband should be good to his wife:  treat her well, be faithful to her, share authority with her, and give her jewelry ;-)

A wife should be good to her husband:  be gracious, faithful, industrious, and frugal.

Regarding the north, a friend should be good to his or her friends:  be generous, helpful, loyal, protective, and so on.

Regarding the nadir (“down”), an employer should be good to his or her employees:  assign work according to their abilities, provide food and wages, take care of them when they are sick, share delicacies with them, and grant them occasional leave.

Employees should be good to their employers:  Get to work early, leave late, perform their duties well, don’t pilfer from the supply closet, and uphold their employer’s good name.

And finally, regarding the zenith (“up”),  lay people should be good to people who have devoted themselves to the spiritual life:  kind deeds, kind words, kind thoughts, opening one’s home to them, and supplying them with their physical needs.

And people in the spiritual life should be good to lay people:  keep them from doing evil, encourage them to do good, make sure they hear the dharma, clarify what they don’t understand, point out the way, and generally love them.

Keep these relationships in mind, he tells Sigalovada, and the ritual your father asked you to keep will have greater benefits than he ever dreamed of.  Although some of the details may be a bit dated — it has been some 2500 years, after all — it can still serve quite well as a guide to moral behavior for the common man or woman of today!

Buddha concludes with a poem:

Who is wise and virtuous, Gentle and keen-witted, Humble and amenable, Such a one to honor may attain.

Who is energetic and not indolent, In misfortune unshaken, Flawless in manner and intelligent, Such a one to honor may attain.

Who is hospitable and friendly, Liberal and unselfish, A guide, an instructor, a leader, Such a one to honor may attain.

Generosity, sweet speech, Helpfulness to others, Impartiality to all, As the case demands.

These four winning ways make the world go round, As the linchpin in a moving car. If these in the world exist not,

Neither mother nor father will receive, Respect and honor from their children.

From The Sigalovada Sutta, DN31, translated by Narada Thera



The Ten Duties of a King

(from the Pali Jatakas)

But the common man or woman is not the only one for whom Buddha provides guidance…

  1. Dana:  Liberality, generosity, charity, concern with the welfare of the people.
  2. Sila:  High moral character, observing at least the Five Precepts.
  3. Parccaga:  Willing to sacrifice everything for the people — comfort, fame, even his life.
  4. Ajjava:  Honesty and integrity, not fearing some or favoring others.
  5. Maddava:  Kindness and gentleness.
  6. Tapa:  Austerity, content in the simple life.
  7. Akkodha:  Free from hatred, ill-will, and anger.
  8. Avihimsa:  Non-violence, a commitment to peace.
  9. Khanti:  Patience, tolerance, and the ability to understand others’ perspectives.
  10. Avirodha:  Non-obstruction, ruling in harmony with the will of the people and in their best interests.


The Buddha’s Words on Kindness (Metta Sutta)

      This is what should be done      By one who is skilled in goodness,      And who knows the path of peace:      Let them be able and upright,      Straightforward and gentle in speech.      Humble and not conceited,      Contented and easily satisfied.      Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.      Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,      Not proud and demanding in nature.      Let them not do the slightest thing      That the wise would later reprove.      Wishing: In gladness and in saftey,      May all beings be at ease.      Whatever living beings there may be;      Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,      The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,      The seen and the unseen,      Those living near and far away,      Those born and to-be-born,      May all beings be at ease!

      Let none deceive another,      Or despise any being in any state.      Let none through anger or ill-will      Wish harm upon another.      Even as a mother protects with her life      Her child, her only child,      So with a boundless heart      Should one cherish all living beings:      Radiating kindness over the entire world      Spreading upwards to the skies,      And downwards to the depths;      Outwards and unbounded,      Freed from hatred and ill-will.

      Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down      Free from drowsiness,      One should sustain this recollection.      This is said to be the sublime abiding.      By not holding to fixed views,      The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,      Being freed from all sense desires,      Is not born again into this world.

From The Buddhist Reading Room (

For more original sutras on Buddhist morality, please see the following:

At Sedaka: The Acrobat – Half of the Holy Life – A Meal – An Angry Person – Instructions to Rahula – The Discourse to Gotami – The Discourse to Sigala:  The Layperson’s Code of Discipline -­


The Basics of Buddhist Meditation

Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University

Buddhism began by encouraging its practitioners to engage in smrti (sati) or mindfulness, that is, developing a full consciousness of all about you and within you — whether seated in a special posture, or simply going about one’s life. This is the kind of meditation that Buddha himself engaged in under the bodhi tree, and is referred to in the seventh step of the eightfold path.

Soon, Buddhist monks expanded and formalized their understanding of meditation.  The bases for all meditation, as it was understood even in the earliest years of Buddhism, are shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha is often translated as calm abiding or peacefulness.  It is the development of tranquility that is a prerequisite to any further development. Vipashyana is clear seeing or special insight, and involves intuitive cognition of suffering, impermanence, and egolessness.

Only after these forms were perfected does one go on to the more heavy-duty kinds of meditation. Samadhi is concentration or one-pointed meditation.  It involves intense focusing of consciousness.

Samadhi brings about the four dhyanas, meaning absorptions.  Buddha refers to samadhi and the dhyanas in the eighth step of the eightfold path, and again at his death.  Dhyana is rendered as Jhana in Pali, Ch’an in Chinese, Son in Korean, and Zen in Japanese, and has, in those cultures, become synonymous with meditation as a whole.

Basic Meditation

The most basic form of meditation involves attending to one’s breath.

Begin by sitting in a simple chair, keeping your back erect if you can.  The more traditional postures are the lotus position, sitting on a pillow with each foot upon the opposite thigh, and variations such as the half lotus (one foot on the opposite thigh, the other out in front of the opposite knee).  This is difficult for many people.  Some people kneel, sitting back on their legs or on a pillow between their legs.  Many use a meditation bench:  kneel, then place a little bench beneath your behind.  But meditation is also done while standing, slowly walking, lying on the floor, or even in a recliner!

Traditionally, the hands are placed loosely, palms up, one on top of the other, and with the thumbs lightly touching. This is called the cosmic mudra, one of a large number of symbolic hand positions.  You may prefer to lay them flat on your thighs, or any other way that you find comfortable.

Your head should be upright, but not rigid.  The eyes may be closed, or focussed on a spot on the ground a couple of feet ahead of you, or looking down at your hands.  If you find yourself getting sleepy, keep your eyes open!

Beginning meditators are often asked to count their breath, on the exhale, up to ten.  Then you begin back at one.  If you loose track, simply go back to one.  Your breath should be slow and regular, but not forced or artificially controlled. Just breathe naturally and count.

A few weeks later, you may forego the counting and try to simply follow your breath.  Concentrate on it entering you and exiting you.  Best is to be aware as fully as possible of the entire process of breathing, but most people focus on one aspect or another:  the sensation of coolness followed by warmth at the nostrils, or the rise and fall of the diaphragm. Many meditators suggest imagining the air entering and exiting a small hole an inch or two below your navel. Keeping your mind lower on the body tends to lead to deeper meditation.  If you are sleepy, then focus higher, such as at the nostrils.

You will inevitably find yourself distracted by sounds around you and thoughts within.  The way to handle them is to acknowledge them, but do not attach yourself to them.  Do not get involved with them.  Just let them be, let them go, and focus again on the breath.  At first, it might be wise to scratch when you itch and wiggle when you get uncomfortable.  Later, you will find that the same scant attention that you use for thoughts and sounds will work with physical feelings as well.

A more advanced form of meditation is shikantaza, or emptiness meditation.  Here, you don’t follow anything at all. There is no concentration — only quiet mindfulness.  You hold your mind as if you were ready for things to happen, but don’t allow your mind to become attached to anything.  Things — sounds, smells, aches, thoughts, images — just drift in and out, like clouds in a light breeze.  This is my own favorite.

Many people have a hard time with their thoughts.  We are so used to our hyperactive minds, that we barely notice the fact that they are usually roaring with activity.  So, when we first sit and meditate, we are caught off guard by all the activity.  So some people find it helpful to use a little imagination to help them meditate.  For example, instead of counting or following your breath, you might prefer to imagine a peaceful scene, perhaps floating in a warm lagoon, until the noise of your mind quiets down.

Meditate for fifteen minutes a day, perhaps early in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, or late at night when everything has quieted down.  If that’s too much, do it once a week if you like.  If you want, do more.  Don’t get frustrated.  And don’t get competitive, either.  Don’t start looking forward to some grand explosion of enlightenment. If you have great thoughts, fine.  Write them down, if you like.  Then go back to breathing.  If you feel powerful emotions, wonderful.  Then go back to breathing.  The breathing is enlightenment.

The Ananda Sutta

Ananda, Buddha’s cousin, friend, and devoted disciple, once asked him if there was one particular quality one should cultivate that would best bring one to full awakening.  Buddha answered:  Being mindful of breathing.

“There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

“Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body, and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body. He trains himself to breathe in calming the bodily processes, and to breathe out calming the bodily processes.

“He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to rapture, and to breathe out sensitive to rapture. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to pleasure, and to breathe out sensitive to pleasure. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to mental processes, and to breathe out sensitive to mental processes. He trains himself to breathe in calming mental processes, and to breathe out calming mental processes.

“He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the mind, and to breathe out sensitive to the mind. He trains himself to breathe in satisfying the mind, and to breathe out satisfying the mind. He trains himself to breathe in steadying the mind, and to breathe out steadying the mind. He trains himself to breathe in releasing the mind, and to breathe out releasing the mind.

“He trains himself to breathe in focusing on inconstancy, and to breathe out focusing on inconstancy. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on dispassion, and to breathe out focusing on dispassion. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on cessation, and to breathe out focusing on cessation. He trains himself to breathe in focusing on relinquishment, and to breathe out focusing on relinquishment.”

(adapted from The Samyutta Nikaya 54.13,)


The Five Hindrances (Nivarana) are the major obstacles to concentration.

  1.   Sensual desire (abhidya)
  2.   Ill will, hatred, or anger (pradosha)
  3.   Laziness and sluggishness (styana and middha)
  4.   Restlessness and worry (anuddhatya and kaukritya)
  5.   Doubt (vichikitsa) — doubt, skepticism, indecisiveness, or vacillation, without the wish to cure it, more like the common idea of cynicism or pessimism than open-mindedness or desire for evidence.


For more original sutras on Buddhist meditation, see the following:

The Arrow – Analysis of Mental Faculties – The Ship – Analysis of the Frames of Reference – The Relaxation of Thoughts – The Simile of the Cloth –

Resources Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Rahula, Walpola (1959). What the Buddha Taught. NY:  Grove Press. Gard, Richard (1962). Buddhism. NY:  George Braziller. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala. The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Some simple instructions for living a happy life, courtesy of the Buddha

Here are three brief sutras, which I have edited even further, that show how the idea of rebirth contributes to our compassion for others, as well as giving us a little comfort for ourselves.

Duggata Sutta — The hard-times sutra

When you see someone who has fallen on hard times, overwhelmed with hard times, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’

Sukhita Sutta — The happy sutra

When you see someone who is happy & well-provided in life, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’

Mata Sutta — The mother sutra

A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

Not everyone desires enlightenment.  Sometimes, all we want is to be able to meet once again the ones we love:

Samajivina Sutta — Living in Tune

Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Once the Blessed One was staying among the Bhaggas in the Deer Park at Bhesakala Grove, near Crocodile Haunt. Then early in the morning the Blessed One put on his robes and, carrying his bowl and outer robe, went to the home of the householder, Nakula’s father. On arrival, he sat down on a seat made ready. Then Nakula’s father & Nakula’s mother went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there, Nakula’s father said to the Blessed One: “Lord, ever since Nakula’s mother as a young girl was brought to me [to be my wife] when I was just a young boy, I am not conscious of being unfaithful to her even in mind, much less in body. We want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come.”

And Nakula’s mother said to the Blessed One: “Lord, ever since I as a young girl was brought to Nakula’s father [to be his wife] when he was just a young boy, I am not conscious of being unfaithful to him even in mind, much less in body. We want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come.”

[The Blessed One said:] “If both husband & wife want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come, they should be in tune [with each other] in conviction, in tune in virtue, in tune in generosity, and in tune in discernment. Then they will see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come.”

Husband & wife, both of them        having conviction,        being responsive,        being restrained,        living by the Dhamma,        addressing each other        with loving words:

they benefit in manifold ways.        To them comes bliss.    Their enemies are dejected        when both are in tune in virtue.    Having followed the Dhamma here in this world,        both in tune in precepts & practices,

they delight in the world of the devas,

enjoying the pleasures they desire.

Although traditional Buddhism suffers from the sexism prevalent then and now in India, China, and elsewhere, it seems Buddha recognized the essential equality between men and women.  After all, we have all been men and women at some time in our cycle of births and rebirths!

Soma Sutta — Sister Soma

Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

…(I)n the morning, the bhikkhuni [nun] Soma dressed and, taking bowl and robe, entered Savatthi for alms. When she had walked for alms in Savatthi and had returned from her alms round, after her meal she went to the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding. Having plunged into the Blind Men’s Grove, she sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s abiding.

Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation, and terror in the bhikkhuni Soma, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

“That state so hard to achieve    Which is to be attained by the seers,    Can’t be attained by a woman    With her two-fingered wisdom.”

Then it occurred to the bhikkhuni Soma: “Now who is this that recited the verse — a human being or a non-human being?” Then it occurred to her: “This is Mara the Evil One, who has recited the verse desiring to arouse fear, trepidation, and terror in me, desiring to make me fall away from concentration.”

Then the bhikkhuni Soma, having understood, “This is Mara the Evil One,” replied to him in verses:

“What does womanhood matter at all    When the mind is concentrated well,    When knowledge flows on steadily    As one sees correctly into Dhamma.

One to whom it might occur,    ‘I’m a woman’ or ‘I’m a man’    Or ‘I’m anything at all’ -­    Is fit for Mara to address.”

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, “The bhikkhuni Soma knows me,” sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

Anger is, of course, not conducive to enlightenment.  But Buddha explains that anger actually makes us miserable here and now! Kodhana Sutta — An Angry Person (paraphrased)

Seven things happen to people who are angry, which end up making their enemies happy: Some people wish that their enemies become ugly.  But when people are angry, even if they are well bathed, beautifully dressed, and their hair neatly cut, they become ugly themselves!  This is exactly what their enemies would wish for them!

Some people wish that their enemies sleep poorly.  But when people are angry, even if they sleep on luxurious beds,

with white sheets, fluffy pillows, and beautiful blankets, they will sleep poorly because of their anger.  This, too, is exactly what their enemies would wish!

Some wish that their enemies not profit in business.  But when people are angry, they become confused:  When they suffer a loss, they think they are making a profit; when they make a profit, they think they are suffering a loss. This leads to constant worry, which is exactly what is enemy would wish!

Some wish that their enemies not have any wealth.  But when people are angry, even if they start out with wealth that they have worked hard to accumulate, they will behave badly and may wind up in jail or paying fines for their misbehavior, and eventually lose their fortunes.  This is exactly what his enemy would wish!

Some wish that ther enemies lose their reputation.  But when people are angry, whatever reputation they have, and however well earned it may be, will disappear, which is exactly what their enemies would wish!

Some wish that their enemies have no friends.  But when people are angry, their friends and relatives avoid them because of their temper.  This is exactly what their enemies would wish!

And finally, some people wish that their enemies would go to hell.  But when people are angy, they commit all kinds of sins, in their behavior, their speech, and in their minds.  When they die, they may find themselves in hell, which is exacly what their enemies would wish!

These are the seven things which happen to angry people, which end up making their enemies happy.

Paraphrased from translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (

Lying is such an institutionalized part of modern society it is hard for many of us to imagine a world without it. Buddha has a lesson for his son in this sutra:

Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta — Lesson for Rahula at Mango Stone (paraphrased)

When Rahula, Buddha’s son, was seven, he set out some water for his father to wash his feet.  Buddha picked up a ladle full of the water and began to wash.  He showed his son the ladle with a little bit of water left in it and said “This is how little worth is left in someone who isn’t ashamed at telling a lie.”

Tossing away the little bit of water, he said “What little honor is left in someone who is not ashamed when telling a lie is tossed away just like that.”

Turning the ladle upside down, he said “What little honor there is in someone who is not ashamed is turned upside down just like that.”

And showing Rahula the empty ladle, he said “What little honor there is in someone who is not ashamed is empty and hollow just like that.”

“A royal elephant going into battle who holds back in the fight hasn’t given of himself fully.  But when he gives his all, there is nothing he will not do.  The same thing is true of someone who is not ashamed when they tell a lie:  There is no evil he will not do!  So train yourself not to lie, even in jest.

“What do your think a mirror is for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“Just like a mirror, you actions, whether they are physical, verbal, or mental, should be done with constant reflectiion.

“When you are considering doing something, reflect on it:  Is this something which will cause harm to myself or others? If so, stop yourself from doing it.  If not, if it leads to happy consequences, you may feel free to do it.  While you are doing something, reflect on it:  Is this act harming anyone?  If so, stop.  If not, go ahead.  After you have done something, reflect on what you have done.  If it resulted in harm to yourself or others, confess it to your teacher or companions, and resolve to restrain yourself in the future.  If the act had happy consequences, then be joyful.


“The same things apply to verbal acts.  Before, during, and after you say something, reflect on it.  If it seems that your speech will have or does have negative consequences, then restrain yourself or, if you are too late, confess and resolve to do better in the future. If what you have to say has positive consequences, then go ahead.

“And the same thing applies to mental acts.  Reflect on them, before, during, and after.  If a thought has negative consequences, abandon it or, if it is too late, be ashamed and resolve to improve.  If the thought has positive qualities, then act upon it.

“Before, during, and after, reflect on your behavior, and purify yourself this way.”

Liberally paraphrased from That the True Dhamma Might Last a Long Time: Readings Selected by King Asoka, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (

Even unpleasant people need to be cared for when they are ill.  In this sermon, Buddha tells us to care for anyone who needs our help, and goes on to describe how to be a good patient and a good nurse.

Kucchivikara-vatthu — The Monk with Dysentery

Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Now at that time a certain monk was sick with dysentery. He lay fouled in his own urine & excrement. Then the Blessed One, on an inspection tour of the lodgings with Ven. Ananda as his attendant, went to that monk’s dwelling and,

on arrival, saw the monk lying fouled in his own urine & excrement. On seeing him, he went to the monk and said, “What is your sickness, monk?” “I have dysentery, O Blessed One.” “But do you have an attendant?” “No, O Blessed One.” “Then why don’t the monks attend to you?” “I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.” Then the Blessed One addressed Ven. Ananda: “Go fetch some water, Ananda. We will wash this monk.” “As you say, lord,” Ven. Ananda replied, and he fetched some water. The Blessed One sprinkled water on the monk, and

Ven. Ananda washed him off. Then — with the Blessed One taking the monk by the head, and Ven. Ananda taking him

by the feet — they lifted him up and placed him on a bed. Then the Blessed One, from this cause, because of this event, had the monks assembled and asked them: “Is there a sick monk in that dwelling over there?”

“Yes, O Blessed One, there is.”

“And what is his sickness?”

“He has dysentery, O Blessed One.”

“But does he have an attendant?”

“No, O Blessed One.”

“Then why don’t the monks attend to him?”

“He doesn’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to him.”

“Monks, you have no mother, you have no father, who might tend to you. If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.

“If one’s preceptor is present, the preceptor should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If one’s teacher is present, the teacher should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If one’s student is present, the student should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If one’s apprentice is present, the apprentice should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If one who is a fellow student of one’s preceptor is present, the fellow student of one’s preceptor should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If one who is a fellow apprentice of one’s teacher is present, the fellow apprentice of one’s teacher should tend to one as long as life lasts, and should stay until one’s recovery. If no preceptor, teacher, student, apprentice, fellow student of one’s preceptor, or fellow apprentice of one’s teacher is present, the sangha should tend to one. If it does not, [all the monks in that community] incur an offense of wrong-doing.

“A sick person endowed with five qualities is hard to tend to: he does what is not amenable to his cure; he does not know the proper amount in things amenable to his cure; he does not take his medicine; he does not tell his symptoms, as they actually are present, to the nurse desiring his welfare, saying that they are worse when they are worse, improving when they are improving, or remaining the same when they are remaining the same; and he is not the type who can endure bodily feelings that are painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable, life-threatening. A sick person endowed with these five qualities is hard to tend to.

“A sick person endowed with five qualities is easy to tend to: he does what is amenable to his cure; he knows the proper amount in things amenable to his cure; he takes his medicine; he tells his symptoms, as they actually are present, to the nurse desiring his welfare, saying that they are worse when they are worse, improving when they are improving, or remaining the same when they are remaining the same; and he is the type who can endure bodily feelings that are painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable, life-threatening. A sick person endowed with these five qualities is easy to tend to.

“A nurse endowed with five qualities is not fit to tend to the sick: He is not competent at mixing medicine; he does not know what is amenable or unamenable to the patient’s cure, bringing to the patient things that are unamenable and taking away things that are amenable; he is motivated by material gain, not by thoughts of good will; he gets disgusted at cleaning up excrement, urine, saliva, or vomit; and he is not competent at instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging the sick person at the proper occasions with a talk on Dhamma. A nurse endowed with these five qualities is not fit to tend to the sick.

“A nurse endowed with five qualities is fit to tend to the sick: He is competent at mixing medicine; he knows what is amenable or unamenable to the patient’s cure, taking away things that are unamenable and bringing things that are amenable; he is motivated by thoughts of good will, not by material gain; he does not get disgusted at cleaning up excrement, urine, saliva, or vomit; and he is competent at instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging the sick person at the proper occasions with a talk on Dhamma. A nurse endowed with these five qualities is fit to tend to the sick.”

The Diamond Sutra

1.  This is what I have heard:

Once, the Buddha was staying at Anathapindika’s retreat in the Jeta Grove near the city of Sravasti, with a gathering of 1250 monks.  After dressing and making his begging rounds in the city and eating his one meal, he sat with the monks.

2.  The monk Subhuti paid his respects to the Buddha and asked a question:  “What should one who wants to travel the Bodhisattva path keep in mind?”

3.  The Buddha answered,  “A Bodhisattva should keep this in mind:  All creatures, whether they are born from the womb or hatched from the egg, whether they transform like butterflies or arise miraculously, whether they have a body or are purely spirits, whether they are capable of thought or not capable of thought:  All of these I vow to help enter nirvana before I rest there myself!

“But keep in mind, Subhuti, that in reality there is no such thing as an I who helps, and no such thing as an other whom I help.  A Bodhisattva who does not recognize this reality is no true Bodhisattva!

4.  “A true Bodhisattva takes no pleasure in this act of compassion and has no interest in appearances.  He simply helps others selflessly. “Can you measure the east, the west, the north, and the south, Subhuti?”

“No, Lord.” “Neither can you measure the merit of someone who can help others without thought of himself.”

5. “Subhuti!  Can anyone tell who is a Buddha on the basis of physical characteristics?” “No, Lord.  You have taught that Buddhahood is not a matter of physical characteristics.” “So one who is concerned with appearances will never see the Buddha, but one is not concerned with appearances may.”

6.  Subhuti asked,  “Lord, will there always be people who understand your message?”

Buddha answered,  “Don’t doubt it, Subhuti!  There will always be people who, hearing the message, will adhere to the precepts and practice our way.  Our message will reach people simply because it is true!  There will come a time when many will no longer need words, but will be beyond words.  We must all strive to go beyond the words, because words can be clung to, and we should not cling to things.  Understand that the words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross a river:  When its purpose is completed, it must be left behind if we are to travel further!

7.  “So tell me, Subhuti.  Have I taught the ultimate teaching?”

“No, Lord.  The ultimate teaching is not something which can be taught, because the ultimate teaching is not a thing which can be grasped or clung to.”

8.  The Buddha said, “Tell me, Subhuti.  If someone gave away a universe full of treasures to help others, would he gain great merit?”


“Yes, Lord.  His merit would be great.  But you have also taught us that, in order for this act of generosity to be genuine, he would not have thought of gaining merit.  In fact, he would not have thought of himself at all!”

The Buddha said, “Now, if someone understands and passes on even four sentences of my message to another, his generosity is even greater.  He is not just giving something, he is helping to create future Buddhas!”

9.  “Tell me, Subhuti.  Would someone who is beginning to understand my message say to himself ‘I have accomplished something grand’?”

“No, Lord.  Saying something like that would mean that the beginner doesn’t understand that there is no ego there to take credit for anything at all!”

“And would someone who is highly advanced in his understanding of my message say to himself ‘I have accomplished something grand’?”

“No, Lord.  Anyone saying such a thing would also be saying that there is indeed an ego that attains something, and something to attain.  These are not the thoughts of someone who understands your message.

“Lord, you have said that I have been successful in achieving peace and freedom from passions.  In fact, I no longer crave the status of a saint.  If I did, I am sure that you would never have thought so much of me!”

10.  “Subhuti, If I say, ‘Bodhisattvas adorn the heavens,” would I be speaking the truth?” “No, Lord.  Adornments are illusions, and illusions have no place in the heavens.” “And so Bodhisattvas should rid their minds of ego, and cease their preferences for one odor or another, one sound or

another, one sight or another.  A Bodhisattva should have no attachment or aversion to anything.” The Buddha asked, “Subhuti, if a man had a body as huge as a mountain, would he be a great man?” “No, Lord.  Because “a great man” is only words, and being a great man is an illusion, created by the belief in ego.”

13.  Then Subhuti asked the Buddha, “Lord, what shall we call this sermon?”

The Buddha answered,  “Call it ‘The Diamond Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom.’  Like a diamond blade, it can cut through all delusion!” …

14.  Then Subhuti suddenly had a full awareness of the meaning of the sermon, and was moved to tears.  “Lord, thank you for this sermon.  Anyone who hears it and understands it with a pure mind will be moved by it.  Even hundreds of years into the future, its clarity will be appreciated.” ….


32.  “Subhuti, if someone gave away enough treasure to fill a universe, he would still not gain as much merit as someone who manages to understand and pass on a few lines of this sermon.

“So what should be on one’s mind as one begins the Bodhisattva journey?

“Like a falling star, like a bubble in a stream, Like a flame in the wind, like frost in the sun, Like a flash of lightning or a passing dream -­So should you understand the world of the ego.”

Subhuti and the rest of the monks were filled with joy at hearing the Buddha’s sermon.

[An interpretation and abridgement based on other translations.  All errors are mine alone!]

The Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, meditating deeply on Perfection of Wisdom, saw clearly that the five aspects of human existence are empty*, and so released himself from suffering.  Answering the monk Sariputra, he said this:

Body is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than body. The body is exactly empty, and emptiness is exactly body.

The other four aspects of human existence -­feeling, thought, will, and consciousness -­are likewise nothing more than emptiness, and emptiness nothing more than they.

All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases.

So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no imagining. There is nothing seen, nor heard, nor smelled, nor tasted, nor touched, nor imagined.

There is no ignorance, and no end to ignorance. There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to follow. There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain.

The Bodhisattvas rely on the Perfection of Wisdom, and so with no delusions, they feel no fear, and have Nirvana here and now.

All the Buddhas, past, present, and future, rely on the Perfection of Wisdom, and live in full enlightenment.

The Perfection of Wisdom is the greatest mantra. It is the clearest mantra, the highest mantra, the mantra that removes all suffering.

This is truth that cannot be doubted. Say it so:


Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté. Bodhi! Svaha!

Which means…

Gone, gone, gone over, gone fully over. Awakened! So be it!

* Emptiness is the usual translation for the Buddhist term Sunyata (or Shunyata).  It refers to the fact that no thing -­including human existence — has ultimate substantiality, which in turn means that no thing is permanent and no thing is totally independent of everything else.  In other words, everything in this world is interconnected and in constant flux. A deep appreciation of this idea of emptiness thus saves us from the suffering caused by our egos, our attachments, and our resistance to change and loss.

Note:  Perfection of Wisdom is a translation of Prajnaparamita.  The full title of this sutra is The Heart of Prajnaparamita Sutra.

[This is an interpretation based on many others.  All errors are mine alone.]

These are a few of my favorite poems by three of Japan’s greatest Zen monk-poets, Ikkyu (1394-1481), Basho (1644­1694), and Ryokan (1758-1831).


I Hate Incense

A master’s handiwork cannot be measured But still priests wag their tongues explaining the “Way” and babbling about “Zen.” This old monk has never cared for false piety And my nose wrinkles at the dark smell of incense before the Buddha.

A Fisherman

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind. A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure. Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds; Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

My Hovel

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me. The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered. No spring breeze even at this late date, Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

A Meal of Fresh Octopus

Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess; Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so! The taste of the sea, just divine! Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.

Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife. The narrow path of asceticism is not for me: My mind runs in the opposite direction. It is easy to be glib about Zen — I’ll just keep my mouth shut And rely on love play all the day long.

It is nice to get a glimpse of a lady bathing –­

You scrubbed your flower face and cleansed your lovely body While this old monk sat in the hot water, Feeling more blessed than even the emperor of China!

To Lady Mori with Deepest Gratitude and Thanks

The tree was barren of leaves but you brought a new spring. Long green sprouts, verdant flowers, fresh promise. Mori, if I ever forget my profound gratitude to you, Let me burn in hell forever.

(Mori was a blind minstrel, and Ikkyu’s young mistress)

From Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1995.


Summer grasses: all that remains of great soldiers’ imperial dreams

Eaten alive by lice and fleas — now the horse beside my pillow pees

Along the roadside, blossoming wild roses in my horse’s mouth

Even that old horse is something to see this snow-covered morning

On the white poppy, a butterfly’s torn wing is a keepsake

The bee emerging from deep within the peony departs reluctantly

Crossing long fields, frozen in its saddle, my shadow creeps by

A mountain pheasant cry fills me with fond longing for father and mother

Slender, so slender its stalk bends under dew -­little yellow flower

New Year’s first snow — ah -­just barely enough to tilt the daffodil

In this warm spring rain, tiny leaves are sprouting from the eggplant seed

O bush warblers! Now you’ve shit all over my rice cake on the porch

For those who proclaim they’ve grown weary of children, there are no flowers

Nothing in the cry of cicadas suggests they are about to die

From The Essential Basho, Translated by Sam Hamill.  Published by Shambala in Boston, 1999.


When I was a lad, I sauntered about town as a gay blade, Sporting a cloak of the softest down, And mounted on a splendid chestnut-colored horse. During the day, I galloped to the city; At night, I got drunk on peach blossoms by the river. I never cared about returning home, Usually ending up, with a big smile on my face, at a pleasure pavilion!

Returning to my native village after many years’ absence: Ill, I put up at a country inn and listen to the rain. One robe, one bowl is all I have. I light incense and strain to sit in meditation; All night a steady drizzle outside the dark window -­Inside, poignant memories of these long years of pilgrimage.

To My Teacher

An old grave hidden away at the foot of a deserted hill, Overrun with rank weeks growing unchecked year after year; There is no one left to tend the tomb, And only an occasional woodcutter passes by. Once I was his pupil, a youth with shaggy hair, Learning deeply from him by the Narrow River.


One morning I set off on my solitary journey And the years passed between us in silence. Now I have returned to find him at rest here; How can I honor his departed spirit? I pour a dipper of pure water over his tombstone And offer a silent prayer. The sun suddenly disappears behind the hill And I’m enveloped by the roar of the wind in the pines. I try to pull myself away but cannot; A flood of tears soaks my sleeves.

In my youth I put aside my studies And I aspired to be a saint. Living austerely as a mendicant monk, I wandered here and there for many springs. Finally I returned home to settle under a craggy peak. I live peacefully in a grass hut, Listening to the birds for music. Clouds are my best neighbors. Below a pure spring where I refresh body and mind; Above, towering pines and oaks that provide shade and brushwood. Free, so free, day after day -­I never want to leave!

Yes, I’m truly a dunce Living among trees and plants. Please don’t question me about illusion and enlightenment -­This old fellow just likes to smile to himself. I wade across streams with bony legs, And carry a bag about in fine spring weather. That’s my life, And the world owes me nothing.

When all thoughts Are exhausted I slip into the woods And gather A pile of shepherd’s purse.

Like the little stream Making its way Through the mossy crevices I, too, quietly Turn clear and transparent.

At dusk I often climb To the peak of Kugami. Deer bellow, Their voices Soaked up by Piles of maple leaves Lying undisturbed at The foot of the mountain.

Blending with the wind,

Snow falls; Blending with the snow, The wind blows. By the hearth I stretch out my legs, Idling my time away Confined in this hut. Counting the days, I find that February, too, Has come and gone Like a dream.

No luck today on my mendicant rounds; From village to village I dragged myself. At sunset I find myself with miles of mountains between me and my hut. The wind tears at my frail body, And my little bowl looks so forlorn -­Yes this is my chosen path that guides me Through disappointment and pain, cold and hunger.

My Cracked Wooden Bowl

This treasure was discovered in a bamboo thicket -­I washed the bowl in a spring and then mended it. After morning meditation, I take my gruel in it; At night, it serves me soup or rice. Cracked, worn, weather-beaten, and misshapen But still of noble stock!

Midsummer -­I walk about with my staff. Old farmers spot me And call me over for a drink. We sit in the fields using leaves for plates. Pleasantly drunk and so happy I drift off peacefully Sprawled out on a paddy bank.

How can I possibly sleep This moonlit evening? Come, my friends, Let’s sing and dance All night long.

Stretched out, Tipsy, Under the vast sky: Splendid dreams Beneath the cherry blossoms.

Wild roses, Plucked from fields Full of croaking frogs: Float them in  your wine And enjoy every minute!

For Children Killed in a Smallpox Epidemic

When spring arrives From every tree tip Flowers will bloom, But those children Who fell with last autumn’s leaves Will never return.

I watch people in the world Throw away their lives lusting after things, Never able to satisfy their desires, Falling into deeper despair And torturing themselves. Even if they get what they want How long will they be able to enjoy it? For one heavenly pleasure They suffer ten torments of hell, Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone. Such people are like monkeys Frantically grasping for the moon in the water And then falling into a whirlpool. How endlessly those caught up in the floating world suffer. Despite myself, I fret over them all night And cannot staunch my flow of tears.

The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen; Birds sing, the mountains grow dark -­This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.

In a dilapidated three-room hut I’ve grown old and tired; This winter cold is the Worst I’ve ever suffered through. I sip thin gruel, waiting for the Freezing night to pass. Can I last until spring finally arrives? Unable to beg for rice, How will I survive the chill? Even meditation helps no longer; Nothing left to do but compose poems In memory of deceased friends.

“When, when?” I sighed. The one I longed for Has finally come; With her now, I have all that I need.

(Written to the nun Teishin, his young mistress.)

My legacy -­What will it be? Flowers in spring, The cuckoo in summer, And the crimson maples Of autumn…

From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf:  Zen Poems of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1996.

The Ten Oxherding Pictures

1. The search for the bull

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

2. Discovering the footprints

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints! Even under the fregrant grass I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

3.  Perceiving the bull

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore, Here no bull can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

4.  Catching the bull

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

5. Taming the bull

The whip and rope are necessary. Else he might stray off down some dusty road. Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle. Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

6. Riding the bull home

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.

7. The bull transcended

Astride the bull, I reach home. I am serene.  The bull too can rest. The dawn has come.  In blissful repose, Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

8.  both bull and self transcended

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

9.  Reaching the source

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without -­The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

10. In the world

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Illustrations are by Tomikichiro Tokuriki, famous modern woodblock artist from Kyoto. Poems by 12th century Chinese master, Kakuan.

Translation by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, as presented in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Towards a Buddhist Psychotherapy

C. George Boeree, Ph.D. Shippensburg University

What follows is my effort at showing the relevance of Buddhism to western psychotherapy, especially existential therapy. Although it may not sit well with purists, I hope that this article captures the spirit of the Buddha’s message.

The Four Noble Truths sound like the basics of any theory with therapeutic roots:

1. Life is suffering. Life is at very least full of suffering, and it can easily be argued that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. If I have senses, I can feel pain; if I have feelings, I can feel distress; if I have a capacity for love, I will have the capacity for grief. Such is life.

Duhkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering, is also translated as stress, anguish, and imperfection. Buddha wanted us to understand suffering as a foundation for improvement. One key to understanding suffering is understanding anitya, which means that all things, including living things, our loved ones, and ourselves, are impermanent. Another key concept is anatman, which means that all things — even we — have no “soul” or eternal substance. With no substance, nothing stands alone, and no one has a separate existence. We are all interconnected, not just with our human world, but with the universe.

In existential psychology, we speak of ontological anxiety (dread, angst). It, too is characterized as an intrinsic part of life. It is further understood that in order to improve one’s life, one needs to understand and accept this fact of life, and that the effort one makes at avoiding this fact of life is at the root of neurosis. In other words, denying anxiety is denying life itself. As the blues song points out, “if you ain’t scared, you ain’t right!”

Impermanence also has its correlate in the concept of being-towards-death. Our peculiar position of being mortal and being aware of it is a major source of anxiety, but is also what makes our lives, and the choices we make, meaningful. Time becomes important only when there is only so much of it. Doing the right thing and loving someone only have meaning when you don’t have an eternity to work with.

Anatman — one of the central concepts of Buddhism — is likewise a central concept in existential psychology. As Sartre put it, our existences precede our essences. That is to say, we are a kind of “nothingness” that strains to become a “something.” Yet only by acknowledging our lives as more a matter of movement than substance do we stand a chance at authentic being.

2. Suffering is due to attachment. We might say that at least much of the suffering we experience comes out of ourselves, out of our desire to make pleasure, happiness, and love last forever and to make pain, distress, and grief disappear from life altogether.

My feeling, not quite in line with some Buddhist interpretations, is that we are not therefore to avoid pleasure, happiness, and love. Nor are we to believe that all suffering comes from ourselves. It’s just that it is not necessary, being shot once with an arrow, to shoot ourselves again, as the Buddha put it.

Attachment is one translation of the word trishna, which can also be translated as thirst, desire, lust, craving, or clinging. When we fail to recognize that all things are imperfect, impermanent, and insubstantial, we cling to them in the delusion that they are indeed perfect, permanent, and substantial, and that by clinging to them, we, too, will be perfect, permanent, and substantial.

Another aspect of attachment is dvesha, which means avoidance or hatred. To Buddha, hatred was every bit as much an attachment as clinging. Only by giving those things which cause us pain permanence and substance do we give them the power to hurt us more. We wind up fearing, not that which can harm us, but our fears themselves.

A third aspect of attachment is avidya, meaning ignorance. At one level, it refers to the ignorance of these Four Noble Truths — not understanding the truth of imperfection and so on. At a deeper level, it also means “not seeing,” i.e. not directly experiencing reality, but instead seeing our personal interpretation of it. More than that, we take our interpretation of reality as more real than reality itself, and interpret any direct experiences of reality itself as illusions or “mere appearances!”

Existential psychology has some similar concepts here, as well. Our lack of “essence” or preordained structure, our “nothingness,” leads us to crave solidity. We are, you could say, whirlwinds who wish they were rocks. We cling to things in the hopes that they will provide us with a certain “weight.” We try to turn our loved ones into things by demanding that they not change, or we try to change them into perfect partners, not realizing that a statue, though it may live forever, has no love to give us. We try to become immortal, whether by anxiety-driven belief in fairy-tales, or by making our children and grand-children into clones of ourselves, or by getting into the history books or onto the talk shows. We even cling to unhappy lives because change is too frightening.

Or we try to become a piece of a larger pie: The most frightening things we’ve seen in this century are the mass movements, whether they be Nazis or Red Guard or Ku Klux Klan or… well, you name them. If I’m just a little whirlwind, maybe by joining others of my kind, I can be a part of a hurricane! Beyond these giant movements are all the petty ones — political movements, revolutionary ones, religious ones, antireligious ones, ones involving nothing more than a style or fashion, and even the local frat house. And note the glue that holds them together is the same: hatred, which in turn is based on the anxiety that comes from feeling small.

Finally, existential psychology also discusses its version of ignorance. Everyone holds belief systems — personal and social — that remain forever untested by direct experience. They have such staying power because built in to them is a catch-22, a circular argument, that says that evidence or reasoning that threatens the belief system is, ipso facto, incorrect. These belief systems can range from the great religious, political, and economic theories to the little beliefs people hold that tell them that they are — or are not — worthy. It is a part of therapy’s job to return us to a more direct awareness of reality. As Fritz Perls once said, “we must lose our minds and come to our senses!”

3. Suffering can be extinguished. At least that suffering we add to the inevitable suffering of life can be extinguished. Or, if we want to be even more modest in our claims, suffering can at least be diminished.

I believe that, with decades of practice, some monks may be able to transcend even simple, direct, physical pain. I don’t think, however, that us ordinary folk in our ordinary lives have the option of devoting those decades to such an extreme of practice. My focus, then, is on diminishing mental anguish rather than eliminating all pain.

Nirvana is the traditional name for the state of being (or non-being, if you prefer) wherein all clinging, and so all suffering, has been eliminated. It is often translated as “blowing out,” with the idea that we eliminate self like we blow out a candle. This may be a proper understanding, but I prefer the idea of blowing out a fire that threatens to overwhelm us, or even the idea of taking away the oxygen that keeps the fires burning. By this I mean that by “blowing out” clinging, hate, and ignorance, we “blow out” unnecessary suffering.

I may be taking a bit of a leap here, but I believe that the Buddhist concept of nirvana is quite similar to the existentialists’ freedom. Freedom has, in fact, been used in Buddhism in the context of freedom from rebirth or freedom from the effects of karma. For the existentialist, freedom is a fact of our being, one which we often ignore, and which ignorance leads us to a diminished life.

4. And there is a way to extinguish suffering. This is what all therapists believe — each in his or her own way. But this time we are looking at what Buddha’s theory –dharma — has to say: He called it the Eightfold Path.

The first two segments of the path are refered to as prajña, meaning wisdom:

Right view — understanding the Four Noble Truths, especially the nature of all things as imperfect, impermanent, and insubstantial and our self-inflicted suffering as founded in clinging, hate, and ignorance.

Right aspiration — having the true desire to free oneself from attachment, hatefulness, and ignorance. The idea that improvement comes only when the sufferer takes the first step of aspiring to improvement is apparently 2500 years old.

For the existential psychologist, therapy is something neither the therapist nor the client takes lying down — if you will pardon the pun. The therapist must take an assertive role in helping the client become aware of the reality of his or her suffering and its roots. Likewise, the client must take an assertive role in working towards improvement — even though it means facing the fears they’ve been working so hard to avoid, and especially facing the fear that they will “lose” themselves in the process.

The next three segments of the path provide more detailed guidance in the form of moral precepts, called sila:


Right speech – abstaining from lying, gossiping, and hurtful speech generally. Speech is often our ignorance made manifest, and is the most common way in which we harm others. Modern psychologists emphasize that one should above all stop lying to oneself. But Buddhism adds that by practicing being true to others, and one will find it increasingly difficult to be false to oneself.

Right action — behaving oneself, abstaining from actions that hurt others (and, by implication, oneself) such as killing, stealing, and irresponsible sex.

Right livelihood — making one’s living in an honest, non-hurtful way. Here’s one we don’t talk about much in our society today. One can only wonder how much suffering comes out of the greedy, cut-throat, dishonest careers we often participate in. This by no means means we must all be monks: Imagine the good one can do as an honest, compassionate, hard-working accountant, business person, lawyer, or politician!

I have to pause here to add another Buddhist concept to the picture: karma. Basically, karma refers to good and bad deeds and the consequences they bring. In some branches of Buddhism, karma has to do with what kind of reincarnation to expect. But other branches see it more simply as the negative (or positive) effects one’s actions have on one’s integrity. Beyond the effects of your selfish acts have on others, for example, each selfish act “darkens your soul,” and makes happiness that much harder to find. On the other hand, each act of kindness, as the gypsies say, “comes back to you three times over.” To put it simply, virtue is its own reward, and vice its own hell.

The nature of moral choice has been a central concern of existentialism as well. According to  existentialists, we build our lives through our moral choices. But they view morality as a highly individualistic thing — not based on simple formulas beginning with “thou shalt not…” and handed down to us directly from God. Actually, moral choice is something involving a real person in a real situation, and no one can second guess another’s decisions. The only “principle” one finds in existentialism is that the moral decision must come from a certain position, i.e. that of authenticity.

Perhaps I should also pause here to explain what is meant by the existential idea of authenticity. The surface meaning is being real rather than artificial or phony. More completely, it means living one’s life with full acceptance of one’s freedom and the responsibility and anxiety that freedom entails. It is often seen as a matter of living courageously. To me, it sounds suspiciously like enlightenment.

There is another similar ethical philosophy I’d like to mention: the situated ethics of Joseph Fletcher. He is a Christian theologian who finds the traditional, authoritarian brand of Christian ethics not in keeping with the basic message of Christ. Needless to say, he has raised the hackles of many conservative Christians by saying that morality is not a matter of absolutes, but of individual conscience in special situations. He believes that, if an act is rooted in genuine love, it is good. If it is rooted in hatred, selfishness, or apathy, it is bad. Mahayana (northern) Buddhism says very much the same thing.

It is always a matter of amusement to me that my students, unaware of all the great philosophical and religious debates on morality, all seem quite aware that intentionally hurting others (or oneself) is bad, and doing one’s best to help others (and oneself) is good. If you look at Buddha’s pronouncements on morality — or Christ’s — you find the same simplicity.

The last three segments of the path are the ones Buddhism is most famous for, and concern samadhi or meditation. I must say that, despite the popular conception, without wisdom and morality, meditation is worthless, and may even be dangerous.

Right effort – taking control of your mind and the contents thereof. Simple, direct practice is what it takes, the developing of good mental habits: When bad thoughts and impulses arise, they should be abandoned. This is done by watching the thought without attachment, recognizing it for what it is (no denial or repression!), and letting it dissipate. Good thoughts and impulses, on the other hand, should be nurtured and enacted. Make virtue a habit, as the stoics used to say.

There are four “sublime states” (brahma vihara) that some Buddhists talk about. These sublime states are fully experienced by saintly creatures called boddhisattvas, but the rest of us should practice them every moment of every day as an exercise in self-improvement. They are loving kindness to all you meet, compassion for those who are suffering, joy for others without envy, and equanimity or a peaceful, evenly balanced attitude towards the ups and downs of life.

Right mindfulness — mindfulness refers to a kind of meditation involving an acceptance of thoughts and perceptions, a “bare attention” to these events without attachment. It is called vipassana in the Theravada (southern Buddhism) tradition, and shikantaza in the Ch’an (Zen) tradition. But it is understood that this mindfulness is to extend to daily life as well. It becomes a way of developing a fuller, richer awareness of life, and a deterent to our tendency to sleepwalk our way through life. One of the most important moral precepts in Buddhism is the avoidance of consciousness-diminishing or altering substances — i.e. alcohol or drugs. This is because anything that makes you less than fully aware sends you in the opposite direction of improvement into deeper ignorance.

But there are other things besides drugs that diminish consciousness. Some people try to avoid life by disappearing into food or sexuality. Others disappear into work, mindless routine, or rigid, self-created rituals.

Drowning oneself in entertainment is one of today’s favorite substitutes for heroin. I think that modern media, especially television, make it very difficult to maintain our balance. I would like to see a return to the somewhat Victorian concept of “edifying diversions:” see a good movie on PBS or videotape — no commercials, please — or read a good book, listen to good music, and so on.

We can also drown awareness in material things — fast cars, extravagant clothes, and so on. Shopping has itself become a way of avoiding life. Worst of all is the blending of materiality with entertainment. While monks and nuns avoid frivolous diversions and luxurious possessions, we surround ourselves with commercials, infomercials, and entire shopping networks, as if thery were effective forms of “pain control!”

Right concentration — meditating in such a way as to empty our natures of attachments, avoidances, and ignorance, so that we may accept the imperfection, impermanence, and insubstantiality of life. This is usually thought of as the highest form of Buddhist meditation, and full practice of it is pretty much restricted to monks and nuns who have progressed considerably allong the path.

But just like the earlier paths provide a foundation for later paths, later ones often support earlier ones. For example, a degree of “calm abiding” (shamatha), a beginning version of concentration, is essential for developing mindfulness, and is taught to all beginning meditators. This is the counting of breaths or chanting of mantras most people have heard of. This passifying of the mind is, in fact, important to mindfulness, effort, all moral practice, and even the maintaining of view and aspiration. I believe that this simple form of meditation is the best place for those who are suffering to begin -­though once again, the rest of the eightfold path is essential for long-term improvement.

Most therapists know: Anxiety is the most common manifestation of psychological suffering. And when it’s not anxiety, it’s unresolved anger. And when it’s not anger, it’s pervasive sadness. All three of these can be toned done to a manageable level by simple meditation. Meditation will not eliminate these things — that requires wisdom and morality and the entire program — but it will give the sufferer a chance to acquire the wisdom, morality, etc!

Beyond recommending simple meditation, therapists might recommend simplification of lifestyle, avoidance of sensationalistic or exploitative entertainment, a holiday from the news, a retreat to a monastery, or a simple weekend vacation. One of my favorite expressions is “less is more!”

As I mentioned earlier, some Buddhists have an expression “nirvana is samsara,” which means that the perfected life is this life. While there is much talk about great insights and amazing enlightenments and even paranormal events, what Buddhism is really all about, in my humble opinion, is returning to this life, your very own little life, with a “new attitude.” By being more calm, more aware, a nicer person morally, someone who has given up envy and greed and hatred and such, who understands that nothing is forever, that grief is the price we willingly pay for love…. this life becomes at very least bearable. We stop torturing ourselves and allow ourselves to enjoy what there is to enjoy. And there is a good deal to enjoy!

My Buddhist friends often use the term “practice” for what they do. They encourage each other to “keep on practicing.” Nobody is too terribly concerned if they aren’t perfect — they don’t expect that. As long as you pick yourself up and practice a little more. A good basis for therapy.

Copyright 1997, C. George Boeree

Navayana Buddhism

Many of us, easterners and westerners, have been profoundly influenced by our study of Buddhism, and yet do not find ourselves attached to any one particular sect or interpretation of Buddhism.  Further, many of us, especially westerners, find the fundamental ideas of Buddhism deeply meaningful, but cannot, without being dishonest with ourselves, accept certain other ideas usually associated with Buddhism.  This leaves us with a somewhat ambiguous sense of who and what we are.

For example, many of us are unable, or do not desire, to attach ourselves to one or another of the monastic traditions.  And we are often unable and unwilling to take certain beliefs literally.  The many gods and demons, heavens and hells, that some traditional Buddhists accept as real, are things that strain our credibility. And rebirth strikes many of us as a metaphor rather than a literal reality.  Because of these things, to some traditional Buddhists we are just not Buddhists at all.

We are heartened by the fact that Buddha himself seems to have considered arguments about cosmology and gods and the reality of life after death as irrelevant to the more immediate concern, which is the practice of the eight-fold path.  It is, of course, a little presumptuous to say which of the many sutras are the ones we should pay attention to, and which should be considered some kind of later addition or modification.  We will never know exactly what the Buddha said and did not say.  We can only be “lights unto ourselves” and do the best we can.

This by no means suggests that we look down upon other Buddhist orientations or that we have a better or purer understanding of Buddhist life.  We only want to acknowledge our debt to the teachings of the Buddha.  For this reason, I would like to recommend the term Navayana Buddhism (“new vehicle of awakening”) to all those who wish to so identify themselves.

In Peace,

George Boeree May 1, 2002

Basic Buddhist Vocabulary

Abhidharma pitaka — higher teachings, philosophy Alaya-vijñana — “store” consciousness (similar to collective unconscious?) Amitabha — the Buddha of the Western “Pure Land.”  Also known as Amida. Ananda — Buddha’s friend, cousin, and favorite disciple, and the monk who remembered the Sutras. Anatman (anatta) — not-self, self or ego not ultimately real. Annitya (anicca) — change, impermanence of all things, including us. Arahant — Worthy one, a name for the Buddha. Arhat — a monk who has achieved nirvana. Asanga — one of two brothers who lived in India in the 300′s ad who developed Yogachara. Asita — the astrologer who predicts Buddha’s fate Asuras — titans or demigods. Avalokiteshwara  — boddhisattva of compassion Avidya (avijja) — ignorance, delusion. Bardo — (Tibet) the period between death and rebirth. Bhagava — The blessed one, a name for the Buddha. Bhikshu — monk. Bhikshuni — nun. Bodh-gaya — a town in Bihar where Buddha was enlightened at 35. Bodhi — enlightenment, awakening. Bodhi tree — the fig tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. Bodhicitta — sanskrit word for ‘mind of enlightenment’ Bodhidharma — monk who brought Buddhism to China. Bodhisattva — enlightened being who remains in this existence to help others, a saint. Brahma — the supreme deva, who convinced Buddha to teach. Brahma vihara — four “sublime states” of the boddhisattva: Maitri, Karuna, Mudita, Upeksa. Buddha — The awakened one, the enlightened one. Ch’an — Chinese for Zen Buddhism. Chandaka — Buddha’s squire, who helped him leave his princely life. Ching-T’u — Chinese for Pure Land. Citta — basic mind or consciousness Citta-matra — mind only, idealism Dalai Lama — the leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Deer Park — where Buddha gave his first sermon, in Sarnath, near Benares, to the five sadhus. Dependent origination — “one thing leads to another,”  all is connected. Devadatta –  Buddha’s “evil” cousin. “Theodore.” Devas — gods. Dhamma — Pali for dharma. Dharma (dhamma) –  the teachings of the Buddha. Dharmakaya — Buddha-mind, the pervasive essence Dharmas — ultimate elements of the universe (not dharma as in teachings!) Dhyana (ch’an, zen) — meditation. Dogen (1200-1253) — monk who brought Soto Zen to Japan. Duhkha (dukkha) — suffering, distress, lack of peace.  First noble truth. Dzogchen — Tibetan tantric techniques for rapid enlightenment. Dvesha (dosha) — hatred, anger, avoidance. Eightfold Path — right view, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration. Five sadhus — the five ascetics who practiced self-mortification with the Buddha. Flower Adornment School — a sect which attempted to consolidate all forms of Buddhism.  Also known as Hua-Yen or Kegon. Gandharvas — angelic beings who provide the gods with music. Gati — realm.  Used to refer to the six realms (gods, titans, humans, animals, ghosts, and demons) Gautama (Gotama) — Buddha’s family name. Hinayana — southern Buddhism (“small or lesser vehicle or journey”). Ho-tei — Japanese name for Pu-tai Indra — a major deva, originally the Hindu sky god. Jodo, Jodoshin — Japanese for Pure Land. Kalpa — millions of years, an eternity. Kamma — Pali for karma. Kanthaka — Buddha’s horse. Kapilavastu — Shakyan capital, where Buddha grew up. Karma (kamma) –  intentional or willed act. Karuna — compassion or mercy, the special kindness shown to those who suffer.  One of the four brahma vihara. Kashinagara — were Buddha died (near Lumbini), in a grove of sala trees. Koan — a very brief story demonstrating the paradoxical nature of dualistic thinking.  Used in Zen meditation. Kwan Yin , Kwannon — Chinese and Japanese names for Avalokiteswara. Lama — Tibetan tantric master, now often used to refer to any respected monk. Lumbini Grove — where Buddha was born, during his mother’s trip to her parents home. Madhyamaka — middle way, negative logic, not this — not that Mahakyashapa — the monk who understood the silent sermon and led the first council. Mahamaya, or Mayadevi — Buddha’s mother, who died seven days after his birth Mahaprajapati — Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, founder of Buddhist nuns. Mahayana — northern Buddhism (“large or greater vehicle or journey”). Maitreya — the future Buddha, who will be born 30,000 years from now. Maitri — caring, loving kindness displayed to all you meet.  One of the four brahma vihara. Manas — I-consciousness, mind, intelligence Mandala — a complex, circular, symmetrical image used in meditation Mantra — a phrase or syllable repeated during meditation Mara — a deva associated with death and hindrances to enlightenment. It was Mara who tempted Buddha under the bodhi tree. Marga — the path, track.  The eightfold noble path.  Fourth noble truth. Metta — Pali for Maitri. Mudita — sympathetic joy, being happy for others, without a trace of envy.  One of the four brahma vihara. Mudra — symbolic hand positions Nagarjuna — monk who developed Madhyamaka in India about 150 ad. Nagas — great serpents (or dragons, or water creatures). The king of the Nagas protected Buddha from a storm. Narakas — demons (hell beings) Nibbana — Pali for nirvana. Nichiren –  Japanese school popular in west, and the name of its founder.  Emphasizes chanting. Nirmankaya — Gotama, the historical Buddha. Nirodha — containment of suffering.  Third noble truth. Nirvana (nibbana) — liberation, enlightenment, release from samsara. Pali — a language related to Sanskrit in which the earliest scriptures were recorded in Sri Lanka. Pali canon — see the Tripitaka. Pancha shila — five moral precepts:  Avoid killing, or harming any living thing;  Avoid stealing; Avoid sexual irresponsibility;  Avoid lying, or any hurtful speech;  Avoid alcohol and drugs which diminish clarity of consciousness. Pañña — Pali for prajña Pitaka — basket, referring to the Tripitaka or scriptures. Prajña (pañña) — wisdom. Prajña — goddess of knowledge.  Buddha’s mother was considered an incarnation. Prajñaparamita — a massive collection of Mahayana texts, including the Heart and Diamond Sutras. Prateyaka-buddha — solitary realizer. Pretas — hungry ghosts. Puja — ceremony in which offerings and other acts of devotion are performed. Pu-tai — the laughing buddha, chinese monk, incarnation of Maitreya Pure Land — Chinese/Japanese sect, emphasizing worship of Amitabha Buddha.  Ching- T’u, Jodo and Jodoshin. Rahula — Buddha’s son. Rinzai Zen — a Zen sect that makes extensive use of koans. Rupa — form, the physical body and senses Samadhi — meditation. Samatha — Pali for Shamatha. Sambhogakaya — Buddha as a deva or god. Samjña — perception Samsara — the wheel of cyclic existence, birth-life-suffering-death-rebirth… Samskara — mental formations (emotions and impulses) Samudaya — arising or root of suffering.  Second noble truth. Sangha — the community of monks and nuns. Sanskrit — an early language of northern India, modified and used as a religious language by some Buddhists. Sanzen — interview with a master in Zen Buddhism Sati — Pali for smrti. Satori — Zen term for enlightenment. Shakyamuni — Sage of the Sakyas, a name for the Buddha. Shakyas — a noble clan, ruled an area of southern Nepal. Shamatha (samatha) — “calm abiding,” peacefulness. Shikantaza — mindfulness meditation in Zen Buddhism. Shila (sila) — morality. Shravaka — “hearer,” one who needs the help of others to become enlightened. Shrota-appana — “stream-winner” (only seven more rebirths!). Shuddodana — Buddha’s father. Shunyata — emptiness, lack of inherent existence of “own nature.” Siddhartha Gautama — “He who has reached his goal.” Sila — Pali for shila. Six realms — realms of the gods, asuras, humans, animals, pretas, narakas. Skandhas — parts of the self. Smrti (sati) — mindfulness, meditation. Son — Korean for Zen Buddhism. Soto Zen — A Zen sect emphasizing Shikantaza meditation Sthaviravada — Sanskrit for Theravada, “way of the elders” Sujata — the village girl who gave Buddha milk-rice. Sukhavati — Sanskrit for Blissful Land, the “Pure Land” of Amitabha. Sutra (sutta) pitaka — sacred texts, sayings of the Buddha. Tantra — yogic, magico-ritual form. Taras — a set of 21 female saviors, born from Avalokiteshwara’s tears.  Green Tara and   White Tara are the best known. Tathagata — “thus gone,” a name for the Buddha. Tendai — see White Lotus School. Thangka — a traditional Tibetan painting of a holy being. The Four Noble Truths:  duhkha, samudaya, nirodha, marga. Theravada — “way of the elders,” only surviving form of southern Buddhism. Three bodies — nirmankaya, sambhogakaya, dharmakaya.  Three meanings of “Buddha.” Three fires (or poisons) — the causes of suffering. Tipitaka — Pali for Tripitaka. Tripitaka (three baskets) — earliest Buddhist scriptures:  Vinaya pitaka, sutra pitaka,   abhidarma pitaka. Trishna (tanha) — thirst, craving, desire. Upali — the first person ordained as a monk by the Buddha, a barber, and the monk who  remembered the Vinaya or code of the monks. Upeksa (upekkha) is equanimity, levelness, or grace.  One of the four brahma vihara. Vajrayana — tantric Buddhism (“thunderbolt vehicle”), esp. Tibetan Buddhism. Vasubandhu — one of two brothers who lived in India in the 300′s ad who developed Yogachara. Vedana — sensation, feeling. Vijñana — consciousness or mind. Vinaya pitaka — discipline basket (code of behavior for monks). Vipaka — “fruit” of willed act, the consequences. Vipashyana (vipassana) — insight, mindfulness. White Lotus School — sect focusing on the Lotus Sutra.  Also known as T’ien T’ai or Tendai. Yama — the king of the 21 hells. Yashodhara — Buddha’s wife, whom he married when they were both 16 Yidam –  mental image of a god or other entity used for meditation Yogacara (or vijñañavada) — school emphasizing primacy of consciousness Zazen — sitting meditation in Zen Buddhism Zen — a group of Buddhist sects that focus on meditation.  Also known as Ch’an, Son, or Dhyana.



Links and Suggested Readings

Access in Insight: Gateways to Theravada Buddhism. (

Fantastic set of translations of suttas from the Pali Canon

Osel Shen Phen Ling: The Tibetan Buddhist Center. (

A particularly beautiful web site, with lovely teachings from modern lamas.

BuddhaNet: Buddhist Information Network. (

Rich site, with a great glossary by Ven. S. Dhammika, and many downloadable texts of all traditions.

The White Path Temple: Shin Buddhism. (

Many articles and resources regarding the popular Shin tradition.

The Buddhist Library (

A very large collection of Buddhist texts and commentary.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. (

A site associated with the magazine Tricycle. Some articles are are available right here!

The Journal of Buddhist Ethics. (

Very technical, philosophical free internet publication.

The E-Sangha. (

A large and active Buddhist discussion forum.

Suggested Readings

Walpola Rahula –What the Buddha Taught — A really good explanation of basic ideas, using lots of Pali Sutra

quotes. Kogen Mizuno –The Beginnings of Buddhism — A great review of the Buddha’s teachings, presented in the form of a biography.

John Snelling –The Elements of Buddhism and The Buddhist Handbook — Great introductions (the first short, the second long), especially to the history of Buddhism, up to the present.

The Dhammapada — The most beautiful summation of Buddhism in the sutras!  Many translations available. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion — Shambhala, publisher — Every Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist word in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Japanese, you are ever going to come across.  Also available in more limited versions (e.g. one for Zen…)!

Shunryu Suzuki –Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — IMHO the very best book ever written on Zen.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki –Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Manual of Zen Buddhism — Classic introduction and selection of readings on Zen. Philip Kapleau –The Three Pillars of Zen — Great introduction. Follow-up books also available. Thich Nhat Hanh –Being Peace — Suggestions for meditation by the originator of Engaged Buddhism.  He’s written

many others. Robert Thurman –Essential Tibetan Buddhism — Collection of Tibetan texts by the father of Uma.  Tough reading!

Dalai Lama –The Art of Happiness:  A Handbook for Living — It’s by the Dalai Lama!  He has written many others

as well. Stephen Batchelor –Buddhism Without Beliefs — A wonderful effort at fitting Buddhism together with Western society (not an easy task!).

Sylvia Boorstein –That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist — Buddhism from the Jewish perspective.

Charlotte Joko Beck –Everyday Zen:  Love and Work — Zen in ordinary life.

David Brazier –Zen Therapy — An expanation of how Zen contributes to therapy. And The Feeling Buddha — a

great introduction to Buddhist Psychology. Mark Epstein –Thoughts Without a Thinker — Zen blended with Freud. Alan Watts — wrote lots of great books, introducing a generation of hippies to “beat” Zen. Thomas Cleary — good modern translator of many Buddhist texts. Stephen Mitchell — another good modern translator of many Buddhist texts. John Stevens — a third good translator.  See especially Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu and Dewdrops on a Lotus

Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan.

Lao Tsu –The Tao te Ching — It’s not really Buddhism, but it has contributed to Zen enormously.  And it is one of the greatest little books ever written.  I would recommend the translation by Ursula K. leGuin. Epictetus –The Art of Living — Ancient Greek Buddhism?  A translation of this great Stoic work by Sharon Lebell.