1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism in One Sentence

By December 14, 2011

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This is a quote from A Profound Mind: Cultivating Wisdom in Everyday Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

"Perhaps the chief difference between Buddhism and the world's other major faith traditions lies in its presentation of our core identity. The existence of the soul or self, which is affirmed in different ways by Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is not only firmly denied in Buddhism; belief in it is identified as the chief source of all our misery. The Buddhist path is fundamentally a process of learning to recognize this essential nonexistence of the self, while seeking to help other sentient beings to recognize it as well."

"The Buddhist path is fundamentally a process of learning to recognize this essential nonexistence of the self, while seeking to help other sentient beings to recognize it as well." That's possibly the best one-sentence definition of Buddhism I've ever read. Truly, the rest is commentary.

[Update: Clarifying -- the quote is from the Foreword, by Nicholas Vreeland.]

December 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm
(1) David says:

One wonders if His H offered this concise summary while standing on one foot :-) .

December 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

? Not seeing your point ?

December 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm
(3) lee says:

it is all so simple … and then that wiley self sneaks in and self is clinging to those myriad desires … and I pray for willingness to once again sit and let go … and practice.

December 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm
(4) Mila says:

Wonderful quote. And I agree that, in terms of one-sentence descriptions of the essence of Buddha Dharma, it doesn’t get much better.

Now of course we could muddy the waters just a bit (in a way that HH Dalai Lama may or may not agree with) by suggesting that the nondual mystical wings of at least some of the other major religions mentioned — e.g. Advaita Vedanta, Sufism & Christian mysticism — espouse a similar if not identical “nonexistence of self.”

For instance, the German Christian mystic Angelus Silesius writes:

God, whose love and joy
are present everywhere,
can’t come to visit you
unless you aren’t there.

Or from the Sufi poet Rumi:

I have lived on the lip
on insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside!

And from the Ashtavakra Gita, a classic of Advaita Vedanta:

I am always
Without I.

So where is the one
Who acts or enjoys?

And what is the rising
Or the vanishing of thought?

What is the invisible world,
Or the visible?

December 14, 2011 at 9:03 pm
(5) David says:

Re Barbara’s question above re my comment. Sorry, I guess the joke was a bit obscure. There is a famous Talmud story in which the sage Hillel is challenged to summarize all of the Torah while his questioner stands on one foot, i.e., in few words. He answers “That which is hateful to you do not do unto others. The rest is commentary”. Similar to Barbara’s wording about the D Lama’s summary of Buddhism. Hence the standing on one foot comment. Oh well.

December 14, 2011 at 10:19 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

David — I knew the story about Rabbi Hillel but not the detail about standing on one foot.

December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm
(7) Paula says:

I really struggle with this central aspect of buddhism because I feel
there are many situations in life where a core self is essential to an individuals psychological health. I’m not sure it’s possible – or even advisable – to tototally rid the mind of a sense of a core self.
I can think of many examples (bullying, abusive relationships, cruelty to
children, etc) where an individual would need a lot of help in strengthening a core self.
I hit a brick wall with this and it gets in the way of my practice.

December 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Paula — I think you’re misunderstanding a lot. It’s not about ridding the mind of a core self, exactly. The person you are doesn’t disappear. It’s more like you understand yourself in a different way.

December 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm
(9) AdamL says:

Barbara, exactly what you are doing with aboutbuddhism.com is perfect for the quote…. sharing and caring. Thank you

December 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm
(10) Jerome says:

I am not an expert in Buddhism, but I think this is a peripheral doctrine of Zen Buddhism. If I have no self, enlightenment does no good to my self or for any other. We see no self in meditation, not because the self does not exist, but because the see-er cannot see itself.

Buddhism is about exercising meditation and compassion in order to alleve suffering.


December 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

but I think this is a peripheral doctrine of Zen Buddhism.

No, sorry, you are mistake. Anatta (not self) is the basis of Buddhism, and has been from the beginning. It’s what the historical Buddha taught. All other teachings (including meditation and compassion and relieving suffering, etc.) grow from the essential truth of the nature of self. If you don’t appreciate that, you will misunderstand the rest of it.

December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm
(12) Paula says:

Barbara – do you have any suggestions of what I might read to understand this better- I’ve been reading some commenteries on the heart sutra ( Thich Nhat Hanh and Red Pine) and though
I can grasp with my intellect – and also with mindful meditation – the ability to stay with ‘no self’ slips away within
the dynamics of human relationships. I have an issue with anger/hurt feelings just now and I don’t seem able to reach that state where the ‘chattering mind’ lets go of the hurt.

December 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

Paula — the realization of not self is very difficult, and it takes most of us a long time. It , It helps a lot to work directly with a teacher, if possible. The thing to remember is that we’re not talking about a vacuum. There is existence; it’s just that we misunderstand what that existence is. I wrote a short post awhile back called “You Are Not Nothing” that addresses this a bit.

Consider also what Thich Nhat Hanh said in Miracle of Mindfulness — “…the great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.” (p.47)

When you meditate, don’t try to somehow get rid of yourself. That doesn’t work. Instead, loosen your boundaries. Don’t separate yourself. Sit with everything.

December 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm
(14) Bodhicitta says:

recognizing the internal phenomenon of arising and passing away as not-self (permanently changing!) needs a great deal of practice of observing as they are so that you can be distant from them!

December 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm
(15) MC Sharma says:

I believe the whole controvery about existence or nonexistence self relates only to the question whether anything survives -call it Self or Soul-after the physical body disintegrates. I also believe that Budhism does not deny existence of self as long as the body lives. The essential cause of human misery is rooted in our management of this Self. I agree with Paula,”the ability to stay with no self slips away within the dynamics of human relationships.” I believe it does so because the ‘Self’ is a reality and continues to kick so long as the body lasts. Therefore the whole ‘practice’ revolves round realizing the true nature of this self (While body lasts) and the true ways to handle this self by doing ‘Kushal” actions, as Barbara rightly says it is more like understanding yourself in a different way. This would be perhaps the correct way to appreciate the Dalai Lama quote which only boils down to saying that if you believe in the existence of self post-death, you are most certaily messig up your thinking processes and motivations in the current life.

December 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

MC Sharma — you write, “I believe the whole controvery about existence or nonexistence self relates only to the question whether anything survives -call it Self or Soul-after the physical body disintegrates. I also believe that Budhism does not deny existence of self as long as the body lives.”

No, this is not accurate. The Buddha taught that what we think of as the “self,” or “me” is an illusion re-created every moment by our senses and nervous systems. (I’m using modern terms, of course; the Buddha explained this in terms of the Five Skandhas.) The truth of anatta is at the heart of the Four Noble Truths. Belief in an intrinsic self that is “me” is the primordial ignorance that gives rise to the other two poisons, greed and anger, and to the thirst (tanha) or grasping that is the source of dukkha.

This is bedrock, foundational Buddhism accepted by all schools.

Beyond that, there is a difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as to exactly how this is understood. Mahayana Buddhism (which includes both Zen and Tibetan) teaches that all existence is both relative (or conventional) and absolute, but don’t think of this as a “true” self or a “false” self. And even in this sense, the “conventional” self is insubstantial and takes identity only in relation to other phenomena and beings. There is no intrinsic self, period. This has nothing to do with a self that survives death, or not; it has to do with the self you think is reading your monitor right now.

December 16, 2011 at 3:50 am
(17) Jerome says:

Barbara, I’m not a linguist, but perhaps “anata” means “selfless”. If there were no self in Buddhism, seeking lost Buddhas would be in vain.

December 16, 2011 at 8:43 am
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jerome — Who in the world is seeking lost Buddhas? I never heard of such a thing. Some kind of folk tradition? People do all kinds of things in the name of Buddhism that really don’t have anything to do with Buddhism.

“Anatta” is the Pali for the Sanskrit word “anatman.” Anatman is the opposite of “atman,” which means “soul” or “self.” It’s a foundational teaching of Buddhism that there is no soul or singular self that continues throughout our lives. Instead, there is an idea of self that is re-created from moment to moment. Clinging to this idea of self is the primordial ignorance that brings about all suffering. Enlightenment might be defined as he realization that self is an illusion.

December 16, 2011 at 6:35 am
(19) andy says:

As Krishnamurti put it “there is no self, only the thought of self”

December 16, 2011 at 7:05 am
(20) Paula says:

this is an interesting discussion that is giving me some clarity. i think the notion of ‘no fixed self’ is easier to absorb than ‘noself, nonexistent self’.
I’m not totally clear that these terms mean the same thing.
Some might feel that buddhism is a transformative psychology as well as
a metaphysical/transcendental philosophy. As the transformative part involves ‘our being in the world’ – thru the five skandas and our relationships with others – and works through following precepts I struggle to make the division between buddhism and other world religions (in some areas of thought). I’m not sure the Christian ethic/precept ‘to thine own self be true’ is necessarily in contradiction to adherence to a view of the self as ‘not fixed’ – a self therefore subject to flux and change, (and delusion) and a self that can be monitored through mental discipline (I do experience buddhism as a discipline).
I also find the concept of ‘interbe’ – interconnectedness – very helpful – as it loosens up the bounderies of a fixed self.
thankyou for your help on this

December 16, 2011 at 8:57 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

this is an interesting discussion that is giving me some clarity. i think the notion of “no fixed self” is easier to absorb than “noself, nonexistent self”. I’m not totally clear that these terms mean the same thing.

We’re talking about things that are genuinely ineffable. Our words and concepts don’t quite reach it, which is why there is practice.

It’s closer to it to think in terms of no fixed self, or no permanent self, than to think of it as a void (although you run into the word “void” in the literature about this from time to time). In Mahayana Buddhism, we say that things have no inherent existence, ad they take identity only in relation to other things. Phenomena exist only as designations. Put another way, a “thing” or “being” is a temporary confluence of attributes that takes identity or designation in our thoughts according to their relationship to other phenomena. There is no inherent entity inhabiting the attributes.

December 16, 2011 at 9:28 am
(22) thesiciliandragon says:

Buddhism is fundamentally an atheistic religion, so the burden of attaining Nirvana is all on the practitioner. By contrast, Christianity, God has done all the work and the believer is secure for all eternity so that person can do God’s work, through the power He endows the person. Recently, I ordered and watched Not in God’s Name. As much as I respect Dalai Lama, co-existence among religions is not possible. There are too many distinctions, for example, Judaism and Islam are Monotheistic, Hinduism is polytheistic/Henotheistic, Buddhism is atheistic as is Taoism. Paganism is plastic so it absorbs many different religions. Christianity is trinitarian, not tri-theistic as some have incorrectly assumed. Hinduism is tri-theistic (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) Attaining bliss is another matter that is quite distinctive. The texts of various religions are quite distinctive as well. Tolerance, everybody is intolerant of something, some will probably not tolerate what I just wrote.

December 16, 2011 at 10:20 am
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

thesiciliandragon —

I was raised Lutheran and was quite devout in my youth. Part of the break from Christianity came when I perceived that the teachings of Christianity only work within an a conceptual framework that is, I realized, an artificial creation. I came to think of the conceptual framework (belief in the Triune God, the resurrection, heaven, hell, etc.) as “the box.” Christianity falls apart when you take it out of the box. I sought an understanding of spirituality that didn’t depend on the box; that could maintain its integrity outside of any box. Eventually, after some years of stumbling around, I found a Zen teacher who showed me the way out of the box.

Buddhism ultimately doesn’t depend on believing anything that we cannot experience and discern for ourselves to be true. However, beliefs — including belief in God — can function as what we call “upaya,” or skillful means, to realization. So, it doesn’t bother me at all that people accept various religious beliefs that are not part of my particular tradition.

We also come to understand that the absolute reality is ineffable and cannot be explained in words or concepts. All doctrines — including Buddhist ones — that can be expressed in words or conceptualized in our imaginations fall short of the truth, and are only “hands pointing to the moon.” But as we say in Zen, the hand pointing to the moon is not the moon.

For this reason, Buddhists can be unconcerned about the various religious beliefs. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,

Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

From a Buddhist perspective, it’s understood that people have differing “mental inclinations and dispositions,” in the Dalai Lama’s words. What works for one person may not work for someone else. For that reason, most schools of Buddhism teach respect for other religions, with the understanding that a sincere person will find the path that is right for him or her at this time, in this life. That path won’t necessarily be Buddhism, and that’s OK.

If you are committed with your whole being to a spiritual path that includes doctrines about gods and souls, by all means, continue that path faithfully and sincerely, and let it take you where it will take you.

However, it’s of no use to either you or me to argue about religion, and I don’t like these comment threads to be used for such argument. If you want to learn about Buddhism you are welcome to hang out here, but otherwise both your time and mine would be better used practicing our own faiths.

December 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm
(24) Jerome says:

One last time:

Barbara, how would non-belief in the self end suffering?
Many atheists disbelieve in the soul, yet suffer still!

Excuse me for being logical. It is a Dorge Shugden thing.

December 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm
(25) Barbara O'Brien says:

Barbara, how would non-belief in the self end suffering? Many atheists disbelieve in the soul, yet suffer still!

No no no no. We’re not talking about mere non-belief in the self. We are talking about the intimate and direct realization that the self is an illusion. There are galaxies of difference between the two. And I say again, this is basic Buddhism, accepted in all schools. This is the foundation of the Four Noble Truths and all Buddhist teaching. Period. If you are being taught something else, then find another teacher or school.

December 16, 2011 at 1:56 pm
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jerome — I have just written a post explaining this in more detail.

December 16, 2011 at 5:27 pm
(27) The Dude says:

Buddhists are people who read books on Buddhism and who ask themselves if they are really all there.

December 16, 2011 at 8:30 pm
(28) RICH says:

I don’t that the Buddha said that there is no soul. I think what he said is that is does not matter, so stop wasting time on that and practice things like the six perfections, no-harm, and alturism!

December 16, 2011 at 9:04 pm
(29) Barbara O'Brien says:

I don’t that the Buddha said that there is no soul.

Sorry, you are mistaken. It’s an important point. BTW, the sixth perfection is perfection of wisdom, which is the realization of no self.

December 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm
(30) MC Sharma says:

Barbara, i need a little more clarity about your saying,”Were not talking about mere non-belief in the self. We are talking about the intimate and direct realization that the self is an illusion.” when you talk of non-belief in self, you are probably talking of the phenomena experienced by a being (Five khandhas) that serve as the objects of clinging, and the basis for a sense of self. The five khandhas of living being are in reality “not-self,” that is, not “I” or “mine,” but that clinging to them as if they were “what I am,” or were “mine,” gives rise to unhappiness. This basis of the self is understood to be imparmanent and everchanging- in prpetual flux. Therefore there cannot be a permanent self if the very basis of it is in a flux. That is why, as you put it, the self is an illusion. In this background, i come to the point where i need clarity: Admitting that through Budhist practice, this illusion is got over and ‘i’ look back at ‘myself’ whether the realization through practice has made any difference. Will that not amount to coming back to a belief in ‘self’. How would you describe that situation from Budhnist perspective?

December 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm
(31) Barbara O'Brien says:

MC Sharma — I suspect you’ve reached a point at which working directly with a teacher would be the most help. I can’t give you much but a description of concepts, but you seem to have a basic grasp of that already. My next best suggestion is to not try to “figure it out” but to sit with your question in a non-conceptual way. Take it into your bones. See where that takes you.

December 16, 2011 at 11:29 pm
(32) MC Sharma says:

Thanks, Barbara, for the helpful suggestion.
I will return with some results.
Paula, pl do not leave the blog yet as i find your comments showing some confusion but for the same reason a great potential for useful discussion. And meanwhile if you could share your comments on my last post, it would be welcome. Thanks

December 17, 2011 at 10:27 am
(33) Paula says:

Hi MCSharma – have not left the blog as finding it very interesting.
This is where I’ve got to in my thinking and hope this relates back to your last comment.
I have no difficulty accepting that the ‘self’ is not fixed – and this is encouraging because we can change (hopefully for the better) by montoring the self through our understanding of Dharma.
If we bring the language of buddhism into modern terminology we cross over into the history of Mind in Western Philosophy and areas within Continental philosophy (particularly deconstruction – and I feel buddhism within this issue of self/no-self is a philosophy that embraces deconstruction).
You mentioned the self – commenting on the self – we can probably never escape this as we are bound within language/ and our sensory antennae and can not escape this. Even the sense of ‘no consciousness’ reqiures a consciousness to talk about non-consciousness. As Barbara notes – we are in the realm of the ineffable with this and have to work within the descriptions of language which are inadequate).
I think regarding practice it is probably best to let go of the ‘intellectual chatter’ – something I find hard to do!
My father died in a a state of delirium and also had dementia. This distressing life experience of watching a loved one’s sense of self fragment, and totally disappear, clarified for me that the ‘self’ really is just an aggregate of aquired memories/experiences, etc.
I feel it doesn’t help to confuse self with soul – soul/spirit is a separate issue – but I’m going on too much – too may words. Sorry!

December 18, 2011 at 10:39 am
(34) Mila says:

RE: “I feel it doesnt help to confuse self with soul soul/spirit is a separate issue”

Of course it depends upon how we define our terms — “self” & “soul” & “spirit” are used in so many ways, in various contexts — but in terms of Buddha Dharma what’s important is how all three tend to imply something permanent and lasting (whether over the course of a single or many lifetimes). As such, they are treated more-or-less equally: as notions tethering us to samsaric suffering, and so to be abandoned.

RE: “I feel buddhism within this issue of self/no-self is a philosophy that embraces deconstruction”

I would say: yes and no. The resolution of our notion of a “permanent self” into its Five-Skandhas components does bear a similarity to the intellectual processes of philosophical deconstruction.

But Buddhist practice, of course, while it may begin at an intellectual level, goes much deeper …. into an experiential realization of “self” as continuous transformation.

If “part one” of the Buddhist deconstruction of self is resolving it into the Five Skandhas; then “part two” — which must be wholly experiential — is to realize the emptiness of the Five Skandhas themselves.

This is, simultaneously, an encounter with the luminosity of our True Selves (to use zennie lingo) i.e. Buddha Nature — which is anything but the kind of nihilistic void that a merely intellectual deconstruction seems at times to flirt with.

December 18, 2011 at 10:40 am
(35) Mila says:

RE: “we are in the realm of the ineffable with this and have to work within the descriptions of language which are inadequate”

Thich Nhat Hanh has said something to the effect of: “once you’ve realized that you’re not a “permanent self,” it’s fine to use the word ‘self’.”

In terms of pointing to the ineffable, the Tibetans have a nifty conceptual distinction, between the “approximate ultimate” and the “absolute ultimate.” The “absolute ultimate” points to that which can only be experienced directly, non-conceptually, beyond language. The “approximate ultimate” refers to the use of language as a skillful means, to assist people conceptually, to be more open to the possibility of a direct encounter with that-which-can’t-be-spoken. So words, skillfully employed, can function as something like halfway houses ….

December 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm
(36) Paula says:

Mila – thankyou for your replies to my comments – I would like to give your reply some thought before I write anymore – very helpful, thankyou

December 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm
(37) paula says:

ps. Mila – would you mind writing a little about whether you view Samsara as metaphorical or literal (ie. belief in re-birth, etc) and whether
it is acceptable within Zen to view this process as a metaphor.

I am reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead – but like many newbies to Buddhism ‘am slightly worried that I’m drawing from too many sources
and muddling myself in the process.

December 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm
(38) Petteri Sulonen says:

Paula You didn’t ask me, but I’ll give my take on this anyway, because it was a pretty interesting question.

First off: your views are what they are, and you can’t will yourself into accepting something you don’t believe. So there’s not much point in fretting about it (unless you’re a teacher, but that’s a whole different ball game, I’m sure).

Second, I don’t think that approaching these questions from the point of view of accepting them or not is necessarily very fruitful. Instead, I try to understand what they mean. If there is no abiding self, then what or who, exactly, gets reborn? I have a feeling that when I thoroughly understand that, the rest of it may fall into place too.

And third, there are a pretty wide variety of ways rebirth is understood in different Buddhist traditions. Tibetan Buddhism has a quite a lot of specific teachings about it, for example, and Pure Land Buddhism wouldn’t make much sense at all if you don’t believe there’s a possibility of being reborn in the Pure Land where enlightenment is within reach.

On the other hand, some Zen/Ch’an traditions leave it deliberately vague. They might describe rebirth as karma continuously conditioning new births, including but not limited to the one you think of as ‘you,’ and that this process will certainly not end with your death, but that the question of whether ‘you’ are reborn ‘as’ something or someone in particular doesn’t make much sense. “Rebirth happens, but it’s not what you think,” as some teacher or other put it. Or “How could I know, I’m not dead,” as another one answered a question about what happens after death.

But I do think that it’s a mistake to discard the whole notion as ‘mythical accretion’ or ‘metaphorical.’ It is important, and if not completely central to Buddhism, at least fairly near the center.

Just my dime’s worth, speaking purely for myself, with no authorization or authority at all.

December 18, 2011 at 6:27 pm
(39) paula says:

Petteri Suloren – thankyou for your feedback. I haven’t taken part in a blog discussion before and this has helped me to clarify some of the confusion that comes from trying to understand buddhism in the absence of a teacher. Many, many questions come up for me.

You brought up an interesting point concerning the relationship between acceptance/belief/understanding and meaning.

I feel there is an order of priority (for me) within this relationship. The first text I read on buddhism placed great emphasis on ‘accepting’ the six realms of re-birth. My mind immediately rejected this because it felt too close to a religious notion of heaven/hell etc.

But then I came at it differently – I read the text in a way that was meaningful to me and now I find I return to the six realms
a lot to deepen my understanding of the illusory states the mind/self can become trapped within.

I find this presents me with enough to work on in this life without worrying too much about what happens after death. Perhaps this is the vagueness you refer to within some teachings of Zen Buddhism.

Have I misunderstood about Pure Land though? My understanding is that the ‘Pure Land’ is what we can aim towards in this life and is one of the blessings of practice?

December 18, 2011 at 7:24 pm
(40) Barbara O'Brien says:

Have I misunderstood about Pure Land though? My understanding is that the ‘Pure Land’ is what we can aim towards in this life and is one of the blessings of practice?

That’s how I understand Pure Land, although I think most people who practice in the Pure Land tradition think of it more literally. The point is that many teachings can be understood on a lot of levels. Over the past couple of centuries a lot of things that were believed in literally have been re-interpreted to be more allegorical or even psychological, and this has been going on in Asia as much as in the West.

Right now, understanding of things is all over the place, but that’s OK, because “believing in” doctrines really isn’t the point. The point is to understand what the teachings are pointing to.

December 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm
(41) Mila says:

RE: “I am reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead but like many newbies to Buddhism am slightly worried that Im drawing from too many sources and muddling myself in the process.”

Hi Paula, I don’t know what translation(s) of the Tibetan Book of the Dead you’re reading, but I feel that Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying is a great one to begin with. Among western teachers, Andrew Holocek goes deep into this territory, and so you might want to check out some of his writings or DVD’s, or better yet attend a seminar in person.

December 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm
(42) Mila says:

RE: “would you mind writing a little about whether you view Samsara as metaphorical or literal (ie. belief in re-birth, etc) and whether
it is acceptable within Zen to view this process as a metaphor.”

As Petteri mentioned, different schools/lineages understand & describe these things in different ways. Since I’m not primarily a Zen practitioner, I’ll leave that particular question for Barbara to address.

Generally speaking, the issue from the start is a rather tricky one, because the word “literal” often assumes an entire scientific materialist world-view, including a more-or-less representational theory of perception. If we challenge these assumptions — for instance by allowing for the possibility of perception being deeply conditioned, and subject/object arising interdependently — then the distinction between “literal” and “metaphoric” becomes quite a bit less distinct :)

A way into this territory is to assume — say, just as a working hypothesis — that they’re both literal and metaphoric. In relation to “Pure Lands,” for instance: we can notice that when we’re in harmonious and balanced relationship with the people, places and things of our world, what tends to arise is an experience of our “world” as being basically pleasant and ease-full — which we could then describe as a “Pure Land.”

Along these same lines, check out Barbara’s Wheel Of Life gallery.

December 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm
(43) Petteri Sulonen says:

Paula Most Zen interpretations of the Pure Land that I’ve come across do see it that way. Hakuin Zenji’s famous Chant in the praise of zazen (Zazen wasan) finishes with something like “This land that we stand on is the Pure Lotus Land / And this very body is the body of the Buddha,” for example.

I’ve gathered that Pure Land Buddhism sees it a bit differently, though. Zen is more weighted towards joriki (“self-power”), whereas Pure Land is more tariki (“other-power”); I’ve understood that many Pure Land devotees believe that enlightenment is very difficult in this life, but if you practice diligently you may be born in one of the Pure Lands presided over by bodhisattvas in your next one, where they will instruct you so you can attain complete enlightenment. I’m not at all familiar with these practices, though, so I may have misunderstood something, so don’t trust me on this one.

The distinction between Zen and Pure Land is more of a Japanese thing, though; in Chinese Ch’an they’re seen as complementing each other rather than alternatives. “Who recites the name of the Buddha?” is an alternative phrasing for the first koan (“What is your original face?” etc.)

December 19, 2011 at 5:02 am
(44) giridhar says:

There was a comment that there would be religions and there would be serious differences.

things it seems to me are fairly simple:
our ids like caste, religion, nation etc are externally pasted badges of identity. Once this is realised, there would be a change of scenario.
i am publishing a paper in a journal and they gave me a submission id! religion is as much an externally pasted badge as this submission id!

Man has unfortunately succeeded in complicating the issue and thereby potentiating animosity and ill-will among people with different ids.


December 19, 2011 at 5:50 am
(45) Paula says:

Barbara,Mila, Petteri, thankyou for your replies. This discussion has given me some useful direction.

re ‘the point is to understand what the teachings are pointing to’

yes – this resonates and is going to be my thought for the week!

December 21, 2011 at 7:49 am
(46) M.C.Sharma says:

I have a problem of getting out of the notion of ‘self’ on the ground that it is impermanent , based on continuous change- like a river flowing but having a different water each moment. One could have another analogy of a motion picture as an aid to understanding: it is composed of a great variety of static frames but when run speedily produces a complete piture of a video. Therefore it is the final outcome- the perception of a river or motion picture or ,for that matter, ‘self’ which is as real as the individual frames. How can we say then that the ‘self’ is illusory and not real.

December 21, 2011 at 9:45 am
(47) Barbara O'Brien says:

M.C. Sharma — please see my new article on sunyata. I think it answers your question.

December 21, 2011 at 11:11 pm
(48) MC Sharma says:

Thank, Barbara, for a lucid and concise explanation of Anatta and Shunyata in Biddhism. I now am able to see through the reality that our body-mind continuam is just a phenomenon (Like a toaster or a chariot) which does not possess a self-nature (Swabhava). So far i mistook this for having a self-nature. ‘My’ earlier ignorance and now this realization, again , i am afaraid, brings me back to the same question, ‘who is it that was earlier ignorent and now a seer of the reality?” Could there be a permanent entity which was earlier wrapped in ignorance and now after experiencing the true natue of Anatta and Shunyata, has become free (liberated).

December 22, 2011 at 5:31 am
(49) Petteri Sulonen says:

@MC Sharma Sure, there could be. That’s not what Buddhism teaches, though.

I believe this is one of the fundamental philosophical differences between Buddhism and Vedanta, and I kinda doubt it’s going to be finally resolved to everybody’s satisfaction any time soon.

December 22, 2011 at 7:26 am
(50) paula says:

MC Sharma – I think it’s part of a journey to keep coming back to this question of ‘the self’.

re’ To be wisdom, emptiness must be intimately and directly perceived and experienced.’

It’s very difficult because to the logical mind the semantics of the above statement falls apart. It’s natural to ask ‘perceived through what?’ Is there some entity untainted by ordinary human consciousness that does the work of this experiencing?

I need to check back because it’s a long time since I read the philosopher Husserl – but I think he tried to make this move (which I think is accepted as transcendental) phenomenologically. I found his reasoning difficult to follow I think for the same reason you are finding this particular aspect of Buddhism hard to accept.

But to struggle is not to dismiss and from the number of comments on this thread it does seem to be an aspect of buddhism that people are keen to fully understand.

December 22, 2011 at 9:21 am
(51) Barbara O'Brien says:

MC Sharma — “who is it that was earlier ignorent and now a seer of the reality?”

That is a great question. That is THE question. Working with that question is a very valuable practice. In some schools, realizing the answer to that question is the door to enlightenment and Nirvana. And if we could “get it” by having it explained to us, it would certainly save a lot of time and aggravation. :-)

Various schools of Buddhism push you toward the answer in different ways. In Zen, basically, one pushes beyond the limits of conceptual thought.

Paula — “It’s very difficult because to the logical mind the semantics of the above statement falls apart.”

Exactly. In Mahayana Buddhism, and especially Zen, you eventually get to a point where there’s no place for intellect to hang onto. This is one of the functions of koan study, to push the student beyond logic. My first Zen teacher, the late Daido Roshi, used to tell us that the purpose of koans was to frustrate and eventually exhaust logical thought.

So what happens then? Well, keep in mind that Buddhism is built on a proposition that the way we perceive reality is delusional. But merely believing in a doctrine that explains the delusion amounts to just re-arranging the delusion. Instead, practice helps us experience, realize, perceive, whatever you want to call it, the illusion as illusion.

Consider that human brains evolved in a certain way to help our species survive. Scientists are sorting out that our brains and senses are actually creating distinctions among phenomena that are not intrinsic to the phenomena. Color, for example, can be defined as something created in our brains to help us distinguish between things. Yes, the creation of color is in response to physical properties of light and matter, but the actual color that we “see” is in our heads, not in the objects.

Not only are we born with a certain neurological wiring that tricks us into seeing things that aren’t really there; we are also conditioned by our cultures to understand ourselves and the world around us in a particular way. And the way we normally learn new stuff is to take the new information and fit it into the context of our conditioning. Put another way, we all have maps in our heads, and we learn by figuring out where the new information goes on the map. We do this so seamlessly we don’t notice that’s what we are doing.

But just as a map of St. Louis is not St. Louis, so our reality maps are not reality. They’re a kind of strategy for navigating reality, but they aren’t reality itself. So in Zen practice we’re told over and over to be mindful and focused and in the present moment and all that, and the purpose of that is to learn to put away the map and perceive things as-they-are. And eventually one develops the ability to experience our conventional way of seeing things as a big light show that’s a kind of interface to reality, but not reality itself.

There’s only so much I can say, because (a) I’m just a student; I’m still working on it myself; and (b) what usually happens when you explain this stuff to people who aren’t ready for it is that they find spots for it on their maps and develop a bunch of CONCEPTS about it that are all wrong, and the concepts turn into another barrier. So disregard everything I just said. :-)

December 22, 2011 at 10:26 am
(52) Paula says:

…. not to be disregarded Barbara – the thought of being ‘pushed to a place where the intellect has nothing to hang onto’ feels a positively challenging place to be.

I think it also underlines what attracts students/followers to Buddhism – there may be precepts but there are no laws. We have to work at the difficulties for ourselves ’til it makes sense experientially – I feel this involves the intellect in a very challenging discourse – no easy answers but perhaps it’s the journey that matters.

I’d be interested to hear more about ‘concepts that become spots on the map’ …… any obvious ones that come to mind?

December 22, 2011 at 11:30 am
(53) Barbara O'Brien says:

Paula — all concepts are spots on the map. That is the nature of concepts.

December 23, 2011 at 12:46 am
(54) R Hayes says:

There is no thing that is the same as any other thing.
There is no thing that is separate from any other thing.

There is no thought that is the same as any other thought.
There is no thought that is separate from any other thought.

There is no self that is the same as any other self.
There is no self that is separate from any other self.

December 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm
(55) Saspian says:

Does not semantics come into this a lot?
Has not the Dalai Lama at times suggested reincarnation?

Allegedly the Buddha warned people of going mad if they became overly concened with re birth, transmigration of the soul etc. Probably good advice.

Our present “selves” may be far too immature to comprehend cosmic and eternally ever evolving issues.
There may well be a trap in becoming too formalised and certain……..Congrats on an interesting forum~S

December 25, 2011 at 10:32 pm
(56) Barbara O'Brien says:

Does not semantics come into this a lot? Has not the Dalai Lama at times suggested reincarnation?

The dharma is infinitely subtle. The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the Dalai Lama’s school, is based almost entirely on the exact same philosophical foundations as Zen. Seriously. Zen and Gelukpa both emerged from Madhyamika and the prajnaparamita literature, which is all about sunyata. The Tibetans have some teachings on rebirth that differ from Zen, but the teachings on sunyata are the same in both schools, from what I can see.

It’s important to understand that “reincarnation” in Buddhism is not about transmigration of a soul, in any school. So what is it? I’m a Zen student, and in Zen you don’t get much in the way of explanation. The late John Daido Loori was my first Zen teacher, and once he said “there is reincarnation, but it isn’t what you think it is.” And that was all he said. And no, I never got much further than that, but it’s not something I spin my wheels over.

Allegedly the Buddha warned people of going mad if they became overly concened with re birth, transmigration of the soul etc. Probably good advice.

What he said was that speculating about things like that won’t help you realize enlightenment. So don’t speculate about things like that. However, he taught quite a bit about the nature of existence, and anatta (or sunyata, for us Mahayana Buddhists) is the foundation of everything the Buddha taught.

December 26, 2011 at 7:14 am
(57) paula says:

the re-incarnation issue bothers me a bit in asmuch as I feel it’s what puts a lot of people off. New age practitioners have taken the karma aspect to levels that I find unacceptable. I’ve just read on a ‘buddhist site’ that in one part explains karma in very reasonable terms – almost as parable – only to state in another part that ‘every cause has an affect ……… and ‘explains why some one is born handicapped’.!!!

Thinking about this too much does lead to the same difficulties that people have with the whole hell/damnation – divine retribution themes in other religions.

I’m curious to know what your teacher might have meant Barbara – and how others interpret re-incarnation.

December 26, 2011 at 7:51 am
(58) Barbara O'Brien says:

I’m curious to know what your teacher might have meant Barbara

I’m still working on that myself. :-) The other story I tell about Daido is that once I attended an informal retreat in which a lot of the participants were New Agers, not Zen students. And at one point some of the New Agers were sitting around in the dining hall and were explaining to each other who they thought they had been in their past lives. Daido happened to hear some of this, and one of them asked him about reincarnation, and all he said was “there is no such thing as reincarnation.” But then, in a formal retreat with just Zen students, he said “there is reincarnation, but it isn’t what you think it is.”

Zen more or less argues that you have to strip away what you think things are before you can perceive what they are. Offering people doctrinal explanations is just giving them some conceptual approximation that gets in the way of perception. So it’s often the case that Zen teachers dangle things in front of you without actually explaining them. It’s understood that the key to understanding any of it is realizing sunyata.

In Zen, it’s okay to be agnostic about stuff. You don’t have to believe anything; just keep an open mind. But I also once heard a Tibetan teacher say there is no point in believing in reincarnation; the challenge is to understand what it is.

Same thing with karma. Buddhist teachings on karma are not the same as in Hinduism and other religions based on Vedanta. In Buddhism, karma is not a simple linear thing that runs in a straight line from past to future. In Buddhism karma is constantly changing, and can be changed, and so one is not fated to endure something bad in the future because of misbehavior in the past. It is not helpful to think of karma as “reward” or “punishment.” And any one particular effect might be the result of infinite causes that happen to intersect at one point in time, and so you can make yourself crazy trying to sort it out. Karma does not cause natural disasters, so if a village is wiped out by a tsunami, that doesn’t mean the villagers were “bad” and deserved to be punished. See Shravasti Dhammika’s essay on karma. The author is Theravadin, but what he explains is pretty much the Zen view also.

– and how others interpret re-incarnation.

I have an article on that.

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