Buddhism For Beginners

The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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by Thubten ChocLron. 160 pp., ISBN 1-55939-153-7 $12.95 #BUBE

Buddhism, for Beginners answers the fundamental questions and issues that arise in the minds of modern Western individuals who are new to this tradition of practical spirituality. Written in clear and engaging language, this book presents the Buddhist approach to the fundamental issues and concerns of daily life.

Thubten Chodron guides us through the basic tenets of Buddhism, encouraging and instructing us in how to live a more peaceful, mindful and satisfying life. She untangles our confusions and leads us through the most basic aspects of this rich, living spiritual tradition.

Thubten Chodron has presented the Buddhist view on essential issues of spiritual development...a tremendous resource for those interested in Buddhist practice. KARMA LEKSHE TSOMO, Author and President of Sakyadhita, International Association of Buddhist Women

We have included a sample of the questions and answers from Buddhism for Beginners.

From a Buddhist view, what are.love and compassion? Why are they important?

Love is the wish for all sentient beings (any being with a mind who is not yet fully enlightened) to have happiness and its causes. Compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and its causes. We work over time to cultivate these feelings towards all beings equally ourselves, those we know and those we don't.

Love and compassion benefit ourselves and others. With them, we feel in touch with and connect to all living beings. Feelings of alienation and despair vanish and are replaced with optimism. When we act with such feelings, those in our immediate environment benefit from being near a kind person. Our family feels the difference, as do our colleagues, friends, and people we encounter during the day. Developing love and compassion is one way we can contribute to world peace. In addition it leaves many good imprints on our mindstream so that our spiritual practice progresses better and we become more receptive to realizing the path to enlightenment.

Buddhism talks about loving all beings impartially. Is this possible?

Yes, it is. This involves looking beyond superficial appearances into others' hearts and recognizing that each sentient being wants to be happy and to avoid suffering as intensely as we do. In this way, all sentient beings are equal. Continually familiarizing our mind with this view deflates the judgmental, critical mind that loves to pick out faults in others. For example, when we are waiting in a line, we comment to ourselves about the people around us, This one is too thin. Why does this one dress like that? This person looks aggressive. That one is showing off. Such self- talk is based on superficial appearances and false assumptions, and it only serves to reinforce prejudice and make us feel alienated from others. If we train our mind to look deeper and to recognize that each person is just like us in wanting happiness and not wanting pain, then we will feel a common bond with everyone and will be able to wish everyone well equally. Needless to say, such an attitude must be cultivated over time. We cannot simply think this a few times and expect all our biases to instantly disappear!

We are creatures of habit and need to put effort into pulling ourselves out of habitual judgments, emotional responses, and behaviors towards others. Each moment of our life is a new one with the opportunity to experiment and do things differently. Each time we meet someone we have an opportunity to connect, to give and exchange kindness. If only we would wake up and take advantage of each opportunity, for so many exist each day!

What is meditation?

Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face. Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we're not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment.

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as to habituate or to familiarize. Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.

How do we learn to meditate? What kinds of meditation are there?

These days many people teach meditation and spiritual paths, but we should examine them well and not just excitedly jump into something. Some people think that they can invent their own way to meditate and don't need to learn from a skilled teacher. This is very unwise. If we wish to meditate, we must first receive instruction from a qualified teacher. Listening to teachings given by a reliable source like the Buddha is to our advantage, because these teachings have been studied by scholars and practiced by skilled meditators who have attained results throughout the centuries. In this way, we can establish that the lineage of teachings and meditation practice is valid and worthy of being practiced. Such a practice was not merely concocted according to someone's whim.

First, we listen to teachings and deepen our understanding by thinking about them. Then, through meditation we integrate what we have learned with our mind. For example, we hear teachings on how to develop impartial love for all beings. Next, we check up and investigate whether that is possible. We come to understand each step in the practice. Then, we build up this good habit of the mind by integrating it with our being and training ourselves in the various steps leading to the experience of impartial love. That is meditation.

Meditationisoftwo general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. Within these two broad categories, the Buddha taught a wide variety of meditation techniques, and the lineages of these are extant today. An example of stabilizing meditation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness.

Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealousy by developing positive and realistic attitudes toward other people. These are instances of analytical or checking meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought.

Purification meditations cleanse the imprints of negative actions and stop nagging feelings of guilt. Meditating on a koana perplexing puzzle designed to break our usual fixed conceptionsis done in some Zen (Ch'an) traditions. Some meditations involve visualization and mantra recitation. These are a few of the many types of meditation taught in Buddhism.

If there are people alive today who have attained Buddhahood, why don't they tell us who they are and demonstrate their clairvoyant powers to generate faith in others? Why do the great masters all deny having spiritual realizations?

One of the principal qualities of an enlightened being is humility. It would be out of character for Bud- dhas to boast about their attainments and to egotistically gather disciples. By their genuine respect for all beings and their willingness to learn from everyone, great spiritual masters set a good example for us. We ordinary beings tend to show off our qualities and even brag about talents and achievements that we do not have. Advanced practitioners are the opposite: they remain humble.

The Buddha forbade his followers to display their clairvoyant or miraculous powers unless circumstances deemed it absolutely necessary, and they were not allowed to talk about them. There are several reasons for this. If one has clairvoyant powers and displays them, one's pride could increase and this would be detrimental to one's practice. Also, others might get superstitious and think that clairvoyant powers are the goal of the path. In fact, they are a side effect and are useful only if one has the proper motivation of impartial loving-kindness for all. In addition, if a Buddha, with a body made of radiant light, suddenly appeared on the street, people would be so shocked that they couldn't pay attention to that Buddha's teachings. It is more skillful for those who have attained high levels of the path to appear in ordinary form. We may notice that they have exceptional qualities, but the fact that they look just like us allows us to feel closer to them. It gives us the confidence that we too can develop the same enlightened qualities that they have.

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I This book is written for people wanting to understand basic Buddhist principles and I how to integrate them into their lives...it will be of much benefit to I its readers.
-THE DALAI LAMA

Can people be reborn as animals and animals as people? How is that karmically possible?

Yes. Based on our actions, our minds are attracted toward certain types of rebirth when we die. It may seem difficult to imagine that a human being could be reborn as an animal,. but if we consider the fact that some people act worse than animals, it doesn't seem so farfetched. For example, animals kill only when they are threatened or hungry, while some human beings kill for sport, fame, or power. If someone's mind habitually goes in a certain direction, it makes sense that his or her body could correspond to that mental state in a future life.

Similarly, animals can be reborn as humans. Although it's difficult for most animals to do many positive actionsit's hard to teach a dog to meditate or to offer community serviceit is possible. For this reason, Tibetans take their animals when they circumambulate holy monuments in order to put good imprints on the animals' minds. Many people erjoy saying their prayers or mantras out loud so their pets can hear them and be exposed to such soothing sounds, even though the animals do not understand the meaning.

Ordinary people have both positive and negative karmic imprints on their minds. What rebirth we take is not a sum total of all of our past karma Rather, certain seeds ripen while others remain dormant. Thus, if someone is angry at the time he dies, some of the negative imprints could ripen and he could be reborn as a dog. However, the positive imprints still remain on his mindstream and when causes and conditions come together, they could ripen, causing him to again be reborn as a human.

What does Buddhism say about romantic love and marriage?

Romantic love is generally plagued with attachment, which is why many marriages end in divorce. When people fall in love with an image they created of the person, instead of with the actual human being, false expectations proliferate. For example, many people in the West unre- alistically expect their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. If someone came up to us and said, I expect you to always be sensitive to me, continuously support me, understand me no matter what I do, and meet all my emotional needs, what would we say? Undoubtedly, we would tell them that we are one limited being, they had the wrong person! In a similar way, we should avoid having such unrealistic expectations of our partners.

Each person has a variety of interests and emotional needs. Therefore, we need a variety of friends and relatives to share and communicate with. Nowadays, because people move so often, we may need to work harder to develop several stable, long-term friendships, but doing so strengthens our primary relationship.

For a romantic relationship to survive, more than romantic love is needed. We need to love the other person as a human being and as a friend. The sexual attraction that feeds romantic love is an insufficient basis on which to establish a long- term relationship. Deeper care and affection, as well as responsibility and trust, must be cultivated.

In addition, we do not fully under stand ourselves and are a mystery to ourselves. Needless to say, other people are even more of a mystery to us. Therefore, we should never presuppose, with a bored attitude that craves excitement, that we know everything about our partner because we have been together so long. If we have the awareness of the other person being a mystery, we will continue to pay attention and be interested in him or her. Such interest is one key to a long-lasting relationship. ä_æ

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