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Welcome to the Buddhism Basics Blog

Answering basic questions on Buddhism & Buddhist practice

“Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things: ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ -Buddha Shakyamuni

“Dipa Sutta: The Lamp” (SN 54.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn54/sn54.008.than.html .

I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. First Monthly posts began January 1st. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

Relocating

So, Facebook has flagged posts from this URL as spam.

Despite multiple escalations, nothing has changed over the last 6 months.

As a result, I’m moving to a new WordPress site immediately.

I’ll be transitioning the existing posts over in the coming weeks and hope to have new content ready by the end of the month.

Thanks for following me and sorry for all the confusion.

With metta.

Greg Schmidt

Do you have to be vegetarian to be Buddhist?

“All are frightened of the rod.
Of death all are afraid.
Having made oneself the example,
One should neither slay nor cause to be slay.”
The Dhammapada, Chapter 10
1

This is a common question, particularly those new to Buddhism that always seems to spark some lively debate on social media.

In a recent article published in Lion’s Roar Magazine, Dharma Voices for Animals President Bob Isaacson framed up the response like this:

“The public perception, at least in the West, is that since Buddhism is based on reverence for life, followers of the path don’t eat animals. And while it is true that Mahayana schools often recommend a vegetarian diet, the fact is that the majority of Buddhists do eat meat.”

Bob Isaacson, “Friends, Not Food.” https://www.lionsroar.com/friends-not-food/ Accessed 6 March 2020.

My opinion, after a few years of research and reflections, is that Buddhists should be vegetarians (actually, I’ll go as far as vegan), but as to whether they have to be or whether the Buddha himself was, well, it depends….

This may seem like a surprising answer (particularly from a vegan Buddhist), but after reviewing every text I can find that specifically addresses the topic of eating meat, it’s clear that there is not universal agreement between what is recorded in the Pali canon of the Theravada and what is included in the Mahayana canon.

In the interest of keeping it simple here, I’ll point out some of the most significant passages from the various traditions that speak to this subject.

What the Buddha Taught: The Pali Canon

Beginning with the quote above, taken from the Dhammapada of the Pali canon, there is a clear prohibition against killing in Buddhism. This is supported by the first precept of Buddhism, a vow to be taken by ordained and lay practitioners alike:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures

“Right Livelihood: samma ajivo“, Edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-ajivo/index.html. Accessed 3 March 2020.

The Buddha also prohibited his lay followers from engaging in “business in meat” (e.g. being a butcher) and his ordained followers from “offering blood-sacrifices” such as those animal sacrifices offered by Brahmin priests (ref above link on Right Livelihood).

So with regard to outright killing, the answer is clear: it’s prohibited for all followers of the Buddha.

So if it’s wrong for Buddhists to kill, how can it there be any ambiguity over Buddhism and vegetarianism? The basic logic would be something like this:

If killing is wrong, and being a butcher is wrong, and eating meat requires killing and causing to be killed, and so also requires someone to be a butcher, where is the ambiguity?

It start with the rules that the Buddha provided govern the daily lives of monks and nuns. These are documented in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali canon. Among these rules is an entire chapter on food (Chapter 4). See the following excerpt from this chapter where eating meat is addressed:

“One should not knowingly consume meat killed on purpose (for a bhikkhu). Whoever should consume it: an offense of wrong doing. I allow fish and meat that is pure in three respects: One has not seen, heard, or suspected (that it was killed on purpose for a bhikkhu).” Mv.VI.31.14

Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Monastic Code II: The Khandaka Rules Translated and Explained. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc2.pdf. Accessed 4 March 2020.

Chapter 4 also specifically states that “the flesh of any animal living in the water” and “the flesh of any animal living on land, except for that which is unallowable” are included in the approved list of “staple” food for monks and nuns.2

This rule is reinforced by another passage in the Vinaya where an incident is recorded of the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta attempt to create a schism within the monastic community. Devadatta demanded that the Buddha make five “austere practices” required for all monks, including that “For as long as life lasts let them [the bhikkhus] not eat fish and flesh; whoever should eat fish and flesh, sin would besmirch him.”3

The Buddha rejected Devadatta’s request, which not only was made with an ulterior motive, but also stood in direct conflict with the permissions already laid down in the monastic code.

So case closed, right? The Buddha said it was ok to eat meat and he rejected the request to make it mandatory.

Maybe. On the one hand, the Buddha is addressing monastics here, not lay followers. On the other, there is no place in the Pali canon where he explicitly states that his lay followers must or even should be vegetarians.

So maybe the best we can say here is that it is permissible.

(For further reading on this point, see Ajahn Sujato’s blog post “Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian” where he recommends that we not just go for the “minimum standard” of what is allowed, but rather aspire to “a higher sense of compassion”.)

What the Buddha Taught: The Mahayana Canon

After reviewing a handful of key sources from the Pali Canon we can be fairly certain that vegetarianism is not a requirement within the Theravada tradition. But all of that gets overturned in the Mahayana Canon as there are several Mahayana sutras that clearly state that vegetarianism is a requirement.

Perhaps the most well-known of these texts is the Lankavatara Sutra, which has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of eating meat (Chapter 8). In this chapter, the Buddha addresses the questions of the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Mahamati regarding whether a follower of the Buddha can eat meat. The Buddha begins by saying, “For innumerable reasons, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, is not to eat any meat”.4

So here we have the Buddha apparently reversing himself on the position he established in the Pali canon. How is this even possible? Didn’t the Buddha say eating meat was at least allowed for the community of monks and nuns as long as the animal was not specifically killed for them. Maybe not, as the Buddha continues in this chapter,

“It is not true, Mahamati, that meat is proper food and permissible for the Sravaka when [the victim was not killed by himself, when he did not order others to kill it, when it was not specifically meant for him.”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 44.

And if this weren’t clear enough, there are no fewer than 37 statements in this chapter to the effect that eating meat is prohibited, generally stated as “refrain from eating meat.”

There are several other texts within the Mahayana canon that are equally straightforward in their prohibition of meat eating. Another well known example would be the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (not to be confused with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta where the Buddha famously falls ill and dies from eating pork… maybe). In this sutra, the Buddha explains how monks and nuns should handle receiving dishes containing meat while on their alms rounds.

“Use water, wash away the meat, and then eat it [the rest of the food].”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 44.

and

“If one sees that there is a lot of meat, one should not accept such a meal. One must never eat the meat. One who eats it infringes the rule.”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra , p. 44.

To wrap this section up, as if all of this wasn’t clear enough, the Buddha states in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that, “One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion”.5 So it’s evident that at least within the set of texts dealing with the subject of meat eating vegetarianism is made an explicit requirement superseding all previous to the contrary in the Pali canon.

What to Make of the answer “it depends”

And this is what I mean by “it depends.” If you take the Pali canon as authoritative, as the Theravada tradition does, eating meat is permissible. However, if you take the Mahayana canon – or at least the sutras referenced above – as authoritative, then eating meat is prohibited.

Some may take the position that the Pali canon has been edited over the years to include permissions for eating meat and that the Buddha and his followers were vegetarian. If this is true, then why do the Mahayana sutras actually refer to the permissions in the Pali canon?

If we take the prohibitions against eating meat in the Mahayana canon as authoritative, how do we reconcile them with the permissions given in the Pali canon?

The Buddha answers in the Lankavatara that “in the canonical texts here and there the process of discipline is developed in an orderly sequence like a ladder going up step by step.”5 This can be taken to mean that eating meat was only allowed originally in order to bring people to the Dhamma without scaring them off with the requirement of vegetarianism.

Beyond the question of what the textual evidence does or does not say, there may be questions over how, as lay practitioners, we interpret these doctrinal matters, how applicable they are to the realities of the world today (perhaps in light of the realities of factory farming or the impact of the meat industry on the environment), and how all of this aligns not only with the position of the tradition we follow (Theravada, one of the various Mahayana schools, Secular Buddhism, etc.), not to mention our own personal ethics.

Perhaps the best advice has already been offered in the Kalama Sutta where the Buddha enjoined the Kalamas not to take on beliefs and practices simply because they are tradition, but that they should examine the results of such beliefs and actions to evaluate whether they are skillful (kusuala) – that is leading to pleasant results – or unskillful (akusala) – and leading to unpleasant results.

But one additional point that the Buddha makes in this discourse that many miss is that you should then check your findings against the opinions of the wise.

In a sentence:

“…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

 “Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry”, translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html. Accessed 7 March 2020.
1The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha. Translated by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. (New York, 1987), p. 25.
2Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Monastic Code I: The Patimokkha Rules Translated and Explained. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc1.pdf. Accessed 4 March 2020.
3 The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text. Translated by Daisetz Suzuki. (Molital Banarsidass Publishers, 2009.), p. 135.
4 Ibid, p. 132.
5The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 42.
5The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 135.

How do you become a Buddhist?

“If one desires to become a Buddhist, there is no initiation ceremony (or baptism) which one has to undergo.” – Walpola Raula 1

“After you become Buddhist, you must not show disrespect to others’ tradition, particularly your own previous tradition.” – His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama 2

This one comes up a lot on social media and generally initiates all kinds of responses. What is important for newcomers to first understand is that just as with religious orders they may be familiar with, many of the various Buddhist tradition have formal procedures for accepting both lay and ordained (monastic) practitioners. There are also Secular Buddhists who have who do not engage in traditional ceremonies or rituals and thus no formal process. And for lay practitioners, particularly Westerners like myself, whether we follow any particular tradition or not, we “become” Buddhist simply by self-identification.

The self-identification path aside, traditionally one becomes a lay Buddhist by “going for refuge to the triple gem” and taking the “lay precepts”. Going for refuge consists of accepting the Buddha as your teacher, the Dhamma (or Dharma) as the teachings that you will follow, and the Sangha (the collective body of monks, nuns and lay practitioners, both male and female, known as the “fourfold sangha”) as your spiritual community.

To go for refuge, whether formally in a temple or informally in one’s own home, going for refuge consists of reciting the following, with this intention to living your life in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching:

Buddham saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Buddha)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Dhamma)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Sangha)

Intention here is as important as the act itself. In a recent Lion’s Roard article, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpcohe said,

In the Buddhist tradition, the purpose of taking refuge is to awaken from confusion and associate oneself with wakefulness. Taking refuge is a matter of commitment and acceptance and, at the same time, of openness and freedom. By taking the refuge vow we commit ourselves to freedom.3

The Dalai Lama takes the this even further, stating that when you go for refuge, you should “cultivate the appropriate state of mind and intention” and envision your own future buddhahood”.4

The same principle applies to taking the five lay precepts, whether you take these formally or simply by reciting them to yourself, it is the intention that is critical. The five precepts are:

  1. To refrain from taking life or causing others to take life
  2. Refraining from stealing (literally taking that which is not freely given)
  3. Refraining from sexual misconduct
  4. Refraining from lying
  5. Refraining from taking intoxicants

These precepts are not externally imposed commandments handed down by the Buddha. Instead they are voluntary commitments that you make, with some faith in the believe that your actions have consequences (i.e. the doctrine of karma), along with an attitude toward harmlessness and the renunciation of the pursuit of self-destructive sensual pleasures. For more on going for refuge and taking the precepts in the Theravada, see Bhikkhu Bodhi’s detailed explanation at Access to Insight.

While formal ceremony may serve a valuable role in reinforcing and publicly displaying one’s acceptance of Buddhism, ultimately it is the commitment and sustained effort to follow the Buddhist path that leads to favorable results.

As Dr. Walpola Rahula notes in What the Buddha Taught,

1Walpula Raula. “What the Buddha Taught”; A Handful of Leaves, http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/What%20the%20Buddha%20Taught_Rahula.pdf.
2“Atisha’s Lamp – Part 1”; LamRim.com, http://www.lamrim.com/archive/hhdl/mp3/16k/02.05.20-HHDL-16k-HH_Dalai_Lama-Lamp_for_the_Path-01.mp3.
3“The Decision to Become a Buddhist”; Lions Roar, https://www.lionsroar.com/the-decision-to-become-a-buddhist/.
4“Atisha’s Lamp – Part 1”; LamRim.com, http://www.lamrim.com/archive/hhdl/mp3/16k/02.05.20-HHDL-16k-HH_Dalai_Lama-Lamp_for_the_Path-01.mp3.
5Walpula Raula. “What the Buddha Taught”, pp. 80-81; A Handful of Leaves, http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/What%20the%20Buddha%20Taught_Rahula.pdf.

Hopefully this has been helpful in answering the question, “How do I become a Buddhist?” If you’re interested in formally taking the precepts or are just looking for a local Buddhist organization to support your practice, BuddhaNet has a robust World Buddhist Directory you may find helpful.

If you’re interested in learning more about what it means to be a Buddhist, and particularly a lay Buddhist, I recommend taking a look at Chapter VIII of What the Buddha Taught, beginning on page 78, where he discusses the Buddha’s advice to a young lay practitioner. For a deeper look at core Buddhist values and practices, turn to Chapter V, beginning on page 45, which provides an excellent explication of the Eightfold Noble Path that the Buddha taught as the way to liberation from suffering and the beginingless cycle of rebirth (samsara).

What the Buddha Said (and Didn’t)

“Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata.” 1

How do we know what was spoken by the Buddha, and what wasn’t?

The internet abounds with fake Buddha quotes – that is sayings that come from a source other than the Buddha, but somehow end up being attributed to him or simply posted with his picture.

This is such a common phenomenon that author and teacher Bodhipasaka has dedicated a entire website and a recently published book to debunking some of the most common of these fake Buddha quotes.

Whenever I come across a Buddha memes with a quote that doesn’t sound familiar, my first recourse is to check Bodhipasiaka’s www.fakebuddhaquotes.com to see if it’s already on the list (and there are quite a few). In the event it’s not listed, I’ll compare it to what I know of the Buddha’s teaching to see if it is at least compatible with the suttas and sutras I’m familiar with. Whenever I comment one of these posts with a brief note on why I consider it to be invalid, including a link to Bodhipasaka’s site when appropriate, followed by hashtag #fakebuddhaquotes.

I often to get a reply to my comment from the original poster or another group member that goes something like this…

“Nobody was there when the Buddha was alive. There is no audio. No video. We don’t really know what the Buddha said. So it doesn’t matter whether the Buddha said it or not, it’s still a good saying.”

So, we could leave it that, nobody knows, so anything goes.2 But I think we miss the point when we take this perspective. For there to be a Buddhism for Buddhists to follow there needs to be some Buddhist teaching commonly accepted as authentic.

So to clarify what I mean by something that the Buddha said something (or didn’t), I am referring what has been historically accepted as as what the Buddha. This means that it has been documented in the suttas of the Pali canon or the sutras of the Mahayana canon. So what the Buddha didn’t say is, by this definition, something that is not included in these sources.

Now I can acknowledge that it’s unlikely that any text can be word for word what the Buddha said.3 That said, these texts have been regarded as faithfully representing the Buddha’s teachings by scholars and monks for, in many cases, over 2,000 years. The term for this is buddhavacana or buddhabhasita – literally what the Buddha said. As a result this generally my standard of judging what is or is not a fake Buddha quote.

It is worth pointing out that most schools do not include ALL of the documented suttas and sutras as authoritative. That is, depending on the school entire groups of texts may be considered as not being actually what the Buddha taught, As such, these are not not included included in that school’s canon.

Modern scholarship has also helped identify texts which were clearly composed well after the Buddha’s demise and likely do not represent direct teachings of the Buddha, even if they are (at least in part) compatible with the Buddha’s teaching.4

Additionally, modern scholarship has also cast doubt on the idea of an “original” Buddhist canon. So no school can legitimately claim that all of their texts or at the very least only their texts are those which are authoritative. Any original group of established teachings has been lost to history with all texts evolving and deriving from or being added to them over the centuries and millennia.5

In short, if you can trace it to one of the documented Buddhist teachings accepted by at least any known school of Buddhism, it can fairly be attributed to the Buddha and featured in the ever-popular medium of the internet meme. If you can’t trace it to one of these sources, post away – just leave the Buddha’s name (and image) off.

1“Abhasita Sutta: What Was Not Said” (AN 2.23), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.023.than.html.
2It is worth noting that there is some scholarly debate on whether the Buddha existed at all as a historical person. David Drewes presents a thorough critique of the evidence for the Buddha’s existence in his paper, “The Idea of the Historical Buddha“. Dr. Andrew Wynne present’s a well crafted response to Drewes in his own paper, “Did the Buddha exist?“. 
3 The traditionally accepted account of how the Buddha’s teachings were documented is that shortly after his demise, a council of 500 Arhants assembled to recite and ratify what he had said. This tradition was then preserved orally for ~400 years until it was was committed to writing in Sri Lanka around the 1st Century BCE.
4 For examples of scholarly analysis of teachings that are apocryphal – that is not the teaching of the Buddha – see Robert E Buswell’s Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha.
5 For examples of scholarly analysis of teachings that are apocryphal – that is not the teaching of the Buddha – Linda Heuman’s article “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” in the Summer 2011 issue of Tricycle.

A little about me….

I started my journey exploring world religions sometime in the early 80’s. Like a many of my generation, I was influenced early on by books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Tao of Physics. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, an elective in Eastern philosophy hooked me on the philosophy of Vedanta, the mysticism of Taoism and the practicality of Buddhism. Over the years, I’ve delved into these as a matter of study and practice to varying degrees.

In 2015 I enrolled in an eMA program in Buddhist Studies at The International Buddhist College, following a period of renewed interest in meditation and the Dhamma. During my three years of study and research I had the opportunity to explore both Theravada and Mahayana systems, including Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, along with the history and evolution of Buddhism in ancient India. At the end of my studies in 2018, I realized how vast the Dhamma was and how broad the range of practices were in comparison to how shallow my own knowledge was and how narrow my range of experience.

I have since found myself returning to the basics of my own study and practice. At the same time, I’ve been struck by the need to bring this back to basics conversation into so many of the online and “real world” conversations I have with both long-time Buddhists, newcomers with questions as they start down their own path, or non-Buddhists simply curious about what Buddhism means.

My aspiration for this blog is that it serve as a repository of helpful responses to common questions as well as refutations of the common misconceptions or errors that arise from not taking the time to look at what the Buddha taught.

The topics I will focus primarily on include the threefold training of morality, meditation and wisdom. In doing so I will refer as often as possible to original texts, commentaries and research (with links when available) as resources for further study.

Topics may also be introduced based on questions/comments I receive here or in the Facebook groups I admin, including Non-sectarian Buddhist Mindfulness, Real Buddha Memes, Should Buddhists be Vegetarian?, and Chuang Tzu. and the (FREE) Coursera Course Buddhism and Modern Psychology I mentor.

Though my time is limited with the demands of a full-time job with lots of travel, a family of four, teaching Tai Chi and my local VA and at centers around the state of Texas and finding time to sleep, I’ll endeavor to publish at least one post a month and stay on top of questions/comments as they come in.

I apologize in advance for any errors which are due to my own limited knowledge, ability and understanding and will work to continue to update and refine existing posts as I become aware of the need to correct or clarify my previous statements.