Buddhism (Questions and Answers)
What is Buddhism? I think when I look at it and try to simplify it I would say that in my view Buddhism is about self-development; how to develop loving-kindness, how to develop compassion; how to develop tolerance. It Is about how to develop ourselves in this direction so that we are not just thinking of ourselves but thinking of how we can help all other people. It is about self-development but not in the sense of development of ego or self-importance, but about developing loving-kindness and compassion so by achieving that we can also help others. I think this is a simple description of what Buddhism Is.
This is a path which most decent human-beings would try to follow regardless of religion - or no religion - so in what way does Buddhism offer anything different?
I think the main difference between the Buddhist path and others is that Buddhism always says that you have to deal with all obstacles and that you should not try to escape from anything - including yourself. It teaches that you have to come to terms with all your own emotions and all situations - positive as well as negative. You have to face yourself, and deal with your own fears and reactions and not run away. Buddhism also says very clearly say that in order to develop tolerance, loving-kindness and compassion you have to train, or tame, your mind. Just trying to have positive thoughts Is not quite enough; you have to achieve them; therefore an essential part of the path of Buddhism is the practice and study of meditation. In the beginning It may look as though the learning and practice of meditation is running away from the problem but it is not. It is the opposite. You practise and study meditation in order to be able to face problems and be better able to help others. I think that overall there is much similarity in the teachings of all religions but I think that Buddhism emphasises that you have to deal with all your own rubbish before you can be much help to others.
Some people feel attracted to "Tibetan" Buddhism but are not clear about how much is Buddhism and how much is the Tibetan culture. Some of the imagery can seem quite alien. Can you give some guide lines?
I don't think it matters very much. Those who wish to understand will understand whatever you do. Many stranger things happen! For example, an astronaut went to the moon and soon tourists will be going there. It seems very strange to me, but those who want to understand the significance of this, will find an understanding. From the Buddhist view, the Buddha taught many different techniques - 84,000 different teachings - in order to help different sorts of people. Tibetan Buddhism passes on to us these teachings on how to help and how to benefit. There is nothing in any of the teachings that can do harm to anyone or can encourage wrong views. That would be against the principle of Buddhism. Every teaching - all 84,000 - contains something positive and the Tibetan approach, the Vajrayana approach, is included In these. But the presentation doesn't really matter. Different people like different presentations; some people like one style, some people prefer another. Though Buddhism originally came from India many Indian people prefer the Tibetan style and the Tibetan art. It is not necessarily the case that Indians always prefer the Indian style, and Tibetans the Tibetan style; some Tibetans may prefer the Indian style. So I think it is very much up to each individual. The art, the pictures, the decorations - these just represent things. They give your busy mind something to do which is more positive than thinking about what your neighbours are saying. They are there to help you. But if you find that they not helpful - then there is no need to look at them - you can just think of what they represent. It doesn't matter what you believe, what matters is what you do!
In the traditional Buddhist countries women have a low status in society, is this due to the religion - Buddhism - or is it the culture of the country?
I think Lord Buddha's teaching is valuable for whoever comes. The teachings are for whoever has a brain. He taught more for some and less for others but it is not important whether they are "man" or "woman". He ordained his own step-mother as the first nun and this was the first time ever that there was the possibility for women to follow a religious life. But society is a different matter. Wherever you go in the far East a women's job is to stay at home and look after the children or her parents. Therefore, although a few nunneries exist they are normally smaller and poorer than the monasteries. In these nunneries I am sure there will be some nuns who teach the other nuns and perhaps sometimes a very famous nun to whom lay people go to receive the teachings. Generally though, men - and therefore monks -are more respected than women but I think It has more to do with society, with the culture, than with Lord Buddha's teaching.
Although Buddhism places a great emphasis on compassion there is not a good record of active compassion in eastern countries' can you comment on this?
One of the main teachings of Tibetan (or Vajrayana) Buddhism is called the 'Six Paramitas' All Vajrayana and Mahayana teachings are based on the six paramitas and the first paramita is "generosity" or "charity". I think that when someone who is a true Buddhist gives to charity they give very sincerely and very honestly. In western society you may notice that perhaps people are giving more than in the East, but the giving is more likely to be based on ego and more likely to have strings attached. Too often it is charity with a capital "C". "I am the one who gives and 'they" receiver and "I want to become very famous because I am so generous. I want to have a label saying how good I am to poor people". Buddha once said that if you want to give with a pure heart, first you have to meditate and develop wisdom so that you can give without attachment. We discussed "non-attachment" earlier. "Non-attached" charity is when you give something totally, both mentally and physically. It means having the right state of mind when you make the gift as well as the actual gift itself. In a previous life the Buddha gave his own body; in another life he gave his eye. We should all try to achieve that level of non-attachment, non-possessiveness. I think that those who give charity in the East are more likely to have that development. If you don't have that development, that right state of mind, if you cannot truly give wholeheartedly with no strings attached, then the person who receives your gift may benefit but you may end up with a poisoned mind. I think that perhaps people in the West may not understand that some wisdom is needed. I think in the East they may take more time and try to develop themselves first. This may take some time and may mean that for certain periods in their life they do not give much but I think the idea of giving has always existed.