Buddhism for Beginners


Buddhism for Beginners

A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Copyright © 2015 by Tai Morello

Shakespir Copyright Note

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.

Table of contents


Chapter 1: Worldview

Chapter 2: Lifestyle

Chapter 3: Meditation

Chapter 4: Schools of Buddhism



For many years now, mindfulness has been all the rage. Spearheaded by leaders such as Jon Kabat-Zinn with his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), mindfulness meditation has revolutionized the practice of clinical psychology. It is a key piece of the so-called the “third wave” of cognitive and behavioral therapy. Inasmuch as it has triggered a paradigm shift in research and therapy, meditation is a bona fide big deal nowadays.

The influence of mindfulness meditation is not just limited to the field of psychology, however. Its influence has spread far beyond that field into the self-help industry, corporate culture, education, and our daily lives.

At one time, meditation was the exclusive domain of the 60s counterculture and the small religious movements it left in its wake—that is, whenever it was to be found outside of the cloistered halls of Asian monasteries.

But now it’s modern, cutting-edge, evidence-based—and, most of all, scientific. Far from just a passing fad, it’s beginning to transform our lives and our culture in a number of ways.

This book is not just for those who want to know what all the fuss is about. It’s for anyone who is curious about the original source of all this mindfulness—that is, the philosophy and lifestyle of Buddhism. The aim of this book is not to convert you to a new religion. You don’t have to sign a contract or join a group. Whether you’re religious or secular, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish—or whatever—you can derive some practical benefit from the Buddha’s teachings. The aim of this book is therefore to present Buddhism not as a religion, but as a practical philosophy of living with greater freedom and genuineness.

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About 2,500 years ago, there lived in India a man who gave up a life of comfort and privilege for one of poverty and homelessness. He wanted to remove any kind of distractions from his quest. He was in search of answers to the questions that plagued his mind, namely questions of why we suffer and what we ought to do about it. He pursued this knowledge single-mindedly, always having the guts to look at his own mind unflinchingly and never shying from any hardship or challenge that came his way. As a result of his dedication and courage, he found the answers that he sought. He is now respected throughout the world as the Buddha, or Awakened One.

He presented his findings to his contemporaries, not as a new religious dogma to be obeyed or a new pantheon to be worshiped, but as a comprehensive course of action for exploring our minds and undoing the deep habitual patterns that condition our experience and cause us to make unnecessary suffering in our lives. In other words, he left behind a complete system of instructions for replicating his results and reaping the rewards for ourselves.

He explained his new prescription for a nobly lived life in any number of ways, but the main way we will explore in this book divides up the path in three parts:

p<>{color:#000;}. Worldview, which provides a framework for understanding the path

p<>{color:#000;}. Lifestyle, which prescribes an ethical way of living based on nonviolence and genuineness to oneself and others

p<>{color:#000;}. Meditation, which is the practice of calming your mind, refining your attention, and directing that powerful concentration to understanding your own mind from top to bottom and undoing its neurotic patterns

Chapter 1: Worldview

1. Suffering and Neurosis

According to Buddhism, before it makes sense to actually get down to the nitty gritty of working with your mind through the practice of meditation, you have to have a basic understanding of what you’re doing and why. Otherwise, any kind of practice you do will lack direction. You will have a lot of doubt and confusion about what you’re doing, which will easily knock you off the path.

The reason for searching for a spiritual path (or some kind of therapeutic practice, if you prefer) in the first place is that we feel somehow dissatisfied with our current situation. We’re restless and want to change something, so we go looking for solutions.

That may sound very general, but so is our sense of unease and dissatisfaction. This very general sense of unease is what Buddhism calls dukkha or suffering.

The original meaning of dukkha is a kind of bad wagon wheel. The hole in the middle of the wheel, through which the axle is fitted, is off-center. So when you’re riding in the wagon, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable. That’s because something is off. The wheel is not well-made. So the idea behind dukkha is that something is off in our minds. We’re not crazy, necessarily, but we are looking at things sideways. We’re off-center, and that creates the experience of suffering.

The Buddha’s insight into the nature of suffering is that our experience of suffering has a cause. The cause of suffering is neurosis, which consists of passion, aggression, and confusion.

p<>{color:#000;}. Passion is the way the mind goes after some object of desire and moves us to action to get that object. There’s a sense that we want to draw the object into our territory, to possess it and make it part of our little treasure hoard—especially if the object makes us feel good. So rather than let things be naturally, we try to draw them into the sphere of our control so we can lay hold of the object of our pleasure it make it mine.

p<>{color:#000;}. Aggression is passion’s opposite, or more like its evil twin. Whatever is unpleasant or makes us feel bad, we want to throw up a defensive wall to stop it; we want to launch an attack on it and destroy it. The instinct here is the same as in passion. We have our little territory, which we think of as mine, and we want to make sure nothing threatening can breach it. If it has already made its way past our defenses, we want to destroy it.

p<>{color:#000;}. Confusion means that we are insensitive and indifferent to the way things work. We don’t notice how cause and effect work; we have no clue that when this happens, that happens, and we never learn from our mistakes—or, for that matter, figure out how to reproduce our successes. So we keep doing the things that, in the long run, make us unhappy, and we’re too confused to do the things that will bring us happiness. We could also call this stupidity or cluelessness.

These three neuroses work together to produce the experience of suffering, dukkha. To understand how that is, it helps to consider the different kinds of suffering. We can divide it up three ways: plain old suffering, suffering of change, and background suffering.

p<>{color:#000;}. Suffering of suffering is any suffering of the obvious sort. You step barefoot on a piece of broken glass. Your boyfriend or girlfriend leaves you, which breaks your heart. You have to spend long hours on a tedious task at work, leaving you bored and restless. A stranger insults you, which makes you feel angry. You catch a cold.

Obviously, practicing Buddhism isn’t going to remove the pain of a foot injury or alleviate the discomfort of a bad cough. But what it can do is transform the way you experience and respond to the many knocks and bumps and irritations of life. When we try to maintain ourselves and protect and/or enlarge our little territory, we just compound our suffering. Take that out of the picture, and pain becomes simple, direct, and manageable.

p<>{color:#000;}. The suffering of change means that one minute we’re happy, and the next we’re not. Because everything is constantly changing, we find it hard to hold on to anything. We cannot secure a cozy situation for ourselves, because situations always tend to fall apart. So you might enjoy a well-paying, steady job for years, but one day the company faces budget problems and you get laid off. Or you’re enjoying an ice cream, but the scoop of ice cream falls out of the cone and lands in the dirt. Even before the situation changes, the suffering of change is already there, as a potential. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that things can’t keep going so well forever.

p<>{color:#000;}. Suffering of conditionality, or background suffering, is always present. It means that, because whatever experience you have is colored by passion, aggression, and confusion, it already contains some subtle level of suffering in it—always. This suffering is pervasive and subtle and lurks in the background. It is a nagging sense of anxiety that leads you to try to maintain and protect yourself and your territory, to create a little island of immunity in the confusing and threatening flux of life.

2. Further complications

Once we’re already stuck in the pattern of churning out neurotic states of mind, the process has a way of keeping itself going in perpetual motion. One of the Buddha’s key insights, which was revolutionary at the time, is that mental states are like anything else: they come about due to causes and conditions. A seed planted in the ground, when it meets with the right conditions of water, sunlight, and good soil, first sprouts and then grows into a fully sized plant.

Likewise, the life of the mind—the inner world of our experience—also follows a regular pattern of cause and effect, something that Buddhism calls dependent arising. When you set up the right conditions for dukhha, then you will have the experience of dukkha. And when you set up the right conditions for eliminating that suffering and experiencing freedom, you will have the experience of freedom from dukkha.

The Buddhist understanding of dependent arising is that the first event in this process causes a cascade of events that leads to the last one, and the last one then feeds back into the first one and keeps things going in a cycle. This feedback loop just reinforces itself again and again, generating more and more distress and suffering. So the idea is to stop the feedback loop. Somehow or another, we have to remove the causes and conditions that keep the loop going.

The first link in this chain is fundamental ignorance. This means that at the root of our problem is a mistaken thought or belief, a lack of the right kind of knowledge. Specifically, we don’t have knowledge of impermanence and non-self (more on that later), which are the basic nature of reality. Because we get the basics so wrong, we get just about everything else wrong, also. So ignorance is the true origin of our distress.

Ignorance lays the foundation for our mental conditioning, which is the way our minds are predisposed to certain kinds of action. Some people are predisposed to certain bad habits—smoking, for example. They are already conditioned to act that way. They are conditioned by their own previous actions, and by their ignorance about the basic nature of things.

So, to continue the example, if we understand the nature of impermanence, then we’ll know that the pleasure that comes from smoking is fleeting, that it puts us at risk for certain kinds of illness and hastens the approach of death. If we understand non-self, we won’t be disposed to self-identities that reinforce this habit: I am a smoker, I smoke because X, Y, and Z, and so on. Conditioning includes everything from this simple example to full-blown psychological complexes.

Ignorance and conditioning are mostly subconscious. We’re not really aware of them most of the time, but there they are anyway, influencing everything we think, say, and do. They provide the condition and background for consciousness, which is the next link on the chain. Here when Buddhism talks about consciousness, it doesn’t mean a passive awareness of the world. This consciousness has a forward momentum and projects you into new situations, always pushes you into new kinds of action.

The way Buddhism thinks about things is a little different. Our usual intuition is that we have a body and mind and that consciousness is an operation of our mind. But the Buddhist way of thinking always puts experience front and center. So, because our experience of consciousness is very basic, it is considered as the foundation for our experience of body and mind. Any knowledge we have of our bodies, or of having this or that mental state, comes through our conscious experience of being a human in a body, our conscious experience of having a mind with all its thoughts, emotions, etc.

From this experience of body-and-mind comes our sensory experience. Consciousness moves forward, into the experience of body-and-mind, and then out towards the world, which it perceives in terms of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Let’s add another sense: consciousness is also aware of an inner world of thoughts and emotions, a mental sense.

The world “out there” comes into contact with the senses. And, from our point of view, this contact is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—that is, it has a feeling to it. Now, whether an experience is pleasant or unpleasant is highly individual and based on each person’s conditioning. Many people are fond of cucumbers, but I personally can’t stand them.

Based on that pleasant or unpleasant feeling tone of an experience, another link in the chain comes up: craving. The word “craving” is a bit misleading here, because it refers not just to wanting things, but also to wanting to get rid of some other things. For that reason, really wanting to get a massage is craving, and so is being irritated by a mosquito bite.

The mind first craves, then it reaches or grasps. Because we crave something so badly, we try to grasp it, and stick to it like meat to a hot frying pan. So, with craving, we have a desire, while with grasping, we act on that desire.

Here, if we’re good meditators, we have an opportunity to introduce a break in the feedback loop. A kind of space occurs between craving and grasping, a split-second gap in the chain of events. With a disciplined mind, it’s possible to open that gap and stop the chain of events before they reach grasping. You have to be ready for it, because once you’re grasping, it’s already too late.

Grasping just fuels the fire and leads to further developments. Because we took action, our situation changes, grows, expands. The movement towards new states of being, fueled by the action of grasping, is called becoming, and becoming leads to the maturation of new situations and states of being, called birth.

But because of impermanence, whatever is born has to die. Any new situation we experience will start to fall apart and finally expire. This last stage is called aging and death. It is the true fruit of ignorance. Decay and death cause us tremendous suffering because of our ignorance of impermanence and non-self. We try to freeze or solidify our ever-changing experience, including our experience of self. We would like to believe that, underlying all this change, is a solid, consistent, unitary I that remains the same—in other words, a self. This habit is a deep feature of our psychology, and, as we’ll see, it causes us a lot of grief.

3. Impermanence and the conditioned nature of things

We’ve already talked about impermanence a bit, and we’ve talked about the idea that whatever we experience comes about because of dependent arising. The life of our minds, the world of our experience, is not random or senseless, but orderly and intelligible. Not only that, but these experiences, though very personal, come about due to causes and conditions.

The Buddha had some deep insights into dependent arising. Whatever comes into being from a cause, he called a conditioned thing, and any conditioned thing, he said, is impermanent. That is, if it has a beginning—if it can come into existence—then it is subject to change and will have an end, also. That goes for people as well as things. It goes for the mind, the body—everything.

That means many things. It means any pleasure that we have will not last. Friendships turn sour or slowly fade away. Marriages fall apart. Bank accounts empty out. Fortunes are made—and lost. Good health lasts only for a time.

It also means that we will die, something we don’t like to think about. But in the Buddhist way of thinking, it’s very important. Buddhism is about living well, and if we live well, we will die well also. Buddhism puts importance on living and dying nobly and gracefully, with genuineness and dignity. Someone who has lived well will not struggle when they die, but will pass away with a peaceful heart free from regret.

We don’t know the hour or cause of our death. It could come soon—or late. It could come suddenly, or gradually. So we don’t really know how much time we have. If you consider this again and again, you’ll have a keen awareness of your own mortality and won’t waste any time. It will be easy to prioritize what matters in life and what does not. With a fire burning under your butt, you’ll get straight to the important matters of life without delay.

In the early days of Buddhism in Tibet, there was a group of hardcore monks called the Kadampas. They kept their monastic vows very purely and lived simple, disciplined lives. Every night when they went to sleep, they wouldn’t cover the embers of their fire so as to rekindle it the next day, but would just let the embers go cold. If they died in the night, they thought, there would be no need to rekindle the fire, so what was the point?

These Kadampas would turn their alms bowls upside down when they went to bed. The reason for this is that in Tibetan culture, a dead person’s cup and bowl would be left overturned. By overturning their bowls when they slept, these Kadampa masters reminded themselves that each time they lay down to sleep, they might not wake up again.

In the Buddha’s time, when someone died, often the body would not even be burned. It would just be left to decay in a special place set aside for that purpose on the outskirts of town. It was considered an extremely inauspicious and polluting place because of the dead bodies there.

But the Buddha instructed his disciples to spend time in those charnel grounds where bodies were cremated or discarded. He told them to observe bodies as they advanced through the stages of decomposition. These stages are described in gruesome detail in the scriptures.

The point of this exercise was not a morbid fascination with corpses. The point was to really drive home to his disciples that they, too, would die and their bodies would also fall apart and be eaten by crows, vultures, and worms. A Buddhist practitioner should always keep the reality of death in mind.

Nowadays most of us won’t get a chance to observe the decomposition of a human body in real time. But we can practice awareness of impermanence anyway. Whenever you sit down to meditate, take a minute or two to think about this life. You don’t know how long or short it will be. Each year that goes by subtracts that much time from your life; each day brings death closer. Death draws nearer with each passing moment.

As you go about your day, keep impermanence in the back of your mind. When you enter a building, think that you might not exit it again. When you say goodbye to a friend, consider that you may never get a chance to say hello to them again. Tell yourself that each day, each hour, each minute might be your last. With each action, think to yourself, “This might be the last thing I ever do.”

I don’t want to make you very anxious about death. But you should come to value your time so highly that you don’t waste any of it. Your time in this life is limited, but you don’t know how limited. So make use of it while you have it. Use it to become the person you want to be rather than just following the same old habits robotically. Make good use of your life while you still have the chance.

4. What is non-self?

One of the more popular religious ideas that was making the rounds in the Buddha’s time was that of the atman or eternal, capital-S Self. According to this idea, every person has an ultimate Self, that which we ultimately mean by the word “I”, which is single thing, one with the eternal Absolute, and not subject to death or decay. Liberation, they thought, would be achieved when the changing nature of body and mind, and all the lesser desires of the lower ego, were purified and fell away, and one experienced the pure, eternal light of the Self.

The Buddha explicitly repudiated this idea and thought that any philosophical speculation about the Self—its existence or nonexistence—was a useless way to spend one’s time. Instead, he encouraged practitioners to look at the body and mind in meditation, to look at the many goings-on—sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions—and examine them, asking, Is it permanent or impermanent? Does it last forever, or does it come to an end? Is it independent, or does it come about because of a cause? Is it singular or multiple? Is it me, mine, I, my self[_?_]

Before we proceed further, let’s just stop and consider this process of examination for a minute. What it is is an investigation into a fundamental belief that we all have by default. Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, most of us don’t believe in the idea of an eternal, independently existing atman, at least not in the exact doctrine of the Upanishads.

But the teaching on non-self is not just about the philosophical atman. It is about the intuitive belief that we have that each of us is an “I,” that “I” am a single being, a self, and that, while my body and mind are constantly going through changes, there is something unchanging that endures underneath all those experiences, and that it possesses these experiences. So this intuitive belief we could call the self or ego.

So the Buddha’s idea of non-self or anatman is by no means just a critique of an old, pre-modern belief. It speaks directly to our commonsense notion of who and what we are, and it says: That notion is false, an error. And not only that, but that commonsense, intuitive grasping at a self is the very reason we experience dukkha. It is the fundamental ignorance that we need to cure if we’re to be free from dukkha.

This is a bold and outrageous idea even today, to say nothing of two and a half millennia ago in iron age India. But the Buddha was confident that, if you looked at all the parts that make up your own experience and searched for evidence of a self, you wouldn’t find any self no matter how hard you tried. The self, he concluded, is just an empty concept that we cling to because the alternative—that there is no I, not really—freaks us out.

To help his students investigate this idea for themselves, the Buddha divided up all the constituent parts of a person into five categories or aggregates. He could have divided it up into three, or four, or six, or any other number, but he chose five. So while the number may be arbitrary, it’s still very convenient, because it gives us a framework for examining ourselves.

The five aggregates are: form (or body), feeling, perception, conditioning, and consciousness. These categories include every part that makes up a person, body and mind. The idea is that, if you go through them one by one looking for the self, you will not find it. And if you keep looking, and keep not finding, you will grind the intuitive belief in the self down further and further until, in the end, you have a direct, experiential realization of non-self.

To get some idea of what non-self means practically, think about your own situation. Start by considering your body. At the moment of conception, you were only a single cell in your mother’s womb. You don’t even remember that. Could that single cell really have been you? And at what point did you become “you?” Was it when the embryo developed into a fetus? Was it the moment of your birth?

You don’t remember your birth, either. You were just a helpless, crying bundle of arms and limbs. You can trace a line back in time, connecting the person who’s reading this book right now with that crying baby—but is it you? Is there really a self there?

The body is constantly changing, constantly in flux. Cells are constantly being replaced with new ones. In seven years’ time, not a single cell in your current body will still be there. Is there any abiding self in the body, or is it just a constantly changing phenomenon?

Then consider your own thoughts and feelings—your mind. Chances are, your mind is constantly changing. It is even more flux than your body. Memories provide some feeling of continuity, but that also is deceptive. Psychologists have found that memory is very tricky, subjective, and not very accurate. So memories can’t be relied on to provide a continuity of self.

Consider how much has changed from when you were born until now—your childhood, your adolescence, all the years in between. We like to construct a story out of all this, where we are the central character. But much of our lives has a random, disconnected quality. It’s a stream of events going by and we’re trying to put it together into some coherent narrative.

Perhaps it’s only by convention and force of habit that you call that person ten years earlier “me,” and you assume that ten years down the line, whoever “you” are will still be you. It seems very likely that your idea of I, myself is put together from various pieces that are all made to fit together.

We will talk about this a bit more in the meditation chapter, but for now it’s enough to understand what non-self means and how it fits into the big picture.

5. Breaking the feedback loop

A further audacious idea of Buddhism is that freedom from self-created suffering is a true possibility. Suffering is a conditioned thing, and like all conditioned things, impermanent. So remove its conditions, and it will come undone.

This is not just held up as an empty promise to try to seduce people into adopting a new set of beliefs. You can actually get a preview of this freedom through the practice of meditation. It is actually possible, by sitting down and getting to know your own mind, for you to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the veil of confusion.

The Buddha did not say much about this state of freedom, at least not in positive terms. It seems he was concerned that people would try to turn it into an eternal substance, or grasp it as a self. But he did connect it to what he called “luminous mind.” The mind has a natural radiance or clear, luminous, and knowing quality.

But this natural luminosity is obscured by the buildup of habitual thought patterns that dull and cover its original radiance. So you could say the Buddhist path is about wearing down this buildup, rubbing and polishing it again and again to remove every last speck. It is like a mirror that has been covered by centuries of dirt and grime. The mirror can be cleaned and shine brightly again, but it will take a lot of patient and careful work.

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If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing well. The “Worldview” chapter is in some ways the most difficult chapter in this book. It’s difficult because it’s a little abstract and hard to understand. But everything we’ve covered in this chapter is very important for grasping the context of the next two chapters on lifestyle and meditation. So if you put in a little effort to understanding the theory behind all this, it will pay rich dividends later when the rubber meets the road of practical engagement in ethics and meditation practice.

Chapter 2: Lifestyle

What’s missing from much of the modern mindfulness movement and craze for meditation is a strong system of ethics. There’s a sense that morality—the principles of right and wrong that guide our actions—is just an afterthought. That seems to be a mistake, however. The Buddhist take on morality is that it gives us a context for walking the spiritual path. Or is one Buddhist teacher put it, morality “sets the atmosphere.”

So it’s worthwhile to look at your own behavior closely and decide if it’s really in line with your deepest principles. And if it isn’t, then that’s an area you need to work on.

The Buddhist idea of morality is that we can be moral without being moralistic. Living a good life, being a good person, doesn’t have to be about a big finger wagging in your face and telling you you’ve been a bad boy or girl. Instead, it could be about a process of becoming more and more direct and genuine with yourself and others. Morality could be an expression of your willingness to give up ego’s games and be kind and noble towards others.

The Buddhist idea of morality is based on the principle of ahimsa, non-harm or non-violence. This is the same ahimsa that was the guiding principle of Gandhi’s political revolution for Indian independence, which in turn inspired Dr. King’s non-violent activism during the Civil Rights Movement to end racial segregation in the United States.

In Buddhism, living a moral life is about not harming yourself or others. When we intentionally do something to harm others, we are under the influence of neurosis: passion, aggression, or confusion. We might steal from someone because we’re greedy for their possessions. Or we might hit someone, or even kill them, out of anger and hatred.

If we’re under the spell of ego-clinging, we’re so caught up in our perception of my rights and my needs, my desires and my injuries, insults, and slights, that we can easily just ignore the rights and needs of others. But each of those others is just like us. Each of them contains within themselves a whole world of hopes and fears, dreams, thoughts, feelings, and so on. Each of them wants to be happy and avoid suffering. Right morality, as the Buddha called it, is about respecting this fact and refraining from any action that will harm others.

1. Right action

The first and most obvious point, then, is not to kill or injure anybody, including animals. That doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian—although, if you’re inclined to stop eating meat because you feel compassion for animals, that would definitely be a good thing. But it’s enough if you just avoid inflicting any physical harm on people or animals.

The next point is to refrain from stealing. Stealing is usually motivated by desire or greed, and Buddhism defines it as taking what’s not given. Stealing depletes the wealth and resources of others. It’s not a small thing. People work hard for money. They put a lot of energy into making it, so a lot of energy also goes into the things that they own. If you’ve ever been a victim of theft, you know that it can create a good deal of hardship, pain, and frustration. So instead of enriching yourself by taking from others, it is much better to put in your own honest effort.

The next point is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Buddhism is not trying to get into the bedroom and tell consenting adults what they are and are not allowed to do. But irresponsible sexual behavior can be very destructive and cause a lot of disturbance in people’s relationships. Half an hour of pleasure has the potential to make tremendous chaos and pain. So it’s best to avoid sleeping with people who are married or in a relationship. Likewise, more obviously harmful kinds of sexual misconduct like rape, sexual assault, and sex with minors are definitely off the menu.

Here, as elsewhere in Buddhism, the guiding principle is non-harm. It’s not that sex is dirty. But it is, as you yourself may have experienced, unpredictable and fraught with all kinds of strong emotions. For someone training their mind to become more peaceful and free from emotional turmoil, then, Buddhism advises that they carry out their sex lives with thoughtfulness and sensitivity to others.

2. Right speech

The previous three points have to do with actions of the body. It’s also important to practice right speech—avoiding lying, abuse, divisive statements, and useless gossip. In general, the Buddha’s counsel is to practice speech that is “factual, true, beneficial, endearing, and agreeable to others, with a sense of the proper time for speaking,” out of compassion for others. He urged his followers to reflect before they speak: “This verbal act I want to perform—would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?” If so, then it is best to avoid it.

As an experiment, without trying to change anything, just observe yourself when you lie or twist the truth, or speak harshly or abusively to someone. How do you feel? What kind of effect does it have on your mind? Check yourself carefully for about a week.

After that, take another week, but this time, carefully avoid saying anything dishonest, equivocating, verbally abusive, or insulting. When you speak, speak with kindness, gentleness, and honesty. Then check how you feel. Look carefully at your mind.

My prediction is that you’ll feel lighter, happier, and more confident in week two. That’s because you’re being honest with yourself and others and giving up the games you play with your words—which are actually like a huge burden you don’t realize you’re carrying.

3. Carefulness

This last experiment is an example of what Buddhism calls carefulness. Carefulness is the application of mindfulness in the arena of social life. Acting carelessly, we may think that we’re being very spontaneous and authentic, but we’re actually becoming slaves of ego-clinging and the neurotic mind. When we act carefully, we bring presence of mind into every situation. We live a life in accord with our deepest principles, a life we can be proud of. And we “set the atmosphere”—we create for ourselves a healthy, light, and spacious mental environment.

This has an influence on our minds, making us more relaxed and peaceful. Others can sense this, too. They want to be around us, because we are respectful and pleasant. Our sense of peace and wellbeing rubs off on them, and they also benefit from it. So being careful with our behavior is a way of being compassionate to ourselves and others.

4. Right livelihood

Finally, something needs to be said about right livelihood. How we earn a living, putting food on the table and money in the bank, is not an afterthought. It’s of utmost importance to a life well lived. Occupations that harm others—by depriving them of wealth, for example, or slaughtering animals, or pumping harmful chemicals into the environment—not only spread chaos and pain, they also diminish our own integrity.

So all such occupations should be avoided. We should make a living in a responsible and ethical way. And if it’s possible to earn a living in a way that directly helps and benefits others—like a career in social work or medicine—then that’s even better. That way, our spiritual path is not just our own individual trip, but is an active, social engagement that improves society for everyone.

  • * *

There’s a story of a monk who wanted to practice right morality. He had the courage to look at every single one of his actions honestly and decide if it was good or bad. Every night before he went to bed, he would take out a collection of stones, some black and some white. Then he would go over the actions of the day. For each time he had done something kind, gently, honest, genuine, noble, or generous, he would place a white stone in one pile. For each time he had done something unkind, selfish, rough, harsh, violent, dishonest, manipulative, without integrity, or stingy, he would put a black stone in separate pile.

At first the pile of black stones was very big, and there were only one or two stones in the white pile. But as he carried out this exercise day after day, thinking carefully about how he carried himself and conducted himself each day, the black pile started to shrink and the white pile grew. In the end, he had only a large pile of white stones at the end of each day.

He noticed changes in himself. His mood was always light and carefree. His mind was free of stress and worry. He carried a heart of happiness with him everywhere he went. He spoke only gentle, true, and meaningful words. People instinctively liked and trusted him because they noticed his genuine goodness. You can also follow this monk’s example and experience the results for yourself.

Here’s another exercise: Consider what will happen in your life if you give your worst traits and habits free reign over you. What would become of you if you just let yourself go, let your worst side take over? Imagine the disaster you would make of your life. Write it down. Don’t spare any details and don’t be afraid to make a fully grim prediction of how bad things could get.

Now consider whatever good qualities you have and whatever good qualities you wish to have. Imagine the kind of life you will have if you always live out those good qualities instead of the bad ones. Write that down also, again imagining it as vividly as you can.

Now imagine the kind of future you want for yourself. What kind of person do you really want to be? What will people think of that person? What kind of friends will that person have? What company will that person keep? What behavior does that person show? Again, be specific. Imagine your best future self vividly and write it down. Consider the moral qualities of your best future self. Which virtues do you have? How did your future self get to be that person? What moral qualities did you cultivate? Write it all down, then again and again strive to become that person.

Being truly kind means being kind to whoever you will become in the future, also. If you practice goodness and genuineness now, then that person in the future will have happiness. So think about what kind of life you are creating for that future “you”—whoever that is.

Chapter 3: Meditation

At last we come around to what you’ve been waiting for, meditation. Without meditation, there is no Buddhist path. It’s what makes the whole journey workable from beginning to end. It is the method par excellence of training yourself and working with your mind.

But what is meditation, exactly? The word itself conjures images of blissed-out yogis on mountaintops intoning Om and tripping on their spiritual good vibes. That’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s a little silly and stereotyped.

The Sanskrit and Pali word for meditation is the same: bhavana, which means “cultivation.” In Tibetan, it’s gom, which has a sense of “getting used to” or “familiarizing.” That’s important because the idea of meditation can be intimidating if we don’t have any experience with it. We may think we can’t do it, we can’t sit still long enough, empty our minds, or concentrate.

The good news is you don’t have to worry about that. Meditation is a process of development and cultivation. It’s a process of getting used to your mind and yourself, of getting used to the meditation technique. And as long as you’re actually sitting on the cushion and looking at your mind, you’re doing alright.

You may think you’re already used to your mind and yourself, but chances are, if you’re like most people, you’re not. We live busy lives. We have many activities and responsibilities, and full schedules. So most of us don’t actually take the time to sit on our butts and get to know ourselves. If we do find ourselves with a few quiet minutes alone, we might feel uncomfortable and restless. We quickly reach for the remote, or turn on the magazine, or check Facebook. Sound familiar? We go to great lengths to avoid being alone with our minds.

But, as boring or even painful as it may feel at first, spending some time alone with your mind and getting to know yourself is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. Yes, it is painful sometimes to see what kinds of thoughts we really have in our heads, to shine a light on our hidden corners. But before meditation, our minds are like an old storeroom that hasn’t been cleaned for decades, but just keeps gathering junk. Meditation opens the doors and windows wide open, clears out the dust and cobwebs, lets in the fresh air and light of day. It is tremendously refreshing. It makes us feel lighter, more relaxed, and more spacious.

1. Calm abiding

There are two kinds of meditation that are used in the Buddhist tradition, calm abiding and insight. The idea behind calm abiding meditation is that your mind is like a pool of water. In the beginning, the water is very disturbed. There are all sorts of ripples and waves on the surface. The mud at the bottom has been stirred up, and the water’s now turbid, brown, and dirty. You can’t see through it at all.

Calm abiding is about letting the water settle down, not disturbing it. As you leave the water alone, the waves subside. The surface becomes flat, calm, and reflective. The mud settles to the bottom of the pool, so the water becomes clear. So before you can use insight meditation to examine your mind and phenomena, it’s important to work on calm abiding first, so that the mind naturally settles down and becomes clear and reflective.

Calm abiding meditation is not just a process of stilling the mind, but also of cultivating sustained attention. You could call this concentration, but it’s not quite as strained as concentration. Instead, the kind of attention we’re aiming for is steady and relaxed.

Cultivating the capacity for steady, relaxed attention is absolutely critical to Buddhist meditation. Attention is the instrument, like a microscope, through which we view the mind in meditation. So making sure we have a good capacity for attention is indispensable.

How to sit

It’s traditional to sit cross-legged on a carpet or cushion. But if you have any kind of problem—such as a knee injury or chronic back pain—it’s okay to sit in a chair. The most important point is to keep the spine straight. If you slouch, you will find it hard to maintain your attention, and the mind will go wandering or become drowsy.

p<>{color:#000;}. The most comfortable way to sit is on a cushion about two or three inches above the floor, with your knees resting on the ground. That way, there is a gentle angle from your hips to your knees. This posture gives you stability and makes it easier to sit with your spine straight for long periods.

p<>{color:#000;}. The spine should be held straight but relaxed, as if it were a stack of coins, or a string tied to the top of your head were gently pulling you up. The posture should be straight, but not strained. The goal is to have a relaxed but focused mind, and the support is a relaxed but disciplined posture.

p<>{color:#000;}. Gently place your hands in your lap with the fingers of your right hand resting in the fingers of your left, while the thumbs lightly touch. Your hands should form a circle.

p<>{color:#000;}. The elbows should be held slightly apart from your body, while your shoulders should be held back, not slouched forward.

p<>{color:#000;}. The lips are slightly parted while the tongue rests against the roof of the mouth.

p<>{color:#000;}. The eyes are held open, with the lids half closed, gazing in a relaxed way several feet in front and slightly downward. They should not be focused on anything in particular, but should rest lightly on a point in the space in front of you.

Mindfulness of the breath

Traditionally, a beginner in calm abiding starts with meditating on the breath. There is no fancy technique here, no special kind of breathing to do. In fact, you don’t alter the breath at all. You just let it happen naturally and pay attention to the sensation of the breath in the nostrils, to the rise and fall of your chest, whether the breath is long or short, shallow or deep, slow or fast.

This process is called mindfulness of the breath. Mindfulness in meditation means that your mind is placed on an object, in this case the breath, and rests there without wavering. It sounds easy, but it’s kind of tricky, because, as you’ll discover, the mind is pretty wild and undisciplined. It’s always getting distracted, wandering off, becoming unclear and drowsy, daydreaming, fantasizing, suddenly becoming emotional, thinking about this and that—basically anything except being mindful.

In fact, if you’ve done a little meditation practice, you might have come to the conclusion that meditation has made your mind worse, that your mind is even more distracted, disturbed and chaotic than it was before.

But the truth is that meditation doesn’t make your mind more chaotic. It just makes you aware of how wild your mind has always been. Sometimes you’ll hear meditation teachers refer to this as the “monkey mind.” Monkeys rarely sit still. They are always jumping from branch to branch, scratching themselves, grooming other monkeys, fighting, trying to steal food, and looking here and there with sharp little eyes.

The untrained mind keeps a constant running commentary of discursive thought, except when it exhausts itself, in which case it just slips into a stupor. It’s just like a monkey in its constant need for stimulation and activity.

The calm abiding approach to this distraction is just to let it go and return the mind to the breath. There’s nothing wrong with getting distracted. In the context of meditation, the thoughts that you have are not good or bad. It doesn’t matter if your thoughts are greedy or charitable, hateful or compassionate, nice or mean. If any kind of thoughts or feelings come up, label them “thinking.” Then drop them and return to the breath.

It’s very important not to get discouraged or reproach yourself for getting distracted. Sometimes you sit down to meditate, and from the moment you land on the cushion until it’s time to get up, your mind scarcely stays on the breath for a single second. That’s okay and need not be regarded as a problem. One of the things we’re trying to give up in meditation is this judgmental mind that wants to categorize everything as good and bad and push its own agenda.

Meditation is about not having an agenda. Mindfulness is not some new agenda that you force on yourself. Instead, it’s about carving out a piece of time to just rest, what Chögyam Trungpa called “virgin time” in which you just sit and do nothing.

Sitting there just paying attention to the breath is very close to doing nothing at all. In fact, the next stage level of calm abiding from mindfulness of the breath is called objectless meditation, where you just sit and don’t pay attention to anything at all. You just let the mind rest completely, without an object, but still aware and alert and undistracted. So mindfulness of the breath is, in some sense, like a preparation for doing nothing.

In the beginning you might find it helpful to count the breath. So as you breathe in, then out—that’s one. Again breathe in, and out—two. And so on, up to ten. Once you reach ten, start again from one. If you get distracted, then just start over again from one. It also helps to start with short sessions of just five or ten minutes, and gradually sit for longer periods.

After some time, you might reach the point in your practice where you find counting the breath to be too heavy-handed. At this point, it’s not necessary to keep counting. Just drop the counting altogether and place your mind on the breath itself, paying attention to its sensations and qualities.


As we mentioned, mindfulness is resting the mind on the breath and keeping it there. It is even, sustained attention to an object. When distraction happens, the mind gets preoccupied and forgets its object. It goes off somewhere, maybe on a trip to the beach. Or it replays a scene from work, or makes plans for later. Whatever it may be, it doesn’t matter.

At some point you catch yourself wandering and remember to return the mind to the breath. That’s called watchfulness or awareness. Watchfulness hangs out and catches deviations from the object and corrects them. It also catches you if you slide into the either extreme of excitement or dullness. Over time, watchfulness will naturally get better and better at what it does. It will catch deviations more quickly and return to the object more smoothly. Mindfulness and watchfulness work together, with mindfulness keeping the mind on the breath and watchfulness returning it to the breath when it goes somewhere else.

2. Insight meditation

A regular practice of calm abiding makes your mind peaceful, spacious, attentive, and workable. It can give you a powerful sense of centeredness and well-being. A wealth of scientific research shows that mindfulness meditation, a subset of calm abiding, is very effective at treating common emotional problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression. It will help you regulate your emotions and give you an overall positive outlook on life that is natural, not forced.

So even if you limit yourself to just this kind of meditation, there are tremendous benefits. But from the point of view of Buddhism, the path of meditation doesn’t end with calm abiding. That’s just one milestone on the road.

Calm abiding is intended to lay the groundwork for insight meditation, or vipashyana. Remember how we compared calm abiding to building a microscope? Well, insight meditation is about actually aiming that microscope at your own mind, your own experience, to get to the bottom of its nature. By getting to the bottom of things, you undo the original ignorance that causes you to cycle through the same feedback loop again and again, generating further and further states of dukkha and neurosis.

This is where all the legwork of understanding the theory from the first chapter will really pay off. First you ground yourself in some general understanding of our predicament as individuals who experience dukkha. Then you set the mood by practicing the ethics of non-harm. Then you make the mind and attention powerful, flexible, and clear through the practice of calm abiding. Then you’re ready to start untangling the big knotted mass of neurotic mind through insight meditation practice.

Some modern courses teach insight meditation from the very beginning. I’m not knocking that approach, but I do think the Buddha had good reasons for prescribing a foundation of calm abiding before starting to do insight meditation. One reason is that, if your mind is not very calm and stable already because of calm abiding practice, your practice of insight meditation will be unstable, and you will be prone to emotional disturbances. It’s a pretty intense practice.

Specifically, you traditionally cultivate certain states called jhanas before starting insight meditation. The jhanas are progressive states of subtler and subtler meditative awareness. First you master one, then proceed to the next. The Buddha learned how to practice the jhanas from his teachers. It was the cutting edge, the highest-level meditation practice around at the time. But he felt he still hadn’t achieved what he wanted from his search. He wanted to go beyond this level.

Insight meditation is how you go beyond the level of the jhanas. The idea is, you’ve already mastered these extremely subtle meditative states. Then you enter into them and, from this very subtle and calm state, start examining all the elements of experience and your mind. You look at the phenomena of your mind as well as external phenomena. And you find, again and again, that they have three characteristic properties:

1. They are impermanent.

2. They are unsatisfactory (dukkha).

3. They are not self.

When Buddhism talks about impermanence, it means that, at the most subtle level of understanding, nothing remains the same even for a moment. In fact, all conditioned phenomena arise, abide, and cease in a single moment.

So take, for example, your computer, tablet, or Kindle—whatever you’re using to read this book. It seems to be a solid, continuously existing thing. Not only that, but it appears to be a single thing—that is, you probably experience it as a one object, one device. But, in fact, it is not a single thing. It is made up of a number of parts which can be separated. If you accidentally drop it on the ground, or run it over with a car, you may suddenly find out just how not single it is. I’m sure we’ve all had similar run-ins with impermanence.

Just as it seems to be one single object at any given time, but is, in reality, not, it also seems to be one continuous object that exists over time—but it isn’t. It consists of a series of moments in constant flux. Each moment is like a single frame in a film reel. When you’re watching the film, the frames follow one another so quickly that your mind is fooled into thinking it’s all one continuous scene. That’s just how our perception is set up.

But if you slow that film reel down, you will notice that each frame is a discrete and separate thing, and the movement and continuity you perceived before were just an illusion. Likewise, in insight meditation, your mind has already been made very slow, precise, and accurate through calm abiding. Then, when you aim it at phenomena—both your own mind and the external world—you find that those seemingly continuous phenomena are actually constantly flickering in an out of existence. The illusion of their permanence is broken.

If that sounds trippy and intense, it is. But that’s not everything. When you aim that meditative mind at yourself—at your five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, conditioning, and consciousness—you find that they are also made of many parts that are constantly flickering in and out of existence.

What once seemed a single person existing continuously in time—that is, you—turns out to be just a kaleidoscopic stream of constantly shifting and changing events, flickering in and out, with no single essence holding them all together. That’s the experience of non-self. When Buddhism says that the self is just an illusion that comes about from our habits of thought, this is the other side of that.

Because both your person and your environment have no ultimate permanence or stability, they are ultimately unsatisfactory, dukkha. We cling to these things as real, solid, continuous, permanent, because their actual impermanence freaks us out. But this is a mistake, because the self and sense objects are like sand castles. The next tide will wash them away.

Chapter 4: Schools of Buddhism

At the beginning of this book, I said that the aim is not to convert you to Buddhism but to talk about Buddhism as a practical philosophy of life. That’s still the case, but you might be wondering about Buddhism’s more traditional manifestations. Or maybe you’ve followed the program a bit, but you want to take the next step and learn from a teacher or join a community of like-minded people. Then again, maybe you’re just curious and want to follow up with more resources. This chapter is for you.

Following the Buddha’s parinirvana, his followers carried on the tradition in India for centuries. Buddhism also proved to be India’s most popular export of all time, more so even than yoga. It spread all throughout Asia, from Iran in the west to Japan in the east, from parts of Siberia in the north all the way to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives in the south. The Buddhist emperor Ashoka even sent a mission of monks to Alexandria in Egypt to teach the Dharma to the Greeks. These monks probably followed the Theravada, as they gave rise to a tradition of hermits in Egypt called Therapeutae, from which we get our word “therapy.” These Therapeutae were the inspiration for the later Christian tradition of meditation and monasticism.

As Buddhism grew and spread, it developed into different schools. Eventually two major schools emerged: the Theravada and the Mahayana. Then, around the seventh century, another school became very popular and spread far and wide. That school was called the Vajrayana.

1. Theravada

Theravada Buddhism, also known as southern Buddhism, is most widespread in Southeast Asian countries—Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam—and Sri Lanka, as well as parts of India, Bangladesh, and China. It has over 100 million followers worldwide.

The Theravada claim to follow the original teachings of the Buddha faithfully. Most of the earlier chapters in this book come from the Theravada teachings. That’s because these are the baseline that most schools of Buddhism accept as the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, the entry-point for the Mahayana and beyond.

The Theravada teachings center around the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. In a nutshell, the four noble truths are:

1. Life is dukkha.

2. The cause of dukkha is ignorance and neurosis.

3. It’s possible to bring an end to dukkha.

4. Dukkha can be ended by following the noble eightfold path.

The noble eightfold path can be summed up in three parts: worldview, lifestyle, and meditation. We already went over these points at length. The Theravada path culminates in becoming an arahant (or arhat): someone who has completely eliminated suffering and the view of the self and has attained nirvana.

The core institution of the Theravada tradition is the Sangha or Assembly of monks and nuns. But Theravada is something that laypeople can follow, also. In fact, in recent years Theravada has become quite popular in the West. It has inspired the insight meditation or vipassana movement.

We covered insight meditation earlier. The modern insight meditation movement teaches techniques that involve scanning your body and mind for sensations and feelings. You notice how every element of your experience has the three marks of existence: impermanence, dukkha, and non-self. This trains your mind to have deeper and deeper insight into how these truths play out in your own experience. Eventually the process culminates in realization and, finally, liberation from dukkha and the self-destructive feedback loop.

Many modern people in the West have found the Theravada teachings extremely valuable and helpful in their lives. Through intensive meditation retreats, they’ve made personal discoveries through insight meditation and found within it something more profound than meditation as mere stress relief or vacation from irritation. They’ve found a practice that gives them a deeper understanding of how suffering, dissatisfaction, and negativity arise. It gives them a guide to navigating these difficulties and living their lives gently and nobly.

Further Reading: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield

2. Mahayana

In Theravada the goal of the path is arhatship. But Mahayanists see complete buddhahood as the ultimate goal of the path. According to Mahayana, the path of the arhat is a valid but lower path focuses on one’s individual liberation.

In contrast to this, Mahayana upholds the ideal of universal liberation. Mahayana means “the great vehicle.” The idea is of a ship that crosses the ocean of samsara and reaches the shore of nirvana. The ship is “great” because it carries all beings in it instead of just one.

So the hero of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a practitioner that has vowed to walk the spiritual path not for him or herself alone, but in order to liberate all beings and bring them into enlightenment or awakening. Some bodhisattvas vow not to become a buddha until they can first liberate every other being. Others aim to become a buddha first, and then bring others into enlightenment.

The aspiration to put others first and lift them up out of the feedback loop of samsara is called bodhicitta, the intention of enlightenment. Bodhisattvas give rise to the intention of enlightenment because of their deep compassion for all beings that suffer from neurosis, ignorance, and pain. They are deeply moved by the suffering of others and want to remove it by the root. That means uprooting passion, aggression and confusion—and their basis, fundamental ignorance.

The other side of this intention of enlightenment is something called emptiness. Emptiness takes the idea of non-self and carries it a step further. Not only do the five aggregates lack a singular, independent essence that we could label “myself,” but all things whatsoever lack any inner independent core. According to the Mahayana, phenomena don’t have an independent, objective existence on their own. They exist only in as much as they’re related to each other and to the minds of beings that perceive them.

So for Mahayanists, the world is dream-like and insubstantial. It is like an illusion that brings us under its spell and seduces us into an endless sleep of neurosis and confusion. When this illusion evaporates, all that is left is the bright inner radiance of the luminous mind we talked about earlier. This luminous mind the Mahayana calls buddhanature.

Buddhanature doesn’t come into existence because of meditating and walking the path. It’s there from the very beginning, waiting to be discovered. Every being has buddhanature. It is because we have buddhanature that we have a chance to become Buddha. To become a buddha, you have to remove the many layers of neurosis and habitual patterns that keep you trapped in the illusion.

It’s as if there were a pure, perfect mirror. But it can’t reflect anything because it’s covered in many centuries of dirt and grime. From that perspective, the point of the Mahayana path is to take a cloth and scrub and scrub and scrub the mirror clean. Slowly you get rid of the dirt and grime. When the mirror is clean again, you can reflect your bright light to others, which inspires them to clean their own mirrors and discover their innate buddhanature.

The Mahayana always carries two views or truths side by side: the relative and the absolute. There is a famous stanza written by a Chinese Zen monk which says:

This body is the tree of enlightenment

The mind is like a mirror bright.

Take heed to keep it always clean,

And let no dust collect upon it.

Zen patriarch Hui-neng wrote a response to this which forever cemented his position as a master of his lineage:

Enlightenment is not like a tree.

The mirror bright is nowhere shining.

As there is nothing from the first,

Where does the dust itself collect?

What can be understood from these cryptic verses? They seem to contradict each other. But the first is written from the side of the relative truth, while the second is written from the ultimate truth of emptiness. On a relative level, you have to do the hard work of walking the spiritual path and working with your mind. On the absolute level, there is no path to walk and no mind to work with—there is only the already perfect buddhanature, pure from the very beginning, with nothing to add or subtract.

These two truths are two sides of the same coin, seen from different perspectives: one from the perspective of confused beings, and one from the perspective of enlightenment itself.

Today the Mahayana is followed in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, and parts of Russia, although in former times it was more widespread, extending as far west as Iran and as far south as Indonesia.


Zen is perhaps the most famous Mahayana school. It has become a household name and needs no introduction. The word “zen” conjures images of austerity and discipline, but also peace, simplicity, and beauty.

Zen Buddhism enters history with Bodhidharma, a Persian monk and “blue-eyed barbarian” who showed up mysteriously in China around the 5th or 6th century (accounts vary). He claimed to be 150 years old. He is depicted as a scowling, bearded figure with Central Asian features.

Zen Buddhism was called Chan in China, which is probably a Chinese pronunciation of Sanskrit dhyan, meaning meditation. Bodhidharma taught a very direct, meditation-focused form of Buddhadharma that involved a lot of discipline and focus. His teaching was very simple: still the mind, look within, and see your own buddhanature directly.

Zen comes from a direct, wordless transmission of wisdom—“a special transmission outside of the scriptures”—which began when the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama transmitted his insight to his disciple Mahakashyapa by silently showing him a flower. Mahākāśyapa was enlightened through this gesture, and the Buddha said:

“I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvāṇa, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

True to its roots, Zen emphasizes meditation and the passing of insight from teacher to disciple. It traditionally emphasizes practice and experience over scholarship, although Zen has many learned figures also, such as Dogen.

Zen flourished in China and spread to other parts of East Asia: Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Today there are two main schools of Zen: Soto and Rinzai. Soto emphasizes “just sitting” as its main meditation practice, while Rinzai emphasizes meditation on puzzling aphorisms, riddles, or pieces of dialogue called koan.

Koans include such questions as “What is your original face before you were born?” The student contemplates these riddles as a means to break the ordinary concepts of the ignorant, discursive mind and see the truth beyond concepts. Koans often arise out of teaching situations. For example:

A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the way?”

Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.”

Like Theravada, Zen has proven very popular in the West, even becoming an oft-referenced (and misunderstood) item in pop culture and magazines. But it’s an extraordinary and profound tradition that appeals to people who want to follow a path that’s direct, powerful, and not overly analytical.

Further Reading: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Sunryu Suzuki Roshi

Pure Land

The Pure Land school developed in China and is based itself on a genre of Mahayana scriptures that deal with celestial regions called pure lands or buddhafields. In Mahayana cosmology, these pure lands are emanated from the minds of various buddhas. They are places where people can travel the path to enlightenment quickly and easily, without worldly distractions and sufferings. A buddhafield is not quite like the concept of heaven. It’s not the final destination. It’s more like a halfway house between samsara and enlightenment.

The Pure Land school was founded by Huiyuan in the year 402. Followers of Pure Land develop faith and devotion for Amitabha or “Infinite Light,” a celestial buddha who reigns over a pure land called Sukhavati, “The Blissful.” Practitioners chant the name of Amitabha (a mi tuo fo in Chinese) again and again with faith, hoping to reach Amitabha’s pure land after death.

Other practices in Pure Land Buddhism involved chanting a dharani or long mantra of Amitabha’s pure land, as well as meditative visualization of Buddha Amitabha and his circle of bodhisattvas in their pure land.

The simplicity of the practice, the fact that it requires only devotion and faith and doesn’t demand long meditation retreats or leaving worldly life behind, makes it very accessible to people from all walks of life. As such, it has been enormously popular with laypeople.

Pure Land has an established presence in the West, but it has not achieved nearly as much popularity as Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism.

Further Reading: Essence of the Infinite Life Sutra by Venerable Master Chin Kung

3. Vajrayana

The Vajrayana or “Adamantine Vehicle” is a third tradition of Buddhism, which is part of the Mahayana but also constitutes its own distinct system. Vajrayana is also known as tantric Buddhism.

The Vajrayana used to be practiced all over Asia, wherever Buddhism had reached. But these days, there are only three surviving traditions of Vajrayana: in Japan (called Shingon), Nepal, and Tibet.

Of these three, the Tibetan Vajrayana is the most complete, diverse, and accessible. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced not only in Tibet, but also in Mongolia and parts of Siberia, and in one small European country in the Russian Federation called Kalmykia.

In addition to the Theravada and Mahayana, the Vajrayana or “Diamond Vehicle” is a third vehicle. But the Vajrayana is not a separate vehicle from the Mahayana. It accepts the Mahayana program of the bodhisattva path of compassion and the goal of complete buddhahood. What makes it unique is a huge collection of special practices and rituals that are said to constitute special methods for attaining the goals of the Mahayana much faster.

According to Vajrayana, both the Theravada and Mahayana are “causal vehicles.” That is, they rely on building up the causes for enlightenment over a long period of time. That’s a fine approach, according to Vajrayana, it just takes a very, very long time.

Vajrayana, on the other hand, starts by assuming the end goal has already been reached. Enlightenment or buddhahood is already full and complete within the practitioner. So instead of the practitioner trying to dig down through all the layers to reach buddhanature, in Vajrayana the buddhanature digs itself out. It dissolves through the layers of conceptuality and neurosis from within.

Vajrayana is about transformation. One kind of transformation has to do with perception. According to Vajrayana, confused beings perceive the world as impure and full of suffering and negativity. Vajrayana’s approach is to transform impure perception into pure perception through special practices. It also uses the subtle energy of the body to bring about the experience of bliss coupled with emptiness and to taste the final wisdom of enlightenment.

According to the causal vehicles, negative emotions and neurosis are impure. They are impediments that keep us stuck in the feedback loop of suffering and need to be wiped clean. But Vajrayana does not advocate rejecting passion, aggression, and confusion. It teaches that the innermost nature of these negative phenomena is pure wisdom.

The metaphor that’s used is of a tree with poisonous fruit. The approach of Theravada is to cut the tree down. Mahayana advocates pulling the tree up from its roots. The approach of Vajrayana is to take the poison and use it to make medicine.

Therefore the Vajrayana doesn’t reject anything. Desire, anger, sexuality—everything is fuel for the path. Every kind of experience, good or bad, is fundamentally good in the Vajrayana and can be brought onto the spiritual path. Even the most apparently negative aspects of our lives are rich and full of energy. They are a colorful palette which we can use to paint our canvas.

The Vajrayana path begins with an initiation called empowerment. Empowerment is given by a lama or guru and brings the student into the mandala of whichever system they will be practicing. Once in the mandala, the student has the blessings and permission they need to perform Vajrayana practices.

Empowerment can only be given by a qualified guru. Because the practices are said to be dangerous and can lead to very serious consequences if people take them the wrong way, students need to practice them under the guidance of a qualified spiritual teacher who can steer them away from the pitfalls and hazards of the path.

Further Reading: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa


The main message of Buddhism is that real freedom from neurotic mind, real freedom from dukkha, is possible by digging up ignorance by the root and cultivating the direct experience of non-self. It may sound a little scary to do so, but it shouldn’t be, because beyond our self-protective habits of mind is a pure and free state of being that cannot be created or destroyed.

This state of being has been compared to the vast reaches of space. Space is empty and void, but it is also infinite and deathless. It accommodates everything whatsoever within its expanse. It has nothing to gain or lose, nothing to hope for, and nothing to fear. It gives no reference points, offers nothing to grasp on to. It is complete and sufficient unto itself.

This ultimate state of utter purity is nirvana, the final fruit of the Buddhist path, but we don’t have to to rely on a distant promise of it. It can be glimpsed in a partial way, like a reflection, right now, through the practice of meditation.

There are times in meditative practice when the dense thicket of discursive thought suddenly falls away, when the games and self-deceptions of ego-clinging subside. It is as if the sky had been covered by clouds, but suddenly they parted and revealed the vast blue sky. Then you’re left with an experience of the luminous mind:

Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that—for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones—there is development of the mind. (Pabhassara Sutta)

The luminous mind lies behind the veils of neurotic mind. Getting a taste or a glimpse of it is, as the Buddha says in the quote above, the condition for walking the path and developing the mind through meditation.

This is not some distant hope, a dream deferred until the next life, but an immanent reality that could be experienced right now. It is waiting for anyone fortunate and bold enough to try.

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Buddhism for Beginners

Mindfulness meditation is everywhere these days, from the therapy couch to the Google campus, from prisons to athletic events. But what are the origins of this surge in mindfulness? What kind of worldview and lifestyle went along with these ancient techniques of meditative training? And, beyond the questionable metaphysics and well-worn pop-psychology bromides, what is meditation actually for? This book explores the Buddhist ideas behind the mindfulness techniques that have seen such a groundswell of popularity. It covers meditation not just as a body of techniques for relaxation and stress relief to accessorize our busy modern lives, but as part of a radical system of self-transformation that offers the possibility of profound liberation.

  • Author: Tai Morello
  • Published: 2017-04-19 13:20:09
  • Words: 12588
Buddhism for Beginners Buddhism for Beginners