Q: Why do you wear clothes
(the robes) that set you apart? Isn't that a form of pride?
A: Buddha has decreed that
the Sangha (monastics) should wear different robes from the
laity. This is to remind ourselves: 1. Not to indulge in
secular desires. 2. Not to forget our vow of devotion to the
Buddhist practice. The Dhammapada (Words of the Buddha) says,
"He who dons the robe without even cleansing himself of
sensuality, who is devoid of self-restraint and truthfulness,
is indeed not fit for the robe." It is an honor to wear the
robe, not to be proud of it and develop arrogance, but to keep
us on guard of the precepts we are to follow and the goal (of
enlightenment) we try to achieve.
Q: How do you forgive when
someone has done wrong to you? How can one forgive infidelity
in a relationship?
A: People are imperfect. The
mind is insatiable. That is why we need to practice restraint
to be free. We have done wrong to others also, consciously or
mindlessly. When we do, we would like others to forgive us. In
the same way, we should forgive others. Infidelity can hurt a
lot, but if we don't forget and let this go, it will continue
to hurt much longer. As Buddha says, you've been shot with an
arrow once (by the infidelity or the hurtful event), don't
stick a second arrow into the same wound ( by keep reminding
yourself and feeling resentful). It is the self that benefits
the most when we forgive and forget, because then we can learn
from the experience, and go on with our lives peacefully.
Q: What would a Buddhist
do if they saw somebody beating a child so badly that he could
be seriously injured?
A: By all means, save the
child! The Buddhist teaching of peace, nonviolence, and
acceptance is not an passive or inactivity, but a principle
that should be followed with wise discernment. It may be karma
that this is happening to the child, but if we do nothing that
would be cruelty to the child. Karma can be changed! Evil and
harm need to be stopped, not with a mind of hatred, but with
intelligence and compassion.
Q: How do Buddhist feel
about eating meat? Do you have to be a vegetarian to be a
A: You don't have to be a
vegetarian to be a Buddhist, or to learn and practice
Buddhism. However, we do encourage people to become
vegetarians. The primary reason is out of compassion--no
animal that crawls on the ground, flies in the air, or swims
in the water, wants to be killed. Observe honestly and you
will see that they have emotions, they feel pain, they want to
live. There are many other reasons to be vegetarians, for
health reasons, for environmental reasons, for economical
reasons, etc. If you find it difficult to give up meat for
now, at least avoid the following: killing the animal
yourself, seeing the animal being killed, or have the animal
killed for you. This way at least you'll avoid the worse
karma. If you think vegetarian food is bland, come to the
Sunnyvale Zen Center and you'll change your mind!
Q: Are there ways to find
peace other than through Buddhism?
A: We need to understand the
nature of peace. Buddhism says that peace in the external
world is possible only when there is peace inside our hearts.
The outside world is a reflection of our collective
mentalities and karmas. Lasting, true peace within can only
come from understanding of truth--the truth shall set you
free. When we are deluded about ourselves and about others,
our mind is not at ease, and we create harm. Therefore
Buddhism stresses the importance of self-reflection, the
importance of learning to be calm and mindful. This is so we
can gain the insight that we are interconnected and affect
each other in a very deep way, that benefiting others is to
truly benefit oneself. Peace is never won with anger or
weapons. This teaching about peace is taught by the Buddha,
but I can certainly imagine others (non-Buddhists) who are
able to come to the same realization.
Q: Where do you go when
you attain nirvana?
A: Nirvana is not a place
that you go to. Nirvana is a state free from all suffering.
Equivalently, nirvana is ultimate bliss, ultimate peace. It is
a state of mind, an eternal state of mind attained by
completely eradicating the roots of suffering--that is, greed,
anger, ignorance, arrogance, jealousy, and erroneous views. It
is attained by the correct perception of reality
(enlightenment). If our mind is free from these poisons, we
will be in bliss--in nirvana, wherever we are.
Q: When a person accepts
Three Refuges and becomes a Buddhist believer, does that mean
that s/he accepts all teachings without question? How can a
person become a Buddhist believer without spending years
reading and learning about the teachings?
A: Ideally, when people take
the Three Refuges, they have learned and understood enough
Buddhism so that they are convinced that this is a truly
enlightening path. Buddha encourages people to examine his
teachings. When you do so honestly, you will find that they
make sense (even if it is against common sense sometimes), and
that they do contain profound wisdom that can help us sort
through the puzzles of life. There is certainly some faith
involved, but even science involves faith (faith in
causality!). There have been hundreds of great masters in the
Buddhist tradition, exemplifying the Buddhist virtue and
wisdom with their actions and words. This is strong evidence
that the Buddhist path is attainable.
Q: Siddhartha wasn't the
'first' buddha. I have read that there were many buddhas
before him. Where did these other buddhas fit into the story?
What did Chinese buddhists believe in before Shakyamuni and
why was he so prominent in Buddhist history?
A: In Buddhist view this
world is not the only world, there are many worlds (galaxies,
if you will) out there and these worlds are constantly in the
process of formation, change, and destruction. (Which
correspond to current scientific understanding.) There are
buddhas teaching in other worlds currently, and there have
been countless buddhas in the past. However, often great
periods of time--eons--elapse between buddhas appear.
Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha is the "historical" buddha of our
civilization. In times between buddhas, there are bodhisattvas
in the world who teaches the ten virtues (no killing, no
stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no slandering, no
swearing/cursing, no gossiping, and freeing the mind from
greed, anger, and ignorance). These bodhisattvas teach
according to the culture and the people of that time. This is
one of the reasons Buddhism is very tolerant of other
religions; it views the other sages as bodhisattvas.
Q: There is mention of
heaven and hell in Buddhist scriptures. This is very similar
to Christianity. Both Christ and Siddhartha had unusual births
from Virgin mothers. There is much interplay between entities
in heaven/hell and the people on earth. If we consider this,
how does causality explain this phenomenon? More importantly,
why do present day Buddhists need to know this? This is very
similar to the Original Sin that the Christians believe in.
From time of Adam and Eve the Christians believe that they pay
for the original sin although they didn't participate in it.
If we believe in causality or reincarnation, doesn't that mean
that we accept burden of responsibility of a previous
reincarnation although we don't recall who or what we were?
A: Heaven and hell in
Buddhist teaching are caused by our own karma (actions,
deeds), much in the same way that we create our living
condition. If you find descriptions of Buddhist hell
improbable, just look at our animal farms, slaughter houses,
or countries fighting each other. We do create living hell for
others. Then hell will be waiting for us. On the other hand,
we create our own future heaven by our good deeds. This is
just causality. However, the Buddhist goal is to transcend
heaven and hell (or earth) and attain absolute peace of
About reincarnation, you may not remember your previous life,
but when you were living your previous life, your feelings
were just as real as now. It was still "you" that were living
that identity. In fact, what we call past lives are just
streams of mental events flowing through the present mind.
They are always, and can only be, experienced in the present
mind. Mental experiences are always in the present, although
they change constantly. Don't think of rebirth as a "soul"
going from one life to another as the wheel of time turns;
rather, it is a never ending sequence of mental experiences
going through your mind which is always in the present. Time
is experienced as a sequence of events. No mather what you
become, even at your death, your mind is still experiencing in
the "now". What others view as death, to your mind it is just
another set of mental events that come and go. In your future,
it is still this "present mind" of yours and nobody else's. So
you are still responsible for your karma, even if you don't
remember your previous lives or deeds (some people do
remember). Say you didn't pay the income tax in 1990, IRS will
still come to hunt you whether you remember it or not. Not
remembering is no excuse. There is no escape--unless you
realize the emptiness of all dharmas.
Buddha was not born from a virgin mother, however, virgin
birth (or raising the dead, or other miracles) do occur in
Buddhism. The fifth Chinese Zen Patriarch is said to come from
a virgin mother. And there were "lotus-born" sages. There is
much more about this world and our mind that current science
cannot yet explain. It is possible to understand supernormal
phenomena with the Buddhist practice, but that's another
What may be considered "Original Sin" in Buddhism is
"Ignorance". The technical term is "Original Ignorance" or "Beginningless
Ignorance" which we all have. From ignorance comes greed and
anger, and jealousy and pride, and from these come misdeeds
that lead to suffering. But we are very much the participants
ourselves. We are responsible for our own deeds.
Q: What is karma?
A: "Karma" means "action",
actions of the body, speech, and mind. These actions generates
reactions / influences on both the doer and the rest of the
world. Because the principle of causality (specific causes
lead to specific consequences) is always at work, when we say
"karma" we sometimes refer to not only the action itself but
its consequences. Therefore, "good karma" is defined as those
actions that bring happiness (to humans and animals and other
sentient beings), and "bad karma" are the actions that bring
suffering. To be aware of our karma is to be conscious of the
interactions between cause and effects, and not to do foolish
acts that bring about suffering.
Q: What are sentient
beings? Why do we refer to "sentient beings" instead of "human
A: "Sentient beings" refer to
all living beings that has "sentience", or, "awareness" /
"mind" / "feelings", that which can feel pain and pleasure.
Human beings, animals, insects, and others not seen by the
ordinary eye ("heavenly beings", ghosts, and beings in hell)
are sentient beings. Plants are not sentient beings (despite
what some new findings seem to suggest, there is no real
evidence that plants have sentience.) All sentient beings may
become enlightened (and therefore, become Buddhas). Killing a
sentience being cause various degrees of pain and suffering,
and therefore is bad karma.
Q: What is the purpose of
chanting in Buddhist services?
A: Chanting serves many
purposes. When everyone chants in harmony, our individual
differences are melted away, and we are unified. The words in
chanting are usually confessions (to repent our misdeeds) or
praises to the Buddha or bodhisattvas. So chanting is a way to
remove karmic obstacles, to cultivate respect, and to diminish
arrogance. When we chant, each syllable should be chanted from
the heart, with sincerity and concentration, so it is also a
form of meditation.
Q: Buddhism seems to be a
religion with many teachings and philosophy. Does it have a
most important book like the Bible in Christianity?
A: The entire collection of
Buddhist teachings is called Tripitaka (Three Canons),
consists of sutras (scriptures spoken by the Buddha), vinaya
(precepts and regulations), and treatises or commentaries on
the sutras (works by Buddha's disciples or later masters).
Buddha taught for nearly 50 years, and with the long history
(2500 years) of Buddhism, the Tripitaka is very very big--a
standard Tripitaka edition has a hundred volumes with about a
thousand pages of small print per volume. It would take years
to just read through them once. There are, however, among the
thousands of sutras, some that are very popular and have had
very important influences, such as The Diamond Sutra, Lotus
Sutra, Heart Sutra, Shurangama Sutra, Dhammapada, Platform
Sutra, Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters, etc.
The sutras vary widely in style, content, and approach, and
may seem to be different philosophies, but there is a central
unifying truth in all of them. Buddha was an expert teacher
and believed we should teach people with different abilities
and inclinations in different ways, while never straying away
from the central principle.
Q: What is life? What is
the Buddhist perception of life?
A: I'm supposed to answer
this in one hundred word or less?! :-) There are two ways to
view life. First, what ordinary people perceive as life: birth
from the womb, growing old, and death of the body, called
"fragmentary life-span." Second, the arising and ceasing of
single thoughts, called "momentary life-span." The ordinary,
fragmentary life-span is but the accumulation of momentary
life-span. Indeed, each moment we die and are reborn again.
Death is nothing mysterious, nor is it the end. The ordinary
eye sees the fragmentary life-span, and wonders what happens
to the dead. For the person who is going through death (and
rebirth), it is just a stream of momentary experiences of the
mind, as it always has been. Only that for most the
death-experience is a shocking one. Living is dying, dying is
living. So the awakened person lives in the present moment,
while the deluded clings to the past. In fact, what the
mundane person sees as reincarnation, the enlightened sees it
as but a stream of never-ending momentary experiences of the
How does causality explain why bad things happen to good /
A: Until we become Buddhas,
nobody is perfect. We are "good" when we have good thoughts
and perform good deeds. We are "bad" when we are selfish,
greedy, angry, and therefore do things that hurt others. All
of us have done harm to other living beings, people, and
animals, intentionally or unintentionally. Therefore, when bad
things happen to us, we should not feel it is unfair or be
angry. Instead, we should remind ourselves that in our
ignorance we have also hurt others and made others suffer in
the past. Therefore, we should be even more diligent in our
efforts to improve ourselves and be kind and forgiving to
Q: What are the red and yellow
tablets on the sidewalls of the Buddha Hall?
This is one of our traditions wherein Buddhists make donations
to the monastery and pray for their loved ones. They make a
contribution and we set up a tablet, at their request, with
their names or the names of their relatives or dear ones. The
red tablets are for the well-being of the living, and the
yellow tablets are for the deceased. During our daily
cultivation and all services we dedicate the merits to them.
The tablets stay up for a month.
"emptiness" when we realize that the ego no longer serves us?
Is it the same as being liberated?
"Emptiness" is to understand that all phenomena have no
independent, intrinsic characters. All perceived characters
are conditioned upon many varying factors. Is water good or
bad? It depends on how you use it. Is "water" a solid, a
liquid, or a gas? It depends on the temperature. Water is
or our idea of the "self", is also empty. It is ever changing,
undefinable, a mixture of many people's views of yourself. It
has no intrinsic existence. Yet "I" feel hurt, "I" feel
offended, "I" desire this and that. When we say that, it is
the ego speaking. To see the emptiness of the ego is
enlightenment. To penetrate the illusion of the ego and to be
free from the delusive, confused, manipulative ego is
What/Who keeps track of good or bad karma on behalf the
sentient beings? Is there a universal force to keep tabs on
consequences of our karmas (in general, suffering for bad
karma, happiness for good karma) arise naturally from the way
people and things interact with each other, not unlike the
physical law “for every force there is an equal and opposite
force.” Observe carefully and deeply and you will see that it
is so. No one dictates, controls, or keeps track of karma.
Like the sun, which doesn’t think “I need to rise every
morning so the plants can grow,” it happens that way from the
natural interactions between the stars and planets. Buddha
does not make it happen, he simply discovers and describes the
there is mentioning of a “King Yama” who judges people in the
afterworld based on their deeds in their lifetime. This need
not be fantasy. In the human world, laws and court systems
evolve and we have human judges trying to maintain justice;
there is no reason similar state of affairs cannot arise for
“the afterworld,” as in Buddhism there are many more states of
existence than human existence.
eggs and milk included in vegetarian diet?
encourages vegetarian diet out of compassion for the animals.
Eggs may be fertilized and therefore have consciousness, so we
don’t eat eggs. Milk does not involve killing of the animal,
so dairy products are fine.
We also do
not use garlic and onion, because they increase lust when
cooked and increase bad temper when eaten raw, and they leave
a strong odor. Nor do we use alcohol because it is
general guidelines rather than strict rules; these foods may
be used if one has special health conditions. You don’t have
to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. It is up to us
individually to make the decision.
a Buddhist be pro-choice about abortion in cases where the
woman’s health is at risk or in cases of rape/sexual abuse?
Generally, there is consciousness after conception, so willful
abortion is considered killing. This issue is to be taken
live in a world where often a clear-cut right-or-wrong
decision is not possible. One needs to consider individual
circumstances and make the decisions carefully.
There is no
highest decision body in Buddhism that dictates what stance to
take on these complicated issues. Instead, we aim to make
people understand the karma consequences involved in each
decision. For example, if a woman were raped and became
pregnant, if she can, through her Buddhist practice, let go of
her anger, keep and raise the child in peace, then this would
be the best situation where she managed to turn “bad karma”
into “good karma.” If she were unable to do this and went
through with the abortion, she should seek refuge in the
Buddha’s teachings, learn of ways to pacify herself and quench
the enmity the aborted child would have toward her.
also look deeper into the causes of these problems: delusion,
lust, disrespect, and anger, and work on transforming these
mental-tendencies in each one of us into wisdom, discipline,
respect, and compassion.
Q: What is the difference
between "concentration" and "awareness"?
A: You are probably referring to
the two main aspects of Buddhist meditation: first, the
discipline to still the mind; second, the discipline to
perceive truthfully. The first discipline is known variously
as the practice of stillness, concentration, stability, or
samatha. The second discipline is known variously as the
practice of awareness, mindfulness, contemplation, insight
meditation, or vipassana. Concentration means to be able to
focus on one thing deeply, without being distracted. This
brings calmness and stability of the mind. Mindfulness or
clear perception/contemplation brings insight, understanding,
wisdom. Both disciplines are complementary and crucial to the
Buddhist meditation practice.
Q: Is Buddhism considered a
religion, a philosophy, or both?
is a teaching to help us see reality, understand life, and
attain inner peace. Because it deals with "truth" and "life"
and "spirituality," it is a religion. Because of the vastness
and profundity of the teaching, many study it as philosophy.
Most importantly, the Buddhist teaching is to be practiced and
applied in our daily lives.
one committed intentional killing of human beings, how can one
ask for forgiveness?
Intentionally killing human beings, either for self-gain or
out of vengeance, is the gravest of all killings, and
difficult to repent. However, one can still work on rectifying
the bad karma by making an utmost sincere effort in admitting
one's error, in giving up one's selfish desires, in protecting
lives, and by practicing unconditional compassion. Ultimately,
one transcends all karma (good or bad) by attaining complete
Buddhism teaches non-attachment. When we visit the graves of
past loved ones, does this mean we are not letting them go?
A: One can
care without attachment. When we remember our past loved ones,
if we still have feelings of lost, sadness, resentment, etc.,
then there is attachment. Instead, we can remember their
merits and be grateful for the time shared together,
understand that what is gone is gone, that we are all
continuing on our individual paths, and peacefully wish for
their ultimate liberation, then we turn the attachment into
something positive for all involved.