Sunday, October 31, 2010

You have the freedom not to believe others.

Question: (Unedited)
I am 19 years old and have been born into a family of Theravada Buddhists. I believe very deeply in the power of logic and rational thinking. Uptil the age of 15, I had been a buddhist simply by birth right but my quest for answers led me to investigate into my religion and a few others. After some debating, I concluded that the Buddhist philosophy indeed made sense to me and appealed to my desire for a scientific and realistic explanation of life as it is. It corresponded with my appreciation of Darwinian evolution theory and fit very well into my view of life. For a few years, I was quite content with its explanations.

Presently, I am faced by a great dilemma that is rocking the very foundations of my beliefs and also confusing me a great deal. Recently I came across a video made by an Islamic scholar through a friend. Here is its link:

The gist of this video is as follows - the latter part of it deals with atheists and states how the 1400 year old Holy Qur'an has various passages (suraahs) describing natural phenomena that science has only just explained a few hundred years back. The speaker's argument is: "How can the Qur'an possibly explain all this phenomena when it was revealed at a time when scientific knowledge was in its infancy? Could it be because the Qur'an is the product of the Creator?"

This disturbed me because I could not figure out a reasonable answer to the questions it posed. I have read that the Aganna Sutta mentions how the Buddha describes the "universe being destroyed and re-evolving into its present form over years". So, does Buddhism have such explanations regarding natural phenomena as well? If not, how can one possibly explain away the matter that the Qur'an covers and all its assertions regarding the world we live in?

Thank you very much for your time.
My comment:
Hi P....,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

From your first paragraph, it seems you've already got a good grasp of Buddhism.  As you said you believe in logic and rational thinking.  Use them to resolve your apparent "confusion".  Before dwelling into your "problem", let's work on a different scenario.  If someone were to show you a video about the benefits of drug-taking with first hand testimonies and scientific explanations, do you crack your head trying to reconcile what you already know (taking drugs is bad) with the "new" idea that taking drugs is good?  Likewise, others can present to you their versions of belief.  It is up to you to accept or reject.  You need not have to try to find answers to reconcile fit into your own belief.  So, you are actually creating a problem for yourself which in the first place does not call for any answer.  Just ignore them and you will not have any problem.  If you are committed to Buddhism, then take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.  Then you will be free from delusion and confusion.  

You have actually referred to the Buddha's explanation in the Aganna Sutta.  The Buddha's explanation regarding natural phenomena is in the three characteristics of existence...Impermanence, Unsatisfactoriness, Insubstantiality....Anicca Dukkha Anatta.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brain and mind

Human Mind

Question : (Unedited)
can someone explain what the buddhist view of these 3 things are.
One who knows..

i seem to see the the brain and mind as the same..
as i understanding of readings of Ajahn Chah teachings.
Mind as piece of meat.. natural state at rest.
only moved when abiding takes place.
is mind and brain same.. just no location of actual mind?
please.. make answer simple.
comming out of deap valley.

 My comment:
Hi Fr......,

The simple answers are:

Brain:  The piece of grey matter encased in the skull.

Mind:   The invisible consciousness that activates the brain to think.

One who knows:  In the Buddhist context, it means one who comprehends the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eighthfold Path.

An analogy by using computer terminology:
Brain: the hardware
Mind: the electrical current
One who knows: all the software.

<>  Now you are in open field with plenty of fresh air and sunshine!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't believe everything

Question : (Unedited)
I was recently reading a translation of the dhammapada online that included stories from which the verses are supposed to have originated, and I was only into the second story when I noticed something that puzzled me.  It was the story of Matthakundali who sees the Buddha just before dying, mentally professes his faith in him, and is thus reborn as semi-/demi-/god.  Like the Buddha’s disciples I’m confused as to why this should be.  As a westerner who likes to see logic and reason behind the world, I’m puzzled to see an instance suggesting that salvation can be achieved by faith in Buddhism rather than human effort.  One of the crucial elements that first lead me to reject Christianity and attracted me to Buddhism was a lack of faith in deity/superstition/mythology.  Am I interpreting this story correctly in thinking it suggests there is room for saving faith in Buddhism?  I’ve always understood the Buddha to be human rather than a supernatural being; is this incorrect?

Related to this is the whole idea of the fantastic stories surrounding the Buddha: his preaching from a cloud, the bowl flowing upstream, his seemingly miraculous birth, to name a few.  I’ve never taken such stories at face value, personally, choosing instead to understand them as figurative and metaphorical and not necessary (indeed, perhaps a hindrance) to practicing Buddhism.  Is this approach greatly flawed?

My comment:
Hi J....,

Thank you for asking me.

Just as there are so many types of people, there are also variations in one's belief, perception, and interpretation.  Before we proceed to discuss your comments and questions, we must first establish the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.  I am sure you are familiar with these fundamental concepts.  They alone form the basic foundation of the Buddha's teachings.  These fundamental teachings are the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Characteristics of Existence, the Law of Cause and Effect, and the Three Evil Roots of Greed, Hatred and Delusion.  The rest are merely additions, legends, beliefs, and elaborations which may or may not be true.  It is up to our wise judgement to decide which is beneficial and which is not.   

The Dhammapada is a collection of stories with moral messages.  The essence of the moral messages are more important than the authenticity of these stories.  We must also bear in mind that the Buddha is no ordinary mortal.  Many things which our ancestors insisted cannot be true or to be impossible are now proven to be true and possible.  So it is wiser not to completely reject everything just because we think impossible.  We must also understand that the events related did not happen in one life time, but were the final results of accumulated events of numerous past lives.  If you study more of the Buddha's life, there will be more "fantastic" stories, events, and personal relationships with those associated with him.  All these people did not just associate with the Buddha by chance.  They were already with him during previous life-time.  

<< As a westerner who likes to see logic and reason behind the world>>
This is the greatest flaw in humans believing that one can reason with everything through logic.  One has to understand that the physical faculties have serious limitations.  Our eyes can only see that far or that size.  Anything farther or smaller, we cannot see anymore.  The same goes with our hearing, sense of smell, sense of touch, taste, and ability to compute.  Our brain also has serious limitations, otherwise all of us will be smarter than Einstein!  The Buddha had acquired an extraordinary power not available through the five physical senses.  It is the power of the mind, which an average Westerner is so grossly ignorant of.  This supreme power of the mind is what set the Buddha aloft from the others.  The power of the mind is the epitome of human achievement.

Below are the pali version with English translation of the first two verses of the Dhammapada.  In these two verses, you may find answers to all life's adventures and tragedies.

Dhammapada Verse 1

Cakkhupalatthera Vatthu :

Manopubbangama dhamma

manosettha manomaya

manasa ce padutthena

bhasati va karoti va

tato nam dukkhamanveti

cakkamva vahato padam.

Verse 1. Suffering Follows The Evil-Doer

Mind precedes all knowables,

mind's their chief, mind-made are they.

If with a corrupted mind

one should either speak or act

dukkha (Suffering/Unsatisfactriness) follows caused by that,

as does the wheel that  follows the ox's hoof.

Explanation: All that we experience begins with thought. Our words and deeds spring from thought. If we speak or act with evil thoughts, unpleasant circumstances and experiences inevitably result. Wherever we go, we create bad circumstances because we carry bad thoughts. This is very much like the wheel of a cart following the hoofs of the ox yoked to the cart. The cart-wheel, along with the heavy load of the cart, keeps following the draught oxen. The animal is bound to this heavy load and cannot leave it.

Dhammapada Verse 2

Matthakundali Vatthu :

Manopubbangama dhamma

manosettha manomaya

manasa ce pasannena

bhasati va karoti va

tato nam sukha manveti

chayava anapayini.

Verse 2. Happiness Follows The Doer of Good

Mind precedes all knowables,

mind's their chief, mind-made are they.

If with a clear, and confident mind

one should speak and act,

happiness follows one,

as one's shadow never departing.

Explanation: All that man experiences springs out of his thoughts. If his thoughts are good, the words and the deeds will also be good. The result of good thoughts , words and deeds will be happiness. This happiness will never leave the person whose thoughts are good. Happiness will always follow him like his shadow that never leaves him.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Truths and legends

Question (Unedited):
I read somewhere recently that Buddha Shakyamuni could read 64 languages and new all their alphabets, had mystical powers and used these to trick the guards and escape from his fathers palace. I am confused!! I have recently just started to study Buddhism as I found the path interesting and so far I have felt more calm etc. However, some of the material tends to make Buddha Godlike and similar to the characters in the Bible etc. Must we accept these legendary stories as correct or should I (as a novice) focus on the four noble truths and eightfold path.

I look forward to your reply.

My comment: 
Hi A..,
Thank you for asking me.

It is good that you seek clarifications.  However, you will also find that if you ask different groups of "Buddhists" you may end up having contradictory answers!!  So be forewarned and follow the Buddha's advice to use common sense and intelligent judgement while learning his teachings. The book "What Buddhists Believe" written by my revered teacher (who had recently passed away) is a very good reference for everyone. Click here to access:

Coming back to your question.  In my forty over years' learning of Buddhism, this is the first time I've heard about this "64 languages etc".  So, as far as I'm concerned I would just ignore them.  

If you study more of the Buddha's life, there will be more "fantastic" stories, events, and personal relationships with those associated with him.  All these people did not just associate with the Buddha by chance.  They were already with him during previous life-time.  You must also remember that the Buddha was not just an ordinary mortal.  He was The Buddha, the fully enlightened one, endowed with supreme power of the mind, with supernatural power to perform feats which were beyond human ability.  However, he forbade his disciples to show off their supernatural powers as they were of no use for progress of spiritual development.

Many legendary stories were merely legends, but who knows?  Most of these stories have moral messages.  It is these moral messages that are important rather than the stories themselves.  I agree with you that we should focus on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.  Happy learning.  Please come back if you need further clarification.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Religion" has bad aspects?

Question : (Unedited)
Every religion in the world has good and bad aspects that make up it.  What aspects of Buddhism make it a good religion?  What attracts people to Buddhism?

What aspects do people make the religion out to be bad or misleading?  What aspects of Buddhism make other people weary or afraid of the religion? Thanks for your time!

– H...    

My comment: 
Hi H...,

Thanks for asking me.

Your question can only be answered very subjectively, and depending on which side one is with.  As a Buddhist I will point out the salient points of the Buddha's teachings.  However, others who don't subscribe to Buddhism may most probably disagree with me. It is actually a waste of time discussing when the other party is adamant to listen, to respect, to tolerate, others' views.

Your question "What aspects do people make the religion out to be bad or misleading?"
If a person does not agree or believe with that particular religion, one cannot expect that person to say good things about it.  To make matters worse, when that person has very little tolerance-level for others' beliefs, he will not only criticize but also try to prevent others from practising their beliefs.  In the worst scenario, this type of person will try to convert others to his belief, failing which he will try to eliminate them.  Such is the sad state of affairs in this world.

Buddhism is not interested to gain converts.  Buddhism is a “religion” of peace, respect, and non-violence.  It does not find faults with others.  What others chose to believe and practise is their freedom of choice.  The Buddha merely revealed the universal truths of this existence.  If the person agrees he can practise.  If he doesn't agree, then it's up to him.  Buddhism is like air.

I would say that the most salient point in Buddhism is the freedom to use one's human intelligence and common sense to practise.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What do Buddhists seek?

Question : (Unedited)
My question is very basic but i find myself still slightly puzzled over it. Is Buddhism concentrated completely on achieving enlightenment?

Hi N..,

Thank you for asking me.

First we need to define what "enlightenment" means in Buddhism.  It means being "awaken" from the ignorance of existence.  It is a state whereby all negative traits are eradicated.  All Buddhists strive to achieve such a state, although it is quite impossible to achieve in one life-time.  

The other way of looking at "enlightenment" is its ultimate result, that is Nibbana. When we talk about enlightenment, we will definitely have to refer to the accompanying result, i.e. Nibbana (or Nirvana in Sanskrit). Nibbana means extinction of desires, and complete eradication of the 3 roots of defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. Without any trace of these defilements, there will no longer be any clinging to future rebirth. Without birth, one will not be subject to the dictates of this unsatisfactory existence. One is no longer subject to conditions. One's existence is free from conditioning.  

Smile from justinchoo :-)
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