Sunday, April 24, 2011

Empty rites and rituals

Question (Unedited) :
Can you explain how a person can adhere only to their traditional rites and rituals, without practicing the teachings in Buddhism? 

My comment:
Hi B...,
Let me digress a little before answering your question.

It is a very common problem if we observe very carefully how people around the world "practise" their respective religions.  In primitive "religions", there is nothing but ignorant superstitions based on fear of the unknown and trying to appease the wrath of nature.  The natural instinct is to pray to these natural forces and finding ways to appease them by offering sacrifices and chanting incantations.  Along the way there would be some smart Alex taking the role of experts in these rites and rituals, and the birth of a "religion" took place.

If we look into the basic or fundamental teachings of the major religions, rites and rituals are not found in their "holy books".  And for the same religion which originated from one founder, there arose different sects because of subsequent different interpretations to suit the different practitioners of the time, for whatever reasons better known to them.  Inevitably different rites and rituals were created to suit the respective tribes or races.  We are witnessing today not the practice of the pure teachings of the various faiths, but only the different rites and rituals created to boost the egos of the human race.  If we study the really good people with spiritual wisdom, they were all very peace-loving people.  There are three very outstanding personalities with such spiritual attributes.  They are Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and the present Dalai Lama.  They practised universal values of good moral conduct of love and peace.  The whole world is in chaos in the name of religion because of the people's misinterpretations and misunderstanding of the whole spectrum of the fundamental teachings of the great religious founders.  The intolerance and bigotry in the name of religion are the faults of selfish and ignorant adherence mostly being indoctrinated from birth while others being influenced later in life.   

Coming back to your question; Buddhism is a very tolerant, liberal and accommodating "religion".  Truth is truth; irrespective of who you are, where you come from, and whatever tradition you practise.  Different nationalities are able to practise Buddhism without having to discard their traditions and cultures.  You would notice that different nationalities practise Buddhism differently while retaining their cultural beliefs and traditions.  They actually incorporate Buddhism into their existing culture and traditions.  That is why today we have Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and even Western Buddhism!  The original teachings of the Buddha in its pristine form did not emphasize on rites and rituals.  Whatever rituals being practised at that time were purely Indian traditions.  The Buddha's teachings remain pure and simple, encompassing the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.  The different rites and rituals you see are purely peculiar to the different nationalities which practise Buddhism incorporating their own traditions and cultural practices.

It is very fascinating to see how the Tibetans, and the Chinese perform their rites and rituals.  There are alot of bowing, kneeling, and prostrating.  There are a lot of praying paraphernalia and colourful robes and even different caps and crowns!!  The Buddha lived in India following Indian tradition.  He discarded his princely attire and jewellery and forsaken his crown in exchange for a simple robe.  Definitely he didn't introduce those "alien" rites and rituals and praying paraphernalia and colourful attire!!  It is very obvious then, that to indulge in the rites and rituals does not necessarily mean to practise the teachings of the Buddha.  It is a fact that quite a proportion of "Buddhists" who indulge in  their respective rites and rituals do not even know the basic teachings of the Buddha.  This is a big problem within the Asian communities being born into "Buddhist" families without even knowing who the Buddha was.  So what these people do in the name of Buddhism is just performing empty rites and rituals; nothing to do with the pristine teachings of the Buddha.  Quite embarrassing, actually!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Discouraging Buddha images

Queston (Unedited):
It's been said that the Buddha discouraged his followers from making or worshipping images of himself. What is textual evidence for this?

My comment:
Hi D,

Thank you for asking me.

During the Buddha's time, there was not a problem as the Buddha was there in person.  Actually, Buddha images were started by the Greeks who were present in North-western India where they had conquered Persia and the surrounding areas.  

There are two suttas which we can deduce that the Buddha discouraged worshipping images of himself.  The first is the Vakkali (Wakkali) Sutta.  In this sutta one of the monks, Wakkali was so obssessed with the body of the Buddha that he spent all his time admiring the physical body of the Buddha.  The Buddha then admonished him with this famous comment: "O Vakkali, whoever sees the Dhamma, sees me [the Buddha]"  

Click here to refer: 

"Yo kho Vakkali dhammam passati so mam passati"
O Vakkali, whoever sees the Dhamma, sees me [the Buddha

Another sutta is the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.  Here the Buddha during his final hour, comforted his closest disciple, Ananda, that when he (the Buddha) was gone let only the Dhamma be your guide.  
Click here:

The Blessed One's Final Exhortation
1. Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: "It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: 'Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.' But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Never mind

Question : (Unedited)
Could you please tell me how can you explain the self and selflessness? What is mind? Where is it? Inside the brain or outside of it? 

My comment:
Hi S......,
It would help me to better answer you if I know your environmental background.  You see, a person from a Western Christian society will have a very different mind-set compared with an Asian.  It is much easier to explain to an Asian mind-set than a Western one.  

We take this physical body as our possession.  It is natural to believe that this is true.  In reality if this body belongs to me, then I should be able to control it completely.  But the sad truth is that I cannot fully control this body; given time this body will age and disintegrate.  We are all very fearful of death because we believe that this body is ours.  This attitude towards clinging to our body is what we call clinging to "self".  There are actually two distinct components in a living person.  One is the physical body; the other is the mind.  An analogy of the computer system may give a clearer picture.  The physical body is like the computer hardware.  Mind is like the power supplied by electricity to run the computer.  When the hardware has broken down, the electric energy still exists; and if you replace the old computer with a new one, plug it in, the system comes to life again!  The old computer is not important, it is not self.  In that sense it is "selflessness".  Our existence is a continuous process; when one body disintegrates, the life-energy or mind passes on and seeks rebirth in another form. In Buddhist concepts, you will find such terms like mind, consciousness, thought processes, energy and life-force.  We use them in different context, and sometimes synonymously.

Brain:  The piece of grey matter encased in the skull.
Mind:   The invisible consciousness that activates the brain to think.
An analogy by using computer terminology:
Brain: the hardware
Mind: the electrical current
Consciousness: the software (operating system)
Brain + mind + consciousness =  A functioning computer system

Our consciousness or etheric energy through the medium of the brain, enables us to think and feel.  Brain without this consciousness is just like a person in a coma.  Consciousness without a functioning brain means the being is clinically dead.
I must admit that I am just using my knowledge and understanding of Buddhism (whatever much or little I may have) to share my views with you.  This means that there is always the danger of ending up with arguments and disagreements.  So always bear in mind that there should be space for "agreeing to disagree".

Once someone asked, "What is a person?"
Answer: "Body and mind."

"Then what is body?"
Answer: "Without mind."

"And what is mind?"
Answer: "Without body."

"Then 'without mind' plus 'without body' equals 'body and mind'!"
Answer: "Oh! Never mind!!"

Friday, April 8, 2011

Music that soothes the heart and mind

Below are the original lyrics in Chinese:





The lyrics have only 28 characters; 7 characters on each line. But the moral message is so precise.

The English transalation:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought.

If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him.

If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

All wrong-doing arises because of mind. If mind is transformed can wrong-doing remain?


This closely resembles the first "Twin Verses" of the Buddhist Dhammapada, which I quote:

1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.


Hope you like it.  In fact the qigong that I practise each morning has this piece accompanying the movements.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What is mind; what is brain?

Question : (Unedited)
Would you kindly give me a 'working definition' of  the difference between the mind and the brain.
Thanking you in advance.

Hi M...,

In simple computer terms, CPU will be the "brain"; while the electric current will be the "mind".  The operating system will be the "storehouse of consciousness" or accumulated past actions (past kamma).  The data input will be the "present actions generated" or fresh kamma.  

The "brain" is that part of visible "gray matter" inside the skull. The thoughts, feelings and perceptions are the invisible consciousness of the mind.

The above are my personal interpretations.  You are therefore free to disagree if need be.

Smile from justinchoo :-)
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