The name Buddhism comes from the word 'budhi' which means 'to
wake up' and thus Buddhism is the philosophy of awakening. This
philosophy has its origins in the experience of the man Siddhata
Gotama, known as the Buddha, who was himself awakened at the age
of 35. Buddhism is now 2,500 years old and has about 300 million
followers world-wide. Until a hundred years ago, Buddhism was
mainly an Asian philosophy but increasingly it is gaining adherents
in Europe and America.
So Buddhism is just a philosophy?
The word philosophy comes from two words 'philo' which means 'love'
and 'sophia' which means 'wisdom'. So philosophy is the love of
wisdom or love and wisdom, both meanings describing Buddhism perfectly.
Buddhism teaches that we should try to develop our intellectual
capacity to the fullest so that we can understand clearly. It
also teaches us to develop love and kindness so that we can be
like a true friend to all beings. Thus Buddhism is a philosophy
but not just a philosophy. It is the supreme philosophy.
Who was the Buddha?
In the year 563 B.C. a baby was born into a royal family in northern
India. He grew up in wealth and luxury but eventually found that
worldly comfort and security do not guarantee happiness. He was
deeply moved by the suffering he saw all around and resolved to
find the key to human happiness. When he was 29 he left his wife
and child and set off to sit at the feet of the great religious
teachers of the day to learn from them. They taught him much but
none really knew the cause of human suffering or how it could
be overcome. Eventually, after six years study and meditation
he had an experience in which all ignorance fell away and he suddenly
understood. From that day onwards he was called the Buddha, the
Awakened One. He lived for another 45 years in which time he traveled
all over northern India teaching others what he had discovered.
His compassion and patience were legendary and he made thousands
of followers. In his eightieth year, old and sick, but still happy
and at peace, he finally died.
Wasn't it irresponsible for the Buddha to walk out
on his wife and child?
It couldn't have been an easy thing for the Buddha to leave his
family. He must have worried and hesitated for a long time before
finally leaving. But he had a choice, dedicating himself to his
family or dedicating himself to the whole world. In the end, his
great compassion made him give himself to the whole world. And
the whole world still benefits from his sacrifice. This was not
irresponsible. It was perhaps the most significant sacrifice ever
The Buddha is dead so how can he help us?
Faraday, who discovered electricity, is dead but what he discovered
still helps us. Luis Pasteur who discovered the cures for so many
diseases is dead but his medical discoveries still save lives.
The great artist Leonardo da Vinci is dead but what he created
can still uplift and give joy. Noble men and heroes may have been
dead for centuries but when we read of their deeds and achievements
we can still be inspired to act as they did. Yes, the Buddha is
dead but 2500 years later his teachings still help people, his
example still inspires people, his words still change lives. Only
a Buddha could have such power centuries after his death.
Was the Buddha a god?
No, he was not. He did not claim that he was a god, the child
of a god or even the messenger from a god. He was a human being
who perfected himself and taught that if we followed his example,
we could perfect ourselves also.
If the Buddha is not a god, then why do people worship
There are different types of worship. When someone worships a
god, they praise and honor him or her, make offerings and ask
for favors, believing that the god will hear their praise, receive
their offerings and answer their prayers. Buddhists do not indulge
in this kind of worship. The other kind of worship is when we
show respect to someone or something we admire. When a teacher
walks into the room we stand up, when we meet a dignitary we shake
their hand, when the national anthem is played we salute. These
are all gestures of respect and worship and indicate our admiration
for certain persons or things. This is the type of worship Buddhists
practice. A statue of the Buddha with its hands rested gently
in its lap and its compassionate smile reminds us to strive to
develop peace and love within ourselves. The perfume of incense
reminds us of the pervading influence of virtue, the lamp reminds
us of the light of knowledge and the flowers which soon fade and
die, remind us of impermanence. When we bow, we express outwardly
what we feel inwardly; our gratitude to the Buddha for what his
teachings have given us. This is the nature of Buddhist worship.
But I have heard people say that Buddhists worship
Such statements only reflect the misunderstanding of the persons
who make them. The dictionary defines an idol as "an image
or statue worshipped as a god". As we have seen, Buddhists
do not believe that the Buddha was a god, so how could they possibly
believe that a piece of wood or metal is a god? All religions
use symbols to express various concepts. In Taoism, the ying-yang
is used to symbolize the harmony between opposites. In Sikhism,
the sword is used to symbolize spiritual struggle. In Christianity,
the fish is used to symbolize Christ's presence while the cross
is used to symbolize his sacrifice. And in Buddhism, the statue
of the Buddha is used to symbolize human perfection. The statue
of the Buddha also reminds us of the human dimension in Buddhist
teaching, the fact that Buddhism is human-centered, rather than
god-centered, that we must look within not without to find perfection
and understanding. So to say that Buddhists worship idols is not
Why do people do all kinds of strange things
in Buddhist temples?
Many things seem strange to us when we don't understand them.
Rather than dismiss such things as strange, we should try to find
out what they mean. However, it is true that Buddhist practices
sometimes have their origins in popular superstition and misunderstanding
rather than the teachings of the Buddha. And such misunderstandings
are not found in Buddhism alone but arise in all religions from
time to time. The Buddha taught with clarity and in detail and
if some fail to understand fully, the Buddha cannot be blamed.
is a saying;
If a person suffering from a disease does not seek treatment
even when there is a physician at hand, it is not the fault of
that physician. In the same way, if a person is oppressed and
tormented by the disease of the defilements but does not seek
the help of the Buddha, that is not the Buddha's fault.
Nor should Buddhism or any religion be judged by those who don't
practice it properly. If you wish to know the true teachings of
Buddhism, read the Buddha's words or speak to those who understand
If Buddhism is so good why are some Buddhist countries
If by poor you mean economically poor, then it is true that some
Buddhist countries are poor. But if by poor you mean a poor quality
of life, then perhaps some Buddhist countries are quite rich.
America for example, is an economically rich and powerful country
but the crime rate is one of the highest in the world, millions
of old people are neglected by their children and die of loneliness
in old people's homes, domestic violence and child abuse are major
problems. One in three marriages end in divorce and pornography
is a major industry. Rich in terms of money but perhaps poor in
terms of the quality of life. Now take traditional Buddhist countries.
Some are economically backward but parents are honored and respected
by their children, their crime rates are relatively low, divorce
and suicide are almost unheard of, domestic violence and child
abuse, pornography and sexual license are not common. Economically
backward but perhaps a higher quality of life than in a country
like America. But even if we judge Buddhist countries in terms
of economics alone, one of the wealthiest and most economically
dynamic countries in the world today is Japan where a large percentage
of the population call themselves Buddhists.
Why is it that you don't often hear of charitable work
being done by Buddhists?
Perhaps it is because Buddhists don't feel the need to
advertise about the good they do. Several years ago the Japanese
Buddhist leader Nikkho Niwano received the Templeton Prize for
his work in promoting inter-religious harmony. Likewise a Thai
Buddhist monk was recently awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Prize
for his excellent work among drug addicts. In 1987 another Thai
monk, Ven. Kantayapiwat was awarded the Norwegian Children's Peace
Prize for his many years of work helping homeless children in
rural areas. And what about the large scale social work being
done among the poor in India by the Western Buddhist Order? They
have built schools, child minding centres, dispensaries and small
scale industries for selfsufficiency. Buddhists see help given
to others as an expression of their religious practice just as
other religions do but they believe that it should be done quietly
and without self-promotion. Thus you don't hear so much about
their charitable work.
Why are there so many different types of Buddhism?
There are many different types of sugar: brown sugar,
white sugar, granulated sugar, rock sugar, syrup and icing sugar
but it is all sugar and it all tastes sweet. It is produced in
different forms so that it can be used in different ways. Buddhism
is the same. There is Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land
Buddhism, Yogacara Buddhism and Vajrayana but they are all Buddhism
and they all has the same taste - the state of freedom. Buddhism
has evolved into different forms so that it can be relevant to
the different cultures in which it exists. It has been reinterpreted
over the centuries so that it can remain relevant to each new
generation. Outwardly, the types of Buddhism may seem very different
but at the center of all of them is the Four Noble Truths and
the Eightfold Path. All major religions, Buddhism included, have
split into schools and sects. But the different sects of Buddhism
have never gone to war with each other, they have never been towards
each other and to this day, they go to each other's temples and
worship together. Such tolerance and understanding are certainly
Buddhism started in India but it eventually died out there. Why?
The Buddha's teachings grew to become one of India's
major religions but gradually it went into decline and finally
disappeared just as Christianity started in Palestine but eventually
died out there. No one really knows why this happened. Perhaps
a combination of political and social changes combined with wars
and invasions made it difficult such a gentle and peaceful religion
to survive. However long before it disappeared in India is spread
from there to the furthermost corner of Asia.
You certainly think highly of Buddhism. I suppose you
think your religion is right and all the others are wrong.
No Buddhist who understands the Buddha's teaching thinks
that other religions are wrong. No one who, has made a genuine
effort to examine other religions with an open mind could think
like that either. The first thing you notice when you study the
different religions is just how much they have in common. All
religions acknowledge that mankind's present state is unsatisfactory.
All believe that a change of attitude and behavior is needed if
the human situation is to improve. All teach an ethics that includes
love, kindness, patience, generosity and social responsibility
and all accept the existence of some form of Absolute. They use
different languages, different names and different symbols to
describe and explain these things; and it is only when they narrow-mindedly
cling to their one way of seeing things that religious intolerance,
pride and self-righteousness arise. Imagine an Englishman, a Frenchman,
a Chinese and an Indonesian all looking at a cup. The Englishman
says, "That's a cup." The Frenchman answers, "No
it's not. It's a tasse." The Chinese comments, "You're
both wrong. It's a pet." And the Indonesian laughs at the
others and says "What fools you are. It's a cawan."
The Englishman gets a dictionary and shows it to the others saying,
"I can prove that it is a cup. My dictionary says so."
"Then your dictionary is wrong," says the French- man
"Because my dictionary clearly says it is a tasse."
The Chinese scoffs at them. "My dictionary is thousands of
years older than yours, so my dictionary must be right. And besides,
more people speak Chinese than any other language, so it must
be a pet." While they are squabbling and arguing with each
other, a Buddhist comes up and drinks from the cup. After he has
drunk, he says to the others, "Whether you call it a cup,
a tasse, a pet or a cawan, a cup is meant to be used. Stop arguing
and drink, stop squabbling and refresh your thirst." This
is the Buddhist attitude to other religions.
I have read that Buddhism is just a type of reformed
One sometimes hears uninformed people saying this. But
we read in the Buddhist scriptures that the Hindu priests, the
Brahmins, were strongly opposed to the Buddha. This is because
he criticized the Hindu caste system and the practice animal sacrifice,
he denied the existence of a supreme god and he rejected the authority
of the Hindu scriptures. Buddhism and Hinduism have things in
commons but they also have enough important differences to make
them two distinct religions.
Is Buddhism scientific?
Before we answer that question it would be best to define
the word 'science'. Science, according to the dictionary is "knowledge
which can be made into a system, which depends upon seeing and
testing facts and stating general natural laws, a branch of such
knowledge, anything that can be studied exactly." There are
aspects of Buddhism that would not fit into this definition but
the central teachings of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, most
certainly would. Suffering, the First Noble Truth is an experience
that can be defined, experienced and measured. The Second Noble
Truth states that suffering has a natural cause, craving, which
likewise can be defined, experienced and measured. No attempt
is made to explain suffering in terms of a metaphysical concept
or myths. Suffering is ended, according to the Third Noble Truth,
not by relying upon a Supreme Being, by faith or by prayers but
simply by removing its cause. This is axiomatic. The Fourth Noble
Truth, the way to end suffering, once again, has nothing to do
with metaphysics but depends on behaving in specific ways. And
once again behavior is open to testing. Buddhism dispenses with
the concept of a Supreme Being, as does science, and explains
the origins and workings of the universe in terms of natural laws.
All of this certainly exhibits a scientific spirit. Once again,
the Buddha's constant advice that we should not blindly believe
but rather question, examine, inquire and rely on our own experience,
has a definite scientific ring to it. He says:
"Do not go by revelation or tradition, do not go by rumor,
or the sacred scriptures, do not go by hearsay or mere logic,
do not go by bias towards a notion or by another person's seeming
ability and do not go by the idea 'He is our teacher'. But when
you yourself know that a thing is good, that it is not blamable,
that it is praised by the wise and when practiced and observed
that it leads to happiness, then follow that thing."
So we could say that although Buddhism is not entirely scientific,
it certainly has a strong scientific overtone and is certainly
more scientific then any other religion. It is significant that
Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the twentieth century
said of Buddhism:
"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It
should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology.
Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based
on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things,
natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers
this description. If there is any religion that would cope with
modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."