Lesson One: Places of Worship
A temple is often at the heart of a Buddhist community. Buddhist temples can be found in many different shapes and sizes. Some consist of just one building, while the larger ones consist of a number of different buildings grouped together on one site.
Depending on its size and function, a Buddhist temple (or temple complex) may include the following:
• a main hall or building, where Buddhists practise together; this will contain a statue of the Buddha (Mahayana temples may also include statues of various Bodhisattvas) • a meditation hall or building, which is a quiet space where Buddhists can meditate; in Tibetan Buddhism this is known as a gompa
• a study hall or building, for meetings and lectures
• a shrine or number of shrines dedicated to the Buddha (or, in Mahayana temples, to a Bodhisattva)
• a pagoda or stupa, which is a tiered tower or mound-like structure that is sometimes used to contain holy relics (items associated with the Buddha that are considered to be holy).
Pagodas and stupas are generally designed to symbolise the five Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, air and wisdom. The base of the building symbolises the earth, then the building extends upwards with different segments stacked on top of each other to represent the other elements. These reach upwards to a point or spire that symbolises wisdom.
Temples are important centres of religious life where Buddhists can study, meditate and practise together. Buddhists may listen to talks given by members of the monastic community, and lay people may take offerings, including food, to support them.
A Buddhist shrine is an area where the focus is a statue of the Buddha (a Buddha rupa), usually sitting cross-legged in a meditation pose. (In Mahayana Buddhism, there are also shrines where the focus is a statue of a Bodhisattva rather than the Buddha). Shrines can be found in a temple or in a home; they provide a focal point for Buddhists to meditate or practise.
Buddhists will also make offerings at a shrine, as a way of paying respect to the Buddha and expressing gratitude and thanks for his teachings. The offerings also remind Buddhists of the Buddha's teachings, because they symbolise different aspects of them. For example:
• An offering of light (such as a candle) symbolises wisdom, because the light of the candle drives away the darkness of ignorance.
• An offering of flowers (which will wilt and decay) reminds Buddhists that all things are impermanent.
• An offering of incense symbolises purity, reminding Buddhists of the importance of practising pure thoughts, speech and conduct.
'' The time and effort required to keep the shrine clean and replenished with flowers and other offerings is considered a skilful activity to focus one's mind in the spiritual practices. ''
Lama Choedak Rinpoche (Tibetan Buddhist monk)
A monastery ( vihara) is a building (or group of buildings) where a community of Buddhist monks or nuns live. These are Buddhists who have chosen to dedicate their lives full time to their spiritual practice; studying, practising and meditating on the Buddha's teachings. Buddhist monks and nuns generally live a simple lifestyle, but the monastery still has to provide for all of their needs because it is where they live, eat, study and sleep. Some Buddhist monasteries are like small villages in themselves, while the smaller ones consist of one building only.
A stupa is a particularly important part of a monastery. When the Buddha died, his body was cremated and parts of his ashes are said to have been sent to different places. Stupas were then built to hold his ashes. Today, a stupa is a small, dome-shaped building that usually contains holy relics, such as the remains of monks and nuns or items associated with important Buddhists.
Lesson Two: How Buddhists worship
The purpose of worship
Worship (puja) allows Buddhists to express their gratitude and respect for the Buddha and his teachings. It gives them an opportunity to acknowledge how important the Buddha is in their lives. It also allows them to focus on their faith (their confidence in the path the Buddha taught), and to deepen their understanding of the Buddha's teachings. Through performing puja and reciting verses of scripture, Buddhists acknowledge the Buddha's qualities and their commitment to following his example. They remind themselves of his teachings on the nature of existence and the way of life, leading to the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment. Through dwelling on these teachings, they may absorb them more deeply and find their lives changing for the better, as they become wiser and more compassionate towards themselves and others.
How Buddhists worship
Puja may include rituals and ceremonies carried out in groups, or private worship in the home. It often involves the following activities: meditation, making offerings, chanting, reciting mantras, and bowing.
In the early days of Buddhism, before the invention of typewriters or computers, the only way to share Buddhist texts and teachings was to memorise them and pass them on orally. Monks would chant the texts in order to learn and remember them. Today, Buddhists still chant from sacred texts: written records of what the Buddha taught. Examples might include chanting the three refuges, the five moral precepts, or the Bodhisattva vows.
Chanting is a devotional practice: it may increase a Buddhist's receptivity towards the Buddha and his teachings. It can also be used to help calm and concentrate the mind.
A mantra is a sequence of sacred syllables that is usually chanted over and over, sometimes spoken, or experienced silently in the mind. Some Buddhists believe that mantras have transformative powers. They can be used in meditation to focus the mind. Mantras often call on the spiritual qualities of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most common mantra, used by Tibetan Buddhists, is om mani padme hum. This represents the sound of compassion, and is associated with the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. By chanting this mantra, Buddhists may hope to invoke the presence of Avalokiteshvara. They may feel that the mantra helps them to become more receptive to compassion, helping them to better express this quality in their lives. Buddhists may recite a mantra hundreds or even thousands of times, often using a mala (a string of prayer beads) in order to count the number of recitations. A mala usually has 108 beads.
Lesson Three: Meditation
We have seen that Buddhist worship includes a variety of practices such as chanting, making offerings, and reading from scriptures. Another important practice in most Buddhist traditions is meditation. This is a spiritual exercise that calms the mind and body, and leads to the development of insight into the nature of existence. Before they begin meditating, Buddhists might recite verses praising the three refuges: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. For Theravada Buddhists it is then customary to recite the five moral precepts (these are discussed on pages 70-71). Meditating itself usually involves the practice of mindfulness of the body and breath. The meditator settles their attention on these physical sensations, developing calm and stability. Whenever they notice their mind has wandered, they simply return to their physical experience.
'' .... you should so train yourself that with respect to the seen there will be merely the seen, that with respect to the heard there will be merely the heard, that with respect to the sensed there will be merely the sensed, that with respect to the cognised there will be merely the cognised. ''
The Buddha in the Udana, p. 8
There are many different forms of meditation. Theravada Buddhists often use samatha meditation to develop calm and positive emotion, and vipassana meditation to develop understanding and wisdom. Buddhists may focus on a variety of different objects, processes, character traits or emotions when they meditate, from a candle flame to the process of breathing to the quality of compassion.
In Tibetan Buddhism, students in the monastic community are sometimes given part of the Buddhist scriptures to learn by heart. They then go through two main stages of meditation: the analytical stage where they have to think carefully about the details of the teaching given in the text, followed by a more concentrated stage where they aim to fully understand the teaching.
Another common type of meditation in Buddhism is loving-kindness meditation, where the aim is to develop a sense of compassion towards oneself and others, and to let go of ill will and resentment. This helps to create a sense of calmness and positivity.
Broadly speaking, meditation has two aims. The first is to develop a still, calm and focused mind. The second is to develop greater awareness and understanding of the Buddha's teachings in order to gain a deeper insight into the nature of reality. This deeper insight naturally brings about deeper compassion and less suffering, and leads eventually to enlightenment.
Although Buddhism does not include belief in a creator God, some forms of Mahayana Buddhist meditation involve visualising, and sometimes even praying to, the Buddha or other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Lesson Four - Samatha Meditation
Samatha meditation is an important meditation practice in Buddhism, and one of the two main types of meditation used in Theravada Buddhism. Samatha means 'calming'. Calming meditation can lead to a more tranquil, settled, restful mind, enabling deeper concentration. There are a number of different ways to do samatha meditation, but many Buddhists focus on the technique called mindfulness of breathing.
Mindfulness of breathing
Breathing is something most people do without paying any attention to it, but the idea in samatha meditation is to become more 'mindful', or aware, of your breathing. This means paying attention to the sensation of breathing, and all the tiny movements it brings about in your body: feeling your chest expand and contract, the air flowing in and out of your nose, feeling how your shoulders rise and fall, and so on. Normally a person's attention is divided between many things at the same time, and when they meditate they may naturally find their mind wandering. When this happens they simply and gently return their attention to their breathing.
'' Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. '' Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk)
Breathing is a popular focus of samatha meditation, but other objects may also be used, including kasinas. The Buddha mentioned ten kasinas: earth, water, fire, wind, blue, yellow, red, white, space and consciousness. For example, if a Buddhist wanted to meditate using 'water' as a kasina, then they might focus on a bowl of water in front of them; if they wanted to use 'red' as a kasina then they might focus on a red circle. As with breathing, the object simply gives the person something to rest their attention on.
The purpose of Samatha meditation
Learning to focus gently on one object helps to develop a calm and concentrated mind. This is a preparation for developing wisdom and understanding of the nature of reality. For this reason, samatha meditation is often seen as a preparation for vipassana meditation, which is discussed on the next page.
Buddhists emphasise that distraction is a normal aspect of meditation, and that it is important not to become discouraged or self critical. There is no question of failure - simply the need to keep practising.
'' You must show energy. The Tathagatas [Buddhas] are [only] teachers. Those who have entered [on the path], meditative, will be released from Mara's fetter. ''
The Buddha in the Dhammapada, verse 276
Lesson Five: Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation is often called 'insight meditation', and it is the second main type of meditation practised in Theravada Buddhism. The idea of this type of meditation is to try to penetrate and gain insight into the true nature of reality- to see things as they really are. It may consist of reflecting on the three marks of existence: that all experience is characterised by impermanence, that nothing has an independent, unchanging identity, and that attachment leads to suffering.
The main difference between samatha and vipassana meditation is not in the techniques or methods used, but in the objects being studied. Like samatha meditation, vipassana also uses the technique of mindfulness: concentrating and focusing on specific objects, in a calm and detached manner, without letting the mind get distracted by other things. The difference is in what the meditator focuses on.
In samatha meditation, the meditator focuses on one neutral, simple object or process, such as a blue triangle, a candle flame, or the process of breathing. In vipassana meditation, everything can be explored objectively, including things that are more personal to the meditator. For example, they might reflect on the body and how people can become attached to their bodies. They might meditate on the more unattractive aspects of the body to help develop a detachment from their body. While meditating, they might feel an emotion such as nervousness or annoyance. Then they might try to consider this emotion with mindful kindness. They might hear a sound such as the rain falling outside, and concentrate solely on that sound.
In samatha meditation, the aim is to focus solely on one object for an extended period of time. This helps to develop powers of concentration. In vipassana meditation, the meditator might switch their attention between lots of different things one after the other. The aim is to give their full attention to whatever they are thinking about at any one particular time, to consider it mindfully, and to try to understand its true nature.
Vipassana meditation helps Buddhists to understand how all things are characterised by the three marks of existence, and to develop greater wisdom and awareness about the world. This makes meditation an essential part of the Eightfold Path, with the goal of developing complete understanding and achieving enlightenment.
Zazen is a Japanese word, literally meaning 'seated meditation'. It is a form of meditation practised in Zen Buddhism, which originated in Japan.
Zazen is intended to lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of existence. Though the method varies across the traditions within Zen Buddhism, it generally begins with sitting, relaxing and a period of mindfulness of breathing. The meditator then simply sits with awareness of the present moment. Thoughts and experiences come and go, and the meditator returns again and again to the present moment.
Lesson Six: The Visualisation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
What is Visualisation?
Various Buddhist traditions will use visualisation as a part of meditation; it is particularly common in Tibetan Buddhism, but is also practised in other Mahayana traditions. It requires the meditator to visualise (imagine) an object in their mind.
Visualisation is a bit different to using a kasina in samatha meditation. When Buddhists meditate with a kasina, the kasina is physically present in front of them (for example, a Buddhist might place a bowl of water on the floor in front of them, to look at and focus on as they meditate). In contrast, visualising involves imagining the object in your mind.
The meditator might first look at an image of an object to gain inspiration. They will then get rid of the image and simply imagine or visualise that object in their mind. They will try to imagine the object with as much detail as possible, and examine in their mind all the tiny intricacies of the object. They will try to perceive the object as fully as they can, imagining and examining all the qualities and characteristics of that object. They will try to hold a detailed picture of the object in their mind for as long as possible.
Tibetan Buddhists will often visualise a 'deity' when they meditate. For Buddhists, a 'deity' is not a god but a being who has become fully enlightened, such as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. The meditator will focus not just on what the deity looks like, but also on its qualities and characteristics. They might even imagine themselves as that deity, with its particular qualities, in order to gain those qualities and become more like that deity themselves. The idea here is that you imagine what you want to be, in order to understand it better and therefore become more like it.
Some Mahayana Buddhists also believe that visualising themselves as a Buddha helps them to stimulate and awaken their Buddha-nature.
Some of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas that a Buddhist might focus on include:
• The 'Medicine Buddha': this Buddha is related to healing. Buddhists believe that visualising the Medicine Buddha will heal them and reduce their suffering, and may even increase their own healing powers.
• Avalokiteshvara: one of the most popular Bodhisattvas, who is related to compassion. Visualising this Bodhisattva helps Buddhists to develop their own sense of compassion, which is considered to be an important quality to cultivate in order to achieve enlightenment.
• Buddha Amitabha: we saw on pages 42-43 that Pure Land Buddhists worship Buddha Amitabha in the hope that he will help them to be reborn in the pure land and achieve enlightenment quicker. Pure Land Buddhists might visualise Buddha Amitabha while meditating.
Using thangkas or mandalas
Sometimes Buddhists use paintings or patterns to help them visualise a deity. They might use a thangka: a detailed painting of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Or they might use instead a mandala: an intricate, colourful, circle-shaped pattern. These patterns can symbolise different things; some symbolise the universe, others the Buddha, and others still a paradise or pure land. They are sacred diagrams that represent Buddhist principles or teachings. Buddhists who are highly skilled in visualisation can study a thangka or mandala and then imagine it in their mind, visualising all the tiny details and intricacies of the painting or pattern. In Tibetan monasteries, monks often make mandalas out of brightlycoloured sand. It can take weeks to make a sand mandala, because many different colours of sand have to be delicately placed next to each other to form a complex, intricate pattern. Even though they may take a long time to compete, mandalas are always brushed away once they are finished, to try to encourage the monks to focus on the impermanence in life. They are never kept as a piece of art, as the attachment which that might lead to goes against the Buddha's teachings and one of the main aims of meditation, which is to see how everything is impermanent.
Lesson Seven: Ceremonies and rituals associated with death and mourning.
Buddhist beliefs about death
Buddhist tradition teaches that when a Buddhist dies, their kammic energy leaves their body and is reborn in a new one. Death therefore is not seen as an end, only a transition from one form to another. While Buddhists will naturally grieve the loss of people they loved, they also bear in mind what the Buddha taught about impermanence being a natural part of life. Funerals are a valuable reminder of this teaching of impermanence. Nothing lasts, and people suffer less if they are able to accept this fact.
Funeral customs differ between the various Buddhist traditions and from one country to the next. Some funerals can be very elaborate and even noisy rituals, while others are simple, reflective and calm.
Tibet and Japan death rituals
Ceremonies and rituals associated with death differ greatly between the various Tibetan and Japanese traditions, and between geographical areas. One of the best-known Tibetan traditions is that of 'sky burial', in which the body is left in a high place as a gift to the vultures. In a mountainous country short of firewood and often too frozen for grave-digging, giving away one's body was seen as both a practical and generous act. However, it is increasingly customary to burn the body instead. Revered teachers have always been cremated, and the remains placed in a chorten (a memorial structure also known as a stupa) to become a site of worship. In all cases, ceremonies involving prayers and offerings of yak-butter lamps may be made every seven days for 49 days after the death.
In Japanese Pure Land traditions, the coffin may be placed with the head pointing west, while those assembled chant 'Namo Amida Bu' as they process around it. Nichiren Buddhist funerals include readings from the Lotus Sutra. It is common across all Japanese traditions for relations to gather after the cremation and pick out the bones from the ashes, using chopsticks. As in Tibet, these remains may be kept for 49 days and prayers offered every seventh day.
Theravada death rituals
In Theravada communities, very little money is usually spent on a funeral. Instead the family and friends may donate to a worthy cause and transfer the merit to the deceased. (Some Theravada Buddhists believe it is possible to transfer the karma created by your own good actions and deeds to someone else. In this case, the good karma that is created by donating to a worthy cause is transferred to the dead person, to help them have a more favourable rebirth.)
Rituals that transfer merit to the deceased may also be performed by family members or other mourners. For example, they might offer cloth to make new robes to a senior monk of a nearby monastery on behalf of the deceased person.
'' At the hour of death, the king and the beggar are exactly equal in that no amount of relatives or possessions can affect or prevent death. But who is the richer at the time of death? If the beggar has created more merits, then although he looks materially poor he is really the rich man. '' Thubten Zopa Rinpoche (Nepalese Buddhist monk)
A shrine may be set up to display the deceased's portrait, along with offerings to the Buddha of candles, incense and flowers. An image of the Buddha is usually placed beside or in front of the shrine. Monks will often attend a funeral of a lay person. They may give a sermon and perform Buddhist rites.
The deceased may be cremated or buried, although cremation is traditional and more common. Monks will perform the last rites before the casket containing the dead person is sealed. Family members may assist in lifting the casket as a final act of service, while others present observe a moment of respectful silence. During the funeral procession, family members may walk behind the hearse. All mourners should be sending good thoughts to the family and contemplating the impermanence of life.
Lesson Eight: Wesak and Parinirvana day
Buddhist festivals are usually a time for joy and celebration, although some festivals (such as Parinirvarna Day) are more solemn occasions. They give Buddhists an opportunity to remember and celebrate the Buddha's life and his teachings, and an opportunity to meet and practise together.
Some festivals are specific to a certain tradition or country. For example, Mahayana Buddhists might celebrate the birthdays of certain Bodhisattvas. Most of the major festivals celebrate significant events in the Buddha's life, such as his first sermon after his enlightenment (celebrated by Theravada Buddhists as Asalha Puja Day).
Retreats are popular in the West. There are many places in the UK, for example, that offer Buddhist retreats. Many of them give an opportunity to spend a weekend or week away from everyday life, with a group of people who are similarly interested in the religion. They might be held in a monastery or Buddhist centre. Retreats vary in structure and focus on different aspects, but they generally give people an opportunity to deepen their understanding of Buddhist practice. They might involve meditation, talks and study groups, workshops, and taking part in rituals.
In Theravada communities, monks observe Vassa, an annual retreat that lasts for three months during the rainy season. During these three months, monks only leave their temples when necessary, and dedicate more time to meditation and study.
Parinirvana Day is a Mahayana festival that is celebrated during February to remember the Buddha's passing into parinirvana. As might be expected, the festival is a more solemn occasion than Wesak. For Buddhists, it is a chance to reflect on the fact of their own future death, and to remember friends or relatives who have recently passed away. The idea that all things are impermanent, which is central to Buddhist teaching, has a real focus for the day.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is an important Buddhist scripture that describes the Buddha's last days, and passages from it are often read on Parinirvana Day. Buddhists might spend the day reading this text and meditating at home, or joining others in temples and monasteries for puja and meditation.
Some places will organise retreats, because the day is seen as a suitable occasion for quiet reflection and meditation.
Parinirvana Day is also a traditional day for pilgrimage, and many Buddhists will visit the city of Kushinagar in India, which is where the Buddha is believed to have died
Wesak (also known as Vesak or Buddha day) is probably the best known and most important of all the Buddhist festivals. It is celebrated on the full moon during the month, ofVesak (which usually falls in May). The festival commemorates three major events in the Buddha's life: his birth, his enlightenment and his passing into parinirvana (the final state ofnibbana). All three of these events are said to have happened on a full moon. Wesak is a festival to honour and remember the Buddha and his teachings. It has been celebrated since at least the early twentieth century, although only became a public holiday in the 1950s.
To celebrate Wesak, Buddhists may light up their homes with candles, lamps or paper lanterns, and put up decorations. They will make offerings to the Buddha, and may give gifts such as food, candles and flowers to the monks in the local monastery. In return, the monks may lead some meditation, chant from the Buddhist scriptures, or give sermons about the Buddha's teachings. These will focus on the Buddha's life, in particular his enlightenment.
Wesak celebrations vary from country to country. In some places, such as Singapore, there are ceremonies where caged birds and animals are released as a symbol of liberation, and to signify the release from past troubles and wrong-doings. In countries such as Indonesia, giant paper lanterns are lit to float up into the night sky. Light is an important symbol during this festival, and is associated with a number of different meanings: the idea that light can be used to overcome darkness or ignorance, the fact that the Buddha showed people how to become enlightened, and as a symbol of hope.
Lesson Nine: Karma and rebirth
It is sometimes said that karma means 'actions have consequences', but its meaning is more precise than that. It is a principle that explains how the ethical impulses behind a person's actions lead in the direction of either suffering or happiness. Buddhism speaks of 'skilful' actions, which are rooted in generosity, compassion and understanding, and 'unskilful' actions, which are rooted in their opposites: craving, hatred, and ignorance. Put basically, skilful actions lead to happiness and unskilful actions lead to suffering.
The consequences of a person's actions can be understood in different ways. First, through repeated actions people develop habits. For example, if someone regularly acts with anger, they become an angry person. Anger is not a pleasant state and so this leads to suffering. In addition, a state of mind leads to action: angry people shout, break things, beep their horn when driving and create a situation where no one wants to be around them. This is karma. Karma shows not that people are punished or rewarded for their actions, but rather by them.
According to Buddhist tradition, a person's actions in this life will not only impact on their happiness and suffering right now, but will also sow the seeds for a future rebirth. Depending on a person's karma, they may be reborn in one of six realms: the realm of the gods, the realm of the angry gods, the realm of the animals, the realm of the tormented beings, the realm of the hungry ghosts, or the human realm. The human realm is said to be the best realm within which to reach enlightenment.
For Buddhists the idea of karma is empowering, because it means they can change the future through their own actions. By cultivating skilful mental states and actions, they can not only live a happier life but can lay the ground for a favourable rebirth.
'Right action' is one of the eight practices in the Eightfold Path. Acting morally and ethically-choosing to do the right things - is therefore very important for Buddhists, both in order to reduce suffering in this life for themselves and others, and to eventually achieve enlightenment. A few of the many ways that they might do this is in acting compassionately towards others, not taking part in any work that harms animals, showing patience in their teachings, and helping the poor in the local community.
The concept of karma is central to Buddhist ethics. The fact that a person's own behaviour causes their happiness and suffering is an incentive to cultivate a more skilful way of life. This means that not only does the person benefit (because they experience greater happiness as a result of their skilful behaviour), but also that others benefit (because they will experience a person's generous, kind and wise actions rather than their greedy, hateful and ignorant ones).
Lesson Ten - Karuna (compassion)
What is Karuna?
After the Buddha became enlightened, he faced the question of what to do next. Should he keep the knowledge and understanding he had discovered about enlightenment to himself? Or should he share what he had found with the rest of the world, by teaching it to others? He would have known that some people would have difficulty accepting his teachings and might even ridicule his beliefs. The Buddha was asking people to accept concepts that might be seen as difficult, such as the idea of anatta (no self or soul). However, the Buddha could see there was much hardship in the world, and he wanted to share his knowledge of how to overcome it out of compassion for everyone who was suffering.
This compassion is called karuna by Buddhists. Karuna refers to the compassion that Buddhists show for the sufferings of everyone in the world. For Buddhists it means feeling concern for the suffering of others, almost as if it were their own suffering. It means wanting others to be free of suffering and being moved to do whatever is possible to relieve the suffering of others. It also means recognising when you yourself are suffering and acting with compassion towards yourself. Above all, it means recognising that a person cannot be truly happy while there are others in the world who are still suffering
The importance of Karuna in Buddhism
Karuna is one of the four sublime states in Buddhism, which are: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy (being happy for others) and equanimity (maintaining stability and calm in the face of both happiness and suffering). These are four qualities that the Buddha taught were important for all Buddhists to develop. Together, they explain how Buddhists should act towards themselves and others. Compassion is an important quality for all Buddhists to develop. In Mahayana Buddhism it is a crucial quality required to become a Bodhisattva.
'' I believe that at every level of society, the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We all share an identical need for love and on the basis of this commonality, it is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances is a brother or sister. If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal compassion. ''
Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama)
Buddhists believe that wisdom and compassion should be developed together, and it is not really possible to have one without the other. To take one example, a very clever scientist might develop a new type of explosive, but without the wisdom to understand the power and potential of his invention, and without a sense of compassion for others, he might sell the formula to someone who can turn it into a deadly weapon. For Buddhists it is therefore important to develop the wisdom for how to help others, along with the compassion to want to help others.
Lesson Eleven: Metta (Loving-kindness)
What is metta?
Karuna (compassion) is one of the four sublime states. These are four ideal qualities that Buddhists try to develop over their lifetimes. Another one of these states is metta or 'loving-kindness'. Buddhists try to develop a loving, kind, friendly attitude towards themselves and all other beings. It is a wish for all beings to be happy and free from suffering, without expecting anything in return. It does not even depend on the goodness of others; metta is cultivated even towards people who act unskilfully.
Metta and karuna might seem like the same thing but they are in fact a little different. One way to think about it is that metta is a general desire to want people to be happy. It is an attitude of warmth and kindness that Buddhists try to cultivate towards all people in general. Karuna arises when metta comes into contact with a specific person who is suffering. For example, a person might wish for their friend to be happy: this is an example of metta. However, if the friend has an accident, the person's goodwill towards them transforms into compassion -the urge to alleviate their suffering.
Loving Kindness meditation
Loving-kindness meditation is a common form of meditation in Buddhism. Its aim is to help the meditator develop an attitude of metta, firstly towards themselves and then towards everyone else in the world. It often consists of five steps, which involve cultivating lovingkindness towards:
2. a good friend
3. a 'neutral' person (someone you come into contact with on a regular basis, but who does not give rise to strong positive or negative emotions)
4. a 'difficult' person (someone you dislike)
5. all four of these people, gradually followed by everyone else in the world.
The meditator might visualise or imagine one of these people looking happy. They might reflect on the positive qualities of the person and any acts of kindness they have done. They might start by saying phrases such as, 'May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful.' Then they will apply these phrases to other people as part of their meditation.
'' Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness. As with compassion, when cultivating loving-kindness it is important to start by taking a specific individual as a focus of our meditation, and we then extend the scope of our concern further and further, to eventually encompass and embrace all sentient beings. '' Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama)
The importance of developing metta
Buddhists cultivate loving-kindness towards themselves and others in order to dissolve away the tendency to act out of greed, hatred, jealousy or any other
negative emotions. Greed and hatred are two of the three poisons, which the Buddha taught were the main causes of suffering. Therefore, developing metta helps Buddhists to overcome suffering and to eventually achieve enlightenment.
Buddhism teaches that someone who has cultivated metta will not be so easily angered. They will be more caring, more loving, and more likely to love unconditionally (without expecting anything in return). Buddhists believe that those who cultivate metta will feel at peace because they see no need to possess any ill will or hostility towards others. Radiating metta is thought to contribute to a world of love, peace and happiness. "Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings, and loving-kindness towards all the world. '' The Sutta Nipata, verses 149-150
Lesson Twelve: The five moral precepts
What are the five moral precepts?
Most religions have their own code of ethical behaviour, and Buddhism is no different. Most Buddhist traditions have a set of precepts. The most common list of precepts found across the Buddhist world is that of the five moral precepts: a series of five commitments that Buddhists undertake. The five precepts are:
1. to abstain from taking life 2. to abstain from taking what is not freely given 3. to abstain from misuse of the senses or sexual misconduct 4. to abstain from wrong speech 5. to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind.
Let us look at these in a little more detail. The first precept means that Buddhists undertake not to harm or kill any living being, including animals. It is for this reason that many Buddhists, particularly in the West, are vegetarian or vegan.
The second precept means that Buddhists undertake not to take things that have not been given to them. As well as not stealing, this means they wish to avoid manipulating or exploiting other people (i.e. taking advantage of others by taking more from them than they are giving freely) .
The third precept means that Buddhists undertake not to abuse or overindulge in sensual pleasures, or to use sex harmfully. For example, they should not engage in sexual activity that causes harm to others, such as adultery, rape or incest.
The fourth precept means that Buddhists undertake not to lie or gossip about other people. Buddhists aim to speak truthfully, kindly, helpfully and at the right time.
The fifth precept- not taking alcohol or drugs -is important for Buddhists who have committed themselves to developing calm, clear awareness.
''Whoever destroys a living creature, and speaks untruth, takes what is not given in the world, and goes to another's wife, and whatever man applies himself to drinking liquor and intoxicants, that person digs up his own root here in this very world. '' The Buddha in the Dhammapada, verses 246-247
Following the five moral precepts
Some religions have laws or commandments from a god which, if broken, are believed to result in punishment by the god. However, Buddhism does not include belief in a god who rewards or punishes. The five precepts are principles that Buddhists voluntarily practise more and more deeply as the progress. The precepts need to be applied sensitively. Sometimes Buddhists have to balance one precept against another. For example, what if being truthful may lead to harm? Sometimes it could be more ethical to lie, if this is motivated by genuine kindness.
The root precept is the first one -not to cause harm. The others are all expressions of this. The precepts can be practised on ever deepening levels, especially at the level of the mind (for example, wanting to hurt someone is still unskilful even if you don't actually hurt them).
This attitude links in with the Buddhist belief in kamma. Intentions and the reasons for doing things are very important in Buddhism. Good or skilful intentions lead to good or skilful actions, which have positive consequences in this life and (according to tradition) in future lives. Therefore the first step in following the five precepts is to want to follow them. Over time, this will enable a Buddhist to practise the precepts at ever deeper and more subtle levels. This will purify their mind of greed, hatred and ignorance, as they move towards the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment.
'' We just keep on working, we are patient with ourselves, and on and on it goes. Little by little our life comes more into alignment with the wisdom that gives rise to the precepts. As our minds get clearer and clearer, it's not even a matter of breaking or maintaining the precepts; automatically they are
maintained. '' Jan Chozen Bays (Zen meditation teacher)
Lesson Twelve: The six paramitas (perfections)
What are the six paramitas?
The six perfections are six qualities that express how a Bodhisattva lives, according to Mahayana Buddhists. In contrast to the five precepts, which are concerned with avoiding doing unskilful things, the six perfections define the qualities that ought to be developed in order to live in an enlightened way. For Mahayana Buddhists, spiritual life consists of the cultivation of these qualities.
The six perfections are:
1. generosity or giving
The second perfection concerns the cultivation of morality. Most Buddhists try to follow the five moral precepts: not to kill or harm others; not to steal; not to abuse or misuse sex; not to lie; and not to abuse alcohol and drugs. Mahayana Buddhists try to follow a further five precepts: not to talk about other people's errors or faults; not to praise oneself and speak badly of others; not to be stingy; not to be angry; and not to speak badly of the three refuges.
In trying to develop this perfection, a Buddhist might begin by feeling as if they have to restrain themselves from doing immoral things, and it may require a great deal of self-discipline. However, the aim is to stop feeling that behaving morally is a restraint, and to feel that it is something that one genuinely wants to do out of compassion and concern for others. Buddhists use meditation and the practice of mindfulness to help with this.
The fourth perfection consists of the cultivation of mental energy and strength. Buddhists should put as much effort and enthusiasm into their practice of the Dhamma as possible. They should cultivate the courage and energy needed to strive for enlightenment over many years (or indeed lifetimes).
A Buddhist can develop this perfection in different ways. They might look after their own health, decide to deepen different aspects of their practice (such as meditation), or study the Buddha's teachings.
All of the first five perfections contribute to the development of the sixth one. Through meditating and studying the Buddha's teachings, and through living morally and ethically, Buddhists aim to develop a full understanding of the nature of reality. Mahayana Buddhists believe that the Bodhisattva, who is the ideal Buddhist, combines wisdom with compassion.
The first perfection is concerned with the cultivation of giving or generosity. Tibetan Buddhists talk about three main types of giving. The first is to give material goods such as food, clothes and money. This helps to give immediate relief to people's suffering, but does not present a long-term solution. The second is to give protection from fear. They should help somebody if they are in trouble or in a situation that is making them afraid. The third is to give the Dhamma, the Buddha's teachings. This is seen as a gift that helps the recipients to help themselves, and therefore has a longer-lasting impact.
For Buddhists, the intention behind giving is very important. Buddhists should give without expecting anything in return. It is therefore not only important to give, but also to develop awareness of the motives behind giving, and to gradually purify these motives in order to give more freely.
A Bodhisattva embodies patience, which is expressed through tolerance and endurance. This means that Buddhists should learn to endure personal hardship or suffering, to practise compassion towards those who show them anger, and to have patience with others.
An important first step for developing this perfection is to accept the first noble truth, the existence of suffering. Understanding that suffering is an intrinsic part of life helps Buddhists to cultivate the patience needed to endure it.
The fifth perfection is concerned with meditation. Meditation is very important within Buddhism. It helps them to develop the concentration and awareness needed to achieve the sixth perfection, which is wisdom.