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About Buddhism

Frequently Asked Questions about Tibetan Buddhism and the Dharma

Who is the Buddha?
What are the Three Jewels?
What is the essence of the Buddha's teachings?
Why are there many Buddhist traditions?
What are the various Buddhist traditions?
What does the imagery in tantric art mean?
What is the purpose of reciting mantras?
Who is Shakyamuni Buddha?
What do the various titles of the Mahayana Traditions mean? (ie- Geshe, Rinpoche, Lama, Venerable)
Glossary of Buddhist terms.
Click on a link above to jump to a specific topic

Who is the Buddha?

There are many ways to describe who the Buddha is, according to different ways of understanding. These various interpretations have their sources in the Buddha's teachings.

One way is to see the historical Buddha who lived 2,500 years ago as a human being who cleansed his mind of all defilements and developed all his potential. Any being who does likewise is also considered a Buddha, for there are many Buddhas, not just one.

Another way is to understand a particular Buddha or Buddhist deity as omniscient mind manifesting in a certain physical aspect in order to communicate with us.

Yet another way is to see the Buddha -- or any of the enlightened Buddhist deities -- as the appearance of the future Buddha that we will become once we properly and completely have engaged in the path to cleanse our mind of defilements and develop all our potentials.


The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is one who has purified all the defilements of the mind the afflictive emotions, the imprints of the actions motivated by them, and the stains of these afflictive emotions and who has developed all good qualities, such as impartial love and compassion, wisdom knowing all existence, and skillful means of guiding others.

The Dharma embodies the preventive measures which keep us from problems and suffering. This includes the teachings of the Buddha, as well as the realizations of those teachings the cessations of problems and their causes, and the realizations or paths which lead to those cessations.

The Sangha are those beings who have direct non-conceptual perception of emptiness or ultimate truth. On a relative level, Sangha also refers to the ordained people who put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.

The Dharma is our real refuge, the medicine we take which cures our problems and their causes. The Buddha is like the doctor, who correctly diagnoses the cause of our problems and prescribes the appropriate medicine. By assisting us in the practice, the Sangha is similar to the nurse who helps us take the medicine.

Taking refuge means that we rely wholeheartedly on the Three Jewels to inspire and guide us towards a constructive and beneficial direction to take in our life. Taking refuge does not mean passively hiding under the protection of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Rather, it is an active process of taking the direction they show and improving the quality of our life.


What is the essence of the Buddha's teachings?

Simply speaking, this is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is, Abandon negative action; create perfect virtue; subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha. By abandoning negative actions (killing, etc.) and destructive motivations (anger, attachment, close-mindedness, etc.), we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, like impartial love and compassion, and do actions motivated by these thoughts. By subduing our mind, we cut away all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful by understanding reality.

The essence of Buddha’s teachings is also contained in the three principles of the path: definite emergence, the dedicated heart and wisdom realizing emptiness. Initially, we seek definitely to emerge from the confusion of our problems and their causes. Then, we see that other people also have problems, and with love and compassion, we dedicate our heart to becoming a Buddha so that we are capable of helping others extensively. In order to do this, we develop the wisdom understanding the real nature of ourselves and other phenomena.


Why are there many Buddhist traditions?

The Buddha gave a wide variety of teachings because sentient beings (any being with mind who is not a Buddha, including those in other realms of existence) have different dispositions, inclinations and interests. The Buddha never expected us all to fit into the same mould. Thus, he gave many teachings and described various ways of practicing so each of us could find something that suits our level of mind and our personality.

With skill and compassion in guiding others, the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times, each time setting forth a slightly different philosophical system in order to suit the various dispositions of sentient beings. The essence of all the teachings is the same: the wish definitely to emerge from the cycle of constantly recurring problems (samsara), compassion for others and the wisdom realizing selflessness.

Not everyone likes the same kind of food. When a huge buffet is spread before us, we choose the dishes that we like. There is no obligation to like everything. Although we may have a taste for sweets, that does not mean that the salty dishes are not good and should be thrown away!

Similarly, we may prefer a certain approach to the teachings: Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayana, and so on. We are free to choose the approach that suits us best and with which we feel the most comfortable. Yet we still maintain an open mind and respect for other traditions. As our mind develops, we may come to understand elements in other traditions that we failed to comprehend previously.

In short, whatever is useful and helps us live a better life, we practice, and whatever we do not yet understand, we leave aside without rejecting it.

While we may find one particular tradition best suited for our personality, do not identify with it in a concrete way: "I am a Mahayanist, you are a Theravadin," or "I am a Buddhist, you are a Christian." It is important to remember that we are all human beings seeking happiness and wanting to realize the truth, and we each must find a method suitable for our disposition.

However, keeping an open mind to different approaches does not mean to mix everything together at random, making our practice like chop suey.

Do not mix meditation techniques from different traditions together in one meditation session. In one session, it is better to do one technique. If we take a little of this technique and a little from that, and without understanding either one very well mix them together, we may end up confused.

However, a teaching emphasized in one tradition may enrich our understanding and practice of another.

Also, it is advisable to do the same meditations daily. If we do breathing meditation one day, chanting the Buddha's name the next, and analytical meditation the third, we will not make progress in any of them for there is no continuity in the practice.


Generally, there are two divisions: Theravada and Mahayana.

The Theravada lineage (Tradition of the Elders), which relies on sutras recorded in the Pali language, spread from India to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc. It emphasizes meditation on the breath to develop concentration and meditation on mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena in order to develop wisdom.

The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition, based on the scriptures recorded in Sanskrit, spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Although in the Theravadin practice love and compassion are essential and important factors, in the Mahayana they are emphasized to an even greater extent.

Within Mahayana, there are several branches: Pure Land emphasizes chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha in order to be reborn in His Pure Land; Zen emphasizes meditation to eliminate the noisy, conceptual mind; Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) employs meditation on a deity in order to transform our contaminated body and mind into the body and mind of a Buddha.


What does the imagery in tantric art mean?

Vajrayana deals a lot with transformation, and therefore, symbolism is widely used. There are representations of some deities, which are manifestations of the Buddha, that are expressing desire or wrath.

The sexual imagery is not to be taken literally, according to worldly appearances. In Vajrayana, deities in sexual union represent the union of method and wisdom, the two aspects of the path that need to be developed in order to attain enlightenment.

Wrathful deities are not monsters threatening us. Their wrath is directed toward ignorance and selfishness, which are our real enemies. This imagery, when properly understood, shows how desire and anger can be transformed and thereby subdued. It has deep meaning, far beyond ordinary lust and anger. We should not misinterpret it.


What is the purpose of reciting mantras

Mantras are prescribed syllables to protect the mind. What we want to protect our mind from are attachment, anger, ignorance, and so on. When combined with the four opponent powers, mantra recitation is very powerful in purifying negative karmic imprints on our mindstream. While we recite mantras, we should also be thinking and visualizing in a beneficial way so that we are building up constructive habits in the mind.

In the Vajrayana practice, mantras are recited in Sanskrit, rather than being translated into other languages. The reason for this is that there is a special beneficial energy or vibration that is induced by the sound of the syllables. While doing recitation, we can concentrate on the sound of the mantra, on its meaning, or on the accompanying visualizations that the master has taught.


He could no longer repress the resolve he felt to go out in search of a solution to the four sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death.

Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, was born in India approximately 2500 years ago. Shakyamuni Buddha was the son of Shuddhodana, the king of the Shakyas, a small tribe whose kingdom was located in the foothills of the Himalayas south of what is now central Nepal fifteen miles from Kapilavastu. Shakya of Shakyamuni is taken from the name of this tribe and muni means sage or saint. His family name was Gautama (Best Cow) and his given name was Siddhartha (Goal Achieved).

Seven days after his birth, his mother, Maya, died and he was raised by his mother's younger sister Mahaprajapati. His mother's death may have been a great influence upon the delicate youth who later became very perplexed by the question of mortality. His father took good care of his introspective, quiet-mannered son, and gave him special training in literature and the martial arts.

As a boy, Shakyamuni was deliberately shielded from the many realities of life, having been brought up amid the pleasures of the royal palace. It was natural for his family to expect that he would take over as the leader of his tribe and succeed his father.

Although his family had such expectations for him, Shakyamuni was extremely introspective and quiet as a youth, possessing a sharp sense of justice, seeking the answers to life's perplexing questions. It is said that he ventured out of the palace compounds on a number of occasions as a youth and each time was confronted with the sufferings of life. On one such occasion he came upon a very old man. On another venture he met a sick man, frail and burning with fever. On yet another journey, he was impressed when he met a wandering monk (bhikshu) who had renounced the world to lead an austere life in search of spiritual enlightenment. And again on another occasion he saw a person dead in the street. These events are recounted in the Buddhist scriptures as the four meetings. He was said to have been deeply moved by these confrontations with human suffering.

Knowing his son's tendency toward deep introspection and his desire to seek a spiritual path, his father sought to tie him down to life within the confines of the palace and their land. Marriage seemed a way to dissuade the young prince from pursuing the life of an ascetic, so at the age of sixteen, the young prince married the beautiful Yashodhara who bore him a son, Rahula.

Following the birth of his son, Shakyamuni could no longer repress the resolve he felt to abandon the secular world and go out in search of a solution to the four inescapable sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Siddhartha renounced secular life and his princely status around the age of nineteen and began living a religious life. Having left the palace of the Shakyas at Kapilavastu he traveled to Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, where he studied with various ascetics, however, after following their disciplines, he still could not find the answers to his questions. He then left Rajagriha and proceeded to the bank of the Nairanjana River near the village of Uruvilva, where he began to practice various austerities in the company of other ascetics. He subjected himself to disciplines of extreme severity, surpassing the efforts of his companions, trying to reach emancipation through self-mortification, but after six years he rejected these practices as well. To restore his strength from having fasted for such a long time he accepted milk curd offered to him by Sujata, a girl of the village. Then, near the town of Gaya, he sat under a pipal tree and entered meditation. There he attained enlightenment at the age of thirty. The pipal tree was later called the bodhi tree because Shakyamuni gained bodhi or enlightenment under this tree, and the site itself came to be called Bodhgaya.

After his awakening, Shakyamuni remained for a while beneath the Bodhi tree rejoicing in his emancipation. Shakyamuni contemplated how he should communicate his realization to others. It is said he questioned whether or not he should attempt to teach others what he had achieved. He finally resolved to strive to do so, so that the way to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death would be open to all people.

First he made his way to the Deer Park in Varanasi, where he preached the Four Noble Truths to five ascetics who had once been his companions. Over the next fifty years from the time of his awakening until his death, Shakyamuni continued to travel through many parts of India disseminating his teachings. During his lifetime his teachings spread not only to central India but also to more remote areas and people of all social classes converted to Buddhism.

At the age of eighty, Shakyamuni passed away. The year before his death he stayed at Gridhrakuta (Eagle Peak) in Rajagriha. He set out on his last journey from Gridhrakuta proceeding northward across the Ganges River to Vaishali. He spent the rainy season in Beluva, a village near Vaishali. There he became seriously ill, but recovered and continued to preach in many villages. Eventually he came to a place called Pava in Malla. There he again became ill after eating a meal. Despite his pain, he continued his journey until reaching Kushinagara. There in a grove of sal trees he calmly lay down and spoke his last words. He admonished his disciples, saying, "You must not think that your teacher's words are no more, or that you are left without a teacher. The teachings and precepts I have expounded to you shall be your teacher" It is said that his final words were, "Decay is inherent in all composite things. Work out your salvation with diligence."


What do the various titles of the Mahayana Traditions mean?
(ie- Geshe, Rinpoche, Lama, Venerable)

"Geshe" refers to a certain level of monastic and philosophical training. It is traditionally received after approximately 25 years of full-time intensive study at one of the great monasteries. It is similar to someone getting a "ph.d." level of study and accomplishment, although it is much more than that. There are also different levels of Geshe. For example, a "Lharampa Geshe" graduated with great honors and was among the top of his class. It is primarily a title referring to academic excellence and degree of training in the Buddhist philosophical texts.

"Rinpoche" means "precious" and refers to someone who in their last life attained such a high degree of mastery that they did not have to take any more rebirths. However, out of their compassion for others, they took another birth at will - or rather took a human form - in order to teach others. Hence, they are "precious" because they returned to show us how to do it ourselves.

"Venerable" is a term for those who are ordained. Any monk or nun is traditionally referred to as "venerable". It is simply a term of respect for those who have chosen the monastic life and have taken it upon themselves to preserve the teachings in this way.

"Lama" means literally "heavy with qualities". It is a title which implies that the person who is the referent of this term has demonstrated spiritual qualities and the ability to lead others in their spiritual life and path. There are some Tibetan Buddhist traditions where you can "earn" the title "lama" after doing a certain amount of retreat and study. In other traditions, one must earn the title "lama" by way of demonstrating their qualities over the years - or because they have been recognized clearly as a "Rinpoche" - and then are a "Lama" by definition!