Q: Do Buddhists believe in God?
A: The Buddha himself neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a creator deity. Buddhism is non-theistic, meaning that its practitioners do not see it as important to “believe” in God. Instead, Buddhists are encouraged to find out truths for themselves, testing teachings and practices, before gaining confidence in them on an experiential level. Buddhism sees “creation” as a constantly changing multidimensional web of interdependent causation with no beginning or end. Buddhism respects other spiritual traditions as paths to Ultimate Truth, and has no issue with how those traditions interpret the nature of Ultimate Reality.
Q: Is Karma punishing me for something I did in the past?
A: Karma is not a form of divine punishment handed out by some vengeful external force. It is the fruit of our own accumulated habitual “actions” of body, speech, and thought created over lifetimes, sometimes aeons, which eventually manifest in our life. The teaching of Karma is not about predestined fate; it is the teaching of cause-and-effect, the fact that things happen for reasons. But because Karma exists conditionally, therefore it is subject to the law of impermanence, meaning that all karmic effects can be altered, lessened, increased, or even completely negated. This is contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, which promises diligent practitioners a way to eventually gain liberation from Samsara (the conditioned realm of existence), ending its attendant suffering for all time.
Q: Buddhists worship the happy-looking monk with the big belly, don’t they?
A: Actually, the fellow with the big belly isn’t the historical Buddha who taught in India 2500 years ago. The figure originally represented a happy, enlightened monk, but eventually became associated with Maitreya (the future Buddha), who will one day appear in this world. It is also important to remember that because Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, the Buddha is not “worshipped” like a God. The Buddha said that he was not a God, simply a human being who had Awakened to Ultimate Truth. Veneration, and homage is paid to him in deep appreciation for sharing his Wisdom and Compassion with us.
Q: Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism, isn’t it?
A: While certain terms such as karma, samsara, and nirvana, among others, are common to both Buddhism and Hinduism, there are significant differences between the two traditions. A number of the Buddha’s teachings ran counter to the Brahmanical traditions of the time: his concept of Not-self, the ordination of women, and denunciation of animal sacrifice, were just some of the differences in practice. But the Buddha did not regard himself as a rebel, just someone who had attained his own understanding of Ultimate Truth, and who passed on to a suffering humanity a way of becoming liberated.
Q: Isn’t the Dalai Lama the Buddhist Pope?
A: No, Buddhism doesn’t have a “Pope,” or any one figure of central religious authority. The Dalai Lama is revered by Buddhists world-wide, but he is actually the exiled spiritual figurehead of the Tibetan people, and is the head of one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, with no religious authority over any other Buddhist sects. He used to also be the political leader of the Tibetan people, but handed over power to an elected secular government.
Q: Buddhists talk a lot about suffering. Isn’t that a bit pessimistic?
A: Buddhism is realistic, not pessimistic. No one could doubt that every human being experiences different forms of suffering throughout their lives. This is a fact of life. However, it would not be correct to then say that life is nothing but suffering. On the contrary, The Four Noble Truths, the foundation upon which all Buddhist teachings are based, ask us to look directly at the state of our own life, to see the causes of suffering, to realize the hopeful truth that it is possible to transcend suffering, and that there is a path which allows us to attain Nirvana, Perfect Peace, the end of Samsaric suffering.
Q: Why do Buddhists bow to statues on altars?
A: When Buddhists bow before an image of the Buddha, they are formally recognizing the potential for Perfect Enlightenment within themselves, represented by a beautiful image, and in the act of bowing they are also venerating and paying homage to the Buddha in deep appreciation for sharing his teachings on Wisdom and Compassion with sentient beings. The act of bowing is also extended to other beings in acknowledgement of the Buddha-Nature within us all.
Q: What is Zen?
A: Zen is a Japanese Buddhist tradition that has its roots in China, where it is called Ch’an, which means “name of mind;” Ch’an being name, and mind being substance. The Ch’an tradition started in China in the 6th century of the Common Era, and its teachings centred on the direct meditative exploration of one’s own True Self, or Buddha-Nature. Nearly 700 years later, Japanese monks travelled to China and brought the Ch’an teachings and practices back to Japan with them. The Japanese pronunciation of “Ch’an” is “Zen.” Today, the core practices of both are the same, but differences do exist in cultural styles, and lineage traditions.
Q: Isn’t Pure Land Buddhism, and Amitabha Buddha, just like Christianity?
A: Confusion is often caused when westerners first hear details about Amitabha Buddha and her Pure Land. So it is important to realize, that while Amitabha assists sentient beings on the path to Liberation, she does not “save” beings like a God rescuing a drowning child. Instead, she is an infinitely compassionate being dedicated to teaching and empowering beings on their journey to Buddhahood. Those who have practiced “Buddha-Remembrance” in its many forms have established a connection with this Buddha, and so are reborn into the Pure Land.
Phenomenally, Amitabha’s Pure Land is a realm of rebirth in which the hindrances to practice are nonexistent, so that beings who are reborn there may purify their remaining karma and so become able to either attain Nirvana in their next rebirth, or to return to the conditioned realm in the form of a compassionate Bodhisattva, who constantly works for the liberation of all beings.
However, from the standpoint of Ultimate Nature, Amitabha Buddha is Boundless Compassion and Boundless Wisdom itself, and the Pure Land is none other than our Purified Mind, our Buddha-Nature, or True Self. And by practicing Buddha-Remembrance we see the true nature of our existence, and realize that not only are we essentially Amitabha Buddha, but also that the Pure Land is here and now.
So, Amitabha is not a “Saviour,” nor is the Pure Land a “Heaven,” because the Pure Land is not one’s final destination so to speak. It is a way of liberating ourselves and others, both through rebirth into the Pure Land and through the realization of our True Self.
Parts of the text reprinted with permission of the Zen Society of Cleveland. Copyright © 2013-2020 – Venerable Shih Jingang