Approaching the Buddhist Path

1. Exploring Buddhism

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1.Exploring Buddhism

A SPIRITUAL PATH IS ESSENTIAL to human life. Although advances in medicine, science, and technology have done much to improve the quality of human life, they have not been able to free us from all suffering and bring us secure and lasting happiness. In fact, in many cases, they have brought new problems that we did not face in the past, such as environmental pollution and the threat of nuclear war. Therefore, external improvements in our world are not sufficient to bring the happiness and peace that we all desire. For this, internal transformation through spiritual development is essential. For this transformation to occur, we need to follow a spiritual path.

Spiritual practice involves transforming our mind. Although our body is important, satisfying it does not bring lasting happiness. We must look inside ourselves, examining our attitudes and emotions to understand how profoundly they influence and shape our experiences. The Buddha comments (SN 1.62):

The world is led by mind and drawn along by mind. All phenomena are controlled by one phenomenon, mind.

The mind includes not only our intellect, but also all our cognitions, emotions, and other mental factors. The Sanskrit word for “mind,” citta, can also be translated as “heart.” It refers to all our consciousnesses — sensory and mental — and to the variety of mental states we experience. By subduing the afflicted aspects of our mind, our experience of the world is transformed, whereas if we seek to change only the external environment and the people4 in it, we continually meet with frustration and disappointment because we cannot control the external world. It is only by developing the great potential of our mind/heart that we will be able to find a way out of our suffering and to truly benefit others as well.

In Buddhism, therefore, the obstacles we aim to eliminate are not external, but are afflictive mental states — distorted attitudes and disturbing emotions. The tools we use to counteract them are also mental — compassion, wisdom, and other realistic and beneficial attitudes and emotions that we consciously cultivate. The Buddha’s teachings, or Buddhadharma — what is commonly known as Buddhism — help us to differentiate realistic and beneficial attitudes, views, and emotions that accord with the way things are. The teachings also give us instructions regarding what to practice and what to abandon on the spiritual path. The Buddha taught from his own experience, and we are free to accept or reject his teachings, using valid reasons as well as our own experience as criteria.

The Purpose of Existence and the Meaning of Life

The Buddha says (MN 46.2):

For the most part, beings have this wish, desire, and longing: “If only unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things would diminish and wished for, desired, agreeable things would increase!” Yet although beings have this wish, desire, and longing, unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things increase for them, and wished for, desired, agreeable things diminish.

What the Buddha says above is confirmed by our own experience. All of us want happiness and no one wants misery. Yet, despite our sincere wish, the opposite comes about. I believe the meaning and purpose of our life has to do with eradicating the causes of pain and increasing the causes of happiness, so that this deepest wish in the heart of each and every living being can be fulfilled.

I do not know of an overarching purpose for the existence of this world, and from the Buddhist viewpoint, there is not a clear explanation. We simply say that the existence of the world is due to causes and conditions, to5 nature. The existence of this universe is a fact. How existence came into being and the possibility of ending suffering are quite different issues. We do not need to know how the world began in order to stop our suffering.

Everyone wants to be happy and peaceful and to avoid suffering. Even a person who doesn’t know the purpose for the existence of the universe doesn’t want to suffer. Such a person would never think, “Because there is no plan or big purpose, I will let myself suffer.” Our body exists, and feelings of happiness and unhappiness exist. Whether our intellect understands the reason for our existence or not, we are concerned about the happiness of ourselves and others. By seeking to bring about this happiness, we give purpose and meaning to our lives.

The purpose of our life is happiness and peace, an internal feeling of well-­being. To bring that about, we need material development and proper education. We also need spiritual development. By spirituality, I do not mean religious belief or rituals. For me, spirituality refers to the basic good qualities of human beings, such as compassion, affection, gentleness, and humility. When these qualities are well established in our hearts, we will have more peace of mind and will contribute to the happiness of others. Someone can be happy without religious beliefs but not without these basic good qualities.

Sentient beings — all beings with minds that are not fully awakened — experience two types of happiness and suffering: physical happiness and suffering (which occur at the level of our senses) and mental or emotional happiness and suffering (which occur at the mental level). As human beings, we are not different from animals, insects, and other beings with bodies; we are all basically the same in terms of seeking physical comfort and avoiding pain. But in terms of mental and emotional happiness and suffering, we human beings are very different from other species. We have human intelligence and thus have more capacity to think, remember, explain, and examine. For example, unlike animals, human beings may suffer mentally when they remember injustices their ancestors experienced. We may speculate about the future and become anxious or furious about situations that haven’t occurred yet. Due to our imagination, we are much more sensitive on a mental level and experience so much joy and misery that is created by our mind. Because mental suffering is created by the conceptions in our mind, countermeasures that are likewise mental are important. Toward this6 end, human beings have developed various religions, philosophies, psychological theories, and scientific hypotheses.

A Middle Way between Theistic Religions and Scientific Reductionism

The more than seven billion human beings on our planet can be divided into three general groups: those who are not interested in religion, those who believe and practice a religion, and those who are actively hostile to religion. The first group, those who are not very interested in religion, is the largest. These people are concerned principally with their day-­to-­day lives, especially with financial security and material prosperity. Among this group there are two types. The first consists of people who have ethical principles and use them to guide their lives. The second values money, prestige, and pleasure above all else. Those guided by ethical principles are, in general, happier. Those who lack ethical restraint may gain more temporary benefit, but in the end, they do not feel good inside themselves about what they have done. Afraid that their devious means will be found out, they lack genuine self-­confidence and inner peace. Many of our global problems are due to such a lack of ethical principles, which comes about when people do not know or care about the moral consequences of their actions. Without such knowledge and the restraint it produces, greed has free reign. We can see that many of our global problems would be solved if people lived with a sense of responsibility that comes from valuing ethical principles.

Of the other two groups, those who sincerely believe in a religion and practice it and those who are hostile to religion, the former also uses ethical principles and compassion to guide their lives, while the latter intentionally opposes religious ideas. Some people in the latter group say religion is the instrument through which the ruling class exploits others; others say that religion is just superstition or a cause of ignorance.

People in these three groups are the same in that they all seek happiness. There is no difference among them in this regard. The difference occurs in terms of what each group believes will lead to happiness. Except for those in the first group who privilege ethical values above personal gain, the rest trust principally in money and material comfort; the second affirms that7 happiness comes primarily through ethical conduct as well as religious and spiritual practice; the third believes not only that happiness lies in the material world but also that religious ideas are irrelevant, make-­believe, and counter to human happiness. Of these three groups, Buddhist practitioners belong to the second.

From one perspective, Buddhism is a religion and a spiritual discipline. Because Buddhist precepts and meditation are directly linked to mental training, it is also a science of mind. From another viewpoint, since Buddhism does not accept an external creator, it is not a theistic religion but a philosophy. Depending on how we look at Buddhism, we may describe it as a religion, a science of mind, or a philosophy. We do not need to say it is one and not the others, for Buddhism embraces aspects of all three.

We also see radical materialists who deny the existence of mind as an immaterial phenomenon, as well as religious believers who assert an external creator. We see people who stress logical reasoning and others who emphasize uncritical faith. It seems Buddhism does not fit in any of these categories. In contrast to religions that oppose critical investigation, Buddhism emphasizes that we should be skeptical, even of the Buddha’s words. We have to investigate whether scriptural passages are reliable and true or not. If we find contradictory evidence, including scientific findings, we should follow what can be proven rather than what the Buddha said. The Buddha himself stated that his followers should not accept his teaching out of respect but after investigation and personal experiment. We have the liberty to examine and test the Buddha’s teachings.

On the other hand, while Buddhism shares respect for logic and experimental proof, it doesn’t deny the value of having faith and confidence in spiritually realized beings. Since our five senses are limited in what they are capable of knowing, scientific tools are not amenable to investigating many existent phenomena. So it seems that Buddhism is in between science and theistic religions. In the future, perhaps Buddhism may become a bridge between religion and science, bringing the two closer together.

I have met many times with people of other faiths as well as with scientists. Sometimes my Buddhist explanations have helped my Christian brothers and sisters practice their own faith. Other times, scientists in the fields of cosmology, biology, physics, and modern psychology have found common points between Buddhism and their disciplines. Some of these8 scientists began our meetings thinking, “This will be a waste of time because Buddhism is a religion and religion doesn’t have much in common with science.” But after a few sessions, they were eager to learn about the Buddhist concepts of subtle particles or our explanation of the relation between the mind and the brain. This demonstrates the possibility of mutual understanding with practitioners of other religions and with scientists.

Buddhadharma and Other Religions

There are two aspects to each religion: one is transformation of the mind or heart, and the other is the philosophy that supports that transformation. I believe that in terms of transforming human beings’ minds and hearts, all religions are in general agreement. They all teach love, compassion, forgiveness, nonharm, contentment, self-­discipline, and generosity. No matter the religion, a person who practices it sincerely will develop these qualities. In every religion, we see many examples of ethical and warm-­hearted people who benefit others.

The difference among religions occurs mainly in the area of philosophy. Theistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and many branches of Hinduism — believe in a supreme being who created the universe and the living beings in it. Theistic philosophy supplies the reasons for the adherents of these religions to transform their hearts and minds. For them, all existence depends on the creator. The creator created us and loves us, and so in return, with gratitude we love the creator. Because we love the creator, we then must love the creations — other sentient beings — and treat them respectfully. This is the reason for our Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim brothers and sisters to be kind and ethical people.

Buddhism, on the other hand, speaks not of an external creator but of the law of causality. Our actions create the causes for what we will experience in the future. If we want happiness — be it temporal happiness or happiness that comes through spiritual realizations — we must abandon destructive actions and practice love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, and generosity.

While big differences exist among their philosophies, all religions agree on the good qualities for human beings to develop. For some people, the9 Buddhist philosophy is more effective in cultivating these qualities. For others, the doctrine of another religion is more helpful. Therefore, from the viewpoint of an individual, each person will see one philosophy as true and one religion as best for him or her. But looking at all of society, we must accept the diversity and plurality of religions and of views of truth. These two perspectives — what is best for a given individual and what is best for society — do not contradict each other.

Even within Buddhism, our teacher, the Buddha, taught different philosophies to different people because he understood that due to each individual’s disposition and interest, what is suitable for one person is not necessarily effective for another. Thus the Buddha respects individual views, be they within Buddhadharma itself or among individuals from various religions.

This series is written mainly for Buddhist practitioners, so some philosophical explanations naturally will not agree with people of other religions. However, as Buddhists we do not criticize those religions or the people who practice them. From a Buddhist viewpoint, the plurality of religions in the world is beneficial, for each individual must find a belief system that is suited to his or her disposition and interests. Although the philosophy of another faith may not be correct from a Buddhist viewpoint, we must respect it if it benefits others.

Whether we accept religion or not is an individual choice. But if we accept a religion, we should be serious in following it and make our way of life concordant with its teachings. If the teachings become part of our lives, we receive true value. In politics and business, hypocrisy and deception are commonplace and regrettable, but in religion they are totally deplorable. We must be sincere and cultivate a kind heart and tolerance no matter which religion we choose.

Once I met a Chilean scientist who told me that he reminds himself not to be attached to his particular scientific field. I think the same is true regarding religion because attachment leads to bias, which in turn brings a fundamentalist attitude that clings to a single absolute truth. While I was still young and lived in Tibet, I was a little biased against other faiths. However, upon coming to India, I met Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, and people from many other religions. Seeing that the practice of other religions can produce wonderful people, I developed respect for other religions.


When my non-­Buddhist brothers and sisters come to learn the Buddhadharma, I usually recommend that they do not think of becoming Buddhists. Buddhism does not proselytize or seek to convert others. You should first explore the religion of your family, and if that meets your spiritual needs, practice that rather than taking on Buddhism. In that way, you will avoid the difficulties of practicing a religion that exists within a culture foreign to your own and whose scriptures are written in languages that you do not understand. However, if your family’s religion does not meet your needs and the Buddhadharma suits your disposition better, then of course you are free to become a Buddhist or to adopt some practices from Buddhism while retaining your previous religion.

The reason I advise people to first investigate their family’s religion is that some people become confused when they change religions. A case in point is the family of a Tibetan lay official who fled Tibet in the early 1960s after the uprising against the Chinese occupation and became refugees in India. After the father passed away, one of the many Christian missionary groups who kindly helped refugees aided his wife and children. After some years, the wife came to see me and told me her story, saying that the Christians helped her a lot and gave her children an education, so for this life she is a Christian. But in the next life she will be a Buddhist!

To practice and benefit from the Buddha’s teachings, you do not need to be a Buddhist. If certain teachings make sense to you, help you to get along better with others, and enable your mind and heart to be clearer and more peaceful, practice those teachings within the context of your own life. The Buddha’s teachings on subduing anger and cultivating patience may be practiced by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and those who do not follow any religion. Buddhist instructions on how to develop concentration and focused attention can be used by anyone who meditates, no matter what religion or philosophy they follow.

If you are interested in following the Buddhist path, I recommend that you first understand the Buddhist worldview. Take your time and learn how the Buddha describes our present state, the causes of our difficulties, our potential, and the path to actualize it. Explore the ideas of rebirth, karma and its effects, emptiness, awakening, and so on. Then, when you have some conviction arising from thoughtful reflection, you can consider following the Buddhist path.


Religion in the Modern World

Once we adopt a religion, we should practice it sincerely. If we truly believe in Buddha, God, Allah, Śiva, and so forth, we should be honest human beings. Some people claim to have faith in their religion but act counter to its ethical injunctions. They pray for the success of their dishonest and corrupt actions, asking God, Buddha, and so forth for help in covering up their wrongdoings! People like that should give up saying they are religious.

Our world now faces an ethical crisis related to lack of respect for spiritual principles and ethical values. These cannot be forced on society by legislation or by science, and ethical conduct due to fear does not work. Rather, we must think and have conviction in the worth of ethical principles so that we want to live ethically.

The United States and India, for example, both have good governmental structures, but many of the people involved in them lack ethical principles. Self-­discipline and ethical self-­restraint on the part of political leaders, financial executives, those in the medical field, industrialists, teachers, lawyers, and all other citizens are needed to create a good society. But we cannot impose self-­discipline and ethical principles from the outside. We need inner cultivation. That is why spirituality and religion are relevant in the modern world.

India, where I now live, has been home to the ideas of secularism, inclusiveness, and diversity for three thousand years. One philosophical tradition — in ancient times they were known as Cārvāka — asserts that only what we know through our five senses exists. Other Indian philosophical schools criticize this nihilistic view but still regard the people who hold it as rishis, or sages. In Indian secularism, they are respected by other traditions despite their different philosophy. In the same way, we must all respect those of other religions as well as nonbelievers. I promote this type of secularism, the essence of which is to be a kind person who does not harm others whether you are religious or not.

In previous centuries, Tibetans knew little about the rest of the world. We lived on a high and broad plateau surrounded by the world’s highest mountains. Almost everyone, except for a small community of Muslims, was Buddhist, and very few foreigners came to our land. Since we went into exile in 1959, Tibetans have been in contact with the rest of the world;12 we relate with diverse religions, ethnic groups, and cultures with a broad spectrum of views. We also live in a world where modern scientific views are prominent. In addition, Tibetan youth now receive a modern education in which they are exposed to views not traditionally found in the Tibetan community. Therefore it is imperative that Tibetan Buddhists be able to clearly explain their tenets and beliefs to others using reason. Simply quoting from Buddhist scriptures does not convince people who did not grow up as Buddhists of the validity of the Buddha’s doctrine. If we try to prove points only by quoting scripture, these people may respond, “Why should I believe that scripture? Everyone has a book they can quote from!”

Religion in general faces three principal challenges today: communism, modern science, and the combination of consumerism and materialism. Regarding communism, although the Cold War ended many years ago, communist beliefs and governments still strongly affect life in Buddhist countries. For example, in Tibet the communist government controls who can ordain as a monk or nun and regulates life in the monasteries and nunneries. It also controls the educational system, teaching children that Buddhism is old-­fashioned.

Modern science, up until now, has confined itself to studying phenomena that are material in nature. Because scientists by and large examine only things that can be measured with scientific instruments, this limits the scope of their investigations and consequently their understanding of the universe. Phenomena such as rebirth and the existence of mind as a phenomenon separate from the brain are beyond the scope of scientific investigation. Although they have no proof that these things do not exist, some scientists assume that they do not exist and consider these topics as unworthy of consideration. However, in the last two or three decades, I have met with many open-­minded scientists, and we have had mutually beneficial discussions that have highlighted our common points as well as our diverging views. These discussions have been carried out with mutual respect, so that both scientists and Buddhists are expanding their worldviews.

The third challenge is the combination of materialism and consumerism. Religion values ethical conduct, which may involve delayed gratification, whereas consumerism directs us toward immediate happiness. Religion stresses inner satisfaction, saying that happiness results from a peaceful mind, while materialism tells us that happiness comes from external objects.13 Religious values such as kindness, generosity, and honesty get lost in the rush to make more money and have more and better possessions. As a result, many people’s minds are confused about what happiness is and how to create the causes for happiness.

As you begin to learn the Buddha’s teachings, you may find that some of them are in harmony with your views on societal values, science, and consumerism, and some of them are not. That is fine. Continue to investigate and reflect on what you learn. In this way, whatever conclusion you reach will be based on reasons, not simply on tradition, peer pressure, or blind faith.

A Broad Perspective

Dharma practice is not comprised of simply one meditation technique. Our minds are far too complex for one meditation technique or one Dharma topic to transform every aspect of our minds. Although some newcomers to the Dharma may want one simple technique to practice and may see progress by sticking to it, they should not think that in the long term this is sufficient to generate all the realizations of the path.

The Dharma encompasses an entire worldview, and practice necessitates examining all aspects of your life. Some of the Buddha’s ideas will be new to you and may challenge some of your deeply held beliefs. Be open-­minded and curious, investigate these ideas, and observe your mind. Check the teachings using reasoning and apply them to your life to see if they describe your experience. Do not accept them simply because the Buddha taught them, and don’t reject them simply because they are foreign to your existing ideas.

If you cultivate a broad outlook and a deeper view about the meaning of life, you will understand not only this life but also the existence of many lives to come. In addition, you will understand your own happiness and suffering as well as that of the countless sentient beings who are similar to you in wanting to be happy and to avoid suffering. This broad view that considers many lives and many sentient beings will contribute to peace and happiness in this life.

If we are chiefly engrossed with our own personal happiness and problems and do not bother much about the happiness and suffering of others,14 our vision is quite narrow. When we encounter difficulties, such a limited view will make us think that all the problems of the world have landed on us and we are the most unfortunate person alive. This pessimistic way of looking at our own life will make it difficult for us to be happy here and now, and we will drag ourselves through life day and night.

On the other hand, if we have a wider view and are aware of the experiences of other sentient beings, then when we encounter difficulties, we will understand that unsatisfactory experiences are not isolated cases happening to us alone but are the nature of cyclic existence; they happen to everyone. This mental attitude will help us to maintain stability in life and to face the situations we encounter in a productive way. To take it a step further, if we do not think solely about the betterment of this life and allow for the possibility of many subsequent lives, then when we encounter difficulties in the present, we will be better able to weather them and remain positive about the future. Thinking only about the pleasures of this life and putting all our hopes in this life alone, we feel let down when things inevitably do not turn out the way we wanted. Therefore a broad perspective of life and an understanding of the nature of duḥkha — suffering and dissatisfaction — helps us to improve our life now and in many lives to come.

In the first two of his four truths, the Buddha describes duḥkha and its causes. We may wonder, “Why should I think about this? It will only make me more depressed and unhappy!” Although reflecting on duḥkha and its causes may initially bring some uneasiness, suffering is still there even if we do not think about it in this systematic and purposeful way. If we simply let things take their course, suffering will strike when we are unaware and overwhelm us. We will be confounded regarding the nature of duḥkha, its causes, and how to eliminate it, and feelings of hopelessness and desperation may further complicate our situation and make us even more miserable.

Say we undergo a certain illness or injury for which we are not prepared. We have the suffering of the ailment, and on top of that, we also suffer feelings of shock and vulnerability. But if we know about a physical condition and calmly accept it, we go to a doctor for treatment. Because we have accepted the existence of that ailment and are ready to deal with it, even if the doctor prescribes surgery, we will accept it with happiness because we know that we are following a method to remove the suffering.

Similarly, if we know and accept the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic15 existence, we will be in a much better position to deal with it when it occurs. We should not simply wait until a tragedy strikes us but reflect on cyclic existence, learn about it, and have a method to face it.

As we now go on to investigate other topics, it’s important that you know that I am nothing special. I am a human being, just like you. We all have the same potential, and that is what makes one person’s experience relevant and expressible to others. If you have the idea that the Dalai Lama is some extraordinary, special kind of being, then you may also think that you cannot relate to or benefit from what I say. That is foolish.

Some people think I have healing powers. If I did, I would have used them to avoid gall bladder surgery. It is because we are the same that you may be able to derive some benefit from my words and experiences.

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