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Buddhism, customs, culture and views on life

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Buddhist culture

Buddhism’s success as a religion has been at least partly attributed to the universality of its ethical teaching and the flexibility of its spiritual message. It provides a code of conduct for the community and the individual that provides a framework for a peaceful society and peace of mind.

Buddhism is arguably the most tolerant and adaptable religion. Wherever it has gone it has adapted to local conditions. That is one reason why there are so many different sects and schools and it is winning so many adherents today in the West.

Buddha preached against the caste system. One of the basic premises of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering.

Buddhism and Character

The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “Buddhism is a ‘Nay-saying’ religion, rejecting all life as suffering and promising release from it; yet when one is actually in a Buddhist country it is hard to resist the impression that one is among the liveliest, the most invincibly cheerful, the most ‘yea-saying’ people on earth.”

Describing his people the King of Thailand told National Geographic magazine, "Thais seem to be happy go lucky but are quite strong. Our people are relaxed, not high strung or stiff. They are hospitable—to strangers and to new ideas. The majority are Buddhist—and the Buddhists have never had a holy war. They are polite. Honorable politeness. They have courage but are not harsh—strong but gentle."


Poor people in Buddhist countries often have a big smiles on their faces, something that many people believe is attributed to the fact they spend so much time praying and engaging religious activities. Religion is a daily, if not hourly, practice for many Buddhists. Tibetans, for example, seem to spend hours each day praying or spinning prayer wheels.

Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. This outlook and is sometimes viewed in the West as a lack of ambition or unwilling to work hard to get ahead.

Buddhist Morality

Buddhism also provides guidelines for village justice, namely in the form of the five basic moral prohibitions (the Panch Sila, or the five precepts for the laity):

1) refrain for taking life;
2) don’t steal;
3) avoid illicit sexual activity;
4) don’t speak falsely; and
5) refrain from consuming inebriating substances.

These guidelines are supposed to be followed by both lay people and monks. Devout Buddhists and monks are also supposed observe a number of other prohibitions such as avoiding dancing, singing, eating after midday and wearing jewelry and cosmetics.

The religious historian I.B. Hunter wrote: “The criteria of Buddhist morality is to ask yourself , when there is one of three kinds of deeds you want to do, whether it will lead to the hurt of self, of others, or of both. If you come to the conclusion that it will be harmful, then you must not do it. But if you form the opinion that it will be harmless, then you can do it and repeat. A person that torments neither himself or another is already transcending the active life.”

Among Mahayana Buddhists there is a great deal of discussion of what is beneficial for people and what isn’t since people don’t always necessarily know what is good for them. Mahayana scholars discuss things like whether it is an act of kindness to kill an animal in extreme pain or give whiskey to an alcoholic and debate about the merits of medical technology which can make people healthier but ultimately is a benefit provided by material objects rather than spirituality.


Buddhism, Desire and Attachment

Buddhists believe that humans want many things and want to keep them forever, which is impossible and creates a constant state of desire, which in turn causes suffering and fear of further loss. To get beyond desire and pain one has to find an alternative.

William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang. The monk said, “ The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses. “ [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]

When asked about the techniques the monk said, “The lamas taught us to stare at a statue of the Lord Buddha and absorb the details of the object the color, the posture, and so on, reflecting back all we knew of their teachings. Slowly you go deeper; you visualize the hand, the leg, and the vajra in his hand, closing your eyes and trying to travel inward. The more you concentrate on a deity, the more you are diverted from worldly thoughts. It is difficult, of course, but it is also essential. In the Fire Sermon, the Lord Buddha said, The world is on fire and every solution short of nirvana is like trying to whitewash a burning house. Everything we have now is like a dream impermanent. This floor feels like stone, this cupboard feels like wood but really it is an illusion. When you die you can’t take any of this. You have to leave it all behind. We have to leave even this human body.” [Ibid]

Buddhism, Patience and Non-Violence


Patience is a great virtue especially to Mahayana Buddhists. One passage from the Manual of Zen Buddhism goes: “However unnumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them! However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them! However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them! However incomparable Enlightenment is, I vow to attain it!

Mahayana Buddhists see patience in terms of moral patience to endure suffering and hostile acts of others and intellectual patience to accept ideas—especially ones that seem so unfathomable and unpleasant like the non-existence of all things—before understanding them.

Buddhism teaches inner peace leads to outer peace.

Buddhism, Compassion and Charity

Buddhism emphasizes ideals of wisdom and compassion and sometimes gives as much weight to thoughts as actions. The Buddhist equivalent of the Golden Rule is that “all we are is the result of what we have thought.” There is a great emphasis on generosity and the giving of alms. Concepts such confession, forgiveness and restitution that are normally associated with [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]] are also emphasized in Buddhism.

Buddhists are taught to practice nonviolence, do good deeds, present gifts to monks, aspire to have gentle thoughts, meditate, and have respect for the sanctity of life. The basic tenets of Buddhism influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Mahayana Buddhists have also debated the merits of charity. Scholars are clearly in agreement that charity is beneficial to the giver but how helpful and useful it is to the recipient is not such a clear cut matter. Some argue charity is merely a means for the well-off to relieve themselves of guilt and duty by giving a few scraps to the poor that ultimately humiliates them.


The great Tibetan saint Milarepa was once asked by his disciples “if they could engage in worldly duties, in a small way, for the benefit of others.” Milarepa replied: “If there be not the least self-interest attached to such duties, it is permissible. But such detachment is indeed rare; and works performed for the good of others seldom succeed, if not wholly freed from self-interest...One should not be over-anxious and hasty in setting out to serve others before onself has realized the Truth in its fullness; to do so, would be like the blind leading the blind....Til the opportunity come, I exhort each of you to attain Buddhahood for the good of all living beings.”

Buddhism beliefs in sanctity of life and non-violence have their origins in Hinduism and Jainism.

Buddhism and Violence

The view that non-violence is a dominate belief is a bit of a myth. Robert Thurman of Columbia University told the New York Times, "There is a Buddhist theory of war, of self-defense, and there is also a kind of theory of surgical violence. The optimal ideal thing is non-violence. But sometimes you have to do a little violence to prevent a larger violence. The Buddhist have thought about this are they are not simplistic."

There lots of examples of violence committed by Buddhist. Largely Buddhist Cambodia produced the Khmer Rouge. A miliary junta rules in Buddhist Burma. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists are engaged in a low-intensity civil war with Hindu Tamils and monks have supported Sinhalese militia that murdered thousands of class enemies.

William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang in Dharamsala who took up arms to defend Tibet when the Chinese invaded Tibet: When asked, can one be both a monk and a resistance fighter? Tashi said, “Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man. But sometimes it can be your duty to do so. I knew that if I stayed in a monastery under the Chinese there was no point in being a monk. They wouldn’t let me practice my religion. So, to protect the ways of the Lord Buddha, the Buddhist dharma, I decided to fight...Yes, nonviolence is the essence of the dharma. This is especially true for a monk. The most important thing is to love each and every sentient being. But when it comes to a greater cause, sometimes it can be your duty to give back your vows and to fight in order to protect the dharma.” [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]


“So your desire to protect the dharma ultimately led you to kill? “It was not that I wanted to murder individual Chinese soldiers. I certainly did not have blood lust I took no pleasure in killing. But I knew that the Chinese soldiers were committing the most sinful of all crimes trying to destroy Buddhism. And I knew that in our scriptures it is written that it can be right to kill a person, as long as your intention is to stop that person from committing a serious sin. You can choose to take upon yourself the bad karma of a violent act in order to save that person from a much worse sin.”

“In our scriptures there is a story about a man called Angulimala who had killed nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine people. He Hung a finger from each corpse on a garland around his neck. He hoped the Buddha would be his thousandth victim. But on meeting the Lord he converted and became a monk. Many people opposed this, but the Lord Buddha insisted his repentance was genuine, and that he should be allowed to atone for his misdeeds. I think that if Angulimala could be forgiven, then maybe so could I. ”

Buddhist Attitude Towards Women

As is true with many other religions, Buddhism sees women in a less favorable light than men and provides them with fewer opportunities. Some Buddhist scriptures are downright cruel. One sutra reads: “one who looks at a woman even a moment will lose the virtuous function of eyes. Even though you may look at a large snake, you must not look at a woman.” Another reads, “If all the desires and delusions of all the men throughout the major world system were lumped together, they would be no greater than the karmic impediment of one single woman.”

Theravada Buddhists have traditionally believed that women had to be reborn as men to achieve nirvana or become Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhism by contrast cast women in more favorable terms. Female deities hold high positions; The Buddha is regarded a subordinate to a primordial female force described as the “Mother of all Buddhas”; men are told they are more likely to attain enlightenment if they open up their soft, intuitive feminine side in meditation.

Some scholars argue that Gautama Buddha espoused equality for women. With some trepidation, he allowed women to become monks and gave tacit approval for women to participate in serious philosophical debates. These scholars argue that Buddhism’s sexist side is due primarily to its links with Hinduism and the conservative monk hierarchy that determined the path Buddhism took after The Buddha death.

Budd as.jpg

In Buddhist societies, women generally have pretty high status. They inherit property, own land and work and enjoy many of the same rights as men. But still it is hard to say that are treated equally. The often quoted saying—“Men are the front legs of an elephant and women are the hind legs”—still sums up a view held by many.

Buddhist Attitude Toward Killing of Animals

Most devout Buddhists are vegetarians who are opposed to killing any animals. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and they maintain that killing an animal is killing the soul of a being that may one day be a human being. Many Buddhists go as far as rescuing insects from their tea. Some Buddhists hold special ceremonies for dead chickens or dead fish. Tibetan Buddhists believe that dogs are the last reincarnation before rebirth as humans, and as a result the country is filled with mangy dogs.

Many Buddhists believe that equal compassion must be extended to all living things. Some Buddhists believe that killing flies, mosquitos and even bacteria is wrong and walk softly so as not to trample insects and have special filters for their drinking cups and weak masks to prevent them from inadvertently consuming microorganisms. Despite this, there is a prevailing view that not are all living things are alike and equal and only humans are capable of reaching enlightenment


The are a number of stories in Buddhist literature about Bodhisattvas and Buddhas giving their life for animals. In one often-told tale, The Buddha, in his previous incarnation as the Prince of Benares, lashed his own throats with a piece of bamboo so an exhausted tigress could eat him and take care of her five newly-born cubs. In another famous story, a celebrated Bodhisattva who was a king freed a pigeon from a hawk by giving the hawk a pound of his own flesh.

Buddhism and Eating Animals

Baby Buddha Buddhist are not supposed to slaughter or witness the slaughter of animals and technically they are not supposed to even break open eggs. They are also prohibited from wearing animal skins and riding on animals. Thais were outraged when well known monk was photographed sitting on a cow in Thailand and wearing a leather outfit in Mongolia.

Many Buddhists believe that eating an animal after it has died naturally is all right. Buddha himself ate boar meat. The Tibetans have a special caste of people that slaughters animals after they have died. In some places you can get eggs that have “accidently” broken open and rich people hire servants to break open their eggs for them.

In Tibet, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other Buddhist countries priests regularly eat meat and dairy products. Nearly all the Buddhists in Mongolia eat meat. A Mongolian monk told the religious scholar Edward Conze: “We Mongol monks always eat meat, because there is nothing else. Yes, we known that by habitually eating meat we act against the ordinance of Lord Buddha. As a result of our sin we may well be re-born in hell. But it is our duty to take the Dharma to the Mongol people, and so we just have to take the consequences as they come.”


Some even eschew garlic and scallions because their smell is offensive to others.

Buddhism, the Environment, Science

The Dalai Lama told the Washington Post, “Science and Buddhism are very similar because they are exploring the nature of reality, and both have the goal to lessen the suffering of mankind.” Matthieu Ricardo, a French-born monk with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, told the New York Times, “Buddhism is, like science, based on experience and investigation, not on dogma...The Buddha always said that one should not accept his teachings simply out of respect for him, but rediscover their truth through our own experience.” Some Buddhist however have little interest in investigating nature and science because they feel that these things were ultimately illusions.

Buddhism and the Modern World

The abbot at Shaolin temple in China, famous for its kung-fu monks, said commercialism doesn’t necessarily clash with or contradict Buddhism. “What is a pagoda. It is like an ancient billboard,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Buddhist statues to are a form of advertising. If we don’t advertise, nobody would know about us.”

In the United States, Target sells Buddha fountains for $349 and Pier 1 Imports sells stone Buddhas for between $20 and $125. Some object to the use of Buddha heads as doorstops and bookends. A few years ago Victoria’s Secret stop selling Buddha print bathing suits after international protests.

In Thailand, Thailand have placed the entire 2,500-year-old, 16,000-page Tipitaka in the ancient Pali language on CD ROM. The project was completed by 600 monks in 12 years. Names, prayers and scriptures can be searched with a click of a mouse. Tibetan monks have placed important speeches of the Dalai Lama on the Internet. In Japan, Buddhist monks perform an ancient fire ceremony on the Internet. In South Korea, monks in have their own cable channel. In China, they pay tens of thousands of dollars for air time.

Some have argued that Buddha message about suffering is very relevant in the poor areas of the Third World.


by Jeffrey Hays