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Buddhism Basics

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Buddhism Basics

The Four Noble Truths

The Truth of Suffering
The first of the Four Noble Truths is suffering, which is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word duhkha (Pali, dukkha). We should qualify that translation by saying that this does not mean that the Buddha didn't acknowledge the existence of happiness or contentment in life. The point that he was making is that there is happiness and also sorrow in the world; but the reason why everything we experience in our everyday life is said to be duhkha is that even when we have some kind of happiness, it is not permanent; it is subject to change. more...

The Eightfold Path

There seem to be so many sidetracks in relating to our life-situations, sidetracks of all kinds by which we are seduced: "Food, gas and lodging, next exit." We are always promised something if we turn right at the next exit as we travel down our highway. There are so many colorful advertisements. We never want to be just where and what we are; we always want to be somewhere else. We can always turn right at the next exit, even though we really know we are stuck on our highway anyway, that we really have no choice about it. Where we are is embarrassing, and so we would like to hear somebody say that there is an alternative whereby we do not have to be ashamed of ourselves: "I'll provide a mask, just put it on." Then you can get off at that exit and you are "saved" by pretending to be what you are not. You think people see you as a different person, the one wearing the mask of what you would like to be. more...

Understanding Karma: Cause and Effect

The law of karma is one of the most important laws governing our lives. When we understand it, and live our understanding, when we act on what we know, then we experience a sense of wholeness and peace.

Karma is a Sanskrit word (kamma in Pali) that means “action.” The law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: that every volitional act brings about a certain result. more...


The most troublesome beliefs are related to our attachments, which are often hard to identify. Attachments are simple beliefs—fantasies, in fact—that have become solidified as “truth” in our mind. They also partake of the energy of desire, which is based on the underlying belief that without some particular person or thing, we can never be free from suffering. Attachment also takes the form of avoidance; we believe we can't be happy as long as a particular person, condition, or object is in our lives. To experience negative attachment, just think of your least favorite food or person. more...

The Three Marks of Existence

There are three truths—traditionally called three marks—of our existence: impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. Even though they accurately describe the rock-bottom qualities of our existence, these words sound threatening. It's easy to get the idea that there is something wrong with impermanence, suffering, and egolessness, which is like thinking that there is something wrong with our fundamental situation. But there's nothing wrong with impermanence, suffering, and egolessness; they can be celebrated. Our fundamental situation is joyful. more...


Much has already been written on koans, yet there remains misunderstanding and confusion as to what koans actually are. In essence, koans are a form of spiritual practice unique to Zen. Since the days of the great Zen masters of ancient China, they have been used to help Zen students realize, refine, and embody the Buddha's teachings. Literally they are often baffling verbal expressions, puzzling or frustrating to logic, built around or taken from the sayings and doings of the ancient Zen masters, or occasionally from mythic/historical events in the life of the Buddha. more...


“Mindfulness” is the English translation of the Pali word sati. Sati is an activity. What exactly is that? There can be no precise answer, at least not in words. Words are devised by the symbolic levels of the mind, and they describe those realities with which symbolic thinking deals. Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic. Nevertheless, mindfulness can be experienced—rather easily—and it can be described, as long as you keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the moon. They are not the thing itself. The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols. Mindfulness could be described in completely different terms than will be used here, and each description could still be correct. more...

Bardo: The Experience of Nowness

Originally bardo referred only to the period between one life and the next, and this is still its normal meaning when it is mentioned without any qualification. Later Buddhism expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states, covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that lies between two other states. Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, is the prototype of the bardo experience, while the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods. more...

The Heart Sutra

The Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra
Perceiving that all five skandhas are empty saves all beings from suffering.
Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
No appearing, no disappearing.
No taint, no purity.
No increase, no decrease.
All dharmas are marked with emptiness.
No cognition—no attainment.
Unexcelled perfect enlightenment—anuttara samyak sambodhi.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!

—From the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism's teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras. It is chanted in every Mahayana and Zen temple in the world. more...


Metta, which can be translated from Pali as “love” or “lovingkindness,” is the first of the brahma-viharas, the “heavenly abodes.” The others—compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—grow out of metta, which supports and extends these states. more...

Pure Perception

Samsara is nothing other than how things appear to you;
If you recognize everything as the deity, the good of others is consummated.
Seeing the purity of everything confers the four empowerments on all beings at once;
Dredging the depths of samsara, recite the six-syllable mantra.

What, then, is meant by pure perception? The way we usually experience the outer world, our bodies, and our feelings is impure, in the sense that we perceive them as ordinary, substantially existing entities. more...


But those who fill with bliss
All beings destitute of joy,
Who cut all pain and suffering away
From those weighed down with misery,
Who drive away the darkness of their ignorance—
What virtue could be matched with theirs?
What friend could be compared to them?
What merit is there similar to this?
Verses 20 and 30 refer indirectly to the paramita of generosity, the generosity that frees us from stress and selfishness. According to the teachings, there are three types of generosity, three ways of helping others by giving of ourselves.