Practical Buddhism

By Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda


Everyone has intrinsically three types of characters: animal nature, human nature and
divine nature. We adopt one of these natures to satisfy our worldly needs and desires.
When  our  minds  are  not  guided by religious discipline, our ‘animal nature’ often
dominate. Human beings retain some of the animal nature inherited from  their
predecessors since the  primeval  past.  Although they may have evolved and changed
physically, they still have with them the lower mental processes, habits, and patterns of
behaviour. Many of these characteristics may not be so obvious when the conditions are
favourable  and  the  surroundings  congenial. However, when situations change, these
characteristic flare up like a volcano, as a result of deep-seated emotions and craving.
There is one main characteristic which separates human beings from animals, that is,
they have a mind to think and reflect about their existence and the life and phenomena
around them. Despite having such a highly develop mind, they are unable to use their
minds to the fullest because of delusion. A religion can be used as a means to remove
that delusion,  subdue the animal nature and cultivate humane qualities consistent with
what can be justly regarded as ‘human nature’.

A mind expresses its human nature through kindness and compassion, consideration to
others, providing services to release others from their suffering. When that mind is
cultivated beyond humanism and constantly dwells in equanimity and radiates loving
kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy to all beings without distinction, that  mind  has
realised its ‘divine nature’.

The divine nature is not cultivated by offering prayers to some supernatural powers, if a
person does not spend time cultivating his virtues. From the Buddhist point of view, there
is, in fact, no necessity for some external divine inspiration to influence and ennoble the
mind. This is something which a person will have to do himself. He ennobles his mind by
eliminating negative characteristics such as ignorance, hatred, jealousy, and selfishness,
while cultivating positive qualities of friendliness, love and compassion.
Cultivating the mind so that it can be refined to realise its divine nature is a noble task to
be undertaken by all. It is our task to use our human nature to remove out animal nature
and use religion to cultivate our divine nature. Buddhism takes us one step further  in
cultivating  our  virtues.  Through the Dhamma, we can transcend our divine nature and
achieve one more level, namely, the fourth and most important nature, the ‘Enlightened
Nature’, which is the state of self-awakening and realisation into the nature of life as it
really is.

The first step towards transforming ourselves is to understand what Buddhism is: What
is it really? What are the aspects in the understanding and practice of Buddhism? What
is  its  doctrinal content? And how can it be adopted and practised in modern society?
These are important questions which will be dealt with in this booklet.

What Is Buddhism?

Buddhism  is  based  on  the Buddha's   teaching, the  Dhamma,  which  was  given  by  
1 the Master more than 2500 years ago. Western writers have tried various ways  to
classify Buddhism in the categories they know best. Some say it is not a  religion,  but
only  a  philosophy.  Others  say Buddhism is not a philosophy, but only a moral code.
Despite these interpretations, millions acknowledge it as a religious way of life.
Is Buddhism a religion?

Before answering the question, let us examine the meaning of the word ‘religion’. Some
definitions given in the dictionary are: ‘Belief in God or way of worship or praying to God;
obedience to God; binding man to God; practice of sacred rites; recognition of a higher
unseen controlling power; one of the various systems of faith and worship based on
such belief; life as lived under the rules of a monastic life.’
In considering these definitions, some aspects are in  agreement  with the  principles  of
Buddhism,  while  others are not. We must remember that the word ‘religion’ is only an
English word which has concepts linked to the beliefs of the English people. The Buddha
did  not  speak  English  and  of course he did not describe his teaching by using these

Generally, for practical purposes, we can describe Buddhism as a religion. Here, religion
is taken to mean a method or way of life which was introduced for man to be righteous or
noble, for him to maintain his human dignity and intelligence, and for him to attain final
liberation through mental purity. Religion helps man to  develop  his  mental  processes
and leads him to experience happiness and peace. There should not be any controversy
in  applying  these  words to Buddhism if it is understood that ‘religion’ is used in this
context. One should not be involved in hair-splitting arguments as to whether or not an
ethical-oral  system  should  be  called  a ‘religion’ if it brings good result without the
dependence on mere belief or imagination then it should be accepted. 
Is Buddhism a Philosophy ?

Philosophy  is  the  search  for  knowledge, especially for the nature and meaning of
existence.  It  is  the  ‘love’  for knowledge, but there is no mention about whether this
knowledge  would  be translated into practical modes of behaviour to guide a person in
his daily life. The Buddha’s teaching is sublime and deep, surpassing  the  thought  of
even  the most respected philosophers. But the Dhamma is not mere philosophy
because philosophy is empirical by nature. It is a practical method  which  has  been
realised by the penetrative and analytical mind of the Buddha who taught the dhamma
for man’s daily application. 

The Buddha’s doctrine of analysis is based on understanding and his own experiences.
His  approach  to  the problem of human suffering is essentially empirical and
experimental, not speculative and metaphysical. The Dhamma is not founded on mere
views  or  theories,  which like many of the views given by different philosophers,
contradict one another. A philosopher’s contribution is gauged from an  intellectual
standpoint, and not necessarily whether it contains elements of goodwill  and
compassion. By contrast, the Buddha’s doctrine is not dry philosophy for people to talk
about  using  cold intellect. It is a methodical system for self-development, centred on
love, selflessness and compassion.

Buddhism is a philosophy to the extend that  it describes the principles  underlying the
actions  and  behavior  of men and explains the nature of life. It suggests ways how we
can lead  a meaningful religious life without falling back on traditional beliefs which are
based on the mythologies of primitive times. The Buddha wants us to lead a  rational,
2 noble way of life and use our human intelligence  for  the  benefit  of  all.  Hence,  the
Buddhist way of life is reasonable and practical for all times  and  in  any  society  and
country.  It  promotes  harmony and does not create hostility or disturb the followers of
other religions.  

Buddhism is the treasure store of wisdom  resulting from a most intensive search
conducted  by a prince imbued with infinite love and deep compassion for suffering
humanity. This search was  conducted  over many of his lives and over an
incomprehensible period of time. The good fruits of the  practice  of  Buddhism  can  be
experienced  within this life itself as well as hereafter, for such is the nature of the
Buddha Dhamma. Since Buddhism addresses itself to the most pervasive problems of
humanity  and  all living  beings,  namely, suffering, and it prescribes a method by which
suffering and greed can be overcome, Buddhism can even more appropriately be
regarded as a mental therapy.  

Is Buddhism a Way Of Life?

Buddhism  is  described  by  western  scholars as a way of life, since the belief in God
(which is tied to their concept of religion) is not pivotal in  the  Buddha’s  teaching.  But
describing  it  as  a  way of life is insufficient to convey the full scope of the message
disseminated by the Buddha.

Buddhism is a rational, liberal and noble method for those who sincerely want to
understand the reality of life. It is a righteous way of life for man to do good, be good and
lead  a  happy life without  depending  on  external powers. It is a gradual path of mental
evolution  which  culminates in  supreme  wisdom and perfection or liberation. No matter
what label is attached to the teachings, the Dhamma remains as the absolute truth which
can lead people to perfect peace and bliss.

From the Buddhist viewpoint, a religion is not something that has come  down  from
heaven  in  order  to  teach  man  to  fulfill  a divine purpose, but a way of life which has
developed on earth to satisfy the intellectual and spiritual  yearning  of  mankind.  In
practising Buddhism as a way of life, one should not depend on faith alone but use one’s
understanding and experience which have been accumulated through the use of human

Practising Buddhists do not worry about changing circumstances which are yet to come.
They maintain awareness of their mental state here and now. It is by being mindful of
our present mental state and thoughts as they  arise that  we really come ‘alive’ during
those moments. Otherwise, we are still dreaming of and living in the past or future. The
future will look after itself if the present is well-lived. The strong emphasis on awareness
and living in the present is also linked to reaping the results of our deeds here and now
in the very life. In Buddhism, we do not need to wait for our next life to experience good
results.  It  is,  therefore,  not some kind of an escapist asceticism, but a down-to-earth

Three Aspects To Understanding Buddhism

There are many aspects to consider in Buddhism, but a comprehensive treatment of the
subject  will  certainly  go  beyond  the  scope of this booklet. For our purpose, let us
consider only three aspects in the understanding and  realisation of Buddhism, namely,
the intellectual, spiritual, and practical aspects. 

3 The Intellectual Aspect

The use of our intellect is important in understanding  and  practising  the  Buddha’s
teaching. Through analysis, we can realise the truth at a deeper level, gain  a  proper
understanding of our life and the nature of worldly conditions, and by so doing, gain
more confidence and faith in the Dhamma.
Buddhism teaches that despite the importance placed on reason in understanding and
appreciating the Dhamma, our intellect alone does not lead to mental purification. One
cannot become perfect through mere intellect. No matter how well developed it may be.
The  factual  knowledge  of  the Dhamma by itself does not develop a person’s humane
qualities  if he does not train and purify his mind. Such knowledge should be
accompanied by spiritual development, made possible through the practice of Dhamma.

The Spiritual Aspect

Spiritual perfection, an accomplishment which is most difficult but important, can only be
gained through insight and realisation which bring about a complete transformation  of
one’s thoughts and actions. Through mental purification, one realises the absolute truth
and achieves purity of mind.
Selfish  desire will have no place in that bright, dynamic and pure mind which is
dedicated to  doing  what is  good,  without harbouring ulterior motives. A pure mind will
enable a person to lead a noble life and practise important  virtues  such  as  honesty,
selfless service, kindness, understanding, patience and tolerance.

The Practical Aspect

Buddhism  is not a pack of beliefs, some mumbo jumbo or a fabulous myth told to
entertain the anxious mind or a nice fairy tale to satisfy the yearnings of emotion. It is a
practical method for personal transformation and spiritual liberation taught by the Master.
It is based on his own search and realisation.
Buddhism places heavy emphasis on practice. A person who is  knowledgeable in the
various doctrines but does not practise them is like one who could recite recipes from a
huge cookery book without trying to prepare a single dish. His hunger cannot be relieved
by book knowledge alone.

A practical method to lead Buddhist way of life is to cultivate the three ennobling
qualities of  Dana-Sila-Bhavana.  When the practice of these three stages are well
advanced, a person becomes a religious man in the truest sense.
1.  Dana  is  charity or sacrificing something for the welfare of others in order to
reduce selfish desire or greed.

2.  Sila  is upholding morality through self-discipline by leading  a  harmless  and
respectable life and by training the mind or the five senses not to become slaves
to sensual pleasures. This kind of discipline trains one’s mind and allows oneself
an others to live peacefully.

3.  Bhavana is mental culture for the purpose of cultivating  the  mind  in  order  to
maintain peace and happiness.

4 In leading mankind to  a  religious  way  of life, the Buddha did not impose any religious
laws or commandments for people to obey, nor did he introduce a set of punishments for
those who violate religious principles. He did not condemn or curse anybody who did not
wish to follow his advice. In addition, he did not create fears in people's mind by
threatening  them  with  vivid  descriptions  of hell-fire. Instead, he advised people to
practise the Dhamma by realising the value of good conduct and to give up evil practices
after understanding the and effects of such conduct.

The way of spiritual transformation rests on the three pillars of Sila-Samadhi-Panna, that
is, morality, mental development and wisdom. Without developing these  qualities,  one
will have difficulties in leading a happy and peaceful life. This  booklet  will  describe  in
some detail later what constitute each of the pillars.

At this juncture, it is useful to be reminded that  Panna (wisdom or realisation) goes
beyond mere knowledge, which could be obtained by reading a book or hearing a talk.
Through the practice of morality  (Sila) and mental development  (Samadhi), one
develops a penetrative insight and realisation into the nature of every existing thing in its
proper  perspective.  This  wisdom is gained by harnessing the purified mental energy
pulsating in the cosmos through meditation. When realisation appears, the trained mind
becomes an unshakable dynamic force  that can handle any human problem without
anxiety, hatred or worry. That mind, suffused with wisdom and free  from  illusion  or
hallucination, is invaluable for understanding and overcoming worldly problems.
Doctrinal Content Of Buddhism
The best source of information on the Buddhist doctrine and the practice of  SilaSamadhi-Panna is the Tripitaka, which contains 45 years of the Buddha’s sermons and
ministry. The  Tripitaka is divided into the  Sutta, Vinaya  and  Abhidhamma. The  Sutta
Pitaka contains the conventional or simple teaching on how  to  lead  a  noble  life.  The
Vinaya Pitaka contains the disciplinary code for those who have renounced the worldly
life to lead a pure, monastic life, while moral psychology and in-depth analysis of the
mind and elements is contained in the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
The core of Buddhism is contained within the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path, which is also the fourth noble truth taught by the Buddha,  can  be
summarised  into the practice of  Sila-Samadhi-Panna  described earlier. In addition, to
gain a proper perspective in life, it is also important for us to discus  the  doctrines  of
kamma and rebirth in order to realise that we are the masters of our own destiny.
Message of All Buddhas
Before discussing the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path it will be useful for us to
state in very few words what the Buddha taught. Is it possible for us to summarise the 45
years of the Buddha’s ministry and the Truth contained in the Tripitaka.
The Buddha’s teaching may be summarised in the following words:

Not to do evil,
To do good,
To purify the mind.

 Simple  as  these  words  may seem, this advice contains the pith of the teaching of all
Buddhas. It may be simple enough for a child  to  understand,  but  may  take  many
lifetimes to perfect.

The Buddhas or the Enlightened Ones appear in this world from time to time to convey
the  same  message.  Buddhas do not have different or conflicting messages because
there is but one Truth, and the Buddhas have realised IT. Out of compassion, they teach
us to walk along this same path of Righteousness to realise the way to happiness, just
like  they did. By walking this Path, it is possible for us to realise our potential for
awakening and becoming Buddhas just like them.

This advice teaches us to be perfect in thought and conduct. To  begin with, there  are
five  moral  principles or precepts for Buddhists to observe in their daily life. The Five
precepts are: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and taking
intoxicating drugs and liquor. These do not encompass all evil deeds, but it is good to try
not to violate at least these five moral principles to start with.

The precepts are training rules voluntarily undertaken by the individual to help him lead a
harmless life, a life filled with compassion, generosity,  contentment,  truthfulness  and
mindfulness. Can a rational, far-sighted person point out  anything  wrong  with living in
accordance with these training rules? What would happen to a society if every one of its
members goes against these principles?

In his infinite wisdom, the Buddha knew that we cannot be perfect at once. Hence, he
starts  us  off  by encouraging us to restrain from committing these five harmful deeds.
Once we make progress in laying down a firm moral foundation, we  can  gradually
practise mental purification. Buddhism allows an individual to make progress on  the
basis of his level of realisation and does not dogmatically impose on him a rigid code of
conduct without regard to his potentials, level of development and attitudes.
These five precepts are useful for cultivating humane qualities and virtues such as
kindness, honesty and understanding. These are qualities  important  for  maintaining
peace and security. The motivation for upholding these precepts is not the  fear  of
punishment, but understanding and compassion. When the Buddha said, ‘Not to do evil’,
it was with the welfare of others in mind.

As  human  beings,  it is our duty to perform some service to others by practising
generosity, kindness and giving a helping hand to others who need our support to rid
themselves of grievances, worries and other problems. By rendering selfless service to
others, not only do we bring benefits to others, we reduce our selfishness as well. We
should not perform a good deed with ulterior motives, since our deeds will be marred by
impure intentions.
So  the  real Buddhist concept of ‘Not to do evil’ and ‘To do good’ is not based on
punishment and  reward, but on the need to reduce our selfish desire and cultivate our
mental  purity. We  do  not  use fear to force people into complying with these precepts.
Using fear instead of understanding will not give rise to  the  cultivation  of  sympathetic
feelings and can result in people becoming superstitious and dogmatic.
The avoidance of evil and the performance of good are highly commendable, but they
are not enough. From experience we know that as long as greed, anger and  illusion
which are deeply embedded in the mind are  not  removed,  we  are  still  capable  of
committing some bad deeds. Hence, there is a need for us to purify our mind. To do this,
we will have to constantly watch the mind and remove from it mental impurities. When
6 impure thoughts  and motivations  are extinguished, the mind is always good and pure,
and we will reach the final goal.

The Noble Truths

A clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths is fundamental  to  the  practice  of
Buddhism. These truths consist of the realisation of the nature of suffering, the cause of
suffering, the freedom from  suffering  and the method to bring an end to suffering and
achieve liberation. Without an understanding of these four important truths, we will not
realise the nature of human problems and will have to continue experiencing suffering.
We struggle to escape form unsatisfactoriness, but without the necessary insight we will
not find the way to remove the root cause of our problems. In fact through ignorance we
create more problems as a result of our misguided conception of the world.
In only one religion – Buddhism – are the Four Noble Truths explained with such clarity.
Through the understanding of these truths, we realise that suffering is nothing more than
unsatisfactoriness regarding our lives and feelings. The causes of unsatisfactoriness are
natural and are not created by any body or  any power. In every element and form  of
energy, friction, clashes, imbalances or changes take place continually, as confirmed by
science. All visible objects exist as a result of friction, which causes change, and change
is the characteristic of life. When this state of flux, which we experience physically and
mentally  at  every moment is compounded with human emotion and craving, we
experience unsatisfatoriness or suffering. 

From the Dhamma we realise that the cause of suffering is not the 'original sin’ or due to
a curse or influence of any god, devil or ghost, as believed by some religion, but by our
own craving for existence and sense pleasures. People experience suffering when they
give in to ignorance and try to satisfy their insatiable sense desires, which can only lead
to worries, fear, and disappointments. Therefore, when a person realises the Four Noble
Truths,  he takes steps to overcome his unhappiness by reducing his craving and
aversion, which are the roots of all evil actions.

The Noble Path

After realising the cause of suffering, we can eradicate it by following the method
prescribed by the Buddha. This method or path is called the Noble Eightfold Path, which
is to be practised by anyone who wishes to experience peace and happiness.
This noble path consists of the following  eight  factors:  Right  Understanding,  Right
Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort,  Right Mindfulness
and Right Concentration. A person strengthens his Sila or moral discipline by practising
Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Samadhi or mental culture is developed
through the application of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The
development of  Sila and  Samadhi will give rise to  Panna or wisdom which comprises
Right Understanding and Right Thought. The uniqueness  and  supremacy  in  the
Buddha’s teachings rest in this practical method. When practised, it is possible for  a
person to purify his mind and undergo spiritual development to become someone perfect
and noble.       

The Noble Eightfold Path is universal in character and brings good results when applied
not only to those who profess Buddhism, but to anyone who put it into practice. There is
no denying that when practising this method we will have from  time  to  time  to  face
difficulties, which can be overcome by applying right effort. But if we choose not to follow
7 this path, we are not free from difficulties either. We will have to face other  kinds  of
difficulties, the most serious of all is that the opportunities for doing good and meeting
good, spiritual friends becomes markedly reduced. It is so easy  for  one  to  go  from
spiritual light to darkness; it is so difficult to go from darkness to spiritual light.


The Noble Eightfold Path relieves one from suffering and brings happiness and peace in
this  present  and future lives. But this is not all. The practice of this path will ultimately
lead one to the attainment of the ultimate bliss  of Nibbana. Nibbana is not a mystical
concept, but a perfect expression of an absolute, which goes beyond any expression of
happiness a defined in a worldly sense.       

If we can understand the reality of ourselves, we can easily understand what the Buddha
taught. We may go round the world in search of the truth revealed by him, but we will not
find it until we search within ourselves using insight meditation as taught by the Buddha.
Through insight meditation, we can penetrate into  reality  and  gain  complete  freedom
from  birth,  decay,  worries,  miseries and unsatisfactoriness. We attain the peace,
happiness and tranquility known as Nibbana, the fruit obtained by someone  who  has
developed his mind to the apex of purity and perfection.

From the discussion on the Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path, it is clear that the
way  to  liberation  is  through the practice of the Dhamma and does not involve the
intervention or grace of god or brahma. Therefore, we must not be passive and fatalistic
by  hoping  that  someone  out  there  will  save us from the rounds of samsara. If we
cultivate ourselves to be wholesome beings, the result will come as a natural cause of
events. In addition, Buddhists do not believe that a person will have to face the rewards
of and punishments for his deeds because of his fate or through the judgment of some
divine being. Instead, it is the operation of the natural law of moral causation or kamma
that brings happiness or suffering to a person. 


The kammic law of cause and effect is important in helping us understand the cause of
inequalities among mankind. We are all conditioned by our wholesome or unwholesome
thoughts, words and actions. Whatever actions we perform intentionally are motivated by
wholesome or unwholesome thoughts. Based on these  motivations,  we  create
accordingly good or bad kamma. Good kamma bring  good  results  while  bad  kamma
bring  bad results. The results of our good and bad kamma can ripen either within this
lifetime or hereafter.

The  kammic law is  a  natural, universal law and is not created by any supreme being.
Through the operation of this law, all beings reap the fruits of their deeds which enable
some to be born rich, handsome and well-respected, while others  are  born  poor,  ugly
and of low birth. Buddhism does not accept the belief that a god or a devil is responsible
for the differences among beings. The Buddha says that  pleasant  and  unpleasant
feelings are not created by God as reward or punishment, but arise as a natural effect of
our own good and bad actions. Everyone has to experience the good and bad effects of
his or her actions, regardless of whether he or she believes in kamma or not.

Therefore, unlike what some people believe, man is certainly not an experiment started
by a supernatural being and who can be  done away with when unwanted. Buddhism
regards  man  as being capable of developing his understanding to free himself from
suffering if he is shown how his ignorance can be removed.

8 Rebirth

According to the Buddha, the present life is not the first nor will it be the last. The life
process continues so long as the craving for existence prevails in the  mind,  and  this
craving, in turn, accumulates good and bad kammic forcers. Therefore, as long as these
conditioning forces and the craving for existence remain, rebirth will continue to occur.  
Out existence does not begin with this human life nor does it end with an eternal life in
heaven  or  hell. Our lives have been evolving  over countless existence according to
quality  of  our  accumulated kamma. This process will continue until a person someday
realises the causes of his existence, and through realisation he works towards bringing
this process to a complete and irrevocable end. That attainment is the final goal called

Rebirth rather than reincarnation is taught in Buddhism. The difference is that in
reincarnation it is believed that a soul undergoes repeated births, while rebirth does not
subscribe to the idea of a soul. How rebirth is possible without a soul as taught in
Buddhism is a revolutionary religious idea. All other religions before or after the Buddha
strongly upheld the belief in a soul because without it, they could not explain what would
happen to life after death. The Buddha has very clearly explained how rebirth can take
place without such an entity. According to Buddhism, the belief in a soul is the result of
the  misconception  or  misunderstanding  of human consciousness, To understand the
Buddha’s interpretation of rebirth, one must study Buddhist psychology on the nature of
mental faculties and the nature of kammic forces and cosmic energies.

Man is reborn continually in Samsara until he realises the value of rising above all human
weaknesses by cultivating a noble mind. When he is ready to accept the responsibilities
of life and to develop a penetrative understanding into reality, he begins to move in an
upward spiral, A man can save himself through  his  own  effort,  guided  by Dhamma. In
this context, the Buddha is regarded as a saviour in so far as he has shown the path for
man to save himself.

In Buddhism the destiny of man is therefore, not placed at the mercy of a supernatural
being who acts at his whims to grant salvation, but is determined by the effort made by a
person  to  cultivate  wholesome thoughts, words and actions. When a person fully
understands  his  moral  responsibilities, he is suddenly raised from a piteous state of
helplessness to someone filled with inspiration, responsibility and self respect.
Practice Of Buddhism In Modern Society

After discussing  some important doctrines as taught by the Buddha, it will be useful to
examine how some of the teachings can be applied in modern society in general and in
the Malaysian context in particular.

Culture, Rites And Rituals

Although religious rites, rituals and ceremonies are not favoured by intellectuals, such
practices  are important for developing and maintaining the devotional aspects of a
religion  and  for  creating  a sense of inspiration among the masses. For many people,
cultivating devotion is the first important step towards the experience of religion. If there
is no devotional and cultural aspect in Buddhism, people who are attracted to rites and
 For a better understanding of this process, refer to 'Do You Believe In Rebirth' by the author.
ceremonies may be drawn to some other kinds of beliefs which offer these practices,
although they are steeped in superstition or blind faith. 

It is important for religions to have some harmless and reasonable practices for people
to express their devotion and spiritual feelings. Many of the Buddhist ceremonies help to
cultivate good habits and positive emotions in the followers so that they become kind,
considerate and cultured people. When performed with understanding and earnestness,
these practices strengthen one’s qualities and avoid an over intellectualisation of
Buddhism which could make it seem rather cold, detached and academic.

An  effective  way to introduce moral lessons is by using pictures, symbols and images
and giving entertaining talks by injecting amusing but instructive anecdotes. This method
appeals to many people, especially the young and it can help them understand certain
aspects of Buddhism. Certain stage performance depicting historical Buddhist events
can help to create a good impression in young minds.

The  Buddha’s advice regarding traditions and customs was neither to accept nor to
reject anything without considering whether such practices are meaningful and useful to
all. Less dependence is placed on these methods once a person has learned the
Dhamma to lead a meaningful Buddhist Life. The Buddha says that whatever methods
we do to train the mind, our attitude should be like a man who uses a raft to get across
the river. After crossing the river, he does not cling to the raft, but leaves it on the other
side to continue his journey, Similarly, cultural practices should be  regarded merely as
an aid to gain inspiration and not as an end in them selves.

Buddhists cultural practices vary from  country  to country. When performing these
traditional  practices,  we  must be careful enough not to categorise Buddhism as
belonging to one of them. For example, we should not think  of  Chinese  Buddhism,
Sinhalese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, etc. This creates disharmony and
misunderstanding. We should also be aware of some so-called Buddhist leaders who try
to reinforce their own Buddhist labels by incorporating  many  forms  of  charms,  divine
powers,  mystical  and  supernatural concepts to hoodwink the masses. Such
unscrupulous actions are done with a total disregard of what the Buddha has said about
such practices.

The Buddhist concept of Worship

Ignorant  critics always condemn the practice of paying homage in front of a Buddha
image  as  idol  worshiping.  To  them,  this practice is bad. But they do not realise the
significance  of  paying  respects  to a master who has taught mankind to lead a noble
religious life. They do not realise this is the way Buddhists appreciate the Enlightenment,
,perfections, wisdom, and sacredness of the Buddha and the noble services he rendered
to humanity. In failing to understand these reasons, they criticise Buddhists for keeping
Buddha images.

Is paying respect to a Buddha image indispensable in Buddhism? The image is  not
compulsory for a person to lead a Buddhist life, but paying  respects before a Buddha
image is meaningful and harmless form of devotional practice. It is difficult to understand
why others exploit this issue to condemn a gentle religion. Do Buddhists  violate  any
moral principles or violate the peace and happiness of others when they pay respects to
their Master who is symbolised by an image?

The Buddha did not advocate any rites and rituals but concentrated  only  on
disseminating the Dhamma and pointing out the righteous way of life. He did not even
ask  his  followers to worship him by erecting images. Long after the Buddha passed
away,  some  of  his followers erected his images but only as a mark of respect, The
image symbolises the perfections of the Buddha – his purity, compassion and wisdom –
noble qualities which are highly regarded by all cultured people. In any case, the Buddha
image is one of the most beautiful works of art man is capable of. Many unbiased non
Buddhists also keep Buddha images because they appreciate how an image of the
Buddha can create a deep sense of calmness in the mind. Gazing at the Buddha image
has therapeutic value.

Distorted Images

On the other hand, when we observe how some of the so called Buddhists practise this
religion,  it  is  difficult  to  argue that they are not idol worshippers because their entire
religious activities center around this form of reverence, as if this is the most important
aspect of Buddhism. Acting on ignorance, they have developed mythological beliefs and
erected various kinds of images with many  faces,  hands,  eyes  and  heads,
superstitiously thinking that they can achieve their worldly needs by appealing to such
images.  These  images only reflect the limited understanding and confused mental
attitude of those who introduce them.

The time  has  come for people to recognise the real Dhamma, to be less superstitious
about such images and to maintain the Buddha image as  the  focal  point  of  their
devotion. If people can do that, the good name of Budhism can  be  upheld.  We  can
practise Buddhism while maintaining our traditions, but we should refrain  from
introducing  our  own traditions as Buddhism. Because traditional Buddhists continue to
practise their old ethnic rites, people mistake or misinterpret these practises as Budhism.
Certain  unscrupulous missionaries take advantage of the situation to ridicule and
condemn Buddhism, as a ploy to indoctrinate people and convert them into their religion. 
Therefore, those who wish to perform such ceremonies as part of their cultural practices
should take  care  not to confuse them with Buddhism or to carry them out in Buddhist
temples. They must take care not to allow such practices to create wrong impressions
amongst the public and cause damage to Buddhism. 

Confidence and a Religious Life

Religious  devotion  can  be  misdirected if proper understanding is not developed.
Devotees should guard themselves against  being emotionally manipulated by various
individuals  and  groups  who  try to win converts or to gain some personal benefit. We
must develop confidence in the Dhamma which shows the way to cultivate ourselves  to
the highest level by practising all the good qualities and avoiding human weaknesses.
Buddhism teaches that a truly religious life is one based on moral discipline and mental
training and not through mere faith or praying to external powers. A religious man is one
who contributes to the peaceful co-existence among beings and  practised  goodwill,
compassion, harmony and understanding. The duty of a religion is to train the  human
mind to achieve this end and to guide humanity towards spiritual development, a noble
attainment sadly lacking among humankind today. 

The lack  of spiritual development brings about worldly minded and selfish people who
are  the  cause  of many human problems. Some of these people build a religious
philosophy  around their materialist orientations. By so doing, the religion they practice
loses its purity and has only turned into another convenient means for people to justify
their materialistic desires. Buddhism teaches that there is one method  for  worldly,
material gain and another for spiritual development. We should not regard material gain
as being synonymous with religious development. At the same time, leading a religious
lay life does not mean that one should neglect one's occupation and become careless
with one's wealth and property. We should not practise our religion in such a way that it
disrupts and destroys the  potential for material growth. Conversely, a religious person
should try to achieve material aims without in any way violating the peace and happiness
of others.

Tolerance in Buddhism

The spirit of tolerance in Buddhism is remarkable. It has contributed to the maintenance
of a peaceful, healthy religious atmosphere amongst different religious groups and
various Buddhist denominations without any bloodshed for the last 2,500 years. This is
indeed  a  commendable achievement in the history of religions. Buddhism is liberal in
that it guides us to lead normal lives undergoing suffering in the name  of  religion.  As
Buddhists we need not become  slaves either to sense pleasures or to any supernatural
power. But by cultivating human dignity, virtue and intelligence, we can gain true wisdom
which will conquer all ignorance.

Buddhism does not encourage people to depend on supernatural or miraculous powers
for spiritual development. The belief in miraculous powers and mystical  powers  in
themselves will never give  anyone  mental  purity. Purity in Buddhism is not based on
physical phenomenology, but psychological purity.
Some  missionaries  condemn  Buddhists by calling th
em names such as heathens,
pagans and idol worshippers, but Buddhists never condemn the followers of  other
religions in  retaliation. They never claim that the followers of other religions will not get
the  chance  to  experience heavenly bliss. In short, while practising their own religion,
Buddhists respect the right of other people to practise their own religions. They can
agree to disagree with other  religionists amicably, without creating conflict and hostility
or  giving  up  their  own  Buddhist  concepts. This religion does  not condemn other
religionists as sinners, but respects the teachings  of  all  other  religious  teachers  who
tried to uplift the moral standards of society.

Buddhism is not a 'lazy man's' religion which teaches that  salvation  can  be  gained
through prayers alone, nor a 'Yes man's'  religion  which  accommodates  all the  beliefs
and practices upheld by the so-called Buddhists as well as other religionists. Buddhism
has  its own identity. If the practices of others are not meaningful and justifiable.
Buddhists believe that it is their duty to gently point out the Buddhist point of view so that
people can reconsider their actions and beliefs. This should not be viewed as criticism. 

Concept of God and Sin

According to Buddhism, the belief in the forgiveness of sins by a supernatural being is
not justifiable. The effects of certain evil deeds that we have committed can  only  be
overcome  by increasing our meritorious deeds and maintaining healthy, pure minds.
This cannot be done by merely praying to anybody. 
This  is  a  religion  for people to practise on the basis of their own conviction and
understanding and not out of fear of eternal hell fire. This idea of being made to suffer
eternally in hell is foreign to Buddhism which teaches that both enjoyments and suffering
are temporary and not eternal. 

The belief in a creator God is the most important  concept  to  the  followers  of  every
religion. To them, there is no life or religion without God. However, Buddhism does not
acknowledge the same belief. The concept of God in Buddhism is entirely different from
that in the other religions. Buddhists work for their salvation by leading a noble, religious
life and through mental purification without depending on any God. Yet, they do accept
the existence of many gods. To Buddhists,  gods can help materially but they are not allpowerful and cannot help us to achieve mental purification and final salvation. We must
do that ourselves. 

Confusion in Modern Buddhism

So far, we have touched on the fundamental teachings  of  Buddhism,  its  purpose,
concepts, practices, the ultimate goal of life as well as  how  to  overcome  human
problems. We have also discussed the Buddhist attitude  towards  various  other
viewpoints why intellectuals respect this profound teaching, and how narrow  minded
people condemned this religion and exploit Buddhists tolerance. Let us now try to
examine some of the problems which exists among Buddhists themselves  so  that  we
can enhance our understanding and practice of this religion and be worthy disciples of
our great teacher.

At the beginning, different school in Buddhism sprang up in India due to different views
held regarding certain aspects of the Buddha's teaching. The followers did not do his for
their personal gain or power nor out of any ulterior motive. But today it seems that many
different sects of Buddhism are trying to introduce their own form of Buddhism with some
motives  of their own with the result that they depart from the original message of the

The Buddha's message which has been introduce as Buddhism is meant for all mankind
and not merely for one particular race or country. if people understand this, there will be
no need for them to talk about the different  brands  of  Buddhism  because  Buddhism
means Truth. The Truth is for all and no particular group can pretend to monopolise it.
Different Brands of Buddhism

Since Buddhism does not command people to do away with age-old cultural traditions in
order to practise this religion, people have taken advantage of this  by  adopting  many
kinds of practices not in conformity with the teaching of the Buddha. In various countries
which had accepted Buddhism, the followers have incorporate many of their traditional
practices  into Buddhism and eventually introduce the Buddha's teaching according to
their beliefs and understanding. This has resulted  in  Sri  Lankan  Buddhism,  Thai
Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Indian  Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Korean
Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Western Buddhism.  This is in
marked  contrast to the policy of other religions which demand that existing traditional
beliefs must be cast aside after conversion.

While the diversity of Buddhist practices has provided a richness of a  wide  variety  of
religious cultures, unfortunately the liberal Buddhist attitude towards traditional practices
has become a stumbling block in the effort to create Buddhist unity. It had also created
feelings of superiority among some groups of Buddhists which have led to discrimination
amongst the followers of Buddhism in their respective countries. Each group tries  to
glorify its own form of Buddhism as being superior to that of others. But these groups do
not  realise  that  in doing so, they are exposing their own egoism in the name of
Buddhism. They emphasise more on these cultural practices and introduce them as part
of Buddhism. They also try to create false confidence in the minds of  others  by
suggesting that the Buddha had revealed those practices secretly to  some  of  his
favourite  disciples. This assertion cannot be supported because the Buddha had
proclaimed that there were no secrets in his teaching and that he had revealed all the
important doctrines to all his disciples. In addition, many of those practices that people
believe to be the teachings of the Buddha are not found in the  original  Pali  Tripitaka.
Some realise that it is only through these practices that they can gain more popularity to
achieve their own ends.  

Buddhist Concoctions

Some Buddhist groups try to accommodate and practise all  kinds  of  beliefs  and
traditions  to  show that they are working for religious harmony amongst the different
schools of Buddhsim. Such an approach does not really bring harmony because there
soon appears yet another sect which claim to have chosen the eclectic approach. If they
were  to  practise Buddhism  that way, it is difficult to understand what they would
introduce as the basic teachings or the absolute truth of the Master. One must try  to
follow the guidelines given by the Buddha without mistaking cultural  traditions  for  the
Dhamma. Those who try to incorporate all  the  traditions,  beliefs  and  customs  as
practised or adopted in different countries are like those who take a mixture of different
kinds of medicines such as Western medicine, Indian medicine, Chinese medicine and
other native medicine, when they are sick. Instead of getting cured, such a mixture can
aggravate the sickness. That is why we must have a  particular  method  to  practise
Buddhism and it has to be one which can be supported by the original teaching of the

Buddhists at the Crossroads

In a country like Malaysia where  there  exist many Buddhist traditions, Buddhists face
difficulties in choosing a method for them to practise. In traditional Buddhist  countries,
there is a particular method of practising Buddhism according to their culture. But here,
some religious masters, preachers and gurus who come from other countries try  to
introduce Buddhism according to their own beliefs, traditions and customs and maintain
that their practices are more effective and purer than those of others. While appreciating
their services, we should like to mention that more misunderstanding and confusion are
created among local people who listen to many of these visiting religious masters. This
situation has become a big problem especially  among  the  youths or who try to
understand the basic teaching of the Buddha. Although there are many Buddhist schools
in Malaysia  with their traditional  beliefs  and cultural practices, the best advice that we
can give to beginners who have problems choosing which tradition to follow is to study
the  basic teaching  of the Buddha first-hand before they attempt to follow any religious
master from a particular school of Buddhism. 

The problems faced by the Buddhist Community  are  many. Many elders pay more
attention  to  their traditional practices and are ignorant about the Teaching. Some
Western oriented young people study the intellectual aspects of the  Dhamma,
sometimes at the neglect of the actual practice as well as the other invaluable aspects of
the religion. Many who are born Buddhists remain free thinkers and are not committed to
any  religious values. There are very few facilities available in this country where young
Buddhists can learn about their religion,  even in many Buddhist temples. Temples are
maintained only as places of worship or for tourism rather than places where people can
learn the Dhamma. Those who had their education in  missionary  schools  have  been
influenced  by  the  indoctrination of other religionists,  that they do not know how to
appreciate their own religion. Some carry out cultural practices under the guise of
14 'Buddhism' and this has contributed to making a mockery of this noble  religion  in  the
eyes of those who are not familiar with the true Buddhist culture, history and way of life.

Buddha in Different Names

Some Buddhists  try to introduce different Buddhas by using a variety of names. They
also single out one particular Buddha as their Buddha whom they claim to be the most
powerful and 'true' Buddha. Such claims reflect their poor mentality. They coin  various
names for the Buddhas according to their limited way of thinking and judge the validity of
a Buddha based on their selfish personal needs. The  Enlightened  Buddhas  who
appeared  on  this  earth  from  time  to time should not be discriminated in any way
whatsoever. All of them gained the same enlightenment, the same perfection  and
expounded the same doctrine. The appearances of such Buddhas in the world are very
rare, but these people with their lively imagination conjure different names of the Buddha
whom they introduce from time to time as real Buddhas. Such proliferation of claims and
beliefs has contributed to a great deal of confusion in the Buddhist community. Today,
there is even competition within the Buddhist community in commercialising the names
and images of the Buddhas.


Buddhist publications themselves create problems. Numerous books and booklets have
been published and distributed as Buddhist literature in many  parts  of  the  world.  But
unfortunately, it is hard to say whether many of these publications contain any  real
teachings of the Buddha. Sometimes they create  more  superstitious  beliefs  and
confusion. On the other hand, some writers try to show their scholarship by bringing forth
various speculative issues as an attempt to show the superiority of their particular school
and  their  own scholarship. Then there are the books written  by non-Buddhists who
deliberately or through ignorance distort the true teachings by misinterpreting what the
Buddha taught. If the readers are unbiased and well-informed, they can easily see
through these writings and realise that these are the works of unscrupulous intellectual
fools who create more confusion among the public and encourage discrimination within
the Buddhist community. On the other hand, if the readers have a shallow knowledge of
the basic teachings of the Buddha, they may lose confidence in Buddhism  after reading
such publications. The problem is some writers have commercialised their publications
for their personal gain and have never considered the damage that they create  by
misleading people in the name of Buddhism. 

Under  such  trying conditions where diverse interpretations of Buddhism prevail, we
should return to the true Dhamma taught by the Buddha. To distinguish true Dhamma
from other teachings, there is no better way than  to use the criteria given by the Buddha
himself. Speaking of the test of Dhammma to Maha Pajapati, the Blessed One said - 
These are not Dhamma :

The teachings and doctrines that conduce to passion, not to dispassion;
to bondage, not to detachment; to increase of worldly possessions, not to
decrease; to greed, not to abstinence; to  discontent,  not  to  content;  to
company, not to solitude; to slothfulness, not to energy; to delight in evils,
not  to  delight  in  good  - of such teachings and doctrines you may say
firmly: 'These are not Dhamma, This is not the message of the Master.'
But these are Dhamma:

'Of whatever teachings and doctrines you can assume yourself that they are the opposite of these things, you may  then  say  firmly:  'These  are
Dhamma. This is the message of the Master'.

Buddhism  originated in India  and many Buddhist practices were nurtured according to
Indian traditions and environment. Despite its place  of  origin, the Dhamma  or Sublime
Teaching that the Buddha expounded is timeless and universal, and is not confined to
the Indian sub-continent but is meant for all mankind. He has given  all the  necessary
advice to guide mankind to lead a noble way of life and experience spiritual solace and
fulfillment . In his teaching, the Buddha discusses all the existing human problems and
the ways to overcome them so that true peace and happiness can be maintained.
There is an urgent need today for Buddhist leaders, writers and devotees to understand
that the essence of the Buddha's Teaching is unalterable and constant. We must learn to
forget  our  differences and develop the important fundamental aspects of Buddhist
practices which are common to all schools of Buddhism. Buddhism must transcend all
national, racial and cultural barriers.

We  must  study  the  Teaching in its original form and mould our lives accordingly. It is
through the practice of Dhamma that the real Buddha can be known. The Buddha has
said, 'He who sees the Dhamma sees me'. The Dhamma is not a set of teachings for us
to accept and believe in,  but to try out and see for ourselves. Our Enlightened Master
himself said: 'Ehipassiko',  that is . 'Come and See!' If we accept the Dhamma as our
refuge and guide, we will need no other authority.
"In the unessential they imagine the essential, in the essential they see the unessential, -
they who entertain (such) wrong thoughts never realise the essence.'
Dhammapada -