Practical Buddhism FAQ

Practical Buddhism Authors Details: John Bullitt FAQ’s Buddhist Channel 2005

Here are some questions answered to make for sensible and practical Buddhism. (See also Buddhism Category for more information)

1. I want to become a Buddhist. How do I do that?
2. What were the Buddha’s views on homosexuality?
3. What were the Buddha’s views on abortion?
4. How should I teach practical Buddhism to my children?
5. Are Buddhists vegetarian?
6. Are there any enlightened people in the world nowadays? How can I tell who’s really enlightened?

practical Buddhism

1. I want to become a Buddhist. How do I do that?

It begins with one deceptively simple act: making the inner commitment to “take refuge” in the Triple Gem, to accept the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha as your source of spiritual guidance. This act is what makes one nominally “Buddhist”. But going for refuge also implies a willingness — if only provisional, at first — to accept the cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings: the law of karma. According to this universal principle, if you act unskillfully and make poor ethical choices, you are bound to suffer the consequences; if you choose wisely and act in line with the noblest ideals, you stand to benefit accordingly. In other words, your happiness ultimately depends on the quality of your choices and actions; you alone are responsible for your happiness. Your first act after seeking refuge should therefore be to resolve to observe the five precepts — the five basic principles of living that can help prevent you from making grossly unskillful choices. This is where the practice of Buddhism begins.

The beauty of practical Buddhism is that you don’t need a formal public ceremony or “initiation” to make any of this official. You don’t have to dress differently or wear a badge that says, “I am now a Buddhist.” The practice of the Dhamma is a private matter and no one needs to know about it but you. Many Buddhists do, however, find it invaluable to renew their commitment to the Triple Gem and to the precepts from time to time in a more formal way, enlisting the help of a good friend, a respected meditation teacher, or a member of the monastic community (Sangha) as a witness. Administering the refuges and precepts to laypeople is a duty that Buddhist monks are glad to perform.

Many people find it difficult to sustain their commitment to the Dhamma on their own, without the support of like-minded friends and companions. (It can be hard to stick to the precepts if you’re surrounded by people who see no harm in telling lies, or in having a secret romantic affair now and then, or in going out drinking all night.) You may have to do a little patient detective work to find this kind of support. Perhaps someone in your neighborhood hosts a weekly meditation group (“sitting group”) or sutta study group in his or her home. If not, why not start one of your own? Or perhaps there is a meditation center nearby that offers workshops and retreats. And if there is a Buddhist monastery or temple in your vicinity, why not pay the Sangha a visit?

Having taken these first steps, you can proceed along the path of practical Buddhism in your own way and at your own pace. Although you can learn a great deal about Dhamma on your own, your understanding will grow by leaps and bounds once you find a good teacher — someone whom you trust and respect, who keeps to the precepts, and who understands the Dhamma and can communicate it clearly. Other aids to progress in understanding the Dhamma are these: deepening your understanding of the precepts; studying the suttas; getting to know monks or nuns (Sangha) and become acquainted with their traditions; developing a keen, discerning eye that can recognize which of today’s popular spiritual teachings actually ring true to what the Buddha taught; and learning meditation. How you proceed is entirely up to you, but the bottom line is this: learn what the Buddha taught and put it into practice in your life as best you can.

If you ever decide that practical Buddhism is not for you, you are free to walk away at any time and find your own way. There is no ceremony for renouncing the Buddha’s teachings. Just remember: your happiness is in your own hands.

2. What were the Buddha’s views on homosexuality?

From what I’ve read in the suttas, the Buddha gave no indication that one’s sexual orientation has any bearing on one’s spiritual practice. The five precepts, which form the most basic foundation of a moral life in practical Buddhism, encourage the abstention from “sexual misconduct”, a term that generally refers to sexual activity between two people outside of a long-term committed relationship. It has nothing to do with “orientation”.

The Buddha did, however, have strong words to say about sexuality/sensuality in general, since it is one of the most powerful expressions of human craving and attachment. And craving — the second Noble Truth — is a root cause of human suffering. The Buddha was very clear: if you’re genuinely concerned about your long-term happiness, then it’s worth reassessing the value of engaging in activities — be they heterosexual, homosexual, or non-sexual — that feed

your cravings:
Even if it’s with pain,
you should abandon
sensual desires
if you aspire
to future safety from bondage. Alert,
with a mind well-released,
touch release now here, now there.
An attainer-of-wisdom,
having fulfilled the holy life,
is said to have gone
to the end of the world, gone

It is worth noting that the Buddha explicitly discouraged his followers — men and women, alike — from dwelling on their sexual identity. Although in this particular sutta he was describing heterosexuals, the message clearly applies to everyone.

3.What were the Buddha’s views on abortion?

Practicing Buddhists observe the five precepts as a foundation for the moral life that spiritual progress requires. The first of these precepts is to “refrain from destroying living creatures”. Since Theravada Buddhism regards human life as beginning at the moment of conception,[1] killing a fetus implies killing a human being, making abortion patently incompatible with the first precept.

One indication of the seriousness with which the Buddha regarded abortion is found in the Vinaya, the collection of texts that define the conduct and duties of Buddhist monastics. According to the Vinaya, if a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni should facilitate an abortion — or even recommend that someone get one — he or she breaks one of the four cardinal rules of monastic conduct, and is immediately expelled from the Sangha.[2]

1. According to the Pali texts, conception occurs when three things are simultaneously present: the mother (i.e., a fertile egg), the father (a sperm cell), and the gandhabba (the kammic energy of the being that is seeking rebirth). If all three successfully coincide, human consciousness arises in the fertilized ovum and rebirth occurs. For a description of this process, see the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38). See Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of this sutta (along with helpful footnotes) in “The Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha” (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).

2. This rule (Parajika #3), which applies equally to bhikkhunis as well as bhikkhus, states: Should any bhikkhu [or bhikkhuni] intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (thus): “My good man, what use is this wretched, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life,” or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he [she] also is defeated and no longer in communion.

The word-commentary to this rule makes clear that abortion counts as “intentionally depriving a human being of life”.

4. How should I teach practical Buddhism to my children?

The Buddha’s advice to parents is straightforward: help your children become generous, virtuous, responsible, skilled, and self-sufficient adults. Teaching Buddhism to one’s children does not mean giving them long lectures about dependent co-arising, or forcing them to memorize the Buddha’s lists of the eightfold this, the ten such-and-suches, the seventeen so-and-sos. It simply means giving them the basic skills they’ll need in order to find true happiness. The rest will take care of itself.

The single most important lesson parents can convey to their children is that every action has consequences. Each moment presents us with an opportunity, and it is up to us to choose how we want to think, speak, or act. It is these choices that eventually determine our happiness. This is the essence of karma, the basic law of cause and effect that underlies the Dhamma. It also happens to be the message behind one of the few recorded teachings the Buddha gave to his only child, Rahula.[1] This sutta — the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta — offers parents some important clues about teaching Dhamma to young children — in terms of both the content of what to teach and the method to use.

In this sutta the Buddha reprimands the seven year old Rahula for telling a small lie. The content of the Buddha’s lesson here is clear and simple: it concerns right speech, and helping Rahula keep himself true to the fundamental principles of virtue. There are several noteworthy aspects to the Buddha’s method. First, by artfully drawing comparisons to an everyday utensil (in this case, a water dipper), the Buddha makes his point in vivid and age-appropriate language that Rahula can easily understand. Second, the Buddha doesn’t launch into a long-winded abstract lecture on the nature of karma, but instead keeps the lesson focused on the immediate issue at hand: choosing your actions carefully. Third, although the five precepts do indeed constitute the fundamental framework for moral conduct, the Buddha does not mention them here — presumably because some of the precepts (concerning sexuality and using intoxicants) are simply not relevant to most seven year olds. (Perhaps the Buddha had more to say about the precepts by the time Rahula was a teenager.) Fourth, the Buddha keeps Rahula engaged during the lesson by asking him simple questions; this is no dry, soporific lecture. And finally, the Buddha takes advantage of the opportunity presented by this “teaching moment” to expand into deeper territory, to explain to Rahula the importance of reflecting inwardly before, during, and after performing an action of any sort — whether of body, speech, or mind. The Buddha thus places Rahula’s original small misdeed into a much broader context, transforming it into a lesson of deep and lasting significance.

Although most of us who are parents can only dream of teaching our children as consciously and effectively as the Buddha did, we can still learn from his example. But before we can translate his example into action, there is one crucial point to recognize: the Buddha’s instructions to his son were given by someone who really knew what he was talking about; Rahula’s teacher was someone who truly practiced what he preached, a role model par excellence. So the message is clear: if we hope to instruct our children about matters concerning the path of Dhamma, we had better be sure that we ourselves are practicing on that path. If you extol the virtues of skillful qualities such as generosity, truthfulness, and patience, but your children only see you being stingy, overhear you telling lies, or see you losing your temper, then your message will be lost. Of course, you need not have perfected the Dhamma in order to instruct your children, but for your instruction to carry any weight your children must be able to witness firsthand that you are earnestly striving to put these same teachings into practice yourself. And if you can inspire them by your example and give them the skills they need to know to live in tune with the Dhamma, then you’ve given them a rare gift indeed:

The wise hope for a child
of heightened or similar birth,
not for one
of lowered birth,
a disgrace to the family.
These children in the world,
lay followers,
consummate in virtue, conviction;
generous, free from stinginess,
shine forth in any gathering
like the moon
when freed from a cloud.


1. Seven years after leaving his home and family to begin his spiritual quest, Siddhattha Gotama — now the Buddha — returned on the first of several visits to his family to teach them Dhamma. The only suttas that record the Buddha’s instructions to his son Rahula are these: MN 61 (Rahula is 7 years old), in which the Buddha explains the importance of self-reflection before, during, and after performing any action; MN 62 (age 18), in which the Buddha teaches him breath meditation; MN 147 (age 20, just after his ordination as a bhikkhu), in which the Buddha queries him about impermanence, and Rahula thereby becomes an arahant (this sutta is identical to SN XXXV.121); SN XXII.91 (= SN XVIII.21) and SN XXII.92 (= SN XVIII.22), in which the Buddha answers his questions about uprooting I-making and conceit; and Sn II.11, in which the Buddha praises to him the virtues of the homeless life.

2. The Jataka, or “Birth Stories”, is a book in the Khuddaka Nikaya that recounts tales of the Buddha’s former lives prior to his final rebirth as Siddhattha Gotama. In previous lives he was born a human, or a bird, or a monkey, etc., and each life he devoted to strengthening a wholesome quality. So one Jataka story might be about developing patience, another about developing generosity, and so on.

5. Are Buddhists vegetarian?

In practical Buddhism some are, some aren’t. I know of no evidence in the Pali Canon to suggest that the Buddha discouraged his lay followers from eating meat. Although some people may point to the first of the five precepts as evidence that the Buddha asked his followers to be vegetarian, this precept only concerns the intentional act of depriving a living being of life, and says nothing about consuming the flesh of an animal that is already dead. Many Buddhists (and, of course, non-Buddhists) do eventually lose their appetite for meat out of compassion for other living creatures, but from the strict Theravada Buddhist perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is purely a matter of personal preference.

Theravada monks are forbidden to eat certain kinds of meat,[1] but because their food is provided by the generosity of lay supporters, who may or may not themselves be vegetarian,[2] they are not required to practice strict vegetarianism. Nor are Theravada monks required to eat everything that is placed in their alms-bowl; a monk intent on pursuing vegetarianism may therefore simply ignore the meat in his bowl. In parts of Asia where vegetarianism is unheard of, however, vegetarian monks face a clear choice: eat meat or starve.

Taking part in killing for food (hunting, fishing, trapping, butchering, etc.) is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided.

But what if I eat — or just purchase — meat: aren’t I simply encouraging someone else to do the killing for me? How can letting someone else do the “dirty work” possibly be consistent with the Buddhist principle of non-harming, that cornerstone of Right Resolve? This is tricky. Although the suttas are silent on this question, I personally believe it would be wrong to order someone, “Please kill that chicken for me,” since it incites that person to break the first precept.[3] Surely this is unskillful karma. (Consider this whenever you’re tempted to order, say, a fresh-killed lobster at a restaurant; by placing your order you are, in fact, ordering its death.) But purchasing a piece of dead animal meat is another matter. Although my purchase may indeed help keep the butcher or restaurateur in business, I am not asking him to kill on my behalf. Whether he kills another cow tomorrow is his choice, not mine. This is a difficult but important point, one that reveals the fundamental distinction between personal choices (choices aimed at altering my own behavior) and political ones (those aimed at altering others’ behavior). Each of us must discover for ourselves where lies the boundary between the two. It is crucial to remember that the Buddha’s teachings are, first and foremost, tools to help us learn to make good personal choices (karma); they are not prescriptions for political action.

We could not survive long in this world without bringing harm of one sort or another to other creatures. No matter how carefully we trod, countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet with every step. Where, then, do we even begin to draw the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” harm? The Buddha’s answer was very clear and very practical: the five precepts. He didn’t ask his followers to become vegetarian; he simply asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, this is challenge enough. This is where we begin.


1. Theravada monks are forbidden to eat the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, and panthers. A monk is also forbidden to eat raw fish or meat, or any fish or meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him (see the description of “staple foods” in The Buddhist Monastic Code). A monk who eats any of those kinds of meat commits an offense that he must then confess to his fellow monks. These rules do not imply that a monk must not eat meat — only that a monk must be careful as to which kinds of meat he does eat.
2. Monastics within some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do practice vegetarianism.
3. This is in keeping with the monks’ rule about not eating meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him.

6. Are there any enlightened people in the world nowadays? How can I tell who’s really enlightened?

I wouldn’t be a Buddhist if I didn’t think enlightenment were possible. The Buddha himself observed that as long there are people practicing correctly in line with the noble eightfold path, there will continue to be enlightened beings in the world. Even better evidence of the reality of enlightenment lies in the “gradual” nature of the Buddha’s teachings. In the suttas, the Buddha speaks again and again of the many rewards awaiting those who follow the Path, long before they reach nibbana: the happiness that comes from developing generosity; the happiness that comes from living according to principles of virtue; the happiness that comes from developing loving-kindness (metta); the happiness that comes from practicing meditation and discovering the exquisite bliss of a quiet mind; the happiness that comes from abandoning painful states of mind; and so on. These can be tasted for yourself, to varying degrees, through Dhamma practice. Once you’ve personally verified a few of the Buddha’s teachings, it becomes ever-easier to accept the possibility that the rest of his teachings are plausible — including his extraordinary claim that enlightenment is accessible to us.

It’s probably best not to spend too much time speculating on someone else’s degree of enlightenment, simply because our own delusion and defilements are bound to cloud our vision. Your time is far better spent looking inwards and asking yourself, “Am I enlightened? Have I made an end of suffering and stress?” If the answer is negative, then you have more work to do. Some lines of questioning are, however, well worth pursuing in regard to someone else’s purity — especially when deciding whether or not to accept that person as your Dhamma teacher: “Does this person seem to be truly happy? Does he or she live by the precepts? Is the interpretation of Dhamma that he or she teaches a valid one? Can I learn something of real value from him or her?” It can take a long and close association with someone before you can begin to answer these questions with any confidence. But if you do find someone possessing this rare constellation of good qualities, stay with that person: he or she probably has something of lasting value to teach you.

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