Frequently Asked Questions about Buddhism

For reasons I haven't completely understood, people who come to this site on Buddhism ask me questions with some regularity. I usually try to answer these questions by e-mail individually, but I have noticed a pattern that reflects either the emphasis on Buddhism at Undergraduate University Courses (and students spray the internet with their homework assignment questions and hope for an answer that they can plagiarize as their own) or else that there is a genuine interest in these topics.

Anyway, I thought I would collect these thoughts together in one place so that (a) students who chose to use whatever opinions I offer in their courses can then identify the source of those opinions instead of passing them off as their own and (b) to minimize the amount of typing I have to do.

Table of Contents

What does Buddhism say about Abortion?

Buddhism doesn't say anything in particular about abortion. There are Buddhists who no doubt stand on the "Pro Choice" side of the fence and others who take the "Pro Life" stance.

The important questions to keep in mind are: who is suffering and what can be done to reduce suffering. The intention here is important. There are some circumstances, no doubt, where an abortion, especially at the very early stages of pregnancy, may be the wise thing to do. If the child's life would be fraught with suffering, for some reason; or if the parents would suffer greatly as a consequence of having a child.

My personal view is this: bringing a human life into being is a large responsibility and needs to be done with consideration and intent. If a woman becomes pregnant and does not want the child, there is, it seems to me, a period of time before which she can chose to terminate the pregnancy without harming any sentient being (other than herself). A human embryo, at the early stages of development is hardly much more than a group of quickly differentiating cells in the woman's body.

However, there is a certain stage, between 8 and 12 weeks when the embryo becomes a fetus and beyond which the harm done to both the fetus and the mother as a consequence of abortion is very great indeed and should be avoided for all but medical (i.e. life threatening) reasons.

What is the Buddhist stance on Environmental issues

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the inter-dependence of all things (the doctrine of interdependent origination). Therefore, Buddhism is at heart an ecological religion. Our very lives, the air we breathe, the water we drink the food we eat are all dependent on the environment and to harm the environment is to harm ourselves.

One of the principle Buddhist precepts is the reverence for life and the intent to prevent all suffering. This precept entails a regard for our environment: plants, animals and minerals. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. If we take care of the environment, we take care of ourselves.

How do people become Buddhist, what is the process?

There is no "process". But you need to adhere to the 5 precepts and "take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha" (the "triple gem" as it is called). These are typically things you do with the assistance of a Buddhist monk or nun in a monastery or in a monastic setting but mostly this is an undertaking or a commitment you make with yourself to take a certain outlook on life. You are not called upon to account to anyone but yourself for this undertaking except if you become monastic or live in a monastery.

If people's souls are reborn into another womb when they die, then what happens to the body at death if there are not enough births at the time of their death? What if there's more births than deaths (as there actually is)? How do these extra births get souls?

Personally, I don't believe in reincarnation so I don't worry about the logical inconsistencies that there might be in this doctrine.

However, if you want to get into details, you should remember that incarnation and re-incarnation don't necessarily happen from one human life to another but can happen from any animal life to another and from animal life to a human life. So to do your arithmetic precisely you would have to count every living being.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the movie "Little Buddha" it is possible for a being to be reincarnated into different bodies simultaneously, so I'm afraid that there is no law of conservation of souls or anything like that.

Finally, reincarnation is not a Buddhist idea but a Hindu one, which the Buddhists reinvented in the context of the other teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism is converting many people all over the world. Why are so many western people converting?

I'm not sure I have a good answer to this question. But here's my guess.

There is a lot of wisdom in Buddhism and not a lot of theology. Buddhism doesn't require any belief in God or angels or anything you can't observe for yourself. In the words of a monk I know "it's a do-it-yourself religion". <> There's a very good book by Stephen Batchelor called "A History of Western Buddhism" which may be of use here.

I'm looking for information on Judaism and Buddhism

There are two books I know about: "A Jew in the Lotus" by a man whose name escapes me and and "Funny you don't look Buddhist" by Sylvia Boorstein.

I don't understand 'No Self' in Buddhism?

When a thought arises it arises in this mind-body system and it has a cause (might be stimulated by a sight or a sound or something). Now this thought is observable. The question is what is doing the observing?, A "me" that I can call self?

I think the Buddhist answer is "no". The knowing of the experience or the thought or what have you is not personal; it doesn't have an identity. It is a faculty: the faculty of awareness.

It's like sight. You are able to see the video screen you are looking at in just the same way as anyone who has the ability of sight is able to see it. This ability may get clouded with age (cataracts, lens deformation, accidents etc.) but it isn't imbued with anything like an identity--"my sight". Your ability to see and my ability to see are in essence the same and indistinguishable (not *indexed* to any particular experience).

Similarly, awareness is not indexed to any particular thought or experience--in that sense it is impersonal.

This character of awareness is very hard to understand, sometimes, because much of the time, what we are aware of is labeled by thought "I hear... 'a train'"..."I see 'a computer'". Thoughts of "I" and "a train" and "a computer" keep populating this field of awareness with such frequency and regularity that we end up believing in the permanence and solidity of these indexes and labels.

But the reality is quite otherwise. Try awareness of hearing unfamiliar sounds, for example. If you go camping in some strange place somewhere in the wilderness, whose sounds are unfamiliar, you may be able to listen to the sounds -- as SOUNDS -- without the thoughts of "this is a so-and-so sound...." On the other hand, you might not be able to do this well at all. You might start worrying "this is a bear coming to get me" or you might start experiencing fear about the unknown (in that case the thought of "me", "my life", "my health" will take centre stage). On the other hand, if you are able to focus single-pointedly (and this is one of the virtues of meditation--that it trains the mind to do this one-pointed concentration) on the texture of the sound, on it's beginning and ending, on its pitch, on how it changes over time etc.) then all you will have is "awareness" and its object "the sound".

In reality that's all there is: awareness now of this experience (feeling, thought, sensation etc.) now. Some of these thought- experiences are highly dominant "I worry" "I need to do this" "my house might be burning down" etc. have "self" as centre stage. This *is* a reality--the mind constructs the self as a real, enduring thing. But in fact these are Images. Images of self ("I am the great computer scientist" or "I am the unworthy husband" or "I am the Buddhist meditation teacher" or whatever) which are easily destroyed into (for example) their opposites ("I'll never be a great computer scientist" or "I am super-husband" or "I'm not a Buddhist"). This just goes to prove how illusory these thoughts are. They don't really correspond to anything at all, let alone something fixed and unchanging as they parade themselves as. (Angry feelings are that way too: when you're angry with someone it's very hard to remember that you are not always going to feel that way towards that person, that indeed you have felt and will again feel tenderness and love for that person--what you think and feel at that moment when you're angry is: "this may not have always been like that, but by golly, it's going to stay like that now,... I'm not going to forgive so and so for this.... they're going to get it as soon as I get my hands on them...." as thought this were the most important and most real thing in the world).

Once you taste some no-thought awareness, 'bare' awareness, you see the impermanence of experience-phenomena and the impermanent nature of "I"-thoughts. It becomes very clear.

"talk.religion.buddhism" FAQ

Do Buddhists believe in God?

Buddhism has been characterized as 'atheist' by the Pope and others --
but 'non-eternalist' is a more accurate term.  Deities are mentioned
many times in the scriptures.  People often interpret such references
metaphorically (especially in the West); but even if they are taken
literally, there is no conflict with the Teaching.

However, the idea of an eternal Creator God is contrary to the
Buddhist doctrines of anicca and anatta, and is flatly contradicted in
scripture (see, for example, the second section of the Brahmajala
Sutta, pp.75-83 of Walshe's translation of the Digha Nikaya).

Theists, agnostics and atheists are all welcome within Buddhism (and
in this group); Buddhists make up their own minds about the existence
or nonexistence of deities, if they get around to it.  Some people
find this question uninteresting, feeling that neither a 'yes' nor a
'no' answer contributes meaningfully to the elimination of suffering.
See also next item.

Do Buddhists believe in a soul?

Some would say that questions like 3.04 and 3.05 are in the same
general category as "Does Nonexistence Exist?"  Such questions are
unanswerable.  But even if one does not take this stand, the semantics
of the questions are very difficult.

In both cases, someone who answers with a categorical "yes" needs to
reconcile the answer with the characteristics of conditioned
phenomena: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and the
nonexistence of a substantial Self (anatta).  Those who answer with a
categorical "no" face a different set of problems, e.g. making sure
that what they are negating is the same as what is being affirmed by
the people to whom they are speaking. Suffice it to say that there are
ways to give a coherent sense to either answer, if one is so inclined.

Is there "something" that is experienced as a self having continuity
in time -- a self with will, and joy, and pain?  Of course there is,
there would be no need for the Buddha's teaching otherwise.  But is
there a permanent and substantial self?  Buddhist doctrine says no.

It is not possible to deal with this question adequately in a FAQ.
Those who are interested can try starting with _The Questions of
Milinda_, a classic Buddhist text in which the matter is considered in
some detail (see for instance 'The Distinguishing Marks' beginning at
page 34 of I.B. Horner's translation).

If there is no self, who am I talking to?

The word 'self' has a multitude of meanings in English.  Not all of
those meanings are relevant to the notion of self (//attaa//) that is
negated in the doctrine of anatta.

Sometimes 'self' is used in English to suggest a permanent identity
(or soul) of a type that would be foreign to Buddhist thought.  At
other times, 'self' is used only to denote a "conventional person" (as
in "make yourself at home"); this usage presents no problems.

Here is what the _Encyclopedia of Buddhism_ has to say on the subject
(from G.P. Malalasekera's article on anatta):

        Buddhism has no objection to the use of the words
        //attaa//, or //satta//, or //puggala//, to indicate
        the individual as a whole, or to distinguish, one
        person from another, where such distinction is
        necessary, especially as regards such things as 
        memory and kamma which are private and personal and
        where it is necessary to recognize the existence of
        separate lines of continuity (//santaana//).  But, 
        even so, these terms should be treated only as labels, 
        binding-conceptions and conventions in language, 
        assisting economy in thought and world and nothing 
        more.  Even the Buddha uses them sometimes.

Do Buddhists believe in reincarnation?

People who ask this question usually mean transmigration of souls.
People who answer it sometimes mean rebirth.  This can lead to

Buddhism does not teach transmigration of souls, nor does it teach
against it (see 3.05).  As long as the 'soul' is regarded as just a
bundle of transient phenomena, subject to arising and passing away,
transmigration is not objectionable.  Of course, that gives both
'soul' and 'reincarnation' meanings quite different from the ones
usually intended by people of other faiths, which can lead to
miscommunication; thus it is probably best to avoid this usage.

If 'soul' is taken in its usual popular sense -- an eternal unchanging
something, or a spark of an eternal unchanging perfect Someone -- then
the scriptures and commentaries are unanimous in denying its

        For there is suffering, but none who suffers;
        Doing exists although there is no doer;
        Extinction is but no extinguished person;
        Although there is a path, there is no goer.
                -- Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga XIV 90 (tr. Nanamoli)

Usually, someone who uses the word 'reincarnation' means the
"re-instantiation" of a substantial and permanent personal essence of
some kind -- an atman, or a soul in the sense of some Western
religions.  The existence of such a thing is rejected in the suttas
(except as a convention), and is categorically denied in the
Abhidhamma.  Discussion of the transmigration of something that
doesn't exist is pointless.

Buddhism *does* teach liberation from rebirth.  Rebirth in this
context means bondage to the causes of suffering, not renewed physical
embodiment of a permanent spiritual substance in the form of an animal
or human.

If there is no self, what is reborn?

One traditional view is that karma and its results "belong" to a
particular life continuum, not to the "person" identified with that
life continuum in our minds at any particular time.  The standard
comparison is to a candle: if the flame from one candle is transferred
to another, the second flame is "neither the same nor different"; it
may have different fuel, but it is still causally connected to the
first flame.

What does Buddhism say about sex?

Monks, nuns and other ordained persons may (or may not) be expected to
observe strict celibacy, depending on the sect they belong to.

The laity of most traditions are expected to observe the Precepts,
which call for *nonharmful* sexual behavior.  At a minimum, this means
refraining from sexual behavior that is a cause of non- mindfulness
and suffering, our own or anyone else's.  In some Buddhist countries
it may mean other things as well, reflecting the prevailing values of
the cultures involved.  Such cultural overlays vary from country to

If your interest is primarily cultural, you may be able to find a
knowledgeable person in a pertinent soc.culture.* group.  Please do
not crosspost soc.culture.* messages to t.r.b.  If you receive
information from soc.culture.* that you feel would be of general
interest to readers of this newsgroup, please post a separate summary
to t.r.b. instead.

What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?

Homosexual behavior is off-limits to ordained persons in traditions
that follow traditional monastic rules (Vinaya).  However, *all*
sexual behavior is off-limits in this case; homosexuality is merely
one of the forms of proscribed behavior that is explicitly mentioned.

Where lay people are concerned, Buddhism says nothing about
homosexuality.  Individual Buddhists or Buddhist cultures may have
views on the subject, but such views are not germane to this FAQ.  A
good historical overview can be found in _Buddhism, Sexuality and
Gender_ (Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ed.); see booklist in Part 3.

As a general rule, Buddhists of most major traditions do not regard
sexual orientation as being terribly relevant to practice as long as
one's sexual behavior is in line with the precepts (see 3.07).

What does Buddhism say about morality in general?

In Buddhism, unwholesome behavior is not a sign of defection to the
camp of a sinister being.  Nor is it a "sin" that brings upon us the
wrath of a vengeful God.

"Immoral" behavior is a product of mistaken view.  It is wrong not
because it violates some external set of laws handed down from on
high, but because it strengthens the bonds of clinging and engenders
suffering.  In Buddhism, unwholesome impulses are not things to be
violently suppressed by a schizoid act of will; they are to be noted
and understood.  As we come to recognize how mental defilements give
rise to unwholesome attitudes, we will be able to work on developing
wholesome attitudes instead.

If our behavior does harm, we can try to avoid the twin pitfalls of
self-protection and self-flagellation; both reinforce the myth of a
substantial self.  We can acknowledge errors, try to make amends, and
try to have compassion for ourselves as well as others.

So much for unwholesome behavior -- what about wholesome behavior?
For Buddhists, morality (sila) is behavior that is consistent with the
Eightfold Path (see glossary) -- in particular with those parts of the
Path that are concerned with body, speech and livelihood.

The moral code of Buddhism is summarized in the Precepts (see
glossary).  The Precepts are not "commandments" in the sense of some
Western religions.  They are rules of training, intended to help us
move closer to liberation and compassionate action.

Are all Buddhists vegetarians?

No.  The First Precept admonishes us to refrain from killing, but meat
eating is not regarded as an instance of killing, and it is not
forbidden in the scriptures. (We are speaking here mainly of the Pali
scriptures.  Some of the Mahayana scriptures, notably the Lankavatara
Sutra, take a strong position in favor of vegetarianism.)

As recorded in the Pali scriptures, the Buddha did not prohibit
consumption of meat, even by monks.  In fact, he explicitly rejected a
suggestion from Devadatta to do so.  In modern Theravada societies, a
bhikkhu who adheres to vegetarianism to impress others with his
superior spirituality may be committing an infringement of the
monastic rules.

On the other hand, the Buddha categorically prohibited consumption of
the flesh of any animal that was "seen, heard or suspected" to have
been killed specifically for the benefit of monks (Jivaka Sutta,
Majjhima Nikaya 55).  This rule technically applies only to monastics,
but it can be used as a reasonable guide by devout lay people.

To understand this "middle path" approach to meat-eating, we have to
remember that there were no "Buddhists" in Shakyamuni's time.  There
were only mendicants of various kinds (including the Buddha's
disciples), plus lay people who gave them alms out of respect without
necessarily worrying about the brand name of the teachings.

If meat was what a householder chose to offer, it was to be accepted
without discrimination or aversion.  To reject such an offering would
be an offense against hospitality and would deprive the householder of
an opportunity to gain merit -- and it could not benefit the animal,
because it was already dead.  Even the Jains may have had a similar
outlook during the same period of history, despite the strict doctrine
of ahimsa.

Vegetarianism could not become a source of serious controversy in the
bhikkhu sangha until the rise of fixed-abode monastic communities in
which the monks did not practice daily alms-round.  Any meat provided
to such a community by lay people would almost certainly have been
killed specifically for the monks.  That may be one reason for the
difference in Mahayana and Theravada views on meat eating -- the
development of monastic communities of this type occurred principally
within Mahayana.

The issue of meat eating raises difficult ethical questions.  Isn't
the meat in a supermarket or restaurant killed "for" us?  Doesn't meat
eating entail killing by proxy?

Few of us are in a position to judge meat eaters or anyone else for
"killing by proxy."  Being part of the world economy entails "killing
by proxy" in every act of consumption.  The electricity that runs our
computers comes from facilities that harm the environment.  Books of
Buddhist scriptures are printed on paper produced by an industry that
destroys wildlife habitat.  Worms, insects, rodents and other animals
are routinely killed en masse in the course of producing the staples
of a vegetarian diet.  Welcome to samsara.  It is impossible for most
of us to free ourselves from this web; we can only strive to be
mindful of entanglement in it.  One way to do so is to reflect on how
the suffering and death of sentient beings contributes to our comfort.
This may help us to be less inclined to consume out of mere greed.

All of that having been said, it cannot be denied that the economic
machine which produces meat also creates fear and suffering for a
large number of animals.  It is useful to bear this in mind even if
one consumes meat, to resist developing a habit of callousness.  Many
Buddhists (especially Mahayanists) practice vegetarianism as a means
of cultivating compassion.  The Jivaka Sutta hints that one could also
make a good case for vegetarianism starting from any of the other
brahmaviharas (see Glossary).  Interestingly, it is loving-kindness
rather than compassion that is mentioned first in the Jivaka Sutta.

If you are considering trying out vegetarianism for the first time, we
suggest discussing it with someone who has experience.  There are a
few issues that ought to be considered regarding balanced diet, etc.

Aren't you being a bit obsessive about not-self?

Maybe so.  It is possible to get carried away with the doctrine of
anatta, seeing it as justification for a view that is very close to
scientific materialism.  Suffice it to say that this is not how most
Buddhists see things.  It would be very difficult to put together any
kind of coherent doctrine of moral responsibility if a person was just
a disaggregated assemblage of momentary phenomena.  However, the
doctrine of anatta tends to receive strong emphasis among Buddhists
for several reasons.

First, many people who seek to understand Buddhism come from religious
backgrounds in which it is customary to speak of a permanent soul.  Of
course it is not necessary to be a Buddhist to study Buddhism, and
disbelief in a soul is not a "requirement" for intellectual
understanding (any more than belief in one is a requirement for an
intellectual understanding of Christianity).  But understanding is not
likely to be furthered if one attempts to find an "esoteric" soul
doctrine of some kind in the teaching.

Second, although Buddhism does not agree with the moral nihilism that
some persons see in science (or at least in positivism), it seems that
scientific scepticism is more easily reconciled with anatta than with
at least some of the religious alternatives.

Finally, anatta is proclaimed in the scriptures as one of the two
distinctive teachings of the Buddhas (the other being the Four Noble
Truths, see Majjhima Nikaya 56.18 [I.380]).  Much of Buddhist thought
is consistent with other systems of Indian religion and philosophy;
but these two doctrines are unique.

This document is maintained by André Vellino

Started March 1997. Last modified, October 14th 1997.

Adaptado a partir do original mantido em