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More readings in 'Just Be Good' :
A Life of Blessings
Island of Light



Kamma, rebirth, and the inequalities of life
Buddhism and modern science
Buddhism and creation myths
Meditation and evil spirits
The Buddha, miracles and psychic powers
Gays and lesbians
Smoking and Buddhism
Ambition and contentment
Vegetarianism, monks and mock meat
The different realms of existence
Western celebrity Buddhists


Kamma and rebirth, and the inequalities of life

Does kamma explain why there is so much inequality of life around us?

People have always wondered about the fairness of life, and why everyone is not born equal.

Questions are always asked about why is one person so healthy, and another born with many physical afflictions.  Why is one person born into a very wealthy family, and another born into abject poverty.  Why is one person able to enjoy a long and happy life, and another having their life cut short by violence or accident.

Buddhists do not believe that all these inequalities are because of chance, or the unexplainable will of an unseen and omnipotent heavenly being.  We believe that kamma and the principle of Cause and Effect account for most of these differences in people's lives.

If we can't remember anything from our previous lives, is it then fair to suffer in this life for something done wrong in a previous life?

Keep in mind that kamma is not a system of rewards or punishments.  It is simply a natural principle that any intentional act will have its corresponding result, when conditions are right.  

Take for example a person who gets drunk, and then trips and falls into a ditch.  He breaks his leg.  That person may have no memory of  falling and getting hurt, but he is still subject to the painful result of his actions.

As mentioned earlier, kamma can also be viewed like the planting of seeds.  If you plant an apple seed, an apple tree will grow.  If you plant an oak seed, an oak tree will grow.   It is just the principle of Cause and Effect. 

Thus, fairness and memory are not factors in kamma and this applies equally to all beings in existence.

If there is rebirth, why don't people remember their past lives?

Memories of past lives lie deep in the subconscious mind.  We are usually unable to access these memories because our minds are not clear, or disciplined enough.   For example, very few of us can recall what exactly we did on the same day of even just a month ago!  However, research has shown that some young children whose minds remain reasonably clear, may be able to spontaneously recall their past lives.

Western psychoanalysts are now using methods of hypnotic regression to help patients with psychological problems, and some of these patients seem to be able to recall their past lives under such therapy.  Monks with highly disciplined minds and who are able to enter into deep meditative states are also said to be able to recall their past lives.

If we won't know anything about our next life, then why worry about it?

That would be a slightly selfish attitude to take.  It would be similar to irresponsible parents who are going to spend everything they have without leaving anything for their children.  They won't know for sure what is going to happen to their children either.  Responsible parents will do everything they can to ensure the best for their offspring whether they will be around to see the results or not.  We should take a similar approach for the being in our next life.

However, it is said in the Buddhist texts that some Heavenly beings, and also some beings reborn in the Lower realms are in fact able to recall their past lives.  Some of these beings have described the deeds which resulted in the conditions of their rebirth.  There is thus some incentive to do the best we can in this life.

In any case, as Buddhists we should do the best we can in this life, whether or not we will experience positive results in the next life.

There is a meaningful saying in Buddhism which bears some thinking about :

"If you want to know what kind of life you led in your past life, 
  look at your present life.
  If you want to know what kind of life you will have in your next life, 
  look at your present life."

Is there any scientific proof of rebirth?

There are in fact many well researched and documented cases of people, including many children, who remember their past lives.  While there are countless instances of anecdotal evidence from the East, studies in this area have also been done by many Western researchers.  

This research was done on both Asian and Western subjects and took place under scientific conditions and with rigorous examinations.  The conclusion reached is that not only is rebirth probable, it is just about as good as proven.

For example, Carol Bowman has written books on children who are able to recall their past lives.  These are not religious or spiritual books, but are well-documented case studies based on the observation and empirical research done on hundreds of children.

Prof. Ian Stevenson was an eminent psychiatrist and director of The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia in the USA.  Prof. Stevenson's publications, which are meant primarily for the academic and scientific community detail over 3,000 case studies of people who could remember their past lives.  

Other well known and reputable researchers and authorities on this subject are Dr. Jim Tucker, Dr. Raymond Moody and Thomas Shroder.


Henry Ford : 
"Work is useless if we cannot use our experience in another life."   
"Genius is the fruit of long experience in many lives.  
  Of this I am sure, we are here for a purpose. 
  We will go on.  Mind and memory, they are eternal."


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Buddhism and modern science

Does Buddhism conflict with modern science?

Among all the major religions of the world, the Buddhist teachings do not have any major or significant conflicts with the discoveries of modern science.  It does not have any creation myths, nor does it attempt to attribute any natural phenomenon to supernatural causes.  

It embraces fully the Theory of Evolution which quite clearly demonstrates the Buddhist doctrine of Impermanence.  Thus, it has no difficulties with fossil remains, carbon-dating and geological evidence with which modern science uses to date the age of the earth to be around 4.5 billion years.  These discoveries in fact confirm the Buddha's comment that the earth has been in existence for eons.  

The Buddha had said specifically that there are countless star systems in existence, and that our world is like a speck of dust compared to the vastness and diversity of the universe.  He did not claim that the earth was created by an unseen deity or that humans are a special creation of that deity.  Using modern astronomy, satellites and radio telescopes, we can observe the trillions of stars and billions of galaxies in the universe; and see clearly that the Buddha made a very accurate observation of our place in the cosmos.

The Buddha's concept of time, in the context of the universe, seems to be very much in accordance with modern science.  Buddhism measures the timescale of the universe in 'kalpas' which are inconceivably long periods of time.  He gave the analogy of a silk cloth brushing the top of a mountain once every hundred years.  The time it takes for the mountain to be worn away is approximately the duration of one 'kalpa'.  Therefore Buddhist cosmology is quite in line with current scientific estimates of the age of the universe, which is taken to be about 13.7 billion years old.

Also very interestingly, The Buddha mentioned that the universe is in a continual state of expansion and contraction and that these cycles last for unimaginably long periods of time, or for many, many 'kalpas'.  It seems that He anticipated the Oscillating Universe Theory by more than 2,500 years.

In one of His discourses, the Buddha held up a cup of water and said that there are countless living beings in the water.  For a long time, nobody understood what He meant, but today we can see with a microscope that there are in fact numerous micro-organisms in any cup of water.  Thus there may still be many things the Buddha said that we have yet to discover and comprehend.

Good comparison between Christianity and Buddhism, Genesis versus Science.


William Shakespeare, in "Hamlet" :
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
   than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


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Buddhism and creation myths

In Buddhism, why isn't there a belief in a supreme god that created the universe?

Buddhists tend to be fairly realistic in such matters and do not believe in creation myths such as the universe emerging from a cosmic egg, or created by an old man with a long, white beard.  If anything we believe that the universe has always existed.  

If it is said that an omnipotent being or 'intelligent designer' did create the universe, then it begs the obvious question of who then created or 'designed' that being?  And if that being has always existed, then isn't it more believable that the universe has always been in existence instead?

In any case, Buddhists certainly don't believe in any such all-powerful and all-knowing being that, for whatever reasons, allows its creations to be tortured in an everlasting hell, (which that being also created).  And if that omniscient being knows beforehand that most of its creations are destined to burn in hell forever, then why does it go ahead to produce so much suffering?  It is hard also for Buddhists to believe in such a supreme being that somehow manages to be loving and forgiving, while at the same time also vengeful, unjust, merciless and sadistic.

The Buddha advised us not to concern ourselves with such speculations, as these speculations are ultimately unproductive.  He tells the story of a person who pierced by a poisoned arrow, did not want the arrow to be removed until he knew who shot the arrow, why he was shot, and what kind of poison was on the arrow.  

Just as it is a doctor's job to remove the poisoned arrow and treat the wound, and not answer the man's untimely questions; it is the Buddha's role to show us how to free ourselves from suffering and not answer such speculative questions.  Thus, He said we should think and focus more on what really matters, which is our practice of Buddhism.

So Buddhism doesn't threaten unbelievers with eternal punishment in hell?

Certainly not!  Such threats may have been necessary in ancient times to keep people in line, and were used in conjunction with the promise of rewards in heaven.  This kind of approach was also used to get people to join particular religious groups, with threats of eternal punishments and assurances of rewards.

Buddhists do not accept the concept of a jealous god who punishes his creations just because they choose a different religion.  Practically all civilized nations respect and guarantee the freedom of religious thought and practice, as enshrined in the U.N. Charter (Article 18).  Torture furthermore, is banned by all civilized nations on earth.  So how can any god that supposedly created all of us be any less civilized?  Thus, Buddhists find such threats of eternal torture in  hell quite hard to believe.  

For example, what kind of being will send or allow another being to burn in a fiery hell for ever and ever?  Take a simple lighted match for example.  Just hold it under your palm.  Can you tolerate the pain for just a few seconds?  Can you hold that match under someone's palm for just one minute watching them scream in agony?  Can you do that to anyone for all of eternity?  Such viciousness is beyond imagination.

Furthermore, if it is in your power to stop such intense and endless suffering, would you not do so?  Would any sane and rational being not do so?  There can never be any justification for such merciless cruelty for any possible reasons and under any conceivable circumstances.

The Buddha never used any threats, or tried to force anyone to accept His Teachings.  He believed in freedom of thought.  He recognized that not everyone will accept His Teachings, and that people progress differently and will choose different paths for themselves.  He preferred to explain His Teachings in a logical and reasonable manner, and wanted people to understand and realize the Teachings for themselves without fear of any punishments from Him. 

Buddhism is not about threats or rewards, but about knowledge and understanding.


Albert Einstein :
"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic
  religion for the future : it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and
  theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a
  religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and
  spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that would cope with
  modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism." 

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Meditation and evil spirits

Does meditation allow demons or evil spirits to enter and possess the mind?

Meditation has been practiced in many different forms, and by many different cultures for thousands of years.  It is taught and practiced all over the world and is gaining much popularity, especially in Western countries.

Large international corporations are sending their staff and executives for lessons and retreats in increasing numbers.  They recognize the benefits of meditation to be improved concentration and clarity of mind, as well as better management of stress, pain, aggravation and anger.

Neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, by studying the brain waves of people who meditate regularly, have shown that they are more peaceful and tranquil than non-meditators.  Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Centre, have shown that because of meditation, Buddhists really are happier and calmer than most other people!

Some people might discourage us from practicing meditation because of  their own irrational fears.  It would be wise to treat such talk as superstitious nonsense.


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The Buddha, miracles and psychic powers

Are stories of miracles and psychic powers in the Buddha's life true?

According to Buddhism, anything may be possible.  Some say that the power of the mind may allow for feats or miracles unexplainable by our current level of knowledge.  However, it could also be the case that such stories may have been exaggerations by monks to boost up the Buddha's image so as to compete with other mystics and popular figures of the time.

Buddhism does not encourage blind faith, even in its own stories.  It is up to each individual to exercise their own discernment and believe in such stories or not.

The Buddha himself said that any psychic powers, if they exist, are unimportant.  What is of far more importance is the practice of His Teachings.


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Gays and lesbians

Can gays and lesbians become Buddhists?

Sexual orientation is of no great importance in Buddhism.  The Buddha would ask, who is better - a morally upright gay or a crooked and dishonest heterosexual?  To the Buddha, what counts is the morality and virtue of a person, and whether or not that person is on the Path towards enlightenment.

Therefore, gays and lesbians who lead virtuous lives can most certainly become Buddhists.  


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Smoking and Buddhism

Is smoking against Buddhism?

Strictly speaking, Buddhism would not consider smoking to be morally incorrect.

However, serious practitioners of Buddhism who are already on this habit usually attempt to give it up.  This is because smoking is a severe form of craving and attachment as it is extremely addictive.  Also, smoking is harmful to oneself, as well as to others via the effects of second hand smoke.  Thus if something is harmful to oneself and also to others, it cannot be viewed positively in Buddhism.


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Ambition and contentment

Buddhism teaches contentment, but people have ambitions in work and also want better lives for their families.  How can this be reconciled?

While it is true that Buddhism considers contentment to be a virtue, it also realizes that everyone may take different paths to attain their own peace and happiness.  In such cases, the Buddha would recommend taking the Middle Path.

Be not too ambitious that you may cause harm or hurt to others in achieving your ambitions.  And also don't be too contented that your own livelihood and family be adversely affected.


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Vegetarianism, monks and mock meat

Is being vegetarian a must for Buddhists?  

In Buddhism, being vegetarian or not depends entirely on the individual.   What is emphasized in Buddhism is not the purity of the diet, but the purity of the mind.

Of course, many Buddhists eventually realize the cruelty involved in eating meat, which is nothing more than the flesh of helpless animals.  Many succeed in eliminating the craving and attachment to eating meat, and eventually become vegetarian on their own accord.  

However, if becoming vegetarian is not convenient or too difficult, then take the path you are comfortable with.  Nonetheless, being vegetarian at least once or twice a month is a good way of practicing compassion for all living beings, by consciously abstaining from meat for that day at least.

A book which deals extremely well with the Buddhist perspective on vegetarianism is Philip Kapleau's "To Cherish All Life".

Why do some monks eat meat?

The Buddha refused to prohibit the eating of meat among his followers.  He had very practical reasons for this because sufficient vegetable food may not be available in some areas, or could be very scarce in times of drought.  For example, vegetable food is extremely limited in places like Tibet.

Monks survive on alms and if alms were restricted to only vegetarian food, then this could be a great burden on the lay people supporting the monks.  Thus monks eat whatever they are given, even if it is meat, as long as the animals were not specially killed for them.  

Nowadays though, many monks and temples do have a preference for vegetarian food.  However, it should be noted that most monks in the Mahayana tradition are strict vegetarians.

Aren't Buddhist vegetarians who eat mock meat hypocritical?  Why have mock meat at all?

Mock meat is a popular vegetarian food made from gluten, soybeans or mushrooms which simulate the appearance and taste of real meat.  Buddhist vegetarians are sometimes accused of being hypocritical as they profess to avoid meat and yet eat all kinds of such mock meat.  Vegetarians generally do not wish to eat anything which involves the suffering and killing of helpless animals.  Thus, they do not view mock meat as 'meat', but only as something giving variety to their diet.

Mock meat was originally produced to attract non-vegetarians to vegetarian food.  For example, it can be taken by meat eaters wanting to become vegetarian, as such dishes make the transition to being fully vegetarian easier.

In any case, eating mock meat is still infinitely better than eating the actual flesh of animals.

The Buddha :
"All beings love Life,
  all beings love Happiness.
  Taking yourself for comparison,
  you should neither harm or kill, 
  nor cause to harm or kill another being."


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The different realms of existence

What are the different realms of existence, and are they real places?

Traditionally, Buddhists recognize six different realms or planes of existence.  These are the Hell, Animal, Hungry Ghost, Demon, Human and Heaven realms.  Some of these realms, such as the Animal and Hungry Ghost realms, overlap our realm.  

It is said that there are also different 'levels' within the Heaven and Hell realms.  To put this in perspective, take our own world as an example.  There are currently 193 countries in the world, spread over seven continents.  Living in a peaceful country with a pleasant climate is a far cry from being in a war-torn country wracked by hunger and disease.  It is clear that even in our own world, there are vast differences between different countries!

Thus a Heaven realm is a plane of existence which is far more agreeable than even the best country in our world, and a Hell realm is a plane where conditions are far harsher than anywhere on earth.  Even the different 'levels' within these realms can be compared to different countries in each continent where the living conditions in some countries may be 'better' or 'worse' than others.

There is an alternative viewpoint that the Buddha was speaking allegorically when He was talking of these different realms of existence.  For example, a person who is suffering from severe physical disabilities, very serious illnesses, or is mentally deranged may be said to be reborn in a Hell realm.  People who undergo lives of deprivation where their only focus is looking for their next meal and staying alive, may be said to be born in the Animal realm.

People who have constant unfulfilled and burning desires and are never satisfied no matter how much they have, may be said to be in the realm of Hungry Ghosts.  Those who are overly aggressive and constantly fighting and struggling for power and possessions may be in the Demon realm.  And people who are born with great physical beauty and wealth may be said to be reborn in a Heaven realm.  For example, sports and movie stars who have all of these attributes along with literally millions of fans or 'worshippers', are often described as gods!

Quite obviously the Lower realms of Hell, Animals, Hungry Ghosts and Demons are places of suffering, and the Heavenly realms are places of enjoyment.  However, the Buddha says that these realms are not particularly suitable places for the practice of Buddhism, or to accumulate positive kamma.  This is because the beings in the Lower realms are usually in too much suffering, and the Heavenly beings are too busy enjoying themselves.  

Therefore, because the Human realm has both suffering and happiness, it can be considered the most suitable place to learn and practice the Buddha's Teachings.  Also, it is the Human realm that offers the greatest opportunity to do good and accumulate positive kamma.

However, the Buddha also said that many Heavenly beings do practice His Teachings and are able to achieve Nibbana.  He therefore encouraged everyone to strive for a good rebirth in either a Heavenly or Human realm.

Whether these six realms of existence are actual or figurative doesn't really matter.  What really matters is to maintain the practice so as to ensure a good rebirth.  This is very important as it is only in either a Human realm or a Heavenly realm that we are able to learn and practice the Buddha's Teachings, and thus attain Nibbana.


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Western celebrity Buddhists

With Buddhism becoming more popular in the West, are there any well-known personalities who have become Buddhists?

There are in fact many high-profile personalities who have discovered and taken up Buddhism.  The following are just a few of the more well-known celebrity Buddhists :

Richard Gere Movie Star An Officer and a Gentleman
Harrison Ford Movie Star Indiana Jones
Orlando Bloom Movie Star Kingdom of Heaven
Keanu Reeves Movie Star The Matrix
Uma Thurman Movie Star Kill Bill
Oliver Stone Film Producer JFK
Tina Turner Pop Singer What’s Love Got to Do With It
Adam Yauch Pop Singer Beastie Boys
Herbie Hancock Jazz Musician
Tiger Woods Champion Golfer
Roberto Baggio Soccer Star Italy
Phil Jackson NBA Coach Chicago Bulls
Marshall Goldsmith CEO Coach Marshall Goldsmith Partners
William Ford Jr. Chairman Ford Motor Company
Steve Jobs CEO Apple Inc.

You can also read this very good article on Buddhism in Hollywood.


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I still have many questions not answered!  

Then your next stop should be the excellent Buddhist primer by Venerable S. Dhammika - "Good Question, Good Answer".


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