What are the basics of Buddhism?
A: Buddhism is a religion to about 400 million people around the world. The word Buddhism comes from the Sanskrit term "budhi" - meaning "to awaken". Buddhism has its origin more than 2500 years ago - 2536 years ago to be exact because we, Buddhists world wide just celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha's birthday on the 15th day of the 4th month of the Lunar calendar (which fell on May 6th, 2012). That was when an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gotama was born, later became himself awakened (enlightened) and was then known as The Buddha, the "Enlightened One".
To a lot of the followers, Buddhism is not just a religion, but it is more of a philosophy, a Path, a way of life... which can be easily summed up as....
1) to lead a moral life,
2) to be mindful and aware of all speech, actions and thoughts, and
3) to develop wisdom and understanding.
Buddha was never a God, He never claimed to be one. He was just a man born in a royal family, but He realized that wealth and luxury do not guarantee happiness. He then abandoned the royal life and took up a spiritual quest.
After 6 years of studying with various famous teachers of the day, He also realized that mendicancy and asceticism did not provide an answer to a permanent end to sufferings either.
So then after 49 days of continuous meditation under a bodhi tree, He attained enlightenment. He found the Middle Path, a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. and He spent the rest of His life teaching this Path.
What are the four noble truths and their importance in Buddhism?
A: After enlightenment, the Buddha taught about the Four Noble Truths which was His first sermon. This sermon was sometimes considered to contain the essence of the Buddha's teachings. Thus the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Paths are very important in Buddhist practice.
1- The First Noble Truth: Life as we know it, ultimately is or leads to sufferings in one way or another. This is dukkha. Birth is dukkha, death is dukkha, aging is dukkha, and sickness is dukkha.
2- The Second Noble Truth: Suffering is caused by cravings, or a deluded clinging (attachment) to the sense of existence, to the self, to the things (objects, people) and to the phenomena surrounding us. This is the origin of dukkha.
3- The Third Noble Truth: How to end sufferings or dukkha; how to give up and relinquish all cravings. This is cessation of dukkha.
4- The Fourth Noble Truth: is the way leading to cessation of dukkha. It is the Noble Eightfold Paths that one has to commit to practice in order to end sufferings. The Eightfold paths included Right view, Right intention, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right efford, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration.
What distinguishes Buddhism from other world religions? How is it similar and how is it different?
A: Buddhism is a philosophy. It doesn't worship a god. There is no Almighty God in Buddhism. There is no Judgement Day. There is no rewards for good things you do, and punishments for bad ones.
No other religion in the world says that everybody has Buddha Nature (Buddha essebpnce) and that everybody has the ability to become a Buddha him/herself.
Buddhism brings answers to many problems in the modern materialistic societies. Buddhism includes (for those who are interested) a deep understanding of the human mind which is now known by scientists to be both very advanced and highly effective.
Buddhism reflects scientific findings.
Buddhism has a guiding principle of following the Middle Way or the Middle Path - which is the practice of non-extremism, a path of moderation.
Buddhism believes that sentient beings perpetuate the cycles of conditioned existences and sufferings called samsara. One needs to strive to end these cycle of births and deaths
Tell me about the different branches in Buddhism - Theravada and Mahayana.
A: Two majors branches of Buddhism
1/ Theravada: "the School of the Elders" has a widespread following in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Some Vietnamese monks also practice Theravada Buddhism. The goal for Theravada practice is to attain Arhat or Buddhahood. Theravada Buddhism only uses the Pali Canon (called Tripitakas), and it does not emphasize on rituals.
2/ Mahayana: "the Great Vehicle" is practiced in most other East Asian countries and incudes the well-known Pureland sect, Zen or Chan Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and many others derived sects. The goal of Mahayana practitioners is to attain Buddhahood via bodhisattva-path. All scriptures based on the Sanskrit teachings, plus many other sutras. These scriptures are translated into local languages. And there are numerous rituals owing to local cultural influences.
A third less common tradition is called Vajrayana, practiced mostly in Tibet and Mongolia.
What would you say is one major misconception about Buddhism?
A: The concept of Karma is often misunderstood a lot by long time Buddhist practitioners as well as newly western devotees learning and practicing Buddhism. Karma is the force that drives samsara, which in term is the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being.
How long have you been Buddhist? How did you decide to become a monk? I'm curious about the process and training that goes into that.
A: I was born into a Buddhist family, so I can say I'm a Buddhist from birth. I decided to enter the temple at the age of 14. In general a novice enters the life of a Buddhist monk at a tender age of 10-15, sometimes as young as 5-6 years old. He lives permanently at the temple under the guidance of his master who usually is the abbott of the temple. After a certain trial period, he is allowed to take the novice precepts, to study the rituals of chanting, to learn the sutras, the canons, and the behaviors of conducting himself as a monk (called oai nghi te hanh) and to have his head shaved partly - usually leaving a strand of hair at the top of his head to signify that he is just a novice; this strand of hair is usually shaved off when he finally receives his first ordination.
Usually at the age of 18 or so, if his practice is going very well, his master will allow him to receive the first ordination of a sramanera. And after at least 3 years of sramaneraship, at about 21 years of age, he can take the bhikkhu vows and ordination to be a Buddhist monk.
The years living at the temple, the novice usually goes to a public school to be educated in the normal fashion of young children's education. Asides from that, he will have his load of canonical study, early morning chanting (usually starts at 4am), and religious rites and rituals that he will need to know by the time he receives his first ordination.
Tell me about the temple. What is a typical service like? What kinds of rituals do you do (chanting, meditation, etc.)?
A: At each temple, typically there are 6 chanting periods, called "Sau Thoi Cong phu": 1/ The day starts at 4 or 4:30 am, when the gong and temple bell sound to wake everybody up. The sangha then assembles in the Buddha Hall for Early Morning meditation and chanting. This usually takes an hour, and is called "Cong phu Khuya". After that it's time for personal hygiene, and menial works around the temple. Then breakfast is served around 7 o'clock. After that, the young novices would go to school. The older monks of the temple have their duties, tending to various jobs like gardening, cleaning, preparing lunch, etc...
2/ At 11 o'clock the second service of the day starts, this is called "Cu'ng Ngo". After that, lunch is served.
3/ Usually after lunch the Sangha participates in Walking meditation. This is the third service of the day, and is called "Tho Trai & Thien Hanh". Then it's time for midday rest and personal free time. The early afternoon again is for temple's work or self-studying.
4/ At 4-4:30pm, it is the 4th chanting time called "Cung Thi Thuc"
5/ Usually around 6 oclock in the afternoon, the next chanting takes place. This service is open to the public as well, many local Buddhists often come to participate in the Evening Chanting, called "Cong Phu Chieu". Then a light dinner is served.
6/ And the last service at 8 o'clock includes sitting meditation, called "Ho Canh Toa Thien". After that it's personal free time. Then time for bed.
Not everyone participates in all 6 services. But everybody is encouraged to at least make the morning, and evening chantings.
What is the purpose of meditation in Buddhism?
A: Meditation is a time to compose yourself into relaxation of the mind and body, to gain a little inner peace, to achieve real peace of mind, or to even attain enlightened moments in your life.
Meditation brings physical and mental calmness; enhances the ability to concentrate and work more efficiently; empowers your memory, intuition, and inner strength; and gives you a sense of peaceful existence. Just like, for example, you want training to become an athlete - meditation requires diligence, perseverance, ambition, faith, and enthusiasm. To gain results, you need devotion, time and energy in your practice.
Meditation can eventually leads to spiritual enlightenment.
The ultimate goal of meditation is to reach beyond the mind and live in the world of pure spirit. This may not be the goal of the majority of those just start to meditate. For most people, the main purpose is the reduction of physical and mental stress and the gain of some peace of mind.
If you meditate, and persevere with earnestness and concentration, you will eventually come to realize that there is a world beyond thoughts. You will be able to silence your thoughts, and then meditation will take a new meaning. You will discover the joy and bliss that comes when the mind is silent. You will discover a new kind of consciousness, which is beyond the mind and is not dependent it. In this state of consciousness there are no thoughts.
When the mind becomes naturally quiet, you find out who you really are. You discover your true identity. The mind is then transcended, and the spiritual consciousness shines.
Why is your religion important to you personally?
A: I feel that besides the physical, psychological, and mental life, everybody needs a spiritual life as well. Ones has to exercise one's faith, and beliefs. It is essentially a part of being in existence.
Buddhism has great significance and importance in my life. If it is not, I wouldn't be sitting here, talking to you as a monk, would I?