Women’s Equality in Buddhism

The question of whether women have equality under Buddhism is not an easy one to answer. One must consider the Buddha’s teachings, the various schools of Buddhism, and the cultural influences that are pervasive from one Buddhist country to another. In addition, the various schools of Buddhism differ in their selection of texts to live by. The ideals presented and the day-to-day reality often vary, so it is a very complicated question to answer.

Dr. L.S. Dewaraja has written a paper[1] on “The Position of Women in Buddhism.” Her tack was to examine the position of women in Buddhist societies versus non-Buddhist societies in Asia, and she began by examining the life of women in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Tibet.

Delving into the observations of various European’s writing about their time in Asia (c. 1700’s-1900’s), she notes that the consensus was that women were treated with a degree of equality that caught these authors by surprise. In Sri Lanka, women were not treated as slaves and mistresses, but as companions and friends by their husbands. Writers on Burma reflected on a surprising degree of independence, which was contrasted by the subjugation and seclusion of women in India and China. Similar liberties were noted about Thailand. From this data, it appears that Buddhism had played a positive role in fostering equality for women, not usually seen in Asian countries.

Traditionally, especially where Hinduism was present, women were initially viewed with respect and could participate in religious ceremonies. However, once the Brahmins dominated the society and the teachings of Manu (the first human being to have ever lived, perhaps corresponding to Adam) were embraced, women were prohibited from reading the Vedas, a woman could not worship or sacrifice by herself, and could only reach heaven through complete obedience to her husband. Manu perpetuated the idea that women were prone to evil and were sinful. Buddha’s teachings on salvation through one’s own effort, is not gender based and was, therefore, contrary to the culture of the time.

In ancient India, women were considered on the same level as the lowest caste. Their birth was considered a misfortune, and they were considered a burden on the family.[2] These notions continue for many to this day.

Portions of the Pali Canon show “women as responsible for the downfall of the human race,” but generally speaking Buddhist interpretation “shows lust in general, rather than women, as causing the downfall.”[3]

Buddhism does not view marriage as a sacrament, so there are no religious restrictions or consequences. However, Buddha did comment on marriage, by setting up a reciprocal relationship with duties for each partner:

In five ways should a wife as Western quarter, be ministered to by her husband: by respect, by courtesy, by faithfulness, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with ornaments. In these five ways does the wife minister to by her husband as the Western quarter, love him: her duties are well-performed by hospitality to kin of both, by faithfulness, by watching over the goods he brings and by skill and industry in discharging all business.[4]

Even for the Western mind, these are reasonable ways for spouses to treat one another and their marriage.

However, in practice, women are often viewed as inferior, as in Burma, where it is customary for women to pray that they will be reborn as a man.[5] In the Mahayana school, it is believed that a woman can attain enlightement, but not while she is in the female form. She must reincarnate as a man. These attitudes loudly communicate that being female and the female form are somehow inferior.[6]

Also in practice is polygamy. Historically, polygamy was viewed as a symbol of wealth, bringing men respect in their community and the ability to amass wealth.[7] World-wide, polygamy is legal in over 150 countries.[8] Polygamy is not permitted in developed countries, but it still exists in developing countries. Due to acts of forced marriage, domestic abuse and neglect, it is considered a human rights abuse, and the U.N. recommends an end to polygamy throughout the world. In the countries permitting polygamy, only polygyny (one man with multiple wives) is permitted. Legally, it occurs primarily in Muslim and African nations, with one exception: Burma (Myanmar).[9]

Tibet has the largest polyandrous (one woman with more than one husband) community in the world, and polyandry is also common for Buddhists living in Ladakh, Bhutan, and in other portions of the Indian subcontinent. Traditionally in Tibet, having multiple spouses was not viewed as having sex inappropriately, and nomadic Tibetans in Nepal have practiced fraternal polyandry (one woman with men related as brothers). Until 2010, Thailand legally recognized polygyny.[10]

While the ideal in Buddhism is for men and women to be free to equally study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, in reality woman are still treated directly and indirectly as inferior, and Buddhism is not a safe-guard from polygamy, which is considered a human rights abuse.

[1] Dr. (Mrs.) L.S. Dewaraja, “The Position of Women in Buddhism,” AccesstoInsight.org, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[2] “Buddhism and Women: Position of Women at the time of the Buddha,” Buddhanet.net, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[3] “Women in Buddhism: Women in Early Buddhism,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[4] As quoted by Dr. L.S. Dewaraja from Dialogues of the Buddha, trans. C.A.F Rhys Davids, part III, 181-182.

[5] Dr. (Mrs.) L.S. Dewaraja, “The Position of Women in Buddhism,” AccesstoInsight.org, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[6] “Women in Buddhism: Women and Buddhahood,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[7] “Africa’s Potentate of Polygamy,” LA Times, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[8] “History of Polygamy,” PolygamyStop.org, retrieved June 5, 2013.

[9] “Polygamy,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

Vows of Buddhist Monks and Nuns

Monastic life for monks and nuns is one of simplicity and dedication. A monk must be at least 21 years old, and as a novice follow rules of conduct, eventually leading to taking a vow to live by 227 rules of conduct. It is a four-step process for a Buddhist to become a monk.

The first step is following the Five Precepts:

  1. Not take the life of a sentient being.
  2. Not steal.
  3. Not engage in sexual misconduct.
  4. Refrain from false speech.
  5. Refrain from becoming intoxicated.

The second step is to begin life at a monastery and start wearing the traditional robes. In the third step, the novice undertakes learning and adhering to all of the vows. In the fourth step, the novice takes a vow to adhere to the 227 rules and is then a full-fledged ordained monk. Monks are required to live by the vow to those rules for their entire life, but are allowed to return to secular life temporarily and return to the monastery up to seven times.[1]

Some of the vows seem like very familiar moral teachings even to people living in the West. The following are abbreviated descriptions of some of the vows:

  • Not to steal.
  • Not to commit murder.
  • Not to claim attainments that one has not achieved.
  • Not to falsely accuse someone else.
  • Not to deliberately create division between people.
  • Not to encourage someone else to create division.
  • Not to create disagreement.
  • Not to make someone else do your work.
  • Not to divert a donation to oneself meant for the group.
  • Not to lie.
  • Not to insult.
  • Not to speak with a full mouth.

But others may seem very different and unfamiliar:

  • Not to teach a woman more than six consecutive words of the dhamma.
  • Not to dig or cause someone else to dig.
  • Not to leave a mattress or chair outside without arranging it back suitably.
  • Not to visit houses just before noon.
  • Not to watch an army leaving for combat.
  • Not to witness military activities.
  • Not to tickle.
  • Not to play in the water.
  • Not to use mattresses, cushions or cloths filled with cotton.
  • Not to make or use beds or chairs of a height greater than 65 centimeters.
  • Not to laugh loudly when sitting in an inhabited area.
  • Not to stand on tiptoes within inhabited areas.[2]

For the Western mind, it would seem unthinkable to be told not to play in water, stand on their tiptoes, or laugh loudly in the presence of others, and yet there are extensive rules about the monk’s body, clothing, food, belongings, sex, general conduct, interaction with others, accepting donations and more.

Nuns must follow the same 227 rules, and are required to adhere to an additional 110 rules.[3] Some of the additional rules were created to protect the nuns or because of their biological differences such as menstruation, and some have to do with rules for sponsoring novice nuns. These rules do not necessarily place nuns in a subordinate position. In fact, in rule #25, they are told not to wait on a monk bringing him water or fanning him. If they do, they must confess it.

The following are abbreviated descriptions of some of the 110 rules that make sense to a Western mind:

  • Not to go among villages alone or go to the other shore of a river alone or stay away for a night alone or fall behind her companion(s) alone (for safety reasons).
  • Not to converse with a man in a concealed place.
  • Not to converse with a man in the dark without a light.
  • Not to use a fund intended for one purpose and dedicated to one purpose for a Community, and then buy something else.
  • Not to provide a living space for another nun, and then out of anger have her evicted.
  • Not to be stingy with regard to families (supporters).
  • Not to insult a monk.
  • Not to throw trash (including excrement, urine or leftovers) over a wall or fence.
  • Not to curse oneself or another with regard to hell or the holy life.
  • Not to weep, beating and beating oneself.
  • Not to accept a bribe in order to sponser someone to be a nun.
  • Not to require one to attend to your needs in order to sponsor them as a nun.

Others may seem strange to Western minds:

  • Not to be lusting and having received staple or non-staple food from the hand of a lusting man, then consume or chew it.
  • Not to take an out-of-season cloth to deem it to be an in-season cloth and distribute it.
  • Not to request something and then send it back, and have another thing requested.
  • Not to eat garlic.
  • Not to bathe naked.
  • Not to bathe with perfumes.
  • Not to share a bed with another nun.
  • Not to spin yarn.
  • Not to do a chore for a lay person.
  • Not to use a sunshade or wear leather footwear outside, unless ill.
  • Not to go tiptoe in inhabited areas.
  • Not to sit clasping the knees in inhabited areas.

Written within the vows, it is outlined what the result with be if or when the vows are broken. For some, the monk or nun must confess and for others there is a specific admonishment. Sometimes it is specified that they must undergo further training, and for more severe infractions, the monk or nun is punished with a temporary expulsion from community. For example, if the nun tiptoes in inhabited areas, she must undergo additional training, but if she, with lust, accepts food from a man who is lusting, she is driven out of the community temporarily.

There are four instances which result in immediate and automatic disrobal. The following are abbreviated descriptions of the four:

  • Engaging in sexual intercourse with either sex.
  • Stealing something of value (including smuggling, cheating, or avoiding payment of a tax).
  • Committing murder, or encouraging someone to commit murder or suicide (this includes abortion).
  • Boasting of a higher spiritual attainment that one has not yet attained.[4]

[1] Shiva, “A Buddhist Monk’s Life,” Buddhists.org, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[2] “227 Rules,” Dhammadana.org, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[3] “110 Specific Rules for Nuns,” Dhammawiki.com, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[4] “The Four Disrobing Offences,” Budsas.org, retrieved June 12, 2013.

Polygamy and Buddhism

The 1944 novel, Anna and the King, by Margaret Landon was based on two memoirs by Anna Leonowens, and on King Mongkut’s public papers, but is perhaps better known for the films it inspired:

  • Anna and the King (1946, drama) starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison.
  • The King and I (1956, musical) starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
  • Anna and the King (1999, drama) starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat.

These films present a fictionalized account of Anna Leonowens’ life as an English schoolteacher who was enlisted to travel to Siam and teach King Mongkut’s children. Upon arriving, she is introduced to 15 children she will teach, but is surprised to find out he has 67 more,[1] and many wives.[2] A clash of cultures ensues as she attempts to teach the children and wives English and English customs.

The government of Thailand banned the producer of the 1999 film from filming any parts of it there, claiming inaccuracies regarding the life of King Mongkut.[3] Historical inconsistencies have come to light in recent years about elements of the story. These are a few of them.

  • Leonowens was Anglo-Indian, raised in India, not Welsh.
  • For 27 years, King Mongkut has been a Buddhist monk before becoming King. The portrayal of him as an arrogant tyrant is fiction.
  • She was a widow, but had two children, not just one son.
  • Her son did not die as portrayed, but outlived his mother.
  • Leonowens was not present when the King died. She had been granted leave for health reasons and was in England at the time. The new King did not invite her to return and resume her post.[4]

However, one element of the story is accurate even today: polygamy. Historically, polygamy was viewed as a symbol of wealth, bringing men respect in their community and the ability to amass wealth.[5] World-wide, polygamy is legal in over 150 countries.[6] Polygamy is not permitted in developed countries, but it still exists in developing countries. Due to acts of forced marriage, domestic abuse and neglect, it is considered a human rights abuse, and the U.N. recommends an end to polygamy throughout the world. In the countries permitting polygamy, only polygyny (one man with multiple wives) is permitted. Legally, it occurs primarily in Muslim and African nations, with one exception: Burma (Myanmar).[7]

Buddhist texts do not require anyone to marry or have children, however, in general Buddhists are encouraged to only have one wife. Marriage is treated as a personal decision, as is the decision to have children, and it is not considered a religious duty or sacrament.[8]

Tibet has the largest polyandrous (one woman with more than one husband) community in the world, and polyandry is also common for Buddhists living in Ladakh, Bhutan, and in other portions of the Indian subcontinent. Traditionally in Tibet, having multiple spouses was not viewed as having sex inappropriately, and nomadic Tibetans in Nepal have practiced fraternal polyandry (one woman with men related as brothers). Until 2010, Thailand legally recognized polygyny.[9]

[1] “The King and I (1956_film),” Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[2] At the time of his death, he had 32 wives and 82 children. “Mongkut/Reign as King,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 10, 2013.

[3] “Anna and the King,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[4] “Anna and the King of Siam (film)”, Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[5] “Africa’s Potentate of Polygamy,” LA Times, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[6] “History of Polygamy,” PolygamyStop.org, retrieved June 5, 2013.

[7] “Polygamy,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[8] “Buddhist Views on Marriage,” Budsas.org, retrieved June 6, 2013.

[9] “Polygamy,” Wikipedia, retrieved June 4, 2013.

Gandhi’s Advice to Christians


Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest non-Christians of the last century. He was educated in England and became a very serious student of the Bible. He loved Jesus and yet he chose not to become a Christian and remained a Hindu. Why? Because he was generally not impressed by what he saw in the lives of most Christians he knew.

Gandhi developed a deep friendship with E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), a Christian missionary to India. In Chapter 29 of Brian McLaren’s book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, he wrote, “Like other great Christian missionaries in India, Jones neither watered down his deep commitment to Christ, nor did he set out to knock down the world’s third-largest religion so he could replace it with Christianity. He looked for a way that Christ could enter, incarnate himself within, and bless Hinduism just as he had done in sectors of Judaic culture, Greco-Roman culture, Celtic culture, Anglo-Saxon culture, and many other cultures through history. He envisioned a time when a new movement of Indian followers of Christ would model a new, non-Western kind of Christian faith, one that respected the Hindu roots in which it grew and one that brought blessing to its Hindu and Muslim neighbors.”

Jones asked, “I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall no longer be a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift and redemption. What would you suggest we do to make that possible?”

Gandhi gave Jones some deep and sincere advice to Christians who might seek to redirect believers in other religions to turn to Christianity. His advice is summarized in Chapter 29 of McLaren’s book:

  • Begin to live more like Jesus. “Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23, NKJV) Gandhi didn’t see in the Christians he knew a serious commitment to self denial and to pursuing the unique mission Jesus had given to them. And he didn’t see clear evidence that they were following the kind of direction(s) that Jesus would likely give to them. Jones saw the hundreds of millions of people of India speaking to him through Gandhi’s eyes, and saying, “If you will come to us in the spirit of your Master, we cannot resist you.”
  • Practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down. Gandhi saw in the Christians he knew a tendency to water down the Gospel and to back off from talking about things that non-Christians might not understand or might take offense to. The tragedy is that, according to Jones, Christians are “inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing.”
  • Put your emphasis on love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity. Gandhi loved Jesus because he saw that Jesus’ focus was on love. Gandhi had encountered many Christians who focused on preaching a message of dealing with sin through confession and repentance as a means of avoiding divine judgment and condemnation. Jones noted, “He did not mean love as a sentiment, but love as a working force, the one real power in a moral universe, and he wanted it applied between individuals and groups and races and nations, the one cement and salvation of the world.”
  • Study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.

In his book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together, the Dalai Lama stated in his concluding chapter, “This book has traced the journey of a Buddhist monk who has had the precious opportunity to glimpse the vast expanse and multifaceted richness of the world’s great religions. This journey has, without doubt, enriched my practice within my own Buddhist faith. In particular, the profound convergence of all the major religions on compassion has reinforced my conviction of the centrality of compassion as a universal spiritual value.”

If Christians take the time and energy to learn more about the beliefs and practices of the religions people they meet are trying to follow, this will do much to convince those people that Christians care about them, rather than their getting the sense that Christians see no real value in alternative faiths.

Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma (Myanmar)

The prevalent image of Buddhists as passive, nonviolent people is very largely true. However, there are a few vivid counterexamples. Burma (Myanmar) is at least 90 percent Buddhist, and yet it has had a very long, bloody past of conflict with its neighbors as well as internally. Warfare and internal strife have characterized Burmese history since around A.D. 1300. That’s over 700 years! Since 1962, when a military junta seized power, Burma has been ruled by one of the most oppressive, violent governments in the world.[1]  Under its present government, it was ranked as the fourteenth worst country[2] in terms of human rights violations.[3]

When a majority of people in a country share a common belief, followers of contrasting minority religions may be treated poorly or harshly. Antagonisms can escalate into mob violence. Such is the case in Burma.

Reuters recently reported that following a dispute between a Buddhist woman selling gasoline and a Muslim man, the man poured it over her and set her on fire. The police detained the man, and a Buddhist mob demanded that he be handed over to them. When the police refused, two days of widespread violence broke out resulting in a mosque, a school, and Muslim homes and shops being torched. Groups of young men and boys roamed through the city on motorcycles singing nationalist songs. One person was killed and four were injured in the mob violence, and the Muslim populace has vacated the area. “In other regions, such as Rakhine State where hundreds were killed last year, and in the central city of Meikhtila where at least 44 people died in March, there have been signs of ethnic cleansing, and of impunity for those inciting it.”[4]

When a Christian pastor or leader becomes embroiled in a scandal, their hypocrisy is often highlighted by anti-Christian media.[5]  When a Buddhist fails to live righteously, however, it usually takes place with little notice and little or no media coverage. When Buddhist scandals are exposed, it is assumed that the individual is at fault, and not that Buddhism is somehow inadequate. One exception to this is Patrick French, author of Tibet, Tibet, who summarized his disillusionment with Buddhism this way:

As I studied Buddhism more closely, some of the failings began to show, and I noticed the schisms, bigots, frauds, hypocrites and predators that you will find in any ecclesiastical system. I was put off too by the tone of many of the foreign converts, who thought they could strip the tradition of its tough ethical underpinnings. They were implausible, with their showy accoutrements of conversion, their beads and bracelets, their devotion to instant spiritual empowerment, their reliance on airport-hopping teachers who were not always taken seriously by Tibetans. Then there were the prominent blunders: the teacher and promoter Sogyal Rinpoche, served with a lawsuit for seducing a student; and the Nyingmapa monk Penor Rinpocke who, in the most dubious circumstances, identified the high-kicking Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal (Marked for Death, Hard to Kill) as a reincarnation of the seventeenth-century master Chungdrag Dorje. [6]

Perhaps out of sympathy for oppressed Tibet, or out of distaste for Christianity and a desire to promote alternatives to it, or all of the above, with few exceptions the media have only projected attractive images of Buddhists. However, a February 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times noted that:

Tibetan Buddhism’s image of placid chanting and sublime meditation belies a more edgy history, analysts say, replete with religious figures attacking each other and alliances between monasteries and brutal warlords. . . .

“We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism,” said Erik Curren, author of “Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today.” It’s really like a civil war. There’s lots of acrimony.” . . .

Some analysts said some Westerners have a rosy-eyed view of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps a reflection of their disillusionment with Western religions. . . .

“Inter-sect conflicts involving physical violence is nothing new,” Curren said. “It’s just like any religion. It has its share of bad apples, but that doesn’t spoil the whole barrel. The sooner Westerners realize that, the better.”[7]

In spite of the widespread Buddhist emphasis on tolerance of those with other beliefs, there are a number of countries with a Buddhist majority where Christians claim they are being actively and harshly persecuted by Buddhists.[8]  Among them are Burma,[9] Tibet,[10] Bhutan,[11] Sri Lanka,[12] and Vietnam[13].

In Burma, religious unrest and ethnic hatred are not new, and Buddhists are not immune to committing acts of retaliation or mob violence.

[1] “History of Burma,” Wikipedia, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[2] “The Observer Human Rights Index,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[3] “Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights,” Amnesty International, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[4] “Buddhist mobs attack Muslim homes in Myanmar, One Dead,” Reuters, retrieved May 30, 2013.

[5] “Christian Evangelist Scandals,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 14, 2011.

[6] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 26–27.

[7] Mark Magnier, “A Tempest in Tibetan Temples,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2011, retrieved February 9, 2011.

[8] See clickable map at “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs, retrieved July 28, 2010.

[9] Burma is 83 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. According to Voice of the Martyrs (VOM),

The government of Burma continues to discourage, harass and use other, more severe, forms of persecution on any group it considers harmful to the state. Christianity is high on the list, even though the government claims freedom of religion in Burma. A secret memo titled “Program to destroy the Christian religion in Burma,” details instructions on how to drive out Christians. It calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned. VOM has received widespread reports of churches being burned, forcible conversion of Christians to Buddhism and Christian children being barred from schools. Ethnic Christians, in particular, are singled out for repression because of the government’s goal to create a uniform society of one language, one ethnicity and one religion.

Source: “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs, (emphasis added).

[10] Tibet is 80 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Christian. Voice of the Martyrs reported that

Most of the persecution against Christians comes from militant Tibetan Buddhists. There may be about 1,000 evangelical and 2,000 Catholic Christians among the five million Tibetans in the world, and there are at least two groups of secret believers in Tibet. . . . Pastor Zhang Zhongxin was given two years of re-education through labor in 2008 for his crimes, one of which was preaching the gospel in Tibet.

Source: “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs, (emphasis added).

[11] Bhutan is 72 percent Buddhist, 23 percent Hindu, and 0.5 percent Christian. According to Voice of the Martyrs:

Bhutan is one of the most restricted nations in the world for Christians. All public worship and evangelism by non-Buddhists is illegal. Churches are never permitted to evangelize. Christian family members can meet together, but they cannot meet with other Christian families. Importing printed religious material is banned, and only Buddhist religious texts are allowed in the country. Bhutanese Christians face subtle forms of discrimination from their families as well as pressure to reconvert to Buddhism.

Source: “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs, (emphasis added).

[12] Sri Lanka is 72 percent Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu, 8 percent Muslim, and 8 percent Christian.  Voice of the Martyrs reports:

Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, minority Protestant religions have experienced violent persecution as well as discrimination in employment and education. . . . Much of the persecution comes from local Buddhist groups. . . . Threats to close down churches have prevented some church members from meeting for worship.

Source: “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs, (emphasis added).

[13] Vietnam is 54 percent Buddhist and 8 percent Christian. Voice of the Martyrs says:

Persecution of Christians is harsh, particularly for unregistered and ethnic minority churches. Many churches have chosen to remain unregistered because of the unreasonable restrictions the government imposes on registered churches and believers. Arbitrary arrests, harassment and fines are common. Many Christians are in prison. Only a few have been released, and many have been forced to renounce their faith. Several ethnic Christians reportedly died after being released from prison or while in police custody because of injuries caused by torture.

Source: “Restricted Nations,” Voice of the Martyrs.

Wrestling with the Four Noble Truths

Over the past year and a quarter, I have taught four classes on Buddhism at a local university. Class sizes ranged from 12 to 55. Every time, most of the students had a difficult time adopting the Four Noble Truths as something they generally agreed with. Each time, though, nearly all the students were comfortable and approving of each step of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path.

The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Desire is the cause of suffering.
  3. The path to liberation from suffering is to renounce all desire.
  4. The way leading to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

World View
The majority of Eastern culture works from the premise of repeated reincarnation, and the law of cause and effect (karma). If you have done something bad in a previous life or this life, it will cause you suffering. Even with the most earnest effort, the Buddha didn’t believe anyone could go through life without doing something bad or hurtful, therefore there would always be suffering.

Westerners are primed by our culture to believe that life is about “the pursuit of happiness.” They do not generally believe that all of life is inherently suffering. While everyone experiences a lot of suffering in this life, there are also many experiences of happiness and joy because of the blessings God bestows on people, particularly when people are grateful to God and give thanks to him for those blessings. Among these are the blessings of marriage, family, work, recreation, fellowship with other believers and worshiping God.

Desire and Suffering
Regarding the Second Noble Truth, Westerners would tend to disagree with Buddha that all suffering is caused by desire. While wrong desires definitely do cause suffering, many desires are wholesome and may not cause any suffering at all, but rather bring about happiness and joy. The love that a husband and wife have for one another can cause a great deal of joy (though not always), and many kinds of suffering come into being that have no ostensible connection with what one is desiring. Accidents occur and people are injured. People get cancer, or some other kind of disease, that might be hereditary or be due to unintentional exposure to environmental hazards.

Renouncing Desire
With respect to the Third Noble Truth, most Westerners would look at accidents and many diseases and would disagree with Buddha that the way to prevent accidents and all diseases is to simply empty one’s self of all desires. If these types of suffering were not caused by desire in the first place, then eliminating all desires won’t eliminate that type of suffering either.

So how is it that someone so profoundly respected as the Buddha could potentially be so wrong about some of the most prominent fundamentals of his religion, or was he right and Westerners are so wrong? To get a better understanding of this, it helps to realize that the Buddha assumed that karma and reincarnation governed the universe, and that most Westerners do not assume reincarnation, but rather that there is just one life here on earth, whether they believe in life after death or not. Most Westerners who believe in life after death, believe only in one life after death, to be spent in either heaven or hell.

Why does this matter regarding the nature of the Four Noble Truths? The basis of a person’s world view informs his or her beliefs. If you believe in reincarnation, then when bad things happen to someone who has seemingly always been good, there is an easy explanation—they did something bad in a prior life. For typical Westerners, this simple explanation is not available. Most Westerners believe that bad things can either be the result of bad karma from past actions in this life, or from accidents or inexplicable diseases.

Your assumptions regarding karma and reincarnation strongly influence your willingness to embrace the first three Noble Truths or to reject them as untrue.

Who Needs a Savior?

Most people think they are good enough to make it to heaven, or nirvana. They haven’t done anything really bad and they’ve done quite a bit of good. And that will surely outweigh the bad things they’ve done.

This raises an important question: how effective is good karma versus bad karma? If you curse someone, could the bad karma generated by your harsh words be cancelled out by the good karma created by your blessing someone with kind words?

Shantideva (6-7th C.E.) explains the importance of patience to the Mahāyāna path in the opening stanzas of the chapter on patience in his Way of the Bodhisattva:

1. Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones (buddhas) –
A single flash of anger shatters them all.[1]

Note that “a flash of anger” is just a feeling, which may not even have been verbalized. And yet it wipes out the good karma generated by a thousand lifetimes of good works. That’s frightening!

Some might say that they are good because they haven’t broken one or more of the Ten Commandments. They haven’t stolen anything, or murdered anyone, or committed adultery. And they may honor their mother and father, in general, not counting their teenage years. But while there’s a good chance they haven’t specifically violated some commandments, are these people aware of the other commandments? Most “good” people tell the truth, almost all the time, except for white lies, fudging on tax returns, and so forth. But have they never “coveted,” or desired someone else’s spouse or possessions? Have they never sworn? Have they always kept the Sabbath as a holy day? Have they never sought some idol (i.e., some person or thing other than God that they look to as their hope for happiness and satisfaction)? Everyone today pursues some kind of idol, whether it is money, prosperity, power, fame, or a comfortable retirement. These are all idols. Very few “good” people have kept more than three or four of the Ten Commandments.

What about the person that can truly say they have never done anything that broke one of the Ten Commandments? Have they been so good as to have earned salvation on their own? What if they have only had bad thoughts, but not bad actions?

The Buddha believed that one’s thoughts are extremely important, so much so that he started out his collection of 423 proverbs with these two proverbs:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.[2]

So, according to the Buddha, having a bad thought is virtually as bad as committing a bad action. What did Jesus have to say about this?

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.[3]

Then Jesus continued, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[4]

A sacred Buddhist text tells the story about an old Brahman who asked Buddha, “How can . . . a priest follow all the commandments and escape from all his sins?”  Buddha answered that even if he were to do all manner of good deeds and keep all the commandments every day,

your good deeds would be worth no more than a strand of baby hair still in its mother’s womb for 8 months. It is not even good enough to get close to the gates of Heaven. . . . I myself have left all my princely inheritance, abandoned lust and became a monk. I esteem that my good deeds are not few. I hold onto the 8 commandments, even up to 100,000. If I could do this and give away everything I have for 10 lives, yet I still cannot get over one of my sins.

The Brahman pressed on, “If this be the case, what must I do to get over all my sins?”

Buddha told him, “Let all of you do a good deed and seek for another Holy One who will come and save the world.”[5]

Since bad deeds, and even just bad thoughts, generate a heavy weight of bad karma, and good deeds and thoughts only generate a comparatively small amount of good karma, if your fate in some afterlife is determined by what you think and say and do in this life, you are almost certainly destined to be found unworthy. That is why even “good” people need a savior. We all struggle as our feet sink into the quagmire created by our own bad karma and need to be rescued and pulled out of our self-created quagmire by a Higher Power.

To understand better what a “savior” is, read our March 18, 2013 blog article, Making Sense of the Cross.

[1] “Bodhisattva,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva, retrieved May 8, 2013 (emphasis added).

[2] Dhammapada 1-2, Wikipedia, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dhammapada_(Muller), retrieved May 8, 2013.

[3] Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV).

[4] Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV).

[5] Steve Cioccolanti, From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. (Oxford: Lion Hudson, Monarch, 2007), 147–148 (emphasis added).

Parallels Between the Beatitudes of Jesus and the Proverbs of Solomon and the Buddha: Part II

In this second part of a two-part blog, we examine four more of the Beatitudes and some parallels in Solomon’s writings and the Buddha’s proverbs.


Jesus taught that the merciful are blessed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”[1] Solomon wrote that one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy, “He who covers his transgressions will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes his sins will obtain mercy.”[2] The Buddha admonished that one has attained righteousness when he is not faultfinding or murderous, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana[3] who finds no fault with other beings, whether feeble or strong, and does not kill nor cause slaughter.”[4] Faultfinding and judging can escalate into hatred and murder. We ought not to pay back wrongs done to us or harbor hatred in our hearts, but seek to be merciful.


In addition to being merciful, Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed and will be known as the sons of God, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”[5] Solomon counseled that if God takes pleasure in our way, he will cause even our enemies to be a peace with us, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”[6] The Buddha exhorted that a righteous person is tolerant with intolerant people, mild with those who are fault-finders, and free from passion (desires) even when among those captured by their passions, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana who is tolerant with the intolerant, mild with fault-finders, and free from passion among the passionate.”[7] It is a blessing to be a peacemaker, and in doing so, we may often find that our peacemaking ways will diffuse situations that might otherwise erupt into unpleasant or even dangerous situations.


Jesus taught that when we mourn, we will be comforted, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[8] Solomon advised that it’s better to be in a house of mourning than one of feasting, because we are all destined to die, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”[9] The Buddha counseled that the one who knows the end of life (end of suffering) and has put down his burdens is a righteous one, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled.”[10] It is important to know that our time on this earth is brief, and when we mourn the loss of loved ones that we will be comforted.


Jesus said that we are blessed when we are persecuted for doing the right thing, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[11] Solomon wrote that a righteous person will be rescued from trouble, and it will land upon the wicked instead, “The righteous is delivered from trouble, and it comes to the wicked instead.”[12] He also taught that justice comes from God, “Many seek an audience with a ruler, but it is from the Lord that one gets justice.”[13] The Buddha admonished that a righteous person even though he has not committed an offence endures unjust persecution and punishment, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, though he has committed no offence, endures reproach, bonds, and stripes, who has endurance for his force, and strength for his army.”[14] When the righteous man is punished, even though he does not deserve it, he can endure it with a quiet strength.

[1] Matthew 5:7 (NIV).

[2] Proverbs 28:13 (AMP).

[3] Brahmana: One who has attained enlightenment.

[4] Dhammapada 405.

[5] Matthew 5:9 (NIV).

[6] Proverbs 16:7 (NKJV).

[7] Dhammapada 406.

[8] Matthew 5:4 (NIV).

[9] Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NIV).

[10] Dhammapada 402.

[11] Matthew 5:10 (NIV).

[12] Proverbs 11:8 (NKJV).

[13] Proverbs 29:26 (NIV).

[14] Dhammapada 399.

Parallels Between the Beatitudes of Jesus and the Proverbs of Solomon and the Buddha: Part I

In this first part of a two-part blog, we examine four of the Beatitudes and some parallels in Solomon’s writings and the Buddha’s proverbs.


Jesus’ opening statement in the sermon on the Sermon on the Mount was, “Blessed are the poor in spirit [humble people], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[1] While there is a difference between humility and financial poverty, the two can go hand in hand. The following proverbs of Solomon allude to both:

Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than he who is perverse in speech and is a fool.[2]

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning.[3]

Better is a little with righteousness than great income with injustice.[4]

Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to covetousness (robbery, sensuality, unworthy riches).[5]

In a similar vein, the Buddha encourages freedom from possessions and the love of the world, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana[6] who calls nothing his own, whether it be before, behind, or between, who is poor, and free from the love of the world.”[7] To be humble, to be free from the love of the world, and to turn our hearts towards wisdom and away from covetousness and selfish gain is wise.


Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek [i.e., enduring injury with patience and without resentment, for a noble cause (e.g., Gandhi)], for they will inherit the earth.”[8] Solomon taught that God would show favor to the humble and oppressed, “Though He scoffs at the scoffers and scorns the scorners, yet He gives His undeserved favor to the low [in rank], the humble, and the afflicted.”[9] The Buddha emphasized being one who controls his emotions, appetites, and behaviors, “Him I call indeed a Brahmana who is free from anger, dutiful, virtuous, without appetite, who is subdued, and has received his last body.”[10] In these proverbs, we find a portrait of one who is patient, humble, without resentment, and exhibits self-control.

Pure in Heart

Jesus taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”[11] Solomon encouraged loving a pure heart, speaking with grace, delighting in wisdom, and being righteous:

One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend.[12]

To do evil is like sport to a fool, but a man of understanding has wisdom.[13]

The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.[14]

The Buddha exhorted us not to cling to pleasure or desire, which may describe a pure heart, and he encouraged laying down our burdens.

Him I call indeed a Brahmana who does not cling to pleasures, like water on a lotus leaf, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.[15]

Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled.[16]

It is a blessing to have a pure heart, delight in wisdom and righteousness, speak with grace, and be free from the evil and burdens of this world.

Thirst for Righteousness

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”[17] Solomon wrote, “Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.”[18] The Buddha taught such a person’s “glory would increase” (he would be renowned), “If an earnest person has roused himself, if he is not forgetful, if his deeds are pure, if he acts with consideration, if he restrains himself, and lives according to law, then his glory will increase.”[19] Purity in mind, heart, body, and deed, and a thirst for living a righteous life paves the way to becoming fulfilled.

[1] Matthew 5:3 (NIV).

[2] Proverbs 19:1 (NASB).

[3] Ecclesiastes 4:13 (NIV).

[4] Proverbs 16:8 (NASB).

[5] Psalm 119:36 (AMP).

[6] Brahmana: One who has attained enlightenment.

[7] Dhammapada 421.

[8] Matthew 5:5 (NIV).

[9] Proverbs 3:34 (AMP).

[10] Dhammapada 400.

[11] Matthew 5:8 (NIV).

[12] Proverbs 22:11 (NIV).

[13] Proverbs 10:23 (NKJV).

[14] Proverbs 11:6 (NIV).

[15] Dhammapada 401.

[16] Dhammapada 402.

[17] Matthew 5:6 (NIV).

[18] Proverbs 21:21 (NIV).

[19] Dhammapada 24.

Is Buddhism Not a Religion?

I have often heard it said that Buddhism is not a religion. That it is more of a philosophy or a spiritual method of practice.

Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as:

  • “the service and worship of God or the supernatural;
  • commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance;
  • a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”

Buddhism is very diverse, so the answer to this may differ between the various branches of Buddhism. In this article, we will look at Tibetan (Vajrayana) as one major branch and examine the question of whether it is a religion. For example, an Western ethnic lay practitioner would perform some or all of the following daily practices:

  • You rise early, between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., to begin your day with meditation.
  • You walk around (circumambulate) your house, which holds a sacred shrine containing statues, scrolls, and other ritual objects.
  • As you walk, you finger your mala (Buddhist rosary) while chanting a sacred mantra such as Om mani padme hum (the famous mantra of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion) or the longer mantra of Vajrasattva, the bodhisattva of clarity and purification.
  • After cleaning your shrine, you offer 108 prostrations . . . as an expression of your devotion to and refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, dharma, and sangha). [Start on your hands and knees, then lie completely flat on your stomach, while lying flat raise your hands upwards as if praying, then push up from the ground and repeat.]
  • You engage in a particular practice your teacher has given you, often a visualization of a particular deity accompanied by chanting, prayer, and prostrations.
  • As you go about your day, you constantly chant Om mani padme hum, either aloud or silently to yourself, while cultivating the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness for all beings.
  • You spend an hour or two in the evening studying certain special teachings recommended by your teacher.
  • Before you go to sleep, you make offerings of incense and candles at your altar, meditate, do additional prostrations, and recite long-life prayers for your teacher and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.[1]

Some elements of Buddhism do not fulfill the strict definition of religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” However, if you examine Tibetan Buddhism, it has a personal and institutionalized system of beliefs and practices involving deities. In particular, the rituals listed above of meditation, circumambulation, chanting, prostrations, prayer, study, and offerings bear out the definition of religion.


The gateway to the Vajrayana is what is know as “empowerment.” As empowerment is generally a very elaborate ceremony wherein a highly respected lama will confer the blessings of a particular Buddhist deity, such as, for example, Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion. During an empowerment ceremony, the lama plants a “seed” in the student’s mind that will eventually ripen in the student, through practice and devotion, manifesting the enlightened qualities of that deity. An empowerment marks a student’s formal entrance into the tantric path.[2]

Examining some elements of the Tibetan empowerment ceremonies, also called initiations, we find that these initiations involve deities or yidam, of which there are thousands, each with their own empowerment ceremony. The ceremony is conducted by a lama, who bestows the empowerment.[3]

An Empowerment is an authorization to do the various stages of meditation associated with a particular deity. . . .[4]

Unless you first obtain the ripening empowerments, you are not authorized to hear even a single verse of the tantras, statements and instructions. Unauthorized people who engage in expounding on and listening to the tantras will not only fail to receive blessings; they will create immense demerit from divulging the secrecy of these teachings.[5]

The empowerment ceremony is considered the way to directly transmit the truth of Buddhism from the lama to the lay practitioner.[6] Before the ceremony, the lay person prepares by washing and putting on clean clothes.[7] He or she needs to be prepared the prostrate themselves before the lama.[8] Saffron water or liquor is given to seal the commitments made.

The samaya vows . . . are given with some saffron water or alcoholic liquor to seal the commitments, along with a stern warning about what may happen to those who break these commitments. At this point, we have reached the point of no return and have committed ourselves to being tantric practitioners.[9]

Three main elements of the empowerments involve purifying the body, speech and mind, however, during purifying the body, the lay person is authorized to visualize themselves as a deity.

If there are three main empowerments, the first is the body empowerment. This purifies the defilements of body, such as illness, and authorizes the disciple to visualize herself a deity. The speech empowerment purifies defilements of speech and breath and allows the student to recite the deity’s mantra. The empowerment of mind purifies the mind and permits the students to dissolve the visualization and rest their minds in buddha-nature.[10]

During the ceremony, vows are made, however, the sheer number of vows can make them impossible to keep.

There are . . . other Smaya vows that are implicit in the empowerment even though they will probably not be mentioned during the ceremony. Nonetheless, it is your responsibility to find out what they are and to try to keep them as well as you can. There are thousands and thousands of these vows, some clearly more important than others and many nearly impossible to keep. . . . Find out which ones he [the lama] feels are the crucial ones, how to keep them, and what to do if they are broken.[11]

In view of the practices borne out in the empowerment ceremony, the Tibetan (Vajrayana) form of Buddhism fulfills the definition of a religion.

[1] Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian, Buddhism for Dummies, (Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2003), 172.

[2] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 29.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid, 31.

[5] Ibid., 31. Quoted from Tsele Rinpoche, Empowerment, (Kathmandu: Rangjung Yeshue Publications, 1994), 15.

[6] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 37.