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,”, 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,, retrieved May 8, 2013 (emphasis added).

[2] Dhammapada 1-2, Wikipedia,, 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.

Violence in Thailand and Burma

Particularly in the West, Buddhism is considered a calm, almost passive religion. Its adherents are known for spending long periods of time meditating. But recent headlines regarding activities in Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) would be contrary to that notion.

Ashin Wirathu is a 46-year-old Buddhist monk and spiritual leader in Burma. He has been accused of hate speech, and is active on YouTube and other social media forums. Due to his vitriolic speeches against the Rohingya Muslims, he was sentenced in 2003 to 25 years in prison, but was released in 2010.[i] The July 1, 2013 edition of Time magazine featured Wirathu’s face on the cover, with the cover article’s title, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”[ii]

On May 4, 2015, the Associated Press reported the arrest of three Thai officials and a citizen of Burma (Mayanmar) after the finding 26 graves on the southern border of Thailand near Malaysia.[iii]

By May 6, CNN reported that number had grown to 30 to 40 graves of people believed to have been held by human traffickers. Southern Thailand is known as a “hot-spot for human trafficking.” Last year, the U.S. State Department reported Thailand as a Tier 3, the lowest ranking, in its “Trafficking in Persons” report. The remains are thought to be of Rohingya Muslims, fleeing from the ethnic violence in Buddhist-majority Burma. They are smuggled and/or captured by human traffickers and held for ransom. If they are unable to pay, they are held until they die from starvation or disease.[iv]

During the police raid, one lone survivor was found. He was left behind, because he could not walk. During his nine month captivity, he was moved between seven different camps. He estimated that 200 people were being held. He told police that the camp they found is not the only one with graves. A Rohingya activist, Abdul Kalam, estimates that dozens of camps have been set up, and that this raid has revealed “just the tip of the iceberg.” [v]

Most Americans see Buddhists as non-violent. Most Americans view Thailand as idyllic and credit that to Buddhism. The reality is that both Thailand and Burma are deeply troubled countries, and Buddhists are not immune to committing violence.

[i] “Ashin Wirathu,” Wikipedia,, retrieved on June 11, 2015.

[ii] “Ashin Wirathu: Myanmar and its vitriolic monk,”,, retrieved on June 11, 2015. See,9171,2146000,00.html for the text of the Time magazine article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

[iii] “Thailand arrests 4, vows crackdown on human traffickers,”,, retrieved on June 11, 2015.

[iv] “At least 30 graves found in southern Thailand, and a lone survivor,”,, retrieved June 11, 2015.

[v] “Thailand arrests 4, vows crackdown on human traffickers,”,, retrieved on June 11, 2015.


Making Sense of the Cross

To most Asians, the cross does not make sense. If anything, its appeal is very negative. Why glorify the brutal death of Jesus?

If Jesus were just a great teacher, his crucifixion would just be another tragic event in history. But it was far more than that, because he was far more than a great teacher. God chose to become a man and come humbly to earth in an effort to reconcile to himself as many of mankind as would believe in him and follow him. So Jesus voluntarily submitted himself to be crucified to pay the penalty of death for the rebelliousness of the human race.

To better appreciate all this let’s take a look at an analogy from what could have been part of American history.

Suppose we had lost the Revolutionary War. All the signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured, bound in chains and deported to England for trial, along with hundreds of other POWs.

King George III of England had issued a special decree during the uproar in the American colonies before the war began. Many public leaders advocated not paying taxes to the British government, inciting armed rebellion against the Crown. The King’s decree bluntly declared that the minimum penalty for such treason was hanging.

As the day for the trial of the revolutionary leaders and the American POWs approached, King George was quite grieved. He knew well that many of the signers were great men. They were able leaders of their respective colonies, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Hancock. He could not bear to hang all of them, as well as hundreds of other POWs.

The King sought a reduced penalty as an alternative—20 years hard labor in prison. However, Parliament demanded justice. They all must be executed. Many in Parliament felt the King didn’t have the power to reduce the sentences. Yet, since no one had disputed his power to issue the original decree of high treason, he arguably had the power to modify his own decree.

The king was very sorrowful. If he had allowed the American colonies to have representatives in Parliament, war would have been avoided. Out of his great remorse, he made a radical proposal. He himself would be hung instead of the leaders of the revolution. The only way this substitution could be seen as adequate was that George was King and ultimate Judge of the British Empire. So, Parliament accepted the King’s proposal. The King was hung. All 700 of the American captives were released and returned to America and the American colonies were given representation in Parliament.

Why did Jesus volunteer to be executed?

Jesus volunteered to suffer the death penalty to release people from guilt for their rebellion against God. His sacrifice was sufficient because He was God and ultimate Judge of all human beings. So, the divinity of Jesus was essential for him to be an acceptable substitute for all of mankind for the death penalty that we all face. To be spared of their guilt, however, each person must willingly accept his astonishing act of mercy and grace.

In the days of Noah, God deeply regretted creating mankind.

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.[1]

Jesus, being one with God, took part in this sorrow. He also wept over Jerusalem.[2] The context makes it clear that Jesus wept because Jerusalem had again rejected one of God’s prophets (himself) and sought his death. Yet he may also have wept because he felt responsible for participating in creating the human race and granting it free will, making possible the epidemic of spiritual rebellion and wickedness among all human beings. So his volunteering to be sacrificed may well have been due partly to his sorrow over this.

Is the death penalty unfair?

Isn’t God’s insistence on the death penalty unjust and excessive? Let’s look at the context of this decree. God had created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve to live in. It was truly paradise, yet there was one condition. Neither of them were to eat of the fruit of the tree of life in the middle of the garden. They chose to disobey and God gave this decree to Adam:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.[3]

Later, in the book of Ezekiel, God (and Jesus) gave this decree: “Behold, all souls are Mine…The soul who sins will die.”[4]

This may seem unfair unless we consider that each human life is a gift from God, not a right. Each individual life is a miracle, not a routine happening. As Job said,

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.[5]

What about the Buddha?

Though Buddha possessed great wisdom and legends of supernatural powers, he bowed dutifully to karma as the undisputed king of the universe. He did not have the power to alter the operation of karma. Yet Jesus has that power, and on the basis of his divine person and authority, he can free an individual from the guilt of all their past wrongdoings.

[1] Genesis 6:5-8 (NKJV).

[2] Luke 19:41.

[3] Genesis 3:17-19 (NKJV).

[4] Ezekiel 18:4 (NASB).

[5] Job 1:21 (NKJV).

Steve Jobs & Buddhism

Steve Jobs is known around the world as the visionary co-founder of Apple, Inc. He was instrumental in the remarkable success of Apple and its products including the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad, as well as making his mark in the film industry as the CEO and majority stockholder of Pixar, the highly successful animated film company known for the Toy Story movies, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. Pixar was later purchased by The Walt Disney Company, where Jobs served on the Board of Directors.[1] The subject of numerous books, documentaries, films and even a play, he will also be the subject of an independent film jOBS starring Ashton Kutcher.[2] The film premiered at the Sundance Festival on January 25, 2013 and will open in theaters on April 19, 2013.[3]

During his early career he traveled to India and spent seven months there. After returning to the U.S., he experimented with LSD and became a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.[4] But, as blogger Steve Silberman asks, “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?”[5] In discussing the book Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, Silberman notes,

Isaacson does a fine job of showing how Jobs’ engagement with Buddhism was more than just a lotus-scented footnote to a brilliant Silicon Valley career. As a young seeker in the ’70s, Jobs didn’t just dabble in Zen, appropriating its elliptical aesthetic as a kind of exotic cologne. He turns out to have been a serious, diligent practitioner who undertook lengthy meditation retreats at Tassajara — the first Zen monastery in America, located at the end of a twisting dirt road in the mountains above Carmel — spending weeks on end “facing the wall,” as Zen students say, to observe the activity of his own mind.

Silberman also discusses books that influenced Jobs, such as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungap Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which was compiled from lectures by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, and the influence that his teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa had in his life. Silberman believes that Job’s gutsy showmanship may have been inspired by stories about legendary Zen masters.

I suspect that Jobs’ chutzpah as the Valley’s most dramatic and effective showman was inspired, at least in part, by the mythical Zen rogues who drank sake, caroused with whores, shunned temples, mocked hollow rituals, sat zazen in caves, and turn out to be the only ones worthy of inheriting the old master’s robe and bowl by the end of the story. Zen flourishes in irreverence, subversion, inscrutability, and self-mockery — all words that describe Jobs’ style but the last.[6]

While many of Job’s attributes as an inventor and entrepreneur may have by influenced by his Buddhist beliefs, he lacked the basic tenet of treating others with respect and lovingkindness.

Isaacson is admirably frank about the core tenet of Buddhism that Jobs seems to have bypassed: the importance of treating everyone around you, even perceived enemies, with basic respect and lovingkindness. It’s tempting now to cast Jobs’ tantrums, casual brutality, and constant berating of “sh–heads” [my edit] as the brave refusal to compromise his ideal of perfection — even as a kind of tough love that inspired his employees to transcend their own limitations. But a more skillful practitioner would have tried to find ways to bring out the genius in his employees without humiliating them — and certainly would have found ways of manufacturing products that didn’t cause so much suffering for impoverished workers in other countries.[7] The moment in Isaacson’s book when Jobs tells the Mobile Me team after the project’s disastrous début, “You should hate each other for having let each other down,” shows that even near the end of his life, Jobs had more to learn from his teachers.

NBCNews reports that ten employees of Foxconn, a Taipei-based manufacturer for Apple, Hewlett Packard and Dell, have committed suicide. It is believed to be due to working conditions: no conversation on the production line permitted, only ten-minute bathroom breaks every two hours permitted, and that workers are being yelled at.[8]

So what type of Buddhist was Steve Jobs? It would be safe to say he was at least in some important ways a hypocrite. While he seemed to embrace Buddhist ideas that fostered his creativity and success, he side-stepped a very basic tenet of Buddhism, respect and kindness toward all. We see that some Buddhists are hypocrites, just as are some Christians. Actually, if we are honest about it, human nature is such that we may all be hypocrites, especially if we include the wayward nature of our thoughts and feelings. Both Buddhism and Christianity clearly teach that what we think and feel are virtually as important as our outward actions. So, even if our outward behavior is above reproach, the occasionally serious, wayward content of our minds and hearts could cause us to fall short.

[1] “Steve Jobs,” Wikipedia,, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[2] “Steve Jobs: Portrayals and coverage in books, film, and theater,” Wikipedia,, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[3] “Jobs (film),” Wikipedia,, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[4] “Steve Jobs: Early Career,” Wikipedia,, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[5] Steve Silberman, “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?”, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephanie Wong, John Liu and Time Culpan, “Why Apple is Nervous About Foxconn,”,, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[8] Ibid.

Reviews: Becoming Enlightened and Jesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

lamaBecoming Enlightened

Becoming Enlightened is a practical introduction to and handbook for anyone wanting an understanding of the practices and beliefs of Buddhism.

The information in the book is presented in prose, and twice again in “contemplations” or abbreviated lists itemizing the information. The first of these lists appears in the chapter initially presenting the information, and then all the contemplations are repeated again in a single chapter at the end of the book for quick reference.

Buddhist practices emphasize selflessness, altruism, kindness, tolerance, and compassion. Topics regarding karma, death and reincarnation, the impermanence of life, being a positive force for change, and developing wisdom are discussed.

Speaking of Buddha, the Dalai Lama states,

People the world over, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not, are aware that there was someone called Gautama Buddha, praised for his profound and unique presentation on the nature of persons and objects and for his related teaching of the altruistic intention to become enlightened, in which others are cherished more than oneself. (page 216)

This accessible and matter-of-fact approach of presenting the steps for advancing toward enlightenment in every area of life is designed to assist the reader with making the practical day-to-day changes. For the non-Buddhist, it is an illuminating look into the philosophical underpinnings and practices of Buddhism.

It was written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D., who was his translator for ten years.

borgJesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

Editor Marcus Borg set out to list parallels between Jesus and Buddha’s teachings and lives, by demonstrating parallels between their sayings and in the events surrounding their lives. He outlines parallels in numerous areas of their teachings and life stories, such as compassion, wisdom, materialism, inner life, and temptation, to name just a few.


The primary purpose of the parallels collected in this volume is not to make a scholarly case for similarity. We would need to include many more, as well as the debate whether and to what degree the dissimilarities count against similarity. Rather, the purpose of this collection is to provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. . . .

And so I invite you to ponder the parallels between these two enlightened teachers of an enlightenment wisdom. The path of which they both speak is a path of liberation from our anxious grasping, resurrection into a new way of being, and transformation into the compassionate life. (Editor’s Preface, page 11)

However, we take exception to his conclusions on the basis of three points:

  1. While there are a few points of comparison, many of these may be attributed to being generally accepted truths. However, many of the so-called parallels are weak at best.
  2. The author’s assumptions are deeply flawed in that he presents the parallels as though the texts he is quoting from have equal veracity. He fails to note that the New Testament authors were disciples of Jesus and eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, while the sayings attributed to Buddha and the writings about Buddha were not put in written form until centuries after he lived, and many of the events attributed to Buddha as miraculous and which appear to be parallel to Jesus’ life are known to be myths that developed over the centuries and were not documented facts about his life at all.
  3. Rather than Buddha being an influence on Jesus, the author fails to observe that Solomon may have been an influence on Buddha, since Buddha would have had access to Solomon’s writings as a Prince of northern India. This premise is explored in R. E. Sherman’s book, Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

The editor offers this book as a volume for meditation, but the basic premise is so flawed as to nullify the value of this exercise.