Apostasy in Buddhism

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Apostasy is defined as “The state of having rejected your affiliation, religious or political beliefs, or principles (often in favour of opposing beliefs or causes)” (WordWeb).

Buddhism encourages a sceptical attitude, and does not demand blind faith. One becomes a Buddhist by the simple act of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, which is an expression of one’s confidence in the teachings. One becomes a virtuous Buddhist by undertaking and observing the five precepts (abstaining from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech, and taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness).

There are many followers of Buddhism who do not have full confidence in orthodox doctrines such as the law of kamma and rebirth, psychic powers, mind-reading, the existence of other realms of existence, etc. These core beliefs are elements of mundane right-view. However, being sceptical about these beliefs does not make anyone an apostate.

An apostate is someone like the monk Sunakkhatta who was angry with the Buddha, and left the Saṅgha.

By his own misdirected mind, Sunakkhatta set himself on a course that would inevitably lead to rebirth in hell. The Buddha did not inflict any punishment on him, Sunakkhatta’s path was one that he chose for himself. This is what the Maha-sihanada Sutta says regarding Sunakkhatta:

21. “Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

Just as a bhikkhu possessed of virtue, concentration and wisdom would here and now enjoy final knowledge, so it will happen in this case, I say, that unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

No Buddhist worthy of the name would want to kill or punish an apostate. They might want to reason with them to restore their faith, or they might ostracise them if they refused to listen to wise counsel.

See the Kesi Sutta. to understand the Buddhist attitude to apostates and others who adhere to wrong-views and engage in misdeeds.

A Question of Balance

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Buddhism / Insight Meditation

Understanding the Middle Path

On the full-moon night of Vesākha, the Bodhisatta become the Buddha after meditating the entire night at the culmination of a six year struggle to find the right path. Thereafter, he spent forty-five years propagating his “Middle Path” guiding others along the unique way that he had discovered.

In fact, he had been searching much longer than six years to find this middle path. Since the time of his vow at the feet of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, ninety-one aeons ago, as the ascetic Sumedha, he had dedicated 100% of his efforts throughout many lives to this quest for enlightenment. Even before meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, the Bodhisatta had practised meditation earnestly throughout many lives to accumulate perfections, and at the time of meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara he was an accomplished ascetic with mystic powers.

After his enlightenment he taught this “Middle Path” for more than forty-five years until his death at the age of over eighty. He called it the “Middle Path” because it avoided the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification, not because it requires only a moderate amount of effort to follow it. The facts clearly show that to follow the “Middle Path” requires a great deal of effort and dedication, though it does, of course, also require that effort to be well-balanced, equanimous, and rightly directed. It is not a path for fanatics or zealots, but one for pious devotees, serious students, and ardent meditators.

When we talk of a well-balanced approach to practice, one should not conjure up visions of balancing in a hammock on a sunny afternoon, nor of sitting on a fence not knowing which way to jump, but the balance of a long-distance athlete who runs as fast as possible with the least possible waste of energy, or the balance of a worker who climbs a ladder with a heavy load of bricks on his shoulder.

The Three Characteristics

First we should learn something about why we need to meditate, and what we are aiming to achieve by meditation. If our aim is wrong, our practice will be wrong, or even if it is right, we may give up easily if we don’t get the results that we expect.

The aim of the Buddha’s Middle Path of mindfulness meditation or insight meditation is to understand things as they really are, and thus remove craving, which is the cause of suffering. In short, we meditate in order to realise the three characteristics of imperma­nence (anicca), unsatis­factori­ness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). The purpose is not mental tranquillity, to enjoy a stress-free life, or to make merit.

One should have this basic understanding that the First Noble Truth — the truth of suffering — needs to be understood; the Second Noble Truth — the truth of the cause (craving) needs to be abandoned; the Third Noble Truth — the truth of cessation (nibbāna) — needs to be realised; and the Fourth Noble Truth — the truth of the Path — needs to be developed. If one has this basic understanding before one begins, one will not be surprised, disappointed, or alarmed if one discovers one or other of these three characteristics. On the contrary, one will be encouraged at the thought that one is making gradual progress on the Path to the end of suffering.


Not all Bodhisattas have to endure six hard years of self-mortifying practice. It depends on their past kamma. The reason that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle in this way is told in the Ghaṭikāra Sutta of the Majjhimanikāya. In that discourse, the Buddha relates to the Venerable Ānanda how, in a previous life, he himself was reborn as a Brahmin youth named Jotipāla, whose companion since childhood was a potter (that is the meaning of Ghaṭikāra — a maker of pots). This potter was a devout follower of the Buddha Kassapa, and a Non-returner, who supported his blind and aged parents by his simple craft. One day, Ghaṭikāra repeatedly urged his friend, Jotipāla, to go and visit the Buddha Kassapa, who was staying near by. Jotipāla, however, being proud due to his high caste family, was reluctant to visit a teacher of another religion. He remarked, “What is the use of going to see this bald-headed recluse?” Eventually, however, he gave in to the repeated urging of his friend, went to see the Buddha, gained faith in the Dhamma, and became a bhikkhu in his dispensation. It was due to those disrespectful words regarding the most noble of beings, that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle for six years before finding the Middle Path.

I hope you can see, therefore, the important role that respect pays in the practice of the Dhamma. If we listen respectfully to the teacher’s instructions, we will learn much more quickly, and avoid unskilful paths that only lead to more suffering. Even if the teacher explains something wrongly, if one listens respectfully, one will not be misled, but will realise that the teacher hasn’t explained it very clearly, or that one may have misunderstood what he meant. One will seek a second opinion or refer to the relevant books to clarify the teacher’s instruction, or proceed carefully, trusting one’s own experience.


Nothing worthwhile can be achieve in a short time unless one has done a lot of preparation. Consider how long the Bodhisatta had to strive to achieve his goal. To gain enlightenment took him only about twelve hours of continuous meditation once he had gained the right method, but to get to that advanced stage of preparedness he had to struggle hard for much longer.

Someone on a Buddhist forum, referring to the Venerable Ānanda’s striving for Arahantship, wrote that after practising walking meditation for the whole night without achieving his goal, he gave up and went to rest.  I don’t see it the same way. Venerable Ānanda didn’t give up at all. After practising walking meditation for the whole night he reflected, “The Buddha said that my perfections are mature enough to gain Arahantship, yet though I have tried my hardest for the whole night, I haven’t yet reached the goal. I must have been exerting too hard, making the mind distracted and restless. I need to regain mental balance by adopting a posture more conducive to tranquillity.” So he went and sat on the edge of his bed, and lay down to rest the body for a while. He did not give up mindfulness for one moment, but continued to note mindfully all actions and movements of the body as he adjusted his posture. After sitting on his bed, he gained Once-returning, Non-returning and, finally, Arahantship before his head touched the pillow. This very rapid attainment by the Venerable Ānanda was the result of continuity of practice throughout the whole night without a break. It was not the result of “giving up.”

Be careful when you listen to this story. Enlightenment is not to be gained by lying down on the bed — unless you have excellent knowledge and wisdom like Venerable Ānanda, and have been striving hard all night practising intensive walking meditation.

When we practise meditation seriously, we should be prepared for an endurance race, not a sprint. Ten days is nothing if we compare it to six years. To gain enlightenment and escape from rebirth could not be such a simple task. If we speak of striving for at least eighteen hours a day, continuously for many days, people say that we are fanatics, that we are not teaching the Middle Path. What do you think? Are we fanatics, or are those people just lazy and far away from understanding the right method?

Cultivating Suitability

The meditator’s attitude should be very different to the average person. The average person quickly becomes bored with meditation if asked to practice for the entire day and late into the night. It is not easy even for experienced meditators to sustain effort for a long time. One needs to cultivate the right conditions to stir up effort and deepen concentration. A meditator should avoid worldly thoughts and activities. This is doubly difficult to achieve at home. It is also hard to achieve in many monasteries that I have stayed at. The Buddha’s advice is to go to a forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty place.

One should join a meditation course, where like-minded people are also striving to develop concentration and insight. If one has the moral support of other meditators, it will help one’s own practice. Staying alone is beneficial, but only if one is strongly inclined to meditation. Otherwise, it is better to derive some support from others. It was with this in mind that I started the “Association for Insight Meditation.” By associating with others who also want to gain insight, one will practise harder than if one associates with those who want to enjoy sensual pleasures.

A meditator should avoid all talking. Talking for five minutes can spoil one’s practice for the entire day. Even talk about meditation should be limited to what is necessary for instruction. One should eat plain food that suits one’s own metabolism. Two light meals — breakfast and lunch are enough for a meditator. In the afternoon one can drink fruit juice or take honey if one becomes famished.

The climate may be a problem for westerners who visit Burma. In the hot season, go to a meditation centre at higher altitude. Taunggyi in Shan State is much more comfortable than Rangoon.

One should seek out a teacher who can give inspiring discourses, and/or inspire by example. “Talking is easy, doing is difficult,” as the saying goes.

Remembering Previous Successes

There are many factors that contribute to good results. Every meditator is unique, and only a teacher with the higher knowledge of a Buddha can know exactly what instructions to give at any moment. Other teachers give advice that is good, but may not be what the meditator needs to hear at that moment.

My mother took me for weekly swimming lessons for many weeks, but I did not like the instructor and made little progress. Then one day, while playing in the sea, a wave picked me up and I realised that I could keep my head above water and my feet off of the ground. It was not very long before I could swim quite well.

Learning to meditate is an acquired skill like learning to swim or riding a bicycle. Even the best teacher can only point out the way, and offer tips and encouragement, the student must practise the meditation exercises for himself or herself, and discover the right method that keeps the mental faculties in perfect balance.

When you achieve some results, such as being able to sit or walk for long periods without interruption, or if the mind becomes unusually calm and still, make a mental note of the conditions at that time. Recollect that experience and the conditions that led to it when trying to regain concentration at a later date. Did you eat your meal with special mindfulness that day, or walk slower than usual?

Developing the Factors of Enlightenment

These seven factors of enlightenment are weak in the average person who first takes up meditation: mindfulness (sati), investigation (dhammavicaya), effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquillity (passaddhi)concentration (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). They need to be developed through sustained and continuous practice. Mindfulness is indispensable. It is the factor that keeps the others in balance. Investigation, effort, and joy all excite the mind and stir it up to strive harder. Tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity cool the excited mind to make it focus deeper. When the energy is low we must use investigation, effort, and joy to brighten the mind and stir it up. When the mind becomes too fired-up, we must use tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity to cool it down before it overheats. Mindfulness keeps checking the current state of the mind to know which factor is in excess and which is deficient.

Enduring Patience is the Greatest Austerity

Renunciation of pleasure is hard for human beings, but tolerance of pain and discomfort is much harder. No one likes pain and discomfort, fatigue, hunger and thirst, excessive heat or cold. A meditator must endure these hardships with patience. If the mind shrinks from facing up to them, as it always does when it is weak, the meditator must keep stirring up effort, courage, and determination. If severe pain comes, try to sit with it for a little longer. You should regard it as your best friend because it is the means by which you can gain freedom from suffering. Remember, the truth of suffering must be understood. So when suffering comes you have a precious chance to gain insight. If you shy away from it, the pain will be unbearable, and crush your will to go on. If you take it as a challenge to test the maturity of your practice, it will lead to rapid progress.

Courageous Determination

Each time you participate in a retreat, whether for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, you are developing your perfections. The Bodhisatta practised meditation throughout many lives to attain the perfections that he needed to achieve his goal. Perhaps you already have sufficient perfections to achieve your goal, as the Venerable Ānanda had, but you must not give up. You may need to go to work and earn money to support your family, but each time you get a chance to meditate seriously, you must take it and practise again and again. Keep doing the practice until you break through and gain some insight knowledge. Without applying heat, nothing ever gets cooked.

When suffering arises, do not shrink from it, but increase your efforts and spend more time for formal meditation practice. If pain arises, don’t change your position at once, but change your attitude. The pain is not your enemy, but a reminder of the universal truth of suffering. If insight can be gained, suffering can be transcended. As it says in the introduction to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: “This, monks, is the only way for the purification of living-beings, for the transcendence of grief and lamentation, for the extinguishing of pain and sorrow, for attaining the right method, for the realisation of nibbāna, namely: the four foundations of mindfulness.” Do not seek for any other method; avoidance just delays success further into the future.

The Law of Kamma Explained

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The following passage occurs in several places:

All beings are the owners of their actions (kamma), heirs of their actions, born from their actions, related to their actions, and have actions as their refuge. Whatever action they do, whether good or evil, they will inherit its results.

Owners of their actions

In this world, one is said to be the owner of property that one has paid for, but at death we have to leave it all behind. So we do not really own it, we have just borrowed it for a while. In the case of volitional actions of body, speech, and mind however, we do take them with us when we die, so they are truly our own property. No one else owns or is responsible for our kamma. The buck stops here.

Heirs to their actions

When parents die, their children usually inherit their house and other property. The children do not usually inherit the house of their neighbours. If the parents had an expensive house, the children do no inherit a cheap house. When someone is reborn, they inherit the results of kammas done in previous lives. The circumstances in which we are reborn depends on on our kamma. Wealth is the result of generosity, intelligence is the result of questioning, beauty and good health are the results of kindness and compassion, a short life is the result of killing, etc. Nothing that happens to us in unfair in the ultimate sense, since it is the result of our own actions.

Born from their actions

Kamma is the seed that determines the quality of our existence. Mango seeds give mango trees, chilli seeds give chilli seeds. That is only natural.

Related to their actions

When a family gets into difficulties for one reason or another, good relatives will come to help out. On the other hand, bad relatives will cause many problems. Some kammas are supportive, others are counteractive. Though reborn in a happy existence due to good kamma, one may suffer many hardships due to counteractive kamma. Conversely, though reborn into difficult circumstances, supportive kamma may come along to offer many good opportunities to succeed in life.

Have kamma as their refuge

“God helps those who help themselves” as the saying goes. If believing in God was of any use, it would not be necessary to study or work. Merely by praying to God one would become wealthy. However, it is not so. One has to do wholesome kammas to become wealthy. If some seem to become wealthy by doing unwholesome kammas, it is because they did wholesome kammas in previous lives, the present kammas will give bad results in the future. So the law of kamma means that everyone has the opportunity to mould his or her own destiny to ensure happiness in the future.

Ten Kinds of Kamma

Although we talk of bodily kamma, and verbal kamma, it is always the mind that is the motivator, and it is in the mind that kamma is made. Body or speech is just the outward manifestation.

Ten Kinds of Unwholesome Kamma

Three Kinds of Physical Kamma

1. Killing
2. Stealing
3. Sexual misconduct

Four  Kinds of Verbal Kamma

1. Lying
2. Abusing
3. Slandering
4. Idle chatter

Three Kinds Mental Kamma

1. Covetousness
2. Ill-will
3. Wrong-view

Ten Kinds of Wholesome Kamma

There are also ten wholesome kamma that lead to happiness in this life and rebirth in fortunate existences (human, celestial, and brahma realms) in the next. Though you are no doubt familiar with all of the ten unwholesome deeds, you may not be so familiar with the ten wholesome deeds (~_~) so I may need to explain these in a bit more detail. What makes these deeds wholesome is not so much the outward manifestation, but the mental volition involved.

1. Charity (Dāna) means giving. It is accompanied by the wholesome volition of renunciation of attachment. It may be done for many reasons: compassion, reverence, loving-kindness, desiring praise or future welfare, or seeing danger in attachment. It is of three kinds as inferior, medium, and superior. Done with desire for fame is inferior, with desire for future welfare is medium, seeing the danger in attachment is superior.

2. Morality (Sīla) means abstaining from immoral deeds such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness. More refined morality means abstaining from sensual indulgence of all kinds such as listening to music, watching films, etc.

3. Meditation (Bhāvanā) means developing the mind through study or contemplation to gain concentration, knowledge, and wisdom. It entails withdrawing the mind from sensual pleasures, and removing mental restlessness and instability.

4. Reverence (Apacāyana) means respect or reverence for someone endowed with virtues such as morality, learning, compassion, or wisdom. It may also be shown towards objects, but it is important to focus the mind on the virtues of good people, for example: “This pagoda marks the spot where the Buddha attained Enlightenment” or “This meditation centre is a place where people are striving to gain insight, so I should be quiet.”

5. Service (Veyyāvaca) means helping others in various ways by sharing one’s knowledge and expertise, providing transportation, giving physical aid, medical care, etc.

6. Transference of merit (Pattidāna) means to invite others to participate in or take delight in one’s own good deeds. In Christian terms it means “Not to hide one’s light under a bushel.” It is the wholesome intention to encourage others to do wholesome deeds by speaking of the benefits one enjoys by doing them.

7. Rejoicing in others’ merit (Pattānumodanā) is finding delight in the virtue and good deeds of others.

8. Listening to Dhamma (Dhammassavana) is the mental action of paying attention to a talk, or reading a book, with the intention to understand the truth.

9. Teaching Dhamma (Dhammadesanā) is teaching and explaining the way things are based on one’s own learning of the Buddhist scriptures or experiences in life and in meditation.

10. Straightening one’s wrong views (Diṭṭhujukamma) is questioning and investigating to eradicate doubts and abandon wrong views.

Kamma is not Fatalism

As I pointed out before, and as this article makes abundantly clear, kamma is the refuge for living beings. Our past kamma is already done, so the only important thing is how we react to the results in the present.

However, there is one aspect of kamma that is fatalistic. Although kamma is the refuge for the wise man, it is a trap for the fool. Allow me to relate a short story from Burmese folk-lore to illustrate the point.

The son of a pious Buddhist was a drunkard and a fool. He had no faith in Dhamma, and never listened to his father. Whatever little profit he made during the day, he spent at night, and so remained poor. After his death the father was reborn as a deity. Seeing his former son in dire straits he made one last attempt to help him. He appeared to his son and told him, “Tomorrow morning, set up your stall in front of the king’s palace. When he comes to buy a vase from you, ask whatever price you wish and he will pay it.” Then the deity appeared before the king in a frightening form, and warned him, “Your kingdom is in great danger from a demon who resides in a vase. Tomorrow morning a vendor will be in front of your palace, and he will have the vase. If you buy the vase and destroy it, the demon won’t be able to harm you.”

The king was terrified, so the next morning he went to the vendor’s stall, found the vase, and asked the vendor how much he wanted for it. The vendor replied, “50 cents” so the king bought it and took it away. The deity was furious, and took hold of his former son by the hair to smack him one, but as he lifted up his head, he saw the words “50 cents” on his forehead. So he let him go, thinking, “What is the use of being angry with this fool?”

Hence the origin of the Burmese expression, “One has one’s kamma written on one’s forehead.”

Although kamma gives us the potential to escape from all suffering, most people do not realise this. We say that they lack perfections (pāramī). If anyone holds wrong views, and clings tenaciously to those wrong views, that is heavy kamma that will prevent him or her from realising the Dhamma. They not only hold wrong views themselves, but they try their utmost to impose those wrong views on others. For the average intelligent person, if they hear or read about right view, they can understand it well enough if they think over it carefully. However, the bigot is blinded by his heavy obstructive kamma and can never understand the Dhamma, even if he is fortunate to meet the Buddha himself.

Right Understanding Arises from Practice

Buddhism is all about cause and effect
If you want to get results you have to make the right causes.

The first step is gaining confidence in the Buddha’s teaching. The Pali word is Saddha, which means confidence based on knowledge, rather than faith. However, there is an element of faith or trust required, since mere logic and reason is not sufficient. One’s knowledge has to be direct and empirical, not just intellectual.

Suffering is the cause, and confidence is the effect

Most people turn to religion only when they experience suffering. The loss of a loved one, divorce, losing one’s job, sickness, or a road accident. When the experience of suffering is personal, and not just theoretical, one begins to contemplate the meaning of life. The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. From our own experience we gain confidence that this is true, and stop trying to deny it.

Confidence is the cause, and effort is the effect

If the Buddha had taught only the First Noble Truth, his teaching would be a pessimistic doctrine. However, he also pointed out the cause of suffering, and how to remove it. If we clearly see the cause of suffering, we will definitely want to remove it. So effort arises. One acquires a sense of urgency and disenchantment with so-called happiness.

Effort is the cause, and mindfulness is the effect

If we try to understand we will learn that the only way to remove craving, which is the cause of suffering, is to be mindful. Mindfulness is an extremely effective method for purifying the mind. In fact, it is the only method that always works. Telling people that immorality leads to hell, doesn’t stop them doing immoral deeds. When desire or anger is strong enough, they will do immoral deeds. Mindfulness prevents desire and anger from becoming strong in the first place. The trouble is, even if we know this, we still sometimes get careless and forget to be mindful.

Mindfulness is the cause, and concentration is the effect

When mindfulness is continuous and constant, the mind becomes deeply concentrated on realities in the present moment. It becomes highly purified and stops running here and there after sensual desires.

Concentration is the cause, and wisdom is the effect

The calm and concentrated mind is like a bright light that dispels the darkness of ignorance. With the benefit of right mindfulness and right concentration we can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Our perception changes radically. What we previously perceived as happiness, we now see as nothing but suffering. What we previously perceived as permanent, we now perceive as unstable and unreliable. What we previously perceived as a person or being, I, me, or mine, a self or a soul; we now perceive as empty and void of any such self or person.

Wisdom is the cause, and liberation is the effect

When we no longer cling to ideas of I, me, and mine we no longer suffer due to change and decay. If something changes, we understand, “That is the nature of all things.”

Is there any difference between Reincarnation and Rebirth?

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The reality is the same for all of us. Even those who are neither Buddhists, nor Hindus, are reborn, whether they believe it or not. At least they cannot deny that they have been born, can they? So the difference between Rebirth in Buddhism, and Re-incarnation in Hinduism is a matter of concepts. Hindus believe in an immortal soul that is transferred from one existence to the next. Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul, but they do believe in rebirth. There is no eternal essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and even after death.

How Can Rebirth Take Place if there is no Soul?

A fair question, and an important concept to grasp correctly. It may be easiest to understand with the help of a simile. Take a match and a candle. Light the match. Now hold the candle wick directly over the flame, but not actually touching it. Watch closely what happens. After a few seconds the wick will begin to smoulder, and a flame will ignite. A child might say that the flame jumped from the matchstick to the candle, because that is what seems to happen.

A scientist would describe the process differently. He would perhaps say that due to the heat in the match flame, the paraffin wax in the wick vaporised, reached its ignition temperature, and begin to react with the oxygen in the air. This rapid process of oxidation produced the flame in the candle. Nothing jumped from the matchstick to the candle, but the heat was the cause produced by the oxidation of the wood, that led to the result, which was the oxidation of the paraffin wax and the second flame.

Rebirth is similar to this process. A living being does many volitional activities, which are kamma. This is like the heat. The present human body is like the match-stick, the new fetus, which might be a non-human fetus, is like the candle. When the conditions are right, consciousness arises in the new fetus. No soul is transferred, but there is a causal relationship between the two existences. In the case of rebirth, unlike in the simile, consciousness in one existence must cease before it can arise in the second existence.

Please note that just as the flames may be entirely different colours, sizes, temperatures, etc., in the first fuel and the second fuel, the same is true of the form that life takes before and after rebirth. To give a simple example: a female mouse may be reborn as a male elephant, or a Caucasian male may be reborn as an Asian female. It all depends on the mental process that is driven by kamma. One does not always get what one wants, but one always gets what one deserves.

Where To Sir?

Rebirth into the heavenly realms is spontaneous, as there is no gestation or fetal stage. Celestial beings are reborn with their subtle bodies fully developed. In the analogy of the flame, it would be like a gas flame rather than a candle flame.

Yes, kamma is the overriding factor that determines where rebirth takes place, but prayer or aspiration plays a significant role too. To give another simile. Suppose one were to arrive at an airport with sufficient money in one’s pocket to stay at the best hotel in town. If the taxi driver asked, “Where to, sir?” one might say, “Oh! It doesn’t matter. Take me to the nearest hotel.” The nearest hotel might be a bit of a dump, whilst the best hotel might be the other side of town. Kamma is like the money in one’s pocket, while aspiration is like what one says to the taxi driver.

If one arrives with only $25 in one’s pocket, one will have to say, “Take me to the cheapest guest house” otherwise when one gets to the five-star hotel, the taxi driver will take the $25 and the concierge will not even let one into the foyer.

Spontaneous Rebirth

Gestation (or incubation) is only necessary in the human and animal realms, where beings are born in the womb or in eggs. In the case of rebirth in celestial realms, and also in the lower realms of hungry ghosts, demons, and in hell, rebirth takes place spontaneously with a fully formed body created by kamma.

Beings in the realms of form (rūpa loka) are reborn there by the power of deep absorption (jhāna) and since there is no sex there, it makes little sense to refer to them as male. This is also the case with the formless realms (arūpa loka), where there in only mind and no matter.

The same could perhaps be said regarding the human fetus that has not yet developed sexual characteristics. It begs the question, Why are some acted upon by testosterone while others are not? However, we are getting into deep waters here beyond my knowledge of biology. According to my understanding, the sex is already determined at conception due to that particular being’s kamma and aspiration. However, it is possible that sex is not determined by the kamma that causes rebirth, but only by supportive kammas that bear fruit afterwards.

The kamma that causes rebirth is like the seed, supportive kammas that function thereafter are like the soil, water, fertiliser, and sunlight. Obstructive or counteractive kammas may also intervene resulting in miscarriage, deformities, or abortion These are like fungal infections, insects, flood, fire, or vermin, that may prevent a seed from developing into a full-grown plant.

Time to Move On

Kamma is the driving force that keeps us revolving in the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). Kamma is the Almighty creator. The Buddha fully understood the law of kamma and taught us how it works, but predicting its results is even more difficult than predicting the weather. The Buddha warned that to try to reason out the specific causes or results of kamma would lead to insanity. However, what we can do is understand the basic principles of kamma. Then we will avoid unwholesome kamma, cultivate wholesome kamma, and try to gain liberation from kamma.


The Holy Quest

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After his enlightenment the Buddha uttered the following spontaneous verse:

Through many births I wandered,
Seeking, but not finding, the builder of this house.
Painful is repeated existence.
Oh housebuilder, you are seen now.
You shall build no house again.
All your rafters are broken,
Your ridgepole is shattered.
To dissolution goes my mind.
Achieved is the destruction of craving.
(Dhammapada, verses 153,4)

The Buddha-to-be, or bodhisatta, began his quest for enlightenment at some far distant point in time. He eventually reached a stage of spiritual maturity when there was no turning back, and enlightenment was certain. Ninety-one aeons ago he was reborn as a youth called Sumedha. His multi-millionaire parents died while he was young. He reflected, “They have died taking nothing with them. It is better to give it all away before one dies, then at least I will take that wholesome kamma with me when I die.” Thus he renounced all his fabulous wealth and became a wanderer. Then he met the Buddha Dipaṅkara, who predicted that Sumedha would become a Buddha named Gotama in the distant future.

The bodhisatta continued to seek enlightenment throughout many existences. When his spiritual virtues were fully ripe he was reborn as Siddhartha Gotama, made the final renunciation of his wealth to seek enlightenment, and gained it after six years of struggle.

The simile of the house-builder refers to the house of selfhood, which is built by kamma, and protected by the rafters of mental defilements, held together by the ridge-pole of ignorance. With the destruction of ignorance, the other defilements and craving for existence were destroyed, as he attained to nibbāna.

First, we should understand that nibbāna is not a place or realm of existence like heaven, and the Buddha didn’t ‘enter’ nibbāna, neither when he gained enlightenment, nor when he died. Throughout his life, he could abide in the attainment of nibbāna whenever he wished, and all noble disciples can do this too. Nibbāna just means cessation or letting go.

When you just let go of something, you cease to suffer, there and then. Unenlightened people can experience a ‘mini-nibbāna’ every time they suppress the urge to defend themselves from some perceived attack. When we don’t suppress that urge, the ego rises up and we instigate another cycle of suffering.

If you can understand that this so-called ego is entirely mind-made, illusory, and has no substance, then you will see that the house is empty. There is no one at home. No soul, no self, no spirit, no person, no me, no you. Just mind and matter arising and passing away, and creating illusions. So where could a Buddha or Arahant go after death? If a fire ceases to burn because the fuel is used up, the flames go out. It makes no sense to ask, “Where did the flame go?” It didn’t go anywhere, it just went out.

However, it is difficult to see this. Usually, the ego does rise up, so we keep on making kamma, which means intentional actions by body, speech, and mind. This is the driving force that accumulates momentum throughout life, and throws us into this or that existence after death. Wholesome kamma leads to happiness, unwholesome kamma leads to misery. When we die, it is just the last conscious moment that determines the arising of the next existence, so it is wise to cultivate good mental habits and to remove bad ones, since we can die at any moment.

How do you know what is right?

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Good question. Short answer is, you don’t, at least not to begin with. The Pali words for the eight factors of the noble path all begin with sammā- e.g. sammā-diṭṭhi (right view), sammā-saṅkappo (right thought). However, sammā doesn’t just mean right.

How do we usually translate “Sammāsambuddho?” You never see it translated as the Rightly Enlightened Buddha, do you? The usual translation is the Fully or Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.

So our view has to be gradually straightened and corrected until it is not just right, but perfect and without any blemish. This action of straightening our views is one of the ten wholesome deeds.

Most people, including many so-called Buddhists, have more wrong views than right ones. When we gain sincere and well-placed confidence in the enlightenment of the Buddha, we get rid of the gross forms of wrong views such as those denying the law of cause and effect, and gain mundane right view, but we have not attained nibbāna yet. Self-view is one kind of serious wrong view that must be eliminated before we can realise nibbāna.

Self-view is the belief in a permanent self, soul, person, or being who inhabits the body, and motivates it.

“I think, therefore I am. I think?” “No you’re not, you’re magnetic ink. The folded sheets of paper clatter through the great computer …”

Before I became a Buddhist, I used to listen to the Moody Blues Greatest Hits album, from which these lyrics come. The very rapid, and almost incessant mental process perpetuates the illusion of a permanent self or person. That is why most people find it very difficult to be silent, and to do nothing.

When we meditate, the mind gradually becomes still, then we can see this profound truth of emptiness, or egolessness, and gain a deeper realisation of right view. When the mind is truly empty of self — selfishness, egoism, pride, arrogance, conceit — then you will clearly discern right from wrong.

The Buddha never tried to convert anybody to his viewpoint, because he didn’t have one. He knew what was right, and helped others to see it too. When you see the truth clearly for yourself you will gain confidence in the Buddha. If I insult your intelligence by trying to tell you what to believe, why should you listen to me?

The Four Kinds of Nutriment

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All conditioned phenomena arise due to one of four causes. These are known as the four foods, or four nutriments:

1. Physical food.
2. Climate.
3. Mind or consciousness.
4. Kamma (including, but not confined to kamma in past lives).

Physical food is essential for life and strength. Good healthy food eaten in moderation gives us health, beauty, long-life, and strength. Too much rich food can cause poor health, while insufficient or poor quality food can also cause disease.

Climate is another factor. In cold climates we need heating, in hot climates we need air-conditioning. Extremes of cold and heat can also cause diseases or death.

Mind or consciousness is important too. Too much anger, lust, fear, or worry is not good for one’s well-being. How we stimulate the mind affects our happiness. We need wisdom to avoid stimulating the mind in unskilful ways.

Then there is kamma. We do not know what we did in the past, and can do nothing about it now. It will give its result when the conditions are ripe, and if it was powerful bad kamma, we will have to suffer. If we are enjoying good results, we can be happy, but we must plant good seeds for the future while enjoying the fruits of the past.

Pain and Disease

Pain and disease comes from having a body. We have to accept it the way it is. When we were young, we had lots of energy and recovered quickly from diseases, as we get older the body decays and finally perishes. The Buddha’s chief supporter, Anāthapiṇḍika, was in agony on his death-bed, even though he had done heaps of powerful wholesome kamma during his lifetime. However, when Venerable Sāriputta taught him the method of insight meditation he was able to transcend the pain and attained bliss as he lay dying.

Actually all pain is mental, not physical. If you are unconscious, you cannot feel any pain. When we talk about physical pain, we mean the unpleasant feeling that arises through physical contact. Mental pain is the unpleasant feeling arising through mental contact.

If one meditates seriously, it is possible to separate mind and matter and observe even severe physical pain and discomfort with equanimity. It is not easy to sit in meditation at first. The beginner may claim to be in agony after only twenty minutes of sitting still, whereas an experienced meditator can sit still for two hours or more without difficulty. It is not that they have no pain, but they do not magnify it with fear and aversion. When mindfulness and concentration are strong enough, pain is not a problem.

Healing Through Insight Meditation

Ardent meditators with strong faith in the Dhamma have overcome serious medical conditions such as cancer, eczema, tuberculosis, gall stones, etc. Even the average person can soon learn to overcome mild ailments such as colds, headaches, high blood-pressure, etc., and minor mental disorders such as stuttering, acute anxiety, compulsive obsessions, phobias, and depression.

We do not claim that meditation is a cure for all ills. Medication and therapy should also be used, but the concentrated mind has powerful healing qualities.

Severe mental disorders cannot usually be overcome, because the unfortunate victim’s mind is just too weak and distracted.

The Way of Inquiry – The First Discourse

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Not my first discourse, I hasten to add, but the Buddha’s first discourse.

That seems like an appropriate place to start. If you are reading this thread then I assume that you wish to know more about the teaching of the Buddha. I will be do my best to reply to any questions that you may have, as long as they are respectful and sincere.


The bodhisatta, Prince Siddhattha Gotama, renounced his palace at the age of 29 after seeing four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. Seeing that all living beings were trapped by old age, sickness, and death, he resolved to find an escape from this predicament. His noble quest began with the practice of self-mortification because it was believed at the time to be the way to liberation. He practised with five other ascetics as his companions. After six years of strenuous austerities, he realised that this was not the right path, and resumed taking adequate food and rest. Because of this, his five companions thought he had given up the quest, so they left him.

After regaining his strength and health the bodhisatta meditated the whole night and discovered the path leading to enlightnement. By the morning he had eradicated all craving and ignorance, and he gained Buddhahood with the rising of the dawn. Reflecting on the Dhamma that he had realised, he was at first disinclined to teach it, as it went against the current of human desires, and was difficult to understand. Nevertheless, he reasoned that some “with little dust in their eyes” would understand it, so he resolved to teach it.

Realising that his two former meditation teachers had already passed away, he went to Saranath to teach it to the five ascetics who had been his companions in the quest for liberation. When he told them that he had found liberation, at first they did not believe him, because they thought he had given up the path of striving. However, by reminding them of his lifelong honesty, he won them around and they agreed to listen to him. So he gave his first discourse, which is called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – the setting in motion of the wheel of the truth.

This first discourse deals with the Middle Way, and the Four Noble Truths including the Eightfold Noble Path. It is very concise. By the end of the discourse only one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, understood it properly and realised nibbana, the other four had to practise meditation as instructed by the Buddha for some time before realising nibbana. Because he was so quick to understand this concise discourse, Kondañña became known as “Kondañña the Wise.”

The Middle Way

The Buddha began by stating that the way to liberation was the middle way, avoiding the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This middle way comprised eight factors: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

He didn’t explain it in detail, he just stated it in brief.

The Four Noble Truths

Then he stated the Four Noble Truths that he had realised:

1. The truth of suffering (dukkha): birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering, in brief the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.

2. The truth of the cause of suffering is the craving that causes repeated becoming, and takes delight now here now there, namely sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence.

3. The truth of the cessation of suffering is the complete cessation and abandonment of this craving, and liberation from it without any remainder.

4. The truth of the way to attain the end of suffering, which is the noble eightfold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

That, very briefly, is the essence of the first discourse. The Buddha went on to explain that until he had thoroughly realised these four noble truths he did not claim to be fully enlightened. Merely knowing these four truths intellectually is not enough, we have to thoroughly understand them to gain liberation.

What is Genuine Vipassanā Meditation?

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Buddhism / Insight Meditation

There are many discourses on meditation, but the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is perhaps the most important one. Sati means “mindfulness” or “awareness,” and upaṭṭhāna means setting up or “establishing.” So the discourse is about the setting up of mindfulness.

There are four foundations of mindfulness: 1) Body, 2) Feelings, 3) Thoughts, and 4) Mental phenomena.

Mindfulness of the Body

Mindfulness of respiration (ānāpānassati) is just one of several meditation objects in the section on mindfulness of the body. One can also contemplate the four postures of standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, or all daily activities such as moving the limbs, looking here and there, eating, drinking, etc.

The Mahāsi meditation method analyses the body in terms of the four elements: earth (solidity), water (fluidity), fire (temperature), and air (motion). In sitting one contemplates the element of motion in the rising and falling movements of the abdomen; in walking meditation one observes the element of motion in the movements of the feet.

Less frequently taught methods analyse the body in terms of its 32 repulsive components: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, etc., or compare it to corpses in various stages of decay.

Mindfulness of Feelings

“How, monks, does a monk dwell contemplating feelings? Here, monk, a monk, when feeling a pleasant feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a painful feeling he knows, ‘I feel a painful feeling.’ When feeling a neutral feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant sensual feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant non-sensual feeling.’ When feeling an unpleasant sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel an unpleasant sensual feeling.’ When feeling an unpleasant non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel an unpleasant non-sensual feeling.’ When feeling a neutral sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral sensual feeling.’ When feeling a neutral non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral non-sensual feeling.’”

Mindfulness of Thoughts

A meditator must also be mindful of thoughts (cittānupassana satipaṭṭhāna). Knowing a lustful thought as a lustful thought, an angry thought as an angry thought, etc. Before being able to do this effectively, one should first establish mindfulness on the body and on feelings.

Mindfulness of Mental Objects

The five hindrances — sensual desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt — are one aspect of mindfulness of mental objects. Positive states such as energy, joy, tranquillity, bliss, equanimity should also be contemplated and known whenever they occur.

What is Insight?

Insight is the wisdom that arises when concentration and mindfulness have been firmly established on one or more of the four foundations of mindfulness. When one is able to observe mental and physical phenomena with equanimity, one can see them as they truly are (yathābhūta ñāṇadassana), revealing the three universal characteristics of impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta).

Until one reaches this relatively high stage, one is not really practising insight meditation, but just establishing mindfulness. However, if you wish to call it “insight meditation” because that is your final goal, then that’s fine too, even though no insight has yet been gained.

A Discussion on Patience

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In his discourse on the Vammika Sutta, the Venerable Mahāsi Sayādaw relates the following incident that took place in Thanbyuzayat, a town within Moulmein District, and was published in one of the Daily Newspapers.

Four or five elders from that town were chatting on a religious topic. It is customary in Burma among knowledgeable elderly people to meet whenever there is any social or religious function such as a memorial service for the deceased. They usually discuss religious topics while the reception is going on with light refreshments such as green tea and some delicacies like pickled tea-leaf (laphet). Sometimes, heated discussions take place, and the participants disagree on controversial points. On this occasion, the elders became indignant and assaulted one another ending up with them being interviewed by police officers. The news editor who reported the story, remarked that the elders concerned had been placed in police custody, but “a redeeming feature” was that the topic of discussion happened to be on patience (khantī).

The editor hit the nail right on the head. Intolerance is the worst thing when discussing the topic of patience, which needs to be exercised as advised by the Buddha. Indignation resembles the toad that swells up. It gives a great deal of trouble and therefore really needs to be discarded.