The fundamentals of Buddhism for beginners
Buddhism, with its stress on non-violence, the Middle Path and its promise of nirvana, finds many followers. However, being a Buddhist has now become merely a fashion statement for many, because their favourite celebrity propagates it. Simply wearing robes or carrying prayer beads does not make a person a Buddhist; Buddhism is something that is ingrained within, and has to become a part of everyday life.
The Best Way to Catch a Snake is meant for all those who want to start their journey towards nirvana but don’t know where to begin. It goes beyond the exotic rituals and practices that Buddhism is today seen as, and elucidates the Four Seals, the Four Noble Truths and the Four Thoughts of Buddhism in simple, jargon-free language. Written by a Buddhist monk, it combines examples from his own experience with simple exercises. A valuable source of Buddhist knowledge, this book is a must-read for anyone drawn to the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Karma Yeshe Rabgye is a monk in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally from England he now lives in a monastery in northern India. He conducts English basic Buddhism and meditation classes for monk of all ages. Yeshe has studied with HH the fourteenth dalailama HH the seventeenth karmapa and many other prominent Buddhist lamas he also helped found the dangye menla patients charitable trust a non profit organisation and hostel in Chandigarh in 2008.
I am pleased to know that more books are becoming available nowadays to allow the Indian public and the rest of the world to remain connected to the Buddhist teachings that have formed an integral part of Indian thought and culture for the last 2,600 years.
Lord Buddha taught the dharma to everyone he encountered adapting his presentation according to the needs and aptitudes of his audience.
This three part book also presents the teaching of Lord Buddha according to the experience of the author in a clear and direct manner.
I pray that it may be of benefit to all who read it.
As a monk, 1 get many queries about Buddhism from people from all walks of life. Some of the questions are just out of polite interest, while others are serious about finding out the truth behind Buddhism. Some of the typical questions are ‘What is a Buddhist?’, ‘What do Buddhists believe?’ and ‘What did the Buddha teach?’ These are not easy questions to answer because the Buddha’s teachings are extremely profound, and as vast and deep as space. This is one of the reasons why people ask such questions. They are confused about what the Buddha really taught, and I can understand why. They travel to Japan and see Zen Buddhists sitting staring at a blank wall; they go to China and see monks doing kung-fu; and in Tibet, they see monks wearing brightly coloured costumes, blowing horns and banging drums. All these are very skilful means to help the Buddhist practitioner along the path of Buddhism. However, they do not expound on the core teachings of the Buddha.
In this book, I will attempt to answer the above questions and give the reader a clear understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.
I will also try and point out some of the pitfalls that can easily distract us from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings.
Before I start to answer these questions, I would like to mention who this book is aimed at. Firstly, the book is written for my mother, not just my mother in this life, but all my mothers in all my lives. It is most certainly because of their kindness and compassion that I am able to write this book. Secondly, it is for all the non-Buddhists out there who are asking the question, ‘What do you people believe?’ Finally, and most importantly, it is aimed at today’s Buddhists. People nowadays have a tendency to ‘just go for it’ and ‘jump in at the deep end’. This may be fine in some fields of study, but it certainly isn’t the best way to go as far as Buddhism is concerned, as it will just lead to more confusion and misunderstandings.
Read this book slowly, making sure you contemplate each and every point. Question what I say, please don’t blindly accept my words. If they ring true, then meditate on them. If not, discuss and debate them with your teacher or spiritual friend.
When I first got into Buddhism I studied the Four Noble Truths with the Western Buddhist Order in East London, England. Although I found the subject interesting, 1 did not, at that time, really understand its relevance. On hindsight, I know now that this was because I wanted to get on to what, to my mind, was the more juicy stuff— visualising deities and chanting secret mantras. It was not until a few years later, when I started getting totally confused trying to understand which mantra goes with which deity and when to ring my bell or shake my drum that I realised I had completely missed the foundation teachings of Buddhism.
I mention this because now when I’m a Buddhist monk, I see many people going the same way. I think it’s our nature to want to rush things because we would like to believe that we are too busy to have time to waste — even in the pursuit of enlightenment.
So let me caution you right at the beginning, in case you are too busy to read the rest of the book. Buddhism is vast, very profound and can be confusing, so it is extremely important that you take your time and build a strong and steady foundation. Imagine building a house without foundations what do you think would happen to it? It wouldn’t stand for too long. The same goes for your Buddhist practice: If you build a firm base at the start, you will always be able to fall back on it if you get lost along the way. While this is fairly commonsensical. you would be surprised by the number of people that go on long retreats without first studying the foundation teachings. They get freaked out with their own thoughts and have no base to go back to. This leaves them vulnerable, confused, and in the worst case. turns them off Buddhism altogether .
In the sutra on ‘Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake’. Buddha cautioned us: ‘We must bring our whole heart, mind and being into listening to the Buddhist teachings, [otherwise] you may understand it incorrectly, and it will bring more harm than good to you and others.
The Buddha further stated: ‘If you do not practice the Buddhist teachings correctly, you may come to understand it as opposite to what was intended. But if you practice intelligently, you will understand both the letter and the spirit of the teachings and will be able to explain them correctly.
The snake simile in this sutra was used to convey the potential harm of studying Buddhism incorrectly. Thus, the best way to catch a snake is by pinning its head down, and the best way to pin the head of Buddhism down is by studying the Buddhist foundation teachings, listening carefully to the teachings, and putting them into practice.
The foundation teachings I am talking about are the Four Noble Truths, the Three Marks of Existence and the Twelve Interdependent Links. It is most important that you fully understand these three teachings of the Buddha. Some people spend their entire life studying and practising them, and still feel they have not mastered them. Please do not be dragged into the so-called ‘higher teaching because of the ceremony and rituals attached to them. Indeed they may look mysterious and intriguing, but they can also be counter-productive without a basic understanding of Buddhism.
I see a lot of people being completely swept along by the Buddhist bandwagon believing they have to buy everything ‘Buddhist’. For example, once as I was waiting for a friend in a hotel lounge, I saw an American Buddhist magazine. I thought I’d read it to help me ass some time and picked it up. I was totally shocked to see so ziany advertisements on every page. There were things I had never heard of, but all the attractive ads suggested that I needed their help for me to become a ‘real Buddhist’. There were designer meditation stools, which would look more at home in a torture chamber than it a Buddhist’s home, there were extremely expensive red-and-white shawls being modelled by some very attractive ‘Buddhists’, there was even an electronic mala (prayer beads) that had an alarm fitted to it, which I presume rings once you reach enlightenment.
All this is commercial Buddhism and will not get you any closer to enlightenment. Buddhism is an inward journey, and spending thousands of dollars on gadgets is not going to help. You do not need a special stool, mala, or even a uniform; what you need is a good teacher to help you along the path to enlightenment.
The teacher is your guide along the path and so it is important to choose an authentic master. You wouldn’t dream of climbing Mount Everest with someone who has no knowledge of the Himalayas, so you shouldn’t take on a teacher who doesn’t practise the words of the Buddha.
Gautama Buddha was an extremely talented teacher and managed to give the appropriate instructions at the right time to the right person. This is a rare talent. However even he said that you should not just blindly accept his words without checking them. According to the kalama sutra:
Do no believe in anything simple because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because they have heard down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because I is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers or elders.
But after observation and analysis when your find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and al then accept it and live up to it.
There are many reasons why people are drawn to Buddhism the tranquillity of meditation, an alternative to the religion they already follow, lack of belief in a creator god, the romance of an Eastern religion, the theatre of ritual practices, as an answer to mental health issues, to escape the Indian caste system or to be fashionable. It is not important, however, why you venture into Buddhism; what is important is that you understand the core teachings of the Buddha. It is very difficult to make any inroads into the various forms of Buddhism if you do not know what is on offer and what you can get out of it.
Time and again I have seen people rushing into practices that are not suitable for them because they have no idea what the Buddha taught. It seems that these days, people look upon the core teachings as elementary, very basic and something that they would need to just to read about once and quickly move on. There really is no need to rush headlong into a medieval Tantric practice or any other sort of so-called higher practices. Without knowledge of the core teachings, you may be setting yourself up for more problems than you are likely to solve. Without this understanding, you will not see the need to work on calming your mind, taking responsibility for your actions of body speech and mind, art generally making your life a little less chaotic. Only after achieving this understanding will you be ready for practices that are based not on the word of the Buddha, but on skilful means.
The fault, of course, does not lie only with the students the teachers must also be aware of their student’s needs. If you are teaching a Tantric practice, you should limit participation to individuals who have reached a certain level in their practice. Thi5 will ensure that students are not being taught concepts they are not ready for and thus not able to understand.
Teachers should also try and understand Western culture. It is of very little benefit to talk about people being able to fly or walk through walls, as we cannot relate that to our lives. People are being taught about monsters in lakes, demons coming to kill them and all sorts of mystical beings and creatures, which are supposed to be able to do some terrifying deeds. These are teachings based on nothing but fear and again, are irrelevant to life today.
Buddhism needs a new approach in the West, one that uses examples that we can relate to, not based on fear, but ones that we can implement, that will make a difference to our lives, We need to be inspired, not scared, into following the words of Gautama Buddha. This can only be achieved by stripping away all religious dogma, superstitions and medieval stories. We need to get back to the key meanings of the Buddha’s teachings, which in fact were simple and straightforward.
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