Buddhism For Dummies


by Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian





About the Authors

Jonathan Landaw was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1944 and attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. While there he took a course in Asian religions taught by one of the leading authorities on Chinese thought, Professor Wing-tsit Chan. This course provided Jon with his first formal exposure to the teachings of the East and sparked his lifelong interest in Buddhism. This interest remained dormant while Jon attended graduate school in English literature at the University of California in Berkeley and then served in the Peace Corps teaching English language in Iran for three years. Not long after his stint in the Peace Corps, he was living overseas again, this time in northern India and Nepal, where he stayed throughout most of the 1970s. There he first encountered and was inspired by the living tradition of Buddhism as preserved by the refugee community that had recently fled from Chinese oppression in Tibet. By 1972 Jon was studying Buddhism full-time and working as English editor of the texts being produced by the Translation Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India. Although he received training in other traditions of Buddhism during this time, the majority of his study and practice has been under the guidance of Tibetan lamas, most particularly Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey (1925–1995), Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935–1984), and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. In 1977 Jon returned to the West, though he’s managed to make periodic visits back to India and Nepal since then. While living in England, the Netherlands, and now in the United States, he has continued his studies and his work editing Buddhist books for publication. He has also authored books of his own, including Prince Siddhartha, the story of Buddha’s life retold for children, and Images of Enlightenment, an introduction to the sacred art of Tibet. In addition, he’s been leading meditation courses at Buddhist centers worldwide for more than 25 years. He now resides in Capitola, California, with his wife and three children.

Stephan Bodian began practicing Zen meditation in 1969 and was ordained a monk in 1974 after studying about Buddhism and other Asian religions at Columbia University. He had the extraordinary good fortune to train under the guidance of several Zen masters, including Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Kobun Chino Roshi, and Taizan Maezumi Roshi. In 1982, after a period as head monk and director of training at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, he left the monastic life to study psychology. Shortly thereafter he married and helped raise a family.

During this period he continued his spiritual practice, studying with several Tibetan teachers, including Sogyal Rinpoche and Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. In 1988 he met his guru, Jean Klein, a master of Advaita Vedanta and Kashmiri yoga, with whom he spent ten years inquiring into the nature of truth. Eventually Stephan completed his Zen training and received dharma transmission (authorization to teach) from his teacher, Adyashanti, in a lineage dating back to the historical Buddha.

In addition to authoring several previous books, including Meditation For Dummies, and numerous magazine articles, Stephan was editor-in-chief of the magazine Yoga Journal for 10 years. Currently he practices as a licensed psychotherapist, personal coach, writing consultant, and spiritual counselor, while offering intensives and retreats dedicated to spiritual awakening. You can reach him at www.meditationsource.com.



To my mother, Ida M. Landaw, for her boundless love and support. And to the memory of my father, Louis Landaw, and of my beloved spiritual friend, Lama Thubten Yeshe.

— Jon Landaw

To my teachers, with boundless gratitude; and to the awakening of all beings everywhere.

— Stephan Bodian


Authors’ Acknowledgments

Although it would be impossible for me to name everyone who had a hand in this work, several people’s contributions must be acknowledged. First I have to thank my coauthor, Stephan Bodian, for his expertise and sound judgment in giving this book a balance and breadth of view it never would have had without him.

I would also like to acknowledge Carol Susan Roth, my literary agent for this work, Tracy Boggier of Wiley Publishing for overseeing its production, and our copy editor, Mike Baker, for his many helpful suggestions. And to our generous and supportive project editor, Allyson Grove, I owe more thanks than I can easily express.

I’d also like to thank Andy Weber for his beautiful line drawings, and Dolma Beresford of Nomad Pictures for providing a number of the photographs. In addition, I’d like to express my appreciation to T. Yeshe, former Buddhist nun and for many years a teacher associated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition; Katherine Thanas, abbot of the Santa Cruz Zen Center; and Bob Stahl, former Theravada monk and current mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher at El Camino Hospital and the Santa Cruz Medical Clinic for reading and offering welcome suggestions to the manuscript, and to Venerable Ajahn Amaro and Richard Kollmar for their timely contributions.

I also wish to express my gratitude to the following for their invaluable aid in providing me with a computer and the assistance to use it properly: Susan Marfield, Victoria Clark, Yorgos Hadzis, Sharon Gross, Dennis Wilson, and Elizabeth Hull.

I would also like to mention Dr. Kevin Zhu and his assistants at the Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz and my dear friend Karuna Cayton for helping me through some particularly rough patches, and George and Betsy Cameron whose generosity is a constant source of amazement to me. And to all those teachers who have guided me along the spiritual path, I can only offer this present work in the hope that it reflects a small portion of the insight and compassion they have always demonstrated. And lastly, to Truus Philipsen, and our children, Lisa, Anna, and Kevin: thank you for being in my life.

— Jon Landaw

Any grasp of Buddhist wisdom I bring to this book can be attributed to the grace of my beloved teachers and the support of my loving friends and colleagues. In particular, I would like to thank my first Zen teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who introduced me to the depths of dharma and acted as spiritual mentor and elder brother during my formative years as a practitioner; my guru, Jean Klein, who embodied the teachings of the great Zen masters and kindled the first awakening; and Adyashanti — dharma brother, heart friend — in whose presence the truth finally burst into flame.

On a day-to-day level, my dear friends have been a constant source of encouragement, especially my Thursday group; old friends Katie Darling, Barbara Green, John Welwood, and Roy Wiskar; and above all my wife, Lis, without whose constant love and support at every level this book would never have come into being. My heartfelt thanks to you all!

I would also like to thank Reverend David Matsumoto, Venerable Ajahn Amaro, and Dechen Bartso for taking the time to answer my detailed questions about Buddhist practice, and Venerable Ajahn Munindo, Reverend Bill Eijun Eidson, Rosalie Curtis, and Liza Matthews for contributing invaluable images to this book.

— Stephan Bodian


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

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Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Allyson Grove

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Copy Editor: Mike Baker

Technical Editors: T. Yeshe, Katherine Thanas, Bob Stahl

Editorial Manager: Jennifer Ehrlich

Media Development Manager: Laura VanWinkle

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Cartoons: Rich Tennant, www.the5thwave.com

Cover Photo: ”David Samuel Robbins/CORBIS


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About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : Introducing Buddhism

Chapter 1: What Is Buddhism?

Figuring Out Whether Buddhism Is a Religion

Recognizing the Role of Buddha: The Awakened One

Understanding the Philosophy of Buddhism

Appreciating the Practice of Buddhism

Dedicating Your Life to the Benefit of All Beings

Chapter 2: Understanding Your Mind: The Creator of All Experience

Recognizing How Your Mind Shapes Your Experience

Contrasting the Body and Mind

Approaching the Mind from Three Different Buddhist Perspectives

Identifying Some Ways Your Mind Works

Appreciating the Fundamental Purity of Your Mind

Tracing the Path of Wisdom and Loving-Compassion

Part II : Buddhism Past and Present

Chapter 3: Surveying the Life and Teachings of the Historical Buddha

Revealing Buddha’s Early Life

Beginning the Quest

Sitting in the Shade of the Old Bodhi Tree: The Defeat of Mara

Benefiting Others: Buddha’s Career in Full Gear

Envisioning the Future

Understanding the Four Noble Truths

Chapter 4: Charting the Development of Buddhism in India

Convening the First Buddhist Council

Spreading the Teachings — Peacefully

A Fork in the Road: Managing a Developing Split in the Buddhist Community

Making Buddhism a Religion of the People: The Emperor Ashoka’s Influence

Two Levels of Practice in Early Buddhism

Witnessing Shifting Allegiances and New Ideals

Chronicling the Rise of the Mahayana Teachings

Recognizing the Major Mahayana Themes

Bringing Up Buddhism beyond India

Chapter 5: Following Buddhism to the Present Day

Tracing the Two Routes of Buddhism

Spreading the Way of the Elders across Southeast Asia to the West

Driving the Great Vehicle to China and Beyond

Part III : Buddhism in Practice

Chapter 6: Turning to Buddhism

Proceeding at Your Own Pace

Getting Acquainted with the Dharma

Formally Becoming a Buddhist

Entering the Monastic Way

Chapter 7: Meditation: The Central Practice of Buddhism

Dispelling Some Meditation Myths

Defining Meditation

Exploring the Benefits of Meditation

Understanding the Threefold Nature of Buddhist Meditation

Developing the Three Wisdoms as the Foundation for Insight

Chapter 8: A Day in the Life of a Buddhist

Surveying the Role of Monasteries in Buddhism

Renouncing Worldly Attachments: A Day in the Life of a Western Buddhist Monk

Growing a Lotus in the Mud: A Day in the Life of a Zen Practitioner

Devoting Yourself to the Three Jewels: A Day in the Life of a Vajrayana Practitioner

Trusting the Mind of Amida: A Day in the Life of a Pure Land Buddhist

Chapter 9: Walking in Buddha’s Footsteps

Visiting the Primary Places of Pilgrimage

Seeing Other Important Pilgrimage Sites

Going on Pilgrimage Today

Part IV : Traveling the Buddhist Path

Chapter 10: What Is Enlightenment Anyway?

Considering the Many Faces of Spiritual Realization

Reviewing the Theravada Tradition’s Take on Nirvana

Getting a Handle on Two Traditions of Wisdom

Realizing the Mind’s Essential Purity in the Vajrayana Tradition

Standing Nirvana on Its Head with Zen

Finding the Common Threads in Buddhist Enlightenment

Chapter 11: A Matter of Life and Death

Taking Death Personally

Recognizing Your Life as a Rare and Precious Opportunity

Facing Reality: The Nine-Part Death Meditation

Reaping the Result of the Death Meditation

Surveying Different Buddhist Attitudes toward Death

Dealing with the Death of a Loved One

Chapter 12: Getting Your Karmic Act Together

Appreciating the Law of Karmic Cause and Effect

Experiencing Karmic Consequences

Following Buddha’s Ethical Guidance

Exploring the Buddhist Precepts

Dealing with Transgressions

Chapter 13: Breaking Free of the Cycle of Dissatisfaction

Feeling like Life’s a Big Rat Race

Spinning the Wheel of Life: The Meaning of Wandering in Samsara

Cutting through Suffering: The Three Trainings

Chapter 14: Fulfilling Your Highest Potential

Ordering a Round of Happiness for Everyone and Everything

Dedicating Your Heart to Others

Nurturing the Four Heavenly Abodes

Cultivating the Six Perfections of a Bodhisattva

Chapter 15: Four Modern Buddhist Masters

Dipa Ma (1911–1989)

Ajahn Chah (1918–1992)

Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926)

The Dalai Lama (born 1935)

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 16: Ten Common Misconceptions about Buddhism

Buddhism Is Only for Asians

To Buddhists, Buddha Is God

Buddhists Are Idol Worshippers

Because Buddhists Think Life Is Suffering, They Look Forward to Dying

Buddhists Think That Everything Is an Illusion

Buddhists Don’t Believe in Anything

Only Buddhists Can Practice Buddhism

Buddhists Are Only Interested in Contemplating Their Navels

Buddhists Never Get Angry

“It’s Just Your Karma; There’s Nothing You Can Do about It”

Buddhists Don’t Know How to Count

Chapter 17: Ten Ways Buddhism Can Help You Deal with Life’s Problems

Affirming the Basic Principles

Applying the Basic Principles

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: Brushing Up Your Sanskrit: A Glossary of Useful Buddhist Terms

Appendix B: Additional Buddhist Resources to Check Out

The Story of Buddha

Buddhist Classics, Old and New

Well Worth Reading

By and about the Modern Masters

Women and Buddhism

Socially Engaged Buddhism

At Your Local Newsstand


B uddhism is much more widely known today than it was 30 years ago when we first became involved in it. Dozens of books on the subject line the shelves at your local bookstore, and hundreds of Buddhist centers are located throughout North America where you can find out about Buddhism directly from members of its various traditions. Buddhism even seems to be seeping into the general culture; you commonly hear casual references to it in movies and on TV.

But, even with all the increased recognition, we still wonder how much the general public actually knows and understands about Buddhism. Despite the number of books on the subject, we suspect that, except for those folks who have pursued their interest fairly seriously, most people still have only a vague idea of what Buddhism is all about.

About This Book

So what do you do if you want to understand more about Buddhism in general, but the books you’ve looked at so far are too narrow — covering, for example, only one particular school, aspect, or practice — and you’re not ready to take a class at your local Buddhist center (supposing you even have one)? Well, the book you have in your hands may be just what you’re looking for.

In this book, we try to cover the main themes and currents of Buddhism without overwhelming you with too much technical jargon. (In the places that we do use technical terms, we explain them as clearly and succinctly as we can, and even provide a glossary you can use to refresh your memory.) Because we believe that Buddha meant his teachings to be taken as practical advice — advice that’s as relevant to the human condition today as it was 2,500 years ago when he first gave it — we’ve tried to avoid taking a purely theoretical approach to Buddhism in favor of one that shows you how you can apply its insights to your everyday life.

Conventions Used in This Book

In assigning dates, we use BCE (before the Common Era) and CE (in the Common Era) in place of the BC and AD that are probably more familiar to many people. These relatively new designations are coming into wider use and, being religiously neutral, seem to be more appropriate for a book of this nature. And don’t be concerned if the dates given differ a little from dates you find in other books on Buddhism. Historians disagree about quite a few of these dates, so we simply adopted those that seemed most reasonable to us.

Also, throughout this book, we cite (not too often, we hope) Buddhist technical terms and personal names from the ancient Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit (in which the Buddhist scriptures were first written) and from a smattering of other Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. Wherever possible, we simplify the spelling of these words to reflect their approximate pronunciation, and we omit most of the marks that scholars of these languages typically employ when writing them using the Latin alphabet. If any scholars happen to be reading this book, they should have no trouble identifying these terms even without their accustomed markings; for everyone else, we think that the simpler, clearer presentation is more user friendly.

How This Book Is Organized

Buddhism is a huge subject. Not only were Buddha’s own teachings extensive (filling more than 100 volumes in translation), but a succession of brilliant commentators in India and other countries also added their thoughts and interpretations to them. This process produced a large body of writings and led to the development of different Buddhist schools and traditions. In addition, as Buddhism moved from country to country, it took on different flavors. The Buddhism of Japan, for example, is different from the Buddhism of Thailand, and you can even find a number of distinct forms of practice within Japan itself.

In a work like this, we can’t possibly do justice to all these various aspects of Buddhist thought and practice. Instead, we combine a general overview of the different traditions and schools with a more in-depth discussion of the most important themes — those themes that characterize Buddhism as a whole. Then, in the list of recommended readings in Appendix B, we provide the names of books and other resources you can consult to research the aspects of Buddhism that you want to explore further.

To make our presentation as clear and useful as possible, we group the topics into the following parts, each having its own unifying theme.

Part I: Introducing Buddhism

We begin with an overview of Buddhism as a whole, showing how it can be regarded as a religion, a philosophy of life, and a practical approach to dealing with life’s problems — all rolled into one. Then, because the mind is so central to Buddhism, we take a look at how the mind creates both happiness and suffering, and how the centrally important Buddhist practices of wisdom and compassion can bring you into contact with your inner spiritual resources.

Part II: Buddhism Past and Present

History doesn’t have to be a boring subject, especially when it deals with the lives and deeds of extraordinary people. In this part, we look at the history of Buddhism, beginning with the life of its founder, Shakyamuni Buddha, including a summary of his earliest and most basic teachings. We then explore how Buddhism developed in India and then evolved further as it spread from country to country across Asia. Finally, we show you how Theravada, Vajrayana, and Zen Buddhism grew to become the three main Buddhist traditions practiced in the West.

Part III: Buddhism in Practice

In this part, we address a number of practical questions: How does someone become a Buddhist? What does being a Buddhist involve? How does Buddhism affect the way you live your life? In short, what do Buddhists actually do? To answer these questions, we look at the ways people can benefit from what Buddhism has to offer. We explore meditation and show you some of the ways you can practice it. We examine how followers of various traditions bring Buddhism into their everyday lives. And we conclude by taking you on a tour of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Part IV: Traveling the Buddhist Path

Buddha’s teachings are vast and contain a wide variety of different practices. In this part, we show you how all these different methods fit together. We examine the different interpretations of enlightenment and show you how you can apply the Buddhist teachings at each stage along the spiritual path. Finally, we take a look at how enlightenment expresses itself in the lives of four contemporary Buddhist masters.

Part V: The Part of Tens

If you like to receive information in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks, then this is the part for you. We discuss (and try to dispel) ten common misconceptions about Buddhism and present ten ways that Buddhist insights can be applied to your life. All this at no extra charge.

Part VI: Appendixes

Finally, in the appendixes, we provide some information that should help round out your understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. Here you will find a glossary containing many of the most commonly used Buddhist terms, as well as a list of resources you can consult if you want to find out more about the different aspects of Buddhism that you encounter in this book.

Icons Used in This Book

To draw your attention to bits of information that we think are particularly important or interesting, we use the following icons throughout the text.


The information next to this icon is worth repeating. We may use this icon to highlight a thought expressed elsewhere in the book or simply to point out something we think is especially important for you to keep in mind.


This icon contains suggestions for ways you can get a deeper understanding of the aspect of Buddhism being discussed.


Don’t be unduly alarmed by this icon. We use it to draw your attention to areas where misunderstandings can arise so that you can avoid tripping up.


Next to this icon are quotations from famous Buddhist masters of the past — including Buddha himself — that illustrate the aspect of Buddhism being discussed.


This icon alerts you that we’re retelling a traditional Buddhist story or perhaps relating an incident of a more personal nature.

Where to Go from Here

You can approach this book in several different ways. The Table of Contents and Index are detailed enough that you can find specific topics of interest and turn directly to them if you want. Or, because each chapter of the book is quite self-contained, you can start reading anywhere and skip around at your leisure. The cross references we provide point out where you can find additional information on selected topics.

You can also read this book in the ordinary, straightforward manner: In other words, start at the beginning and, when you reach the end, stop. Finally, if you’re like some people, you can open the book at the end and, after many detours, make your way back to the beginning. We hope that, whichever approach you follow, you find the material informative and enjoyable.

Part I

Introducing Buddhism

In this part . . .

Want to find out what Buddhism actually means, and whether it’s a religion, a philosophy, a psychology, or something else. Well, look no further than the pages contained in this part for the answers to these questions. We also introduce you to the Buddhist understanding of the mind and its importance and tell you about the treasures inside of you that Buddhism wants to help you discover. That seems well worth the price of admission, doesn’t it?