Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion with 350 million adherents. And like other religions, Buddhism has within it different groups. A few times this past year there have been reported self-immolation by Buddhist monks and nuns. Such dramatic self-sacrifices raise questions about this fascinating and often mysterious belief system.
It has been estimated between 1960 to 2002 more than 500 self-immolations occurred. Westerners find this an abhorrence. It is only tolerated by some elements in Mahayana Buddhism and is used as a way to make a declaration of protest or to commit suicide. A new wave of self-immolation protests is currently ongoing in the Middle East and North Africa, with at least 14 recorded incidents. Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation to protest Chinese rule. Twenty-one Tibetans died in a series of immolating protests beginning in 2011. The Dalai Lama has officially condemned such extreme measures.
1. What is the Buddhist attitude about violence? Most Buddhist practice and adhere to the idea of nonviolence. However, that does not mean the practitioner is submissive-a wimp or coward. For the practicing Buddhist, the basic cause of violence is the entanglement of extreme ideas. Generally, this happens when one gets tangled in the issues of good/bad, moral/immoral, or ugly/beautiful. This dualism often takes on the posture of inflexible self-righteousness.
2. Can anyone become a Buddhist or does one have to become a monk or nun? Anyone may become a Buddhist. It is not necessary to be a monk or nun. One needs to live and follow the Eight-fold Path as taught in the Fourth of the Noble Truths of Buddhism. That’s all it really takes. Generally, this is a journey you must go alone because it involves you; no one else can become a Buddhist for you. Your journey will be made easier if you find fellow human beings that share your aspirations.
There is strength in numbers. Visit the local Buddhist temple or centre. Though the traditions vary, there may be some sort of a formal ceremony to confirm your commitment to be a Buddhist. Such a ritual can be a very powerful personal experience and can be most helpful in bonding with a local Sangha, a Buddhist community.
3. If you become a Buddhist, do you have to give up sex? If you become a monk or nun, some Buddhist groups require abstinence; others do not. If you do not become a monk or nun, there is no requirement for abstinence.
4. Is there a hell in Buddhism as there is in Christianity? There are levels of hell in Buddhism but not the ever-lasting eternal condemnation as found in Christianity. Such condemnation does not exist in Buddhism. In Buddhism, every being is destined for nirvana, even the vilest of individuals are not eternally condemned. You should not interpret this to mean that you are free to do anything you wish. There is a high moral standard of behaviour in Buddhism,
5. Which Buddhist tradition is more popular in the United States and Why? Historically, it was the Zen tradition that first entered the United States having been introduced in California by such famous masters as Shunryu Suzuki and Yasutani Roshi. As the first American students of Zen Buddhism were acknowledged by these masters as Dharma Heir, Roshi Philip Kapleau, for example, Zen centres sprouted up in California and eventually spread to the east coast and are now located throughout the United States. With the ever-growing Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese Communist domination and with their great desire to preserve the Vajrayana traditions of Tibet, the number of Lamas who taught this unique form of Buddhism also increased. Because of its seemingly esoteric and exotic nature, Tibetan Buddhism attracted many westerners. It too has now spread throughout the North American Continent and winged its way to Europe. With the interest in Buddhism sparked by Zen, the Hinayana tradition with its more conservative approach has taken hold in the United States.
Dr. Wilson is the author of college textbooks in the humanities, three novels, and other nonfiction books. His latest book and soon to be released is So You THINK You Want to Be a Buddhist. Additionally, Wilson is the author of over 200 articles on the interest and is a reviewer for The New York Journal of Book Reviews.