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frequent questions about dhamma (1/2)


List of questions

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About Buddha


Is Buddha a god?
Where is Buddha today?

About dhamma


What is nirvana?
What is Buddhism?
Is dhamma a philosophy?
Is there a life after death? In case there is, how to explain it?
Why does nature spoil some and favour others?
What is life's meaning?
We say that nibbāna is indescribable by words. Is it not a way to beat around the bush for simply saying that it is about complete annihilation of the individual?
After all, a bit of suffering at the cost of a bit of happiness are considered, by most of people, better than non-existence.
How could a being who dies, who loses all memories of his former life and is reborn, be considered as the same individual?
How is it possible to evolve from the stage of a human to the one of a mosquito? Is it possible to be reborn as a mosquito, why not as a bacteria? Where to draw the limit?
What is common between a human being, a dog and an ant?

About saṃgha


Why don't monks work?
What should be done to become a monk?
Is a monk obliged to beg for food or anything?
Why must monks abstain from relationships with women? Why imposing sexual abstinence, and why is it considered as unclean?

About vipassanā


Which is the best posture to be assumed for practising meditation?
How to react to a headache that disturbs one's concentration?
Where can we practice vipassanā?
What to do if we have no time for meditation?
In the context of vipassanā, what does "to note" mean?

About the practice


How could you explain that in theravāda, we search for enlightenment only for ourselves, whereas in mahayāna, we search for it for others' sake too?
Why are Buddhists vegetarians?
Can we reach liberation without meditating?
What should be done to reach nibbāna ?
Why renouncing all pleasures? Isn't it a kind of self-inflicted punishment?

Miscellaneous


What is the difference between "hīnayāna" and "mahayāna"?
How many kinds of monks and nuns do we find?

6 questions asked to Monk Sāsana


1 ~ Why don't bhikkhus work – at least to meet their own needs? Why is it necessary for them to depend on begging or donations?
2 ~ Birds' song sometimes makes more noise than the city traffic. Whatever they are, all sounds are hearing phenomena, one the same as others. However, sounds made by birds are generally soothing and bring serenity. How do you explain this?
3 ~ Sexual intercourse is the greatest transgression of the monastic rules. It is also prohibited in the eight precepts. Why is it that this act so natural, that only produces enjoyment, is considered as a negative act?
4 ~ According to the Buddha, religious masters who – even though sincerely and unwittingly – deliver erroneous teachings, develop much more akusala (demerit) than murderers who savagely kill, rape and persecute many people. Why?
5 ~ What is difference between indifference and detachment?
6 ~ Can you give us a definition and a brief explanation of each of the ten kilesā – the mental impurities?

About Buddha

Is Buddha a god?

Not at all. He was a human being who expired just as others do, at the completion of his existence (at the age of 80 years old). The only thing that does make him different from others lies in that he trained without respite in developing the pāramī (virtue, patience, compassion, etc.) over a very large number of lives until he became fit to discover by himself the path leading to nibbāna and to show it to others.

Where is Buddha today?

At the end of his last existence, about 2 500 years ago, Buddha achieved entrance into parinibbāna, as any other arahanta who passes away. An arahanta, and a Buddha all the more, does not longer harbour the slightest feeling of attachment. Owing to this fact, no factor can bring about to him a rebirth under any shape whatsoever. Only a being affected by ignorance is in a position to take birth.

Most of divergent schools claim the opposite thing, but let us not forget that they cropped up much later than the original teaching, given by Buddha himself, added to the fact to be mixed up with much variegated external beliefs. How could have Buddha reappeared while giving extra teachings being so contradictory with his first teachings?

Whether it is within mahayāna or else within theravāda, those who pray Buddha like an all-pervasive god follow a path that is not different at all from the one of the theistic religions. The only way to pay homage to Buddha lies in putting his teaching into practice, by following the instructions of realised beings, not the ones of the ignorant ones.

About dhamma

What is nirvana?

Buddha talked about "nibbāna". "nirvana" is its Sanskrit rendering. nibbāna is the ultimate goal of all practices in dhamma. The entirety of the steps that it is possible to follow do but enable one to reach nibbāna or help others to reach it too. Otherwise, it certainly means that it is not a step pertaining to dhamma. nibbāna is not a state of mind. It is not a location even. It is a reality which cannot be conditioned by anything whatsoever. This reality can be experienced as soon as does take place the cessation of mental and physical phenomena. So that these latter cease to appear, the mind ought to have developed a training into a "direct insight" (vipassanā in Pali) of these phenomena, so as to contemplate them in a perfectly vivid. Thus, known as they really are, these phenomena do no longer have reasons to appear. If some residual kamma do remain, the experience of nibbāna does last for a short span only. If there are none, this experience is definitive. In this case, it is called parinibbāna (complete nibbāna).

Read "nibbāna"
Read "jhānas and nibbāna"
Read "The goal"

What is Buddhism?

The word "Buddhism" doesn't mean anything in particular. We could claim that it is a large set of schools of thought, among which each interprets in its own way Buddha's word.

Many take delight in claiming that each school does have its own approach but all lead to the same goal, all in one, etc. FALSE! Buddha has given one teaching, not a thousand. Later on, some chose to respect it, to trust it by putting it into practice as it is. On the other hand, others wanted to pour their own concoction into it, suppressing from it that which didn't befit their taste while mixing it with cultural practices being totally contradictory to it. If one wants to talk about Buddha's teaching, instead of "Buddhism", it is better to use the word dhamma.

Read "Buddha's teaching in a few sentences..."

Is dhamma a philosophy?

It is not something that we could include in this category. It is likened to space, we cannot define as "this" or "that". dhamma is a compound of things that helps all to achieve deliverance (definitive from all suffering). Among these things, there are:

  • Practice. A way of life lying in training oneself into a beneficial way to deal with perceptions.
  • Study. Designed for understanding, from a theoretical view point, that which is practised and the philosophy (or metaphysics) of dhamma.
  • The teaching. So as to bring to others' acknowledgement the existence of this path to liberation, to make them understand the innumerable benefits of this dhamma and to incite them to practice and study it at their turn.

The whole thing being shaped and expounded in the teaching that only Buddha , was capable to give us. We could possibly define dhamma as the "science of reality".

Is there a life after death? In case there is, how to explain it?

According to the teaching of dhamma, each being is ceaselessly reborn since immemorial times and is likely to become emancipated from this endless cycle only by means of a correct practice until he (she) reaches nibbāna. Death is not a state but a mere name designating the passage from one existence to the next. Likewise, the boarder line between two countries does have no surface area.

In the same way, it is impossible to prove that there is no life after death and we cannot prove that there is either. However, the more we proceed further in the practice of dhamma, the more we develop a right understanding of reality, the least we have doubts about the truth found in Buddha's word and the more this notion seems obvious to us.

If beings lived only once, how could we explain that some children, who are filled with kindness, die under atrocious conditions and due to abominable tortures and some gangsters enjoy the greatest pleasures and benefit with amazing luxuries during a whole life even though they dedicate their time to killing, stealing et committing evil deeds by any means.

Why should this nature, which does beget things in such a suitable way, give a better chance to the ones while plaguing others with ill luck?

See also the question below...

Why does nature spoil some and favour others?

There is no reason for it to be so, everything is so logical while facing reality. Even if the justice of a country does sometimes condemn innocents or release culprits, all these are mere elements which take part into the uncontrollable scheduling of causes and consequences that kamma is, which cannot be looked over.

Thus, all the problems and advantages that we enjoy in our present life are the fruits of the actions that we have performed during former lives (and in this life too). In the same way, the actions whose seeds we sow in this present life will ripen in future existence (and in this life too).

For example, a person who utters words with an harmful aim in mind will experience difficulties to express himself during a future existence, even a stammerer or a mute. Also, some persons who are exceptionally gifted in a particular field, such as Amadeus Mozart or Michelangelo, have necessarily developed their speciality during entire former lives.

The same thing does exactly apply to the ones who do experience eases or difficulties in their practice of concentration. This is what we call good luck and bad luck, and those are no accidents. Those are simply events that coincide in a satisfactory or unsatisfactory way that,in all cases, we legitimately deserve.

What is life's meaning?

According to the teaching of dhamma, life doesn't make a sense. At the level of the commonly accepted truth (samucci saccā), it does always bear the significance that we are willing to ascribe to it, but at the level of the ultimate truth (paramattha saccā), it doesn't have any. Its does have, as sole direction, "going around in circles"; Life is only made of a set of more less complex cycles, at all levels, which do always reoccur. Save the path to deliverance discovered and taught by Buddha, there is no exit gate from all that.

Life is empty of any meaning, any steadiness and therefore any liberty. It is likened to a huge prison hosting more less golden or dark periods. To escape from the vicious and endless circle that life is, what is needed is become detached from it and this detachment is but a progressive process. To that sake, one has to actively cultivate generosity, good conduct, concentration and patience.

We say that nibbāna is indescribable by words. Is it not a way to beat around the bush for simply saying that it is about complete annihilation of the individual?

Buddha never beats around the bush. If nibbāna had been annihilation itself, he would have told: «that is annihilation». nibbāna is not nothing and is not the void. It is empty but is not THE emptiness. That is truly and really something, an object that consciousness focuses on when no more sensory perception does occur.

Read "nibbāna"
Read "jhānas and nibbāna"
Read "The goal"

After all, a bit of suffering at the cost of a bit of happiness are considered, by most of people, better than non-existence.

Ignorance alone incites us to believe that a mixture of pleasurable and unpleasant sensations is something to be longed for. Sages understand that the absence of sensations is the only true happiness. As long as a being wanders in the rebirths cycle, he can never know, neither avoid sufferings awaiting him/her; some sufferings that can prove out to be more atrocious and to last longer than we can imagine.

How could a being who dies, who loses all memories of his former life and is reborn, be considered as the same individual?

No matter if we have had no memory of our former existence and to be given a new body, if we spend this life persecuting others or giving relief to those who are needy and suffer, we are truly the "ones" who will bear the consequences of our past actions.

Besides, don't we change our body every time our bodily cells are re-forming? Do we have a perfect memory of all actions performed in this existence? Are we not the "ones" who bear the consequences of an action that we performed and have totally forgotten?

How is it possible to evolve from the stage of a human to the one of a mosquito? Is it possible to be reborn as a mosquito, why not as a bacteria? Where to draw the limit?

We can proceed from one body to the next, from the moment when it is endowed of consciousness. Nobody is reborn as a vegetable, as vegetables are deprived of consciousness. Consciousness has neither shape, nor volume, then why not being able to proceed from the stage of whale to the one of crab? Is it not a single man able to pilot a big aircraft or a ship, and soon after, a little car?

What is common between a human being, a dog and an ant?

They are endowed of a consciousness and the same mental defilements (self-pride, fear, desire, jealousy, anger, etc.

About saṃgha

Why don't monks work?

One should be cautious about the word work. We can distinguish two meanings: "profession, waged occupation" and "performed duty".

A monk is supposed to follow a quite specific step. This step is incompatible with the plying of a trade. One should commit himself to a choice: Whether one leads a life of renunciation, or else we have an occupation or do something else.

From the occupational viewpoint, it is clear that a monk doesn't have to work. Otherwise, does being a monk really make a sense?

From the viewpoint of duty, a monk is supposed to work more than anybody else as he is requested to relentlessly train (even at time of physical rest) without ever wasting a single moment for vain things or things which are of no benefit to anybody (from the viewpoint of dhamma of course). He is supposed to ceaselessly train in cultivating a great vigilance; not to daydream, not to let oneself go, not to discuss for pleasure, etc.

Thus, he must dedicate his whole time in improving himself, in turning all his attention to his perceptions (pains, bodily movements, sounds, emotions, etc.) in period of practice. He should be assiduous both in the study and the practical and theoretical teaching of dhamma.

By having an "ordinary" job, we do receive a salary from which we totally depend to provide for our needs. By performing our duty with dignity to the benefit of all beings, a monk doesn't receive a salary, he is not supposed to accept nor to utilise money. It is therefore quite normal that his vital needs are being provided for in a way or the other. The peculiarity linked to those point, as to the monks, lies in that his needs are being provided for him in a natural way. That is to say, some persons who do acknowledge their blameless conduct and their beneficial action for all, in order to convey their respect or simply for supporting them, do offer them that which they need.

Remark: Admittedly, there are (unfortunately!) many "scroungers" who perfectly look like monks but their ambition, resolving power and conduct are totally against that which defines what a monk is.


Read "Six questions asked to Monk Sāsana"

What should be done to become a monk?

The real step for becoming a monk is to want it. Wanting to be a monk means wanting to renounce the world, its activities and its pleasures (in Pali, monk is translated by bhikkhu, which means someone who has renounced).

The fact to take the robe and to shave off (integrating the community of monks) is a simple formality. However, one should be able to positively answer ten questions and not to be sick at time of integrating the saṃgha.

Read "How to become a bhikkhu ?"

Is a monk obliged to beg for food or anything?

A monk should never beg! In the word "beggary" is found "to beg", which means "to ask", "to pass the hat round", "to request something from somebody". Moreover, this pejorative word is inclusive of the idea of devaluing, belittling oneself, even a self-inflicted humiliation. Indeed, the opposite process does precisely occur, the monk does never ask for anything (otherwise he is not a monk!). At the most, he simply makes his needs known among those who have requested him to do so. In case of any request being made, those are the people who, sometimes, ask the monk to possibly accept to get offered such or such thing.

At time of "making his food collection", the monk should remain perfectly silent and motionless while being in front of houses where he stops. All that he does lies in being present among the people, just to give to those who wish so, the opportunity to provide for his needs.

Thus, expressions like "to go for begging" and "to make his food collection", which are often coped with regarding monks, are completely erroneous translations. It is rather convenient to utilise expressions such as: "making his morning collection", "going to receive his food", "accepting his food" or "making his daily round".

Why must monks abstain from relationships with women? Why imposing sexual abstinence, and why is it considered as unclean?

In the pātimokkha, a large number of points indeed concern monks' behaviour with women (all that which does apply available to monks as related to women obviously also applies to nuns as related to men).

Buddha has exhorted monks of the saṃgha to abstain from all contacts with women, even by touching lightly their skin or touching their hair... out of la lustful mind, and even to isolate oneself – even for a short span – alone with a woman, beyond people's sights, to sit close to a woman, or more simply to talk to a woman without the presence of another man being in the position to understand the meaning of that which is being told.

A lustful desire is the strongest kind of greed to be. A monk is a man before all, and he can therefore develop lustful desires (even the mildest ones) as soon as he establishes a contact with a woman. When the mind falls prey to greed, and particularly if a lustful desire does arise, it locks itself up unto it and inevitably generates a feeling of attachment (such as the desire that these sensations – tactile, visual, olfactory, or even related to taste, auditory – endure), and some conceptions (such as some sexual fantasms and some associations of thoughts being related to pleasant sensations). After the contact occurred, the mind doesn't wish to remain there. It has the potency to get endlessly immersed into lustful thoughts arising out of the desire that the experienced sensations (or which may have been experienced) re-occur again and again in the future. All these poisons of the mind are as many veils which veil away the reality the way the later truly appears at each elapsing moment.

It is no accident if the most serious offences concern the most often contacts with women. The step that lies in involving oneself into lustful desires stands totally opposed to the one supposed to be followed by a monk: developing the right knowledge of reality in order to get detached from mental defilements (whose related lustful desires precisely are one of the grossest).

In brief, a contact with a woman causes a desire to arise, which destroys all that which leads to a progress on the path of wisdom, of knowledge, of liberation from suffering (dhukkha). This desire destroys the right insight into reality, concentration, attention, vigilance, motivation (in the dhamma).

Besides, a monk, who renounces to everything, and who exclusively lives of others' alms, has to represent his own brethren – whose role lies in preserving and to make known the teaching that leads to Liberation – with nobility and by adopting a blameless conduct. Monks are worshipped because they dedicate their lives to the practice of dhamma (if possible up to its realisation's stage), to its study and to its teaching (in order to enable the largest number of persons to put a definitive end to mental defilements (kilesā). How could we worship an individual who spends some time to involve himself into sensuous pleasures?

This being expressed, Buddha never forced anyone to do anything whatsoever; a monk can disrobe and take back the robe at any time (by means of the appropriate procedure). For example, if a monk wishes to have a physical intercourse with a woman, nothing prevents him from disrobing - that is to say coming back to lay life by dropping his monastic status – so as to do whatever he finds most enjoyable/beneficial to himself. Beware: a monk who only removes his robe and who dresses in some lay clothes is still a monk. Regarding virginity, there is no absolute requirement; anybody who lives a couple life or even having had children can enter monastic life. Simply, once being a monk or a nun, any person has to strictly observe chastity during all the time of his monastic experience. Otherwise, his monastic status is lost as long as his present life endures, as sexual intercourse – including with an animal, even a fellatio – constitutes one of the four most serious offences of the pātimokkha.

About vipassanā

Which is the best posture to be assumed for practising meditation?

Whatever the form of concentration being practised, the posture doesn't really matter. What is essential nonetheless, is to keep the back well straight. If such is the case, the rest of the body in naturally put into the right position.

Even if the lotus or half-lotus posture is the most befitting, persons who are unable to adopt one of the two can perfectly well sit in a different posture, for example by utilising a little bench or even seated on a chair if it is not possible to do otherwise.

In all cases, one should feel well at ease, with a straight back, one should not, under any pretence, lean against anything whatsoever and it is convenient to shun any posture provoking an asymmetry of the body ( legs folded aside, etc.)

Hands can be put wherever we deem most fit, it has no importance.

How to react to a headache that disturbs one's concentration?

During a vipassanā sitting session, if a pain appears in the head (or anywhere else), it is convenient not to be preoccupied by the abdominal movement and to turn our attention to this pain. We will carefully observe this pain with the sole aim of knowing it as it is, as it is being felt, without hoping that it could disappear and without trying to do anything else whatsoever. We will thus note it during all the time of its appearance. When it ceases or become superficial, we turn our attention back to the movement of the abdomen.

To remain concentrated on the abdominal movement is not the aim of this practice, the goal of vipassanā is to develop concentration by turning our attention to the perceived phenomena in a repetitive manner. During sitting meditation, when nothing particular does appear, we do train into noting the abdominal movement, as it is very visible and is always here. If another phenomenon of a more sensible nature (noise, pain, strong smell, etc.) does appear, it is the one that become the object of the attention. Thus, even by uninterruptedly noting a pain for one hour, if it is done in a proper manner, then the training into vipassanā will have been well done.

Where can we practice vipassanā?

Everywhere. When we do tennis, we must proceed to a tennis court. For vipassanā, we don't need anything at all as we simply observe the phenomena that we do perceive. That's why we can do this training anywhere and whenever we feel fit to.

However, people who are beginners a relatively calm and silent place in order to learn to properly note without being disturbed. All the ones who have not acquired yet a solid experience of vipassanā essentially need a regular guidance given by qualified instructor. The role of the instructor lies in making the practice of the yogī well balanced according to the information that he gives him through the description he makes of his practical experience. That is indispensable so that the yogī always stick to a right practice, which is propitious to the development of concentration, while avoiding to go over to a false path.

So as to know addresses where to practice under those conditions: Read the page "Where to practice?"

What to do if we have no time for meditation?

Anybody really wishing to practice always find a bit of time for it (When we need to go to toilets, we always find time for it, isn't it?) The more we wish to dedicate some time to a practice of concentration, the easiest we succeed to find one, it is not possible otherwise (if our might is genuine). The one who is ready to lead a life of detachment is able to renounce to everything that he possesses and everything to which he was committed earlier. When the fruit has ripened, it falls off!

This being expressed, everybody doesn't feel able to "drop the lot" and there are periods during which we cannot dedicate sufficient time for "meditation" whereas we would like to seriously commit ourselves to it. In principle, it is not too difficult to find half an hour daily (or even a quarter of an hour daily or an hour a week) for that sake. If this is well done, even for short whiles, then it will be very beneficial.

Apart from this, one should keep in mind that vipassanā is not confined to sitting meditation. This practice is EQUALLY important while sitting or during activities. Let us not forget to benefit with the innumerable moments of "white" that life does provide to us daily, in order to turn our attention to the steps' movements during a walk, bodily movements and abdominal movements, if the body is motionless. That which we call a moment of "white" is a moment when we are supposed to think, talk, listen or concentrate ourselves on a work. A few examples: Transport (metro, train), waiting (waiting room, appointment), Proceeding somewhere (walking in the street, going along a corridor), meal, toilets, disease (to be sick or to get hospitalised is always an excellent occasion for training into observing one's sensations, pains, etc.), break, intense emotions (observing an intense emotion, such as a blow of anger, a tremendous joy or a fear, as soon as it does appear is an excellent reflex to be adopted).

In the context of vipassanā, what does "to note" mean?

In the context of vipassanā, "to note" should be understood as "to observe", and not "to talk mentally to oneself". It does involve "Naming", which means mentally uttering the word . Noting a phenomenon precisely means: turning our attention to it as soon it is being perceived, at time and the way it is being perceived. If the yogī who is a beginner finds it difficult to note phenomena, he can, over the first two, three days of his training, mentally name the phenomena which he does note. However, he will have to rapidly give up this process, which constitutes an important obstacle to any yogī who does progress on the path of satipaṭṭhāna. When he talks about noting "hearing, hearing", "aching, aching", etc., it is only a way to indicate that it is proper to turn our attention to that which is heard at time of hearing it, to the pain at time it is being felt, etc. In no wise, what is meant here is to continuously mentally repeat the word "hearing" or "aching", etc.

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Origin: Questions of various people

Author of answers: Monk Dhamma Sāmi

Date: 2002

Translators: Lucy Costa (2002, July), Thierry Lambrou (2003, April)

Update: 2005, June the 8th