New to Buddhism

Shantideva Meditation Center offers FPMT’s Meditation 101, an introductory course on basic Buddhist meditation techniques for complete beginners. The Center also offers Buddhism in a Nutshell courses, which introduce students to the basic teachings of the Buddha and provide the essentials of what it means to practice Buddhism. Please check our calendar for possible classes.

If you are new to Buddhism, below are some frequently asked questions. For referrals to organizations, publications, advice, and news from within the broader community, please visit the “Other Organizations” page.

Resources are from FPMT’s New to Buddhism FAQ page:

“What is Buddhism”

Click here for “What is Buddhism” by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Who is the Buddha?

There are many ways to describe who the Buddha is, according to different ways of understanding . These various interpretations have their sources in the Buddha’s teachings.

One way is to see the historical Buddha who lived 2,500 years ago as a human being who cleansed his mind of all defilements and developed all his potential. Any being who does likewise is also considered a Buddha, for there are many Buddhas, not just one.
Another way is to understand a particular Buddha or Buddhist deity as omniscient mind manifesting in a certain physical aspect in order to communicate with us.

Yet another way is to see the Buddha — or any of the enlightened Buddhist deities — as the appearance of the future Buddha that we will become once we properly and completely have engaged in the path to cleanse our mind of defilements and develop all our potentials.

What are the Three Jewels?

The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is one who has purified all the defilements of the mind the afflictive emotions, the imprints of the actions motivated by them, and the stains of these afflictive emotions and who has developed all good qualities, such as impartial love and compassion, wisdom knowing all existence, and skillful means of guiding others.

The Dharma embodies the preventive measures which keep us from problems and suffering. This includes the teachings of the Buddha, as well as the realizations of those teachings the cessations of problems and their causes, and the realizations or paths which lead to those cessations.

The Sangha are those beings who have direct non-conceptual perception of emptiness or ultimate truth. On a relative level, Sangha also refers to the ordained people who put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.

What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings?

Simply speaking, this is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is, Abandon negative action; create perfect virtue; subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha. By abandoning negative actions (killing, etc.) an destructive motivations (anger, attachment, close-mindedness, etc.), we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, like impartial love and compassion, and do actions motivated by these thoughts. By subduing our mind, we cut away all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful by understanding reality.

The essence of Buddha’s teachings is also contained in the three principles of the path: definite emergence, the dedicated heart and wisdom realizing emptiness. Initially, we seek definitely to emerge from the confusion of our problems and their causes. Then, we see that other people also have problems, and with love and compassion, we dedicate our heart to becoming a Buddha so that we are capable of helping others extensively. In order to do this, we develop the wisdom understanding the real nature of ourselves and other phenomena.

Why are there many Buddhist traditions?

The Buddha gave a wide variety of teachings because sentient beings (any being with mind who is not a Buddha, including those in other realms of existence) have different dispositions, inclinations and interests. The Buddha never expected us all to fit into the same mould. Thus, he gave many teachings and described various ways of practicing so each of us could find something that suits our level of mind and our personality.

What are the various Buddhist traditions?

Generally, there are two divisions: Theravada and Mahayana.

The Theravada lineage (Tradition of the Elders), which relies on sutras recorded in the Pali language, spread from India to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc. It emphasizes meditation on the breath to develop concentration and meditation on mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena in order to develop wisdom.

The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition, based on the scriptures recorded in Sanskrit, spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Although in the Theravadin practice love and compassion are essential and important factors, in the Mahayana they are emphasized to an even greater extent.

What is the purpose of reciting mantras?

Mantras are prescribed syllables to protect the mind. What we want to protect our mind from are attachment, anger, ignorance, and so on. When combined with the four opponent powers, mantra recitation is very powerful in purifying negative karmic imprints on our mindstream. While we recite mantras, we should also be thinking and visualizing in a beneficial way so that we are building up constructive habits in the mind.

In the Vajrayana practice, mantras are recited in Sanskrit, rather than being translated into other languages. The reason for this is that there is a special beneficial energy or vibration that is induced by the sound of the syllables. While doing recitation, we can concentrate on the sound of the mantra, on its meaning, or on the accompanying visualizations that the master has taught.