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Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner

Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Thich Nhat Hanh (Foreword by)

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For anyone curious about the teachings of Buddha and modern Buddhist practice, Tell Me Something about Buddhism offers the perfect introduction. Written by Soto Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and organized in an easy-to-use Question and Answer format, this brief book answers the many common questions people have about Buddhism, everything from who was


For anyone curious about the teachings of Buddha and modern Buddhist practice, Tell Me Something about Buddhism offers the perfect introduction. Written by Soto Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and organized in an easy-to-use Question and Answer format, this brief book answers the many common questions people have about Buddhism, everything from who was Buddha to why do monks, nuns, and priests shave their heads.

Manuel, who was been involved in Buddhist practice for over twenty years, after an L.A. upbringing in an African-American Christian church, intertwines throughout the book her personal experiences as one of the first African-American Zen priests. Her life in the Sangha, her teaching in local communities, and her travels around the world meeting other Buddhist practitioners enliven her answers to the most fundamental questions about Buddhist practice. She writes, "Had I not opened myself to the many teachings from the earth, such as Buddha's wisdom, it would have been nearly impossible to survive the fires of my soul." Included are about 20 illustrations by the author in charcoal-and-pencil style.

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Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
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5.00(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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questions and answers for the curious beginner


Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57174-658-0



Who was Buddha and what did he teach?

The word Buddha is Sanskrit meaning "the awakened one," a person who has been released from the world of cyclic existence (samsara) and attained liberation from desire. A Buddha realizes that desire is an indication of one's dissatisfaction. Recognizing dissatisfaction can become an open gate to the path of liberation. Buddha experienced such dissatisfaction with life before he began his quest for enlightenment.

There were many who carried the name Buddha before the one popular Buddha was born. Shakyamuni Buddha, born Siddartha Gautama in Kapilavatsu, India, was the one popular Buddha we speak of today. He was born into the Shakyan tribe and thus given the name Shakyamuni Buddha, meaning "the awakened one of the Shakyan tribe." His father was King Suddhodana. His mother, Mayadevi, known as the Great Mother, died seven days after his birth, so his aunt Mahapajapati raised him. He lived as a wealthy, protected prince, married a woman of royalty named Yasodhara, and had a son, named Rahula.

Once he became aware of all the suffering that had been hidden from him, including old age, sickness, birth, and death, he left his family's palace. He went to many teachers to understand this suffering, and they taught him various lessons about ending suffering. He excelled with all of his teachers, to the point that they asked him to become a teacher. However, Buddha refused their invitations to teach, feeling he had not yet been fully awakened to the condition of suffering. He continued his journey.

Fortunately, Buddha was a dreamer. His first teachings came from a succession of five dreams. Finally, after sitting among the trees in the forest, he became a lamp unto himself and was enlightened to what he called the Four Noble Truths of Suffering. These truths are:

1. There is suffering.

2. There is a cause for suffering.

3. There is cessation of suffering.

4. There is a path leading to the end of suffering, called the Eightfold Path.

Can you tell me more about the Four Noble Truths of Suffering?

There is suffering (dukkha). Dukkha means suffering. This first truth brings awareness to the universal law that we all suffer in some way. Physical suffering is called dukkha dukkha, when there is pain or disease in the body. Mental and emotional suffering is called samsara dukkha, in which there is dissatisfaction or anguish or a thirst for pleasure, power, and prosperity. Also, this kind of suffering includes seeing one's individual existence or having notions of being separate from all things and being. Spiritual suffering is called viparinama dukkha, which is resisting change, not understanding that all things are impermanent.

There is a cause for suffering (samudaya). Samudaya means the arising of suffering. This second truth addresses the origin, roots, nature, or creation of suffering. We are invited as practitioners to explore our suffering so that we can touch the root of it. The root can take on the nature of clinging to desires, ideas, expectations, and attachment to who we think we are in this lifetime.

There is cessation of suffering (nirodha). Nirodha means "cessation," to end suffering. After becoming aware of the root of suffering, we are encouraged in the practice to cease an engagement with the things that cause suffering. More specifically, we are taught to be aware of our actions through body, mind, and speech.

There is a path leading to the end of suffering (magga. Magga means "path," and in this case, it is the path of awakening. There is a path out of suffering, a path that can shift our tendency from suffering toward liberation. It is commonly called the Noble Eightfold Path. The path includes Right View or understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

The word right has been used as a translation of the Pali word samma, which appears in Buddha's original sermon (or sutras, meaning "teachings," as they are commonly called). Samma has also been translated to mean "perfect" or "complete." However, it literally stands for the quietude of citta, or mind upon itself. The entire path is samma; every aspect of the path has samma. One's whole life is samma. The complete or perfect knowing of the whole series of each moment of our lives is samma. Therefore, for the sake of avoiding a sense of right and wrong or confusing this path with rules, I prefer to use the word complete in the place of right. Complete refers to doing what is beneficial to living an awakened life, living in a way that does not cause suffering. The path aligns with actions of the body, speech, and heart-mind.

The ancient Eightfold Path espoused by Shakyamuni Buddha invites us to take a vow to awaken to life as we are living it or to awaken to suffering. It is a vow so expansive it includes awakening to not only our own suffering, but also the suffering of others. It is a vow that is not meant to be an achievement we boast about with our friends, but an inexhaustible commitment to embrace the path, despite our being weary.

Walking the Eightfold Path is a vow to break through things that have obstructed our liberation such as the constant yearning for pleasure, power, and prosperity. It is a path that has to do with being vigilant and one in which the fragility, vulnerability, and soft centers of our hearts are revealed in the transformation and evolution of life.

Yet this path cannot be taught, as it is wisdom that must surface within. You can only bring it alive with the actions of your life. You cannot just memorize it or find techniques of liberated speaking and behaving. The path can only be engaged by your living of it. It can only be engaged as an awakening of your own doing. The path is difficult to grasp because it goes against our instincts to intellectually figure it out first rather than living it. We might say, "I don't want to do this until I know what it is." We might say, "Prove that this will work when all else has failed." We are stymied by our instinct to doubt its legitimacy. For these reasons, there exist practices such as meditation and sacred time, like vision quests, to help pry open the closed doors of our lives.

At first glance, the teachings on the Four Noble Truths appear simple, but to understand how suffering arises and ceases can take a lifetime. For further reading on these teachings, I suggest The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by the renowned Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

Would you say Buddha experienced a vision quest?

I like to say Buddha experienced a vision quest when he went into the world to seek answers to his questions on suffering. Also, I like to say Buddha met his ancestors in his five dreams and received teachings. But followers of Buddha would not speak of his journey in terms of a vision quest. And rarely do we hear about Buddha's teachings emerging through lucid dreams.

Imagine Buddha committing himself to sitting among a forest of trees. Imagine spiritual teachers training him to see beyond the physical realms of life. These teachers taught him how to live on little food in the forest, how to survive the harsh climate with very little clothing, and how to attain deep, altered states of consciousness and to surrender to the spirit of nature. Just as shamans in indigenous cultures prepare for a holy life as teachers and healers, Buddha prepared for his initiation, his near-death experience, and his ultimate illumination on the suffering of living beings.

According to his sermons, his quest for understanding centered around these questions: What are these things of suffering I am subject to in life? What were these things of suffering that existed before my birth?

This spiritual curiosity is what moved Buddha to leave home. He did the difficult action of leaving behind his family for a time to enter into a state of meditation in which the sacred mysteries of life would surface from within. He shaved his head and wrapped himself in a saffron-colored cloth to indicate to others that he was taking up a spiritual quest, an odyssey of sorts. Joined by five other monks, he went into the forest, among the trees, and there each one found a place alone where the inner voice would be awakened and the state of the unborn revealed. In the forest he would open to his own suffering, which had been hidden from him all his life.

It was in the wilderness that Buddha would begin to experience lucid dreams and have visions of liberation from suffering. The remote jungle was hard to endure; seclusion was hard to embrace, and isolation was difficult to enjoy. Buddha experienced the same fear as any of us would in such a situation. In his own words, he reveals that he was afraid:

But there are the specially holy nights of the half moons of the fourteenth and fifteenth, and the quarter moon of the eighth; suppose I spent those nights in such awe-inspiring abodes as orchard shrines, woodland shrines and tree shrines, which make the hair stand up—perhaps I should encounter that fear and dread? And later [on one of those holy nights] ... a deer would approach me, or a peacock would knock off a branch ... Surely this is the fear and dread coming ... And while I walked, the fear and dread came upon me, but I neither stood nor sat nor lay down till I had subdued the fear and dread.

Yet Buddha remained in the forest, working to not be overwhelmed by his fear and dread. He spent time doing all kinds of things to gain power over his mind. What came to him was the idea of clenching his teeth and pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth to constrain his mind. It was recorded that he said, "Sweat ran from my armpits while I did so." Then he decided to practice meditation without breathing. And when he did this, he is recorded saying, "Violent winds racked my head, as if a strong man were splitting my head open with a sharp sword."

He had exhausted himself with painful efforts to gain power over his mind when he decided one final renunciation—to cut off food or have very little food. And he made this decision after having been in the forest for quite some time. Finally, he reached an extreme emaciated state. He said, "My limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems, because of eating so little. My backside became like a camel's hoof; the projections on my spine stood forth like corded beads, my ribs jutted out as gaunt as the crazy rafters of an old roofless barn ... If I touched my belly skin, I encountered my backbone too. If I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair, rotted at its roots, fell away from my body as I rubbed."

Soon after this near-death experience from not eating enough food, Buddha realized austerity was not the way to enlightenment. To be enlightened, he needed his body because it was his body, his life, from which awakening would occur. He was offered milk from a young girl who saw him, and soon after he began to eat solid food.

Upon Buddha's release of austere approaches and techniques of gaining power over his mind, he allowed his mind to settle upon itself in a quiet way. It was then that the teachings of the earth surfaced through his bones. Five dreams appeared to him as he continued his practice of deep, meditative absorption.

First he dreamed that the great earth was his couch, the Himalayan Mountains his pillow. His left hand lay in the eastern ocean, his right hand lay in the western ocean, and his feet lay in the southern ocean. This dream informed him of full enlightenment to come.

In the second dream, a creeping animal (presumed to be a snake) grew up out of his navel and stood touching the clouds. There are statues of Buddha with a snake climbing his body that represents this dream. This second dream, in particular, was said to be a premonition of the Four Noble Truths. He would come to call the emergence of these initial teachings Turning the Wheel of Dharma, symbolizing a circular path to liberation from suffering. It was the second dream that would give rise to his shamanic voice.

His third dream of four birds of different colors turning white foretold that he would have followers on his path, dressed in white, who would take refuge in his teachings. In some Buddhist traditions, white is worn by followers in the initial steps toward full ordination.

His fourth dream revealed that when his teachings were heard, the four castes—the warrior-nobles, the Brahmin priests, the burgesses, and the plebians (possibly like the Dalits today)—would see his teachings as truth and be delivered from the caste system. Yet still today, many have not heard his teachings, and if they have, they have refused to accept them as truth.

His fifth dream warned him of greed or delusion in regard to the gifts that would be bestowed upon him, such as food, housing, medicine, and robes. Only Buddha would know of his own greed and delusion. However, in modern times, this dream can serve as a warning to all who receive gifts for their teachings.

In the end, Buddha was a man with all the frailties of any human being. He answered a call to sit in the woods and watch his own past dissolve. He saw his own death, and his death became a twilight filled with teachings.

At the end of seven days, Buddha rose from his concentration at the root of the Bodhi Tree, enlightened to the nature of suffering. He then moved from the root of the Bodhi Tree to the root of the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, and finally to the root of the Banyan Tree.

The sacrifice of nearly dying brought forth in Buddha an awakening to the idea that our bodies and the heart-minds that guide them can bring us into relationship with all living beings (including the earth). If we are not aligned with nature, it can separate us, destroying the fabric that holds us together. When we lose the importance of our relationships, we suffer, and society suffers. Our deepest wisdom is also lost. We grow hungry for ourselves as peacemakers.

Can we be enlightened?

Fortunately, in revealing the Four Noble Truths, Buddha's own enlightenment became ours. We can all enter the vast state of awakened consciousness. The wisdom we all have is in our own experience of initiation and transformation.

The initiation into enlightenment begins with our own willingness to not only speak of our suffering, but also to understand it as a condition we share as living beings. In my practice, I learned how suffering emerged when I clung to suffering as my personal story when others are involved in the same painful circumstances. I began to ask questions, as Buddha did on his quest. Then I left my palace of the comfort zone, the familiar, and dared myself to go into unknown territory. I wrote:

She walks through the gate,
Heavy footed,
Gazing out from the darkness of skin,
Seeing no church pews,
She sits chanting,
Why have I come without knowing whose house I have entered?

Once I found my place in the world of chanting and sitting meditation, I allowed my body to settle on suffering of any kind—not reenergizing the suffering, but settling on it long enough to turn the stone into soft earth. After some time, I began to feel myself as expansive as the earth, and I acknowledged suffering as part of my life, no longer recoiling from it. In this acknowledgment, I was not on a quest to gain a vision, but on a quest in which a vision of my life might arise on its own. With the acknowledgment of suffering and the practice of complete connection of all things comes enlightenment.

A mental or theoretical investigation of enlightenment will lead directly to confusion. Enlightenment arises without you knowing. You ask, "How will I know?" That is the mystery of this practice. There are no exact formulas that lead to results.

What I will say again is that when Buddha became enlightened, we all became awakened to the truth of suffering. However, our fears and desires hinder us from experiencing such awakening. The practice of chanting and meditation arouses this hidden enlightenment, reminding us of our original nature, which is untouched by suffering. We can chant and meditate through many indigenous traditions, including a myriad of Eastern traditions: Tibetan Buddhism, Shambhala, Zen, Shingon, Jodo Shin, Nichiren, Chinese Ch'an, Theravada, Insight Meditation, T'ai chi, Chi kung (Qigong), vedantic and yogic practices, and so forth. As we journey into these traditions, we can be buddha—that is, we can be awakened. (In our tradition, we use buddha—lowercase—to refer to ourselves.)

You can see how the word Buddhism is too simple a word for the complexity of Buddha's teachings and approaches to learning and practicing them.


Excerpted from TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT BUDDHISM by ZENJU EARTHLYN MANUEL. Copyright © 2011 Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is a Soto Zen Priest, Congolese drummer, a visual artist, and contributing author to several books including: Together We Are One, edited by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism. She is the subject of the new film Zenju's Path, which premiered at the Buddhist Film Festival in Amsterdam in 2010.

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