The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism, 2nd Edition

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism, 2nd Edition

by Gary Gach


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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism, 2nd Edition by Gary Gach

Enlightenment has never been easier—with this updated guide.

There's more to Buddhism than meditation and mantras—and this fully updated guide is what every reader needs on the path to enlightenment. With expanded information on the practice of Buddhism in the United States and the West, a greater focus on the relationship between Buddhism and Islam, and the effects of Buddhism on Christianity and Judaism, this book explores the easy ways readers can make Buddhism a part of their daily lives.

• Includes expanded appendixes featuring a timeline showing the evolution of Buddhism through history
• Covers all four schools of Buddhism—Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land, and Insight Meditation
• Expanded section on “rites of passage” shows how a new generation has taken to Buddhism

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592572779
Publisher: Alpha Books
Publication date: 10/05/2004
Series: Complete Idiot's Guide Series
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 7.34(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.95(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Gary Gach has been a student of Buddhism for more than 40 years and is a consultant to the Buddhist Film Society as well as the Unified Buddhist Church. He is co-translator of Ko Un, Korea's greatest living Zen poet, and has worked as the arts and religion editor for AsianWeek and as a contributing editor to the San Francisco Review of Books. He is the editor of What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to HipHop.

First Chapter

Chapter 1


In This Chapter

: ---------------------

We humans are curious. We're curious about ourselves and we're curious about other humans. Hence the sale at bookstores of blank books and diaries, and biographies and autobiographies. Our own lives are, of course, the world's greatest story, for sure; they're the one where we're most curious to find out what happens next. ("Tune in again tomorrow!") But we're also inspired by others. Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Spinoza, Cesar Chavez, _____________(fill in the blank), everybody has their favorites.

Some of these fellow human beans we designate as role models. We even set aside national holidays designed for us to meditate on them. True, some teachings, such as Taoism, are independent of the teachers. In others, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the lives of the teachers are, themselves, a teaching, as inseparable as an ember from a coal. This is certainly true of the man we're about to meet. Obviously, I think it's a story everyone should know. If you've never heard it before, just think: the life of the Buddha is known by one fifth of humanity. Join the club.


Once there was a man who discovered a realistic, commonsensical, priceless guide to happiness. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Happiness, if you will. The answer, he found, was available to every human being. Right in front of their face. But, as he would also discover, something so simple may not be for everyone. Why not? Well, for one thing, the Buddha only said he discovered something that worked, and invited others to try it and see for themselves. He was a guide but not a god, and some people prefer to wait for God or priests to tell them what they can find out for themselves or even already know intuitively. (Might this be you?)

Hear & Now

"Don't believe a teaching just because you heard it from a man who's supposed to be holy, or because it's contained in a book supposed to be holy, or because all your friends and neighbors believe it. But whatever you've observed and analyzed yourself and found to be reasonable and good, then accept that and put it into practice."
-- The Buddha

Moreover, some people prefer to imagine their happiness will be eternal. Unattainable but very, very dramatic. (Could this be you?) Others have a hard time letting go of the accumulation of labels and wounds that have stuck to them throughout life, rather than appreciating the blue sky, solid earth, and green plants, in the present moment. (Is this you?) And others tenaciously cling to sorrows, as if for ballast, rather than let go and sense the innate, ineffable lightness of the spirit. If you can see yourself in this portrait gallery (and who can't?), then join the club. It's sometimes called The Human Condition. Right there, in a nutshell, you have it. We spin around in our ratcage when all along the door is unlocked.

This Is

Buddha, derived from the Sanskrit root budh, to wake, is a title, not a name; like King, or Christ. (There are degrees of awakening, culiminating in supreme enlightenment.) The common Buddhist wor for the daily round of sleep in which we seem bound is samsara, meaning faring on, a perpetual stream, a global flow of endless becoming -- with the connotation of illusion, going round and round like a wheel. The Buddha awoke from the illusion or dream that true happiness consists in satisfying our ego.

So as long as there are people living their life as if sleepwalking in some kind of depressing bad dream, there'll always be some one or some thing called an awakener. That's what the Buddha means, in essence. Thus it might be said that an alarm clock is a buddha, if it wakes you up spiritually, psychically, and physically. Really awakens. Or it could be the sound of a bird. Or the look of amazement on a baby's face. Stop, right now, be attentive, listen and look: a buddha voice or buddha sight will probably appear. Now, if all such things can be buddha, then we need to talk about the original Buddha. The buddha Buddha.

The Buddha once said, "If you want to really see me, then look at my teachings." The reverse is equally true. That is, the life of the Buddha is itself a teaching, or series of teachings. Here one person alone utterly makes a difference. Alone, meaning without divine intervention or revelation. Utterly, meaning that, since he could do it, we can, too. After all, he did it all on his own, and we have him as a landmark, a trail-blazer, our guide.

The Buddha teaches that becoming intimate with life, becoming awake, is to awaken to ourselves, to our fullest potential as human beings, to the buddha within all of us. It's as important as life and death, and as easy as drinking a cup of tea.

Please note that, over the millennia, hard facts of biography have mingled with legend and even mythology to form one of the most multi-layered biographies of all time. Yet throughout it all, there remains the Buddha's ineffable smile, beyond words. You'll see. It starts like this ...


One full-moon night in May, a woman on a journey gave birth. Her name was Mahamaya, and sheUd been headed from her home to her fatherUs house, about 50 miles away, to lay in waiting, as was the custom in India in the sixth century before Christ. So she returned home to the foothills of the Himalayas, on the border between whatUs now India and Nepal, to present her husband his son. This would be no ordinary son. Mahamaya was a queen, married to King Suddhodana, the ruler of the Shakya people. Her son would be prince of their small but prosperous kingdom. They named him Siddhartha, meaning Ra wish fulfilledS or "aim accomplishment."

Along the Path

Sometimes it seems like this one guy had more names than a con artist has on a rap sheet. Here's the real low-down. Gautama ("go-tah-mah") was his family clan name, and Siddhartha was his personal name. HeUs also sometimes called Shakyamuni, meaning the recluse or sage of the Shakya tribe (rhymes with "gotcha").

According to the hereditary caste system of India at the time (this is around 560 b.c.e.), the only class higher than SiddharthaUs noble family were the Brahmins, the priests. So the king was

uite concerned when a very wise Brahmin soothsayer predicted that Siddhartha would rule over all the land, but only if he were kept from the reality of decay and death. Otherwise, heUd rule over the world of spirit. Either way, he was destined for greatness.

The king adored his son and wanted him to rule over his kingdom and so kept him cloistered within the strong, high palace walls, not unlike the the orbits of our set ways within which way we go about our own lives un

uestioningly. Moreover, some say the father went so far as to create an environment as artificial as a Hollywood soundstage or a virtual reality world, wherein sick people, the elderly, even withered leaves and dirt were all whisked away out of view. But, as the story reveals, the truth is always out there, where the persevering seeker will find it.

Anyway, the king brought the finest tutors to educate his son. The prince was a prodigy and excelled so well that soon he knew more than his teachers. Intellectually, he was une

ualled in literature and math. Athletically, he surpassed everyone in swimming and running, archery and fencing. One legend has it that it was in a huge athletic competition that he won the hand of one of the most beautiful of maidens, Yashodhara (Keeper of Radiance), who became his bride.

Not only a whiz kid and a champ, he proved a compassionate and loving husband. The mark of success was upon him. Naturally, his father was delighted. He gave Siddhartha and his bride three different palaces, one for each of IndiaUs three seasons, hot, cool, and wet. There, the prince was lavished with beautiful attendants, endless fun and games, fabulous feasts, live concerts at the snap of his fingers, the whole bit. But Siddhartha was starting to champ at the bit.

Siddhartha wanted to know about the world outside the palace walls, the real world, as does anyone who wants to lead an authentic life. The king had to keep his son happy and so granted his wish, yet making sure everything outside was as controlled as it had been inside. Everywhere Siddhartha went, he saw prosperity and happiness until, somehow, a decrepit form passed through all the young, healthy people the king had arranged for him to see. Siddhartha asked his servant Channa RWhat is this!?S The faithful servant told him that although he had white hair down to his kness, this was a man, an old man, using a staff to walk, and this is what happens to everyone, eventually. All the way back to the castle, Siddhartha brooded, and when the king heard about this, he increased the budget for SiddharthaUs pleasures until his son seemed again like the prince he wanted him to be.

Along the Path

Would that everyone with whom we come into contact in our lives would be as honest as the Siddhartha's faithful servant! And would that we all could always recognize and listen to our own faithful internal, truth-telling servant. (The Four Signs are out there, in our own world, for us to see.)

A second time, however, on another trip to the country, Siddhartha chanced upon a maimed person with bloodshot eyes, groaning through frothy mouth. RWhat is this!?S Siddhartha asked, and was told by his faithful servant this was a person who'd become ill, but that Siddhartha neednUt worry since he ate a good diet and exercised. Siddhartha returned home brooding, and so the king surrounded him with even more opulent pleasures.

A third time, reality broke through yet again. On another outing, Siddhartha chanced upon a funeral procession, mourners sobbing and waving their arms in all directions, while at the head of the procession a body was being carried, utterly still, as if sleeping. Siddhartha asked and faithful servant Channa explained what death is, that nothing could be done for it, and that it happens to everyone. No point in worrying, he said, just hope for a long life.

What a shock! Sickness and old age were bad enough. But now this, their final resolution! The ultimate, inevitable destination of us all. Is there anyone for whom the first confrontation with death isnUt one of the most unforgettable, difficult moments of their life?

Each of these encounters were only glimpses, but perhaps because their having been withheld for so long made them even more of a revelation. In any event, Siddhartha saw that they were a matter of his own life and death, and by extension of everyone he loved, and, indeed, all mortals. Was there no way out!? Meanwhile, when the king saw his beloved prince brooding more darkly than ever before, and found out why, he despaired. He didnUt want to lose beloved son and heir. Did he level with him? No, he pampered him all the more. But life as it really is broke through the walls again, a fourth and final time.

Journeying outside the palace walls, Siddhartha happened to see a man with shaven head, clad only in an orange sheet the color of li

uid sunshine, walking slowly, holding only an empty bowl, his entire manner radiating serenity and calm. RWhat is this?S Siddhartha asked and was told this was a monk, whoUd renounced the world in search of spiritual truth. This silent monk seemed to be telling him, yes, there is answer to the questions burning inside him since heUd encountered old age, illness, and death. An answer he'd never find as long as he glutted himself with physical pleasures numbing his spirit. When all this got back to the king, he was beside himself.

Just then, as fate would have it, SiddharthaUs bride bore a child. Siddhartha probably was torn, as we can see from the name he give his son, Rahula, which means "chain." The king took the occasion to stage a blow-out celebration to keep Siddhartha close to hearth and home. But after the sumptuous feast, as Siddhartha was being entertained by the finest dancing girls in all the land, he yawned and laid down on his cushion and closed his eyes. No point entertaining someone who isnUt paying attention, so the dancing girls stopped, laid down too, and napped. When Siddhartha opened his eyes again, he saw these women who just moments ago had been the quintessence of beauty, now sprawled in awkward positions, once lovely faces now drooling or gnashing their teeth in their sleep. So much for the pleasures of the material world -- and what an cue for an exit! Stealthily, he got up and tip-toed out. Passing by his wifeUs chambers, he took one last lingering look at his sleeping beloved ones, and then was gone -- gone in search of an answer to the human riddles of disease, decay, and death, in search of the ultimate meaning of life.


Before we follow Siddhartha on his quest, we might pause for a moment to consider his break with his past, his renunciation. For one thing, it was extreme, a prince renouncing the wealth and power that was his birthright. In today's terms, he could have been a trillionaire. Actually, though, it was respectable for noblemen of India to go off in search of truth, but as a form of retirement, after theyUd fulfilled their obligations. For Siddhartha, however, the truth couldnUt wait.

Hear & Now

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore --
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

-- Langston Hughes

Plus, Siddhartha would be walking away from his responsibilities as a father as well as a prince. Siddhartha was aware of the pain heUd cause others by leaving, but suffering seemed the essence of this ultimate riddle he intended to resolve, once and for all. Once heUd found the answer, Siddhartha intended to return, bringing it back home to all the land.

We must acknowledge the courage of Siddhartha, the fearlessness necessary to stand up for his dream, his ideals, his quest, to seek sovereignty over his own life rather than over a kingdom. ItUs also interesting to notice that Siddhartha was casting aside inherited ideas, as well as inherited privilege. A message here, I think, for us today is to look at life with our own two eyes, regardless of what Simon says, without asking RMother, may I?,S seeing for ourselves, beyond the high, strong palace walls.

So, Siddhartha gave his royal robes and jewelry to his faithful servant, shaved his head with his sword, leaving only a top-knot, and set out for the forests. In those days, IndiaUs wild forests and mountains were dotted with various seekers after truth. Siddhartha studied under one renowned forest teacher, then another. In relatively no time, Siddhartha learned all that his teachers knew and was offered a job carrying on their work, but that wasnUt what he was looking for. True, heUd learned to transcend his senses and thoughts, his materiality and even his own consciousness, and to become one with space and infinity. But while these techniques transcended reality, they did not unlock it. They didnUt resolve the problem of birth and death. They offered a temporary bliss, but not permanent peace. They couldnUt answer the pain still in his heart.

Siddhartha had drawn to him a handful of companions and with them he tried the path of inaction and ascesticism to the point of self-mortification, as a means of attaining self-control and liberation. Soon, perfectionist and over-achiever that he was, he became so thin he could feel his spine when he rubbed his stomach. Indeed, even more than his companions, he was on the brink of self-annihilation.

Along the Path

World religions are full of seekers who withdraw from their fellow humans, take vows of silence, amd practice self-denial to sharpen their mental discipline and self-awareness and free themselves from mundane attachments. (By so doing, they were also experiencing ecstatic spiritual "highs.") practicing yoga and asceticism (self-denial) of all varieties. Vines reportedly even grew around some hard-core ascetics as they remained motionless, and some were said to have even fasted to death.

This 2nd-century sculpture (from Gandhara, northwest India, now southern Afghanistan) depicts Buddha's extreme asceticism. It's so realistic you can even see his veins bulging through his emaciated flesh.]

At this point, a young girl from the village passed by with food her mother had given her as an offering to the forest gods. She saw Siddhartha, nearly unconscious, and put some rice-milk to his lips, and he drank. By so doing, he renounced not only asceticism but also extremism. Many things are going on here. Firstly, there's the wonderful recognition of the importance of our bodies and their relationship to our happiness! So many spiritual paths trod on the body as evil. Siddhartha realized he couldn't achieve his goal if his mind and body were in a trance. Moreover, he realized that self-denial didn't free him from attachments. Rather, self-denial was but another kind of attachment, another attachment to self. Of the many lessons which the life of the Buddha holds for us today, hereUs a supreme teaching, known as the Middle Way. We all meet with varying forms extremism in ourselves and others. Siddhartha said find a middle road. DonUt tear the ground out from under your feet. Nihilism obviously gets you nowhere, and so does chasing after disembodied essences. Interestingly, he had to experience extremism personally, first-hand, in order to reject it, that of both self-indulgence and self-denial.

Along the Path

The Middle Way is a practical model of the Buddha's nondualistic thought. That is, Western philosophical and religious thought tends towards dualism: good vs. evil, self vs. other, mind vs. body, either/or, etc. Buddhism, on the other hand, is more like fuzzy logic, which can see a door as both ajar and half-closed. (A whole school of Buddhism developed dedicated to studying the Middle Way, called Madhyamika.)

Well, his copping out and eating solid food definitely blew his credibility with his five self-appointed disciples, for sure. They wandered off before he could explain his realization. And so he went at it alone. At some point, we all must. But the girl returned and offered him food every day. With the recovery of his health came fresh perceptions which led to new insights, which would ultimately lead to wisdom and compassion.

Meditating in a healthy body allowed him to look at things around him with clarity. Whether looking at the food the girl offered, before he ate it, or just sitting under a tree and looking at one of its leaves, he saw that each of these things was not independent. Food might come from a leaf. And the leaf? The leaf came from the sun in the sky, from the earth beneath him, and from the water in a cloud. And where did each of these come from? They were all interconnected. Interdependent. Interacting and inter-reacting. He saw now that self-denial would never liberate him from the inricate and vast web of life. Nor was the web of life was at fault.

Looking further he saw that no thing in life lasts. Nothing is permanent. The cloud passes away in the sun. The leaf falls to the earth. Similarly, he, too, was part of not only the interdependence but also the impermanence of all life. Meditating clearly now, these realizations made him appreciate each moment to the fullest. And why not? Why not live each moment to the fullest when each moment occurs only once, and when each instant potentially contains the whole of life?

Now he felt he was really getting somewhere. Now he was cooking! The meaning of suffering and death was becoming clear, at last. Before sundown, looking at the evening star beside the full moon of May, he felt that tonight heUd make his final, ultimate breakthrough. Sitting beneath the sheltering leaves of a fig tree (the Indian banyan variety), he endured thunderstorms, some say even demons of temptation -- oblivious to all distraction, gazing deeper and deeper into his mind and the mind of creation, the heart of life. In the darkest night, he unlocked the enigma of life, that we are born to die, thus inevitably bound to suffer. Mortality leads to cravings which can never be fulfilled -- and perpetuate false mindsets of self which only produce more suffering. He saw clearly now the jail in which we entrap ourselves and which we ourselves police.

He understood that what we call our life is but a wave, not the ocean itself. He became one with that ocean, and all the rivers and raindrops that feed it. He became enlightened. He saw the morning star in the sky, as if for the first time, and his heart, as wide now as the world, was overbrimming with understanding and love. The bright, keen, joyous starlight matched the smile on his lips. This was it. He had found out. Now he was fully awake.

Leaves from the Bodhi Tree

A tree is primal in the spiritual symbolism of many civilizations, often representing a medium and intermediary between the human world and the divine, a still point in the turning world. It's particularly interesting that Siddhartha would chose a fig tree, which is parthenogenic. That is, it doesn't need an Other to reproduce. Instead, it reroots its branches in the soil. Thus some believe this tree to be immortal. And thus the tree seems to be saying: Renew! Every day, do it all over again anew, and yet again new! (And when we come to the very end, we won't be dead, only rerooted.)




So imagine Siddhartha sitting there, at the culmination of a seven-year quest, now the most fully self-realized being ever in human history, so happy!, finally having found complete freedom from all mortal suffering. After some time, he stood up and took his first steps, just walking lovingly around the tree that had sheltered him. He felt the solid earth supporting his bare feet, the fresh wind caressing his cheek, as if he and the world had been born together just now. When the young girl brought food that day, she could feel his transformation in her own heart.

ItUs interesting to consider how he might have remained sitting beneath the tree in perfect nirvana for the rest of his days. Yet during his enlightenment he saw how the seeds of enlightenment are within the hearts of everyone, and so love for all beings and compassion for their needless suffering was bound up, part and parcel, with his ultimate insight. So he sought out his five former companions. Now when they saw Siddhartha coming, they turned their backs. They remembered him as having copped out on the rigors of the ascetic path, but it just goes to show you that people change. As he drew nearer, they could recognize with their own two eyes that he was transformed. They allowed their preconceptions to fall away, and welcomed him. That night, he gave his first talk, known as RThe Turning of the Wheel of Truth.S Explaining his discovery, he introduced four premises, known as the Four Noble Truths, and a program for liberation, known as the Eight-fold Path (see Chapters 5 and 6). Immediately, one of his disciples got it, became enlightened, while the others were still mulling it over.

This Is

Dharma, from Sanskrit and Pali, has a number of meanings, depending upon context: law, path, righteousness, and reality. Perhaps the best way to sum them up is to say it refers to the teachings and the things to which they pertain. (Or, if yoiu prefer, the truth, and the way to the truth.

Sangha means "assembly, crowd, host" Generally, it refers to the Buddhist community; more specifically, to the Buddhist monastic order, which is the oldest monastic order in the world.


And it was decided that these teachings would be called RDharma,S the path. Those on that path would be called R_Sangha.S And Siddhartha would become known as RThe Buddha,S who shows others the path in this world. Thus began the BuddhaUs course of teaching -- to whomever would listen as he walked around the vast delta of the Ganges River, and to his growing band of disciples when theyUd all go on retreat with him during the rainy season. All told, it was to be a journey lasting the next 45 years. The entire next part of this book is devoted to a survey of his teachings, but here are a few more stories from this final phase of his life that shed light on his method and thought.

Buddha's persuasiveness can be judged not only for the truth of his message but also the simplicity, inclusiveness, realism, and care with which he would present it. For example, a woman named Kisa Gotami came to him, clutching in her arms the body of her only child, who'd just died. She'd heard he'd transcended the bonds of death and, weeping, implored him to restore her daughter back to life. He could see the state of shock she was in, clearly out of her mind with grief. Nothing he could say would get through to her. If you were the Buddha what would you do?

The Buddha smiled. "Before I do anything," he told her, "go to the nearby village and bring me a handful mustard seed. But, please, make sure the seed comes only from a home where death is unknown." And so Kisa Gotami hurried to the village, believing the Buddha would save her daughter, and knocked on the first door. When the owners of the house saw her, clutching her dead child, they invited her in and said they'd be glad to give her some mustard seed. But when she added the Buddha's stipulation, the woman of the house wiped away a tear as her husband told her of the death of his father. Second house, third house: same thing. Eventually, she'd knocked on the door of the entire village. Kisa Gotami returned to the Buddha's enclave in the forest, buried her child, and asked to learn the Dharma.

Amazing story. He hadn't told her to be happy. No, he showed her a way to reach deeper into her grief, a way that also enabled her to see something larger than her own loss, something in which she could take refuge, the universality of impermanence.

Other times, the Buddha answered with silence. This was the case when asked

uestions not open to direct, personal experience, and so whose answer really did not matter. "It does not further," he might say, at best, (meaning "time is too precious to go down that path"), when asked is space infinite, is the universe eternal, is the soul immortal, are body and mind identical. Had the Buddha heard of stand-up comedy, he might have replied with one-liners, like Woody Allen: "If man were immortal, just think of what his laundry bills would be!" Ba-dum!

Leaves from the Bodhi Tree

Some people prefer to call Buddhism a way of life and thought. In Asia, "Buddhism" is often an alien term, because to them it merely refers to reality. Because the Buddha wouldn't deal with certain

uestions basic to metaphysics, there are reasons why his path isn't properly considered a philosophy. Likewise, because he never resolved

uestions about God or gods, or an afterlife, his teachings aren't precisely a religion. And since his message is that the self is an illusory construction, it would be hard to categorize it exactly as psychology. We encounter this seeming paradox again, ahead, with the parable of the blindmen and the elephant.

Sometimes Buddha answered such imponderables with a parable. He'd say, for example, that asking where the universe began was like a person who refused to leave a burning house unless he knew the origin of the fire. A variant is his story of the man struck by a poison dart, who won't allow himself to be put on a stretcher and taken to a doctor until he knows exactly who fired the dart, just what poison he used, precisely how the dart was made, and so on.

Parable is a favorite tool of the great spiritual masters, and the life of the Buddha is full of them. The most famous was yet another of his responses to

uestions that "do not further" and, more particularly, the dogmatism that arises around them. He'd been called to deal with some intellectuals debating some ultimately unprovable philosophical matter, who were now practically ready to come to blows. He told them the story of a king who'd entertained himself by assembling some local blindmen in front of him and then leading an elephant into their midst. One man felt its leg and declared it was a pillar. One man touched the end of its tail and said it was a broom, whereas another who held the tail itself said it was a rope. One man touched the side and swore it was a wall, while another, feeling a leg, said, no, it is a pillar. Another touched its ear and called it a basket for winnowing grain. Yet another felt the tusk and yelled that he was touching a ploughsare. The king watched with amusement as they began arguing, each having only seen one aspect of the whole and then insisting that theirs was the only reality.

Along the Path

The parable of the blindmen and the elephant is relevant to Buddhism itself, too. Some may call it a religion; others, a system of ethics, or a philosophy; still others, psychological therapy; and still others, spiritual devotion. When you see the whole elephant, you'll recognize how it has elements of each, yet it's also really something unto itself.

This Thai sculpture represents Buddha as a travelling teacher (peripatetic), on a perpetual pilgrimage. It combines a remarkable balance of motion and stillness, as if each step the Buddha takes on this green earth is peace. enlightenment. His fingers are tapered to symbolize his ability to reach deep within. His gesture of one one hand up means "Have no fear."]

Another aspect of the Buddha was his egalitarianism, which contradicted the social order of India of his time, based on the hereditary caste system. If India were a body, the peasants were the feet, the merchants and craftsmen were the legs, the warrior and nobility class, from which the Buddha hailed, were the arms, and the priestly Brahmins made up the head. As noted earlier, the Buddha and his disciples taught whomever they met, rich or poor, comparable to near heresy during the Renaissance in Europe, or radical income tax reform during 20th century America. But nirvana knows no boundaries, nor does spiritual liberation recognize social rank as an obstacle. The Buddha even touched the so-called untouchables, the utterly marginalized class below the peasants. And, during his sojourn back with his family, after some hemming and hawing, he accepted into his order the step-mother who'd raised him, followed by his wife. He also taught that the prevalent customs of animal sacrifice were mere superstition, futher alienating him from the Brahmin elite.

The end was sudden and unexpected. Some food he'd been given as alms was bad. It was some pork product or more likely pork feed, like truffles. He lay down. Just as he had taught meditation while sitting, standing, and walking, now he taught while on his side. Naturally, many in the community feared they couldn't go on without him, but he reasured them it wasn't necessary for him to be there personally for them to practice his teachings for themselves. "The Dharma is the best teacher," he said.

"Even if I were live for aeons," he told them, "I'd still have to leave you because every meeting implies a departure, one day." With his faithful disciples by his side, he died the way he'd lived for nearly 50 years, an exemplary spiritual teacher beyond compare. It is said that, as with his birth, and his enlightment, his final nirvana was on the night of a full moon, in May.

Hear & Now

"It is the nature of all things that take form to return to what they once were. Be a lamp unto yourself. Don't look for the answer outside yourself. Hold onto the truth like a torch. Work out your own enlightenment with diligence."
-- The Buddha's last words

And that, dear fellow idiots, is a quick sketch of the tapestry that is Buddha's life: a life that is, itself, a teaching. From the very first, the Buddha, and each of us, was born with the capacity for a life of tranquility and joy. It is a gift. It's yours.

THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW awakening is enlightenment.
and death, and found it. Because he attained enlightment on his own, we can too.
with all creation. In his wisdom and compassion, he recognized the cause of suffering, and the way out of suffering.
not a god.
greater intimacy with life.

Table of Contents

Part 1Buddha, Showing the Way1
1Why Is This Person Smiling?: The Life of the Buddha3
Are You Ready?: Waking Up to Yourself, Waking Up to Buddha4
The Birth of a Sage, Siddhartha Gautama5
Going Forth, the Buddha8
After Enlightenment: Teach!13
Tales Heard Around Buddha's Campfire15
2Different Flavors, One Taste: The Teachings Travel to Different Lands19
Mother India20
Original Buddhism: The Wisdom of the Elders25
Before the Internet: The Spice and Silk Routes26
The Middle Kingdom: China28
Blossoms in Other Gardens30
At the Roof of the World: Tibet, Land of Snows32
Continuing Buddha's Way in Asia Today33
3What Might an Italian Buddha Look Like?: Western Buddhism35
Preparing the Ground: Mulching the Cultural Soil36
Seasons and Lunar Phases Conducive to Growth36
Gardeners in the Fields of the Buddha38
Stay Tuned: Topics to Watch in Years to Come44
4Different Travel Agents, Same Destination?: Interfaith51
Beyond Exclusivity: Oneness52
Roots: Buddha Was Born a Hindu54
China's Version 1.0: Buddhism + Taoism57
Benedictine Buddhists, Zen Judaists, Sufi Yogis59
Part 2Dharma: Truth, and the Way to Truth67
5The Treasure and the Teachings: Jewels of Refuge and Ennobling Truths69
The Triple Gem70
Safe Harbor: Taking Refuge71
The Teaching: Four Noble Truths75
Theme and Variations81
6Buddha's Way: The Eightfold Path85
The Path86
7Conscious Conduct: Precepts for a Path with a Heart99
To Not Kill: Reverence for Life100
To Not Steal: Trustworthiness and Generosity103
Sexual Restraint: Respect, Intimacy, Trust, and Responsibility105
To Not Lie: Deep Listening and Loving Speech106
Mindful Consumption: Proper Diet for Transformation109
Practicing the Precepts111
8Take Karma, Make Dharma: Key Concepts115
One Thing Leads to Another: Karma116
This Depends on That: Interbeing117
The Stamp of Reality: The Three Dharma Seals120
You're IT: Nirvana Now124
It Is and It Isn't: Emptiness (Infinite Openness)125
Living It: Meditations in a Floating World129
Part 3Sangha: Joining the Path133
9How's Your Practice?: Getting Set135
Getting Started: Beginner's Mind136
There's No Time Like the Right Time, and the Right Time Is: Now138
Buddha's in the House140
Stocking Up on Gear: Clean Socks, and What Else?142
Joining in Community of Practice: Friends Along the Path143
As Much or as Little as You Like: The Choices Are Yours144
Viewless View and Effortless Effort147
10Meditation: Base Camp151
Be a Buddha and Sit Like a Buddha: Posture152
Doing No Thing: How Relaxing!155
Why Not Breathe: You're Alive!157
Turning Off the Radio: Quieting the Mind162
Meditation in Action: Mindful Walking165
First-Aid Kit for Beginners' Problems167
11Look Within, and Know: Insight Meditation169
Stopping and Seeing Deeply: Tranquil Concentration and Insight170
Noting the Itch, Without Scratching172
Material Meditations: The Wisdom of the Body176
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Impermanence Meditation179
Medicine for a Healthy Heart: Loving Kindness (Metta)180
Stop: In the Name of Love184
12See? Words Cannot Express: Zen187
Look, Where's Buddha?188
A Few Drops of Zen189
Just Do It!190
Lineage: Direct from the Buddha to You, with Love191
Now Why Not You?195
Universal Participation: The Bodhisattva Vow196
Without a Trace Along an Untrod Trail198
Expressing the Inexpressible Without Words200
13True Devotion: Pure Land205
The Story of Pure Land206
The Primal Vow Is Universal Compassion210
Three Keys: Faith, Vows, and Practice211
Saint Shinran212
The Story of Deities: Room for Interpretation215
A Simple, Universal Method, Alone or in Combination217
Pure Land in Daily Life218
Other Schools221
14Diamond Way: Tibetan Buddhism223
Tibetan Buddhism in 500 Words or Less224
Vajrayana Is Mahayana with a Tantric Twist226
Lamrim: Step-by-Step Stages Along the Path227
Connecting with a Teacher228
Empowerment: Initiation into Tantra230
Body, Speech, and Mind as One: Some Essential Tantric Practices231
Skillful Means of Ritual and Symbol237
The End of the Road238
Part 4Buddhism in Action: Applications in Everyday Life241
15Bringing It All Back Home: Mutual Relations243
The Way of Relation: Interrelation244
Cultural Relatives246
Happily Ever After? How About "Happily Ever Here"? (Love)246
Would You Promise to Be Mindful of the Present Moment with Your Beloved? (Marriage)248
Nobody Does It Better249
Mama Buddha, Papa Buddha, and Baby Buddha (Parenting)251
Welcome to the Club: Rites of Passage253
Learning How to Learn: Buddhist Education254
Good Life: Good Death256
16Food for the Heart: The Meal of Life259
Food as Food for Thought260
You Are How You Eat: Heart Nourishment260
Do You Hunger and Thirst?: Food Issues267
Take Tea and See: The Tea Ceremony269
17Working as if You Didn't Need the Money: Right Livelihood273
The Middle Way Between the Greatest Good and the Greatest Goods274
Inter-Office Memo: "Less Stress!"275
The Practice: Right Livelihood276
Price or Value: How Do You Measure Wealth?278
Dharma at Work: Zentrepreneurs and Tantrapreneurs280
18Everybody's Doing It: Buddhism and Popular Culture285
A Gift from a Flower to a Garden286
Physical Culture Is Culture290
Play It Again, Samadhi!-Musical Meditation294
Mind Mirror: Buddha at the Movies297
19New Ways of Seeing and Being: Buddhism and Fine Arts303
But ... Is It Art? And ... Is It Buddhist?304
Words for the Wordless: Buddhist Literature307
The Eye in the Heart of the Heart311
Art as Life: Life Is Art315
20Within and Without: Buddhism and the Sciences321
New Physics and Ancient Eastern Thought322
Infinite Healing: Dr. Buddha329
Do Feelings Have a Mind of Their Own?: Buddhist Psychology331
No Matter, Never Mind: Mind/Body Connections333
Imagine, Just Imagine: Mind to Mind (Heart to Heart)334
21Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter: Engaged Buddhism339
What Is Engaged Buddhism?340
Historical Engagement341
Service: One Big Circle of Giving343
Seeing Like a River, Thinking Like a Tree: Deep Ecology348
Wide Horizons: Humanity Is Our Sangha349
AThe Unfolding of the Lotus: A Chronology of the Timeless355
BBuddhism in a Nutshell: A Quick Reference363
CThe Vocabulary of Silence: A Glossary367

What People are Saying About This

Rami Shapiro

Gary is a clear voice articulating the history, culture, and universal appeal of the Dharma. This is a book for everyone: those who know a lot about Buddhism; those who little; and those precious few who are blessed with knowing nothing at all.
— Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a life of Integrity; translator Proverbs: Wisdom of Solomon.


The best of its kind.

Thich Naht Hanh

This book will bring a smile to us all. We see that it is reaching out to so many people - to bring the understanding, solidity, and compassion so very needed in our society.

Lama Surya Das

This book is not for idiots. It tells us what smart people want and need to know about Buddhist wisdom, history, theory, and its practice today. Gary Gach has done a fine job here, in lending a helping hand to lift ourselves toward the spiritual goal of awakened enlightenment.
— From author of Awakening the Buddha Within and founder of the Dzogchen Center

Chevy Chase

The best of its kind.

Susan Moon

At last! The Complete Idiot's Guide makes Buddhism as accessible as Volkswagen repair. (Or is it the other way around?) It's so easy even a woman can do it. Not only that. Even a MAN!
— from the author The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi; and editor, with Lenore Friedman, Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment

Michael Wenger

Explores and presents simply and creatively the practical and theoretical, the mundane and the sacred of Buddhism.
— Michael Wenger Dean of Buddhist Studies, San Francisco Zen Center

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book will bring a smile to us all. We see that it is reaching out to so many people - to bring the understanding, solidity, and compassion so very needed in our society.


The complex and varied cultural and textural manifestations of Buddhismare bewildering to many modern western readers. A living religion that has spanned across half the globe over 2,500 years is not easy to encapsulate. You may feel like a complete idiot when confronted by the variety of forms and teachings of one of the world's great religions. All of the different strands of Buddhism are simultaneously being introduced to the West at this very moment. A trivial example is the color of Buddhist robes. In Southeast Asia saffron robes are worn, in the Tibetan traditions, red robes, Korean Buddhist wear gray, and those from the Japanese tradition wear black.

The need for a guide through this vibrant thicket is clear. Gary Gach has taken up this difficult challenge in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Pointing out the similarities and differences in the complex weave of teachings cultures and practices called Buddhism, he presents and puts them into a comprehensive context. It may be a guide for the complete idiot in that it assumes little, yet it avoids the traps of oversimplifying and dumbing down of the subject. The book explores and presents simply and creatively the practical and theoretical, the mundane and the sacred of Buddhism.

I suggest that you keep in mind the following words of Eihei Dogan, the 12th-century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, from his famous essay, Genjo Koan, when trying to come to grips with Buddhism.

"To study Buddhism is to study the self To study the self is to forget the self To forget the self is to be awakened by all things And this awakening continues endlessly"

You can study Buddhism as an external object, but it is also an internal exploration. "To study Buddhism is to study the self." Not the study of old and antiquated artifacts, but of something alive and kicking. "To study the self is to forget the self." When you study the self, Buddhism as a separate object disappears. When you study and focus on yourself as a discrete object the self loses its boundary. "To forget the self is to be awakened by all things." To let go of your habits and preconceptions is to experience things as they are, not as you have grown to expect them to be. "This awakening continues endlessly." By letting go of your conditioning, awakening is present in each moment. Thus wisdom and compassion naturally arise.

I would like to close with an old Zen caution. "Don't mistake the finger for the moon." Buddhism, Zen, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism etc. are all useful fingers. Teachings which point the way to fully actualizing ourselves, and benefiting others are pointers, but not the end itself. All religious teachings are about what is, but if we focus on the teachings as objects we miss the point. Enjoy this book, and allow your natural light to inform your reading.

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