Understanding Buddhism – Getting Started

This is the second post in a series about understanding the basics of Buddhism. I’m reading Clive Erricker’s book Teach Yourself Buddhism and in this ongoing series I will write about my understanding and interpretation of Clive Erricker’s guide to what Buddhism is all about.

To view the opening post in this series, Understanding Buddhism – An Introduction, click on the link.

The Three Jewels or Three Refuges

The Buddha, Dharma (Dhamma) and Sangha (not to be confused with Singha) are known as the Three Jewels or Three Refuges, and these are the three things Buddhists commit themselves to when declaring their intentions to follow Buddha’s teachings by doing no evil, to cultivate good and purify one’s mind.

By reciting the following verses three times, one declares oneself a Buddhist. Though I’m not sure if you have to shave off your hair and eyebrows, wax your legs and deflate any blow-up toys first.

  • I go for refuge to the Buddha
  • I go for refuge to the Dharma
  • I go for refuge to the Sangha

Here’s a glossary of those three refuge terms.

Buddha – The Enlightened One
Dharma – The teaching of the Buddha; the Truth or Law
Sangha – The Buddhist community or order

The Five Precepts (Panca Sila)

Lay followers of Buddhism (those who are not monks, nuns or novices) undertake five vows known as the Five Precepts and these are rules which outline the direction and intentions of Buddhists.

  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from harming other living beings (that does include snakes, mosquitoes and David Cameron).
  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking things not freely given.
  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

The five precepts are plainly not fully adhered to by every lay Buddhist but the precepts objective is to show a path to a principled way of life.

The Ten Precepts (Dasa Sila)

The Ten Precepts are specifically for monks, samaneras (novice monks) and for religiously devoted people. The Ten Precepts are a kind of Buddhist code of behaviour and not commandments such as those in Christianity. They are a monastic code followed by every monk.

The first five precepts are those adhered to by lay followers with the following five orders or instructions added to them for monks and samaneras.

  • I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking untimely meals.
  • I undertake to abstain from dancing, music, singing, and watching grotesque mime.
  • I undertake to abstain from the use of garlands, perfumes and personal adornment.
  • I undertake to abstain from the use of high seats.
  • I undertake to abstain from accepting gold or silver.

By reciting the Three Jewels verses three times and adhering to the Five Precepts as much as is feasibly possible, you (I assume) can declare yourself a Buddhist.

I’m going to finish this post with a story from the teachings of Buddha which touches on the subject of human suffering whilst accepting that the causes of human pain are not always avoidable.

Kisa Gotami’s Story

Kisa Gotami was a young lady who was born into a very poor family but when she came of marrying age she wed a man from a family of great riches. Sadly for Kisa Gotami her husband’s family showed her little respect because of her family’s poor social status, but that changed when she gave birth to a son. She was immediately afforded much kindness and honour in the family home.

Kisagotami’s son died of cholera (some stories say a snake bite) when he was only six months old and his mother grieved for her dead son but also for the sudden loss of her recent elevated family ranking. In desperation she carried her dead baby onto the city streets and went from house to house asking for medicine for her child. Everyone laughed at her and thought she was mad. A wise man saw Kisa Gotami’s anguish and told her to go find Gotama Buddha and he will offer you suitable medicine.

After a long search she found Buddha addressing a large crowd and she pushed through them and asked Buddha for help. He answered “I can find a cure if you can bring me some grains of mustard seeds from a house where no one has died.”

Kisa Gotami was overwhelmed with happiness and set about her task of getting enough grains of mustard seeds to bring back to life her beloved son and her respected family position.

At each house she visited the answer was always the same. There had been death in each household and after listening to many stories with growing sympathy Kisa Gotami understood that Buddha’s message had been one of medicine for herself.

Kisa Gotami went back and thanked Buddha and asked to become one of his followers.

The story emphasizes the Buddhist concern to treat the root of the problem of human suffering, whilst not admitting that the events that cause such suffering are immediately avoidable. – Clive Erricker

Thank you for reading the second part of my Understanding Buddhism series and I hope like me you have learned something from it.

I’ve included the photograph on the right to show you my current progress along the path of Buddhism. Regular readers can see that despite my baggy orange robes I have obviously put on a few pounds since my last published photograph. This was entirely due to me confusing Sangha with Singha, you’ve been warned.

Mind you my green hair does go rather well with the robes.

Thank Buddha, that’s my one serious post for the month out of the way. I can now get back to writing my own special brand of drivel. Where shall I start?

A keyword search.

Big Breasted ladyboys in wet Songkran T-Shirts…..ENTER.

That’s more like it.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

18 Responses

  1. Catherine says:

    I’m not up on Buddhism so maybe someone can answer this for me…

    Thailand is a Buddhist country yet Thais (monks and otherwise) are known to break the precepts regularly. So do they get their ‘sins’ absolved weekly, like Catholics? Or is this another Thai mai bpen rai deal?

    Re: sins… I didn’t know what else to call it. Is ‘precept transgressions’ more fitting?

  2. Martyn says:

    Catherine I’m not very clued up on Buddhism myself and so I did some research to try and answer your question about precept transgressions. Here’s what I found out from Sticky Wiki:

    In Buddhism, confessing one’s faults to a superior is an important part of Buddhist practice. In the various sutras, followers of the Buddha confessed their wrongdoing to the Buddha. Other sections of the earliest Buddhist writings (i.e., the Vinaya) required that monks confess their individual sins before their bi-weekly convening for the recitation of the Patimokkha.

    I guess that means yes.

  3. Talen says:

    Martn, very well written and it seems you are progressing nicely with your Buddhist studies. I’m still finding my way I guess when it comes to learning about and understanding Buddhism and although I have never been the religious sort, Buddhism speaks to me.

    Especially when Cat takes me to Buddhist Wats and shows me the naughty bits:P

  4. Martyn says:

    Talen like you I’m still getting my head around Buddhism, I’m not sure if I’ll actually get there either. I’m also not a very religious person but Buddhism makes the most sense to me. It’s basically about being a better person and doing good around you.

    I can guess what the naughty bits are. ‘Phallic’ springs to mind.

    Thanks for the read and comment.

  5. Snap says:

    I’m not up on Buddhism either, but from what I can gather (and from possibly unreliable sources) I am told that the onus is on the individual Buddhist/Monk to face their own sins and to deal with their own conscience.

    I was also told the other day that you can tell if a monk is a ‘true’ monk, if he is not wearing any shoes…unlike those I see hiding behind trees smoking and or sporting ‘Croc’ shoes and iPhones. Mind you, they could be those, just biding their time as monks as tradition calls for?

  6. Martyn says:

    Snap most of the monks I’ve seen have been shoeless but when I spent a lot of my time in Pattaya there was the occasional monk I thought looked a bit dodgy. I’m sure most of them are what they appear to be but you make a good point about those who have entered the temples out of tradition. I’m sure many don’t want to be there but have to for the honour of their family.

    Monks with iPhones and croc shoes, those are luxuries beyond my budget.

  7. Lawrence says:

    Nice to see that you don’t lose your sense of humour even when writing your monthly ‘serious’ post, Martyn. Confusing singha with sangha would mean getting though 9 bottles or cans at a house merit-making. Are you up for that?

    Snap seems to have pretty much answered Cat’s question. In Buddhism, there is no being that can absolve you of transgressions. Monks do acknowledge them by a kind of confession, though. The rest of us just have to deal with the consequences (ie, the bad karma).

    Worth remembering about monks is that they are TRAINING to be better people. It takes time, and some are more adept than others — maybe as a result of their previous accumulation of good karma.

  8. Martyn says:

    Lawrence thanks for dropping in again.

    I do try and add a bit of humour to most of my posts but occasionally I do manage to get through one in total serious mode.

    Nine big bottles of Singha would see me sleeping for a long time.

    I think you sum up Buddhism rather well in your last paragraph. Training to be a better person is what it’s all about.

  9. Catherine says:

    Thanks Martyn. So in that aspect, Buddhism is very similar to Christianity. And from what Lawrence says, it has the “I’m not done yet” philosophy too.

    I was going to go on and say that Christianity doesn’t have fake monks like Thailand does but then remembered that they do so too.

    “Especially when Cat takes me to Buddhist Wats and shows me the naughty bits:P”

    And there I was thinking that those bits were quite nice 😀

    In my trip to Issan the hotel I stayed at had about six of those arranged as a water feature. How fun. Water sliding down Shiva Linga’s.

  10. Martyn says:

    Catherine I had to get Sticky Wiki out of her box and blow her up to find out the true meaning of Shiva Linga’s. I had a good idea but I needed to get the ‘facts’ from Sticky Wiki too.

    The Lingam (also, Linga, Ling, Shiva linga, Shiv ling, Sanskrit लिङ्गं liṅgaṃ, meaning “mark” or “sign”) is a representation of the Hindu deity Shiva used for worship in temples. The Lingam has also been considered a symbol of male creative energy or of the phallus. The lingam is often represented with the Yoni, a symbol of the goddess or of Shakti, female creative energy. The union of lingam and yoni represents the “indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the passive space and active time from which all life originates”. A complementary theory suggests that the Lingam represents the beginningless and endless Stambha pillar, symbolizing the infinite nature of Shiva.

    Excuse the pun but that’s quite a mouthful for Sticky Wiki.

  11. Catherine says:

    Martyn, if you scroll down on that wiki page you’ll see a photo of the Wat Po Lingam on the left side under History, Origin. I walked around and around that courtyard eventually having to ask help to find it.

  12. Martyn says:

    Catherine I followed the Wiki link to Wat Pho (known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and it looks an impressive temple to visit. However, one thing struck me as strange.

    In Thailand and I’d guess any Buddhist country it is deemed offensive to point the soles of your feet at someone. Yet Wat Pho or by its full name Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Ratchaworamahawihan (Thai: วัดพระเชตุพนวิมลมังคลารามราชวรมหาวิหาร), has the magnificent Reclining Buddha which clearly has its feet (soles) on display to the public. They are blatantly on view. Can you or anyone explain why that is.

  13. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I asked a Thai friend (Buddhist) the same foot question when I found blatant Buddha feet on display at the Bat Wat – I got GREAT golden tipped toe photos btw – and she wanted to know why I was making a deal about feet. She said that they are just the soles of feet, not intentionally pointing at anyone.

    And (just my own thoughts) maybe Buddha can’t do wrong? That it’s figures of him and his men in orange that we have to take special care about?

    Other than that brief episode I just don’t know. It was one Buddhist’s opinion so another Buddhist might have a different response.

  14. Martyn says:

    Catherine the Reclining Buddha must be one of the most photographed things in the world, it is a magnificent structure (probably a bad choice of word).

    The Buddha feet thing does seem to go against the Thais way of thinking but you’re probably right about Buddha not doing any wrong. I suppose if the feet aren’t intentionally pointing at someone then that’s excusable, otherwise Thais and all Buddhists would sleep standing up.

  15. Catherine says:

    Martyn I was going to be cheeky and say that as I don’t have a Thai lover I’ve never seen a Thai sleeping so what proof do I have that they don’t sleep while standing up?

    But then I thought… YES… I have seen Thais sleep. They sleep anywhere and everywhere. And I have a growing collection of snaps to prove it (as I’m sure you do too). I also have quite a few shots of the bottoms of Thai feet which supports my ‘who got here first’ theory.

    When I asked a Thai friend about her favourite past time she said ‘sleeping’.

    As an insomniac I’m quite taken with the Thai talent of dropping off to sleep pretty much anywhere and at any time of the day.

    But wait! They have the same talent in Brunei. Go into any government building and look under the desks. Yup. They be sleeping.

  16. Martyn says:

    Catherine sorry I’m late replying to your comment but I’m currently running on shattered mode….night shift again.

    I only have a couple of photos of Thais sleeping although I know they can sleep any time anywhere. That’s quite a talent. My photos are of bus drivers who between routes sling a hammock up between their bus and a tree.

    I could do with a bit of that Thailand talent right now as work is less than three hours away and I’m feeling worn out already.

  17. Catherine says:

    Martyn, no prob on the tardy. My schedule is so upside down that I can easily sympathise.

    Last week, on my way to the Lao community, my taxi stopped at what proved to be a long light. The tuk tuk driver in front of us jumped out of the driver’s seat into the back, put his feet up, and promptly went to sleep.

    I didn’t have a camera with me but my taxi driver whipped out his smart phone and took some snaps.

    Good luck on getting some sleep! I could use some too (btw – I have found a cure – I just need to be consistent).

  18. Martyn says:

    Catherine great story about the tuk tuk man. Wilai and I were once waiting at the lights and when they went green for go, a Chinese man on a bicycle in front of us didn’t move. After a few seconds he snapped awake, looked around at us with a big smile and cycled off. Amazing Thailand.

    Perhaps you should bottle your sleeping cure and watch the money roll in.

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