Bhante Suddhaso

Bhante Suddhaso is a Buddhist Monk. He is the co-founder of Buddhist Insights and Empty Cloud Monastery.

All posts by Bhante Suddhaso



In Theravāda Buddhism we often talk about the “Three Universal Characteristics” (tilakkhaṇā) – that all things are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfying (dukkha), and impersonal (anattā). All three of these are related to the topic of emptiness (suññatā).

First off, I should point out that there is a common misunderstanding. Many people believe that emptiness is a Mahāyāna doctrine and that it’s not found in the Theravāda texts, but this is actually not correct. While it’s true that there are many Mahāyāna Sūtras which go into incredible detail about emptiness (such as the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, which range from the very short Heart Sūtra and the relatively short Diamond Sūtra, to the moderately long Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, all the way up to the extremely long Mahaprajñāpāramitā Sūtra), there are also a large number of Pāli Suttas which speak about emptiness.

The main difference is that the Mahāyāna Sūtras go into extreme detail on the subject, whereas in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha usually speaks about it very briefly, without going into great detail. This is normal for the Pāli Suttas; in these texts, the Buddha rarely goes into deep detail on philosophical or doctrinal topics. What the Pāli Suttas tend to emphasize is developing a framework of understanding, which we then flesh out through practice, through meditation experiences, through contemplating and reflecting on those ideas, through recognizing them in our daily life, through living them in every moment. So, the Pāli Suttas are not really concerned with trying to explain in detail the nature of emptiness, but rather with giving us the tools through which we can come to a deep understanding of emptiness on our own. This is because, from a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.

From a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.

This is one of the reasons why people often like to analogize Buddhist practice with scientific method. There is a similar underlying principle to scientific method: this belief that there is a basic underlying reality and that any person who objectively examines their experience will come to the same conclusions.

The main difference is that, in Buddhism, we are focused on examining the nature of mind; we’re not so interested in the physical world, except to the extent that it reflects our mind, and gives us a surface through which to examine our own mind and therefore come to a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness and of conscious experience. But there is a similar approach of carefully and objectively examining our experiences, and also a similar method of taking on hypotheses and examining them, and seeing if they’re true or not. If something turns out to be true, then we can take it on as something which is worth living in accordance with. If something seems promising but we’re not sure yet, then we might take it on as a working hypothesis – something that we’re going to act as though it’s true for the time being and see what happens. Or, if something turns out to be a bit doubtful or not so accurate, then we modify it and try again – or possibly we reject it entirely and we look for something else: another framework, another approach, or another idea.

In this way, the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as a set of hypotheses, which we are encouraged to try out for ourselves – to try out as bases for experimentation, bases for investigation, bases for living. We take these principles as working hypotheses and see what happens when we live our lives as though they were true.

Coming back to the subject of emptiness: in the Pāli Suttas, the Buddha sometimes refers to emptiness using the word suññatā (emptiness), or the world suñña (empty). However, although there are many suttas where he uses those words, there are also a large number of suttas where the Buddha speaks about emptiness without directly using either the word suññatā or the word suñña. An example of this is the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95), the simile on the lump of foam. In this discourse, the Buddha never uses the word “emptiness,” but that is exactly what he is talking about: he is talking about the inherently empty nature of phenomena – in particular, of the components of body and mind, which are what we usually identify as “me” and “mine.” And perhaps the flagship sutta on emptiness in the Pāli canon is also one which does not contain the word “emptiness”: the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). In the Kaccānagotta Sutta, although the Buddha never uses the word emptiness, he is talking about it in a very direct way, in a very undeniable way, which would be instantly familiar to anyone who has read the Mahāyāna sutras about emptiness.

The Kaccānagotta Sutta also provides one of the most direct frameworks for understanding what emptiness is talking about. Briefly speaking, in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, the Buddha states that phenomena cannot be described as either existing or as not existing. That is what we mean by emptiness.

One way to conceptualize this is that any object appears to exist under certain conditions, and does not appear to exist under other conditions. For example: right now you are having an experience. You have the conditions under which this current experience manifests. But in a few moments the conditions have changed, so you are having a different experience. In this moment you cannot say that the experience you had a few moments ago exists. It seemed like it existed at that time, but that time is gone. So now it seems like it does not exist. A moment ago, it seemed like it existed, now it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, which is it? The experience you had a moment ago – does it exist or does it not exist? From one perspective it seems like it does, from another perspective it seems like it doesn’t. So, is it real or is it not? Or when you are sitting in meditation, a thought flashes across your mind, so for a moment it seems like that thought is real, it seems like it exists. A moment later it’s gone: it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, is the thought real or is it not? Does it exist or does it not exist? That depends upon on your perspective, it depends upon your conditions. It depends upon the angle from which you look at it.

Another common example, emphasizing the subjective angles that we look at things: if you look at a bowl from one angle it seems to be concave, but from another angle it seems to be convex. So which is it? Is it concave or convex? Depending on how you look at it, you could say it’s both concave and convex, or you could say it’s neither concave nor convex. More precise would be to say that from one perspective it seems to be concave, from another perspective it seems to be convex, but the actual reality cannot be defined in those terms: the actual reality is just a bowl. A bowl is not concave or convex, it’s just a bowl. In the same way, when we look at a phenomenon, from one perspective it seems to exist, but when we look at it from another perspective it seems to not exist. Is its true nature existence, or is its true nature non-existence? Well, from one angle you can say it’s both real and not real – it both exists and does not exist – whereas from another angle you can say it neither exists nor does not exist. But both of those perspectives also are a little bit flawed. In actuality, what the Buddha says is it cannot be defined in terms of existence and non-existence: the concepts of existence and non-existence don’t apply.

The Buddha also says in the Kaccānagotta Sutta that, without going to either the viewpoint that things exist or the viewpoint that they don’t exist, a Buddha simply teaches dependent origination – conditional appearance (paṭicca-samuppāda). In other words, things appear to exist when the conditions are right for them to appear.

In the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta, when describing the true nature of body and mind, one of the examples the Buddha gives is a mirage. A mirage is an optical illusion that appears when the conditions are right; when you are looking in a particular direction and the sun or another light source is reflecting in a particular way, then a mirage appears – an illusion. And we take it for real because it looks real, it appears real. But it only appears real because the conditions are right for it to appear, and when those conditions change the mirage disappears. Fundamentally, can you say the mirage is real or not real? You can’t really say it’s either one. What we can say is that when the conditions are right a mirage appears to exist, and when the conditions change the mirage does not appear to exist. That’s all we can say.

One way of applying this to our practice is by recognizing that since all phenomena are inherently insubstantial (another way of saying they are empty), they don’t themselves have any absolute or eternal reality – and yet nonetheless they do appear to have conditional reality under certain conditions. It’s not that there is nothing there at all, but rather that what is there is insubstantial, it’s conditional. It appears only under certain conditions, and its appearance is incredibly fleeting – faster than a fingersnap. And actually one of the long-standing debates in Buddhism is whether anything really exists for any length of time at all. What appears to be the case from the suttas is that nothing actually exists for any amount of time – there is no length of time in which things exist, but rather they vanish the same instant that they appear: they appear and vanish simultaneously. There is no ongoing existence to anything, and things only appear to exist in relationship to other things.

This is what is meant by “dependent origination” (paṭicca-samuppāda): things appear based upon other things; nothing appears on its own, it appears based on its relationship to other things. This is also where the concept of interdependence or interconnectedness comes from. No phenomenon in the entire universe exists of its own accord. All phenomena exist (or seem to exist) in terms of their relationship to other phenomena, and all phenomena are defined in terms of their relationship to other phenomena.

It’s a bit like a dictionary. A dictionary can be a remarkably frustrating thing, because every word is defined by using other words in the dictionary. No word has any meaning by itself. Words only have meaning in terms of their relationship to other words. It’s the same with all phenomena. Any phenomenon only has meaning in terms of its relationship to other phenomena. It only has apparent existence based upon its relationship to other phenomena. And every single thing without exception is subject to change. In fact, every single thing without exception is changing.

So, the fundamental nature of reality is kind of like clay: it can be shaped into anything. It can take any shape, any form. If you give a sculptor a lump of clay, they might make a frog, or they might make a tree, or they might make a sword, or they might make a pencil, or they might make a Buddha, or they might make anything, because you can shape it into any kind of physical object you want to shape it into. But, fundamentally, the clay is not any of those shapes, it’s just a formless block of clay. But you could also say that that lump of clay is all of those shapes because it has the potential to manifest as any of those shapes, and when the conditions are right, that lump of clay then will appear to be any of those shapes. So, what is the lump of clay? Is the lump of clay a frog? Well, yes and no. Under certain conditions, yes, it certainly seems to be that way, but under other conditions, no, it doesn’t seem to be that way at all. This also is pointing to the nature of reality, the nature of emptiness.

One way of looking at emptiness is that it represents infinite potential: the basic substance of reality is infinite potential. The potential to manifest as any ‘thing’ and also the potential to manifest as the absence of things. This is another important point when we talk about emptiness. Emptiness is not bound by any particular form but it’s also not bound by the absence of forms. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is a lovely saying in Zen: “Everything is empty and that emptiness is completely full.” It’s this sense of boundless – limitless, infinite potential to appear as anything. And whichever way you look at reality you will see something manifesting, but fundamentally that’s just emptiness taking a particular form – or, rather, appearing to have a particular form.

Another great example is light in a prism. Light itself has no color. But when light passes through a prism, the light splinters into an infinite rainbow of countless different colors. Therefore, you can also say that light contains an infinite range of colors. Which statement is true? Is light colorless or does it have an infinite range of colors? Both statements are actually true; from one perspective, from one set of conditions, from one angle, either statement can be true – which also means that both statements are false. You cannot say that light has no color because it has infinite colors, and you cannot say it has infinite colors because it has no color – it’s colorless, by definition. Rather, we can say that under certain conditions the light will appear colorless, under other conditions it will appear to have many colors. This is also a way of starting to approach the nature of emptiness.

So maybe right now one part of emptiness is manifesting as a phone, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a female monk, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a clock – but these are all just temporary manifestations. In a few minutes the phone will be gone, the monk will be gone, the clock may or may not still be there because the person observing it will also be gone. The experience will change dramatically one way or the other. One way of looking at it is that reality itself – which is boundless infinite potential, unshaped raw emptiness – does not change, but the perspectives through which we view that unchanging reality do change, which means our experiences shift and change, and all of those experiences are ultimately based upon the perspective of an observer, which means the appearance of all these different objects and things and events and so on is dependent upon self-centeredness. I see a phone because I am looking through these eyes. I am looking through these eyes at that camera: me looking at that.

Fundamentally, in emptiness there is no ‘me,’ because ‘me’ is just a particular way of shaping realities, shaping objects, shaping phenomena. It’s a particular way of shaping emptiness into a particular configuration of one being looking at another being, or one being looking at an object. But fundamentally that’s not the way of things, that’s not reality. Reality has no shape, it has no form, it has no beings, it has no sight, it has no sound, it has no objects. And yet, it has every imaginable being, every imaginable sight, every imaginable sound, every imaginable object. All of that has the potential to appear when the conditions are right.

Taking on these perspectives, the mind naturally leads towards letting go, because we recognize that whatever object we are attached to is not quite real – it’s insubstantial. It is empty of inherent existence. If we are trying to hold on to it, we are going to suffer, because there is nothing there that we can hold on to.

We also recognize that no matter what perspective we have of our sense of self, it’s absurd, because our sense of self is also empty. It has no substance of its own, no lasting reality of its own, no inherent existence; it’s just a little fragment of crystallized potential, which from one angle seems to be real but from another angle can be clearly seen as not real – it just melts back into the infinite boundlessness of emptiness. It is just seen to be another tiny piece in the infinite matrix of possible realities, of possible experiences. So then we also start to drop our clinging to a sense of self, we start to let go of our rigid self-identity, we stop taking our rigid self-identity seriously. We have this identity of ‘oh I am so many meters tall and I am this gender and I have this career and I like this kind of clothing and that kind of music and this kind of food, and this is me.’ But then we realize that every single one of those components is empty of inherent existence. It is a conditional manifestation. Those phenomena, those details and aspects of who we think we are, only appear under certain conditions. Therefore, that can’t possibly be who we really are. This whole concept of self, this whole perspective of self-identity melts into utter nothingness when we look at it this way. But we also acknowledge that there is this experience, this experience is happening, because it’s one of the infinite possible apparent manifestations that occur within emptiness. It’s here, but it’s insubstantial. So, we don’t take it seriously, which means we are not caught by it, we are not trapped by it.

Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness.

One comes to this naturally through developing the recognition of the impermanent and impersonal nature of phenomena – naturally you will come to a full understanding of emptiness. And this is probably why in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha did not bother to go into deep explanations on emptiness, because he saw he didn’t need to. If he just laid out the framework of practice, then people would figure it out on their own. Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness. Inevitably, it will finally start to click into place.

In the Chan tradition they put this very simply. If you want to perceive emptiness, there is a very simple practice: “Let go of all forms.” (放捨諸相, fàng shě zhū xiàng) Let go of all forms, let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations. Drop them immediately. This is also the fundamental meditation instruction for one of the meditation practices which we can do, which is called “silent illumination” (默照, mò zhào) in Chan Buddhism, or “objectless concentration” (animitta samādhi) in Theravāda Buddhism. The practice is just this one simple practice: Let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations, let go of all forms. Don’t try to hold on to anything which is appearing as being substantial or real or persistent. Just let it melt away. The moment it appears, let it melt, let it dissolve. In this way, naturally, the mind starts to recognize this pervasive openness, which underlies and pervades all things. This is what we mean by emptiness. You can feel it in each moment.

Emptiness is a deceptive term because emptiness sounds a bit cold, but the actual experience of emptiness is more like a soothing warmth. And emptiness can sound depressing, but the actual experience of emptiness is joy; the actual experience of emptiness is safety. Like when you have been having a terrible nightmare and you start waking up from it and you start realizing that the nightmare is not quite real. Then a sense of safety comes over your mind. “Oh, there is actually nothing wrong! Oh, how lovely!” That’s what it’s like when we practice the perception of emptiness. It’s realizing that we are wrapped in the warm embrace of boundless limitless unshaped potential. We are completely immersed in the safety, the security, the harmless free-fall of formlessness.

Accelerating our Practice


Everyone loves to talk about meditation. It’s cool. Heightened awareness? Control of your mental experience? Profound tranquility and joy? Sounds great.

So we learn some basic meditation techniques and start practicing. We notice some benefits arising from their practice, so we keep it up. Then eventually it seems to plateau. Years go by with little or no noticeable improvement. We’re stuck: despite meditating every day, we’re still not enlightened. In fact, far from it. We start to wonder: What went wrong?

This is not a hypothetical scenario; in fact it’s something people ask me relatively often.  They’ll say things like, “I’ve been meditating for 10, 20, 30 years.  Why am I not enlightened yet?”

Well… the truth is, there’s a lot more to the Buddha’s path than meditation.  If all we’re doing is meditation, then we’re missing out on several major components of the practice.  These other aspects of practice receive very little press and often aren’t even known to be part of spiritual self-development.  And yet they are just as vital to spiritual progress.

Ultimately, the purpose of every one of the Buddha’s techniques is to help us develop helpful mindstates and eliminate harmful mindstates.  This is all aimed in the direction of complete freedom from suffering – that is, enlightenment.  The success of this endeavor is dependent upon continually working to cleanse our mind; this is something to be done all day long – not just for a few minutes a day when we’re meditating.  If we do 30 minutes of meditation a day (which is good!), we’re still only spending 2% of our time meditating.  If we’re spending 98% of our time neglecting mental self-development, then it should come as no surprise that progress is limited even after many years.  So what can we do to develop our minds during that 98% when we aren’t meditating?

A good example of this is generosity.  Practicing generosity – physical acts of kindness and consideration for others – directly benefits our spiritual development in many ways.  So what are the benefits of generosity?

First of all, when we consider the wants and needs of others, we are developing compassion and consideration, which directly counter anger, hatred, and aversion.  Since aversion is one of the five primary obstacles to success in meditation, developing generosity aids our meditation practice.

Second, when we give a gift to another person (whether it’s an object, or our time, or our attention, or any other kind of support), we are developing an appreciation for the good fortune of others (which in Pāli is called mudita).  This acts to directly counter envy and jealousy, which are also obstacles to spiritual progress.

Third, when we give a gift, we are giving up something that we possess; therefore, we are developing an attitude of renunciation and non-attachment: the willingness to let go of our possessions and experiences.  This is vitally important for our peace of mind; since everything is temporary, we will eventually lose what we have regardless – and thus it is critical that we prepare ourselves for that eventuality.  This doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of everything we own, but rather that we need to be willing to let it all go without any trace of regret.  Then when we are separated from it – which we inevitably will be – we are not overwhelmed by the loss, and are able to maintain equanimity and contentment.

Fourth, when we see the beneficial effect we have on others by giving to them, it makes us happy; we develop joy and positive self-regard.  This directly aids our meditation practice: as the Buddha says literally dozens of times throughout the Discourses, “A happy mind easily attains concentration” (Sukhino cittaṁ samādhiyati).  It also prevents the arising of dejection and depression, and fosters enthusiasm for Dhamma practice.

Fifth, when we help others, they are more likely to help us.  So even if one has trouble relating to altruistic motives, one can at least act out of self-interest: being generous to others usually makes them like us more and support us more.  It also helps foster a good reputation for us, as others spread word of our kindness.

Finally, if we ascribe to the principle of causality (karma), then we will be the recipients of our own choices.  As the Buddha clearly states in the “Lesser Discourse on Karma” (MN135 Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta), one who is generous in this life will be wealthy in future lives.  And even if one is not ready to accept that idea, then one can at least acknowledge the numerous benefits of generosity that are visible in this very life.

So if we’re already practicing meditation and are looking to deepen our spiritual life, then performing acts of  generosity – freely sharing our time, effort, and resources with others – is an excellent way to accelerate our practice.


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on


Guidelines for Happiness


In Buddhism, everything is optional.

Faith is optional. Meditation is optional. Morality is optional.

So the question becomes: Why bother with morality? What’s the point? What is morality anyway? Where does it come from? What effect does it have? Why should we care?

Many people think of morality as a set of commandments given by a supreme being; a list of orders given by an indisputable divine authority. This is what I was taught by my parents when I was a child: God said not to do certain things, so we shouldn’t do them. End of story. There’s no arguing with God because, well, it’s God. This rationale worked perfectly well for me until I stopped believing in God – at which point I naturally stopped believing in morality as well. I was 13 at the time, and it was a stunning revelation for my young mind to discover that I could do whatever I wanted. So I embarked on a grand quest of unrestrained self-indulgence which lasted several years, guided not by any principles of right and wrong, but only by the principles of what I wanted to do.

Those were the most miserable years of my life. This seemed counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t total commitment to the self-centered pursuit of hedonistic pleasure naturally lead to happiness? Why was I so unhappy? So I branched out. Simple hedonism wasn’t doing the trick, so I started looking into more complex forms of hedonism. I kept seeing meditation mentioned in various places – such as in psychology research, on new age websites, and in pseudo-spiritual systems of various kinds. I often saw it touted as a method for becoming happier (as well as a few much more grandiose claims). So I started thinking that meditation might help me squeeze more pleasure out of life. It seemed simple enough; I just looked up meditation instructions on the Internet and started following them for a few minutes every day. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of my free time immersed in my usual reckless pursuit of sensual pleasure.

Over time, however, something began to shift. As I started to develop a limited degree of proficiency with the meditation technique I was using, my mind became increasingly peaceful and content – not the excitement of intense sensual experiences, but rather a gentle sense of subtle joy that seemed independent of what was going on in my life. This was intriguing: I didn’t have to take any drugs, or find a sexual partner, or go to a nightclub; all I had to do was sit still and focus my mind for a few minutes everyday, and my baseline emotional state would be a bit happier. This seemed worth further investigation.

With this initial experience of positive results from meditation, I gained a certain degree of confidence that meditation works. So while I was not interested in religion, the success I was getting from using one Buddhist technique led me to explore what other techniques there might be that could be of benefit to me: I figured I could just pull out the bits I wanted and leave all the rest behind. Thus at last I came back to the subject of morality, after a seven-year hiatus. Now, however, I was coming to it not out of a sense of divine obligation, but rather because I was interested in being a happier person. And as I soon found out, Buddhist morality is very different from the style of Christian morality I had been raised with.


Buddhist morality is founded on a simple principle: causality. Cause and effect. Simply put, every action produces a corresponding result. If there’s a certain result we want, we just need to find out what action leads to that result and behave accordingly. There is no authoritative deity who tells us we must act in any particular way; rather, we recognize that we have full power over our experience. All we need to do is make the choices that produce the results we want. Some choices we make inevitably lead to unpleasant effects, and some inevitably lead to pleasant effects.

It’s in the details of those choices that Buddhist morality starts to resemble the moral systems found in other religions. For example, murder is identified as a choice that produces unpleasant results. So is theft, infidelity, dishonesty, and self-intoxication. The Buddha advises us to avoid these five activities for our own sake – because these five activities inevitably lead to suffering for the person who performs them. The concordant suffering is sometimes immediately apparent, and sometimes it takes a while for it to manifest, but it will always eventually come to be experienced.

So the question is: Why should we trust the Buddha in this matter? The answer is: We shouldn’t – at least, not immediately. As the Buddha says in the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.66), we shouldn’t believe something just because someone tells us to; instead, we should investigate it for ourselves and see if we can confirm it in our own experience. So we ask ourselves: what is the result of murder, theft, infidelity, dishonesty, and self-intoxication? Do these ultimately lead to unpleasant results for the person who engages in them? If we are honest with ourselves, then we must admit: yes, they do. A person who engages in such immoral acts tends to experience regret, remorse, self-condemnation, criticism and reprobation from others, a bad reputation, and possibly even legal entanglements – in severe cases it can result in fines, imprisonment, or even execution by the government. Conversely, engaging in acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion bring happiness and joy to the mind, praise and commendation from others, and a good reputation.

However, the Buddha says that even beyond such visible results, our choices in this life tend to create corresponding conditions in future lives. For example, in the Cūḷa-kamma-vibhaṅga Sutta (MN 135), he states that killing causes the killer to have a short lifespan in future lives; injuring causes the injurer to have many illnesses and afflictions; displaying anger causes the angry person to be unattractive; stinginess leads to poverty, and so on.

So even if we’re not sure whether or not there is karmic retribution in future lives, it’s a good gamble to act as though there is: if we choose to behave morally, we are happy and well-respected in this life; and if there are karmic results to be experienced in future lives, then we will experience the positive effects of our good choices in future lives as well. This is sometimes known as the Buddhist version of “Pascal’s Wager,” and can be found in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60).

Morality and Meditation

A further benefit to morality is that is helps to foster two mental qualities that are very beneficial to meditation practice and to spiritual self-development: self-reflection and self-restraint. In Buddhism an action is only considered to have a karmic effect if it is intentional; thus in considering morality, we are constantly examining our mind and our mental states – looking for the intentions and motivations behind our choices. Choices based on harmful mindstates (such as anger, resentment, jealousy, contempt, and arrogance) lead to harmful effects; choices based on beneficial mindstates (such as kindness, compassion, generosity, and equanimity) lead to beneficial effects. Thus by placing importance on morality, we begin to develop a strong sensitivity to and awareness of our own mindstates. This is self-reflection. And, as we recognize that some choices are harmful, then even if we really want to do them we restrain ourselves: we let go of those desires, thus developing renunciation – which is founded on the recognition that happiness is not dependent upon always getting what we want or doing what we want. Thus we develop self-restraint and contentment; this is a direct antidote to craving, which is a very unpleasant state of mind.

Five Moral Precepts

Now that we have some idea of why morality is useful, let’s examine the five basic moral precepts in Buddhism a bit more closely.

The first one is “not killing.” This means not killing any sentient being; especially humans, but also animals of all kinds (including insects), and any spirits or non-physical beings that might exist. We develop and maintain a genuine wish for the happiness of those beings and respect their desire to live; this wish for the happiness of others is a direct antidote to hostility and cruelty – which are very unpleasant states of mind.

The second one is “not stealing.” We acknowledge that others have things which they possess, and we choose not to inflict the pain of loss on them – we choose not to steal from them. By respecting their property, we develop a sense of happiness in the prosperity of others; a pleasant state of mind that directly counters envy and jealousy – which, once again, are very unpleasant states of mind.

The third one is “avoiding sexual misconduct.” In any sexual relationship there will be certain boundaries of trust agreed upon by the people involved, and violating them – for example, by having sex with someone outside the relationship without the permission of your partner(s) – usually leads to a great deal of anguish for everyone involved. By avoiding sexual misconduct, we develop a sense of mutual trust and mutual support in our relationships with others. It’s also worth noting that Buddhism does not mandate heterosexual monogamy: there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, multiple-partner relationships, open relationships, or any other form of sexual relationship, as long as it is agreed upon by the members of that relationship.

The fourth one is “not lying.” Most of us have had the experience of being lied to, or of lies being told about us, or of various harmful consequences of dishonesty. Recognizing the harm that comes from such behavior, we maintain a commitment to truth. However, as explained in the Abhaya-rāja-kumāra Sutta (MN 58), it is still important to consider the effects of our speech, using the following criteria: first, say only what is true; second, say only what is beneficial; and third, speak only at the right time. So we might have a true statement that is harmful (such as “You’re ugly” or “I hate you”); or we might have a true statement that is beneficial but it is not the right time to say it (such as a reprobation for someone’s inappropriate conduct, delivered at a time when they are already angry and thus unlikely to be receptive to constructive criticism). Instead we wait for a time when our statement can be heard and received in a manner that is useful to everyone involved.

The fifth one is “avoiding self-intoxication.” Buddhist practice is based upon clear awareness of the present moment. It is this clear, unbiased awareness that gives us the information we need to determine which choices are helpful and which ones are harmful. When the mind is foggy and unclear (as when it is intoxicated), mindfulness becomes weak, and it is hard to clearly see what’s going on in our minds. It’s hard enough when we’re sober; intoxication makes it far more difficult. Further, when we are intoxicated, our self-restraint tends to be much weaker; we are more prone to acting impulsively and unwisely. We are much more likely to fall prey to our baser tendencies and engage in unwholesome behavior – such as lying, stealing, infidelity, and violence. Even small doses of intoxicants (such as one glass of wine) tend to cloud the mind and weaken our inhibitions, and thus it is best to completely abstain from such things. If one has a genuine medical reason to take an intoxicating medication, then one should still be very careful to examine one’s motivations in using that medication, and to minimize its use as much as possible – and to stop use altogether when it is feasible.

That said, we’re not required to follow any of these principles. In Buddhism there is no obligation to do anything. Instead there is a simple guideline: If you want to be happy, the Buddha explains how you can do it – meditation, self-reflection, renunciation, and moral principles. So we can take on these guidelines – as I did – and see for ourselves the contentment and joy that arises in our lives.

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Meditation Instructions


At its heart, Buddhism is about transforming the way we think in order to eliminate the sources of discontent, dissatisfaction, and distress in our lives.  This is done not by changing the outside world, but by identifying and eliminating the self-destructive habits and tendencies within our own minds.

An intellectual understanding of what mental and emotional habits are harmful is just the beginning; in order to locate and remove those harmful habits, the mind must be focused and imperturbable, with the appropriate attitude.  This is very difficult to achieve with our ordinary, everyday ways of thinking and acting, which tend to be scattered, diffuse, and instinctual.

This is where meditation comes in.  By taking the time to tranquilize and focus the mind, we begin to develop the mental habits of awareness, equanimity, and concentration, which make it much easier to diagnose and correct the internal flaws that cause us so much anguish and turmoil.  In this way we can establish our baseline state of being as one of peacefulness, contentment, and joy.

In Buddhism we speak of two kinds of meditation: tranquility meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassanā).  Tranquility meditation is meant to develop concentration and mental focus.  Insight meditation is meant to develop wisdom and correct understanding.  Both are valuable; however, the peace that arises from tranquility meditation is temporary, whereas the peace that arises from insight meditation is permanent.  That said, it is difficult to develop insight meditation without a solid foundation of concentration and equanimity, which comes from tranquility meditation.  Thus it is important to practice both.

In the Yuganaddha Sutta (AN 4.170), the Buddha gives three approaches to developing these two kinds of meditation: one may begin by practicing tranquility meditation, then when the mind is clear, alert, and focused, one switches to insight meditation; or one may begin by practicing insight meditation, then as the mind becomes clear, one develops tranquility meditation; or one may develop both tranquility and insight in tandem.  While the first approach is the most popular, all three approaches can produce excellent results.

Basic Principles

First decide how long you wish to meditate for.  In the beginning, 10 minutes is sufficient; as you become more familiar with meditation practice, you can gradually extend the length of time that you meditate to 30 minutes or more.

Find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for the duration of the meditation session.

Set a timer to go off at the end of the session.

Sit down with your body stable and upright.  Optimally, one sits in a cross-legged position with both knees touching the ground; this is aided by sitting on a cushion or folded blanket to elevate the base of the spine.  One may also sit in a kneeling position, with legs parallel.  Alternately one can sit in a chair, with both feet flat on the ground.  Whatever position one chooses, it is useful to keep the spine relatively upright and relaxed, so that one can breathe easily and naturally.  Your hands may rest one atop the other on your lap, or one on each knee.  Keep your eyes closed unless you are feeling sleepy, in which case you may keep them open and pointed at the ground 2-3 feet in front of you: hold your gaze steady and don’t look around you.  Breathe in and out through the nose, if possible.

That said, the position of the body doesn’t matter very much, as long as we hold it reasonably still.  The important thing in meditation is not what we do with our body; it is what we do with our mind.  So at the beginning of a meditation session, we choose what we are going to focus our mind on.  In Theravāda Buddhism there are dozens of different meditation objects to choose from.  Below are a few of the more common ones:

Mindfulness of the Body

Mindfulness of the body is a form of tranquility meditation.  In this practice, we determine to keep our attention focused on the direct physical experience of the body.  This is not thinking about the body, but rather staying with the immediate physical sensations felt by the body.  This happens entirely in the present moment; past and future are completely irrelevant to this practice.  We stay firmly grounded in the here and now, with our mind devoted to observing the sensations of the body.

One method is to pick a particularly strong sensation (such as your hands) and focus our attention on it.  Another method is to slowly sweep our attention through the body piece by piece, from feet to head and back again, focusing our awareness on each region for a few seconds at a time.  A third method is to hold the entire body in awareness, all at once, as a single object.  You can also start with one technique and then switch to another after a few minutes; for example, you might start by sweeping through the body, then once the mind is firmly established in paying attention to the body, you might hold its focus still on the whole body or on a particular region of the body.  As long as one’s awareness is held within the overall domain of the body, then one is practicing mindfulness of the body.

Mindfulness of Breathing

Mindfulness of breathing is another form of tranquility meditation.  This is an extremely popular meditation practice.  There are several different ways of developing mindfulness of breathing, and different teachers will tend to emphasize different methods.  The basic principles are similar to mindfulness of the body: the meditator holds their awareness on the immediate, present-moment experience of breathing.  Note that this is merely watching the breath, not controlling it; one tries to be a passive observer of the breathing process without actively taking control of it.

One way to do mindfulness of breathing is to focus on the location where the breath enters the body at the nostrils.  One might instead focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen.  Another way is to observe the whole physical process of breathing as a single object of awareness extending from nose to abdomen.

Loving-Friendliness (mettā)

A very different kind of meditation is the development of good will towards all living beings.  This is called mettā, which means “loving-friendliness” or “loving-kindness,” and it is another variety of tranquility meditation.

There are many ways of developing mettā; here is one technique:

We can begin this practice by wishing for our own happiness, by spending a few minutes internally reciting, “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe,” and genuinely trying to mean what we’re thinking.

Next we select a person who we care about, such as a parent, a sibling, or a close friend.  Again, we spend a few minutes internally reciting, “May that person be happy, may that person be healthy, may that person be safe,” while trying to really feel the sensation that accompanies that attitude of goodwill.

Then we universalize the attitude, by internally reciting, “May everyone by happy, may everyone by healthy, may everyone be safe.”  Again, we make an effort to mean it when we think it; to focus on the feeling of wanting everyone to be happy.

Contemplation of Impermanence

Another kind of meditation is to draw attention to the constantly changing nature of all phenomena.  This is a form of insight meditation.  Everything we experience is continually shifting and altering; in this meditation practice, we actively pay attention to that process of change.  This can be added onto any of the previous practices; for example, while paying attention to the body, one can focus on the continual change in the physical sensations we experience – from one moment to the next, it’s always slightly different.  This is also very easy to notice when doing mindfulness of breathing, as breathing is a process which is in a constant state of change.  Unifying contemplation of impermanence with one of these mindfulness practices is an example of developing tranquility and insight in tandem.

One can also contemplate impermanence using active thought, by recalling either the way one’s body was ten or twenty years ago and comparing it to the way it is now, or the mental habits and tendencies one had and noticing how they’ve changed.

Recollection of One’s Own Virtue

Yet another meditation object recommended by the Buddha is the recollection of one’s own virtue.  This is reminding oneself, “I am a good person: I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t tell lies; I am kind, friendly, generous, and considerate.”  One can recall specific examples of one’s own good conduct if one wishes, or keep it generalized.  Either way, this practice brings joy to the mind and works to counteract self-hatred by developing a healthy sense of self-esteem.  It also helps maintain the sense of importance that we place on good conduct, which encourages us to preserve and deepen our commitment to kindness and generosity.

Walking Meditation

While meditation is most commonly done while sitting, it can be done in any position: sitting, standing, walking, or reclining.  Many successful meditation practitioners will alternate between sitting meditation and walking meditation.

To do walking meditation, select a path about 20-30 feet long.  Starting at one end, walk to the other end, a little bit more slowly than your normal walking pace.  Devote your attention to the feeling of your feet pressing against the ground; this is doing mindfulness of the body while walking.  Keep your eyes open and pointed at the ground a few feet in front of you, and your hands clasped in front of your body.  When you reach the end of the designated path, pause for a few seconds, then slowly turn around and resume walking meditation.  Continue to mindfully walk back and forth in this manner for the duration of the meditation session.

While walking meditation is naturally conducive to mindfulness of the body practice, you can use any meditation technique that you wish.

Common Problems

Regardless of which meditation method one uses, there are a number of potential obstacles that can arise.  Usually the first thing we notice is how difficult it is to get the mind to stay on any one subject for more than a few seconds at a time.  This is normal.  It’s like when you first learn how to ride a bicycle, and you can only go a few feet before losing your balance.  But eventually, with a lot of practice, you develop the skills necessary to keep the bicycle moving forward for as long as you wish.  Similarly, when the mind is untrained, it is difficult to keep our attention focused.  So we just keep trying.  If you notice your mind has wandered off track, just gently re-establish your attention on the meditation object.  There’s no need to criticize or condemn yourself for this; self-criticism is also an obstacle to meditation.  Instead we just keep re-establishing the mind on our chosen subject.  (For more detailed information, see MN20 Vitakkasaṇṭhāna Sutta.)

We may also find ourselves drifting off, losing focus, or falling asleep.  In those situations, there are several options we have to keep ourselves awake and alert.  If our eyes are closed, we can open them.  If we’re using a passive meditation method, we can switch to an active meditation method.  If we’re sitting down, we can stand up and continue to meditate in a standing position.  If even that doesn’t work, we can do walking meditation.  If we find we are still so overcome by exhaustion that we are unable to focus, then it may be time to get some sleep, and resume our meditation practice after we wake up.

The most important thing in meditation practice is persistence.  Meditation is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to develop.  Don’t expect mind-blowing results to manifest immediately; just keep practicing every day, and results will come in time.

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Many Teachings, One Essence


When one first encounters Buddhism, it is not uncommon to be confused and overwhelmed by the bewildering array of seemingly dramatically different forms of Buddhism.

This is unsurprising. On first glance, it seems impossible to find common ground between the austere aesthetic of Japanese Buddhism and the byzantine visage of Tibetan Buddhism, or to reconcile the multi-stage meditation training of Theravāda with the single-step directness of Soto Zen. However, as one digs beneath the surface one begins to discern the common threads that tie them all together: the heart-essence of the Buddha’s teachings found in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The question then becomes: How can we see all contemplative Buddhist traditions as only superficially different manifestations of the same core essence? And perhaps more relevantly, how can we form a clear picture in our minds of a complete and valid path to liberation?

The truth is that there is no easy answer to such questions. It is only through contact with experienced members of each tradition, deep study of their guiding texts, and dedicated practice of their contemplative techniques that we can begin to make sense of how the various traditions all come together as a unified whole. This is why our organization, Buddhist Insights, is non-sectarian: by encountering the orthodox teachings of each tradition as presented by monastics from that tradition, one can start to recognize the commonality of those traditions.

Exploring Buddhism

So when we start our exploration of Buddhism, it is useful to start by getting an overview of a variety of traditions. There may be one tradition which you feel strongly drawn towards; if so, then immerse yourself in it as completely, thoroughly, and devotedly as you can. Once your knowledge of that tradition is well-grounded, it can serve as a ‘home base’ from which you can venture out to explore other traditions in more detail: your root tradition gives you a solid point of reference for contextualizing the practices and concepts of other traditions.

For example, I started my own practice in Soto Zen, a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, even after several years of practice in that tradition, I came to recognize that my understanding was still relatively shallow. While I knew a lot of Zen sayings, I didn’t have the proper context within which to correctly comprehend them; and without a basis of correct comprehension, my meditation practice was of limited benefit. So I started seeking further afield; I investigated other forms of Buddhism, and at the time I was personally drawn to Theravāda for two main reasons: it offered an ancient, profound, and thoroughly expounded intellectual framework for understanding Buddhist practice, as well as a wide variety of meditation techniques for dealing with the similarly wide variety of mental obstructions I was encountering in my practice.

So after five years of Zen, I went to study at Abhayagiri, a Theravāda Buddhist monastery. Living there for several years, diving deeply into Theravāda texts, and intensively practicing Theravāda meditation techniques led me to a solid understanding of the Buddhist path: at last I had a clear picture of what enlightenment was and what was necessary to reach it. Unfortunately, I also developed a dismissive attitude towards Mahāyāna; since my own experience with Mahāyāna had produced much more limited results than my experience with Theravāda, I concluded that Mahāyāna represented an inaccurate corruption of Buddhism and summarily rejected it.

And so I continued to devotedly practice Theravāda Buddhism; but as time went by and my practice deepened, I found the feeling of my practice was increasingly similar to what I had experienced during Zen training. I also began to draw parallels between the Zen perspective and the Theravāda perspective; in particular, it dawned on me that the Zen sayings which I had initially misunderstood were meant to be approximations of ultimate reality, whereas Theravāda teachings are focused almost exclusively on conventional reality. My failure to correctly understand Zen teachings was due to my misapprehension of them: and with the proper perspective established, they came into focus as representing a seemingly different approach to the same conclusion: namely, that whether it is Theravāda or Soto Zen, we are all trying to achieve enlightenment by understanding the Four Noble Truths, following the Noble Eightfold Path, perceiving the Three Universal Characteristics, and overcoming the Three Poisons (desire, aversion, delusion).

With this recognition, I began to examine the other Mahāyāna schools through a similar lens: instead of rejecting them, I sought to see how they could be understood as paths to enlightenment – the same indivisible enlightenment accessible through Theravāda and Soto Zen. And once again I found the same core essence could be found in each Buddhist tradition: the core essence of practice culminating in liberation through non-attachment. So while each form of Buddhism appears different, they are each aspects of that same essence leading to the same goal: Nirvāna – freedom from suffering paired with complete understanding.


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