Common Misunderstandings about Buddhism

There are many different misunderstandings about Buddhism and they arise for many different reasons. Some are culturally specific, either to Western culture, or to Asian and other cultures that are influenced by modern Western thinking. Some come from other cultural areas, for instance traditional Chinese thinking. There can be misunderstanding that arises more in general, because of people’s disturbing emotions. There can also be misunderstandings that arise from just the fact that the material is difficult to understand. Misunderstanding can also arise because of teachers not explaining things clearly or leaving things unexplained, so that we project onto them what we think they mean. It could also be that the teachers themselves misunderstand the teachings, because not all teachers are fully qualified: many are sent to teach or asked to teach before being qualified. Also, even if teachers explain things clearly, we might not listen very well or, afterwards, we might not remember them correctly. Or we take poor notes and maybe never even read them again. Although there are so many misconceptions that arise in these ways, let’s try to clarify just some of the most commonly held ones about just a few general topics, although far more could be discussed.

General Misunderstandings about Buddhism Itself

Thinking That Buddhism Is Pessimistic

The first teaching Buddha gave was on the four noble truths, and the first of these was “true sufferings.” Whether we speak of unhappiness, our ordinary forms of happiness, or the all-pervasive experience of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, all of them are suffering. “Suffering,” however, is a rather harsh word in English. The meaning here is that all these states are unsatisfying and problematic, and therefore since everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy, we need to overcome our problems in life.

It's a misunderstanding that Buddhism says there is something wrong with being happy. But our ordinary forms of happiness have shortcomings – they never last, they never satisfy and when they end, we always want more. If we have too much of something we like, such as our favorite food, we become tired of it and are unhappy to eat any more. So Buddhism teaches us to strive for the happiness that comes from being free from all these unsatisfactory situations. That doesn't mean that the highest goal is to feel nothing. It means that there are many types of happiness, and what we usually experience, although better than unhappiness, is not the fullest level of happiness we can experience.

Thinking That Impermanence Has Only a Negative Connotation

It is a misunderstanding to think of impermanence in terms of it applying only to our ordinary happiness: it will come to an end and turn to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Impermanence also implies that any specific unhappy period in our lives will also come to an end. That leaves open the possibility of healing and taking advantage of new opportunities to improve our situation in life. Therefore, Buddhism offers an enormous number of methods to change our attitudes and outlook on life and, ultimately, to gain liberation and enlightenment. All such changes also follow from the basic principle of impermanence.

Thinking That Buddhism Is a Form of Nihilism

Buddha taught that the true cause of everyone’s problems in life is their unawareness (ignorance) of reality – how they, others and everything exists. He taught voidness (emptiness) as the antidote to this confusion. It is a misunderstanding to think that voidness is a form of nihilism and that Buddha said that nothing exists – you don't exist, others don't exist, your problems don't exist, so the solution to your problems is to realize that nothing exists.

Voidness doesn't mean that at all. We project onto reality all sorts of impossible ways in which things exist – for instance, isolated and independent from everything else. We are unaware that everything is interrelated and interdependent on everything else in a holistic, organic manner. Our habitual confusion about this causes our minds to make things appear to exist in impossible ways, like this website appearing to exist just as it is, all on its own, independently of the tens of thousands of hours of work of over a hundred people that produced it. This impossible way of existing doesn't correspond to anything real. Voidness is the total absence of any actual referent that corresponds to our projection of impossible ways of existing. Nothing exists on its own; that doesn't mean that nothing exists.

Misunderstandings about Ethics and Vows

Thinking That Buddhist Ethics Are Based on Moral Judgments of Good and Bad

In terms of ethics, and in many other cases as well, misunderstandings can often arise because of misleading translation terms. Because of them we project non-Buddhist concepts onto the teachings. For example, we might use terminology that has connotations from our Biblical traditions, such as the words virtuous, non-virtuous, merit, and sin. These sorts of words project onto the Buddhist teachings on ethics the idea of moral judgment and guilt: that some things are virtuous, meaning good and proper. If we do them, we’re good people, and by acting that way, we build up merit, like some sort of reward. But if we act in a non-virtuous, “unholy” way, then we are bad and we build up sins, for which we must suffer. This is clearly a projection of Biblical morality onto Buddhist ethics.

Buddhist ethics are based purely on developing discriminating awareness. We need to learn to discriminate between what’s constructive and what’s destructive, what will be beneficial and what will be harmful and then, through understanding, refrain from harmful, destructive behavior.

Thinking That Buddhist Ethics Are Based on Obedience to Laws

Next, it’s a misunderstanding to regard Buddhist ethics as being based on obedience to laws, rather than based on discriminating awareness. In some cultures people take laws very seriously, and then they become quite inflexible: they don’t want to break the law. Whereas the Tibetans are quite relaxed in terms of the ethical guidelines. It doesn’t mean that they’re sloppy, but it means that in certain situations one has to use one’s discriminating awareness in terms of how you apply a guideline. What we’re trying to discriminate here is whether we are acting under the influence of a disturbing emotion or whether there is a constructive reason for our way of behaving.

Thinking That Vows Are Like Laws with Possible Loopholes

To the other extreme, we could look at the vows like a lawyer. And so we look for loopholes in the presentation of karma so as to find excuses for acting destructively or for compromising and watering down a vow. Let me give an example. We could take a vow, for instance, to avoid inappropriate sexual behavior, and then we assert that having oral sex is okay because it’s an expression of love. We excuse ourselves because we happen to like this form of sexual behavior. Or, after taking a vow to give up alcohol, we say that it’s okay to have wine at a meal with our parents so as not to offend them, or it’s okay to drink occasionally so long as we don’t get drunk. We make these sorts of excuses to try to get around a vow.

The point is that if you take a vow, you take the whole vow. You don’t take part of the vow. This is the way the vow is specified. If we can’t keep all the details of the vows, or of any particular vow, as specified in the text, then don’t take the vow. There’s no obligation to take the vow.

There is an alternative. In the abhidharma discussion about vows, there are three categories: There’s a vow in which you promise basically to refrain from something destructive. And then there’s something which is very difficult to translate – it’s literally an anti-vow. It’s a vow not to refrain from something destructive, for instance, killing. If you join the army, for instance, you might vow not to refrain from shooting when the enemy attacks. Then there is something in between: refraining from only part of what’s specified in a vow.

It’s this in-between category that we could apply here. For instance, in terms of the lay vow to avoid inappropriate sexual behavior, if there are parts of the vow that we think that we can’t really keep, we could promise merely not to have sex with somebody else’s partner and not to use violence in sex, like raping someone or forcing someone to have sex. Making a promise like that is not actually the vow as specified in the texts. But it is far more positive, builds up more positive force – I prefer positive force rather than merit, and negative force rather than sin – so it builds up more positive force on our mental continuum than just refraining from that type of behavior. This doesn’t compromise the vow and yet becomes a very strong form of ethical practice.

Thinking That Buddhist Ethics Are Humanistic – Just Avoid Harming Others

Another mistake about ethics is misunderstanding that Buddhist ethics are humanistic. “Humanistic” means that we merely avoid doing things that would harm others. So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else, it’s okay. This is humanistic ethics, or at least my understanding of humanistic ethics. Although that’s very nice, very good, that is not the basis of Buddhist ethics. The basis of Buddhist ethics is emphasis on avoiding what’s self-destructive, because we don’t actually know what is going to hurt others: You could give somebody a million euros thinking that we’re going to benefit them. And the next day, because they have that money, they get robbed and murdered. So we don’t know what’s going to be of benefit to somebody else. We can’t see the future. What is specified in the Buddhist teachings is that if we act destructively, on the basis of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, lust, jealousy, naivety, and so on– it is self-destructive. It builds up a negative habit to repeat that behavior and is going to cause us to experience suffering ourselves. This is the basis of Buddhist ethics.

Misunderstandings about Rebirth

Because of Skipping Over Rebirth, Not Working on Our Destructive Behavior and Disturbing Emotions

This misconception of Buddhist ethics being humanistic – just don’t hurt others – often seems to come from premature emphasis on Mahayana practice, from thinking that we can skip over the initial and intermediate lam-rim stages. “Lam-rim” refers to the graded stages of the path to enlightenment. The initial level motivation is to avoid worse rebirths. Well, we don’t even believe in rebirth. The intermediate level is to avoid uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. Well, we still don’t believe in rebirth, so none of that really strikes us as important; we think, “Let’s skip over that.” But we’re attracted to the Mahayana teachings because, in many ways, they sound very much like some of our Western traditions of love, compassion, tolerance, generosity, charity, and so on. This sounds very nice, and so we’re attracted to that, skipping over or minimizing the importance of these initial two scopes.

In doing so, we also skip over an important part of their content, namely working on overcoming our destructive behavior and disturbing emotions and attitudes because they’re self-destructive. We just plunge into trying to help others. That’s a mistake. Even though it’s important to emphasize Mahayana, it has to be on the basis of the initial and intermediate scopes. We have to first work on our destructive behavior and disturbing emotions, since they interfere severely with our trying to help others.

Not Taking Rebirth Seriously

A strong reason why many of us would rather skip over the initial scope teachings is because we think that rebirth doesn’t exist. After all, the emphasis in the initial scope is to avoid worse rebirths; therefore we take refuge (put a positive direction in our life) and follow the laws of karma to avoid destructive behavior because it will bring us worse rebirths. We skip over that or de-emphasize it because we don’t believe in rebirth. And especially we certainly don’t believe in the hell realms and the clutching ghost (hungry ghost) realms, and the gods and the anti-gods. We think that they don’t really exist and that the descriptions in the Dharma texts are really just referring to psychological states of humans. That really is an injustice to the teachings and is a big misunderstanding.

Not Taking Seriously Rebirth in Non-Human, Non-Animal Life-Forms

I don’t want to go into tremendous detail here, but if we think of a mind, a mental continuum, whether ours or anybody else’s, there is no reason why it couldn’t experience the full spectrum of happiness and unhappiness and pleasure and pain, and not just a limited amount of that spectrum that is defined by the parameters of our body and our mind as a human. After all, this is the case with the various types of sensory perception. Some animals can see much further than we humans can; some can hear better, and so on. So why not that the boundaries in terms of the happiness, unhappiness, pleasure and pain that we can experience can also be extended and there would be an appropriate physical form as its basis, such as a hell body or a god body.

Reducing Other Life-Forms to Merely Human Psychological States

Even though we have in the presentation of karma that in a human life, we can have some aftereffects, some leftovers of previous lifetimes in these other realms – we experience things that are similar to what we had in those lifetimes; nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that we can reduce the discussion of these other life forms that we and others can take simply to human psychological states. That’s shortchanging the teachings.

Thinking Karma Doesn’t Make Sense, Because of Limiting It to Just One Lifetime

Because of not accepting rebirth and these other states of existence, we misunderstand karma as describing merely consequences of our actions that will happen in this life. That limitation causes a lot of doubts about the teachings on karma. After all, there are big criminals that are never caught and seem to get away with their crimes. And we could experience all sorts of horrible things in our lifetime happening to us, like dying of cancer, when we’ve never really done something outstandingly destructive. Karma doesn’t seem to make any sense if we limit our discussion or our view just to this lifetime.

Misunderstandings about Dharma

Sanitizing Buddhism of Parts We Don’t Like

All of this underlines a much larger problem, a much larger misunderstanding about Dharma, which is to think that we can pick and choose within the teachings only what we like, and we can discard or ignore what we have trouble accepting: so-called “sanitized” Buddhism. We sanitize it or clean it of all the things that are difficult.

When we hear these stories about karma with elephants that go under the earth and that excrete gold, and all these other things, we think, “Oh come on! Those are fairy tales for children!” We don’t see that there’s some lesson in them. Whether or not we take them literally as some Tibetans do is not the point. The point is not to dismiss them; they are part of the teachings. Another example is in the Mahayana sutras, where the Buddhas are teaching hundreds of millions of beings; and there are hundreds of millions of Buddhas attending; and in every pore of every Buddha, another hundred million; and so on. Often we’re embarrassed about them and, saying, “This is too weird.” We don't accept them as parts of the Dharma.

The problem here is picking and choosing the parts of Buddhism that we like. There are certain tantric and bodhisattva vows against discarding certain Buddhist teachings or claiming that they are inauthentic; in other words, just taking parts of the teachings and ignoring others, just taking what we like. If we’re going to accept Buddhism as our spiritual path, we at least need to be open enough to say, “I don’t understand this teaching,” even if it sounds very weird to us, and “I will hold off judgment on it until I get a deeper explanation and better understanding.” It's important not to close our minds and dismiss them.

Thinking It Will Be Easy to Gain Another Precious Human Rebirth

Another misunderstanding is that, even if we do accept rebirth, to think that it’s going to be so easy to have a precious human rebirth again. We often think, “Yeah, yeah, I believe in rebirth, and of course I’m going to be a human again and of course I’m going to have all the opportunities to continue practicing,” and so on. That’s being very naive, very, very naive. Especially if we think of the amount of destructive behavior that we’ve committed, the amount of time that we’ve spent under the influence of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, selfishness, etc. – as compared to the amount of time that we’ve acted out of pure love and compassion, then it’s quite clear that it’s going to be very difficult to get a precious human rebirth next time.

Striving for a Precious Human Rebirth in Order to Continue to Be with Our Loved Ones

Another fallacy is striving to have a precious human rebirth so we can continue to be with our friends and family, because of attachment to them. Or even just thinking that if I attain a precious human rebirth again, of course I will meet with all my friends, relatives and loved ones again. That also is a misunderstanding. There are so many countless living beings and life forms. According to each of our karmic histories, we’re all going to be reborn in different situations. So there is absolutely no guarantee of what we’ll be reborn as or whom we will meet in our next lives. In fact, there’s a much greater possibility that it’s going to be a very long time before we encounter anyone again from this lifetime. We may; it’s not that it’s impossible. But it’s a misunderstanding to think it’s so easy or that it’s guaranteed.

Misunderstandings about Karma

Thinking That We Are Bad and Deserve the Ripenings of Our Negative Karmic Potentials

Another point concerning karma and rebirth is that even if we accept that suffering in this lifetime is the ripening of negative karmic potentials built up in previous lives, we might think, “If I suffer, if something bad happens to me, I deserve it.” Or you deserve it, if it happened to you. The misunderstanding here is that it implies a solidly existent “me” who broke the law, is guilty and bad, and now is getting the punishment that I deserve. We place the blame, then, on “me” – this solid “me” who is so bad and now is being punished – because of misunderstanding the laws of karma, behavioral cause and effect.

Thinking That We’re Responsible for the Ripening of Others' Karma

We then extend this concept of guilt to our role in the ripening of others’ karma. We don’t see that there are many factors and circumstances involved with experiencing the ripening of karma and each of them has its own causes. It’s a misunderstanding to think that I’m the cause for the ripening of other people’s karma. What they experience arises dependently on all of these factors, not just on me.

I’ll give an example. Suppose we’re hit by a car. It’s not because of what I did in a previous lifetime that causes the other person to hit me. If we think, “I’m karmically responsible for them hitting me,” that’s not correct. What we’re karmically responsible for is our experiencing being hit. That person’s karma is responsible for them hitting us with the car. Like this, what happens to us is the result of the interaction of many, many different karmic factors, as well as disturbing emotions and general factors – like the weather: it was raining, the road was slippery, etc., etc. They all network together to provide a circumstance in which we experience suffering or problems.

Misunderstandings about Gurus

Ignoring the Facts That Gurus Need to Be Qualified and Need to Inspire Us

Now about gurus, I think that’s a big area of misunderstanding, not only among Westerners. First of all, because of the emphasis on the importance of the guru, we tend to neglect the fact that the guru needs to be qualified – and there are lists of the qualifications. And even if the guru is qualified, we need to feel inspired by this person.

One of the main reasons for the importance of the spiritual teacher is that the teacher provides inspiration, the energy for us to practice, the model that we want to follow. We can get information from books, from the Internet, and so on. Of course the guru needs to answer our questions, and he or she also needs to be able to correct us when we are making mistakes in our meditation practice. But if the person doesn’t inspire us, we’re not going to get terribly far.

Accepting Someone as Our Guru without Proper Examination Beforehand

Because of that misunderstanding regarding that they really need to be qualified and they really need to inspire us, we’re in a rush to accept somebody as our guru without examining him or her fully or properly first. We feel pressured because of this emphasis: “You have to have a guru; you have to have a guru.” Then we risk the possibility of getting disillusioned when later we see objectively that he or she has faults. We didn’t examine properly. This is a big problem, because many scandals have arisen over spiritual teachers who either were rightly or wrongly accused of improper behavior. Sometimes they’re rightly accused of that; they weren’t really qualified and we might have felt pressured by this emphasis on the guru to accept this person as our guru. Then when we learn of these scandals involving our guru, we are devastated.

Thinking All Tibetans, Especially Monastics, and Especially Those with Titles Are Perfect Buddhists

As an auxiliary to this, it’s a misunderstanding to think that all Tibetans; or, more limited, all monks and nuns; or, even more limited, all Rinpoches, Geshes and Kenpos are perfect examples of Buddhist practice. That’s a very common misunderstanding. We think, “They must be perfect Buddhists: they’re Tibetan,” or “Perfect Buddhists: they’re wearing robes.” “Perfect Buddhists: they have a title of Rinpoche. They must be an enlightened being.” This is very naive. Most of them are just regular people.

There might be a larger proportion of practicing Buddhists among the Tibetans than in most societies and there may be certain Buddhist values that are part of their culture; but that doesn’t mean that they’re all perfect, by any means. And if one becomes a monk or a nun, there can be many reasons. Among the Tibetans, it could be that the family put you in a monastery as a child because they couldn’t feed you, and you would get food and an education. It could be for a more self-motivated reason – that I have problems and I need the discipline of the monastic life in order to overcome these problems.

As one of my Rinpoche friends explained, “Wearing the robes is a sign that I really need this discipline, because I’m a very undisciplined person and have a lot of disturbing emotions and I really am putting full effort into overcoming them.” That doesn’t mean that they have overcome them. So we shouldn’t naively think that they are all enlightened, especially with these Rinpoches. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says: To just rely on a big name of a predecessor is really a big mistake. He emphasizes that these Rinpoches in this lifetime have to demonstrate and prove their qualifications, not just rely on the reputation of their name.

Not Respecting Monks and Nuns, Making Them Serve the Laypeople

On the other hand, it’s a misunderstanding not to respect and support monks and nuns, but rather to make them into the servants of laypeople at Dharma centers. It often happens that there’s a Dharma center and it has a resident monk or nun. This monk or nun has to clean the center, tidy up and fix everything for the teachings, collect the fees and so on. And if it’s a residential center, they have to take care of the accommodations and all those sorts of things when there’s a weekend course and can’t even attend the teachings because they’re so busy. It's as if the laypeople think that these monastics are their servants.

It should be just the other way around. As monks or nuns, they are very deserving of respect, regardless of what level their ethics are. It is part of the teachings concerning safe direction or refuge in the Sangha: one respects even the robes. That doesn’t mean that you think that they’re perfect and are naive about it. But a certain respect needs to be shown.

Imagining the Guru Is Literally an Infallible Buddha and Giving Up All Responsibility for Our Lives

Also there’s a big misunderstanding about this so-called term “guru devotion.” I think it’s not such a helpful translation, because it seems to imply almost blind guru worship, like in a cult. That’s a big misunderstanding. The term that is used here for the relation with the spiritual teacher means to rely on and trust someone like we would rely on and trust a qualified doctor. So the same term is used for our relation with our doctor as is with our guru. But because of the instruction to see the guru as a Buddha, we misunderstand and think that the teacher is infallible and so we have to have unquestioning obedience to him or her, like in a cult. That’s a mistake. Because of that, we give up all our critical faculties and responsibility for ourselves, and we become dependent on asking for a mo (mo, dice divination) – throw the dice and make all our decisions for us.

We are aiming to become Buddhas ourselves, to develop the discriminating awareness to be able to make intelligent compassionate decisions ourselves. So if a teacher is just aiming to make us dependent on him or her, like in a power trip, there’s something wrong. It’s a misunderstanding to think that this is okay and to go along with it. To play into this type of power and control syndrome with a teacher is not following the guidelines properly.

Projecting onto the Guru the Role of a Therapist or Pastor

It’s also a misunderstanding to project onto a Buddhist teacher the role of a pastor or a therapist with whom we discuss our personal problems and seek advice. That’s not the role of a Buddhist spiritual teacher. A Buddhist spiritual teacher traditionally gives the teachings, and it’s up to us to figure out how to apply them. It’s really only appropriate to ask about questions regarding our understanding of the teachings and about our meditation practice.

If you have psychological problems, you go to a therapist; you don’t go to your spiritual teacher. And especially what’s inappropriate is to discuss marital or relationship problems or sexual problems with a monk or a nun. They’re celibate. They’re not involved in that. These are not the people to ask about these types of problems. But, coming from a tradition that has pastors, priests, and rabbis, we expect that they’re going to take on this general pastoral function of guiding us through difficult times in our personal lives.

I’ll give an example. I was with my spiritual teacher Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, very closely, most of the time, every day. Never in those nine years did he ask me a personal question. Never. About my personal life. About my family. About my background. Nothing. It was all day-to-day in terms of either him teaching me, or my working with him to benefit others – to translate for him, or arrange his travels, or whatever. So, it was a very different type of relationship than what we are used to in the West and not one that is easy for us to understand.

Trivializing Taking Refuge – Putting a Safe Direction in Our Lives

In terms of working with the teacher, it brings us to the topic of refuge, which I like to call “safe direction.” It’s putting a safe direction in our lives, as indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It’s a misunderstanding of refuge to trivialize it into merely joining a club. You cut a little piece of your hair, get a red string to tie around your neck, a Tibetan name, and now you’ve joined the club. This is especially a problem when, because the teacher is from a specific Tibetan lineage, we consider the club we’re joining to be a specific lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Buddhism in general: “Now I’ve become a Gelugpa.” “Now I’ve become a Karma Kagyu.” “Now I’ve become a Nyingma.” “Now I’ve become a Sakya.” Rather than: “Now I’m following the path of the Buddha.” Because of this misunderstanding, we become sectarian, exclusivist, and never go to another Dharma center except the one we’ve joined. It’s really quite amazing how most Western Buddhist practitioners who go to Dharma centers go to only one and will never step foot in another.

Every Teacher Who Comes to the West Needing to Set Up Their Own Dharma Center and Organization

What’s even more confusing is that every traditional teacher that comes to the West seems to want to set up their own Dharma center and their own organization. This is a big mistake, I feel, because then the situation becomes unsustainable. You can’t sustain 400 different brands of Buddhism indefinitely in the future. Moreover, it’s very confusing for new students. Also it’s a big financial drain and burden to support all these places with their altars and their libraries, and paying rent, and so on, and so on. In Tibet, although many different teachers came from India and Nepal and many different monasteries were established, eventually they came together and formed distinct groups. They were not the same groups that you had in India – you didn’t have Kagyu or Sakya in India – but they amalgamated into groups that then became sustainable and which brought together various lineages.

So even though we have large organizations in Western Dharma, such as those started by Trungpa Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, etc., we need to think about groups coming together to form larger lineages, as happened in Tibet. But in doing this, there are two extremes we need to avoid. One is if Western Buddhism is too fragmented, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it’s too regulated, that also doesn’t work. So great care is needed. But I think sustainability is a big issue.

Thinking That If We Have a Teacher, We Can’t Study with Other Teachers

In terms of not going to other Dharma centers, it’s also a misunderstanding to think that we can’t study with other teachers, even from within our own teacher’s lineage. Most Tibetans have several teachers, not just one. It’s recorded that Atisha, for instance, had 155 teachers. Different teachers have different specialties. One is good at explaining this; one is good at explaining that. One has this lineage; one has that lineage. It’s not being disloyal to your teacher to have many teachers. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: we can look at our teachers like the 11-headed Avalokiteshvara, each teacher is like a different face, and all of them together constitute one body for our spiritual guidance.

Having Several Teachers That Are Disharmonious with Each Other

It’s very important, then, not to take several teachers that conflict with each other. That doesn’t work. You have to find teachers that have a good – what’s called dam-tshig in Tibetan – a close bond with each other and are harmonious with each other. This is because, unfortunately, such things happen as what sometimes we call “spiritual star wars” between various spiritual teachers that disagree very violently about certain issues – whether it’s protectors, or who’s the real Karmapa, or whatever. So if your going to have more than one teacher, choose teachers that are harmonious with each other.

Thinking That Just Listening to a Lecture Makes the Speaker Your Spiritual Teacher

It is also essential here to realize that just to listen to a lecture by a Buddhist teacher doesn’t automatically make this person your spiritual teacher with all the implications of guru devotion, although of course we need to show the person respect. As His Holiness says, “You can go to anybody’s teaching and attend it just as a lecture, as you would a university lecture.” It doesn’t imply anything further than that.

Misunderstandings about Practice

Not Combining Study and Practice

As for practice, it’s a misunderstanding to think that the Gelug tradition is purely a study lineage and Kagyu and Nyingma are purely practice lineages. Because of that naivety, we might imagine that if we’re following one of them, we neglect the other aspect – we neglect our study or we neglect our meditation. When teachers emphasize one or the other of these – study or meditation – that doesn’t mean that we do just one and ignore the other. It’s quite clear that we need both of them.

Recently, in an audience with the group of Westerners who had studied at the library in Dharamsala in the ’70s and ’80s, His Holiness the Dalai Lama used a very nice example. He said that tantra, mahamudra, dzogchen and such advanced practices are like fingers on a hand. The palm of the hand, the base, are the teachings of the Indian tradition from Nalanda Monastery, the teachings of the Indian Nalanda masters on sutra. The misunderstanding is to put too much emphasis on the fingers. Sometimes teachers do that, he said, they put too much emphasis on the fingers. They have their students study and practice only the fingers and forget about the hand. The fingers extend out from the hand and are not functional on their own. This was the image, the analogy that His Holiness used, and I think that is very helpful advice. It’s a misunderstanding to think, “All I have to do is practice dzogchen; just sit and be natural.” To do like that is oversimplifying these types of teachings without having the basis.

Thinking We Are Milarepas and Need to Go into Lifetime Meditation Retreat

Similarly, it’s a misunderstanding to think that we are Milarepas and that everyone – specifically, we ourselves – need to go into a lifelong retreat, or at least do a three-year retreat. Only a few people are suited for a life of full-time meditation; most need to involve themselves in social welfare. This is directly the advice of the His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It’s very, very rare that we really are suited for a lifetime of meditation retreat or that we can seriously benefit from a three-year retreat without just sort of sitting there and repeating mantras for three years, but not really working on ourselves on a deep level.

Thinking We Can Become Enlightened by Just Meditating in Our Spare Time

Of course intensive full-time Dharma practice is necessary for becoming liberated or enlightened, and it’s a mistake to overestimate that we can accomplish liberation and enlightenment without that full-time practice. We think, “Well, I can just practice in my spare time and I’m going to become liberated and enlightened.” That also is a misunderstanding. But it is also a mistake not to be objective with ourselves and about our capacity to be able to do that intensive practice now. This is because what happens is that, if we push ourselves and we really aren’t able to do this type of practice, we really become very frustrated. We get what the Tibetans call lung, frustrated nervous energy and it really messes us up psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Not Thinking Realistically That It Will Take Eons of Lifetimes to Reach Enlightenment

This also ties in a little bit with not believing in rebirth, because if we don’t believe in rebirth, we’re not looking seriously in terms of longtime goals after many, many eons of practice. There is the teaching that says it is possible to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to think, “We only have this lifetime, because there is no rebirth,” and therefore pushing ourselves beyond what we’re able to do at the moment.

Underestimating the Importance of Sustained Daily Practice

Also, looking at the other side of this, it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of daily meditation practice. It is very important, if we are going to sustain our Dharma practice, to have a daily meditation routine. There are many, many benefits of that in terms of discipline, commitment, stability in our lives and dependability: no matter what, we’re going to meditate every day. If we are serious about building up more beneficial habits, which is what meditation is all about, we need to practice.

What does “practice” mean? It means to build up a beneficial habit through analysis and repetition. For instance, in a controlled environment, we might imagine different challenging situations in which we usually become upset and then analyze the causes of our emotional turmoil. We would investigate, “Why am I upset about this or that situation? Why, when I get sick, for instance, do I become short-tempered? Is it because....” Then we go deeper and deeper, and see, “Well, I’m focusing on me. ‘I’m suffering. Poor me.’”

Even if we don’t consciously think “Poor me” while sick, but if we’re honest, we must admit that our usual focus is on the “me,” which we make the most prominent in our considerations. Then, because we don’t like what we’re experiencing, we become irritated and then transfer our irritation onto other people. So, in meditation, we analyze situations like that, which come from our personal experience, and then generate a more beneficial attitude – in this case, patience – toward the challenging situation. A daily practice in which we examine such things and work on training some beneficial habit is extremely beneficial. It’s a big misunderstanding to think that we can do without that.

Thinking That Buddhist Practice Means Merely Doing a Ritual

It’s also a misunderstanding to think that Buddhist practice means merely doing a ritual and not primarily working on ourselves. Many people periodically, either in a group or by themselves, recite a sadhana, a text of tantric visualization. And often they recite it in Tibetan – a language they don’t even understand – and think that that is “practice.” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gave a wonderful analogy for this. He said that if Tibetans had to recite prayers and various recitation texts every day in German written phonetically in Tibetan letters, without having the slightest idea of what they were saying, he doubts that very many Tibetans would actually do that. Yet we do that as Westerners and consider that to be practice and that doing that is enough to bring us enlightenment. But actual practice means to work on ourselves: to work on changing our attitudes, on overcoming our disturbing emotions through analysis and understanding, and through that, building up more beneficial habits such as love, compassion, correct understanding, and so on.

Thinking That to Practice Dharma Properly We Need to Follow Tibetan Customs

Another misunderstanding is to think that to practice Dharma properly we need to follow Tibetan or other forms of Asian customs, like having an elaborate Tibetan-style altar in our personal “shrine room” in our homes or even in a Dharma center. Many Tibetan teachers who come to the West do, of course, like to establish a Dharma center and decorate it like a Tibetan temple with the walls painted in the same way and decorated with scroll paintings and so on.

As my Tibetan friends would say, “If you Western people like it, why not? There’s no harm.” But to think that it’s absolutely necessary to decorate like that is a big mistake. Especially when it’s at a tremendous expense, in which the money could be used much more beneficially in other ways. So whether this is at a Dharma center or in our homes, we don’t need some elaborate set-up, Tibetan-style, in order to practice Tibetan Buddhism. So long as the room in which we meditate is tidy, clean and, in this way, respectful of what we are doing, this is enough.

Thinking That Ridding Ourselves of Disturbing Emotions Will Happen Quickly

Although the main emphasis in Dharma is eliminating forever the causes of suffering – namely our ignorance or unawareness about reality and our disturbing emotions, it's a misunderstanding is to think that overcoming disturbing emotions will happen quickly. We easily forget that only when we become an arhat, a liberated being, will we be completely free of anger, attachment and so on, although on the way we’ll have them to a lesser extent. If we forget this, we become discouraged when we still get angry after years of practice. This is a very common occurrence.

It’s a mistake, then, not to have patience with ourselves. We need to realize that Dharma practice goes up and down, just as samsara goes up and down. Over the long term, we could hope for improvement, but it’s not going to be so easy. So it’s a mistake not to have patience with ourselves when we do have the down periods. But on the other hand, we need to avoid the extreme of being too permissive with our negative habits and being lax or lazy about working on ourselves. A middle path here is not beating ourselves when we still get angry, but on the other hand not just saying, “I feel angry,” or “I’m in a bad mood,” and not trying to apply some Dharma method for overcoming it.

It’s very interesting to see what we turn to for relief when we’re in a bad mood. Do I turn to meditation? Do I turn to refuge? Or do I turn to chocolate, or sex, or the television, or chatting with my friends or surfing the Internet? What do I turn to? I think that’s very revealing of our Dharma practice – how we deal with being in bad moods.


These are some of the misunderstandings that came to my mind just when sitting down and thinking about it. I’m sure there are many, many more that could be listed. As I mentioned, there are many misunderstandings that come simply because of the difficulty of the material, especially regarding voidness, the different tenet systems, and so on. One of the points about Dharma is: whatever Buddha taught was for the benefit of others. If we take that seriously, we try to figure out what is the purpose of all of these confusing points in the teachings. If we don’t understand something, try to figure it out using the Dharma methods and logic, and if we can't figure it out, ask someone you trust as an authority. If we’re open and willing to accept that much of our confusion comes from our misunderstandings, we’ll be open to accepting correction so that we derive the most benefit from the teachings.