Today, in America, we hear talk of Buddhist practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, on nearly every street corner. People from all backgrounds are finding these Buddhist practices useful in bringing more calm into their busy lives. However, with all this interest, there are still lots of common misconceptions about Buddhism that the original texts can set straight. As a professor of Buddhism at an American university with a strong focus on the study of Buddhist texts, I share here the top five myths:
#1 Buddhists are negative about life
Many people hear that the Buddha said, “Life is suffering,” and think Buddhists don’t want to live. Stephen Colbert had fun with this common misperception the other day, saying, “I thought Buddhists would really love Trump because if he gets the nuclear codes, we may all achieve nothingness” (1:09-1:20).
But when you look closely at his words and teachings, you see that the Buddha expounded an optimistic, almost romantic outlook on life. The Buddha taught people how to free themselves from suffering by bringing more attention (mindfulness) to their actions and reactions, so that they could choose the actions that brought them the most happiness.
In fact, when the Buddha tried excessive ascetic practices, such as extreme fasting, he decided they did not bring any “worthy” spiritual growth or knowledge. Instead, the Buddha’s path to enlightenment took a turn toward a balanced, happy medium when he recalled experiencing wholesome joy while sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree.
#2 Buddhists are anti-social
Many people think of the Buddha sitting alone under a tree and think, “I could never practice Buddhism, I’m too social!” In reality, the Buddha said, “Good friendship, good companionship, and good comradeship” is the “entire spiritual life.” Learning about Buddhism and living a Buddhist life has a very strong social component. You can see this in Buddhist communities around the world.
My own path at Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU) started when I went to its affiliated high school in the early ’90s. I left for college and a career in tech, before returning to the organization in 2010. My decision to return was in large part because of this community’s dedication to the study and practice of Buddhist teachings. Through Buddhism, I’ve found the people that fuel my personal and professional growth.
#3 Meditation is thinking of nothing
Many people think that meditation is thinking of nothing. However, the Buddha does not ask people to stop their thoughts, but to change their relationship to their thoughts and treat them like “internal living beings.” Huineng, a renowned Chinese Chan (Zen) master said, “To stop the mind and contemplate stillness is a sickness, not meditation.” In reality, many meditations include words and others are even physically active. Meditation is a practice of cultivating awareness of the body, breath, and mind (and that’s not nothing!).
# 4 - You cannot change your karma
Many people think that karma is like ghosts coming back to haunt them, that their past actions determine their current experiences. This is partially true, but not the full picture. The Buddha’s concept of karma especially emphasizes that also our current actions affect our current experience. For example, when you pinch yourself, you feel pain; when you let go, the pain goes away. The Buddha teaches us to “let go" in each moment: when you stop pinching yourself (literally and figuratively!), you'll feel better.
#5 The Buddha is the ruler of Buddhism
The Buddha indicated clearly that seekers of liberation and insight cannot merely go by “oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘[The Buddha] is our teacher.’” Rather, said the Buddha, “know directly for yourself.” This concept of “self-knowledge,” is the main criterion for cultivating Buddhist knowledge.
At Dharma Realm Buddhist University, based in northern California, we take a rigorous academic approach to learning about Buddhism, in alignment with the Buddha's teaching that every person needs to take his or her own path. At the University, we offer a liberal arts education in which students dive into primary texts from classical traditions of Europe, India, and China. Using a variation of the “Great Books” pedagogy, students learn to formulate their own interpretations and conclusions. The bachelor’s and master’s programs at DRBU uphold the highest standards of academic freedom and give students an opportunity to study and know for themselves Buddhist and other texts.