Buddhism is extremely fast growing and estimates put its adherents at somewhere around one billion. Even though Buddhism is so popular, many in the western world, where it is barely practiced, have a very poor understanding of it. Not only have many people gained a completely incorrect understanding of it, but some attempt to practice without proper guidance and do it completely wrong. Now while these people’s hearts are in the right place, it might be wise to find a Buddhist teacher, they do exist in the western world, and learn from them. You may also have noticed that nowhere in this introduction have I actually referred to Buddhism as a religion or as a philosophy, the reason for this is explained below.
Misconception: Buddhism’s status as a religion.
Buddhism’s status as a religion is easily one of the most misunderstood aspects. The answer to the misconception is that it depends on who you ask, and what their definition of religion is. Buddhism doesn’t require a belief in God, or require you to give up your religion, and the original Buddha was not appreciative of the priest’s, many of these things would contradict any argument about it being a religion. However, some people who practice it perform it in a way that is similar to a religion, and they might not appreciate having you tell them that their belief system is just a “philosophy”. The best answer to this question is to ask the individuals who practice how they personally view it.
Misconception: All Buddhists are pacifists.
While Buddhists do practice non-violence, this is not quite the idea of pacifism that many of us have in mind. For instance, the Dalai Lama was once asked about the killing of Osama Bin Laden and expressed sympathy with the idea of “taking counter-measures”, if something is “serious”. And the Buddha himself was not a teacher of politics or culture, but a teacher of the individual mind. While Buddhists do as a general rule practice non-violence, not all Buddhists are pacifist. The misconception was been reinforced by movies with old eastern martial arts instructors who always avoided fighting when necessary. But remember in all of those movies, when they needed to fight, they did.
Misconception: All Buddhists meditate.
Many people’s first image of a Buddhist is someone meditating in full lotus position, perhaps uttering a mantra of some sort in another language. But the truth is that only a very small amount of Buddhists meditate on a regular basis, and this is true even among some monks. Even more surprising, among religious groups in America, it was found that Buddhists were less likely to meditate than anyone else. The study also found that over half of the Buddhists who were surveyed, did not meditate any more than once in awhile.
7. Dalai Lama.
Misconception: The Dalai Lama is the Buddhist version of the Pope.
Many people think of world religious leaders and they think of the Pope and the Dalai Lama, most consider the Dalai Lama to be Buddhism’s version of the pope. The thing is though, that really isn’t true. The Dalai Lama is the head only of one small part of Tibetan Buddhism called Gelugpa. All of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as all different forms of Buddhism, do not consider him to be an official leader. In his particular sect, he is the highest ranking Lama, but that’s all.
6. The Buddha.
Misconception: The popular fat bald man statue is a representation of Siddhartha Gautama.
When most people hear about Buddha they think of a really jolly looking fat guy with his belly showing, usually sitting in the full lotus position. However, that is not the Buddha, or at least not the original Buddha, whose real name was Siddhartha Gautama. The statue is actually of a fellow known as Budai. Some people think that the “laughing Buddha”, is based on a traveling monk who might have been an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha. There is no evidence that the original Buddha was fat, in fact it is likely he was quite thin.
Misconception: Those who practice Buddhism are pagans.
Some people believe that Buddhism is pagan, but it really only fits in that category by the loosest definition of the word. The only way it really works is if you apply it to anything apply it to everything that is not Judeo Christian, but that would be a little offensive. The truth is that even from the Dalai Lama’s writings, it is clear that in Buddhism the aspects that many in the west would consider religious are not very important, and the Dalai Lama has mentioned that religion might be “something we can perhaps do without”.
Misconception: Buddhists enjoy suffering.
Many people think that Buddhists enjoy suffering, or put themselves through it as part of a religious practice. The thing is that Buddhists seek to understand suffering as a means to end it permanently, too understand impermanence and realize that life is suffering. However, to the well trained Buddhist this is not a negative mindset, rather it is about optimistic in regards to accepting suffering when it cannot be avoided, and learning eventually to transcend it completely. This is one of the most important parts of the Buddhist path.
Misconception: Buddhists are vegetarian.
Many people are aware of some of the precepts of Buddhism, such as not to kill, and assume that all Buddhists are vegetarian. While there are some Buddhists who practice vegetarianism as a personal choice based on their understanding of the precepts, it is generally frowned upon to make a big deal out of it though. Buddha was never against eating meat; he even suggested certain types of meats at various types and rejected arguments for vegetarianism. There is nothing in Buddhist doctrines that say that meat eating as an act itself is considered to be killing.
Misconception: All Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
Many people assume that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but as you might have already guessed, that’s not quite the case. The idea of reincarnation as those in the west seem to perceive it has little to do with the belief in Buddhism, and it might be a problem of being lost in translation, as many Buddhists prefer words like “rebirth” or “rebecoming”. It should be clear that the idea of someone dying, and then being reborn into an animal, or another human body and so on, is not at all supported anywhere in Buddhism.
1. Siddhartha Gautama.
Misconception: Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, is a deity.
Many people are under the notion that Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the original Buddha, was and is a deity to Buddhists. However, there is no deity in Buddhism. In fact, Gautama Buddha himself was very adamant about not being a God; he also didn’t feel that questions on creation or origin were even important at all. In essence, there is no God in Buddhism, though you can choose to believe in God and still be a Buddhist. It is compatible with most religions. Another interesting tidbit, the word Buddha just means “awake”. The Buddha was an enlightened man, but he never claimed to be anything more than that.