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Good Morning,

Recently I have been soul-searching and looking for a missing spiritual aspect of my life. I have been reading Introduction to Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. After reading part one of the book, I felt a strong connection to Buddhism. Although I don't see myself as seeking total enlightenment in my lifetime, I feel a want to continue my path and perhaps become what I think is called a lay Buddhist.

With this personal realization has come a lot of confusion. I plan to continue reading Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's book, however I'm wondering if there is another resource that could help me answer the questions I have more directly at this point. Which is why I'm making this post. I feel like I have almost no resources other than the intention I have to learn. I live in the Southern United States and so I have come up short on finding local resources. In my book, I find myself reading some of what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says and then wanting to know more, but being at the mercy of what is said later in the book to explain it. It's been a wonderful exposure so far enough that I want to continue learning, but I'm just not sure which resources to seek out.

I understand that there are several schools of Buddhism and that has added to my confusion. I think that my book is related to Mahayana, but I could be mistaken. I know that to call myself a lay Buddhist in the first place involves taking refuge in the three jewels and committing to the five precepts. There seems to be discourse on whether or not this is something that can be done alone or needs to be done at an official venue. In a way, I almost feel like I have already taken refuge. There is a prayer to Buddha, Sanga, and Dharma in my book that I have recited intentionally. I'm not sure if that prayer is a prayer for taking refuge specifically, however it almost feels like the lines are bleeding together.

In my book 12 commitments of refuge are talked about in addition to the five precepts. This has caused me some confusion because elsewhere on the web I've seldom seem these mentioned.

I guess overall to summarize what I'm asking for: I feel a strong connection to Buddhism. I want to continue learning, but feel like I am missing resources. I feel like what I want is a complete guidebook to how I can continue learning and how to practice. Something to give structure to this thing I feel the need to seek out. I know that what is important is learning from the three jewels and applying that to live a better life, but I still feel a need for something to follow to help me do so. A lay Buddhist guidebook if you will.

Some questions that have come up for example:

  • How can I study more Dharma teachings? The book mentions Dharma books which I guess this book would technically count as itself, but are there books specifically for Dharma teachings from Buddha in one book?
  • The book mentions offerings on occasion. I'm unsure of what this means exactly or how to make offerings.
  • Can you take refuge alone?
  • If you do something against the five precepts, do you repent? Or do you just continue living up to the five precepts as well as you can.
  • Is the Buddhist stack exchange part of Sangha?

I apologize if this post is a little messy or rambling. I'm hoping it will be looked on with kind-eyes and someone can point me in the right direction and I can continue learning.

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  • The south is a big place. Which state are you in?
    – user25431
    Nov 6, 2023 at 20:23
  • @000 I’m in Southeast Alabama. Nov 6, 2023 at 20:29
  • Oh geez. Yeah, that's going to be tough, but by no means impossible. If no one has written an answer by tomorrow, I'll give you a couple of thoughts.
    – user25431
    Nov 6, 2023 at 20:44
  • @000 Thank you. I appreciate that very much. Nov 6, 2023 at 20:45
  • Welcome to the site. I too will try to post another answer this weekend.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 7, 2023 at 7:30

4 Answers 4

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I will address a couple of things - but leave the journey to you. Kelsang Gyatso was trained in the Gelugpa, which itself is a major school of of Buddhism from Tibet. All Tibetan Buddhism is Mahayana. Almost all of Himalayan Buddhism is Mahayana Buddhist.

The Gelugpa school was founded in the late 14th century by Je Tsongkhapa. The school is large, and there are many different teachers, and many different opinions and variations within it.

Some of those within the Gelugpa have been strong adherents to the idea that the only true, 'pure' Buddhadharma is that which stems from Je Tsongkhapa. They believe(d) that the views of the other schools (and all other traditions outside Tibet) were mistaken, and therefore toxic.

(This isn't an attribute which is found solely within the Gelugpa, or Tibet, or even the Mahayana - for example, there are a few Theravada who reject the entire Mahayana tradition).

Of those, Kelsang Gyatso was famously a purist. He propagated and encouraged the practice of 'Shugden' - which includes taking a vow to have nothing to do with the Nyingma teachings. (Kelsang Gyatso was not alone. It would be hard to deny that several teachers of Gelugpa followed similar views that rejected the practices of other schools, most especially the Nyingma).

Later on, when Kelsang Gyatso gathered a large enough following, he told his students not to read any book or text that he himself did not write.

Now, in your journey, wherever it takes you - if a teacher (or their tradition) says to you "only read the texts that I wrote, or approve" – please be careful: If it is a temporary injunction, until you are familiar with the language and topics - it can be understandable (as many words in Buddhism have different meanings according to the school you practice in accordance with). But often it is the case that the injunction is not temporary, and this is always a cause for major concern. Why? Because we must depend upon developing our own critical thinking. In the end, we must reason - and develop our reasoning in order to identify and eliminate our self-grasping mind. We must 'take ownership' of our spiritual path - as our path is completely about responsible empowerment for ourselves and others.

But the Gelugpa tradition is incredibly broad and very deep, with six centuries of scholarship and a practicing community of millions: There are plenty of teachers, many of whom are (or were) renowned for their practice in the Dharma, who felt that the rejection of any Dharma tradition is a great wrongdoing. From Je Tsongkhapa himself, he discusses this in the Lam Rim Chenmo, regarding the greatnesses of Atisha's tradition- the salient point being that all Buddha's teachings directly or indirectly teach methods of becoming a Buddha. If we wish to look at what is mistaken in the Nyingma, we must first be aware of what is mistaken in our own views - and to do that we must eliminate any context. When we eliminate context, we can no longer rely upon conventional truths. Even an Arya has only a limited ability to understand the Dharma. Only a Buddha is able to unmistakably point to the flaws in the teachings of others.

When we examine the views of the Nyingma (which themselves are as varied, as broad, and as profound), and despite a completely different vocabulary that the teachings are given in, we will see that - against any other Buddhist tradition in the world, the Nyingma teachings are very close to those of the Gelugpa. Yes, definitely there are differences, but there are many similarities too.

To be so wild as to claim that the only true remaining tradition of Buddhism that leads to Buddhahood without error is the noble tradition of Je Tsongkhapa underlies the point. It demonstrates the insularity of some Tibetan thinking, and especially those who would feel comfortable with that. Indeed, we cannot say that about Buddhism (let alone any school within Buddhism)- for example, if you reside in a country where practicing Buddhism entails a death sentence, then Buddhism will not be so useful to you.

For me, there is no doubt that my personal path follows the teachings and practices of Je Tsongkhapa. But I cannot claim that this path is suitable for everyone. Not being a Buddha, I certainly cannot claim that this path is the only true path to Buddhahood: To me, the very idea of "just one true path" completely undermines the basis of the insight tradition of Nagarjuna.

Fortunately I do not conflate the practice of Shugden with the practices and traditions of Je Tsongkhapa - who predated Shugden by some centuries. I am not enamoured by the activities of some Shugden adherents - involved in 'converting' Nyingma monasteries, for example or, on a less material note, criticising any sincere Buddhist practice.

Even so, we are able to learn from those whose actions are stained. As it already stands, we are encouraged to exercise critical thinking with everything we are taught - in order that we understand the truth behind the words. This is true regardless of the actions and activities of our teachers.

The same issue with all teachers: What is it that they have to teach me right now, regardless of what they say? Do they show me through example just what I should not do? Or do they show me what to do? This is for us to determine for ourselves. We should not accept anyone's teaching at face value, and we certainly should not reject it either. Our hope is that we can thread an understanding that pulls us towards enlightenment, or even Buddhahood.

But that path is for each one of us to determine for ourselves.

My thought is, that what makes us 'Buddhist' is, first of all, that we have determined for ourselves that there is such a state as enlightenment, and that enlightenment is worth striving for (indeed, it is the only journey that matters). Once we have recognised enlightenment is a fact (and how to distinguish enlightenment from serenity) then we have taken refuge in Buddha.

From that, we look to see whose teachings to freedom resonate for us: From which, we have so many choices available to us. But, in the end, we will begin to recognise the four noble truths lie as the scaffolding of the entire Buddhist project. From which, we will then see that the fourth - the path, is a kaleidoscope of teachings that all boil down to the three trainings (triśikṣā/tisikkhā):

  • How to behave (adhiśīla),
  • How to focus (samādhi), and
  • How to break the cycle (prajñā).

When this seems obvious, and when it becomes the foundation to our life and our actions, then we have taken refuge in the Dharma. (When our understanding of Dharma is thorough enough that we will recognise and distinguish Buddha's teachings from every tradition in that they directly (or indirectly) teach nothing else but the path to Buddhahood).

When all our actions become a model of behaviour and inspiration for others such that they wish to engage in the Buddhist path then we have taken refuge in the Sangha.

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How can I study more Dharma teachings? The book mentions Dharma books which I guess this book would technically count as itself, but are there books specifically for Dharma teachings from Buddha in one book?

I would recommend this book:

In the Buddha's Words

The book mentions offerings on occasion. I'm unsure of what this means exactly or how to make offerings.

Here is a dharma teaching that explains more about making offerings.

Can you take refuge alone?

Informally, yes you can. You can also do so in a more formal fashion. First though you should know what is meant by taking refuge. I'd recommend this dharma teaching to learn more.

If you do something against the five precepts, do you repent? Or do you just continue living up to the five precepts as well as you can.

You can and should repent (or purify) and here is a dharma teaching that explains some of how and why we do this.

Is the Buddhist stack exchange part of Sangha?

The Sangha is one of the three jewels we take refuge in. It is very important to understand this jewel before one takes refuge. Here is a dharma teaching that can help.

I hope you find these links and references helpful. Good luck on your Buddhist journey!

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Recently I have been soul-searching and looking for a missing spiritual aspect of my life.

In my caseI couldn't believe that Christian doctrine is the only truth, and with my father's help I began to read the (translated) texts and descriptions of other religions.

I found others good in their own way. Buddhism seemed perhaps unusually among the sanest, complete and with the least fanciful premises (like, "God says"), which appealed to my sense of logic -- its axioms being humane and conventional.

A lot of the books I found were people writing about Buddhism, rather than Buddhist canonical texts themselves. One (famous) canonical text is the Dhammapada. That may be a good introduction. It may be even better as a summary or conclusion, after you get the doctrine in more detail from another source.

This site was started about a month before my wife died, as it happens -- the first topics are currently on this page -- then I used this site to get started with studying it in more detail and with more certainty.

In my book, I find myself reading some of what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says and then wanting to know more, but being at the mercy of what is said later in the book to explain it.

When I was about 12 I got a copy of the ARRL's Radio Amateur's Handbook from the library, which explained electronics and how to build and operate radios (using vacuum tubes or transistors). I read it and understood about 5% of it. I read it again, and understood a bit more this time ... and so on.

I don't know the book you're reading (i.e. Introduction to Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

In my experience I find other Tibetan Buddhist books easier to read and understand than I used to, now that I know more about some of the earlier canonical texts of Buddhism. I suppose that some Tibetan Buddhist texts are by and for people who may already be Tibetan Buddhists! And so they're talking about and may presume you know something about doctrine, use vocabulary without defining it, etc.

I understand that there are several schools of Buddhism and that has added to my confusion. I think that my book is related to Mahayana, but I could be mistaken.

I think so yes -- but also no :-) in that someone once commented on this site, to the effect of, "Academics make the distinction (between different schools), but to us it's all one".

The canon of even one school is kind of vast (but that's so for anything, including e.g. "Christian literature").

Here's a map: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buddhist_sects.png

One way to read this might be:

  • There's Theravada and the rest (Mahayana)
  • Mahayana may be subdivided into Eastern (Zen) and Northern (Tibetan)
  • Each has its own history, people and places

This map ignores the modern world, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_the_West

I think the Buddha taught in about 450 BC, which was prehistory by definition i.e. the teachings were transmitted by oral tradition (and still are though they're also recorded in writing now).

I live in the Southern United States and so I have come up short on finding local resources.

I don't know, this might be useful:

Also I'll mention, one of the books I found interesting was The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity -- it's a summary of doctrine in the Pali suttas for laypeople, written by a bhikkhu in Texas

Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, PhD, was born in Sri Lanka and became a Buddhist monk in childhood. He holds a Master's Degree in literature, and a doctorate in English. He serves the congregation at the Houston Buddhist Vihara, and teaches English at the University of Houston. He lives in Texas.

Being "for laypeople" it's both more and less interesting than other anthologies, he is in Texas and a teacher.

One of the issues is that all the canonical literature is non-English-language, so reliant on translators. That's more-or-less true of the Christian canon too though, so maybe that's not a big issue.

How can I study more Dharma teachings?

Maybe any of several ways:

  • Read books
  • Watch dhamma talks on video
  • Talk with Buddhists, listen to them in person
  • Practice
  • Ask questions (perhaps on this site) about topics you don't understand

Re. how I studied it, when this site started I was out in the French countryside. I'd read "introductions", I wanted to read some "canon", the suttas including the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, and so I asked these questions which people kindly answered for me:

I won't try to list all similar topics on this site, perhaps there are many, here's one at random:

There are several topics where people ask for book recommendations: see .

are there books specifically for Dharma teachings from Buddha in one book?

I've seen people recommend What the Buddha Taught (by Ven. Walpola Rahula):

I have tried in this little book to address myself first of all to the educated and intelligent general reader, uninstructed in the subject, who would like to know what the Buddha actually taught.

Its first four chapters introduce the four noble truths, and so on.

There's also In the Buddha's Words, edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi. This is mostly translated extracts from the suttas themselves, sorted by topic.

The book I mentioned previously i.e. The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity is not so famous as these -- it consists of paraphrased (in the author's words), not translated, extracts from the suttas.

The book mentions offerings on occasion. I'm unsure of what this means exactly or how to make offerings.

I don't know that book, nor Tibetan doctrines.

One meaning is that Buddhist monks and nuns don't own money. They subsist by laypeople giving them 'requisites' e.g. (daily) food and (occasionally) robes.

The word is Dāna -- knowing the word for it lets you "study" or read about it e.g. https://www.google.com/search?q=buddhist+dana -- conversely many of the topics on this site are questions about the meaning of a word like this one.

I assume there's a different, Tibetan word for it.

Personally, i.e. what it means to me, is I'm quite taken with this sutta:

Kimattha Sutta: What is the Purpose? (AN 11.1)

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "What is the purpose of skillful virtues? What is their reward?"

"Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward."

"And what is the purpose of freedom from remorse? What is its reward?"

"Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward."

"And what is the purpose of joy? What is its reward?"

(etc.)

There have been sometimes in my life when I was "generous" or gift-giving, and which I absolutely don't regret: i.e. for which I feel "no remorse".

Can you take refuge alone?

Yes and no? You said earlier, in the OP,

There seems to be discourse on whether or not this is something that can be done alone or needs to be done at an official venue.

I guess my feeling is that, the way it worked originally (as described in the suttas) was that

  • The Buddha (or someone else) would say something to someone

  • The person would hear and reply like, Magnificent!, for example:

    Magnificent, Master Kaccana! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Kaccana — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, & to the community of monks. May Master Kaccana remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge from this day forward, for life.

I feel that saying "I go for refuge" isn't it, their saying it is an expression of their already having gone for refuge or taken refuge, on hearing the Dhamma.

Assuming further that it's the Dhamma that's important (SN 22.87) then perhaps you can "hear" that when alone e.g. from a book as well as (perhaps even better than) "at an official venue".

On the other hand many suttas say (e.g. in SN 45.2 for monks and DN 31 for laypeople) that companions are important, role-models, teachers -- to that extent it could be impractical to "do alone".

Perhaps the "ritualistic" aspect of an "official venue" isn't what's important (or perhaps that's just my ill-informed opinion).

If you do something against the five precepts, do you repent? Or do you just continue living up to the five precepts as well as you can.

Yes both, what's the difference, why do you say "or" as if it's one or the other?

I think that "repent" means "recognise unfortunate consequences of misbehaviour and resolve to avoid it in future".

Is the Buddhist stack exchange part of Sangha?

Ah. Correct me if I'm wrong, I think the word "Sangha" has three meanings:

  1. It's the community of monastics, the ordained monks and nuns
  2. The "Ariya Sangha" is the enlightened or semi-enlightened community (perhaps analogous to "the community of Saints" in Christianity)
  3. More broadly it's sometimes used to mean "all Buddhists"

I'd say that the Buddhist stack exchange is, not part of the Sangha. Some of the people who post or who have posted here, and/or who agreed it would be good to start this site, are.

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How can I study more Dharma teachings?

There are Dhamma resources all over the internet. One mere example is a website like this or this; which are examples of Theravada sites; but I guess there are Mahayana equivalents.

If you wish to read the original teachings of the Buddha, the Pali Suttas are translated, such as:

Contrary to the 12 commitments of refuge, in the original teachings of the Buddha:

  • not anyone who wears the robes of an ordained person is an actual Sangha Jewel.

  • not all translations of scripture are the actual Dhamma Jewel

Dhammapada Verse 307 says there are evil characters who wear the orange robe. For many monks today, the Dhamma Teachings are like a play thing, for them to develop their own style of teachings so they can develop their own group/sect of followers. The Buddha taught/exhorted a student to apply & develop thorough wise reflection/consideration (called 'yoniso manasikārā') upon hearing/reading a teaching. The Buddha (in Majjhima Nikaya MN 38) taught to not even believe the Buddha with blind faith but to only speak what has realized about His Teachings of Dhamma for oneself. The Buddha taught his Teachings exist for the purpose of individual verification (paccattaṁ veditabbo viññūhī).

The book mentions offerings on occasion. I'm unsure of what this means exactly or how to make offerings.

There are formal offerings, such as giving food & other requisites to monks & nuns. If there are no monks & nuns near you, can you simply give an occasional donation via the internet to a monastery, monk or nun; or otherwise give a donation to a worthy charity. The purpose of giving offering is to develop both gratitude & unselfishness; to make us 'open handed' in respect to generosity.

Can you take refuge alone?

In Majjhima Nikaya MN 140, it appears a monk took refuge alone. Otherwise, you could telephone a monastery & ask for a monk or nun to provide you refuge (over the telephone).

If you do something against the five precepts, do you repent? Or do you just continue living up to the five precepts as well as you can.

Yes, if you transgress the five precepts, you acknowledge the transgression, and vow to not repeat the transgression. The Buddha taught this in MN 61. The Buddha taught all transgressions/unwholesome actions are born from ignorance (SN 45.1); which is why a Buddha does not explicitly view transgressions personally & why a Buddha has ocean-like compassion.

Is the Buddhist stack exchange part of Sangha?

Yes, in particular Dhamma Dhatu answers questions here. There are often posters on various Buddhist chatsites that have strong refuge in the Dhamma of the Buddha & who can assist you. However, most Buddhist chatsites are administered by politically synthetic left wing individuals therefore often Buddhist websites include many non-Buddhist things due to political correctness & American liberalism, which is contrary to the 12 commitments of refuge. The 12 commitments of refuge include: not to go for refuge to teachers who contradict Buddha’s view or to Samsaric gods; not to allow oneself to be influenced by people who reject the Buddha’s teachings. For example, one Buddhist chatsite says the following, which is an alien ideology not related to genuine Buddhist ways of viewing & examining the world:

Please do not: express patriarchal, misogynist, sexist, bioessentialist, xenphobic, transphobic, TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, or pro-Nazi views or any other kind of hateful views

While Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's books are very traditional Tibetan Buddhism, one or two major Mahayana Buddhist chatsites I guess/image would ban the teachings of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso & the NKT (definitely here, probably here). Non-Buddhist 'cancel culture' thrives on Buddhist chatsites. But this is expected. Each person's journey requires them to develop their own wise refection (yoniso manasikara), vigilance & discernment. In Buddhism, every sense experience is an opportunity for the development of liberating wisdom.

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