Is Buddhism One or Many?

Is Buddhism One or Many?

buddhism 3

In our experience, most individuals who assert that ‘Buddhism is one’ are generally not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of ‘hippyism’! Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are ‘many Buddhisms’. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didn’t become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on ‘sacred outlook’, the bond between teacher (or ‘guru’) and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West – where to admittedly differing degrees – they continue to embody the teachings and practices of their source traditions.

Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering, impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle (Sanskrit for the ‘three trainings’; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical region or historical period it originates from.

The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.

Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new path, it is really just a manifestation of a ‘universal path’ that, as one of its defining features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions. A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.

Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths. Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme. Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but it is also possible to credibly argue that it is one.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds). Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292). Oxford: Routledge.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.

The Spiritual Fence Sitter

The Spiritual Fence Sitter

Fence 4

When people are practising a spiritual path it is normal that, to a certain extent, their interest and commitment to the path waxes and wanes. For example, they may feel fully on-board one day but then later during the same month, they may question their choice to follow a particular spiritual teacher or a given path of spiritual practice. Generally speaking, the cycle of feeling more or less committed, along with the inner dialogue that typically accompanies it, is a positive thing. Doubts or questions arise and in the course of working through them, people often end up understanding more about themselves, as well as the path they are treading. In other words, periods of ‘spiritual questioning’ are normal, if not essential, for fostering progress along the path.

A good spiritual teacher will understand the tendency of spiritual practitioners to move through phases of feeling less or more convinced. At times when the practitioner’s faith or commitment appears to be waning, the teacher may seek to inspire them and recapture their interest. Particularly at the beginning phases of a spiritual relationship, an authentic spiritual teacher will do all they can to demonstrate to the practitioner that 1. the path is real, 2. the goal of the path (i.e., enlightenment) is real, and 3. they (i.e., the teacher) have the necessary spiritual acumen to guide the practitioner to their goal.

As intimated above, it is normal for the practitioner to test the spiritual teacher’s resolve and level of awareness. Consequently, the beginning phase of a spiritual relationship is often somewhat one-sided in terms of the amount of spiritual energy introduced by the teacher, versus the amount of faith and diligent practice exhibited by the practitioner. Nevertheless, a good spiritual teacher will be patient and will always provide individuals with ample time and opportunity for them to decide whether they are ready to embrace the path.

The duration of this ‘honeymoon’ period of the spiritual relationship is different for every individual, but inevitably, there reaches a point when the spiritual teacher has to evaluate whether continuing to coax or ‘spoon-feed’ the individual is likely to be effective. According to some Buddhist traditions, Avalokitesvara is a Buddha with an immense amount of compassion for all living beings. Driven by his compassion, Avalokitesvara is said to have entered the hell realms in an attempt to free all of the beings that inhabit them. However, as quickly as Avalokiteshvara was emptying the hell realms, they were filling up again. The point is that although enlightened beings can offer support, the spiritual practitioner has to do the work and can’t be carried to enlightenment (if they could, then it is reasonable to assume that there would not be such a thing as a ‘suffering being’ because enlightened beings would have already separated everybody from their suffering).

Our definition of a ‘spiritual fence sitter’ is a person that has not only been introduced to an authentic spiritual path by an authentic spiritual teacher, but has had ample opportunity to test both the teacher and the path that they represent. According to our delineation, spiritual fence sitters are relatively spiritually ‘ripe’ in the sense that a part of them is genuinely interested in devoting their life to spiritual awareness. In other words, they should not be confused with the significant number of individuals that purport to practise spiritual development but whose interest is highly superficial. Such people can’t be classed as spiritual fence sitters because rather than a genuine desire to foster spiritual awareness, their interest in spiritual practice is mostly driven by (for example) the wish to follow a fashion, make friends, meet a partner, socially interact, advance their career or reputation, or escape from problems (i.e., an individual can’t be said to be fence sitting if they have no interest in finding out what lies on the other side of the fence).

For a spiritual fence sitter that has had plenty of opportunity to ‘taste’ the authentic teachings, perhaps the most important consideration to bear in mind is that they can’t stay on the fence indefinitely. At some point, the spiritual fence sitter will have to decide whether they are ‘in’ or whether they are ‘out’. When all conditions are right, a good teacher will create circumstances that ‘force’ the practitioner to make this decision. This is done not only to help the teacher determine where to expend their time and energy, but also to ‘protect’ both the spiritual teachings and the spiritual practitioner. Once an individual has had several tastes of the path and/or the teacher’s wisdom, they no longer have any excuse for believing that enlightenment and the spiritual world are notions of fiction. Choosing not to wholeheartedly embrace the spiritual path under such circumstances can have significant negative consequences for the practitioner. The spiritual link that has been established between them and the teacher will, by its very nature, expose them to a range of new experiences and situations. Without the required level of conviction, these experiences and situations (that would otherwise act as major stepping stones on the path), are likely to cause lasting harm that could extend beyond the spiritual practitioner’s current lifetime.

Consequently, the spiritual teacher may deem it necessary to distance themselves from the practitioner. Of course, the sacred spiritual link between teacher and practitioner can be re-established, but at this point rather than the teacher trying to convince the practitioner to remain on-board (i.e., which was the case at the early phase of the spiritual relationship), now the practitioner has to work hard in order to convince the teacher.

 Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers


Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

False Spiritual Economy: Why an “I Want it All and I Want it Now” Attitude doesn’t Promote Spiritual Growth

False Spiritual Economy: Why an “I Want it All and I Want it Now” Attitude doesn’t Promote Spiritual Growth

oneness 1

It is fair to say that in contemporary society there is a growing demand amongst consumers for instant gratification and for products and services that can be accessed 24-hours a day. This appears to be the case across numerous sectors of society including (but not limited to) business, education, retail, tourism, health, and recreation. Some examples that come to mind are the: (i) investor looking for a quick-win return on their outlay, (ii) patient demanding a same-day diagnosis and medicine for their latest ailment, (iii) fast-food restaurant goer, (iv) all-inclusive package holiday-maker that can have food, drink, and entertainment any time of day and without having to leave the confines of their hotel, (v) student or professional undertaking an accelerated program of studies or training in order to be awarded the qualification/certificate in the shortest time possible, and (vi) individual using an online dating agency in order to be instantly matched with the “perfect partner”. In addition to the sectors and examples mentioned above, this trend towards wanting immediate reward also appears to be occurring in the spirituality and religion marketplace. For example, one only has to conduct a search on the internet or look at the spiritualty section of a bookshop and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of individuals purporting to be spiritual teachers and promising a quick-fix for alleviating suffering. In this post, we examine the benefits and risks of the ‘I want it all, I want it now’ mentality as they relate to the spiritual (and high-street) consumer, and discuss whether it is possible to embody the essence of the Buddha’s teachings whilst living in a “fast-food” society.


I Want it All, and I Want it Now

When we wish a change from listening to classical music, we sometimes like to listen to music by the rock band Queen. Any readers of this post that also like the music of Queen may recognise the words used in the above subheading from the band’s song ‘I Want it All’ that featured on their 1989 album ‘The Miracle. We are not sure about the exact sentiments that Queen were attempting to convey with these words, but they accurately capture the essence of the consumer trend that we referred to above. We would like to be clear at this point that we are not asserting that ‘wanting it all’ and ‘wanting it now’ is necessary a bad thing. Indeed, when talking about the materialistic world, there are certainly circumstances where the quick-win option represents the most rational way to proceed and makes the various tasks and challenges that we have to cope with in life much more manageable. For example, there is absolutely no sense in waiting for days, months, or years for an equivalent product or service that can be installed or delivered the same day. Likewise, if an investor can buy stock or currency on Monday and sell it on Friday for £100,000s profit, then this is obviously much less strenuous than working 40-hours a week for years-on-end in order to make the same amount of money. It could be argued that there are benefits (e.g., personal growth, increase in resilience and coping skills, etc.) associated with having to work hard or wait a long time for a reward, but the appeal of being able to instantly ‘have it all’ cannot be denied.

Although there are occasions in everyday life where the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ approach represents an acceptable if not skilful way to proceed, unfortunately, there are rarely ever any instances where this approach results in a meaningful reward when it comes to spiritual practice. This is certainly not to say that some spiritual paths are not more expedient than others, but the rate at which a person progresses spirituality is generally a function of how much effort they are willing to make (as well as other factors such as (i) the skill of their teacher, (ii) their underlying propensity for spiritual growth [i.e., their “karmic history”], and (iii) the environmental and materialistic conditions in which they find themselves). Therefore, in general, if a person wishes to spiritually progress at rate x, then they have to make the equivalent amount of effort. However, if they wish to progress at the faster rate of y, then they have to operate a little bit more outside of their comfort zone and up their efforts accordingly. As we discussed in our post on ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners’, it is important to remember that upping one’s effort in the context of spiritual practice doesn’t mean taking things to extremes, but means being more willing to surrender one’s ego.

Consequently, given that the old adage you get out what you put in certainly applies to spiritual practice, any technique or person promising rapid spiritual progress and/or insights needs to be approached with caution. The reason for us making this assertion relates closely to the content of our recent post on suffering where we referred to the fact that the average person has become so adept at acting selfishly and has amassed so much negativity, they must first learn how to become fully aware of and work with their suffering before they can transmute it. In other words, most people are so entrenched in their own self-created suffering that they are oblivious to its severity, and it is only when they start to practice meditation and/or become more spiritually aware they begin to fully appreciate the extent of their suffering.

In previous posts we have made reference to the Law of Causality that governs the behaviour of all phenomena and is a fundamental principle of both Buddhist philosophy and modern science. Like everything else, suffering is the effect of a cause. According to Buddhist theory, the causes of suffering are unwholesome mental states – particularly greed/desire (i.e., attachment), hatred (i.e., aversion), and harbouring deluded views more generally. Based on the Law of Causality, Buddhism asserts that if a person wishes their suffering to go away, then they have to undo or remove the causes that first made that suffering appear. This is nothing more than common sense, and since those causes (i.e., greed, hatred, delusion) have been “practised” and present for a long period of time (innumerable lifetimes according to the Buddhist view), then it is also common sense that removing those causes is not something that can be done overnight. The Buddha taught that the only way to remove the underlying causes of suffering is to practise and cultivate their opposites (i.e., non-attachment, non-aversion, and wisdom) by embracing an authentic spiritual path and by eventually uprooting even the slightest belief in an inherently-existing self.


I Already Have it All, and I Already Have it Now

In the above discussion, we have made it clear that the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ attitude is not compatible with lasting spiritual growth. However, only the slightest shift in attitude is required in order to find ourselves in a position where we can embrace the very essence of the Buddha’s teachings, whilst at the same time fully savour – to an indescribable extent – all that life has to offer (including “fast-food” products and services). The way to do this is not to want or desire to have it all, but to perfect the practice of understanding that we already have it all. Wanting it all creates a separation between ourselves and the ‘all’ that we are striving to acquire. In the context of Buddhist practice, for as long as we see spiritual liberation as a goal – we will never achieve it. We have previously discussed this principle using the example of the wave that needlessly suffers because it believes it is separate from the ocean. However, as soon as the wave gets over itself and relaxes into its natural state, it once again becomes the entire ocean. In other words, it is when we stop wanting it all, and stop wanting it now, that it becomes possible to find ourselves in the fortunate position of actually having it all, and having it now.

This shift in attitude and realisation that we already have everything we need may appear to contradict the foregoing discussion relating to the fact that suffering is causal and that there is no easy or quick means of “undoing” or transforming suffering. However, there is no contradiction here because by perfecting the practice of not wanting to be somewhere else, have something else, do something else, or be someone else, we are left with no alternative other than to just simple be. The practice and art of simply being just so happens to constitute a very expedient path for uprooting the causes of suffering. The reason for this is because when we practice simply being and savour, but don’t cling to, every single drop of experience that flows through our consciousness, we actually move beyond the realm and confines of causality. In this mode of perceiving, spiritual growth can happen very fast and in some cases even at lightning speed. The reason it can happen so quickly is because we are absolutely unattached to the idea of making spiritual progress or of becoming enlightened.

By practising simply being, we create the causes and satisfy the conditions for giving rise to the profound spiritual realisation that causality is an implausible construct. As we have already outlined, modern science and (the preparatory stages of) Buddhist practice are based on the assumption that the entire universe (or multiverse if you prefer) is governed by the law of cause and effect. However, let us consider for a moment exactly what is meant and implied by this law. The law of causality asserts that any given phenomenon manifests in reliance upon a single or multiple causes. Despite this, in truth, no single cause produces a given effect. In fact, it is actually impossible to quantify the exact number and types of causes that give rise to a particular outcome. For example, it might be argued that the cause of a person having to rush to the toilet to urinate was them drinking a large volume of water. But you cannot leave it there because an infinite number of other causes also play their part. Assuming the water came in a glass, then the existence of the glass may not be discounted as a factor that facilitated the subsequent occurrence of the individual dashing to the loo. The same applies to the existence of the clouds and rain that produced the water, the oceans and rivers that produced the clouds, and the ‘pee’ from countless other individuals that played a small but significant part in helping to fill up the oceans. Likewise, the existence of the water processing factory and its employees must also be taken into account. Other contributing factors include (for example) the fact that the toilet-going individual had a body (they wouldn’t have been able to drink water without one), their parents that brought them into the world, the grandparents that created their parents, and so forth. In fact, believe it or not, every single atom that exists in the entire universe, and every single instant of time that has unfolded since even before the universe existed, are in some way causal factors in the act of the individual dashing to the bathroom.

Since all of the causes that give rise to a particular effect can never be fully quantified, the plausibility of causality must be called into question. In other words, phenomena are interconnected to the extent that they cannot be separated into discrete entities. In essence, there is only oneness and everything is ultimately of the same taste. Phenomena arise from oneness, they are the nature of oneness, and they dissolve back into oneness. The law of causality begins to break down when cause and effect happen to be one and the same thing, because essentially there is no longer a causal relationship. Therefore, since oneness gives rise to oneness, how can it be said that phenomena manifest in reliance on causes?

What this means in the context of the current discussion is that the approach we advocated earlier of not ‘wanting it all and wanting it now’ and of realising that one already ‘has it all’ does not just reflect the ramblings of two Buddhist monks that are also psychologists, but it actually represents the fundamental truth of reality. Whenever you breathe in, you breathe in the entirety of space and time. You are the very fabric of the universe, you are the primordial purity and essence of existence, you are everything.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Norbu, C. & Clemente, A. (1999). The Supreme Source. The Fundamental Tantra of the Dzogchen Semde. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Rājvudhācāriya. (2010). Citta is Buddha. Bangkok: Chuanpin.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, 5, 345-347.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Trungpa, C. (2004). The collected works of Chogyam Trungpa: Volume 8. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The great treatise on the stages of the path to enlightenment. (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

suffering 1

In western culture, suffering is generally defined as the experience of either somatic or psychological pain. Therefore, in the absence of such pain and whilst experiencing favourable socio-environmental conditions, individuals are generally not categorised as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ according to western medical conventions (e.g., as defined by the World Health Organization). However, within Buddhism, the term ‘suffering’ takes on a much more encompassing meaning. Irrespective of whether a sentient being is currently experiencing psychological or somatic pain, and irrespective of whether a sentient being considers itself to be suffering, Buddhism asserts that the very fact an unenlightened being exists means it suffers.

As we discussed in our recent post on Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha declared that ‘suffering exists’. In addition to representing the Buddha’s experiential understanding of the truth, these words were intended to represent a statement of fact. They were never meant to be ambiguous. ‘Suffering exists’ does not just mean that there is the potential for suffering to exist, it means that with the exception of those beings that have realised the third noble truth (i.e., the cessation of suffering), all beings suffer. Likewise, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that sentient beings suffer at certain times but not at other times, it means that sentient beings that have not transcended to liberation are continuously immersed in suffering.

This type of enduring latent suffering referred to above is known in Buddhism as ‘all-pervasive suffering’. In essence, it is the suffering that arises due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality. Since – as discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self – unenlightened beings have a distorted perception of reality, Buddhism asserts that they are deluded. Accordingly, within Buddhism and to a certain extent, the words suffering, deluded and ignorant can all be used interchangeably.

One means of conceptualising the Buddhist interpretation of suffering as a form of delusion (or ignorance) is by drawing parallels between the two conditions of  ‘mindlessness’ and ‘hallucination’. Mindlessness refers to a lack of present moment awareness whereby the mind is preoccupied with future (i.e., fantasized) conjectures or past (i.e., bygone) occurrences. Therefore, an individual afflicted by mindlessness might be said to be engaging in the ‘non-perceiving of that which is’. Hallucination, on the other hand, can be described as being ‘the perceiving of that which is not’. Thus, given that both states involve an erroneous perception of the ‘here and now’, it could be argued that mindlessness is actually a form of ‘inverted hallucination’.

According to Buddhist thought, the population en masse is effectively deemed to be delusional (i.e., suffering) and in a permanent inverted-hallucinatory state. However, as the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Gampopa aptly points out, although all unenlightened beings (human or otherwise) experience all-pervasive suffering, they are generally ignorant of this fact:

Ordinary people will not feel the all-pervasive suffering as, for example, when one is stricken with a serious plague and a small pain in the ears and so forth is not noticeable. But the saintly beings – the noble ones beyond samsara such as the stream enterers and so forth – will see the all-pervasive suffering as suffering …

In addition to all-pervasive suffering which might be described as a more subtle form of suffering, Buddhism recognises two other primary forms of suffering that are much more tangible. The first is known as the ‘suffering of change’ and refers to the fact that whatever temporary happiness there might be, it simply cannot endure. The Buddha stated that birth leads to the suffering of sickness and old age, and sickness and old age lead to suffering of death. Likewise, being in love leads to the suffering of separation, and having possessions (e.g., wealth, health, reputation, family, friends, etc.) leads to suffering when one is ultimately separated from such favourable circumstances. In short, suffering is ubiquitous to the human condition and the principle of impermanence means that just as with all phenomena, favourable circumstances are transient and are subject to dissolution.

The third primary form of suffering recognised in the Buddhist teachings is the ‘suffering of suffering’. This is the most palpable form of suffering and is typified by experiences such as somatic pain, psychological distress, hunger or starvation, thirst or dehydration, being too hot, and being too cold. Buddhism asserts that the human being comprises five aggregates (1. form, 2. feelings, 3. perceptions, 4. mental formations, and 5. consciousness; Sanskrit: skandhas; Pali: khandhas) and that each individual aggregate is likewise composite. For example, the first aggregate of form or the body in-turn comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.). Due to the fact the human body exists in reliance upon a delicate balance of innumerable causes, components and conditions, Buddhism asserts that even a slight imbalance in these elements and components results in both the suffering of suffering (e.g., pain and discomfort) and ultimately, the suffering of change (e.g., illness and death).

There is quite a lot more we could write about the Buddhist take on suffering, but the above provides a brief introduction to how Buddhism distinguishes between different types of suffering and why the Buddha stated that suffering exits. It is only by first recognising and coming to terms with the suffering within ourselves – including in all of its different guises – that we can fully appreciate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings and the need to earnestly apply ourselves towards spiritual development.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.


Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.


Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.


Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.


Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths

Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths


Arguably the most well-known of the Buddha’s teachings is that of The Four Noble Truths. The teaching of the four noble truths is recorded as being the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. Due to this teaching’s significance and central role within Buddhism, it is not surprising that a great deal has been written about the four noble truths by both contemporary and historical Buddhist teachers and scholars. However, irrespective of how many commentaries or books have been written about a particular aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, more often than not, there is always some additional wisdom that can be gleaned by revisiting a particular teaching – especially if one is willing to do so with a fresh and open perspective. In today’s post, we take a fresh look at the four noble truths and offer what we believe is a slightly different perspective compared to what has already been written on this subject. In particular, we briefly look at the use of logic in the four noble truths and highlight how a greater understanding of some of the logical and experiential assertions made by the Buddha in this teaching can help us to enter and advance along the path of spiritual awareness.

For readers of our blog that are not aware of the four noble truths, they can be summarised as follows (to see a more detailed version of the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths, see the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – The Discourse That Sets the Wheel of Truth in Motion):

  1. Suffering exists
  2. There is a cause to suffering
  3. There is cessation of suffering
  4. There is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering

Basically, what the Buddha is saying with the teaching on the four noble truths is that until we attain spiritual liberation (the third truth), we are going to suffer (the first truth), and the only way to end this suffering is to walk the path (the fourth truth) that acts upon the causes of suffering (the second truth). With this teaching, the Buddha was just presenting some simple facts and making some basic logical assertions about suffering. For example, because Buddhism accepts the principle of causality (i.e., all effects are the result of a cause), the second and fourth truths follow on logically from the truths that immediately precede them. In other words, since in the first truth the Buddha has already stated that suffering exists, then it is logical to assert that this suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). Likewise, because in the third truth the Buddha states that there is an end to suffering, then it is logical to assert that this end to suffering also has a cause (the cause of the end of suffering is walking the path that eradicates suffering – the fourth truth).

Thus, if we really wanted to, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths to a single phrase such as: ‘There is suffering which has a cause and there is liberation which has a cause’. However, because Buddhism accepts the principle of causality, even the above phrase could actually be further condensed. For example, if we state that there is suffering, then as discussed above, we actually don’t need to state that there is a cause to suffering because that is already implied. Likewise, since we know that suffering exists because of certain causes (principally ignorance, attachment, and aversion), then we know that by removing these causes, suffering will also be eradicated. Thus, when we state that suffering exists, not only is it implied that suffering has a cause, but it is also implied that removal of the causes of suffering will lead to the cessation of suffering.

Therefore, if you are somebody that likes to reduce things down to their simplest level, perhaps you could capture the entire meaning of the teaching on the four noble truths just by simply saying ‘suffering exists’. Alternatively, if you wanted to be less pessimistic, you could simply say that ‘liberation exists’. In fact, perhaps these phrases could be made use of in your meditation practice: with the in-breath you could quietly say to yourself that ‘suffering exists’, and with the out-breath you could quietly say ‘but so does liberation’.

A person might accept that the statement ‘suffering exists’ implies that suffering has a cause and that removing the cause will lead to cessation of suffering, but they might not accept that it can be logically inferred from the statement ‘suffering exists’ that a path exists (i.e., the forth noble truth) that can eradicate this suffering. However, such an objection can be easily overcome because just by stating that ‘suffering exists’, this automatically establishes the existence of ‘non-suffering’ (i.e., liberation). In other words, at the same time we accept the existence of something, we also have to accept the existence of its opposite. For example, if we accept that the ‘left’ exists, then we have to accept that the ‘right’ also exists. Left only exists because there is right – if we take away right, then we no longer have left.

Therefore, when we state or accept that suffering exists, we must also accept that liberation exists. Based on the principle of causality, having accepted that liberation exists, we can now make a logical deduction and accept that liberation has a cause. The cause of this liberation is none other than the path (i.e., the fourth truth) and we must now accept that the meaning and essence of all four of the Buddha’s noble truths is implicit within each truth individually. Of course, although the Buddha’s teaching on the noble truths is perfectly grounded in logic, when the Buddha gave this teaching, he wasn’t just making logical assertions, but was talking from his experience. Nevertheless, a good way to determine whether a discourse given by a spiritual teacher is authentic is to test whether it is logically grounded. This is because as a person moves closer to enlightenment, their ability to use logic and reasoning tends to dramatically increase. Therefore, in their expression of the truth, authentic spiritual teachers naturally and frequently resort to using logic – it happens naturally and without them having to think too hard.

There are examples of Buddhist teachers – such as the 2nd century Indian saint Nagarjuna – whose logical reasoning skills had developed to such an extent that a lot of modern-day scholars and philosophers have difficulty in keeping up with him. Because they can’t follow the logic utilised by Nagarjuna, they assert that his logic is flawed or that he leaps around too much in his argumentation. Of course, it is definitely possible for a person to get muddled-up when they are following a course of logic, but this wasn’t the case with Nagarjuna. Both Nagarjuna and the Buddha fully understood the limits of their logic and for this reason, they were able to use it effectively and were not in any way bound by it.

It is quite enjoyable examining the use of logic in the Buddha’s teaching on subjects such as the four noble truths, and it is also enjoyable to investigate whether such teachings can be condensed to a simpler form. However, unless we learn something that helps us in our spiritual practice, then there is really no point in doing this. One of the most important things we can learn by familiarising ourselves with the four noble truths in the manner described above is that this teaching has a very simple but profound message: ‘we will suffer – for an indefinite period – until such time that we choose to dedicate ourselves to spiritual development in order to stop creating the causes of suffering. It really is that simple. Life is fleeting and before we know it old age is upon us – so choose to embrace the path now, my dears. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent, and this includes suffering. But in the case of suffering, bringing about its impermanence is something that rests entirely in our own hands. This is the quintessential message of the four noble truths.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

A Guided Meditation on Loving-kindness and Compassion

A Guided Meditation on Loving-kindness and Compassion

present moment 3

In a recent post, we focussed on the practices of loving-kindness and compassion and discussed their role within Buddhism and within spiritual practice more generally. Following on from this post and further to several emails we have received requesting more information on these practices, here we provide a short introductory meditation on loving-kindness and compassion. This meditation is adapted from a guided meditation that we included in an article entitled ‘The psychotherapeutic applications of loving-kindness and compassion meditation’ that was recently accepted for publication in Thresholds (a journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy). The first part of this meditation focusses on establishing equanimity, calm, and meditative awareness, and the second part provides a gentle introduction to the practices of loving-kindness and compassion. There are many ways to practice this meditation, but our suggestion is that you adopt a suitable meditation posture, and then spend one or two minutes on each of the ten exercises.

An introductory meditation on loving-kindness and compassion


  1. Breathing in, I am fully aware I breathe in; Breathing out, I am fully aware I breathe out.
  2. Breathing in, I am aware whether my breath is deep or shallow, short or long; Breathing out, I allow my breath to follow its natural course.
  3. Breathing in, I am aware of the space and time that exists between my in-breath and out-breath, and between my out-breath and in-breath; Breathing out, I relax into this space and time.
  4. Breathing in, there is nowhere else I need to be; Breathing out, I am already home.
  5. Breathing in, I am here; Breathing out, I am now.
  6. Breathing in, I enjoy breathing in; Breathing out, I enjoy breathing out and I smile gently to myself.
  7. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering that is present inside of me; Breathing out, I allow any difficult feelings to calm and relax.
  8. Breathing in, I cultivate feelings of joy and happiness; Breathing out, I bathe in those feelings of joy and happiness.
  9. Breathing in, I am aware that other people also suffer; Breathing out, I radiate feelings of joy and happiness to others.
  10. Breathing in, I return to simply following my breathing; Breathing out, I enjoy the experience of simply being.



Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Hutcherson CA, Seppala EM, Gross JJ. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion 8: 720-724.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Mascaro JS, Rilling JK, Negi LT, et al. (2012). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. DOI:10.1093/scan/nss095.

Shamay-Tsoory SG. (2011) The neural bases for empathy. Neuroscientist 17: 18-24.

Shonin E, Van Gordon W, Griffiths, MD. (2014). The psychotherapeutic applications of loving-kindness and compassion meditation. Thresholds: Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Spring Issue, In Press.

Shonin E, Van Gordon W, & Griffiths MD. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, In Press.