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Frequently-asked Questions

Curious? Confused? Lost and clueless? You may find some relief in the questions-and-answers below. If you can't find your answer here, or if you know of a question that should be answered here, please drop me a note.

Finding your way around [go to top]

What is that funny symbol (») I see next to some hyperlinks? [go up]
It's a reminder that, when you click on that link, you'll be sending e-mail or jumping off to another site on the Internet. (Handful of Leaves users must first establish a connection to the Internet in order for these links to work.)

I can't find what I'm looking for in the Indexes. What do I do? [go up]
Try these search engines:

I've deliberately not included a search engine on this website. There's great value in browsing leisurely through indexes -- you just might stumble across something unexpected that answers a question you didn't even know you had, or that opens an entirely new door of understanding. (Yes, I'm one of those people who actually enjoys curling up with the OED or a volume from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) Tempted? Try the Subject Index.

General questions about the website [go to top]

What is Access to Insight? [go up]
Access to Insight is an Internet website dedicated to providing accurate, reliable, and useful information concerning the practice and study of Theravada Buddhism, as it has been handed down to us through both the written word of the Pali Canon and the living example of the Sangha.

Access to Insight is not an organization and is not affiliated with any institution. It is simply one person's website. Although I have studied the Buddha's teachings for many years as a lay follower, I have no academic degrees in either the Pali language or Buddhist Studies. In these pages I have therefore relied on the translations and interpretations of other respected scholars, teachers, and practitioners who have far more experience and wisdom than do I.

The readings assembled here represent just a selection of the Buddha's teachings. These are the ones that, over the years, I've personally found to be helpful in deepening an understanding of Dhamma practice. This collection is not meant to be an exhaustive archive of Theravada Buddhist texts.

I've tried to avoid injecting my own views and opinions into these web pages. Some biases, however, inevitably intrude, owing to the editorial choices I've made and the short introductory essays and blurbs I've written here and there to give some context to the material being presented. I sincerely hope that my biases do not in any way obscure the real meaning of the texts themselves.

Everything available at Access to Insight is offered in full cooperation with the authors, translators, and publishers concerned, with the clear understanding that none of it is to be sold. Please help yourself to whatever you find useful. (For a detailed explanation of the copyright status of materials on the website, please read "Copyright and Related Issues.")

How can I contact you? [go up]
I'm happy to receive your comments and queries, but please remember that Access to Insight isn't an organization and there are no staff here -- it's just me -- so it may take some time for me to respond. Before writing to me with your question, please first check the Frequently-asked Questions, the Help file, and the Indexes.

To contact me (John Bullitt):

by e-mail: »
on the Web: »
by post:
John Bullitt
Access to Insight
PO Box 153
Lincoln, MA 01773 USA

If Access to Insight isn't run by an organization, why does its URL ends in ".org"? [go up]
After years of piggy-backing the website on my personal Internet account, in the fall of 1999 I discovered that I could cut the website's operating expenses in half by registering a domain name and moving the website to a faster host computer that's better suited to large websites such as this one. (A rare and delightful case of "pay less and get more.") But how to choose a domain name? A name ending in .com seemed inappropriate since I'm not selling anything, while one ending in .net seemed inappropriate since the website isn't part of any network. This left .org, which, to most people, suggests a non-commercial entity. I guess that's me. Maybe someday we'll have more high-level domains to choose from (.disorg or .notcom would be nice). But until that day, Access to Insight will happily continue muddling along, a square peg in a web of round holes.

Is Access to Insight affiliated in some way with the Insight Meditation Society? [go up]

How did Access to Insight start? [go up]
In early 1993, with the help of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, I set up in my basement a computer bulletin board service (BBS) to explore the question: can networked computers be genuinely useful as a support for students and practitioners of Buddhism? Originally dubbed "BCBS OnLine," the BBS soon joined DharmaNet's international network of dialup Buddhist BBS's and adopted the name "Access to Insight". Shortly thereafter, DharmaNet's Dharma Book Transcription Project began, under whose auspices about a hundred high-quality books on Buddhism were transcribed to computer through the dedicated efforts of an international team of volunteer transcribers and proofreaders. These books were soon distributed via DharmaNet to scores of BBS's around the world. In 1994 I installed a dialup Internet e-mail connection that allowed anyone on the Internet to retrieve these books via an e-mail file server. This proved to be a popular service. By late 1994 the BBS -- now independent of BCBS -- spent far more of its time serving file requests from around the world via the Internet than in handling the requests of local callers. Internet users from far and wide were coming to depend on Access to Insight's now rickety and overworked '386 computer as their link to information -- both the timely and the timeless -- about Buddhism. In March 1995 this website was born; six months later I closed down the BBS for good.

Today Access to Insight continues to grow: what began in 1993 as a modest collection of two or three suttas and a handful of articles has blossomed into a library of over 700 suttas and several hundred articles and books. With the release of the Handful of Leaves CD-ROM in 1998 and 1999, these texts are now reaching an even wider audience and being further redistributed around the world in print and electronic media.

How do you decide which texts to include on the website? [go up]
One overarching principle has guided my choice of what to include in these pages, and what to leave out: a conviction that the teachings found in the Pali Canon are just as relevant today as when they were first put into practice 2,600 years ago. Despite all the obvious material advances in the human world since the Buddha's time, the Four Noble Truths appear to be as vital today as ever: suffering and stress still pervade our lives; the cause still appears to be craving in all its insidious manifestations; and there is no reason to suspect that the Noble Eightfold Path is any less effective today at bringing an end to all that suffering and stress. Unlike many popular writers on Buddhism today, I find little in the Canon that cries out for "modernization" or reform to suit the unique demands of modern times. I believe that the Buddha's teachings of Awakening are concerned with fundamental principles of human nature that transcend any social, cultural, or political agendas. One teacher has summed it up well: "The West has far more to learn from Theravada, than does Theravada from the West."

The emphasis here is on practice. For the most part I've selected books, articles, and sutta translations that I've found helpful to develop a personal understanding of the Buddha's teachings, rather than texts that tend to fuel intellectual debates on abstract philosophical concepts.

Beyond these basic principles, it all comes down to a matter of personal taste. For example, I have found the teachings from the Thai forest traditions invaluable, so they are heavily represented here. Likewise, you won't find any texts from the Abhidhamma here, simply because I haven't found the Abhidhamma -- as fascinating as it certainly is -- to be particularly helpful to meditation practice.

See also: Why don't you have translations of ALL the suttas from the Pali Canon?

Why don't you have translations of ALL the suttas from the Pali Canon? [go up]
This website aims to be selective rather than comprehensive. My goal has never been to publish translations of every single one of the Tipitaka's 10,000-plus suttas. What you see here is a selection of suttas that meet three criteria: (1) they are, in my opinion, good translations; (2) I have personally found them useful; and (3) their copyright holders have provided them for free distribution.

There are many other fine translations of important suttas available in print today, and I encourage you to support their continued publication by purchasing copies. Someday, perhaps, these publishers will choose to make those translations available free of charge on websites such as this one. Until that day comes, however, we must learn to make do with what we have.

See also: How do you decide which texts to include on the website? and What's wrong with selling Dhamma books?

Whom can we thank for making all these texts available? [go up]
My role in assembling Access to Insight has primarily been that of facilitator and librarian, helping to bring together under one virtual roof the fruits of the hard work of many people: authors, translators, publishers, transcribers, and proofreaders. The extraordinary generosity and commitment to the Dhamma demonstrated by these many contributors continues to amaze and inspire me. If you have found anything of value at Access to Insight please join me in thanking those who have made this website possible:

Thank you all.

Who translated the suttas on this website? [go up]
The sutta translations were made by many esteemed translators, including: Venerables Bhikkhu Bodhi, Acharya Buddharakkhita, Bhikkhu Khantipalo, Ñanamoli Thera, Ñanavara Thera, Narada Thera, Nyanaponika Thera, Soma Thera, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Phra Ajaan Geoff), and Sister Vajira; I.B. Horner, John D. Ireland, K.R. Norman, and F.L. Woodward. Unless specifically indicated to the contrary, sutta and Vinaya translations are by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who provided the vast majority of the translations offered on this website.

May I make a donation to support this project? [go up]
I offer the Handful of Leaves CD-ROM and everything on this website as free gifts, with absolutely no strings attached, and I neither solicit nor expect donations of any kind to pay for them. If, however, you feel moved to make a donation to support this work, you are welcome to do so. You may make your check in US dollars payable to me and mail it to me at the Access to Insight address. Please note that I cannot accept checks payable to "Access to Insight" and you cannot legally claim your gift as a tax-deductible charitable contribution. All donations are applied towards the operating expenses of the website and the costs of CD production and postage.

If you prefer, you might consider making a donation to the Metta Forest Monastery (where Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight's most prolific contributor, lives), or to the Buddhist Publication Society, which has provided scores of books and articles to this website:
Metta Forest Monastery
PO Box 1409
Valley Center, CA 92082
Buddhist Publication Society
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
PO Box 61
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Both institutions are registered charities in their respective countries.

Alternatively, you may simply make a donation to the charity of your choice. In the Buddha's words, "Give wherever the mind feels confidence" [SN III.24]

Web (Access to Insight) issues [go to top]

I can't download files from your ftp server. What do I do? [go up]
First, double check the URL: the correct address for the ftp file area at Access to Insight is » If you can't establish a connection to that URL, then something is wrong somewhere. Sometimes my Internet service provider's (ISPs) ftp server gets a little clogged from heavy use, and sometimes the whole Internet gets clogged, causing ftp requests to simply evaporate into thin air. In either case, I suggest you just come back an hour or two later and try again. Are you able to connect with any other ftp servers? (Try » or », for example.) If you're unable to connect with any ftp servers on the Internet, then the problem is probably at your end: double-check that your ftp client software is configured correctly, or try using a different ISP.

Copyright and related issues [go to top]

Are Access to Insight's texts in the public domain?
No. They are protected by copyright. See Are these texts protected by copyright?

Are these texts protected by copyright? [go up]
Yes. The files on the Access to Insight website and the Handful of Leaves CD-ROM are made available to you thanks to the generosity of dozens of authors, translators, publishers, and transcribers, who contributed their efforts with the explicit understanding that their work would only be given away free of charge, as a gift of dana. You may download these files to your computer, print them out, read them, share them with your friends, copy them to your own website, translate them into other languages, and redistribute them electronically -- provided that you do not charge any money for them. They are not in the public domain. You may reformat the files as you please, but you may not change their content without first obtaining permission from the author, translator, or publisher. Many of the texts available here contain additional copyright notices with specific additional rights and restrictions spelled out by the authors and publishers; please read and abide by these notices. If you reprint or republish any of these materials, please acknowledge the original author, translator, or publisher, as appropriate. If you have particular questions about the copyright status of any of the materials offered here, please let me know.

May I copy your pages onto my website? [go up]
Yes, provided that you make them available free of charge. I also ask that you please post a simple notice somewhere on your website acknowledging that the materials came from here. Although I don't require it, as a service to your visitors you might also consider including a link to, so that your visitors can easily get hold of the most up-to-date editions of these texts (I steadily receive corrections and revisions from translators, authors, and publishers). Finally, please make it clear to your visitors what material on your site comes from here and what comes from other sources.

May I sell copies of materials from your website in order to raise money for a non-profit cause? [go up]
May I sell copies of materials from your website if I charge just enough to recover the costs of printing, etc.?
No. The amount you charge is irrelevant: if you charge one penny or one thousand dollars, you're still selling. It doesn't matter if you're hoping to make a profit or not. What you do with the money you receive is irrelevant. These teachings are to be given away, not sold.

See also: What's wrong with selling Dhamma books?

May I require people to pay for reproduction costs or postage? [go up]
No. Requiring someone to pay for the cost of reproducing these texts (photocopying costs, cost of a floppy disk, etc.) or for shipping costs (packaging, postage, etc.) is equivalent to selling. After all, if you were sending a birthday gift to a beloved family member, would you also give him or her a bill for the wrapping paper, ribbon, and postage? Of course not. A gift is a gift.

May I ask people to make a "suggested donation" in exchange for copies of these texts? [go up]
Be very careful here. As long as you make it crystal clear that anyone may receive a copy free for the asking -- regardless of whether he or she makes a donation -- then that's fine. You should put no pressure -- subtle or otherwise -- on anyone to pay. These teachings are to be given away, not sold.

See also: What's the relationship between "dana" and "fundraising"?

May I include a short excerpt of a text from your website in a publication that I plan to sell? [go up]
You must first obtain permission from the author of that text. Please contact the author directly, or contact me for more info.

How should I cite references to Access to Insight? [go up]
If you're writing a paper for a school or university, you should check with your instructor to see what citation standards you are expected to follow. Otherwise, you might consider this common format:
URL: title, author or translator, document's revision date
You'll find the URL and revision date at the bottom of each page on the website. Some examples: "Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha," Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 7 May 1999. "Vatthupama Sutta (MN 7)," Nyanaponika Thera, tr., 7 May 1999.

How should I cite references to the Handful of Leaves CD-ROM? [go up]
If you're writing a paper for a school or university, you should check with your instructor to see what citation standards you are expected to follow. Otherwise, you might consider this common format:
Disc title: Version, Date. "Article title," author or translator. Publisher.
Some examples:
A Handful of Leaves: version 2.0, 1999. "Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha," Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight.

A Handful of Leaves: version 2.0, 1999. "Vatthupama Sutta (MN 7)," Nyanaponika Thera, tr. Buddhist Publication Society/Access to Insight.

Questions about Buddhism [go to top]

I receive a lot of e-mail with basic questions about Buddhism. In the interest of reducing e-mail traffic (yours and mine), I offer here answers to some of the more common ones. These are my own opinions and interpretations, so please read them at your own risk. I hope they're helpful.

-- jtb
Are Buddhists vegetarian? [go up]

Some are, some aren't; it's a personal choice. From what I've read in the suttas, the Buddha never prohibited his lay followers from eating meat. The first of the five precepts concerns the intentional act of depriving a living being of life, and has nothing to do with consuming the flesh of an animal that is already dead. From the Theravada Buddhist perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is thus purely a matter of personal preference.

Theravada monks are not expected to practice vegetarianism, since their food is provided by the generosity of lay supporters,[1] who may or may not themselves be vegetarian. Since monks are not required to eat everything that is placed in their alms-bowl, a monk who is determined to avoid eating meat can simply ignore the meat in his bowl (although in some parts of Asia he would soon find himself faced with a choice: remain vegetarian or starve). There are, however, certain kinds of meat that monks are never allowed to eat.[2] Monastics within some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do practice vegetarianism.[3]

Taking part in killing for food (hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.) is definitely incompatible with the first precept.

The next question that naturally arises is, "If I eat (or purchase) meat, doesn't that just encourage someone else to do the killing for me? How does this fit with the Buddhist principle of non-harming (a cornerstone of Right Resolve)?" This is where things get a little more subtle. I believe it would be wrong to tell someone, "Would you please kill that chicken for me?" because it incites that person to break the first precept.[4] Surely this is unskillful kamma (keep this in mind the next time you're considering ordering fresh shellfish at a restaurant). A piece of meat for sale in the butcher's shop is, however, another matter. By purchasing it I am indeed helping to keep the butcher -- and, indirectly, the butchering industry -- in business, but I am not asking the butcher to kill again on my behalf. Whether he kills another cow tomorrow is his choice, not mine. This is a difficult but important point. Without this understanding, the whole question of vegetarianism quickly turns into a political issue. Politics are fine, but it's important that we not mistake politics for our personal spiritual training. The Buddha offers us tools for liberating the heart, not prescriptions for political action.

It is impossible to live in this world without bringing harm of one sort or another to other creatures. No matter how carefully we trod, countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet with every step. Where, then, do we draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" harm? The Buddha's answer was very clear and very practical: the five precepts. This is where we begin. He didn't ask us to become vegetarians; he simply asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, that is challenge enough.


1. See "The Economy of Gifts" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. [Go back]

2. Theravada monks are forbidden to eat the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, and panthers. A monk is also forbidden to eat raw fish or meat, or any fish or meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him (see the description of "staple foods" in The Buddhist Monastic Code). A monk who eats any of those kinds of meat commits an offense that he must then confess to his fellow monks. These rules do not imply that a monk must not eat meat -- only that a monk must be careful as to which kinds of meat he does eat. [Go back]

3. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), pp. 213-14. [Go back]

4. This is in line with the monks' rule about not eating meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him. See The Buddhist Monastic Code [Go back]

If humans are reborn when they die, how does Buddhism explain the world's increasing population? [go up]
According to Buddhist cosmology when beings pass away they are reborn into one of thirty-one distinct "planes" or "realms" of existence, of which the human realm is just one. If creatures from other planes are being reborn into the human realm at a rate faster than humans are dying, then we would expect to see a net increase in the human population. The population in our little human corner of the universe may indeed be increasing at the moment, but that's just a tiny drop in the vast ocean of samsara.

Are there any enlightened people in the world nowadays? [go up]
How can I tell who's really enlightened?
Since I'm not enlightened, I'm not sure how valuable any of the following remarks are, but I offer them here nonetheless.

First of all, I wouldn't be a Buddhist if I didn't think enlightenment were possible. In the suttas, the Buddha speaks again and again of the many rewards awaiting those who follow the Path, long before they reach nibbana: the happiness that comes from developing generosity; the happiness that comes from living according to principles of virtue; the happiness that comes from developing loving-kindess (metta); the happiness that comes from practicing meditation and discovering the exquisite bliss of a quiet mind; the happiness that comes from abandoning painful states of mind; and so on. These can be tasted for yourself, to varying degrees, with practice. Once you've personally verified a few of the Buddha's teachings, it becomes easier to accept the possibility that the rest of his teachings are plausible -- including his extraordinary claim that enlightenment is real.

I honestly don't know how to recognize an enlightened person. After all, how can I see past my own delusion and defilements with enough clarity to judge the purity of another person's heart, that most secret corner of the psyche? I don't believe an enlightened person looks, walks, or talks a certain way. The Hollywood stereotype -- a radiant complexion, an ever-present Buddha-smile, wise words (perhaps cloaked in cryptic koan-like phrases and mystical jargon, sprinkled with the occasional impish giggle), unusual clothing (probably imported from India), a charismatic character -- I sincerely doubt that any of this has anything whatsoever to do with enlightenment. So it's probably best not to spend much time speculating on someone else's degree of enlightenment. Your time would be far better spent looking into your own heart, asking yourself, "Am I enlightened? Have I made an end of suffering and stress?" If the answer is negative, then you have more work to do.

When deciding whether to accept someone as your meditation teacher, instead of speculating on his or her degree of enlightenment, it's much more fruitful to ask yourself, "Does this person seem to be truly happy? Does he or she live in line with the precepts? Does he or she communicate the Dhamma in ways that I can understand? Is his or her interpretation of Dhamma a valid one?" It may take a long time of close association with someone before you can begin to answer these questions with any confidence. But once you do find someone possessing this rare constellation of qualities, stay with him or her: he or she probably has something of genuine value to teach you.

Finally, one rule of thumb that I've found helpful: someone who goes around claiming to be enlightened probably isn't -- at least not in the sense the Buddha had in mind.

See also: "Recognizing the Dhamma" (Study Guide)

What are some good beginner's books on Buddhism? [go up]
Here are some good ones:

Where can I find a copy of the complete Pali Canon (Tipitaka)? [go up]
There are several versions of the complete Tipitaka available online and on CD-ROM (see the "Other Theravada Sources" page). These versions are, however, only in Pali -- they do not include English translations.

For the past 100 years, the Pali Text Society in England has been the leading publisher of the Tipitaka in both Pali and English. Unfortunately, many of their translations are now badly out of date and not particularly useful. Excellent modern translations of the Digha, Majjhima, and Samyutta Nikayas are, however, available from Wisdom Publications. Look for their titles The Long Discourses of the Buddha (formerly titled Thus Have I Heard), by Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987); The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995); and The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000).

I'd like to incorporate some Buddhist teachings into my wedding ceremony. Any suggestions? [go up]
In Theravada Buddhist countries marriage is regarded as a civil contract, not as a spiritual or religious union. Thus there is no standard Buddhist liturgy for marriage. You can simply include whatever texts or passages you and your spouse-to-be find inspiring.

Marriage is an excellent time to renew one's commitment to the Triple Gem and to living in accordance with the five precepts. In Buddhist countries a newlywed couple typically pays a visit to the local monastery shortly after the wedding to make offerings to the monastic community, chant the refuges and precepts in a formal way, receive a little Dhamma instruction, and possibly receive a blessing or two from the monks. If such a visit isn't possible for you, you might put together your own refuges and precepts ceremony (use the formal ceremony as a guide). You might also consider reciting the "Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection," the Maha-Mangala Sutta, or any other passages that inspire you.

For other ideas, browse through the Subject Index under "Lay Buddhist Practice" or A Chanting Guide: Pali Passages with English Translations.

I hear the word "sangha" used a lot these days in Buddhist circles. What does it really mean? [go up]
Here in the West we often hear people referring to their meditation group or spiritual community as their "sangha". As I understand it, this usage of the word sangha is a modern invention that finds no basis in classical Theravada Buddhist teachings. [1] (In fact, many Buddhists from Asian countries find this new Western usage quite laughable.) There's nothing wrong, of course, with finding new uses for old words, but this particular usage often leads to profound confusion concerning one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the Buddha's teachings, the going for refuge in the Triple Gem.

The act of going for refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha[2] marks a major turning point in our spiritual development, the real start of our journey down the Buddhist path.[3] It helps foster a healthy attitude towards Buddhist practice by encouraging the development of right view, and serves as a constant reminder both of the goal of practice and of the means to achieve that goal. It is therefore crucial that we be clear and precise about the meaning of the refuges, lest we end up heading down a road quite different from the one the Buddha had in mind.

In taking refuge in the Sangha, we are asked to set our inner sights on the ideal community of Noble Ones (ariya-sangha) -- those monks, nuns, laywomen, and laymen who, throughout history, have by their own diligent efforts successfully carried out the Buddha's instructions and gained at least a glimpse of the supreme happiness of nibbana. If this is the direction in which we also wish to go, then it is to these individuals that we should turn for refuge:

The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples who have practiced well...who have practiced straight-forwardly...who have practiced methodically...who have practiced masterfully -- in other words, the four types [of noble disciples] when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types -- they are the Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.[AN XII.12]

But going for refuge doesn't stop there. We are also asked to turn to the monastic community (bhikkhu-sangha) for refuge, for it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of this 2,600-year-old institution that we are fortunate enough today to be able to hear the teachings. Moreover, the living example of the monastic community serves to remind us of the immense value of generosity, of living a morally upright life, of renunciation -- in short, it reminds us that it is indeed possible to live a life fully in tune with every aspect of the Buddha's teachings. In reality, of course, not every monk or nun necessarily lives up to the Buddha's high standards of conduct. For this reason it is to the institution of the Sangha that we turn to refuge, not to the individual members themselves. This is the Sangha to which lay people have turned since the time of the Buddha:

I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life. [DN 2, MN 72, SN LI.15, AN IV.184, etc.]

So it is these exceptional groups of people -- the ariya-sangha and the bhikkhu-sangha -- that define the Third Gem and Refuge; it is to these groups that we are asked to turn for refuge, not to some vaguely-defined community of like-minded Dhamma friends and fellow meditators. In which group would you rather put your trust?

Some writers have proposed alternatives to sangha to describe gatherings and communities of Dhamma companions. Two such proposals are parisa[4] (the "fourfold assembly" of monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunis), male lay followers (upasakas), and female lay followers (upasikas), regardless of spiritual attainment) and gana (chapter; quorum; gang). Perhaps these are better alternatives to sangha, but I'm left wondering why we must invoke the Pali language at all. Does a meditation group really need a special name? Why not just call it a "meditation group" and leave it at that?

"Sangha" is an important term with a precise meaning. It stands for something truly extraordinary and brilliant that can constantly remind us of the highest and most excellent possibilities the Path has to offer. Let's use it well.


1. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), p. 307. [Go back]

2. Here I follow the convention of capitalizing "Sangha" when referring to the third object of refuge. [Go back to text]

3. See Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). [Go back]

4. See Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). [Go back]

What's the relationship between "dana" and "fundraising"? [go up]
They are entirely unrelated -- or at least they should be. Alas, in recent years the notion of dana seems to have been co-opted by many Buddhist organizations in the West as just another fundraising gimmick, designed to appeal to our better nature. How many times have we read fundraising letters from Buddhist organizations that open with the familiar preamble: "Dana, or generosity, is the ancient tradition that has kept the Buddha's teachings alive for over 2,500 years..."? How many times have we seen long "wish lists" in these letters detailing exactly what material goods are needed? And how many times have we heard meditation centers ask for "suggested donations" to pay for their teachings? To my mind, these valiant efforts at drumming up material support for Buddhist causes only dampen the true spirit of dana, that weightless, heartfelt, and spontaneous upwelling of generous action that lies at the very root of the Buddha's teachings.

Giving of any kind is unquestionably good. The Buddha encourages us to give generously whenever anyone asks for help [Dhp 224]. And even the smallest of gifts, when offered with a generous heart, has tremendous value: "Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit" [AN III.58]. But the actual rewards of giving depend strongly on the climate in which the giving occurs. The giver and the recipient -- the donor and the organization -- share an equal responsibility in fostering a climate that makes the most of generosity. If both are serious about putting the Buddha's teachings into practice, they would do well to consider the following points:

First, the benefits of giving multiply in accordance with the purity of the giver's motives. A gift we give half-heartedly yields modest rewards for all concerned, while a gift given with genuine open-handedness, "not seeking [our] own profit, not with a mind attached [to the reward]," is of far greater value [AN VII.49]. If we give with an expectation of receiving something from the recipient in return -- membership benefits, a certificate of appreciation, a book, a meditation course, etc. -- we shortchange ourselves, and dilute the power of our generosity. Buddhist organizations should therefore be cautious about rewarding gifts with these sorts of perquisites.

Second, the Buddha does not encourage us to ask for gifts. In fact, he says quite the opposite: he encourages us to make do with what little we already have [AN IV.28]. This theme of contentment-with-little echoes throughout the Buddha's teachings. To my mind, a fundraiser's long "wish list" of needed items conveys a sense of dissatisfaction, and thus seems at odds with this message. Donors most enjoy giving when they know that their gift -- no matter how humble it may be -- is truly appreciated by the recipient. If I have only a small gift to give, I wonder if it will even be noticed -- let alone appreciated -- by an organization that has ambitious fundraising goals or a long and expensive list of needs. An organization can promote the Buddha's teachings most effectively, and inspire the greatest confidence among its supporters, by keeping its needs and its requests modest.

Third, the purity of the recipient also matters [SN III.24]. When we give to virtuous people -- those who, at the very least, abide by the five precepts -- we not only acknowledge their intention to develop virtue (sila), but we also reinforce our own resolve. Giving to virtuous people is thus a powerful kammic force whose benefits extend far beyond the moment of giving itself. Generosity and virtue are deeply intertwined; when we learn to exercise our generous impulses skillfully, and give where the gift reaps the greatest fruit, we make the most of them both. Whether we are giver or recipient, we stand to benefit most from generosity when we take virtue seriously.

Finally, an appeal to fledgling Buddhist groups and organizations: please be very, very patient, and resist the temptation to make your organization grow. The success of a Buddhist organization should never be measured in conventional commercial terms: number of members, number of downloads, number of courses taught, amount of money raised, etc. Its success can only be measured by how well it embodies the Buddha's teachings. If it does good work that is rooted firmly in the principles of virtue, people who recognize virtue when they see it will inevitably take notice and be inspired to lend a hand with unbounded generosity. Any organization that can do this much passes on to others, in the most direct way possible, the priceless tradition of generosity, which is the heart and soul of Dhamma -- the greatest gift of all [Dhp 354].

See also:

What's wrong with selling Dhamma books? [go up]
What's the big deal about giving them away free of charge?
Since the Buddha's time, the teachings have traditionally been given away free of charge, passing freely from teacher to student, from friend to friend. The teachings are regarded as priceless, and have been conveyed to us across the centuries by an unbroken stream of generosity -- the very foundation of all the Buddha's teachings. That tradition continues with the production of free Dhamma books. From the author, the stream flows onwards through those who give their time to editing, typesetting, and printing the book; through the donors who sponsor the printing; and through those who take care of distribution and mailing. If you are fortunate enough to receive a book borne on this stream of generosity, you learn an important lesson of Dhamma long before you even open the cover.

There's nothing inherently wrong with selling Dhamma books. Indeed, commercially distributed Dhamma books are often easier to find in bookstores than their free, privately-printed cousins. But that accessibility comes at a steep price. The instant someone puts a price tag on a Dhamma book, you not only have to pay money for it, but you get less in return: you get a book that is merely about Dhamma, instead of one that is itself an example of Dhamma in action. Which one do you think has greater value?

(Please note: These comments apply equally well to the sale of other Dhamma "goods": meditation classes, Dhamma talks, workshops, retreats, audio tapes, CD-ROMs, etc.)

See also: What's the relationship between 'dana' and 'fundraising'?

Is Vipassana the same as Theravada? [go up]

The Pali word vipassana -- often translated as "insight" -- has a variety of meanings. First, it refers to the flash of liberating intuitive understanding that marks the culmination of Buddhist meditation practice.[1] In the Pali discourses vipassana also refers to the mind's ability to witness clearly as events unfold in the present moment. In this sense it is a skill that a meditator develops using a broad arsenal of meditative tools and techniques. With practice, this skill can bring the meditator to the threshold of liberating insight.[2] In its third meaning, one that has become especially popular in the West in recent years, "Vipassana" (with a capital "V") refers to a system of meditation -- vipassana bhavana, or "Insight Meditation" -- that is based on an interpretation of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), the Buddha's concise "how-to" guide to the development of mindfulness (sati).[3]

Followers of the popular Vipassana movement generally regard the Satipatthana Sutta as the essence of the Buddha's teachings; some even maintain that the instructions it contains are the only ones necessary for achieving liberating insight. Theravada Buddhism, by contrast, encompasses the entire Pali Canon, which includes thousands of discourses, each of which highlights a different aspect of the Buddha's teachings. In Theravada each discourse supports, depends upon, reflects, and informs all the others; even a discourse as important as the Satipatthana Sutta is seen as but a single thread in the Buddha's complex tapestry of teachings.

Although many students do find all they want in Vipassana, some feel a nagging unease that something fundamental is missing. This common reaction is hardly surprising, since the Satipatthana discourse was delivered to a group of relatively advanced students who were already well-established in the path of Dhamma practice. Happily, all those missing pieces can be found in the Pali Canon. In the Canon we find the Buddha's teachings on generosity and virtue, the twin pillars upon which all spiritual practice is built. His teachings on the recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha serve to strengthen the development of saddha (faith, confidence), which provides a potent fuel to sustain Dhamma practice long after we return home from that meditation retreat. In the Canon we also find his teachings on the drawbacks of sensuality and the value of renunciation; on developing all the factors in the Eightfold Path, including those that are seldom explored during organized Vipassana retreats: right speech, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration (meaning jhana). And there is much, much more.

In Theravada, the path to liberating insight does not boil down to a single meditation technique, to being continuously mindful. The path to Awakening is full of unexpected twists, turns, forks in the road, and other surprises. Fortunately for us, the Buddha left behind a varied assortment of useful tools and skills to help us safely make the journey.

See also: "What is Theravada Buddhism?"


1. Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines by Nyanatiloka (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988). [Go back]

2. See "One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice" (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) [Go back]

3. The modern Vipassana movement grew out of the tradition of Satipatthana Vipassana, a meditation system based on the Satipatthana Sutta and developed by Burmese monks in the early 20th century. By the 1950's the Burmese teachers Sayagyi U Ba Khin (a layman; 1899-1971) and Mahasi Sayadaw (a monk; 1904-1982) had independently codified and institutionalized these teachings, making them widely accessible across South Asia and, eventually, the West. The Satipatthana Vipassana approach to meditation continues to enjoy widespread popularity among laypeople in the West. See Satipatthana Vipassana: Insight Through Mindfulness by Mahasi Sayadaw (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1990) and The Essentials of Buddha Dhamma in Meditative Practice by U Ba Khin (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981). [Go back]

Other topics [go to top]

Do you have any tips for website developers? [go up]
Like every other webmaster, I have opinions about what makes for a useful website. For the most part, the web seems to be bloated with all kinds of superficial fluff, as websites clamor to make themselves stand out from the others in a kind of global multimedia shouting match. To keep the noise level down on this website I've found it helpful to follow a few basic principles, which I summarize below. Perhaps you'll find some of them helpful, too.

For more opinions:

For details about how I maintain the website on the unix web server, you might find some of my csh-scripts and makefiles helpful.

Revised: Mon 26 February 2001