Common Misconceptions About Buddhism

Adapted from an article by the National University of Singapore Buddhist Society

1. Misconception: Chanting is meaningless and useless

Buddhist chanting or recitation has definite meanings with specific uses. There are many types of recitations. The loving-kindness recitation helps practitioners to radiate loving-kindness to other beings. Chanting is also an aid to meditation. By focusing on the act of recitation, chanting helps to stop the mind from wandering and instead cultivates concentration. The recitation of sutta is also a skilful means to expose Buddhists to the actual teachings of the Buddha, leading them onward to more in-depth study and understanding of the wisdom towards liberation.

2. Misconception: Buddha is a god

Buddhism does not subscribe to the theistic concept of God that is common to the monotheistic faiths. We believe that everyone has the potential to develop into a Buddha – a perfected being free from greed, hatred and delusion.

3. Misconception: Nibbana/nirvana cannot be understood

Nibbana is not meaningless. In conventional terms, nibbana is freedom from the underlying cause of all suffering – the wrong view that we exist independently as an intrinsic and non-changing self. The word ‘nibbana’ literally means ‘blowing out’, like extinguishing a flame. It’s the extinguishing of all greed, hatred and delusion, leading to extraordinary clarity and peace.

4. Misconception: Blame everything on kamma/karma

Kamma does not entail fatalism. The word ‘kamma’ literally means ‘action’. It refers to our volitions manifested as actions of body, speech or mind. What we experience presently, both good and bad, are determined by our thoughts and actions in the past (even if it was just a few moments ago); and similarly, what we will experience in the future is influenced by our thoughts and actions in the present. Kamma does not mean that we are dealt a fixed destiny that we have to passively accept. Our kamma continuously changes depending on how we think and act in the present moment. By constructively changing our thoughts and behaviours, we can create the necessary conditions to transform our lives for the better. It is especially important to remain positive and virtuous in our thoughts and behaviours in adverse situations.

5. Misconception: Women are inferior and to be born as one is seen as a punishment

Buddhism does not regard women as inferior to men. In fact, the Buddha himself was explicit about treating men and women equally; he initiated women into the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) despite fierce objections. Sexist sentiments from individuals are generally derived from the attitudes of their cultures and not from the Buddha’s teachings.

6. Misconception: Reincarnation and rebirth are the same

Reincarnation and rebirth are philosophically distinct concepts. Reincarnation is the belief that each individual has a soul, and that this soul will travel to another body after death. ‘Rebirth’, however, explains that there is no such thing as a permanent, non-changing soul. Each individual is a continuous aggregation of changing conditions that constitute the mind and body, much like how an old candle’s flame is passed to a new candle just before the flame of the used candle goes out.

So is it the same flame or a different flame that has been transmitted to the new candle? In a way, we can conventionally say it is the same flame because of the continuity. But now the flame is burning with a new candle as its base, burning up new wax, wick and oxygen, showing that there is no absolute identity of one flame with the other.

Rebirth is a natural consequence of actions and conditions that our bodies and minds go through. In a human body, old cells die off and new cells are reproduced repeatedly. The human mind is a non-physical phenomenon that perceives, thinks, recognises and reacts. Upon death, this conditioned consciousness establishes itself according to kamma in one of the six realms of existence, namely the realm of gods, demigods, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. Our actions in this life determine our rebirth upon death. The endless cycle of rebirth is a result of our delusion to the true nature of things and will cease when this ignorance is removed. The cessation of ignorance is enlightenment.

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