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Lions Roar : May 2018
I often hear people say that Buddhist meditation will make you passive and uninterested in changing the world. Is there any truth in that? From its earliest days, the Buddhist tradition has emphasized quiet time removed from the attachments and temptations of everyday life. Meditation retreats, sometimes lasting years, have long been an important part of the Buddhist path, and the very practice of meditation creates time in which one is working with one’s mind and is not actively engaged in the world. For these reasons, Buddhism has long been branded as a kind of “quietist” religion that does not concern itself with worldly affairs. That is inaccurate. Buddhists, including monastics, have been deeply involved in society histori- cally, and even more so today. Since the goal of Buddhism is to lessen suffer- ing for oneself and others, many contemporary Buddhists believe their vows require them to address the social, political, and economic causes of suffering. Meditation and retreat are what are called skillful means: they equip us to lessen suffering for ourselves and others, but they are not a goal in themselves. What’s the difference between a Buddhist church, temple, and center? These differences usually reflect the par- ticular Buddhist community’s cultural traditions, histories, and emphases. For example, when Japanese immigrants started arriving in the western United States in the nineteenth century, they established temples where they could prac- tice Shin Buddhism, a common Japanese sect. Eventually, to help them gain accep- tance in American society, they established the Buddhist Churches of America, with both physical and hierarchical structures similar to Christian churches. Buddhists of Chinese and South Asian background often use the word “temple.” These traditionally have a strong community and pastoral aspect, with members observing a calendar of celebrations and relying on the temple and priesthood for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. Finally, Western “converts” who were not born into Buddhism have established many “meditation centers.” The message is that meditation practice programs and retreats are the focal point, although that is starting to shift as convert Buddhists increasingly recognize the importance of com- munity and pastoral care. ♦ WHO? WHAT? WHERE? Tell us what you’d like to know about Buddhism and meditation at email@example.com WELLCOMECOLLECTION PALI CANON THE PALI CANON is the body of scriptures central to the Theravada school of Buddhism. It contains the largest collection of teachings (suttas) attributed to the historical Buddha, as well as sections on rules for monastics and Buddhist philosophy. The Buddha didn’t write his teachings down, nor did his disciples. It’s said that shortly after his death, five hundred of his disciples gathered for what was known as the First Council. Those particularly gifted at memorization recited what they remembered of his teachings and the others in attendance committed them to memory. As tradition has it, the Buddha’s teachings were finally written down in Sri Lanka at the end of the first century BCE, some five hundred years after his death. The original body of teachings apparently transcribed in Sri Lanka no longer exists. The extant record we know today as the Pali Canon began about 800 CE. It’s said that the Buddha wanted his teachings pre- sented in vernacular language, rather than the more formal Sanskrit of the educated classes. The language of the original texts was a hybrid of several ancient Prakrit dialects that came to be called Pali, a word that actually means “text.” Although it’s not a language the Buddha spoke, it’s closely related. The Pali Canon is often referred to as the Tripitaka—the “three baskets”—because it has three sections. The Vinaya Pitaka lists the rules for monastics; the Sutta Pitaka contains the discourses of the Buddha and his principal disciples, plus certain commentaries and works in verse; the Abhidharma Pitaka, also known as the “systematic philosophy” basket, details Buddhist doctrines, especially about the nature of mind. LION’S ROAR | MAY 2018 33 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE