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QUESTION: "Good day Mr. Wilding,

My name is Melissa, and I am a student at a United States high school, near Boston. As part of my Eastern Philosophy class, I have been asked to briefly interview individuals who study or practice an Eastern religion, to enhance my understanding of the belief set’s philosophical composure and actual application. If it is possible, I would very much appreciate any answers which you can provide to the following questions.

1.      Are there teachings of Buddhism which you consider to be more highly prioritized than others?
2.      How do you personally integrate Buddhist tradition in your life?
3.      Which Buddhist concepts are most difficult for a person to practice?
4.      Are there any teachings of Buddhism which contradict each other? In those cases, how does one determine which to follow?
5.      Are there any components of Buddhist philosophy which you personally object to?

Thank you for your time,
Melissa F."

ANSWER: Dear Melissa,
Well I must say that it's nice to hear that a high school in the United States actually *has* an Eastern Philosophy class! I can only give you a very short answers, but I hope they will help a bit.

1.      Are there teachings of Buddhism which you consider to be more highly prioritized than others?
Yes, or at least they often are, even if there are sometimes various. The biggest one of all, without doubt, has to be compassion. Feeling the suffering of other scented beings, whatever their race, gender, or for that matter whatever their species.

2.      How do you personally integrate Buddhist tradition in your life?
In truly daily life, I do meditation practice (known as a "sadhana") in the morning after I've done things like emptying the cat-litter tray, letting the dogs out to relieve themselves and so on, but before getting on with breakfast, going to work and so on. That takes between half an hour and an hour. In the evening, after work, something similar, but actually much shorter. Occasionally I attend Buddhist centers, particularly if they are associated with the tradition that I follow. I don't know if you realize yet, but there are a lot of Buddhist traditions, and they don't all have an awful lot to do with each other. Then again, there is always the attempt to be kind, gentle, considerate and truthful throughout the day. Of course, like any human being, there are failures. But we try...

3.      Which Buddhist concepts are most difficult for a person to practice?
Emptiness. And, as part of that, the absence of a true, personal self. (This does not mean that when you die, you just rot; the idea is that now, as I write (and as you will read) there is a thing that we grasp at and think of as being "ourselves", but it does not actually exist.

4.      Are there any teachings of Buddhism which contradict each other? In those cases, how does one determine which to follow?
Buddhist teachings have spread through some very different cultures for a very long time, so of course it has acquired different flavors on the way. But I think it's fair to say that it's more a question of different aspects being emphasized more here and less there. out-and-out contradiction is not all that common. (Although I dare say it wouldn't be hard to find a Buddhist who would like to contradict that statement flatly!)

5.      Are there any components of Buddhist philosophy which you personally object to?
Not exactly. Some things could be better, but this is true of any human institution. The movement to give nuns true parity with monks is going forward, but very, very, very slowly. There are certainly misinterpretations of Buddhist teachings with which I strongly disagree. There are some people, for example, who believe that really everything that happens to us is a result of our past "karma". I will not go into that argument at length here, but it is not hard to show that logically it is complete nonsense. I also believe it's very harmful, because it leads people to dismiss the suffering of other people on the grounds that they "deserved it" as a result of something they did in the past. This is a terrible point  of view, but as I say it is logical nonsense.

I hope that helps a bit!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your reply. I have a few more questions of clarification, with regard to your answers.

3) You state that "a true, personal self" does not actually exist. If so, what is the thing which guides our decisions, practices, and habits that we typically consider to be traits that distinguish us? Additionally, are there practices or customs associated with this particular concept, or is it simply a component of the philosophy believed by its adherents?

4) With regard to the differences in emphasis from culture to culture, are there particular teachings which your Buddhist tradition stresses significantly more or less than many of the other Buddhist sects?

5) I am quite curious with regard to your argument against the belief that everything happens as a result of past actions. I would never demand that you take the time to present a full argument of it, but could you point me toward the texts in which you base your logic? I certainly agree with your statement that the belief justifies harm, but would love to look into the issue further.

6) This is not related to any of the previous questions, but you state in your profile that you have practiced Buddhism since the 1970's. What initially drew you toward the belief system, and toward your particular sect of it?

Again, thank you for your time. Your answers have been quite helpful, and intrigue me as I continue research as part of my class.

--Melissa F

Answer
Hi Melissa,
> You state that "a true, personal self" does not actually exist. If so, what is the thing which guides our decisions, practices, and habits that we typically consider to be traits that distinguish us?

That's just the thing! Decisions happen – there doesn't need to be a thing to guide them.

> Additionally, are there practices or customs associated with this particular concept, or is it simply a component of the philosophy believed by its adherents?

Well, I suppose it starts as just an idea. Then it goes on to something practitioners have to think about very carefully to grasp properly. Then it becomes the basis for what I suppose we must call "meditation" practice. Finally it becomes a realisation.


> With regard to the differences in emphasis from culture to culture, are there particular teachings which your Buddhist tradition stresses significantly more or less than many of the other Buddhist sects?

The traditions I follow do have plenty of monks and nuns, but there is no great sense that the celibate lifestyle is actually essential – just that it is very helpful for some people, and helpful for maintaining the tradition. In some branches of Buddhism, the celibate, monastic lifestyle is viewed as quite necessary.


> I am quite curious with regard to your argument against the belief that everything happens as a result of past actions. I would never demand that you take the time to present a full argument of it, but could you point me toward the texts in which you base your logic? I certainly agree with your statement that the belief justifies harm, but would love to look into the issue further.

I did write a little bit about this myself in my (now very little used) blog at http://chagchen.org/2009/02/08/barmy-karma/. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the Sutra were the causes of something (I think illness was used as the example) listed, including, as one of about five main types of cause. I dare say a Google search would find it, but maybe not very easily. If I get time I'll have a look, but don't count on it!

> This is not related to any of the previous questions, but you state in your profile that you have practiced Buddhism since the 1970's. What initially drew you toward the belief system, and toward your particular sect of it?

I could go on at length writing a biography and talking about various things that caught my imagination or inspired me. At the end of the day, however, it was a gut feeling, supported by the fact that while certainly some parts of bodies are quite fanciful, it can be made to make a lot more sense than theistic religions. And then again, when you meet a teacher with a lot of realization, and with whom you can make a personal connection, the sense that there is something special going on is something that you just can't ignore. I will mention the Karmapa as one obvious example of such a person. But there are others.  

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Alex Wilding

Expertise

I have practiced and studied Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions since the early 1970s, and have a good knowledge of theory, history and of the struggles of trying to practice the teachings, including meditation, while leading a normal, modern life. I am also available to provide background information for journalists.

Experience

I have been a practitioner since the early 1970s; have run a small Buddhist centre in the English Midlands and was vice-president of Kagyu Benchen Ling e.V. in Germany, for whom I managed three large Buddhist summer-camps. More importantly, I maintain a habit of personal practice. I am the "owner" of the Kagyu list at Yahoo.

Education/Credentials
My first degree was an M.A. from Oxford. I later obtained a Master of Philosophy degree for a research thesis in "Initiation in Tibetan Buddhism" from Leicester University. I also have engineering and educational qualifications.

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