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Question
Hi, my name is Merlin S. I am doing an interview with an expert on the subject as an assignment for my Eastern and Western Thought class to get a some more insight on Buddhism.
1.How different is Buddhism from western religions? Of course there are obvious questions, but I want to know how differently it affects someone from a very personal level.
2.What is the level of devotion to Buddhism? Is it mainly just meditating, which would depend on the person how they meditate?
3.I heard that Karma was not the same as the Western interpretation. However, when I read it, it seemed to be the same thing that I thought it was. What exactly is Karma then?
4.Does one break the reincarnation cycle by achieving Nirvana? Nirvana is achieved when someone practices meditation, love, and self-improvement, correct? What happens when the reincarnation cycle is broken?
5.Is reincarnation random or is it like the Hinduism way of reincarnation? Where someone has bad Karma so they are born as a cockroach?
Thank you so much for your time!
Merlin

Answer
Hi Merlin
1. It's true that most Buddhists do believe in one kind of "spiritual" or "supernatural" beings or another, but they are viewed as beings who are just at a different place on the cycle of existence from us, just as we are in a different place from animals, neither we nor animals are in Paradise, and so on. However the fact that we do not think in terms of a "Big Daddy" god who is responsible for thingsmeans that there is more emphasis on our own responsibility for acting with wisdom and compassion.
2. As your question implies, it varies. The short answer is that, practically speaking, devotion is very important. Certainly it is crucial to the "Tantric" versions of Buddhism, such as the one that I follow. (Note that the word has almost nothing to do with the idea of tantrism that has been developed by some Western hijackers).
3. I could turn the question round, and ask you what the "Western interpretation" of, is. I can only guess at what is going on here, but I do know that there is an interpretation of karma that suggests that absolutely everything that happens to us, good and bad, is as a result of Karma. This noxious idea has toxic implications that are probably fairly obvious, but fortunately we can reject it both on scriptural grounds and because it is seriously illogical. Perhaps that is what your informant referred to as "Western interpretation" of karma.
4. Nirvana literally means "blowing out", and its meaning is actually very simple: the mental poisons have stopped. As a result, the enlightened person no longer creates the causes for being forced to be reborn in any particular circumstances. The teaching is that some of those people rest in that ultra-quiet state for immeasurably long times, but that sooner or later compassion will cause them to  spontaneously manifest to help the unenlightened. It is also taught that this question is the basis of speculation which, while it is certainly interesting, is probably pointless because we cannot test any answers we think we have.
5. The idea is that reason we are reborn is because of our mental poisons (grasping, aversion, stupidity). These pull us back to circumstances that resonate with what is in our mind. If we have been angry and violent we will be drawn to violent circumstances where we are likely to suffer. If and mental habits are those of kindness, tolerance and love then we will, even if we are not enlightened, be spontaneously drawn to warm and beautiful circumstances. Whether we make use of that or not is another matter!
I'm not sure whether this is what you mean by the "Hindu" idea, but there are believers in rebirth to see it as a spiral going ever upwards, starting perhaps as a bug and making our way through "higher" and "higher" forms of life until we reach a godlike state. Buddhism tends, rather, to see the process is more like wheel that carries us now up, now down, round and round through good and bad. until we get off, that is!
I hope that helps a bit!

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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.

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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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