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Question
Hi Laurie,
I'm a high school student and for a class I need to gain more information about Buddhism. I wanted to interview someone who actually practices the faith in question. These questions would be a big help if they could be answered.
Questions:

How have you used meditations and koans to help you in you day to day life?

How do you feel Buddhism has affected the world today?

Is there an aspect of Buddhism that you do not subscribe to? How do you justify the separation from the mainstream beliefs?

How and when were you introduced to Buddhism? What about it drew you to this belief system?

Why were you drawn to this particular sect? What is an important distinction from other sects.
Thanks,
Bryan

Answer
Hello Bryan,

Thank you so much for letting me answer your questions

I have been out of town so that is why I have not been able to send you the answers until now.

Question 1 - First off, as you probably know, there are a lot of different kinds of Buddhists. One kind is Japanese Buddhism. Japanese Buddhists or Zen Buddhists use koans for meditation. Myself, I practice Tibetan Buddhism so I really don’t use koans in my day to day life.

Our particular Tibetan Buddhist tradition uses 2 different kinds of meditations; stabilizing meditation and analytical meditation.   And they both help me immensely in my day to day life.

I use stabilizing or mindfulness meditation to keep my mind focused in the present moment so I don’t spend my time living in or regretting the past or worrying about the future. And to teach it to focus single pointedly on one object

The analytical meditation builds on the stabilizing meditation.  Once I start training my mind to focus single pointedly on one object, then I can use an object like patience or compassion and teach my mind to focus on that emotion single pointedly.  And I can analyze other topics single pointedly as well.  So I can use it to meditate on topics like compassion or the more difficult topics of emptiness and karma and so forth which help me become a better person.

As for your second question – for me that is a difficult one.  I don’t have a really good answer except I do know that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has helped improve the world by his teachings and the way he expresses compassion toward the Chinese.  As for Buddhism in general the only way I can answer this question is by using the slogan that Sravasti Abbey in Spokane uses as its motto.  Their motto is “Creating Peace in a Chaotic World” and I think that is what Buddhism tries to do on an individual level.  Each person who practices it is trying to create peace within themselves so that they can help the world become more peaceful over all.  That is the best answer I can give.

As to your third question, no there is no aspect of the Buddhist teachings that I do not ascribe to.  However, sometimes I find I do not want to participate in some of the ritualistic aspects, mainly because they are strange to me as I was not brought up on them and where I live many of them are performed in Tibetan which I have trouble understanding.  But as far as the teachings of Buddhism itself, no, I like and feel very comfortable with all the aspects of the Dharma.

I am sorry, I am not always the sharpest tool in the shed -  but I am not sure what you mean by the next part of your question.  Do you mean how do I justify being Buddhist because it’s different from the mainstream? Or do you mean how to I justify the separation of what I do not ascribe to in Buddhism?  I will be very happy to answer it as soon as you can help me understand what information you are looking for with this question.

I was introduced to Buddhism in 2001 in Kansas when I met someone while I was doing research for a project I was doing.  We started talking about reincarnation and then got onto different religions and then talking about Buddhism.  He sent me a book on the type of Buddhism he was practicing and as soon as I read it I knew that I wanted to become Buddhist.

What drew me to Buddhism was that I had been looking for a road map on how to become like Jesus.  I grew up Catholic and really wanted to be like Jesus but for what ever reason, I could not find out how to get rid of my own negative habits and how to improve my positive qualities through the teachings on I had met as a Catholic.  Now, that does not mean that the Catholics do not teach this – it is that I was not fortunate enough to find those teaching in my time as a Catholic.  

So I tried lots of other religions looking for the road map.  But as soon as I read the book my friend sent me on Buddhism finally I realized that Buddhism has the road map I was looking for and it is called the Bodhisattva way which deals with learning how to become a Bodhisattva by learning to train your mind to let go of your negative mental patterns and improve your positive mental patterns and develop uncontrived compassion for all sentient beings.

As for your last question –

My particular sect is the Mahayana (or Sanskrit Cannon) Tibetan, Gelugpa Prasangika Madyamika sect.

I was drawn to the Mahayana because it is about helping all sentient beings attain enlightenment; making sure that no one is left behind in any realm where there is suffering.

I was not specifically drawn to the Tibetan, I just sort of ended up in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage.

I am drawn to the Gelug lineage because of the emphasis on studying and learning the teachings of the Buddha as completely as possible and the emphasis on the way to learn the Buddhist teachings by following a specific road map called the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment which sets out a specific step by step instruction on how to reach enlightenment.  I like some of the other Tibetan lineages as well but not of them seem to me to  put the emphasis on the study the Buddhist teachings as thoroughly and concisely as the Gelug lineage (That is how it seems to me any way)

And I am Prasangika Madhyamika which describes how we believe the world really works especially in relation to the study of the concept of emptiness.  We assert that all phenomena exist in 2 ways, both conventionally which means we can see and interact with them and ultimately which means they are empty of inherent existence.  We practice the Middle Way between things existing inherently and things not existing at all.

The important distinctions are:

Mahayana (Sanskrit Cannon) versus the Hinayana (Pali Cannon) – Folks that follow the Pali cannon are seeking individual liberation from suffering and those following the Sanskrit cannon are seeking liberation for themselves so they in turn can help liberate all other sentient beings from suffering

Tibetan versus Japanese Zen for example is that Tibetan Buddhism is very ornate with lots of painting and statues and prayer flags and prayer wheels and lots of symbols whereas the Japanese Zen is very austere with very few statues and no paintings or prayer flags or prayer wheels.

Gelugpas versus the Nyingmas for example.  The Nyingmas have different practices that the Gelugpas don’t have such as Chod.  They have different main Buddhas than the Gelugpas (and this is true for all the sects – each of them have different main Buddhas that they use as the focus of their practice)  Nyingmas mainly deal with Guru Rinpoche whereas Gelugpa’s mainly deal with Vajrapani, Avalokitashvara and Manjushri and the Nyingma’s rituals seem to be more creative, often including ritual dancing and more music than the Gelugpas (at least that is how it seems to me.)

As far as the various tenet systems such as the Prasangika Madhyamika’s versus for example the Chittamatra’s I will leave that for you to research because it is quite technical and I do not want to say the wrong thing.  Suffice it to say the different systems do have to do with different ways to interpret the concept of emptiness.

Again, I am sorry this took so long to get to you.

I hope it helps in some way

If you do have any questions regarding any of this please don’t hesitate to let me know and I will get the answer to you much more quickly now that I am home.

Much success in your life and studies - Laurie

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Laurie McLaughlin

Expertise

I can answer questions about basic Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and meditation especially how the Buddha's teachings can help us in day to day living.

Experience

I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism and meditation since 2001. I have lead meditation classes and retreats for over 5 years. I have lived at a Buddhist retreat center for over 4 years and am currently ordained as a novice Buddhist nun. My nun name is Gyalten Yanghchen.

Education/Credentials
I hold a BA degree in technical theatre from the University of South Florida.

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