Buddha was born in the seventh century BC as Siddhartha Gautama, a prince in a royal family in India. As a child and then a young man, he lived a life that afforded every luxury, but he gradually came to understand that true happiness was not to be had by continuing this path of unquestioning habits. Leaving his palace, he began a journey to discover the truth. After many years of practicing a path of austerity, he came to the understanding that the full awakening he was seeking came neither from the pursuit of pleasure nor from withdrawal from pleasure, and he discovered the practice of the Middle Way. He became the Tathagata, a fully liberated being, one who realizes the nature of things as they are.

He went on to give many teachings on the Dharma, first to his disciples and then to thousands of citizens from all walks of life. His teachings, beginning with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Way, continuing with the laws of karma, and finally showing how to achieve the realization of ultimate reality itself, were designed so that persons of all capabilities could benefit. In our age, teachers of the Dharma can trace their lineage back to the Buddha's disciples, and finally back to Buddha himself. The term Buddha means "the awakened one."

Questions & Answers With ZaChoeje Rinpoche

Q: I am fairly new to the precepts of Buddhism and I'm wondering what to read first. Any suggestions?

Rinpoche: For Buddhist people, it is good to study the Four Noble Truths. There are many interpretations on the Four Noble Truths, but I think the best one is the teaching written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The book itself is called The Four Nobel Truths. You can get that book from any major bookstore.

Q: What is your major advice for those of us struggling in this complex and unpleasant life?

Rinpoche: Life is simple, but many times we make our life complicated by living either in the past or in the future. The best way to live happily is to live in the present moment. By opening your heart and opening your mind and bringing more spirituality into your daily life. My main advice is to start your day with a prayer such as, "May I bring happiness into my life and other people's lives today." Then end your day with a dedication for the benefit of yourself and others.

Q: What are the Four Noble Truths?

Rinpoche: The Four Noble Truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of cause, the truth of cessation, and the truth of path. The truth of suffering is to know that we have suffering. It doesn't mean that life is suffering. Many Buddhist masters interpret the saying to be 'life is suffering' (in the West), but I think life is not suffering. Life has a nature of suffering, which means if we don't handle our lives well, it will become suffering. The truth of cause is to understand the causes of suffering. If we can stop the causes of suffering, then we can be free from suffering. The truth of cessation is that all suffering is cessable. The truth of path is the solution.

Q: What is the Eightfold Path?

Rinpoche: The Eightfold Path is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The right view is understanding the world and oneself in a realistic way. Right intention is cultivating positive ideas or notions within our mental state. Right speech is speaking with respectful truth and for the welfare of others. Right action is acting with the respect for life, property, and relationships. Right livelihood is living virtuously and meditatively. Right effort is cultivating positive attitudes in our study, and practice. Right mindfulness is maintaining full awareness of our inner and outer environment. Right concentration is observing an object with full attention.

Q: How can practicing Buddhism help me bring more happiness to my life?

Rinpoche: To become happy, actually, it is not necessary to become a Buddhist. But you can bring some of the concepts of Buddhism into daily life, such as having Buddha's nature in our mind. This helps us to have more courage and more hope. Practicing love and compassion for all sentient beings expands our heart and makes our heart bigger. Buddhism doesn't have a dogma. That is why you can open your mind with reason of the true nature of existence.

Q: How many different sects of Buddhism are there? I recently talked some friends in New York that practice a form of Buddhism that originated in Japan.

Rinpoche: There are many Buddhists sects. Actually, Buddhism came from India. There are many different sects in India, as well such as Theravada and Mahayana. As Buddhists went to Japan, Tibet, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and many other countries there became a different Buddhist sects such as Japanese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, etc. So within one culture, for example, in Tibet we have four different sects. They are Nyingma, Kagya, Sakya, and Gelug.

Q: What are some differences that you notice between American Buddhists and Indian Buddhists?

Rinpoche: The basic concept of Buddhism in America and in India is mainly the same, but as Buddhism came to America, it became mixed up with American culture. People here in the United States focus more on how to bring more happiness into daily life through Buddhism. In India, as we believe in the next life very strongly, people focus more on bringing happiness to the next life.

Q: What role do women play in Buddhism? Some religions worship women as bringers of life while others view them as lower-class citizens. Does Buddhism fall into either of those categories?

Rinpoche: In Buddhism women are equal to men. Especially in Tibetan Buddhism, we have some vows that, if taken, we have to respect women. That is why we don't look down at women in Buddhism.

Q: If one follows the eight-fold path, meditates at least a half-hour a day, and tries not to be attached to ideas or things, will one be happy on every moment? Why or why not? Is this what Buddha believed?

Rinpoche: By bringing the Eightfold Path into your daily life, you will bring more happiness into your daily life. If one practices meditation for half an hour daily it will refresh your spiritual energy in your daily life. That is why the Eightfold Path is the main solution to solve the problem of the world and our lives, given by Buddha.

Q: What does Rinpoche mean?

Rinpoche: Rinpoche means, literally, "precious jewel." In Tibetan, many reincarnated Lamas have the name of Rinpoche. It is given by the people because, in Tibet, people refer to a spiritual master as a precious jewel.

Q: What is your present relationship to the Dalai Lama? When and how did you first meet him?

Rinpoche: I met His Holiness personally when I was seventeen. Before that, I only saw him giving public talks. Suddenly, I received an official letter from Dalai Lama, saying that I was a reincarnated Lama. This was when I was in boarding school. I never expected to become a Rinpoche in my life when I was young. I was not close with the Dalai Lama at that time, but after that I became close with the Dalai Lama and he became my spiritual master. I became his disciple. I met him many times when I was in India. I still see him once a year. That is my relationship with the Dalai Lama.

Q: Why did you study in India rather than Tibet?

Rinpoche: I was born in a refugee camp. As you all know, Tibet was invaded by Communist China in 1959. My parents had left Tibet and were living in exile in India. After that, I became a Rinpoche and joined the monastery in India.

Q: When you consider someone to be a spiritual person, what qualities does such a person possess, and which practices does that person participate in?

Rinpoche: Being warmhearted and kindhearted with a broad, open mind are the qualities of a spiritual person. To become a spiritual person, you should start opening your heart to yourself. In other words, I mean by loving yourself and letting your love to overflow from your heart to many other people in our daily life.

Q: Is it necessary to chant to get the most out of meditation?

Rinpoche: It is hardly necessary to chant something in order to have a good meditation. Actually, meditation should be as slow and natural as the river. It is not good to make meditation a forced activity in our lives. Meditation should just come naturally without forcing it. To meditate, the most important thing is to live in the present moment and celebrate each and every minute.

Q: I have never meditated before; can you give me some suggestions on how to start out?

Rinpoche: To start meditation, you can give five minutes in your daily life by watching your breath and feeling your breath. Keeping your back straight, either closing your eyes or slightly opening them by looking down to the tip of your nose. Then you can expand your time as you become comfortable with the meditation.

Q: Are there any gods or goddesses in Buddhism? I think I remember there being one goddess named "Tara", but I'm not sure.

Rinpoche: There are thousands of deities in Buddhism. You are right that there is a goddess named Tara. From the Buddhist point of view, the gods and goddesses are not considered to be the creators. They are the positive aspects of ourselves.

Q: Why do some people consider Buddhism a science?

Rinpoche: Because Buddha said one time that we should investigate or examine his teachings like goldsmiths investigating metal to make sure that it is real gold by cutting, rubbing, and putting it into the fire. That is why most of the followers of the Buddha practice that and examine and do a lot of experimenting with our emotions. For this reason, some people think that Buddhism is more related to the sciences.

Q: What is the difference between Buddhism the religion and Buddhism the philosophy?

Rinpoche: Buddhism has both religion and philosophy. The religious part of Buddhism has a lot of rituals and prayers and worshipping many different deities. It focuses more on faith and devotion. The faith that we are talking about in Buddhism is threefold: admiring faith, inspiring faith, and trusting faith. Philosophy mainly focuses on opening our minds by gathering a lot of information about reality into our intellectual mind then to bringing it into the intelligent mind and then making it wisdom.

Q: Are there any books you would recommend I read for more information on Buddhism the religion?

Rinpoche: There are many varieties of books in the bookstores, sometimes it becomes very complicated to choose one. I always recommend the books written by the Dalai Lama and the teachings that are related to him. I know him and if you search for the books written by the Dalai Lama, there are many.

Q: So, is Buddhism a religion? If so, is Buddha the God of Buddhism?

Rinpoche: Buddhism is not exactly a religion but a combination of philosophy, psychology, and to some even a science. Buddhism maintains that for every action there is a result; in effect, one is one's own creator. It is a way of living, a method of behavior that will deliver certain results. There is no central God figure in Buddhism nor is there dogma. Buddha is not considered God but is the founder of Buddhism and is revered as a great master to admire. Buddha's image has the power to inspire us to become like him. He taught that we all have the Buddha nature within us. This is very different from the concept of worshiping some outer God who we believe can give our lives results.

Q: Do I have to believe in God to practice Buddhism?

Rinpoche: The main concept Buddhists believe is that we are each our own saviors. Buddhists do not believe in a creator, God, which is outside, up in the sky. However, we do believe in gods and goddesses, and that each of us has the potential to develop into such a being if we nourish that seed within ourselves. As the Buddha says: "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can, and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path, but Buddha clearly shows the way".

Q: Why do Buddhists believe that it is so important to meditate?

Rinpoche: In Buddhism, there are three, main steps we practice. They are: Learning, Contemplation, and Meditation. Learning is bringing the knowledge into our intellectual mind, contemplation translates knowledge into intelligence, and meditation brings knowledge deep down into our hearts.

Q: I am new to mediation and find it difficult to keep my mind focused for any period of time. Do you have any suggestions?

Rinpoche: Meditation is a natural state of mind. It is something to be being, not doing. But if you try to force yourself to be in meditation, it will become impossible. When you are new to meditation, it is natural to have difficulty staying in that state for a long time. Just practice being in that state for a little while without forcing it - let your self be like a witness, rather than a doer. This will help you enjoy your state, and soon, nothing will be able to prevent you from being there. Start by sitting for a short time, 5 minutes, and slowly increase it to 8 minutes, then 10, then 15, and so on. Eventually it will feel very natural. You will have trained your mind to focus on meditation for as long as you choose.

Q: Can you explain Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation?

Rinpoche: There are several realms in which one can be reborn. Some people are reborn in Divine realm, some are reborn in the Animal realm, and so on. The Divine realm is a place like heaven where one has a subtle body, and the mind experiences mainly pleasure. However, this state is impermanent. When one's life span in the Divine realm is finished, one could well be reborn again as a human, animal, etc. Two of the other realms are Hell and Hungry Ghost. Neither is a permanent place. They are, again, states of existence where one has a subtle body, but the mind experiences different sensations. In Hell, one's mind experiences mainly anxiety and distress. In Hungry Ghost, the mind is continually plagued by longing and dissatisfaction.

Q: I am new to Buddhism and would like to know if it is necessary to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist?

Rinpoche: It is not a must to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. It is a matter of personal choice. Buddhist scripture is unclear regarding the matter, and it has been a topic of debate for many. For monks and nuns, it has always been customary to accept and eat anything that people offer. In addition, in many parts of Tibet, it is difficult or impossible to grow crops, so people's survival depends on protein from yaks and sheep. It is not appropriate to order that an animal be killed just for food. Rather, it is important to use all of the animal so as not waste it. If you eat meat, it is good to take a moment to recognize that you are eating a sentient being, remember that animal with kindness, and pray that the sentient being gets a good rebirth.

Q: Why do Buddhist monks and nuns wear red and yellow robes?

Rinpoche: In ancient times, in India, people considered yellow, and red to be very ordinary colors. Buddha Gautama wanted his disciples to be ordinary, so he had his monks wear one of these colors. India has hot weather, and Tibet has cold. Consequently, Indian monks and nuns choose yellow, because it is a cool color, and Tibetan monks and nuns choose red or maroon, because it is a warm color.