Tag Archives: Buddhism

Buddhism 101: Buddhist Monks and Shaved Heads

And Why Is the Buddha Depicted With Curls?

Two nuns of a Tibetan Buddhist order, photographed in Dharamsala, India. Matthew Wakem / Getty Images

Here’s a question that comes up from time to time — why do Buddhist nuns and monks shave their heads? We can speculate that perhaps shaving the head reduces vanity and is a test of a monastic’s commitment. It’s also practical, especially in hot weather.

Historical Background: Hair and the Spiritual Quest 

Historians tell us that wandering mendicants seeking enlightenment were a common sight in first millennium BCE India. The historical record also tells us that these mendicants had issues with hair.

For example, some of these spiritual seekers deliberately left their hair and beards unkempt and unwashed, having taken vows to avoid proper grooming until they had realized enlightenment. There also are accounts of mendicants pulling out their hair by the roots.

The rules made by the Buddha for his ordained followers are recorded in a text called the Vinaya-pitaka. In the Pali Vinaya-pitaka, in a section called the Khandhaka, the rules say that hair should be shaved at least every two months, or when the hair has grown to the length of two finger-widths. It may be that the Buddha just wanted to discourage the weird hair practices of the time.

The Khandhaka also provided that monastics must use a razor to remove hair and not cut hair with scissors unless he or she has a sore on her head. A monastic may not pluck out or dye gray hair. Hair may not be brushed or combed — a good reason to keep it short — or managed with any kind of oil. If somehow some hair is sticking out oddly, it is all right to smooth it with one’s hand, however. These rules mostly seem to discourage vanity.

Head Shaving Today 

Most Buddhist nuns and monks today follow the Vinaya rules about hair. 

Practices do vary somewhat from one school to another, but the monastic ordination ceremonies of all schools of Buddhism include head shaving. It’s common for the head to be mostly shaved prior to the ceremony, leaving just a little on top for the ceremony officiant to remove.

The preferred form of shaving is still a razor. Some orders have decided that electric razors are more like scissors than a razor and therefore are forbidden by the Vinaya.

The Buddha’s Hair 

The early scriptures tell us that the Buddha lived in the same way as his disciples. He wore the same robes and begged for food like everyone else. So why isn’t the historical Buddha depicted bald, as a monk? (The fat, bald, happy Buddha is a different Buddha.)

The earliest scriptures don’t tell us specifically how the Buddha wore his hair, although stories of the Buddha’s renunciation tell us he cut his long hair short when he began his quest for enlightenment.

There is, however, one clue that the Buddha didn’t shave his head after his enlightenment. The disciple Upali originally was working as a barber when the Buddha came to him for a haircut.

The first depictions of the Buddha in human form were made by the artists of Gandhara, a Buddhist kingdom that was located in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, 2000 years or so ago. The artists of Gandhara were influenced by Greek and Roman art as well as Persian and Indian art, and many of the earliest Buddhas, sculpted in the early first millennium CE, was sculpted in an unmistakably Greek/Roman style.

These artists gave the Buddha curly hair clasped in a topknot. Why? Perhaps it was a popular men’s hairstyle at the time.

Over the centuries the curly hair became a stylized pattern that sometimes looks more like a helmet than hair, and the topknot became a bump. But depicting the historical Buddha with a shaved head remains rare.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddhist Monks and Shaved Heads.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/why-buddhist-monks-and-nuns-shave-their-heads-449598.

Buddhism 101: Samskara or Sankhara

This is a vital component of Buddhist teaching

© Arctic-Images / Getty Images

Samskara (Sanskrit; the Pali is sankhara) is a useful word to explore if you are struggling to make sense of Buddhist doctrines. This word is defined by Buddhists in many ways—volitional formations; mental impressions; conditioned phenomena; dispositions; forces that condition psychic activity; forces that shape moral and spiritual development.

Samskara as the Fourth Skandha 

Samskara also is the fourth of the Five Skandhas and the second link in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, so it’s something that figures into many Buddhist teachings. It’s also closely linked to karma.

According to Theravada Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi, the word samskara or sankhara has no exact parallel in English. “The word sankhara is derived from the prefix sam, meaning ‘together,’ joined to the noun kara, ‘doing, making.’ Sankharas are thus ‘co-doings,’ things that act in concert with other things, or things that are made by a combination of other things.”

In his book What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1959), Walpola Rahula explained that samskara can refer to “all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental.”

Let’s look at specific examples.

Skandhas Are Components That Make an Individual  

Very roughly, the skandhas are components that come together to make an individual—physical form, senses, conceptions, mental formations, awareness. The skandhas are also referred to as the Aggregates or the Five Heaps.

In this system, what we might think of as “mental functions” are sorted into three types. The third skandha, samjna, includes what we think of as intellect. Knowledge is a function of samjna.

The sixth, vijnana, is pure awareness or consciousness.

Samskara, the fourth, is more about our predilections, biases, likes and dislikes, and other attributes that make up our psychological profiles.

The skandhas work together to create our experiences. For example, Let’s say you walk into a room and see an object. Sight is a function of sedana, the second skandha. The object is recognized as an apple — that’s samjna. An opinion arises about the apple—you like apples, or maybe you don’t like apples. That reaction or mental formation is samskara. All of these functions are connected by vijnana, awareness.

Our psychological conditionings, conscious and subconscious, are functions of samskara. If we are afraid of water, or quickly become impatient, or are shy with strangers or love to dance, this is samskara. 

No matter how rational we think we are, most of our willful actions are driven by samskara. And willful actions create karma. The fourth skandha, then, is linked to karma.

In the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of yogacara, samskaras are impressions that collect in the storehouse consciousness or alaya-vijnana. The seeds (bijas) of karma arise from this.

Samskara and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination is the teaching that all beings and phenomena inter-exist. Put another way, nothing exists completely independently from everything else. The existence of any phenomenon depends on conditions created by other phenomena.

Now, what are the Twelve Links? There are at least a couple of ways to understand them. Most commonly, the Twelve Links are the factors that cause beings to become, live, suffer, die, and become again. The Twelve Links also are sometimes described as the chain of mental activities that lead to suffering.

The first link is avidya or ignorance. This is ignorance of the true nature of reality. Avidya leads to samskara—mental formations— in the form of ideas about reality. We become attached to our ideas and unable to see them as illusions. Again, this is closely linked to karma. The force of mental formations leads to vijnana, awareness. And that takes us to nama-rupa, name, and form, which is the beginning of our self-identity—I am. And on to the other eight links.

Samskara as Conditioned Things 

The word samskara is used in one other context in Buddhism, which is to designate anything that is conditioned or compounded. This means everything that is compounded by other things or affected by other things.

The Buddha’s last words as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 16) were, “Handa dani bhikkhave amantayami vo: Vayadhamma sankhara appamadena sampadetha.”  A translation: “Monks, this is my last advice to you. All conditioned things in the world will decay. Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi said of samskara, “The word stands squarely at the heart of the Dhamma, and to trace its various strands of meaning is to get a glimpse into the Buddha’s own vision of reality.” Reflecting on this word may help you understand some difficult Buddhist teachings.


Buddhism 101: Mandala Altar Offerings

How to Offer a Mandala

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Kopan Monastery, Tushita Meditation Centre and Bodhgaya 

A compilation of teachings given by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Kopan Monastery, Tushita Meditation Centre and Bodhgaya in the 1970s and ’80s. With additional material from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, Gen Jampa Wangdu and the Sharpa Choje, Khensur Losang Nyima. Edited by Ven. Thubten Wongmo and Ven. Sangye Khadro.

See also The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Online Advice Book, for more advice on the mandala offering.  Note: Mandala offering sets are available for purchase from FPMT Foundation Store.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche receiving a mandala offering, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche receiving a mandala offering, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony.

How to Offer a Mandala


The mandala offering is an extremely powerful method for accumulating extensive merit and receiving realizations such as bodhicitta and emptiness quickly. Just as great strength is needed to carry a heavy load, a great amount of merit is needed to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. There’s nothing that can be offered with your hands that is more meritorious than offering mandalas.

The Tibetan term for mandala is khyil-khor, which means “taking the essence.” The essence you take is the whole path from guru devotion to enlightenment. That’s what you get from doing this practice, plus the result: the unification of dharmakaya and rupakaya. Therefore by doing this practice you receive inconceivable temporal and ultimate happiness.

Mandala Offerings and the Six Perfections

Offering the mandala contains the practice of all six perfections. By cleaning and blessing the mandala base with liquid mixed with a bajung pill you practice the perfection of giving (water symbolizes prosperity). Checking the grain1 for insects and looking after the base, keeping it clean, leads to the perfection of moral conduct. Removing insects from the grain without harming them leads to the perfection of patience. Thinking of how fortunate you are to be able to practice Dharma and making the offering with joy, you cultivate joyous effort. By not forgetting the visualization, you attain concentration. By clearly visualizing the colors and objects in the mandala, and by meditating on its emptiness, wisdom is attained. Therefore offering mandalas helps you to quickly complete the two accumulations of the merits of method and wisdom2 as it contains all six perfections.

This practice pacifies all hindrances to your temporal and ultimate happiness. These depend on merit and merit depends on offerings. The most meritorious object to offer is the mandala. Therefore if you wish to achieve temporal and ultimate happiness, the best thing you can do is to offer many mandalas.

Lama Tsongkhapa offered a million eight hundred thousand mandalas and achieved all the realizations of the stages and paths. If you wish to gain realizations you should offer mandalas to your guru every day as his jewel-like body can bestow the sphere of great bliss in an instant. All realizations depend on your guru. Offering mandalas to him/her is like offering gifts to a king before requesting a favor of him. Achieving enlightenment in one lifetime depends on your relationship with your guru.

Lama Tsongkhapa was instructed by Manjushri to leave the monastery and go to a hermitage where he was to concentrate on bodhicitta, seeing his guru as Buddha, meditate on the path, purify and accumulate merit. Without working on all of these, even if you practice for a hundred years you won’t gain realizations. However, if you do, you will receive realizations within three years or even in a few months. The mere wish to make progress doesn’t make it happen. It’s necessary to create the causes, one of which is accumulating merit.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Practice

Basically, offering the mandala involves mentally offering the entire universe: all the planets and worlds, all sense objects, and especially the objects to which there is much clinging, such as your body, possessions and friends. All these are offered to the merit field. The essential technique of offering is to offer the best quality materials, in the greatest quantity and to have as clear a visualization as possible. In this way you can create extensive merit in just a short time.

Even if you’re a beggar, by making mandala offerings you will receive all the necessities for your practice in this and future lives. By visualizing and then offering whatever you need in the space above the mandala, you create the cause to receive it. Visualizing anything golden and offering it to the buddhas frees you from disease, and offering the moon creates the cause for you to be reborn as a god or a holy being. Offering jewels, gold and enjoyments creates the cause to be reborn in the caste of kings.

If you don’t have good materials you can even use a stone for the mandala base (but first you should ask permission of the spirit landlord, otherwise it’s like stealing). Lama Tsongkhapa’s forearm was blue and bloody with scabs and calluses from making mandala offerings on a stone during his eight-year retreat. This doesn’t mean that lamas don’t have money to buy gold and silver bases. Lama Tsongkhapa did this to emphasize the importance of pure morality. If you are abiding in pure moral conduct you aren’t allowed to touch precious metals with attachment. However, the more valuable the material you offer, the more merit you receive. The best is a gold or silver base, then copper or brass. The finest things to offer are piles of gold, silver, or jewels; next best are sea shells; rice or other grains are acceptable. As mandala offerings are of great consequence, you should offer the finest materials you can afford. If you have enough money to provide yourself with the comforts of life but you use inferior materials for offering, the only result of your offering will be a decrease of merit.

By visualizing the offerings as more precious and extensive, you create vast merits. For example, imagining that you’re offering a Mt. Meru of silver, lapis lazuli, ruby and gold, even if there are no such materials on your base, you receive the merit of actually offering them. So in just a few seconds it’s possible to create the merit of having offered the entire universe. When you offer water bowls it’s good to visualize the water as nectar. The water appears as nectar to the devas, so of course it appears as nectar to the buddhas—this is explained in Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra. It generates infinite bliss in the holy mind. So if you offer only water, you get the merit of offering water, but if it’s offered as nectar you gain much more merit because of the superior quality of that offering.

The Story of King Ashoka’s Previous Life

Similarly, when making an offering of ten cents to the Buddha, if you clearly visualize the sky filled with dollars, you receive that much merit even if you don’t have a single dollar. What’s the reference that shows that by visualizing nectar or gold you receive the merit of actually offering these? Who had that experience? This was explained by Pabongka Rinpoche in his teaching called Giving Liberation In Your Hand, where he tells the story of King Ashoka’s previous life:

Once when Guru Shakyamuni Buddha was going out for alms he passed three boys playing in the sand. One boy wanted to offer a handful of sand to the Buddha, but was not able to reach the Buddha’s alms bowl, so he stood on the shoulders of the other two boys. He visualized that he was offering gold to the Buddha, and so he created the merit of having actually offered gold. By that karma, the boy was born as King Ashoka in a later life and was able to build ten million stupas in one day. He was able to offer lots of service to the Sangha because he had such great wealth and power.

Through this story you can see how karma is expandable and how to practice Dharma. Even if you’re penniless you can create extensive merit. Being born as King Ashoka, experiencing good results in that life and in future lives, all came from visualizing sand as gold. So even by doing small actions, creating small virtues, things that are easy to do, it’s possible to create unbelievable results of happiness and perfections. So all the time you should practice creating even small merits or good karma. If you’re skillful like the boy in the story, so much merit can be accomplished. But it’s difficult if your practice is unskillful.

The karma stories in the lam-rim are quite unbelievable, like people having strange bodies with horns or tails, or the arhat Tse-yi who had gold pouring unceasingly from his hand. This was the result of his having put a piece of gold in the vase of Buddha Kashyapa in his past life. Shakyamuni Buddha could explain the precise cause of each occurrence. For example, he could tell the causes of new diseases that appear in the world.

The lam-rim teachings on karma show us that we shouldn’t ignore even small karmas, because such incredible results can come, things we can’t even imagine. This is the experience of people in the past. We’re not able to remember our experiences through our own mental power, but if there is happiness, it came from virtue. If a person continually makes offerings of water bowls and mandalas, after a few years that person will have better materials to offer. The result is experienced in this life because any merit accumulated with the guru-buddha is very powerful. The same is true for good karma created with a bodhisattva or parents: the result will be experienced in this life.

So if you remember this story you’ll have faith. Even by offering one tiny grain to the Buddha creates so much merit, because karma is expandable. But if we don’t visualize as explained in the prayer, then it’s just offering grain, or maybe offering nothing! You’d just be playing with grains!

The sutras and tantras can be related to for reference. Accumulating merit by offering the mandala and other offerings to the Buddha is the completely reliable method to create causes of happiness, perfections and wealth. Sometimes when money is invested with the expectation of making millions of dollars profit, lots of money may be lost instead. Material values are always going up and down in the world, so you can’t always be sure of making a profit. But the results of creating merit with the Buddha don’t fluctuate. The results will always be sure, provided the merit is dedicated and isn’t destroyed by anger.

For example, there are eight benefits of folding your hands to the Buddha, even if it is not done with a virtuous motive or even if it’s done with anger. The eight benefits are:

1. Having a healthy, attractive body
2. Having pleasant surroundings, servants, etc
3. Being able to keep pure moral conduct
4. Having devotion
5. Having courage to fight delusions and work for others
6. Rebirth as a human or a god
7. Attaining the arya paths
8. Attaining enlightenment

There are also specific benefits of making prostrations. For example, for each atom of ground covered by the body during prostrations we create the merit to be born a chakravartin king a thousand times. These kings are usually bodhisattvas. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the copper chakravartin king. They have great power to guide sentient beings (one needs power and wealth to be able to guide beings).

So the result of Dharma practice is always there, if it has been dedicated. It’s just a matter of time when the result will be experienced. If there are no interferences, it will be experienced soon. It’s completely reliable; there’s no betrayal regarding the result.

The Importance Of Clear Visualization

Generating lam-rim realizations in the mind quickly depends on creating extensive merit. However much merit can be created in one day, in one hour makes it that much quicker to attain realizations of the lam-rim. Creating merit depends on how clearly and extensively you can visualize. That is the key; that is the essential thing about mandala offerings. In the Lam-rim Chen-mo, Lama Tsongkhapa did not explain mandalas in detail, but he explained the importance of offering the mandala with a clear visualization. This is incredibly important advice. If the visualization is not clear, less merit is created. That’s the secret of mandalas; the amount of merit created depends on clearly visualizing the worlds, etc., as explained in the prayer.

The number of mandalas that are done isn’t so important. The goal is lam-rim realizations, and quick realization depends on clear visualization. You would create more merit by doing ten mandalas with clear visualization than a hundred vaguely visualized. The prayer can be said quickly, but it wouldn’t have so much meaning if done in that way.

It’s not enough to have mere intellectual knowledge of the path—that doesn’t change the mind. If there are seeds, but no soil, water, fertilizer and warmth they won’t grow. Similarly, in order for realizations to grow, for the mind to be transformed by the teachings, you need to purify obstacles and accumulate merit. Offering the mandala is one of the most important methods to accumulate this much-needed merit.

Multiplying the Offering

You can also increase the merit of the offering by imagining that you’re offering many universes, as many as you can imagine. After constructing the mandala, imagine beams of light going out in all directions from the mandala. On the end of each beam is another mandala. Then from each of these mandalas emanate beams of light with a mandala on the end of each, and so on. Another way of multiplying the mandala is to imagine another whole universe on each atom of the first mandala, and then another universe on each of those universes’ atoms, etc. You can also imagine a duplicate image of yourself making a mandala offering in each atom of space. The entire space becomes filled with mandalas.

Although the mandala base is small, you must imagine everything in the universe on it. It’s like seeing many objects reflected in a tiny water bubble, or looking at a mountain through the eye of a needle, or looking at a city from an airplane. It’s very important to think that all these objects actually exist. The imagined symbol of the universe does exist as a creation of the mind.

Between Sessions

Whenever your mind feels solid and unmoving and everything seems to be at a standstill, you should make mandala offerings and strong requests to the guru and the merit field. When you feel like this, heresy towards the teachings can arise and instead of gaining energy to practice and increase your wisdom, you create nothing but downfalls. Offering mandalas will prevent this.

Mandala Offering in Tantra

One of the commitments of Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra is to offer mandalas six times a day to your guru. This is done during the six-session guru yoga practice. If you don’t have a plate, you can just visualize offering the mandala three times a day and three times at night. If you fail to do this, it’s one bombo (transgression of a branch tantric vow). Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche said in the lam-rim that breaking a bodhisattva vow is a hundred thousand times heavier than breaking a root vow of a fully ordained monk, and breaking a branch tantric vow is a million times heavier than breaking a root bodhisattva vow. The karmic consequence of breaking a branch tantric vow is the same as that of killing dakinis. However, if you visualize offering the mandala as described in the six-session prayer you don’t receive this fault. It is necessary to recite the six-session prayer to be conscious of what you should practice.

Even those who have achieved the developing stage of tantra have to offer mandalas. If you don’t continuously make mandala offerings from the time you receive a tantric initiation until you achieve the completion stage, there is a great danger to your life from such things as spirits.

The more you understand karma, the more you will recognize the preciousness of this simple practice. The benefits of making one mandala offering are incredible. The disadvantages of not doing so are also very heavy. Kadampa geshes would always carry with them their mandala plates, offering bowls and yellow robes.

By offering mandalas it’s possible to have visions of deities. One fully-ordained nun saw Chenrezig after making many mandala offerings.


1 Uncooked grains such as rice or barley can be used as the substance for the mandala offering.  [Return to text]

2 In order to attain enlightenment with its two holy bodies (kayas): form body (rupakaya) and truth body (dharmakaya), it is necessary to complete the two accumulations of the merits of method and transcendental wisdom.

Mandala offering with the unique Yungdrung Bon square top. Photo credit: Unknown.

The Actual Practice

If you’re using grain such as rice, it should first be cleaned (insects and dirt removed, washed in water and dried) and made nice-smelling with perfume or scented water. The base should also be cleaned the first time with water to which saffron, scent and a bajung3 pill have been added. This is similar to sprinkling scented water on the ground before inviting a king or guru to the place.

OM VAJRA BHUMI AH HUM—the powerful golden ground. This is recited to bless the mandala. Hold a small amount of grain in each hand. Holding the mandala base with your left hand, pour some grain on the base with your right. This grain symbolizes the negativities and obscurations of yourself and all sentient beings. Tip the base away from you so that the grain spills off and rub the base three times in a clockwise direction with your right wrist.4 Here there is the “bodhicitta vein” associated with the development of clairvoyance. Think that you’re wiping away all the negativities of yourself and all beings. The first wipe eliminates those of body, the second of speech and the third of mind. Think that you’re also eliminating all undesirable places such as the hells and undesirable things such as thorns, illness, misfortunes, the two obscurations and all the impurities of yourself and others that have arisen due to clinging to external objects and the internal mind.

The mandala base becomes the golden ground, representing our buddha nature, with plains as smooth as the palm of a child’s hand. Now place more grain on the base. Tipping it towards you, rub it with your wrist three times counter-clockwise. Think that you’re receiving the qualities, blessings and attainments of the guru and the merit field; these enter your body, speech and mind. You transform into the merit field, or your yidam.

OM VAJRA REKHI AH HUM—encircled by an iron fence. Place some grain in the center of the base and then place the first ring. Never put the ring on an empty base as that would create the karma to take rebirth in a place where a buddha has not descended. After placing the first ring, pour a handful of grain around the edge of the plate, just inside of the ring, moving in a counter-clockwise direction.

Now you begin to place heaps of rice to represent the different objects. There are different ways of constructing the mandala—37 heaps, 25 heaps, 23 heaps and 7 heaps, but here it’s according to the 37-heap method. When you place the heaps, think that the grain is the object. Instead of thinking that the objects drop onto the base with the grain, visualize that they appear out of emptiness, lighting up in space like a light bulb when it’s been turned on. Clear visualization and clear recognition of each object of the mandala is extremely important if you wish to quickly complete the accumulation of merit.

Don’t rush; go slowly and spend time on the visualization to make it as clear as possible. Visualizing each object in turn, think, “I’m offering this to my guru who is the merit field.” Then even if your visualization becomes unclear or gets lost you still create merit. Try to remember the qualities and functions of each object as you name it. This is very beneficial for the mind.

After offering each object, dedicate the merit to all sentient beings.

(The large objects like Mt. Meru you can offer at the end altogether rather than each time.)

The arrangement of the objects offered depends on the purpose of making the offering. In order to request realizations, the east is placed towards you, but in order to make an offering to the merit field, east is on the opposite side, towards the merit field.5

Objects Offered in the Mandala of 37 Heaps

1. Mt. Meru: Place a heap of grain in the center of the base to represent Mt. Meru, which has four faces, each of a different precious substance:

  • The eastern face is made of radiant, silvery crystal.
  • The southern face is of bright blue lapis lazuli.
  • The western face is of ruby.
  • The northern face is of gold.

Each jeweled face of Mt. Meru radiates dazzlingly, and its reflection accounts for the color of the sea, sky and world on its respective side.

The top of Mt. Meru is flat and square, like a plateau. Here are found the four guardian kings, and the palace of the worldly gods, who have incredible enjoyments.

The shape of the mountain resembles an inverted pyramid with the apex buried beneath its lower levels. There are eight lower levels which are like eight steps all around the bottom of the mountain. Only four of these are above the ocean, visible to the eye, while the other four are beneath the ocean. The asura realm is located where the water meets Mt. Meru. The sura realms are located on the upper four levels or steps. Here they have enjoyments a hundred times greater than those found in America! Above the fourth level is the god realm, Tushita.

2. The Eastern World: It is white and semi-circular like a half-moon. The people who live there are tall and very beautiful with half-moon-shaped faces. They have subdued minds and limitless possessions. They always enjoy a high status and live for three hundred years. They eat rice and vegetables. They are a quiet, peaceful people who never fight, but they have no religion.

3. The Southern World (this is our world): It is blue and trapezoidal (similar to the canopy of an Indian rickshaw). The inhabitants’ faces are the same shape as their world, as is true of all the worlds. Here, many people have high realizations.

4. The Western World: It is red and circular. The people here have round faces, live for five hundred years and have infinite enjoyments.

5. The Northern World: It is yellow and square. The people here have square faces and beautiful bodies made of light. They live for a thousand years. The standard of life is god-like: there is no fighting, food grows in abundance; the moment one is born one receives everything one needs. Because there is very little suffering there is no desire for religion and the people are unaware of death. But seven days before they die, they hear a voice whispering, telling them where they will be reborn and what sufferings they will experience.

There are not many examples of suffering in the western, northern and eastern worlds, so it is very difficult for those people to practice Dharma.

6-13. Each world has two smaller, similarly-shaped and colored worlds on either side of it. These are the next eight heaps of grain on the base. First put a heap to the left of the main world, then one to the right (i.e. for the eastern world, put the first heap in the south-east and the second in the north-east, then move on to the southern world.)

The next four objects are called the four “precious things.” They are the particular enjoyments of each of the four worlds; things that the inhabitants of each world enjoy the most. We should visualize them in the aspect of offerings, but think that in essence they are realizations of the Dharma. They are to be visualized floating in the sky above their respective world.

14. The Precious Mountain (east): This is a huge mountain made of the seven precious gems: gold, silver, lapis, coral, diamonds, pearls and emeralds.

15. The Wish-Granting Tree (south): It is huge and made of the seven precious gems: its roots are gold, trunk is silver, branches are lapis lazuli, leaves are emeralds, with sapphire buds, pearl flowers and diamond fruit. Thinking of whatever you wish for and praying to the tree, your needs pour down from it like rain. This is by the power of the object. When its leaves rustle, they make the sound of Dharma. The people of the southern world like fruit, so this tree is their particular enjoyment.

16. The Wish-Fulfilling Cow(west): This cow is also made of jewels: with diamond horns, sapphire hooves and a tail like the wish-granting tree. Its body is golden-orangish colored, healthy and very beautiful. Its excrement is gold. Whatever one desires springs forth from its pores. It also gives unceasing milk.

17. The Uncultivated Harvest (north): These are crops that grow unceasingly, without needing to be cultivated. Its fruit is perfect: skinless and clean, easy to pick (just falls off in one’s hand), beautiful and delicious, satisfying all desires.

(If using four rings, place the second ring at this point. If using three rings, the second ring is placed later.) 

The next seven objects are the seven possessions of a chakravartin (wheel-turning) or universal monarch; offering them creates the cause to become such a monarch. The qualities of these objects are explained in the Heruka Lama Chöpa.6

18. The Precious Wheel (east): This is a vehicle for the universal monarch, actualized by and propelled by his great stock of merit. It travels very fast—it can cover the four worlds and the god realms in a day—and can carry the monarch and his entire retinue to any part of the universe he wishes to go to.

Made of gold, with a thousand spokes, it’s very bright, like the sun. The wheel is symbolic, when offering it, dedicate: “By offering this precious wheel, may I and all sentient beings achieve complete control over Dharma activities (like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and His Holiness the Dalai Lama). By understanding the different levels and so on of sentient beings and teaching them accordingly, may I lead all of them to enlightenment.”

Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, by understanding different beings’ capabilities, intelligence, merit, etc., can show various methods without error, and not only through his speech but also in various manifestations. He possesses all realizations of the words and their meanings. So by offering the precious wheel we pray to be able to do the same. This is the benefit of offering this wheel.

19. The Precious Jewel (south): This is an eight-sided wish-fulfilling jewel made of lapis lazuli. It is as bright as the sun, can make night like day-time, and emits light rays of five colors that can be seen for thousands of miles. These rays bring all success and whatever is needed by sentient beings. When we’re tormented by heat they make us feel cool; when it’s cold they provide warmth. They bring all happiness and prevent illness and untimely death to all those within their range. They also fulfill whatever Dharma wishes sentient beings have.

Dedicate: “By offering this precious jewel, may all sentient beings have their Dharma wishes fulfilled perfectly.”

20. The Precious Queen (west): She is extremely beautiful, charming, has a camphor-scented body and sweet-smelling upali-flowered breath. Perfectly dressed, she has a calm, subdued mind and gives good vibrations. She is free of the five faults of women: greed or miserliness with men and other objects, jealousy, anger and pride; and possesses the eight qualities of a perfect lady: harmonious mind, bearing only sons, of noble birth, of high caste, free of jealousy towards other women, does not gossip or hold wrong views, and remains unaffected by objects of the senses. She bestows bliss and freedom from hunger and thirst on any being who touches her. Her mind is endowed with love and compassion; she grants all success and guides all beings from physical and mental suffering.

Dedicate: “By offering this precious queen, may all sentient beings enjoy the non-contaminated, non-deluded great bliss of aryas.”

21. The Precious Minister (north): He has renounced all non-Dharma actions, so all his projects are Dharma-related and for the benefit of others. He is never treacherous or harmful, but always acts with love. He never gets upset about or tired of working for others. He spontaneously carries out the wishes of the universal monarch without having to be asked (he is able to read the monarch’s mind). He is extremely wise and skillful in all situations and in directing the activities of the entourage and the army.

Dedicate: “By offering this precious minister may all sentient beings fulfill exactly all the wishes of the buddhas.”

22. The Precious Elephant (south-east): He is as large and as white as a snow mountain and as strong as a thousand ordinary elephants. He is so wise, skillful and alert that he doesn’t need to be led by a rope; a fine thread is enough. He is decorated like a ceremonial elephant. He has a large penis, and his trunk, tail and testicles touch the ground. He carries the universal monarch wherever he wants to go without needing to be ordered—he can read his master’s mind. He can travel around the universe three times in a day, without shaking or disturbing the rider’s body. He is peaceful, never violent or harmful to others; perfectly obedient, incredibly wise and able to conquer all opposing forces.

Dedicate: “By offering this precious elephant may all sentient beings ride the supreme great vehicle to enlightenment.”

23. The Precious and Excellent Horse (south-west): Is white, of perfect shape, size and color, is decorated with the jeweled crown of the devas, a jeweled saddle and various jeweled ornaments. He can travel around the universe three times in one day, and never gets tired or sick. He is very wise and subdued and can be led by a thread; a bridle is not necessary. He is magnificent-looking, and protects his rider from harm.

Dedicate: “By offering this precious, excellent horse, may all sentient beings attain mundane and supra-mundane psychic powers.” (Offering the precious horse creates the cause to achieve clairvoyance.)

24. The Precious General (north-west): He never harms others as he has totally abandoned all non-Dharma actions. However he can never be defeated in battle. He intuitively knows the wishes of his ruler, and never tires in his service. He leads large armies of horses, elephants, chariots and foot soldiers. In times of struggle and hardship visualizing the precious general prevents you from being harmed by others (the would-be harmers are subdued) and protects you from poverty.

Dedicate: “By offering the precious general may all sentient beings become holders of the entire collection of teachings.”

According to Lama Tsongkhapa, the precious householder is offered at this time, instead of the precious general, who is included with the precious minister. The precious householder has many possessions and jewels: all sentient beings are pleased to see him.

25. The Great Treasure Vase (north-east): It is made of gold, and decorated with jewels. It has a flat base, large belly and long neck, like a Greek urn. The neck is decorated with cloth from the deva realms, and the vase has a beautiful tree as a stopper. The vase contains various treasures and grants all wishes.

(If using four rings, place the third one at this point. If using three rings, place the second.)

26. The Goddess Of Beauty (east): She is white, she stands in an S-shaped dancing posture with hands on her hips, holding a vajra in each hand. She exhibits her beauty through dancing and moving her body.

27. The Goddess Of Garlands (south): She is yellow-colored and very beautiful. She holds a rosary made of precious vajras with both hands at her breasts; with this she grants initiations to whomever comes before her.

28. The Goddess Of Song (west): She is pink-colored; she plays a lute and sings, offering the music to all beings.

29. The Goddess Of Dance (north): She is multi-colored: her face and feet are white, neck and breasts are pink, hands and hips are blue and her thighs are light yellow. She holds a vajra in each hand, with her right hand on her head and left hand on her left hip.

30. The Goddess Of Flowers (south-east): She is bright yellow; in her left hand she holds a vase containing a vajra and flowers. She scatters the flowers in the air with her right hand.

31. The Goddess Of Incense (south-west): She is white; in her right hand she holds an incense burner at the level of her shoulder. The incense totally satisfies whoever it’s offered to. Her left hand is in the threatening gesture at her left shoulder.

32. The Goddess Of Light (north-west): She is pink and holds a beautiful lamp on her left shoulder with her right hand held over her head. Her left hand is at her heart.

33. The Goddess Of Perfume (north-east): She is rainbow-colored. In her left hand at her heart she holds a conch shell containing a vajra and beautifully scented sandal water. With her right hand she sprinkles this perfume in all directions.

These eight goddesses, visualized in space above the first level of Mt. Meru,7 are the emanations of your own transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and emptiness. They should be visualized as young and very beautiful. They have slender waists, enchanting faces with fine blue eyes and red lips. Their bodies are fragrant; they have soft, smooth skin which, when touched energizes great bliss. Any sounds they make are lovely to hear. Visualizing the goddesses as exquisitely beautiful in all respects is for the purpose of transforming desire into the path. Imagine that all space is filled with these goddesses.

(If using four rings, place the fourth at this point. If using three, place the third.) 

34. The Sun (south): It’s in the southern sky above the level of Mt. Meru. It’s like a gigantic magnifying glass dispelling darkness (the darkness of sentient beings’ gross and subtle delusions); like a clear lens through which hot rays are focused, and it emits brilliant rays of light. Its shape is that of a disc, with a golden fence around its edge. At its centre, stairs lead to a palace in which the children of the gods are dancing and singing.

Think about the function of the sun; for instance, how it causes crops to ripen.

The sun signifies all wisdoms, all paths: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. It signifies the clear light, which results in the dharmakaya. The sun is absolute bodhicitta; it dispels the darkness of ignorance grasping at true existence, the root of samsara.

35. The Moon (north): The moon, in the northern sky, is the same size as the sun and is equal to the sun in brightness. Usually, the sun’s light obscures the moon but in the mandala the light of both pervade the world. The moon is also disc-shaped, with a fence around its edge and a palace at its centre where the children of the gods are singing and dancing. The moon causes samsara to cease; its two edges are the two extremes which it eliminates. The light of the moon has the power to dispel sentient beings’ gross obscurations.

The moon symbolizes method, the methods of the three vehicles; also conventional bodhicitta, whose root is compassion. Its light extinguishes the darkness of the self-cherishing attitude, so that we naturally come to cherish others. The light also prevents us from falling into the blissful state of self-liberation.

The moon and the sun are visualized together because method and wisdom, bodhicitta and emptiness, should be practiced together, simultaneously. From the tantric viewpoint the sun represents the clear light of wisdom and the moon represents the illusory body. Visualize that the light of the sun and moon dispels the darkness of the obscurations and ignorance of all sentient beings. By visualizing like this you create the cause to achieve the entire path, both the method and wisdom aspects, that result in attaining the rupakaya and dharmakaya. The sun and moon are also offerings of light.

36. The Precious Parasol (east):8 Its handle is of lapis lazuli encrusted with jewels and gold. Its thousand spokes are of gold, and it is crowned with an eight-sided sapphire. The canopy is white and has a fringe hanging all around; the ends of the fringe are richly decorated with various jewels, some of which are like magnifying glasses and emit powerful light. There are also strands of pearls hanging from the edge; from the jewels and pearls come a flow of nectar that eliminates the true sufferings and true causes of suffering of all sentient beings. There are small glass vases hanging from the fringe from which nectar pours as an offering to the buddhas. This nectar also quenches the thirst and alleviates the suffering of those beings who suffer from thirst. There are also small bells making very sweet Dharma sounds in praise of the Buddha and teaching sentient beings according to their level.

This parasol is similar to the one that the naga king, Maitri, offered to Lord Buddha. Its essence is all the qualities of the cessations, the abandonment of the two obscurations. The parasol can provide extensive protection from suffering and offering it creates the cause for oneself to become an object of refuge, able to save sentient beings from the heat of samsara.

37. The Banner Of Victory Throughout All Directions (west): It has a jeweled shaft with three pieces of cloth hanging from it. There are innumerable small bells hanging from the banner making pleasant tinkling sounds. The banner is illustrated with different symbols, such as an eight-legged lion and a special kind of fish. Its top is crowned with a half-moon and an eight-sided sapphire.

The essence of the banner is all qualities of all realizations. It symbolizes total victory; by offering it we create the cause to be victorious over the four maras. We also create the cause to be able to benefit others perfectly by leading them according to their level, and to liberate them from the fears and sufferings of samsara. It brings about the auspicious conditions for us to realize the Dharma and thus become a holder of the banner of the teachings, like Vajradhara.

In times of trouble, banners were placed on the roofs of monasteries to overcome negative forces. By putting the banner in the front of the mandala, we create the cause to have perfect listening, reflecting and meditation, and to become a holder of all Dharma teachings.

Now place three heaps in the center, symbolizing the realizations of the body, speech and mind of the merit field; by offering these we create the cause to be able to attain them. Then place the mandala top. With a small amount of grain in both hands, hold up the mandala.

“…u.su lha.dang mi…” —”at the center are all possessions precious to gods and humans…” Visualize clouds of offerings floating in space above the center of the mandala. These include: your body, wealth and all your merits of the three times as well as all the various enjoyments of gods and humans.

As you recite the prayer, mentally offer all that brings pleasure to the five senses. Imagine that you are offering everything, not leaving anything out: all the possessions of gods and humans as well as all the wonderful things that exist throughout the ten directions and are not possessed by anyone.

Visualizing the Mandala as a Pure Realm 

“Sa.zhi po.kyi…” At the beginning of this part of the offering, the mandala is seen as impure, then it transforms into the pure realm of a buddha. This practice creates much merit and the karma to take rebirth in a pure realm. It also purifies wrong conceptions. Imagine the pure realm that you would like to be reborn in (according to your practice: Tushita if your practice is Ganden Lha Gyäma; Kacho Shing if you’re practicing Vajrayogini, etc.) and visualize that all sentient beings are there, receiving teachings and just about to become enlightened. It is very powerful to imagine your enemies there in the pure realm, receiving teachings. While reciting the prayer, visualize a rain of offerings showering down in that pure land.

In pure lands one isn’t born from parents but from lotus flowers. One doesn’t have physical bodies subject to sickness and old age, but bodies made of light that never experience sickness or aging. Whatever is wished for spontaneously appears. Food and drink are nectar and do not cause attachment to arise. The entire environment is beautifully decorated and filled with wish-granting trees.

There are buddhas and bodhisattvas everywhere. Depending on which pure land one is in, it’s possible to see the particular buddha of that land and receive direct teachings from his holy speech. All the sounds we hear are Dharma teachings. There are bodhisattvas in the aspect of birds flying around whose songs are teachings. The ground is made of lapis lazuli and there are lotus ponds filled with large, beautiful lotus flowers. The air is perfumed with sweet scents. Goddesses in space scatter a rain of flowers. There are also many dakas and dakinis.

It’s also extremely beneficial to multiply the offering, imagining that you are offering many universes. [As explained before: see the Introduction.] 

Hold the mandala at your heart and without attachment to the offerings, offer them with devotion. At the end of the prayer imagine that the mandala dissolves into light and absorbs into the heart of the guru-deity. Think that the guru experiences incredible bliss. Then tip the mandala base to dismantle the mandala: towards you if the offering was made in order to receive realizations, and away from you if the offering was made to the merit field. As you do this, light comes from the guru and enters your body, purifying all hindrances and negative karma of body, speech and mind. Then a replica of the guru dissolves into you. Think that you have become one, completely unified, with the guru and have received all his realizations.

Short (Seven-heap) Mandalas 

Start by offering one long mandala of 37 heaps, recite the four-line prayer and dismantle the mandala, then begin to construct short mandalas. Each short mandala begins in the same way as the long mandala: pouring grain on the base and wiping the base with your right wrist three times clockwise and three times counter-clockwise (or as many times as you like), to purify and receive blessings. While doing this, recite the prayer of refuge and bodhicitta (sang.gye cho.dang…) once or as many times as you like. Then pour a little grain on the base, place the first ring and pour grain around the inside of the ring, moving in a counter-clockwise direction.

While reciting the four-line prayer (sa.zhi po.kyi…) place grain for the seven heaps:

1. Mt. Meru in the center,
2-5. The four worlds in the east, south, west and north,
6. The sun in the south,
7. The moon in the north.

Holding the mandala at your heart, recite the rest of the prayer, doing the appropriate visualization. Then dismantle the mandala and visualize receiving light and blessings from the guru.

If you wish you can offer a nine-heap mandala, adding another heap in the east for the precious parasol and one in the west for the victory banner. This practice is advised sometimes as it is very auspicious to offer the victory banner.

When counting mandala offerings [as a preliminary practice], you offer only mandalas of seven or nine heaps.

Begin slowly, with twenty-five short mandalas, and build up slowly. When your physical action becomes smooth, concentrate on the visualization. It is important to open up and give everything to the guru, and to feel that you are really receiving your guru’s blessings.

You can eventually do a hundred mandalas in the morning and a hundred at night as a comfortable number, without pushing.

When offering the mandala of seven heaps, it’s best to visualize all thirty-seven features of the long mandala. But if your mind cannot cope with the elaborate visualization, at least imagine clearly and in proper order, the golden ground, iron fence, Mt. Meru, the four worlds, the sun and the moon. It’s also very beneficial to offer objects that symbolize the realizations you wish to achieve, such as a sword, bell or text, or materials you need for your practice. Visualize these in the space above the mandala. This creates the karma for you to quickly gain these realizations and materials.


3 Khensur Losang Nyima Rinpoche explained that a bajung pill is made from cow products. There is a substance in the folds of the skin underneath the neck of the cow that has the potential to purify whatever the cow eats, thus the things produced from the cow—milk, butter, excrement, etc.—also have this potential to purify. Also, one can add a dutsi rilbu(nectar pill) to the water used to clean the base. The way to clean the base is as follows: first place your right thumb in the center of the base, dip your right finger in the mixture, then rub that finger around one half of the edge of the base, moving in a clockwise direction. Next, place your right ring finger in the center of the base, dip the thumb in the mixture, then rub the other half of the edge of the base, moving in a counterclockwise direction.  [Return to text]

4 According to Khensur Losang Nyima Rinpoche, the part of the arm with which to rub the base is the thickest part of the forearm, below the elbow.  [Return to text]

5 According to Khensur Losang Nyima Rinpoche, when offering the mandala when requesting your guru to live long, eg at a long-life puja, place east towards you.  [Return to text]

6 According to Pabongka Rinpoche in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand (p.212) these seven and the great treasure vase float in the space between the continents and Mt. Meru.  [Return to text]

7 According to Liberation (p.212) the eight goddesses stand on a ledge around Mt. Meru.  [Return to text]

8 According to Geshe Wangchen in Awakening the Mind of Enlightenment (p.68), the parasol is normally placed towards you, and this is to overcome obstacles to your meditation practice—it symbolizes the protection of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. But in order to receive blessings, place the banner in the east.

Four Ways of Offering the Mandala

1. The Outer Mandala

[As described in Chapter Two.]

2. The Inner Mandala 

The inner mandala is a powerful remedy to the three poisonous minds of attachment, aversion and ignorance, that cause us to discriminate other beings as friend, enemy and stranger. It involves imagining your body transforming into the mandala and then into a pure realm, as well as offering the objects of your attachment, aversion and ignorance. The prayer “dag.gi chag.dang…” is recited while visualizing this offering. This prayer is a method to counteract attachment and miserliness towards your body, possessions, merits and the environment. It loosens the grip of attachment; suddenly it makes no sense to be attached to things any more. The mind is transformed and feels very peaceful. The way to transform your body into the mandala is as follows:

  • Your skin becomes the surface of the golden ground; your blood becomes an ocean of nectar;
  • Your flesh becomes beautiful garlands of flowers floating on the ocean of nectar;
  • Your stomach becomes Mount Meru;
  • Your hands and feet become the four worlds and the upper and lower parts of your arms and legs become the eight sub-worlds; your head becomes a beautiful palace on top of Mt. Meru;
  • Your heart becomes a beautiful jewel adorning the top of this palace;
  • Your eyes become the sun and moon;
  • All your inner organs become wonderful possessions and enjoyments of gods and humans.

Sometimes regret is felt for having given something. This creates the karma of miserliness. True offering should not be like this; instead, you should completely and sincerely give from the depths of your heart. If you sincerely renounce and dedicate whatever you offer without any clinging, you’ll receive the same merit as if you had actually made the material offering.

Each time you recite the six-session prayer you dedicate your body, life and wealth to your guru and then request his help. You should actually give up attachment to these things, but instead you still think of them as yours: “my body, my possessions.” By verbally offering them while still thinking of them as yours, you receive many downfalls.

Visualize many objects of your attachment, aversion and ignorance in the space above Mt. Meru, and offer all this to your gurus. Don’t visualize one object only: for example, if you have attachment for someone, imagine offering many numbers of that person. Think of possessions or certain types of food that you like, imagine them multiplied many times and offer them to your gurus without any sense of loss. By offering the objects of your negative mind you renounce them and thereby cut off your attachment to them. If they are offered sincerely to the guru-buddha, then they become his and no longer yours, so it is not appropriate to feel attachment or aversion for them.

Ordinary beings are pleased by material offerings, but the best offering to make to your guru is your renunciation of the three poisonous minds. Your guru is extremely pleased by this; not for himself, but because he knows that this is the only way you will achieve liberation.

The essential meaning of giving up is not giving up the object, but relinquishing your attachment to it. A renounced mind is the best offering. It’s no use making offerings to your guru unless you completely offer your body, speech and mind. And once you have offered your body, speech, mind and enjoyments to your guru you should never again think of them as “mine” or try to prevent others from using or taking them.

Therefore, when making the inner offering it’s very powerful to think, “As I have offered my body, speech, mind and the objects of my three poisonous minds to my guru, how can I ever again use them for myself? From now on I must use them only according to his wishes. What does he wish? That I become Buddha to enlighten all sentient beings. For that to happen I cannot use these objects to carry out the aims of my negative mind; that would be completely opposite to my guru’s wishes. I would be misusing my guru’s possessions.”

At the end of the prayer of the inner offering, think, “By offering the objects of my three poisonous minds and those of all sentient beings, may those objects and poisons automatically disappear from our minds.” Imagine that the three poisons have dissolved into emptiness. Even the names, “attachment”, “aversion”, and “ignorance” cease to exist.

3. The Secret Mandala

Here, you manifest as a deity and then your own dharmakaya nature manifests as the mandala. The aspect is the universe: the golden ground, Mt. Meru, etc., but its essence is the transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and emptiness. You can visualize yourself as the deity in your own pure land and offer that to your gurus.

4. The Suchness Mandala

Recognize that the three circles: yourself, the action of offering and the guru (or subject, action and object), are all merely labeled by mind and do not exist from their own side. So you are offering the empty nature of these three. See that the appearance of a self-existent circle of three is like a mirage or a dream. As the subject, action and object are all merely labeled by mind, it’s like offering a mandala in a dream. This practice cuts the root of samsara.

These four types of mandala offering can be practiced consecutively or simultaneously. To practice them simultaneously, first meditate on emptiness. Then, from the blissful space of non-duality you manifest as the deity. The different parts of your divine body, the nature of which is the dharmakaya, transform into the various features of the mandala. Then recognize that yourself (the deity), the action of offering and the object of the offering (your guru) are unified in non-duality.


At the end of every session of offering mandalas, recite the following prayer written by Lama Tsongkhapa:

May none of these merits become the cause of taking pride in understanding, reputation or receiving things.
May these merits only become the cause of attaining enlightenment.

How to Construct a Mandala with Three Rings 

First Ring
1. Mount Meru
2. Lu pag po
3. Dzam bu ling
4. Ba lang choe
5. Dra mi nyan
6. Lu
7. Lu.pag
8. Nga yab
9. Nga yab zhan
10. Yoe den
11. Lam chog dro
12. Dra mi nyen
13. Dra mi nyen gyi da
14. Precious mountain
15. Wish-granting tree
16. Wish-fulfilling cow
17. Unploughed harvest
18. Precious wheel
19. Precious jewel
20. Precious queen
21. Precious minister
22. Precious elephant
23. Precious horse
24. Precious general
25. Great treasure vase

Second Ring 
26. Goddess of beauty
27. Goddess of garlands
28. Goddess of song
29. Goddess of dance
30. Goddess of flowers
31. Goddess of incense
32. Goddess of light
33. Goddess of perfume

Third Ring
34. Sun
35. Moon
36. Precious parasol
37. Banner of victory in all directions
38. In the center, the most precious

possessions of gods and humans

A home mandala offering set


Buddhism 101: Buddhist Ritual Objects

Thunderbolt and Bell

Thunderbolt and bell, 1403–1424. China; Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403–1424).(Opens in a new window) Gilded bronze. Gift of Margaret Polak, B85B3.a and B85B3.b.

What are these ritual objects?

The vajra (Tibetan: Dorjie) and bell (Sanskrit: ghanta; Tibetan: drilbu) are the most important ritual objects of Tibetan Buddhism. Most every lama has a pair and knows how to use them. They represent “method” (vajra) and “wisdom” (bell). Combined together they symbolize enlightenment as they embody the union of all dualities: bliss and emptiness, compassion and wisdom, appearance and reality, conventional truth and ultimate truth, and male and female, etc.

What is meant by method and wisdom?

Method indicates the compassionate activities of the bodhisattva that relieve living beings of their miseries. It is the skillful means that brings about the elimination of ignorance, greed, cruelty, etc. in living beings and causes them to follow the path to enlightenment. Wisdom is the direct insight into ultimate reality; it is the wisdom that realizes emptiness. By combining method and wisdom, the bodhisattva accumulates merit and insight and eventually attains Buddhahood.

What is the symbolism of the Vajra and bell?

Most vajras have five prongs that symbolize the five wisdoms that are attained through the transcendance of five kleshas (greed, anger, delusion, pride and envy). The hub between them signifies emptiness. This one has eight prongs plus the central hub. Vajra is a Sanskrit word, in Tibetan it is called a dorje. It is related to the word for diamond, and appears to be similar to the thunderbolt weapon carried by the Vedic god Indra, and the Olympian Zeus. As a thunderbolt weapon it destroys both internal and external enemies. As a diamond it symbolizes the indestructible and all-penetrating mind of enlightenment.

The sound of the bell calls to mind the empty nature of all things. That is, according to the Buddha, nothing whatsoever can exist independently, all phenomena are empty of true or inherent existence. By being profoundly aware of the empty nature of all things, we become free of attachment and aversion, and are liberated from the painful cycle of birth and death (samsara). The bell is also a musical instrument Its sound, together with other sacred instruments such as the hand-drum (damaru), are played in rituals as musical offerings to the Buddhas and other gods.

How are they used?

The vajra and bell are often seen represented in the hands of deities in art, and in practice are held in the hands of the monks during rituals, the vajra in the right hand, the bell in the left. They are moved in prescribed movements. When the arms are crossed this symbolizes that the two are united—representing enlightenment. The sound of the bell is considered by Tibetan Buddhists as the most beautiful music. This music is presented as one of eight offerings to the deity that is invoked during the ritual.

What are the eight offerings presented in rituals?

When Tibetans Buddhist begin meditation, they will invoke the presence of the deity, bow, and make offerings. For peaceful deities, the offerings are as follows:

  • pure water for the deity to drink
  • water for the deity to wash with
  • scented oil for the deity to be anointed with
  • flowers
  • incense
  • butter lamps
  • food
  • music, played on the ghanta (bell) and the damaru, a small two-faced drum with clappers attached by string, played by twisting back and forth in the hand

This thunderbolt and bell were cast for the Chinese Emperor Yongle (1403–1424) as a gift for a distinguished lama of Tibet. The Emperor possibly wished to gain merit for the commission. This and other gifts like it show the relationship between the Tibetan lamas and the emperors of China. Known as the priest-patron relationship, this was one way that ideas and artistic styles spread between China and Tibet. Artists working in China in imperial workshops were ordered to make Tibetan style objects for either the personal use of the emperor or to send to important lamas in Tibet, who were often considered to be their spiritual teachers.

Tibetan Drum (Damaru)

The Tibetan drum, or Damaru, might seem a little familiar. That’s probably because of the way in which you play this instrument. You take the drum and roll it from side to side, whilst small beads on the end of strings will ‘bang’ the leather drum heads. Estimates guess that this instrument reached the Himalayas in around the 8th century, and this wood and leather object has been a staple in the Buddhist faith ever since. Within Buddhism, these Tibetan ritual items hold immense significance during tantric practices.

Tibetan Drum (Damaru)
Tibetan Drum (Damaru)

There are actually three different types of Damaru, each one holding its own properties and purpose. The most widely used is the Chöd Damaru. This tends to be made from wood and covered with leather skins for the drum surface. Usually, they are 8 to 12 inches in diameter, although in rare cases this has been known to vary. The purpose of the Chöd Damaru is to be used during the tantric practice of Chöd, where a believer tries to ‘cut through’ the problems that face them and hinder their quest for enlightenment.

A slightly more grotesque Damaru is that of the Skull Damaru. This is certainly one of the more unusual Tibetan ritual items, and takes the form of a human skull, shaped into that of a drum. This version tends to be used in temples and large festivals, so keep an eye out when visiting Tibetan religious festivals. It’s a unique sight and usually coated in rare and precious stones

Tibetan Buddhist right-turning conch shell (Shankha)

The Shankha looks like an ornate snail shell. The outside is usually decorated with patterns regarding the Buddhist faith, and is usually painted in light, white colors. The shell is one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism (the Ashtamangala), and represents water and Buddhism’s pervasiveness.

Tibetan Buddhist right-turning conch shell (Shankha)
Tibetan Buddhist right-turning conch shell (Shankha)

If you want to see one of the conches in person, it tends to be used to bring together and call on followers to meet. During rituals, it is sometimes used as a musical instrument, but can also be used to carry holy water from one place to another.

Tibetan prayer beads (malas)

The Malas is probably one of the most well know Tibetan ritual items. These Tibetan prayer beads are composed of 108 beads, each of which signifies the mortal sins of humanity. The beads themselves tend to be made from the wood of a special tree, known as the Ficus religiosa. Sometimes, bodhi seeds are also used, or rattan seeds. The different materials generally signify different uses, with the wooden beads being seen as generally ‘all-purpose’.

Tibetan prayer beads (malas)
Tibetan prayer beads (malas)

A visit to any Buddhist temple will usually allow you to see the Tibetan prayer beads both on sale, and being used by the monks themselves. Monks will usually count the beads whilst praying.

Gawu box

The Gawu box is an amulet usually made from silver, which is used to hold an image of the Buddha made from metal or clay. The outside is usually decorated with expensive and rare stone, with ornate designs and patterns you’ll find on other Tibetan ritual items as well. Usually, the Gawu is used during prayer to ward off evil spirits and bring about the Buddha’s blessing.

Gawu box
Gawu box

Whilst travelling to Tibetan temples, keep an eye out for the differences you’ll see. One of the most striking is that males tend to wear a square shaped amulet, whilst women will adorn a more rounded one.

Tibetan prayer wheel

The Tibetan prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel which comes in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. Whilst small, personal ones can be found, there are also those which are much larger and must be held up by (usually) wooden structures. One thing they tend to have in common, though, is that they usually come in gold. The Prayer wheels also tend to be decorated with the 8 auspicious symbols of Ashtamangala.

Tibetan prayer wheel
Tibetan prayer wheel

Larger, stationary prayer wheels tend to be located in most monasteries. Visitors can usually move the wheels themselves by running their hands over them as they walk past.

Tibetan butter lamp

The Tibetan Butter Lamp is found in almost all Tibetan temples and sanctuaries. The (usually) golden cup tends to burn Yak Butter, which represents the illumination of Wisdom. If you head to the temples early in the morning, you’ll find monks taking part in their morning ritual, which consists of an offering of the Tibetan butter lamp, along with seven other bowls containing other symbolic offerings. Pilgrims, whilst travelling between temples, tend to supply oil for these lamps to gain favor.

Tibetan butter lamp


Buddhism 101: Rahula: Son of Buddha

Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

Rahula was the historical Buddha’s only child. He was born shortly before his father left on his quest for enlightenment. Indeed, Rahula’s birth appears to have been one of the factors that fueled Prince Siddhartha’s determination to become a wandering mendicant.

Buddha Leaving His Son 

According to Buddhist legend, Prince Siddhartha already had been shaken deeply by the realization he could not escape sickness, old age, and death. And he was beginning to think of leaving his privileged life to seek peace of mind. When his wife Yasodhara gave birth to a son, the Prince bitterly called the boy Rahula, which means “fetter.”

Soon Prince Siddhartha left his wife and son to become the Buddha. Some modern wits have called the Buddha a “deadbeat dad.” But the infant Rahula was the grandson of King Suddhodana of the Shakya clan. He would be well cared for.


When Rahula was about nine years old, his father returned to his home city of Kapilavastu. Yasodhara took Rahula to see his father, who was now the Buddha. She told Rahula to ask his father for his inheritance so that he would become king when Suddhodana died.

So the child, as children will, attached himself to his father. He followed the Buddha, asking incessantly for his inheritance. After a time the Buddha complied by having the boy ordained as a monk. His would be the inheritance of the dharma.

Rahula Learns to Be Truthful 

The Buddha showed his son no favoritism, and Rahula followed the same rules as other new monks and lived under the same conditions, which were a far cry from his life in a palace.

It is recorded that once a senior monk took his sleeping spot during a rainstorm, forcing Rahula to seek shelter in a latrine. He was awakened by his father’s voice, asking Who is there?


It is I, Rahula, the boy responded. I see, replied the Buddha, who walked away. Although the Buddha was determined to not show his son special privileges, perhaps he had heard Rahula had been turned out in the rain and had gone to check on the boy. Finding him safe, even if uncomfortable, the Buddha left him there.

Rahula was a high-spirited boy who loved pranks. Once he deliberately misdirected a layperson who had come to see the Buddha. Learning of this, the Buddha decided it was time for a fatherly, or at least teacherly, sit down with Rahula. What happened next is recorded in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta in the Pali Tipitika.

Rahula was astonished but pleased when his father called on him. He filled a basin with water and washed his father’s feet. When he finished, the Buddha pointed to the small amount of water left in a dipper.

“Rahula, do you see this little bit of leftover water?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s how little of a monk there is in one who feels no shame at telling a lie.”

When the leftover water was tossed away, the Buddha said, “Rahula, do you see how this little bit of water is tossed away?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a lie is tossed away just like that.”

The Budha turned the water dipper upside down and said to Rahula, “Do you see how this water dipper is turned upside down?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a lie is turned upside down just like that.”

Then the Buddha turned the water dipper right side up. “Rahula, do you see how empty and hollow this water dipper is?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is empty and hollow just like that.”

The Buddha then taught Rahula how to reflect carefully on everything he thought, said, and consider consequences, and how his actions affected others and himself. Chastised, Rahula learned to purify his practice. It was said he realized enlightenment when he was only 18 years old

Rahula’s Adulthood 

We know only a little about Rahula in his later life. It is said that through his efforts his mother, Yasodhara, eventually became a nun and realized enlightenment also. His friends called him Rahula the Lucky. He said that he was twice lucky, being born the son of the Buddha and also realizing enlightenment.

It is also recorded that he died relatively young, while his father was still alive. The Emperor Ashoka the Great is said to have built a stupa in Rahula’s honor, dedicated to novice monks


O’Brien, Barbara. “Rahula: Son of Buddha.” Learn Religions, Sep. 5, 2021, learnreligions.com/profile-of-rahula-449644. https://www.learnreligions.com/profile-of-rahula-449644

Buddhism 101: A Short History of the Buddhist Schools

The different Buddhist schools of thought, still operating in the present day, developed after the death of the Buddha (l. c. 563 – c. 483 BCE) in an effort to perpetuate his teachings and honor his example. Each of the schools claimed to represent Buddha’s original vision and still do so in the modern era.

Although Buddha himself is said to have requested that, following his death, no leader was to be chosen to lead anything like a school, this was ignored and his disciples seem to have fairly quickly institutionalized Buddhist thought with rules, regulations, and a hierarchy.

Gandhara Relief of Buddha Eating with Monks (Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA))-

At first, there may have been a unified vision of what Buddha had taught but, in time, disagreements over what constituted the “true teaching” resulted in fragmentation and the establishment of three main schools:

  • Theravada Buddhism (The School of the Elders)
  • Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle)
  • Vajrayana Buddhism (The Way of the Diamond)

Theravada Buddhism claims to be the oldest school and to maintain Buddha’s original vision and teachings. Mahayana Buddhism is said to have split off from Theravada in the belief that it was too self-centered and had lost the true vision; this school also claims it holds to the Buddha’s original teaching. Actually, however, the two schools may have been established around the same time, just with different focus, and probably emerged from two earlier schools: the Sthaviravada (possible precursor to Theravada) and the Mahasanghika (also given as Mahasamghika, considered by some the earlier Mahayana). The connection between these earlier schools and the later ones, however, has been challenged. Vajrayana Buddhism developed, largely in Tibet, in response to what were perceived as too many rules in Mahayana Buddhism and emphasized living the Buddhist walk naturally without regard to ideas of what one was “supposed” to do and so it, too, claims to be the most authentic.

All three schools maintain a belief in the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as preached by the Buddha but differ – sometimes significantly – in how they choose to follow that path. Objectively, none are considered any more legitimate than the others, nor are the many minor schools which have developed, although adherents of each believe otherwise while, at the same time, recognizing they are all part of Ekayana(“One Vehicle” or “One Path”) in that all embrace Buddha’s central vision and seek to promote harmony and compassion in the world.


Although Buddhism is often perceived by non-adherents as a uniform belief system, it is as varied as any other in practice but, theoretically at least, a modern-day secular Buddhist can participate in rituals with a religious Buddhist without concern or conflict and all work toward the same essential goals.

Buddha & Buddhism

According to the foundational account of Buddha’s life, he was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, and his father, hoping to prevent him from following a spiritual path instead of succeeding him as king, kept him from any experiences which might have made him aware of suffering and death. The king’s plan succeeded for 29 years until Siddhartha witnessed the famous Four Signs while out riding one day – an aged man, a sick man, a dead man, and a spiritual ascetic – and became aware of the reality of sickness, old age, and death.

He renounced his wealth and position and followed the example of the spiritual ascetic, eventually attaining enlightenment upon recognizing the inherent impermanence of all aspects of life and realizing how one could live without suffering. He developed the concept of the Four Noble Truths, which state that suffering in life is caused by attachment to the things of life, and the Eightfold Path, the spiritual discipline one should follow to achieve release from attachment and the pain of craving and loss. Scholar John M. Koller comments:

The Buddha’s teaching of [the Four Noble Truths] was based on his insight into interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada) as the nature of existence. Interdependent arising means that everything is constantly changing, that nothing is permanent. It also means that all existence is selfless, that nothing exists separately, by itself. And beyond the impermanence and selflessness of existence, interdependent arising means that whatever arises or ceases does so dependent upon conditions. This is why understanding the conditions that give rise to [suffering] is crucial to the process of eliminating [suffering]. (64)

Buddha illustrated these conditions through the Wheel of Becoming which has in its hub the triad of ignorance, craving, and aversion, between the hub and rim the six types of suffering existence, and on the rim the conditions which give rise to duhkha (translated as “suffering”). Ignorance of the true nature of life encourages craving for those things one believes are desirable and aversion to things one fears and rejects. Caught on this wheel, the soul is blinded to the true nature of life and so condemns itself to samsara, the endless repetition of rebirth and death.

Stupa in Ajanta (by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

Spread & Fragmentation

Buddha preached his vision from the time of his enlightenment until his death at 80 years of age, at which point he requested that his disciples should not choose a leader but that each should lead themselves. He also requested that his remains be placed in a stupaat a crossroads. Neither of these requests was honored as his disciples fairly quickly organized themselves as a group with a leader and divided his remains among themselves, each choosing to place them in a stupa in a location of their choice.


Around 400 BCE, they held the First Council at which they established accepted Buddhist doctrine based on the Buddha’s teachings and, in 383 BCE, they held a Second Council at which, according to the standard account of the meeting, the Sthaviravada school insisted on the observance of ten proscriptions in the monastic discipline which the majority rejected.

At this point, either the Sthaviravada school left the community (known as the sangha) or the majority distanced themselves from the Sthaviravada and called themselves Mahasanghika (“Great Congregation”). All the later schools then developed from this first schism.

These schools had to contend with the more well-established belief systems of Hinduism and Jainism and, in an effort to level the playing field, developed an illustrious foundation story for their founder and attributed to him a number of miracles. Still, Buddhism remained a small sect in India, one among many, until it was championed by the Mauryan king Ashoka the Great (r. 268-232 BCE) who embraced the faith and initiated its spread. He sent missionaries to other nations such as Sri Lanka, ChinaKorea, Thailand, and Buddhism was accepted in these places far more quickly than in its home country.

Doctrinal differences, however, led to further divisions within the community of adherents. As the belief system became more institutionalized, these differences became more significant. Different canons of scripture developed which were held by some as true while rejected by others and different practices arose in response to the scripture. For example, the Pali canon, which emerged from Sri Lanka, maintained that Buddha was a human being who, although endowed with great spiritual power, still attained enlightenment through his own efforts and, when he died, he was set free from samsara and achieved total liberation from human affairs.

The Spread of Buddhism (by Be Zen)

As Buddhism spread, however, the founder was deified as a transcendent being who had always existed and would always exist. Buddha’s death was still understood as his nirvana, a “blowing out” of all attachment and craving, but some adherents no longer saw this as simply an escape from samsara but an elevation to an eternally abiding state; freed from samsara, but still present in spirit. The Mahasanghika school held to this belief as well as many others (such as the claim that the Buddha had never existed physically, only as a kind of holy apparition) which stood in direct contrast to the Sthaviravada and, later, the Theravada schools. Although the central vision of the Buddha was retained by adherents, doctrinal differences like this one led to the establishment of the different schools of Buddhist thought.

Although there were actually many schisms before the establishment of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (the Mahasanghika school alone produced three different sects by c. 283 BCE), the division of these schools from the original sangha is said to have been predicted by the Buddha himself in what is known as The Three Turnings. This concept is based on that of the Dharmachakra(wheel of eight spokes, a familiar Buddhist symbol) which represents the Eightfold Path, informed by dharma which, in Buddhism, is understood as “cosmic law”. The Dharmachakra has always been in motion and always will be but, as far as human recognition of it goes, it was set in motion when Buddha gave his first sermon, would then make the first turn with the establishment of Theravada Buddhism, a second with Mahayana, and a third with Vajrayana.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is said to be the oldest form of the belief system, but this is challenged by modern scholars. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. explain:

Despite the way in which scholars have portrayed the tradition, Theravada is neither synonymous with early Buddhism nor a more pristine form of the religion prior to the rise of the Mahayana. Such a claim suggests a state of sectarian inertia that belies the diversity over time of doctrine and practice within what comes to be called the Theravada tradition. (904)

Even so, many of those who self-identify as Theravada Buddhists do still make the claim that it is the oldest version of Buddhism and the closest to the founder’s vision. It is known as the “Teaching of the Elders” which derives from the same name held by the earlier school of Sthaviravada, and this is sometimes interpreted to mean that its founders were those closest to the Buddha but, actually, the term was commonly used in India to denote any monastic sect, and this applies directly to Theravada.

Adherents focus on the Three Trainings (trisksa):

  • Sila (moral conduct)
  • Samadhi (meditation)
  • Prajna (wisdom)

This discipline is observed as part of the Eightfold Path and is inspired by the central figure of the school, the sage Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) whose name means “Voice of the Buddha” for his ability to interpret and comment upon Buddhist doctrine. They hold the Pali canon to be the most authentic and focus on a monastic interpretation of the Buddhist path in which the individual seeks to become an arhat (saint) and has no obligation to teach others the way toward enlightenment. One may certainly do so if one chooses but, unlike Mahayana Buddhism, the goal is not to become a spiritual guide to others but to free one’s self from samsara.

Seated Buddha Figure Displaying Dharmachakra Mudra (by Prashanth Gopalan)

Theravada Buddhism is divided between a clergy of monks and a congregation of laypeople and it is understood that the monks are more spiritually advanced than the common folk. Women are considered inferior to men and are not thought capable of attaining enlightenment until they are reincarnated as a male. The Theravada school is sometimes referred to as Hinayana (“little vehicle”) by Mahayana Buddhists, but it should be noted that this is considered an insult by Theravada Buddhists in that it suggests their school is not as important as Mahayana.

Mahayana Buddhism


Mahayana Buddhists named themselves the “Great Vehicle” either because they felt they retained the true teachings and could carry the most people to enlightenment (as has been claimed) or because they developed from the early “Great Congregation” Mahasanghika school and wished to distance themselves from it, however slightly. It was founded 400 years after Buddha’s death, probably inspired by the early Mahasanghika ideology, and was streamlined and codified by the sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century CE), the central figure of the school. It may have initially been a minor school before interacting with Mahasanghika or, according to some scholars, developed on its own without that school’s influence but, either way, Mahayana is the most widespread and popular form of Buddhism in the world today, spreading from its initial acceptance in China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet to points all around the world.


The Mahayana school believes that all human beings possess a Buddha nature and can attain transcendent awareness, becoming a Bodhisattva (“essence of enlightenment”), who can then guide others on the same path. Adherents seek to attain the state of sunyata – the realization that all things are devoid of intrinsic existence, nature, and lasting meaning – a clearing of the mind that enables one to recognize the true nature of life. Having attained this higher state, just as Buddha did, one becomes a buddha. This transcendental state is similar to how gods and spirits were viewed by the Buddha himself – as existing but incapable of rendering any service to the individual – but, as a Bodhisattva, both women and men who have awakened are able to help others to help themselves.

Chinese Bodhisattva Plaque (by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin)

As with Theravada and every other school of Buddhism, the focus is on the self – self-perfection and self-redemption – and no other can do the spiritual work which one needs to do to release one’s self from suffering. Although Buddha is sometimes seen as a deified being by Mahayana Buddhists, the tenets do not encourage one to call on him for help. Following Buddha’s own vision, a belief in a creator god who is attentive to one’s prayers is discouraged because it attaches one to a power outside of one’s self and sets one up for disappointment and frustration when prayers go unanswered.

This is not to say that no Mahayana Buddhists pray directly to the Buddha; the tradition of representing Buddha in statuary and art, of praying to these objects, and considering them holy – observed in Mahayana Buddhism – was initiated by the Mahasanghika school and is among the many compelling reasons to believe the younger school emerged from the older one.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism (“Diamond Vehicle”) is so-called because of its association of enlightenment with an unbreakable substance. Its name is also given as “Thunderbolt Vehicle”, especially in reference to Tantric or Zen Buddhism, in that enlightenment falls like a thunderbolt after one has put in the required effort at perfecting the self. It is often considered an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism – is even referenced as a sect of that school – but actually borrows tenets from both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism while adding an innovation of its own.

In both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, one decides to follow the path, accepts the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as legitimate, and commits to a spiritual discipline which will lead to enlightenment by renouncing unprofitable habits. In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is understood that one already has a Buddha nature – everyone does, just as Mahayana believes – but, in Vajrayana, one only has to realize this in order to fully awaken. An adherent, therefore, does not have to give up bad habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking right away in order to begin one’s work on the path; one only has to commit to following the path and the desire to engage in unhealthy and damaging behaviors will steadily lose their allure. Instead of distancing one’s self from desire, one steps toward and through it, shedding one’s attachment as one proceeds in the discipline.

Tibetan Star Mandala (by Poke2001)

As with Mahayana Buddhism, the Vajrayana school focuses one on becoming a Bodhisattva who will then guide others. It was systematized by the sage Atisha (l. 982-1054 CE) in Tibet and so is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, often referenced as the spiritual leader of all Buddhists, is technically only the spiritual head of the Vajrayana School, and his views are most directly in line with this school of thought.

Other Schools

There are many other Buddhist schools which have developed from these three all around the world. In the West, the most popular of these is Zen Buddhism which traveled from China to Japan and was most fully developed there before arriving in the West. As Zen Masters are fond of saying, “What you call Zen is not Zen; What you do not call Zen is not Zen” meaning that the state of being one wishes to attain cannot be defined; it can only be experienced. One arrives at this state through deep meditation and mental concentration on koans – usually translated as “riddles” – which have no answer, such as the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – in order to clear the mind, rid the self of attachment, and attain the state of samadhi, a state of psychological and spiritual vision similar to sunyata. Students of Zen Buddhism frequently study with a master who might slap them, shout, or suddenly hit them with a stout stick in order to awaken them from the illusion of who they think they are and what they think they are doing. These sudden attacks without warning are engaged in, like the koans, to snap an adherent out of rational, linear thinking into a higher state of awareness.

Pure Land Buddhism is another which developed from Mahayana Buddhism and its goal is rebirth in a “pure land” of a Buddha Realm which exists on a higher plane. The belief comes from a story in the text known as the Infinite Life Sutra in which the Buddha tells a story of a past buddha named Amitabha who became a Bodhisattva and to whom were revealed the Buddha Realms available to the enlightened. Amitabha’s efforts to save all sentient creatures from suffering resulted in the creation of the realm of Sukhavati, the greatest of all, in which one experiences complete bliss after leaving the body at death. Although Pure Land is its own school, some Mahayana Buddhists observe the same tenets.

An increasingly popular school in the West is Secular Buddhism which rejects all metaphysical aspects of the belief system to focus on self-improvement for its own sake. Secular Buddhism recognizes the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path but on purely practical and psychological levels. There are no saints, no Bodhisattvas, no Buddha Realms, no concept of reincarnation to be considered. One engages in the discipline as set down by the Buddha in order to become a better version of one’s self and, when one dies, one no longer exists. There is no concept of a reward after death; one’s efforts in being the best person one can be in life is considered its own reward.


It is actually impossible to tell which, if any, of these schools is closest to the original vision of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, himself, wrote nothing down but instead – like many great spiritual figures throughout history whose followers then founded a religion in their name – lived his beliefs and tried to help others in their struggles. Since the earliest Buddhist texts were written centuries after the Buddha lived, and in an era when the events of a famous person’s life were regularly embellished upon, it is unknown whether his so-called “biography” is accurate nor even the dates between which he is said to have lived.

However that may be, and whoever he was, the Buddha established a belief system which attracts over 500 million adherents in the present day and has, for centuries, offered people a path toward peace of mind and inspiration to help others. The Buddhist belief in the sanctity of all life – no matter which school one attaches one’s self to – promotes care for other human beings, animals, and the earth in an effort to end suffering and offer transformative possibilities. In this respect, each school works toward goals that Buddha himself would approve of and differences in how those goals are reached are ultimately irrelevant


Buddhism 101: Ten Famous Buddhas: Where They Came From; What They Represent

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1. The Giant Faces of Bayon 

The stone faces of Angkor Thom
The stone faces of Angkor Thom are known for their smiling serenity.Mike Harrington / Getty Images

Strictly speaking, this isn’t just one Buddha; it is 200 or so faces decorating the towers of the Bayon, a temple in Cambodia very near the famous Angkor Wat. The Bayon probably was constructed at the end of the 12th century.

Although the faces are often assumed to be of the Buddha, they may have been intended to represent Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Scholars believe they were all made in the likeness of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), the Khmer monarch who built the Angkor Thom temple complex that contains the Bayon temple and the many faces.

2. The Standing Buddha of Gandhara 

Standing Buddha of Gandhara, Tokyo National Museum. Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons

This exquisite Buddha was found near modern-day Peshawar, Pakistan. In ancient times, much of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan was a Buddhist kingdom called Gandhara. Gandhara is remembered today for its art, particularly while being ruled by the Kushan Dynasty, from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. The first depictions of the Buddha in human form were made by the artists of Kushan Gandhara.

This Buddha was sculpted in the 2nd or 3rd century CE and today is in the Tokyo National Museum. The style of the sculpture is sometimes described as Greek, but the Tokyo National Museum insists it is Roman.

3. A Head of Buddha from Afghanistan 

Head of Buddha from Afghanistan
Head of Buddha from Afghanistan, 300-400 CE.Michel Wal / Wikipedia / GNU Free Documentation License

This head, believed to represent Shakyamuni Buddha, was excavated from an archaeological site in Hadda, Afghanistan, which is ten kilometers south of present-day Jalalabad. It probably was made in the 4th or 5th century CE, although the style is similar to the Graeco-Roman art of earlier times. 

The head now is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Museum curators say the head is made of stucco and was once painted. It’s believed the original statue was attached to a wall and was part of a narrative panel.

4. The Fasting Buddha of Pakistan 

Fasting buddha at lahore museum
The “Fasting Buddha,” a sculpture of ancient Gandhara, was found in Pakistan.Patrik Germann / Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License

The “Fasting Buddha” is another masterpiece from ancient Gandhara that was excavated in Sikri, Pakistan, in the 19th century. It probably dates to the 2nd century CE. The sculpture was donated to the Lahore Museum of Pakistan in 1894, where it is still displayed.

Strictly speaking, the statue should be called the “Fasting Bodhisattva” or the “Fasting Siddhartha,” since it portrays an event that took place before the Buddha’s enlightenment. On his spiritual quest, Siddhartha Gautama tried many aesthetic practices, including starving himself until he resembled a living skeleton. Eventually, he realized that mental cultivation and insight, not bodily deprivation, would lead to enlightenment.

5. The Tree Root Buddha of Ayuthaya 

© Prachanart Viriyaraks / Contributor / Getty Images

This quirky Buddha appears to be growing from tree roots. This stone head is near a 14th-century temple called Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya, which was once the capital of Siam, and is now in Thailand. In 1767 a Burmese army attacked Ayutthaya and reduced much of it to ruins, including the temple. Burmese soldier vandalized the temple by cutting off the heads of the Buddhas. 

The temple was abandoned until the 1950s when the government of Thailandbegan to restore it. This head was discovered outside the temple grounds, tree roots growing around it.

Another View of the Tree Root Buddha 

Ayutthaya Buddha Head closer
A closer look at the Ayutthaya Buddha. © GUIZIOU Franck / hemis.fr/ Getty Images

The tree root Buddha sometimes called the Ayuthaya Buddha, is a popular subject of Thai postcards and travel guidebooks. It is such a popular tourist attraction it must be watched by a guard, to prevent visitors from touching it.

6. The Longmen Grottoes Vairocana 

longmen Vairocana
Vairocana and Other Figures at Longmen Grottoes. © Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

The Longmen Grottoes of Henan Province, China, are a formation of limestone rock carved into tens of thousands of statues over a period of many centuries, beginning about 493 CE. The large (17.14 meters) Vairocana Buddha that dominates the Fengxian Cave was carved in the 7th century. It is regarded to this day as one of the most beautiful representations of Chinese Buddhist art. To get an idea of the size of the figures, find the man in the blue jacket beneath them.

Face of the Longmen Grottoes Vairocana Buddha 

Vairocana Buddha
This face of Vairocana may have been modeled after the Empress Wu Zetian. © Luis Castaneda Inc. / The Image Bank

Here is a closer look at the face of the Longmen Grottoes Vairocana Buddha. This section of the grottoes was carved during the life of the Empress Wu Zetian (625-705 CE). An inscription at the base of the Vairocana honors the Empress, and it is said that the face of the Empress served as the model for the face of Vairocana.

7. The Giant Leshan Buddha 

Tourists flock around the giant Buddha of Leshan, China. © Marius Hepp / EyeEm / Getty Images

He’s not the most beautiful Buddha, but the giant Maitreya Buddha of Leshan, China, does make an impression. He’s held the record for world’s largest seated stone Buddha for more than 13 centuries. He is 233 feet (about 71 meters) tall. His shoulders are about 92 feet (28 meters) wide. His fingers are 11 feet (3 meters) long.

The giant Buddha sits at the confluence of three rivers — the Dadu, Qingyi, and Minjiang. According to legend, a monk named Hai Tong decided to erect a Buddha to placate water spirits that were causing boat accidents. Hai Tong begged for 20 years to raise the money to carve the Buddha. Work began in 713 CE and was completed in 803 CE.

8. The Seated Buddha of Gal Vihara 

The Buddhas of Gal Vihara remain popular with pilgrims and tourists alike. © Peter Barritt / Getty Images

Gal Vihara is a rock temple in north-central Sri Lanka that was built in the 12th century. Although it has fallen into ruin, Gal Vihara today is a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims. The dominant feature is a giant granite block, from which four images of the Buddha were carved. Archaeologists say the four figures were originally covered in gold. The seated Buddha in the photograph is over 15 feet tall.

9. The Kamakura Daibutsu, or Great Buddha of Kamakura 

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of Kamakura, Honshu, Kanagawa Japan. © Peter Wilson / Getty Images

He isn’t the biggest Buddha in Japan​ or the oldest, but the Daibutsu — Great Buddha — of Kamakura has long been the most iconic Buddha in Japan. Japanese artists and poets have celebrated this Buddha for centuries; Rudyard Kipling also made the Kamakura Daibutsu the subject of a poem, and the American artist John La Farge painted a popular watercolor of the Daibutsu in 1887 that introduced him to the West.

The bronze statue, believed to have been made in 1252, depicts Amitabha Buddha, called Amida Butsu in Japan.

10. The Tian Tan Buddha 

Tian Tan Buddha
The Tian Tan Buddha is the world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha. It is located at Ngong Ping, Lantau Island, in Hong Kong. Oye-sensei, Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

The tenth Buddha in our list is the only modern one. The Tian Tan Buddha of Hong Kong was completed in 1993. But he’s quickly turning into one of the most photographed Buddhas in the world. The Tian Tan Buddha is 110 feet (34 meters) tall and weighs 250 metric tons (280 short tons). It is located at Ngong Ping, Lantau Island, in Hong Kong. The statue is called the “Tian Tan” because its base is a replica of Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

The Tian Tan Buddha’s right hand is raised to remove affliction. His left hand rests on his knee, representing happiness. It is said that on a clear day the Tian Tan Buddha can be seen as far away as Macau, which is 40 miles west of Hong Kong.

He’s no rival in size to the stone Leshan Buddha, but the Tian Tan Buddha is the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world. The massive statue took ten years to cast.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Ten Famous Buddhas: Where They Came From; What They Represent.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/famous-buddhas-where-they-came-from-what-they-represent-449986.

Buddhism 101: The Historical Buddha’s Disciples

The First Generation

Xaume Olleros / Getty Images

We do not know how many monks and nuns were ordained by the Buddha during his lifetime. The early accounts sometimes describe monks and nuns by the thousands, but that is possibly exaggerated.

Of these unknown numbers some outstanding individuals emerge. These are individuals who contributed to the development of Buddhism and whose names one finds in the sutras. Through their life stories we can get at least a glimpse of the first generation of men and women who chose to follow the Buddha and practice his teaching.


Statues depicting the disciples of the Buddha at Daigan-ji, a temple in Japan.
Sheryl Forbes / Getty Images

Ananda was the historical Buddha‘s cousin and also his attendant during the latter part of his life. Ananda is also remembered as the disciple who recited the Buddha’s sermons from memory at the First Buddhist Council, after the Buddha had died.

According to a possibly apocryphal story in the Pali Tipitika, Ananda persuaded a reluctant Buddha to accept women as his disciples.


Ruins in Sravasti, India.
Ruins in Sravasti, India, thought to be of the Jeta Grove retreat center. Bpilgrim / Wikimedia Creative Commons

Anathapindika was a wealthy lay disciple and benefactor of the Buddha. His generosity to the poor earned him his name, which means “feeder of the orphans or helpless.”

The Buddha and his disciples traveled for most of the year, but they stayed indoors in seclusion during the summer monsoon season. With the Buddha’s permission, Anathapindika purchased a property that would be called the Jeta Grove. He then built a meeting hall, dining hall, sleeping cells, wells, lotus ponds, and whatever else the monks might need during their solitary rains retreats. This was the first Buddhist monastery.

Today, readers of the sutras may notice that the Buddha delivered many of his discourses “in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika’s Monastery.”null


Painting of Devadatta in a temple with deciples.
Devadatta Incites an Elephant to Charge the Buddha. Tevaprapas, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License

Devadatta was a kinsman of the Buddha who became a disciple. According to some traditions, Devadatta became consumed with jealousy of the Buddha. After receiving a particularly harsh rebuke from the Buddha, Devadatta plotted to have the Buddha assassinated.

When his plots failed, he split the sangha by persuading many younger monks to follow him instead of the Buddha. The monks Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were able to persuade the wayward monks to return.null


Painting of Dhammadinna and Viskha from from a mural at Wat Pho, a temple in Bangkok, Thailand.
Dhammadinna and Visakha as a married couple. Anandajoti / Photo Dharma / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Some of the early sutras of Buddhism are about enlightened women who teach men. In Dhammadinna’s story, the man was the enlightened woman’s ex-husband. The Buddha praised Dhammadinna as “a woman of discerning wisdom.


Statue of Khema with deciples.
 กสิณธร ราชโอรส / Wikimedia Commons

Queen Khema was a great beauty who became a nun and one of the chief women disciples of the Buddha. In the Khema Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44), this enlightened nun gives a dharma lesson to a king.


Painting of the head of Mahakasyapa.
  Axb3 / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

After the historical Buddha died, Mahakasyapa assumed a leadership position among the Buddha’s surviving monks and nuns. He convened and presided over the First Buddhist Council. For this reason, he is called the “father of the sangha.” He is also a patriarch of Chan (Zen).


Carving of Buddha and some of his diciples.
Sariputra and Maudgalyayana become disciples of Buddha. Nomu420craftsmen / Wikimedia Commons

Maudgalyayana was a lifelong friend of Sariputra; the two entered the order together. The Buddha’s instructions to Maudgalyayana as he struggled with his early practice have been valued by the many generations.


Painting of buddhist marriage in temple.
Marraige of Suddhodana and Mahapajapati. Photo Dharma from / Wikimedia Commons

Pajapati is credited with being the first Buddhist nun. She is often called Mahapajapati.

Pajapati was the Buddha’s aunt who raised the young Prince Siddhartha as her own child after the death of his mother, Queen Maya. After the Buddha’s enlightenment she and many of her court ladies shaved their heads, dressed in patched mendicants’ robes, and walked many miles barefoot to find the Buddha and ask to be ordained. In a section of the Pali Tipitika that remains controversial, the Buddha refused the request until persuaded to change his mind by Ananda.


A carving depicting Patacara and buddha in a temple amongst a crowd.
The story of Patacara. Anandajoti, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License

Patacara was a nun who overcame unimaginable grief to realize enlightenment and become a leading disciple. Some of her poems are preserved in a section of the Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.


Punnika was a slave who, by chance, heard a sermon of the Buddha. In a famous story recorded in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, she inspired a Brahmin to seek out the Buddha. In time she became a nun and realized enlightenment.


Ivory carving of Buddha leaving a woman and child sleeping in bed.
Siddhartha leaving sleeping Yashodhara and Rahula. Nomu420 / Wikimedia Commons

Rahula was the historical Buddha’s only child, born shortly before the Buddha left his life as a prince to seek enlightenment. It is said Rahula was ordained a monk while still a child and realized enlightenment at the age of 18.


Statues of Buddha, Mogallana and Sariputta in a museum.
Buddha with Mogallana and Sariputta. Origamiemensch / Wikimedia Commons

It was said Sariputra was second only to the Buddha in his ability to teach. He is credited with mastering and codifying the Buddha’s Abhidharma teachings, which became the third “basket” of the Tripitika.

Mahayana Buddhists will recognize Sariputra as a figure in the Heart Sutra.


The Upali Thein temple on a sunny day.
The Upali Thein temple. Tsaetre / Wikimedia Commons

Upali was a low-caste barber who met the Buddha when he was called upon to cut the Buddha’s hair. He came to the Buddha to ask to be ordained with a group of the Buddha’s high-born kinsmen. The Buddha insisted on ordaining Upali first so that he would be their senior, and superior, in the order.

Upali became known for his faithful devotion to the Precepts and his understanding of the rules of the monastic order. He was called upon to recite the rules from memory at the First Buddhist Council, and this recitation became the basis of the Vinaya.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Historical Buddha’s Disciples.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/first-generation-of-buddhas-disciples-449657.

Buddhism 101: Tathagata-garbha

wei wei / Getty Images

Tathagatagarbha, or Tathagata-garbha, means “womb” (garbha) of Buddha (Tathagata). This refers to a Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that Buddha Nature is within all beings. Because this is so, all beings may realize enlightenment. Tathagatagarbha often is described as a seed, embryo or potentiality within each individual to be developed.

Tathagatagarbha was never a separate philosophical school, but more of a proposal and the doctrine is understood in various ways. And it sometimes has been controversial. Critics of this doctrine say that it amounts to a self or atmanby another name, and the teaching of atman is something the Buddha specifically denied.

Origins of Tathagatagarbha 

The doctrine was taken from a number of Mahayana sutras. The Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras include the Tathagatagarbha and Srimaladevi Simhanada sutras, both thought to have been written in the 3rd century CE, and several others. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, probably also written about the 3rd century, is considered the most influential.null

The proposal developed in these sutras appears primarily to have been a response to Madhyamika philosophy, which says that phenomena are empty of self-essence and have no independent existence. Phenomena appear distinctive to us only as they relate to other phenomena, in function and position. Thus, it cannot be said that phenomena either exist or don’t exist. 

Tathagatagarbha proposed that Buddha Nature is a permanent essence in all things. This was sometimes described as a seed and at other times pictured as a fully formed Buddha in each of us.

Somewhat later some other scholars, possibly in China, connected Tathagatagarbha to the Yogacara teaching of Alaya vijnana, which is sometimes called “storehouse consciousness.” This is a level of awareness that contains all the impressions of previous experiences, which become the seeds of karma.null

The combination of Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara would become especially important in Tibetan Buddhism as well as in Zen and other Mahayana traditions. The association of Buddha Nature

with a level of vijnana is significant because vijnana is a kind of pure, direct awareness not marked by thoughts or concepts. This caused Zen and other traditions to emphasize the practice of direct contemplation or awareness of mind above intellectual understanding.

Is Tathagatagarbha a Self? 

In the religions of the Buddha’s day that were the forerunners of today’s Hinduism, one of the central beliefs as (and is) the doctrine of atman. Atman means “breath” or “spirit,” and it refers to a soul or individual essence of self. Another is the teaching of Brahman, which is understood as something like the absolute reality or the ground of being. In the several traditions of Hinduism, the precise relationship of atman to Brahman varies, but they could be understood as the small, individual self and the big, universal self.

However, the Buddha specifically rejected this teaching. The doctrine of anatman, which he articulated many times, is a direct refutation of atman.

Through the centuries many have accused the Tathagatagarbha doctrine of being an attempt to sneak an atman back into Buddhism by another name. In this case, the potentiality or Buddha-seed within each being is compared to atman, and Buddha Nature — which is sometimes identified with the dharmakaya — is compared to Brahman.

You can find many Buddhist teachers speaking of a small mind and a big mind, or small self and big self. What they mean may not be exactly like the atman and Brahman of Vedanta, but it’s common for people to understand them that way. Understanding Tathagatagarbha this way, however, would violate basic Buddhist teaching.

No Dualities 

Today, in some Buddhist traditions influence by Tathagatagarbha doctrine, Buddha Nature often is still described as a kind of seed or potentiality within each of us. Others, however, teach that Buddha Nature is simply what we are; the essential nature of all beings.

The teachings of small self and big self are sometimes used today in a kind of provisional way, but ultimately this duality must be fused. This is done in several ways. For example, the Zen koan Mu, or Chao-chou’s Dog, is (among other things) intended to smash through the concept that Buddha Nature is something that one has.

And it’s very possible today, depending on the school, to be a Mahayana Buddhist practitioner for many years and never hear the word Tathagatagarbha. But because it was a popular idea at a critical time during the development of Mahayana, its influence lingers.


  • Tathagata-garbha, O’Brien, Barbara. “Tathagata-garbha.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/tathagatagarbha-womb-of-buddha-450013.

Buddhism 101: Buddha Nature


Buddha Nature is a term used often in Mahayana Buddhism that is not easy to define. To add to the confusion, understanding of what it is varies from school to school.null

Basically, Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Part of this fundamental nature is the tenet that all beings may realize enlightenment. Beyond this basic definition, one can find all manner of commentaries and theories and doctrines about Buddha Nature that may be more difficult to understand. This is because Buddha Nature is not part of our conventional, conceptual understanding of things, and language does not function well to explain it.null

This article is a beginner’s introduction to Buddha Nature

Origin of the Buddha Nature Doctrine 

The origin of the Buddha Nature doctrine can be traced to something the historical Buddha said, as recorded in the Pali Tipitika (Pabhassara Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 1.49-52):

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person – there is no development of the mind. 

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones – there is development of the mind.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]

This passage gave rise to many theories and interpretations within early Buddhism. Monastics and scholars also struggled with questions about anatta, no self, and how a no-self could be reborn, affected by karma, or become a Buddha. The luminous mind that is present whether one is aware of it or not offered an answer.null

Theravada Buddhism did not develop a doctrine of Buddha Nature. However, other early schools of Buddhism began to describe the luminous mind as a subtle, basic consciousness present in all sentient beings, or as a potentiality for enlightenment that pervades everywhere.

Buddha Nature in China and Tibet 

In the 5th century, a text called the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra – or the Nirvana Sutra – was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. The Nirvana Sutra is one of three Mahayana sutras that make up a collection called the Tathagatagarbha (“womb of the Buddhas”) sutras. Today some scholars believe these texts were developed from earlier Mahasanghika texts. Mahasanghika was an early sect of Buddhism that emerged in the 4th century BCE and which was an important forerunner of Mahayana.https://7f07498aa52e8908810c7a61f3a1afe1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The Tathagatagarbha sutras are credited with presenting the fully developed doctrine of Buddha Dhatu, or Buddha Nature. The Nirvana Sutra, in particular, was enormously influential in the development of Buddhism in China. Buddha Nature remains an essential teaching in the several schools of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in China, such as T’ien T’ai and Chan (Zen).

At least some of the Tathagatagarbha sutras also were translated into Tibetan, probably late in the 8th century. Buddha Nature is an important teaching in

Tibetan Buddhism, although the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism do not entirely agree on what it is. For example, the Sakya and Nyingma schools emphasize that Buddha Nature is the essential nature of the mind, while Gelugpa treats it more as a potentiality within the mind.

Note that “Tathagatagarbha” sometimes appears in texts as a synonym for Buddha Nature, although it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.

Is Buddha Nature a Self? 

Sometimes Buddha Nature is described as a “true self” or “original self.” And sometimes it is said that everyone has Buddha Nature. This is not wrong. But sometimes people hear this and imagine that Buddha Nature is something like a soul, or some attribute that we possess, like intelligence or a bad temper. This is not a correct view.

Smashing the “me and my Buddha nature” dichotomy appears to be the point of a famous dialogue between the Chan master Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (778-897) and a monk, who inquired if a dog has Buddha nature. Chao-chou’s answer – Mu (no, or does not have) has been contemplated as a koan by generations of Zen students.

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) “made a paradigm shift when he translated a phrase rendered in the Chinese version of the Nirvana Sutra from ‘All sentient beings have Buddha nature’ to ‘All existents are Buddha nature,'” wrote Buddhist scholar Paula Arai in Bringing Zen Home, the Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals. “Moreover, by removing an explicit verb the whole phrase becomes an activity. The implications of this grammatical shift continue to reverberate. Some could interpret this move as the logical conclusion of a nondualistic philosophy.”

Very simply, Dogen’s point is that Buddha Nature is not something we have, it is what we are. And this something that we are is an activity or process that involves all beings. Dogen also emphasized that practice is not something that will give us enlightenment but instead is the activity of our already enlightened nature, or Buddha Nature.

Let’s go back to the original idea of a luminous mind that is always present, whether we are aware of it or not. The Tibetan teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche described Buddha Nature this way:

“… our fundamental nature of mind is a luminous expanse of awareness that is beyond all conceptual fabrication and completely free from the movement of thoughts. It is the union of emptiness and clarity, of space and radiant awareness that is endowed with supreme and immeasurable qualities. From this basic nature of emptiness everything is expressed; from this everything arises and manifests.”

Another way of putting this is to say that Buddha Nature is “something” that you are, together with all beings. And this “something” is already enlightened. Because beings cling to a false idea of a finite self, set apart from everything else, they do not experience themselves as Buddhas. But when beings clarify the nature of their existence they experience the Buddha Nature that was always there.

If this explanation is difficult to understand at first, do not be discouraged. It is better to not try to “figure it out.” Instead, keep open, and let it clarify itself.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddha Nature.” Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/buddha-nature-doctrine-450001.