The Tree Of Life: The ‘Modern’ Buddhists


Without a doubt, we can say that times have changed. We have changed. And with this, the way we take on our religion has changed too. What it meant to be a Buddhist back-in-the-days is different to what it means to be a Buddhist today. There are many things that make up a Buddhist and many things that define a Buddhist in today’s society.

When Buddha started to find the answers to his problems, such as why there was suffering in the world, he established a set of guidelines or ‘rules’ that are to be followed if one where to reach the state of nirvana (enlightenment). Buddha left behind for his followers to find the inner-peace that he himself had achieved as a Bodhisattva (enlightened one) and to live their life in this world to the best of their ability by avoiding certain things like worldly desires.

Has this been upheld in the modern world today by Buddhists? Certainly.

Just like in any other religion, Buddhism has a set of principle beliefs that uniquely identify a Buddhist. For example: to be a Buddhist one must adhere to the Four Noble Truths as the principle goals of being a Buddhist is to reach enlightenment – which is clearly examined in the Four Truths. Buddha set out these Truths as a simple plan that people (Buddhists) could follow to achieve. These Truths set out the reason why people suffer and shows a way out of their suffering [1] . The Four Noble Truths can be found on the Principle Beliefs page of this Blog.

Four Noble Truths

Following the noble Eightfold Path, is also another belief that identifies a Buddhist and is something that Buddhists today follow. This path, Buddhists believe, can help them find a way out of suffering and see beyond illusion. The Eightfold Path requires one to have Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. All these, according to Buddhists, lead one out of suffering. [1] [2]

In an article titled: ‘No dimming the inner light of Dalai Lama’, published by the Sydney Morning Herald (smh) on June the 12th 2011, by Natalie Craig [3] , it talks about the way of life for Buddhists, according to the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama. He emphasised his views on everything from inner peace to world peace, and warned of the futility of seeing money as a source of happiness, stressed the need for children to have ‘moral education’ regardless of their creed, and cited research suggesting that stress and anxiety affects physical health. His views go in accordance to the principles of Buddhism, especially the noble Eightfold Path – Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Understanding and Right Thought.

Monks with the Dalai Lama

An aged care nurse, Nicole Kerr, said she felt the ultimate message of Buddhism was that ‘the answers are in you – everything flows from finding peace within yourself’. She also stated that, ‘I have found Dalai Lama’s teachings helpful for personal difficulties in my life’. We can see how Buddhism has allowed its adherents to find a way out of suffering by focusing on finding inner peace, which is, the ideal principle message of Buddhism and what makes a Buddhist today.

Even though Buddha had taught that ‘worldly desires’ isn’t good for the mind, body and soul and that one should let go of worldly desires, there have been confusions and contradictions in the way modern Buddhists today handle this view in their religion.

Mike Bruce writes in an article titled: ‘The Holy path to peace’, published by Courier Mail on June the 12th 2011 [4] , about a significant figure Marie Obst. He examines her change in faith and what brought her to Buddhism and how she practices Buddhism as a ‘modern’ Buddhist.

Marie Obst says that the absolute rejection of material goods simply isn’t foreseeable or even sensible for many Buddhists in a Western society. She earns a living, drives a car, works a normal job and owns a house. ‘Here, we are largely responsible for ourselves,’ she explains. ‘I think it’s an individual choice as to whether you own things. A lot of people who are ordained have had a life before they became involved in Buddhism, so they may already have their own home and so on’.

She also goes on to say that Buddhism never encouraged for one to take all their material things and dispose of them because then they become someone else’s responsibility. She says that people should use material things to maintain a balance in life, to be able to keep oneself and their spiritual practice as strong as possible.


Using Marie Obst as an example, we can see how being a Buddhist in today’s society is challenged. And in order for one to be a successful Buddhist today, they have to balance worldly desires while trying to keep their spiritual practice as strong as possible. So, maybe being a Buddhist today is to try and find a balance in life between the world and spirituality so that they can reach nirvana.

We must not forget the other 3 components that make up Buddhism and a Buddhist today. They are: Karma, Samsara, and Nirvana. Buddhists believe that ‘every action has a reaction’ – this they call karma. Karma is a natural law of causation in the eyes of Buddhists. For one to reach enlightenment, they must do good ‘deeds’ or have good behaviour so that they can reach a better rebirth in the next life. This is where samsara comes in. Rebirth is a process that Buddhists endure. Each rebirth gives them a chance or opportunity to reach nirvana. Coming to nirvana (enlightenment), is coming to the realisation that everything is part of the same reality. [1] [2]

The actions of the modern day Buddhists, such as the Dalai Lama, prove this otherwise. In the article titled: ‘No dimming the inner life of Dalai Lama’ [3] as mentioned earlier, it shows one aspect of how this modern day Buddhist had come to the realisation that everything and everyone is part of the same reality. He says: ‘I AM like you – we are all humans’.

Buddhism ‘Way of Life’

We have another example of how Buddhists uphold their religion today in a article also about the Dalai Lama titled: ‘Dalai Lama backs early move against warming’, published by the Sydney Morning Herald (smh) on June the 10th 2011, by Peter Hartcher [5] . In Buddhism, one is taught to be compassionate to others and have the 8 Rights or follow the 8 Rights to avoid suffering. The article states that the Dalai Lama, once he arrived in Australia, called for countries to cut greenhouse gases urgently, without waiting for other nations to act first.

He said that governments needed to act on the global interests, rather than an outmoded definition of the national interest. He also stated that the Copenhagen climate summit failed to solve the looming problem of global warming because for individual nations, ‘their top priority is for their own national interest, rather than global interest.’ In his view, he believes that this is wrong. ‘After all, every nation belongs to the world. If a global crisis happens… everybody suffers.’

Using this as a clear example, we can see how Buddhists, such as the Dalai Lama, act upon worldly matters using the core principle beliefs of their religion. From this example, we can see how the Dalai Lama acted in accordance to the noble Eightfold Path. He used Right Action, Right Livelihood and Right Effort to make a change that would benefit the whole of society (a full explanation of the Eightfold Path can be found in the Principle Beliefs page of this Blog). He had said that every nation belongs to the world and that ‘if a global crisis happens… everybody suffers’. This shows how the Buddhist teachings influence the actions of Buddhists today. It also defines what it means to be a Buddhist today.

Monk teaching Ethics of Buddhism

We now understand how a Buddhist today approached life in accordance to the principle beliefs. But there is actually more to it than that. There are two groups of Buddhism: we have the ordinary Buddhists, which are called the ‘laypeople’ and we have the spiritual Buddhists, which are called ‘monks’. There are certain ethical teachings that distinguish the two. The more ordinary Buddhists follow what they call ‘The 5 Precepts’ while the monks, more spiritual Buddhists, follow what they call ‘The Vinaya’. The basis of these Buddhist ethics is respect for life: not to harm any living being and to ensure the welfare of all. Intention is also a primary focus of Buddhist ethics. To intend to do good is more important than the act itself.

The 5 Precepts contain the fundamental Buddhist values, as related to ethical and moral teachings. They are basically an exposition of the Noble Eightfold Path – Right Action. They are also guides to correct behaviour rather than strict rules. The 5 Precepts that make up an ordniary Buddhist today are as follows:

Killing living things: This refers to all life not just human life. For example, a Buddhist, in order to adhere to this first precept, might practice vegetarianism.

Taking what is not given: This includes, but is not limited to, stealing. It also covers issues such as generosity, trustworthiness, and also adultery.

Engaging in sexual misconduct: This involves actions to do with sexual responsilbility, such as abuse, rape, incest and adultery.

Speaking falsely: This covers lying, slander and deceitful behaviour and words.

Taking drugs or drink that affect the mind: This relates to things such as drugs and alcohol. It may also include tobacco.

Buddhist Monk

The Vinaya is a guide for the monks and nuns in Buddhism. The Vinaya is what makes up a Buddhist monk and/or nun today. There are several aspects of monastic Buddhism that are additional to the general guidance given to the Buddhist community at large. The Vinaya rules are designed to remove members from all conditions in which desire could arise, and the meditational practices complement this physical and social removal by taking away the roots of desire altogether. These rules are distinguished by the punishments which are attatched to them. For example: murder and sexual activity can lead to expulsion from the sangha, while eating a meal at the wrong time is simply a matter of confession. Although many of the rules are highly specific, they fall into one of two categories: not to cause harm to any sort of living being and, to strive for the welfare of all beings.

Those are the different levels of Buddhsim and how different people, who have different ranks in Buddhism, go about in their daily lives today to make up the definition of what it means to be a Buddhist today.

To recap quickly of what it means to be a Buddhist today, Julien Ries in her book titled ‘Religions in Humainty: The many faces of Buddhism’ [6] says the following about Buddhism today:

Modern Buddhism is presented as an Awakening, so that man’s behaviour will lead him to the truth – and thus to liberation from fear, anguish, and suffering – starting him on the path to happiness.Surrounded in his existence by the flux of events, man resembles a wheel, an evolving creature, a nucleus of sentiments and will, a flame which feeds itself, an existence which depends on all that has gone before. Awakened to his duties, man must master himself, establish the balance between him and the external world, give direction to his sexuality with energy, and renounce the slavery of desire. The goal is to reach the state of nirvana, which is a spiritual and physical balance characterised by goodwill and an attuning of oneself to others. Thus, for the modern man, Buddhism offers itself as a path of Awakening to duty and progress attained through continuous persona effort, in a state of inner peace, benevolent compassion in social life, with a spiritual outlook at the world but without religious preoccupation.

Wisdom of the Buddha – Video


1. Wood, Cavan, (2002), ‘Living Buddhism’. Heinemann Library.

2. Ganeri, Anita, (2003), ‘Sacred Texts: The Tipitaka and other Buddhist texts’. London: Evans Brothers Limited.

3. Craig Natalie, (2011, June 12). No dimming the inner light of Dalai Lama; The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/victoria/no-dimming-the-inner-light-of-dalai-lama-20110611-1fyaq.html

4. Bruce Mike, (2011, June 12). The Holy path to peace; Courier Mail: the Australian. Retrieved from: http://www.couriermail.com.au/ipad/holy-path-to-peace/story-fn6ck8la-1226073428302

5. Hartcher Peter, (2011, June 10). Dalai Lama backs early move against warming; The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/dalai-lama-backs-early-move-against-warming-20110609-1fv3f.html

6. Ries, Julien, (2000), ‘Religions of Humanity: The Many Faces of Buddhism’. Milan: Editoriale Jaca Book spa.

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