Buddhism is a religious tradition founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in Northern India in the 6th century BC Gautama was called the Buddha after he attained enlightenment; the name Buddha means “The Awakened” or “Enlightened One.” Through study, contemplation, and great effort, the Buddha achieved an understanding of the true nature of reality. He then showed his followers that they, too, could reach the same level of knowledge through their own study and practice. Buddhists believe that everyone has a fundamental Buddha-nature and that every human being has the potential to become a Buddha.
Because Buddhism can be regarded as a philosophy, a religion, and a way of life, it does not fit into one category. Everyone has Buddha-nature. Everyone has the potential to achieve what the Buddha himself accomplished and escape the endless cycle of sufferings, cravings, and transitory pleasures. Moreover, human beings are responsible for their own actions, which can have repercussions after death due to the law of karma. For these reasons, Buddhism is often regarded as a “do it yourself” religion, with a focus on compassion and wisdom.
Practitioners are instructed by a living master called a lama or a guru. They strive to become a Buddha themselves in order to attain enlightenment— a state of wisdom. There is a belief in a future Buddha. The word belief is easily subject to misinterpretation with regard to Buddhism, however; Buddhists do not simply accept by faith what the Buddha taught and leave it at that. Instead, they learn by study, contemplation, and practice to experience the teachings and apply them to their daily lives.
In the latter part of the 20th century, Buddhism has spread to many parts of the world and is growing in popularity in the West. It is estimated that there are 200,000 converts in Europe and America.
Life Of The Buddha
The life story of the Buddha is not as well known in the West as that of Jesus Christ; yet, the story of the Buddha’s journey from great wealth to renunciation to great poverty to ultimate realization is integral to understanding Buddhism and integrating it into one’s daily life.
Siddhartha Gautama was born around 563 BC in a place called Lumbini. His father, Shuddhodana, was the king or leader of a group of people known as the Shakyas. Stories of the Buddha’s life describe him as a prince who was destined to become ruler of his people and who enjoyed a luxurious upbringing. But after 16 years of a confined and protected life within his palace walls, Siddhartha journeyed into the world. There, for the first time, he became aware of old age, sickness, and death; and he began to realize that these sufferings were part of life. He also met a holy man who showed him that the renunciation of cravings for wealth, material goods, and high status was the way out of these universal sufferings.
Siddhartha decided to retreat to the forest, abandoning the palace life and his family. There he lived as an ascetic for 6 long years, but he eventually realized that simply starving himself was counterproductive. So he decided to abandon all extremes and practice a moderate, middle way instead. Finally, while in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree at a place called Bodh Gaya (now located in the Indian state of Bihar), he achieved the ultimate realization of the true nature of life and all creatures within it; he thus became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After spending 7 weeks meditating on what he had realized, he decided to communicate what he had achieved to anyone who would listen. He was then about 35 years old, and he spent the next nearly 50 years teaching what he had learned. The series of teachings, which is called the Tipitaka, is broken into three types:
- Sutras, or conventional teachings and stories
- The Vinaya, or instructions on morality for monks
- The Abhidharma, teachings on moral psychology and philosophy (these are generally attributed to the Buddha, though some scholars believe they grew out of commentaries written by followers of the Buddha)
The accumulated teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual development they bring to the practitioner are frequently referred to as the Dharma. The historical Buddha who originally achieved these realizations is known as Buddha Shakyamuni; he is thus distinguished from others who have attained a state of enlightenment and become Buddhas themselves, as well as from Buddhas who are expected to come in the future.
The Buddha died when he was about 80 years old at a place called Kusinara, leaving behind dedicated and accomplished followers called the Sangha. They and generations of sanghas have carried on his teachings and transmitted them to generations of practitioners throughout the world. Today, Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions, followed by millions in countries including China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myammar, Nepal, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in 1959 and subsequent dispersal of Buddhist teachers has brought Buddhism to the United States and to Europe, as well as to other countries.
Buddhism does not originate in heaven and is not handed down to earth by divine beings, but instead it is derived from the enlightened teachings of a man who lived on earth and achieved great wisdom. Buddhists follow the Buddha’s example in not relying on divine guidance, faith, or traditional beliefs. Rather, they use experience, reasoning, and meditation to achieve the goals of nirvana and freedom from suffering for all other beings. Tolerance for other religions and cultures and aversion to violence and bloodshed have always been central to Buddhism as well.
Many of the tenets described in the sections that follow have been handed down over 2,500 years by oral tradition. Many Buddhist sects emphasize the importance of obtaining teachings from a qualified master who has received teachings from masters before him. The Theravadan sect emphasizes the importance of studying and interpreting the Buddha’s original oral teachings. The Mahayana and Vajrayana schools emphasize a more liberal path in which students must learn from a master but can achieve their own realizations and understanding.
The Four Noble Truths
Rather than immediately seeking to tackle fundamental questions such as “What is the meaning of life” and “What happens after death?”, Buddhism seeks to explore the state of human existence. The root teaching is that of The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are phrased in many different ways, but each describes the nature of existence: Life is transitory and beings are subject to suffering, but a cessation to suffering is found by renouncing worldly concerns and pursuing wisdom. They can be summarized as:
- The truth of suffering (in Pali, dukkha; in Sanskrit,duhkha)
- The truth of the cause of suffering
- The truth that there is an end to suffering
- The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering
The term dukkha has many connotations besides the experience of mental or physical pain. Accordingly, the Buddhist concept of suffering comes in many forms. In addition to pervasive physical suffering, humans confront mental suffering and the suffering of change—birth, death, disease, the satisfaction of desire, the deprivation of not having what is desired. Even in moments of happiness and satisfaction, there is suffering because of the inevitable loss of that state when conditions change and time passes.
Buddhism’s emphasis on the suffering that is an integral part of human life leads some to conclude that it is a negative or “unhappy” religion. But only through clearly perceiving the nature of existence can one obtain true happiness as well as gain the impetus to change one’s own life and achieve healthier states of mind.
In order to become a Buddhist, monks and lay people alike go through a refuge ceremony. In this ceremony, they acknowledge their fear of suffering and death and place reliance on the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha; his teachings, called the dharma; and the spiritual community, the sangha. The refuge prayer is quite simple: “I go for refuge to the Buddha; I go for refuge to the dharma; I go for refuge to the sangha.”
Those who become Buddhist monks must observe a strict set of vows. Lay people can also take vows when they decide to commit themselves to the aims of a Bodhisattva (a being who seeks to attain a state of enlightenment out of great compassion for all suffering beings) or when they enter the Vajrayana branch of the Mahayana path (see “Vajrayana,” below).
The process of life and the events associated with a life may seem to arise from chance, but they result from cause and effect. The system of cause and effect is known as karma. Karma holds that individuals can exert some measure of control over their lives by the decisions they make and the conditions in which they place themselves. One who takes risks by driving very fast in crowded traffic on a repeated basis creates the karma for having a car accident, for instance; one who drives slowly and infrequently does not have the same karma. At its essence, the law of karma can be distilled in the phrase all actions meet with consequences.
Karma causes sentient beings to exist in different forms from one life to the next; a being can be a human born to royalty in one life, an elephant in another, a cat in another, or a human born to a poor family in another. Karma can cause people to make themselves unhappy or to achieve great happiness; the difference lies in one’s motivation. Actions that are motivated by self-interest, greed, or jealousy will cause suffering. Actions that arise from love for others or a desire to help others will bring about happiness.
The Buddhist practitioner seeks to maximize the amount of positive karma he or she generates and minimize negative karma as much as possible. This is done by avoiding states of mind such as pride, attachment, selfishness, and anger and by cultivating love and compassion. Karma, like everything, is impermanent; actions do leave imprints on the consciousness, but these imprints can be removed or purified by meditation, prayer, and antidote actions. At the time of death, the karma accumulated through one’s life plays a role in one’s future lives; the belief that karma affects one’s existence applies not only to the current lifetime but to lives that have passed and to lives that are to come.
One of the most profound concepts of Buddhist philosophy holds that whatever exists depends on causes and conditions. Nothing exists independently of the way it is perceived, the causes that created it, and the conditions that surround it. Concepts such as “I,” “you,” “mine,” and “yours” are all based on the misperception that there is a solid and definable self that arises independently from causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are removed, the object no longer exists.
The Buddha taught that the doctrine of dependent origination manifests itself in a series of 12 links that make up a human life. These 12 links of dependent origination are
- An initial state of ignorance, which leads to
- Volitional actions, which lead to
- Consciousness, which leads to
- Names and forms, which lead to
- The six bases—the five senses and the mind—which lead to
- Contact through sense impressions, which leads to
- Feelings, which lead to
- Desires or cravings, which lead to
- Attachment, which leads to
- Becoming—the process of karma and rebirth, which leads to
- Rebirth, which leads to
- Old age and death
These 12 steps are traditionally depicted around the outer edge of a Buddhist image called the Wheel of Life, which shows human existence as a great wheel being held in the fangs of Yama, the Lord of Death. Inside the 12 steps are the six realms of existence: human, animal, hell, ghost, demi-god, and god. At the center are the three root delusions (also called the three poisons): attachment, in the form of a cock; anger, in the form of a snake; and ignorance, in the form of a pig. The continual cycling through these 12 stages and from one life to another is called samsara.
Samsara is a Pali and Sanskrit word that means a perpetual state of wandering and motion. Buddhists use the word to describe cycles of existence that are without end—moving from one life to another and continually suffering without progressing toward liberation from that suffering. One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is that beings who are trapped by ignorance cycle through all realms of existence—the fires and ices of the many Buddhist hell realms, the perpetual desire of the ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, and the god realms where beings are too lazy to seek spiritual growth. The term ignorance is seen as the opposite of wisdom; it refers to a state of mind that sees the ego as of preeminent importance and self-interest as desirable. Ignorance keeps beings in a perpetual state of desire, dissatisfaction, and suffering—trapped in samsara, in other words.
One of Buddhism’s three principles is the liberation from samsara through the attainment of wisdom. Wisdom is the realization that the cycle of desire and self-interest brings about suffering, that the “I” is not solid but dependent on causes and conditions, and that all beings seek the same happiness and are interconnected in a state of mutual dependence. Buddhists strive to evade the confusion of the ignorant mind that is bound in samsara and achieve a precious rebirth as a human being. Only a human being has the ability to learn and grow and achieve freedom from suffering and samsara.
Nirvana is freedom from samsara. It is said to be a state of bliss arising from the perception of wisdom— the realization of true reality. Nirvana is attained when the practitioner realizes the ultimate truth that all beings depend on conditions and that existence is marked by impermanence, dissatisfaction or suffering, and the nonexistence of an independent self. The practitioner who attains a state of nirvana is known as an arhat.
Of course, the term nirvana is itself a label or concept that is created by minds that are fundamentally deluded. The Sanskrit term suggests a state of coolness and peacefulness. This state of mind is not touched by suffering or vicissitudes of desire, aversion, attraction, and ignorance. It is said to be indescribable and unknowable by a mind that clings to concepts.
Nirvana is not a state of nothingness. It is called emptiness, but it is not completely empty; it is marked by love and compassion and empty of clinging and the habit of establishing identity, boundary, and separation. It is difficult to put a label on a state of mind that sees labels as relative and dependent. Nirvana is not a place or emotion, but a state of mind marked by clarity of perception and freedom from delusions such as anger, ignorance, and attachment. It is an experience that transcends awareness and simple labels.
Just as existence involves the combination of mind and matter, death involves the separation of mind and matter. Rebirth is the recreation of mind and matter in a new form after death. The exact form of rebirth is determined by one’s accumulated karma at the time of death. A sufficient quantity of positive karma will result in a positive rebirth in the human realm of existence rather than the animal realm or one of the many hell realms.
Heaven and Hell
Buddhist visions of heaven and hell differ greatly from those of other religions. The Buddha taught that nothing is permanent, including the pleasures of heaven or the sufferings of hell. Accordingly, heaven and hell are not fixed, eternal places where one spends an endless amount of time. Those who are condemned to hell can eventually free themselves and be reborn, depending on the karma that propelled them to hell in the first place. Similarly, places called the Pure Lands, which are pleasure groves that are roughly analogous to heaven, are the destinations of practitioners who have achieved great progress and accumulated positive merit and karma.
Where one’s consciousness goes after it is freed from the body at the moment of death is determined by karma and by one’s state of mind at the moment of death. Much of Buddhist teaching (particularly the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools) can be seen as preparation for the moment of death. One’s state of mind at that moment, which depends on a lifetime of karma and many years of spiritual practice, can potentially lead one to a state of enlightenment. It can also propel one into a hell realm or a Pure Land. Buddhists believe in many different hell realms. Some are marked by fire, some by ice, and some by endless unquenched thirst and hunger. One can also be reborn as an animal or as a Samsaric God—one who lives in luxury and pleasure that overwhelms any desire for spiritual growth or achievement of nirvana. Samsaric Gods, like others in samsara, eventually leave their present realm and are reborn into another realm marked by a different kind of suffering. The cycle is only broken when one achieves nirvana or liberation from suffering.
The Two Vehicles
Buddhism is divided into two main schools: Theravada and Mahayana. The Mahayana is further divided into the Mahayana and Vajrayana. These three paths all have the goal of leading practitioners to a state of enlightenment. The dharma is the same for each path, and there is no basic contradiction between the teachings followed by the different schools; the difference is in which principles are emphasized and the methods by which they are put into practice.
Theravadan Buddhists believe that enlightenment can be attained through their individual effort. They rely on the original teachings of the Buddha rather than on subsequent texts developed by later followers. The goal is to seek liberation, or a state of nirvana, from the cares and vicissitudes of this life. The Therevadan Buddhists seek to attain a perfect state of well-being and happiness so that the world will be a better place. Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand belong to this school.
Mahayana Buddhists study the original teachings of the Buddha, but these are seen only as foundations for the Buddhist system that others can explore and elaborate on more fully. Buddhist scholar Mu Soeng (2000), in his book The Diamond Sutra, describes it as “Visionary Buddhism.” Practitioners seek salvation not only for themselves but for all other beings. In fact, they delay their own attainment of Buddhahood until they help others achieve liberation. They believe that, by following the teachings expressed in the sutras, they can become Buddhas after lifetimes’ worth of effort. They call on the help of enlightened beings known as Bodhisattvas to help them achieve this goal; after death, they may seek to attain rebirth as Bodhisattvas in order to help others. Buddhists in Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea belong to this school.
Vajrayana Buddhism is part of the Mahayana path. Vajrayana Buddhists follow complex and secret practices obtained through initiations. The goal is to attain Buddhahood as quickly as possible—ideally, within a single lifetime. The quicker one becomes a Buddha, the quicker one is able to help others achieve the same goal.
Although Buddhism developed from the Buddha’s intellectual practices, it is not purely a rational process. The attainment of wisdom is also achieved through meditation and practices such as mantras (sayings associated with specific deities or practices) and mudras (hand gestures, often performed with implements such as bells that generate sound). Together, the practices involve the practitioner’s body, speech, and mind.
All Buddhist schools agree on the central principle of “Do no harm.” When asked by a student “What do I do?”, the Buddha reportedly responded with the simple answer: “Do no harm, act for the good, purify the mind. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” Accordingly, Buddhists seek to avoid 10 nonvirtuous actions (3 having to do with the body, 4 with speech, and 3 with the mind).
The three of the body are
- Killing or physically harming others (for many, this leads to a vegetarian lifestyle that does not include beings that have been killed)
- Sexual misconduct
The four of speech are
- Using harsh or angry language
- Frivolous talk
The three of the mind are
- Covetousness or greed
- Wrong view (a misperception about suffering or a belief that there is no karmic result from an action)
Some Mahayana sects take the “Do no harm” principle many steps further and seek to perform “Do good” actions. Their goal is to express love and care for other beings that resembles the love of a mother and child. They accumulate merit—good actions that, repeated over time, bring happiness and good fortune. They also practice six skillful activities, also known as the six perfections:
- Generosity: the giving of time, energy, resources, or love to those around us
- 2. Morality: the keeping of one’s vows and commitments
- Patience: the ability to bear abuse and misfortune
- Enthusiasm: the enjoyment of positive efforts, particularly spiritual development
- 5. Concentration: the skill needed to study, meditate, achieve realizations, and progress toward enlightenment
- Wisdom: the realization of the nature of existence
The Bodhisattva seeks to practice these virtuous efforts not only for his or her benefit but for the benefit of all beings. A Bodhisattva, after death, seeks to postpone his or her enlightenment and return to earth in human form in order to help all others achieve enlightenment—a state of mind known as bodhicitta. Such is a great love and compassion that motivates this awakened being.
Studying the Dharma
Buddhism is an inward religion. Followers are those who look inside themselves and study their mind and their behavior, seeking to change habitually negative patterns and cultivate positive ones. They do this by studying the Buddha’s teachings, meditating on them, and making them part of their daily lives and activities.
The teachings of the Buddha are called the Lion’s Roar for its power and majesty. The Buddha is said to be the doctor, the dharma is the medicine, and the sangha is the nurse. By learning the teachings, the Buddhist practitioner seeks to integrate them into his or her daily activities as a parent, a worker, a friend, a neighbor, or a citizen. Some of the most important principles taught by the Dharma and studied by Buddhists include
- Freedom from attachment. Human beings continually desire objects, experiences, and other human beings, as well as states of mind. Buddhists seek to achieve nonattachment. They may want experiences or objects, but their motivation is not self-interest; rather, it is generated by love and concern for others.
- An understanding of consciousness. The consciousness that enables beings to perceive objects and events and attach labels and interpretations to them is flawed by deluded mental factors called aggregates or skandhas. Understanding these mental factors enables the mind to begin to have experiences and thoughts that are not clouded by ignorance.
- Overcoming anger and aversion. Anger is one of the three root delusions (anger, attachment, and ignorance), an emotion that can harm others and harm the individual who experiences it by destroying positive actions that may have preceded the angry one.
- The selfless nature of phenomena. Buddhism emphasizes selflessness—freedom from grasping and continually focusing on the self, and realizing the transitory, impermanent nature of events and suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The fourth of The Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha is that there is a path that leads one away from suffering and toward wisdom. This path toward liberation has been laid out in a series of steps that Buddhists can follow and that leads toward a state of nirvana: The Noble Eightfold Path. The eight steps are
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
These steps are considered part of the Three Higher Trainings, which are also three of the six perfections (see “Bodhisattva Activities”): morality, concentration, and wisdom. Because these three higher trainings need to be developed together, the eight steps above do not necessarily have to be followed in exact sequence. All of these practices depend on correct motivation: the goal of achieving happiness, transcending suffering, thinking of other beings rather than ourselves, and wanting all other beings to be happy as well.
Meditation is central to all Buddhist schools and practices. Through meditation, the practitioner is able to quiet the “noise” produced by emotions and events. A quiet, calm mind brings benefits in and of itself, but it is also able to learn spiritual principles and remember them more clearly. Buddhist meditation takes two forms:
- Shamata, or “calm abiding” meditation
- Vipassana, or insight meditation
Meditation begins by examining and correcting one’s motivation. One motivation might be to progress and achieve realizations—first, to better help one’s immediate circle of friends and family, and then ultimately to help all beings.
The correct posture is also important to achieve insight. It involves sitting cross legged, with one leg placed atop the other. A chair or pillow may be used for greater comfort and to straighten the spine; discomfort can interfere with one’s thoughts and be counterproductive. The eyelids are lowered but not closed. The tongue is placed behind the upper teeth, and the mouth is slightly closed. The hands are placed atop one another in the lap.
In shamata meditation, concentration is placed on an object or thought. It may be one’s own breath—the movement of the breath across the space between the lips and the nose and through the nostrils. It may also involve counting or visualization of colors. When the attention wanders, as it inevitably will, the practitioner gently brings it back to the object of meditation. This will be repeated many times, until gradually one is able to concentrate for greater periods on the desired object.
In vipassana meditation, the practitioner initially opens the mind’s attention to an awareness of all that is happening in the surrounding environment. Then, the mediator concentrates on a particular teaching of the Buddha or a point of information that has been conveyed by a teacher or guru. The goal is to understand the point fully, to reason through the concept, and to be able to remember it and use it in one’s daily life. Ultimately, the practitioner’s mind is able to understand that, as the Buddha taught, “everything that arises passes away and is not self.”
Like many aspects of Buddhism, the sangha has both a historical context and a real-world application. In a historical sense, the original sangha is the followers of the Buddha himself, who established an oral tradition based on his teachings. In a real-world sense, one’s sangha is the group of spiritual practitioners who help one another along the path to enlightenment. Although Buddhism places great emphasis on self-reliance, only the Buddha Shakyamuni himself was able to achieve enlightenment alone. For those in the world today, a group of spiritual friends is essential for creating a space in which to meditate and learn, and for providing the means of supporting a teacher or guru who can explain the dharma and guide students along the spiritual path.
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