The founder of Buddhism is Gautama Buddha Shakyamuni. He was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal. Shakya is the name of the royal family into which he was born, and
Muni means “able one.” His parents gave him the name “Siddhartha,” and there were many wonderful predictions about his future. In his early years, he lived as a prince in his royal palace, but when he was 29 years old, he left the comforts of his home to seek the meaning of the suffering he saw around him. After 6 years of arduous yogic training, he abandoned the way of self-mortification and instead sat in mindful meditation beneath a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India.
On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened one. For the next 45 years, the Buddha wandered northeastern India, teaching the Dharma or path that he had realized in that moment of enlightenment.
The philosophical foundation of Buddhism is the theory of Dharmas. According to that theory, all that is, all nature, is a single stream, a whirlwind consisting of elements (atoms). The life span of an element is infinitesimal or momentary, and everything that consists of them will sooner or later cease to exist, but that which really exists cannot cease. Therefore, all phenomena of nature, both material and spiritual, cannot be called genuinely real being. The elements have their carrier, Dharma, the eternal and immutable substance, which is the genuinely real being or essence of all phenomena. Nirvana is the ultimate aim.
Soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha had a vision in which he saw the human race as a bed of lotus flowers. Some of the lotuses were deep inside in the mud, others were emerging from it, and others again were on the point of blooming. In other words, all people have the ability to unfold their potential and attain enlightenment, though some need just a little help to do so. So, the Buddha decided to teach, and all of the teachings of Buddhism may be seen as attempts to fulfill this vision: to help people grow toward enlightenment.
Buddhism sees life as a process of constant change, and its practices aim to take advantage of this fact. It means that one can change for the better. The decisive factor in changing oneself is the mind, and Buddhism has developed many methods for working on the mind. Buddhists practice meditation, which is the most important method of developing a more positive state of mind that is characterized by calm, concentration, awareness, and emotions such as compassion, love, and friendliness. Using the awareness developed in meditation, it is possible to have a fuller understanding of oneself, other people, and of life itself love, friendliness, and compassion, however, are the Buddhist way of life.
First of all, Buddha taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings, which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism. Later, he taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention, respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism. In the Hinayana teachings, Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings, he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explore human suffering. They may be described as follows.
Dukha (life is suffering): The reality and universality of suffering. Suffering has many causes: loss, sickness, pain, failure, and the impermanence of pleasure.
Samudaya (all suffering is caused by ignorance): The cause of suffering is a desire to have and control things. It can take many forms, such as craving of sensual pleasures, the desire for wealth and fame, and the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations, such as fear, anger, or jealousy.
Nirodha (suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment): Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana. The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation, and nonattachment, and there is no desire or craving for anything.
Magga (the Eightfold path leads to the suppression of suffering): To suppress suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path must be pursued, which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation.
Buddha preached three practices, which consist of the following.
Sheel: Virtue, good conduct, morality. This is based on two fundamental principles:
The principle of equality: All living entities are equal.
The principle of reciprocity: Do unto others as you would wish them do unto you.
Samadhi: Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom, which, in turn, leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our minds; this helps us maintain good conduct.
Prajna: Discernment, insight, wisdom, Enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge if your mind is pure and calm.
Buddhist ethics has two levels: positive and negative. It advocates the eradication of greed, hatred, and egoism from our minds (negative) and the cultivation and development of metta, which is compassion. From the Pali word that is usually translated as “love,” metta’s meaning is closer to a combination of friendship, love, and kindness.
Buddhist ethics is concerned with the principles and practices that help one to act in ways that help rather than harm oneself and others.
The core ethical code of Buddhism is known as “the Five Precepts,” and these are the distillation of its ethical principles. The precepts are not rules or commandments, but “principles of training.” The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that life is complex and there is no single course of action that will be right in all circumstances. Indeed, rather than speaking of actions being right or wrong, Buddhism speaks of them being skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala).
The Five Precepts are
- Not killing or causing harm to other living beings. This is the fundamental ethical principle for Buddhism, and all the other precepts are elaborations of this. The precept implies acting nonviolently wherever possible, and many Buddhists are vegetarian for this reason. The positive counterpart of this precept is love.
- Not taking the not given. Stealing is an obvious way in which one can harm others. One can also take advantage of people, exploit them, or manipulate them: All these can be seen as ways of taking the not given. The positive counterpart of this precept is generosity.
- Avoiding sexual misconduct. This means not causing harm to oneself or others in the area of sexual activity. The positive counterpart of this precept is contentment.
- Avoiding false speech. Speech is the crucial element in our relations with others, and yet language is a slippery medium, and we often deceive ourselves or others without even realizing that this is what we are doing. Truthfulness, the positive counterpart of this precept, is therefore essential in an ethical life. But truthfulness is not enough, and in another list of precepts (the Ten Precepts or the Ten kusala Dharmas), no fewer than four speech precepts are mentioned, the others enjoining that our speech should be kindly, helpful, and harmonious.
- Abstaining from drink and drugs that cloud the mind. The positive counterpart of this precept is mindfulness, or awareness. Mindfulness is a fundamental quality to be developed in the Buddha’s path, and experience shows that taking intoxicating drink or drugs tends to run directly counter to this.
Buddhist Tradition in the East
Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world, being exceeded in numbers only by Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. As Buddhism expanded across Asia, it evolved into different forms, which evolved largely independently from each other. Each tradition has different sects.
Theravada Buddhism (Southern Buddhism) now has 100 million followers. Buddhist missionaries from India took the religion to a number of countries, but it initially achieved a foothold only in Sri Lanka, led by Mahendra and Sanghmitra (son and daughter of Samrat Ashok of India). It later spread from Sri Lanka to Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Vietnam. They promoted the Vibhajjavada school (Separative Teaching). By the 15th century, this form of the religion reached almost its present geographical extent.
Its concepts and practices include
Dana: thoughtful, ceremonial giving.
Sheel: accepting Buddhist teaching and following it in practice; refraining from killing, stealing, wrong behavior, use of drugs. On special days, three additional precepts may be added, restricting adornment, entertainment, and comfort.
Karma: the balance of accumulated sin and merit, which will determine one’s future in the present life and the nature of the next life to come.
The Cosmos: consists of billions of worlds grouped into clusters; clusters are grouped into galaxies, which are themselves grouped into super galaxies. The universe also has many levels: four underworlds and 21 heavenly realms.
Paritta: ritual chanting.
Worship: of relics of a Buddha, of items made by a Buddha, or of other symbolic relics.
Festivals: days of the full moon and 3 other days during the lunar cycle are celebrated. There is a New Year’s festival, and celebrations tied to the agricultural year.
Pilgrimages: particularly to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and India.
Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism) is the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea, and much of Vietnam. The tradition entered China during the Han dynasty. It found initial acceptance there among the workers; later, it gradually penetrated the ruling class. Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th century. It underwent severe repression during the 1960s in China, during the Cultural Revolution. It has many distinct schools: T’ein-t’ai, Hua-yen, Pure Land teachings, and the Meditation school. They celebrate the New Year, harvest festivals, and five anniversaries from the lives of Buddha and of the Bodhissattva Kuan-yin. They also engage in dana, sheel, chanting, worship, and pilgrimage.
Vajrayana Buddhism (Tantric Buddhism) has perhaps 10 million adherents in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia, and Tibet. The head of Buddhist teaching became the Dalai Lama, who ruled Tibet. Ceremony and ritual are emphasized. They also engage in dana, sheel, chanting, worship, and pilgrimage. They developed the practice of searching out a young child at the time of death of an important teacher. The child is believed to be the successor to the deceased teacher. They celebrate New Year’s, harvest festivals, and anniversaries of five important events in the life of the Buddha.
Spread of Buddhism in the West
Buddhism first became known in the West during the latter half of the 1800s, when European colonial empires brought to the intellectuals of Europe the ancient cultures of India and China. A surge of interest in “orientalia,” as it was called, caused scholars to study Asian languages while adventurers explored places previously inaccessible and recorded the cultures they found therein.
In England, Germany, and France, it became the rage. In the U.S., thousands of Chinese immigrants were arriving on the American west coast to provide labor for building railroads and other emerging industries. America’s east coast intellectuals read books about Buddhism, including Thoreau, who actually took a French translation of a Buddhist Sutra and translated it to English.
What we call Buddhism today is an amalgamation of the true teachings of Buddha combined with invented myths and large amounts of culture derived from the country in which the Buddhism is practiced. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is as much Tibetanism as it is Buddhism. Buddha’s words were handed down for several centuries through oral tradition before a committee was formed to preserve Buddha’s teachings.
However, with the fast pace and high stress of modern life, many people are becoming interested in the peaceful philosophy of Buddhism. In particular, there is a very deep interest in learning how to meditate, to overcome stress and anxiety, and to deepen one’s spiritual experience. In response to this growing interest, Kadampa Buddhism offers many different ways of learning about Buddhism and practicing meditation.
Relevance of Buddhism
Buddhism is relevant even today. Its principles when properly understood can be of great value to any human being. It is important that these teachings become institutionalized and an indigenous part of a society, for there is no other way that they can reach all levels of humanity and also last for a period of many generations. The Buddhist believes that not only all mankind but all creation is one, that all beings are equal, and that distinction could be achieved only through good works. The idea of unity of mankind removes all those barriers that make people strangers to one another, if not enemies. The elements of love, compassion, and nonviolence are the need of the hour, too.
The word Buddhism represents beliefs and concepts that can just as well be represented by some other word. If we hold Buddhism as the only truth, we cease to be Buddhists.
Albert Einstein rightly said that Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology, covers both the natural and spiritual, and is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.
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