What Is Buddhism?
A religion or a philosophy? A short summary of basic Buddhist ideas. The life of the Buddha, some introductory ideas for Buddhist meditation, and the basic principles of Buddhism are included.
A religion? A psychology? A set of attitudes for living? Buddhism has elements of each of these.
Buddhism started in India in the 6th Century B.C. with the birth of Siddharta Gautama. Only later did he come to be known as the Buddha, the Awakened or Enlightened One, but he is regarded as an ordinary man, not a god. Born in the 6th Century B.C. as a prince to parents of the royal family, he was protected, it is said, from the harsh realities of life by his father.
When Siddharta was born, a sage predicted that he would become a great holy man, a great teacher. His father, determined to have an heir, surrounded his son with earthly pleasures and palatial luxury. Siddharta’s father ruled a land in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the young prince was kept confined within the palace walls, surrounded by sensual art and sensual pleasures.
Siddharta married and had a son, but apparently eventually went on an excursion outside of the palace, and observed sickness, decay and death for the first time. This made him feel that his academic studies, and the sensuous pleasures of the palace, were ultimately meaningless.
At the age of 29, then, he gave up his family and the comforts of domestic life and set out to seek spiritual enlightenment. First, he looked towards the ascetics for a means towards this goal, and denied his body in order to free his mind. Siddharta found, eventually, that such a harsh life of fasting, yoga and self-neglect did not produce the spiritual answers for which he was looking. The philosophy he came to express, then, has been called “The Middle Way”, and rejects such extreme behavior.
It is said that at the age of 36, Siddharta rested under a “bodhi” tree, and vowed to remain there until he experienced Enlightenment.
First, they say, he remembered his previous lives, and understood the cycle of birth, death and re-birth: the wheel of life, or Samsara. Another way of understanding Samsara is that sometimes the very goals we seek so fervently in our lives turn out to be the greatest obstacles to our progress. Thus, we try to seek other solutions, and create another vicious cycle.
Next, the Buddha understood kamma: which means action or deed. Any intentional action or deed has enormous consequences.
Then, he grasped the idea that we are ignorant of our true natures, and therefore keep suffering over and over.
Finally, (some say it was only on the seventh morning), apparently, he opened his eyes and saw the morning star. Everything looked clear, and he experienced a deep sense of wonder. Thus, Siddharta attained enlightenment: the peace of mind that is called “Nibbana” or “Nirvana”, and became the Buddha or “Awakened One”. Enlightenment is a state of detachment, even from one’s own ego. It is the acceptance of our "self" and the cosmos around us as one. It is ubiquitous emptiness and bliss. It is a state of “no separation”.
The Buddha died in about 483 B.C. after many years of teaching. During his life, he had neither affirmed nor denied the existence of the gods of his time. Buddhism is non-theistic, in other words it is neither theistic nor atheistic. Rather than affirming or denying the existence of a superior being, Gautama had simply ignored the issue.
His last words are reported as: “All things are impermanent. Everything decays. Work out your salvation with diligence. Take refuge in yourselves, the dharma and the teachings. These are my last words.”
One of the Buddha’s main messages had to do with impermanence, the idea that everything is subject to the process of decay. Classical Buddhism denies the self; it is against the idea of a separate, personal ego, which continues in spite of change. It sees the living world as one organism, of which each living being forms a component. A person, then, is not a self-sufficient, separate entity, and meditation helps us to find this state in which the ego or “I” does not interfere with our clear perception.
Buddha’s main message, though, was probably inspired by his observations that first day outside of the palace. He realized that all around him was suffering, and that the suffering was caused by craving, desire and lust. Buddhism teaches that suffering will end only when we stop craving, desiring and lusting. Ultimately, man will only be liberated if he frees himself from his body, his feelings and ideas, his very consciousness. Regular meditation allows Buddhists to achieve a detached state, in which craving, desire and lust are controlled. Meditation also calms the “mad babbling monkeys” of the mind. It can thus enhance our appreciation of the world of which we form a part. Buddha’s “four noble truths” can thus be summarized as:
1. Existence is unhappiness
2. Unhappiness is caused by selfish desire or craving
3. Desire can be destroyed
4. Following the “Eightfold Path” can destroy desire.
The so-called “Eightfold Path” suggests ways of overcoming suffering and desire:
1. Right View / Understanding / Thoughts (Understanding the 4 Noble Truths and kamma).
2. Right Resolve or Purpose (love and compassion).
3. Right Speech (no lying, gossip, harsh or frivolous words).
4. Right Activity or Conduct (no killing, stealing or adultery).
5. Right Livelihood (no trading in slaves, flesh, weapons, intoxicants or poisons).
6. Right Endeavor or Effort (discard bad thoughts, and promote good ones).
7. Right Mindfulness or Alertness (focus on what you’re doing).
8. Right Concentration or Rapture (Achieved through meditation).
In theory, the more you follow these rules in your chain of lives, the sooner you will lose your identity into Nirvana, not by annihilation, but “as the dewdrop slips into the shining sea”, by merging into the universal life.
Buddhist monks observe the “Ten Precepts”: no killing, stealing, lying, unchaste acts, intoxicants, gossip, covetousness, anger, idle pride or insulting the Buddha or his teachings. The monks live in Spartan conditions and beg for their food.
There are a number of divergent schools of Buddhism:
The “purest” form, Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle” Buddhism is focused on man’s suffering; it teaches that man must search out his own truth, rather than look to others to find it for him. The law of kamma states that our circumstances now are the result of our past actions. The way we choose to act in the present substantially changes the future. We are responsible for ourselves. Hinayana Buddhism teaches strict meditation.
The Mahayana school, (the “Great Vehicle”, a new interpretation of Buddhism arising in about 100 B.C.), on the other hand, is said to be more optimistic, and runs contrary to the idea that only monks can be enlightened. Despite the fact that it offers no “god”, it has virtually deified the Buddha. The efficacy of prayer is taught, and even Nirvana is perceived as a kind of “heaven”. The goal is the path of the Bodhisattva, a compassionate one who resolves not to enter Nirvana until he has liberated all sentient beings.
A third “vehicle” is Vajrayana, which literally means “diamond” or “indestructible vehicle”, a more open, colorful and dangerous road that can only be traveled if one has a solid grounding. The essence of this school, also known as Tantra, is that our personal circumstances, whatever they are, can enable our awakening. Tantric sex is about not rejecting sexuality as means of access to “the path”. The 6th Dalai Lama is reported to have said: “If one’s thoughts towards the dharma were of the same intensity as those towards love, one would become a Buddha in this very body and life.” Reportedly, Vajrayana is dangerous unless one has received rigorous training. One metaphor compares studying it to eating a porcupine: once you start, you have no choice but to finish. The duty of a Vajrayana teacher is to demonstrate the “precious moment” of the “present moment” to the student. One element of Tantric meditation is the identification with the deity, a powerful technique of ridding ourselves of limitation, and finding our highest potential.
In China, Buddhism has been significantly influenced by Taoism, which emphasized not interfering with the natural course of spontaneous reality. One sect originating from this combination is “Pure Land” Buddhism.
Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, that monastic country created an elaborate and practical religious system, at the head of which was the Dalai Lama. The Chinese invasion of Tibet has all but eradicated a very valuable culture, a quite alternative way of looking at the world.
Zen Buddhism originated in Japan. Zen is a paradoxical system, the word “Zen” itself comes from the Sanskrit word for meditation, and it is a word that represents everything and nothing at the same time. Zen emphasizes meditation rather than rules, scriptures, intellectual analysis or ritual as the way onto the road to Enlightenment.
Zen teaches that Enlightenment comes intuitively and suddenly, rather than by prolonged intellectual effort. Zen is about something that we can’t really describe in words: our innermost spark of life, our “original face, before our parents were born.” We can’t learn Zen. We are already Zen. We can only be Zen. Zen teaches us to see the world through “beginners’ eyes”, the eyes of a child; and put away our judgments and opinions. Through “beginners’ eyes”, we become completely involved in what we are doing, and we do not allow our minds to chatter obsessive and neurotic madness. Through the eyes of a child, everything is new and exciting, because a child is at one with the moment. The “present moment”, then, is a “precious moment”, and your whole life is transformed into an adventure at every moment.
Zen Buddhism also introduced the study of koans, paradoxical anecdotes that point to the nature of reality. For example: One monk told another: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.” The reply was:
“Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
He replied that he had.
“Then you had better wash your bowl.”
It is said that the novice was enlightened immediately.
In one Zen story, the Buddha was due to give a talk. Without saying a word, he simply lifted up a flower.
If you’d like to try meditation, it’s probably best to do so under the guidance of a teacher or in a group. If you’d like to try alone, you might try closing your eyes and focusing on your breath, imagining the air going in and out of your nostrils. When another thought intrudes, note it, but then take your mind back to the breath. You might try sitting cross-legged with one hand cupped in the other, or you could sit on a cushion. After regular practice, you should feel a new tranquility and focus.
Buddhism has taught me to be still and accept. It’s helped me to stop obsessing about the past and worrying about the future. I’ve been able to steady myself a lot more securely in the here-and-now. I try to taste my food, just “to walk” when I walk, and I strive to enjoy the considerable gifts of The Moment. It’s enabled me to take more delight in my world.
So! Now go and find your own Buddha nature.