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All About Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the biggest religions founded in India in the 6th and 5th century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as “the Buddha.” As one of the greatest Asian religions, it teaches the practice and the observance of moral perceptions. The basic teachings of “the Buddha” were mainly emphasized by the four noble truths. Since it was first introduced into China from India, Buddhism has had a history that has been characterized by periods of sometimes awkward and irregular development. In spite of these difficulties, Chinese Buddhism has come to have an important influence on the growth and development of Buddhism in general and this has occurred largely because of its own innovatory contributions. (Eliade16)

“Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message, people came to him asking what he was. Not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘What are you?’ ‘Are you god?’ they asked. ‘No.’ ‘An angel?’ ‘No.’ ‘A saint?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then, what are you?’ Buddha answered, ‘I am awake.’ His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root budh means to awake and to know. While the rest of humanity was dreaming the dream we call the waking human state, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who woke up.”(Smith 60)

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Buddha was born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama in a small kingdom in what is now Nepal in 563b.c.e. Gautama’s birth is described as a miraculous event, his birth being the result of his mother’s impregnation by a sacred white elephant that touched her left side with a lotus flower. The scriptures claim that when Gautama was born “immeasurable light spread through ten thousand worlds; the blind recovering their sight as if from a desire to see his glory” (Evans 141) Shortly after his birth, his father consulted with a number of astrologers, all of whom declared that the newborn prince would become a great king and that he would rule the world in truth and righteousness. Among these astrologers, there was one who declared that if the prince were to see a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and a world-renouncing ascetic, he would become dissatisfied with life and become a wandering monk in order to seek final peace. King Shuddhodana decided he wanted his son to have the former destiny and went to no ends to keep his son on this course, surrounding him with pleasant diversions during his early years, such as palaces and dancing girls. Finally, the prince convinced his father into letting him visit a part of the city that was beyond the palace gates. Before allowing the prince to ride in his chariot, Shuddhodana ordered the streets to be cleared of the sick or the infirm, that the prince not be allowed to see any of the corpses or the world renounces.

Despite the king’s efforts, at one point the path of the royal chariot was blocked by a sick man. He found that the man had only grown old and that such afflictions were the result of age. Siddhartha was amazed to find that most people see such sights every day but persist in shortsighted pursuit and mundane affairs, apparently unconcerned that they will become sick, grow old, and die. In two other journeys outside the palace, Siddhartha saw a man stricken with disease and a corpse, and when he learned that eventually, his young healthy body would become weak he fell into a deep depression. On the fourth trip, Siddhartha saw a world renouncer, a man who stood apart from the crowd, who owned nothing and was unaffected by the petty concerns of the masses, and who radiated calm, serenity, and profound inner peace. This man had nothing, yet he had obtained happiness. This made Siddhartha realize the vanity of earthly pleasures. That very night Siddhartha did the unthinkable. At the age of 29, although married with a beautiful young son as well as heir to a very rich throne, he forsook it all, leaving them to set out on a pilgrimage to find the ultimate truth. Siddhartha left the palace and started to practice meditation with many teachers, but none could show him a path leading to the end of suffering. He met with five spiritual seekers who told him that the way to salvation lies in severe asceticism.

He followed their practices, and eventually was eating only a single grain of rice per day. He grew so weak that he almost died. Siddhartha continued on his journey. One day on Gautama’s thirty-fifth birthday, sensing a breakthrough was approaching, he settled under a tree to meditate, promising not to arise until he had reached his goal. According to legend, Mara, the Evil One, attempting to disrupt Siddhartha, tempted him with beautiful Goddesses, attacked him with flaming rocks and other devices, all from which Gautama blocked himself. During the night, Siddhartha entered into progressively deeper meditative states, in which the patterns of the world fell into place for him, and thus he came to understand the causes and effects of actions, why beings suffer, and how to transcend all the pains and sorrows of the world. By the dawn of the next morning, he had completely awakened from the misconceptions of ordinary people, realized the essential truth about life and about the path to salvation; at this point he became Buddha, remaining in the same spot for many days in a trance-like state. This experience stirred in Gautama a desire to share his knowledge with others. He spent the remainder of his life as a preacher and a teacher until his death in about 483 BCE. He preached on the Four Sacred Truths as the way to enlightenment, which he received during his original vision.

The Four Sacred Truths are steps to spiritual improvement and salvation. The first sacred truth is that the entire world is sorrowful and suffering. From birth to death, man is in a constant state of suffering. The second noble truth reveals that all this suffering comes from the craving for the pleasures of life. The third truth reveals that the end of suffering will come when craving ceases. Finally, the fourth truth explains that the end to these cravings comes through an eightfold path. The steps to this path include: “Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.”(Halverson 58) Right Understanding, one “ sees the universe as impermanent and illusory and is aware that the ‘I’ does not, in reality, exist.” (Halverson 58). Right Thought is to “renounce all attachment to the desires and thoughts of our illusory selves.” (Halverson 58). “As a person attains such a literally selfless perspective, her or she finds the power to speak well of others (Right Speech), to obey Buddhism’s moral commands or abstentions (Right Action), and to avoid making his or her living through an occupation that breaks the moral precepts of Buddhism (Right Livelihood).” (Halverson 58-59) The basis of Buddhism’s ethical conduct was to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, committing indecent sexual acts or consuming intoxicants.

This is the Buddha’s Dharma or body of his teachings. According to tradition, Buddha taught strict allegiance to the Four Sacred Truths, and insight through the practice of meditation. His teachings also stressed avoidance of ill will, lusting, incorrect talk, and destruction of any living thing. The Buddha’s path was one of strict meditation, in which one seeks Nirvana. Nirvana is a state of emptiness or bliss. Those who finally achieve nirvana are spared from the suffering of rebirth, or reincarnation. They are made one with the sea of nothingness, and all their desires are quenched. This “extinguished flame” (Evans 106) is salvation for humankind. If desires cannot be quenched then the cyclical existence (reincarnation) will begin again, with more suffering. This form of salvation is centred on the works of the individual. Although later followers make him into a god, Gautama never taught that he was divine. His teachings never focused on any reliance on God, or gods. Rather than rejecting any form of a god, his teachings are indifferent to traditional gods, thus making his teachings more universal. While there are gods in the Buddhist religion, they are not part of salvation. The main focus of his teaching is not to rely on any god, but rather on the individual and his/her search for truth.

After Gautama’s death, his disciples passed along his message by oral tradition. There are many monasteries in the world; in some of them in countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon, almost every young male spends at least a few weeks of his life within a monastery. “Typically at the age of four, the boy celebrates an elaborate ceremony which involves first dressing him in fine clothing, then stripping the clothing from him, shaving his head and is given a beggar-bowl along with a saffron-coloured robe.” (Evans 407) These three things all being traditional symbols of a Buddhist monk. For those who do become monks, it is a life of poverty and celibacy. Over the years, the Buddhist religion split into three major divisions. These sections include Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism. All of these divisions have their own sects, having varying views on how Buddhist tradition should be implemented. Though they have differing views, they all agree with the core of the Buddhist message, “Seek in the impersonal for the eternal man, and having sought him out, look inward- thou art Buddha” (Evans 101)

The Theravada Buddhists believe that they practice the original form of Buddhism as Buddha handed it down to them. Theravada Buddhism dominates the culture of Sri Lanka but is also very prominent in Thailand and Burma. While Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, spent several decades teaching, none of his teachings were written down until several hundred years later. In the third century, Asoka, the great Mauryan emperor, converted to Buddhism and began to sponsor several monasteries throughout the country (Internet 1). He even sent missionaries out to various countries both east and west. During his reign, the teachings of Buddha spread all across India and Sri Lanka. Disturbed by the prolific growth of Buddhist heresies, a council of Buddhist monks was convened at the Mauryan capital of Patna during the third century BC to purify the doctrine. What arose from that council, more or less, were the definitive teachings of Theravada Buddhism; from this point onwards, Theravada Buddhism undergoes little if any change. When the teachings of Buddha were finally written into a canon, they were written not in Sanskrit, but in a language derived from Sanskrit, called Pali. This language was spoken in the western regions of the Indian peninsula, but from Sri Lanka to Burma, the Pali scriptures would become the definitive canon. We can determine precisely when they were written down, but tradition records that the canon was first written down somewhere between 89 and 77 BC, that is, over four hundred years after the death of Buddha (Evans 97).

This canon is called the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets,” for it is divided into three parts, the Vinaya, or “Conduct,” the Sutra, or “Discourses,” and the Abhidhamma, or “Supplementary Doctrines.” The second part, the “Discourses,” are the most important in Buddhism (Halverson 132). These are discourses by the Buddha and contain the whole of Buddhist philosophy and morality. The basic doctrines of Theravada Buddhism correspond fairly exactly with the teachings of Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths and the idea that all of physical reality is a chain of causation; this includes the cycle of birth and rebirth. Through the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Cardinal Virtues, an individual can eventually attain Nirvana. Theravada Buddhism, however, focused primarily on meditation and concentration, the eighth of the Eightfold Noble Path; as a result, it emphasized a monastic life removed from the hustle and bustle of society and required an extreme expenditure of time in meditating (Internet 1). This left little room for the bulk of humanity to join in; Theravada Buddhism was, by and large, an esoteric religion. A new schism then erupted within the ranks of Buddhism, one that would attempt to reformulate the teachings of Buddha to accommodate a greater number of people: the “Greater Vehicle,” or Mahayana Buddhism.

The “Great Vehicle” was the name that the Buddhists came up for this new way of thinking, Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhists spent much of their lives concentrating on reaching nirvana, which was balanced with everyday activities. Judaism also experienced many changes during this time, which was far more drastic than the Mahayana Buddhism religion. The Mahayanists, however, did not see themselves as creating a new start for Buddhism, rather they claimed to be recovering the original teachings of Buddha, in much the same way that the Protestant reformers of sixteenth-century Europe claimed that they were not creating a new Christianity but recovering the original form (Andrea 93). The Mahayanists claimed that their canon of scriptures represented the final teachings of Buddha; they accounted for the non-presence of these teachings in over five hundred years by claiming that these were secret teachings entrusted only to the most faithful followers. Whatever the origins of Mahayanan doctrines, they represent an important departure in the philosophy. Like the Protestant Reformation, the overall goal of Mahayana was to extend religious authority to a greater number of people rather than concentrating it in the hands of a few (Andrea 98-99).

The Mahayanists managed to turn Buddhism into a more obscure religion by developing a theory of gradations of Buddhahood. At the top was Buddhahood itself, which was lead by a series of lives, the bodhisattvas. This idea of the bodhisattva was one of the most important innovations of Mahayana Buddhism (Internet 2). The bodhisattva, or “being of wisdom,” was originally invented to explain the nature of Buddha’s earlier lives. Before Buddha entered his final life as Siddhartha Gautama, he had spent many lives working towards Buddhahood. In these previous lives he was a bodhisattva, a kind of “Buddha-in-waiting,” that performed acts of incredible generosity, joy, and compassion towards his fellow human beings. An entire group of literature grew up around these previous lives of Buddha, called the Jataka or “Birth Stories” (Halverson 154). While we do not know much about the earliest forms of Buddhism, there is some evidence that the earliest followers believed that there was only one Buddha and that no more would follow. Soon, however, a doctrine of the Maitreya, or “Future Buddha,” began to assert itself (Evans 164). In this, Buddhists believed that a second Buddha would come and purify the world; they also believed that the first Buddha prophesied this future Buddha. If a future Buddha was coming, that meant that the second Buddha is already on earth passing through life afterlife. So someone on earth was the Maitreya. It could be the person serving you food. It could be a child playing in the street. It could be you. What if there was more than one Maitreya? Five? Ten? A billion? That certainly raises the odds that you or someone you know is a future Buddha. The goal of Theravada Buddhism is practically unattainable. In order to make Buddhism a more mysterious religion, the Mahayanists invented two grades of Buddhist attainment below becoming a Buddha. While the Buddha was the highest goal, one could become a pratyekabuddha, that is, one who has awakened to the truth but keeps it secret.

Below the pratyekabuddha is the arhant, or “worthy,” which has learned the truth from others and has realized it as truth. (Halverson 175) Mahayana Buddhism establishes the arhant as the goal for all believers. The believer hears the truth, comes to realize it as truth, and then passes into Nirvana. This doctrine of parenthood is the basis for calling Mahayana the “Greater Vehicle,” for it is meant to include everyone. Finally, the Mahayanists completed the conversion of Buddhism from a philosophy to a religion. Theravada Buddhism holds that Buddha was a historical person who, on his death, ceased to exist. There were, however, strong tendencies for Buddhists to worship Buddha as a god of some sort; these tendencies probably began as early as Buddha’s lifetime. The Mahayanists developed theology of Buddha called the doctrine of “The Three Bodies,” or Trikaya (Internet 1). The Buddha was not a human being, as he was in Theravada Buddhism, but the manifestation of a universal, spiritual being. This being had three bodies. When it occupied the earth in the form of Siddhartha Gautama, it took on the Body of Magical Transformation. This Body of Magical Transformation was an emanation of the Body of Bliss, which occupies the heavens in the form of a ruling and governing god of the universe (Evans 32).

The final developments of Buddhism in India involve the growth of Tantric thought in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Vedism had always based itself on magic and ritualistic magic; in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, a new form of Hinduism, Tantrism, focused primarily on magic. As applied Buddhism, Tantrism focused on the use of the physical world. Mahayana Buddhism divided into two central schools, the Madhyamika, or “Doctrine of the Middle Position,” and the Vijnanavada, or “Doctrine of Consciousness.” Each of these schools believed that all of physical reality was an illusion. The only thing that existed was Void or Emptiness. The Vijnavadans believed that everything we perceived was self-generated and that all our perceptions were caused by previous perceptions in an elaborate chain of causation. This would explain why our perceptions tend to be uniform throughout our lives and why we tend to share our perceptions with others. But, in the end, it’s all illusion. The world needs to be rejected as a world of illusion.

The Tantric Buddhists, on the other hand, developed a different methodology from this insight that the world is unreal. Just because the physical world doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that one should reject it. On the one hand, if the physical world doesn’t exist, that means that one cannot commit right or wrong. As a way of proving that one is enlightened, all sorts of forbidden acts should be engaged in fornication, thieving, eating dung, and so forth. A similar movement occurred in England in the seventeenth century. A group of radical Protestants called the “Ranters,” took the Protestant notion of divine election to its farthest extreme. If one is saved and one knows it, that means that one can’t sin no matter what one does. In fact, committing all sorts of heinous acts can serve to demonstrate one’s salvation. So the ranters would fornicate in the streets and curse and do all sorts of obnoxious things in order to demonstrate their salvation. One form of Tantric Buddhism was similar to this. On the other hand, if the physical world was unreal, one could still use the physical world and one’s perceptions of it as a means towards enlightenment. All activities, including sex, can be used as a meditative technique.

This was called Vajrayana, or “The Vehicle of the Thunder-Bolt.” The Vajrayanans believed that each bodhisattva had consorts or wives, called Taras. These female counterparts embodied the active aspects of the bodhisattva, and so were worshipped. One learned the teachings of Tantrism from a master, and then one joined a group of others who had been trained. There one would practice the rituals learned from the master. For the Tantrists, the physical world was identical with the Void and human perception was identical with Nirvana. Buddhism, however, was slowly fading off of the Indian landscape; Tantrism came on the scene just as Buddhism began to slowly lose its vitality.

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