Buddhism is one of the biggest religions founded in India in the 6th and 5th cent. B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama called the Buddha. One of the great Asian religions, it teaches the practise of and the observance of moral precepts. The basic doctrines include the four noble truths taught by the Buddha. 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.
This has mainly been the result of the clash of two cultures, each with a long history of the tradition. Most of the difficulties have arisen due to the transplanting of an Indian religious/philosophical system onto a culture strongly dominated by indigenous secular, philosophical and religious systems. 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. (Eliade, M. p.16-29) The spread of Buddhism into China began in Central Asia and was facilitated by the efforts of the Indo-Scythian king Kanishka (Encyclopedia Britt. 273-274) of the Kushan dynasty which ruled in northern India, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia in the 1st and 2nd centuries (Encyclopedia Britt. 274).
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He is said to have undergone an Ashoka-like conversion upon seeing the slaughter caused by his campaigns. Around the beginning of the common era, Buddhism started to filter into China from Central Asia via the Silk Road, brought by monks, merchants and other travellers. It also entered later via trade routes around and through Southeast Asia. It was nurtured in the expatriate community of Loyang and other northern cities. (The Encyclopedia of Religion p58-62) Siddhartha (Buddha) was born around 563 B.C.E. in the town of Kapilavastu (located in today’s Nepal).
Siddhartha’s parents were King Shuddhodana and Queen Maya, who ruled the Sakyas. His history is a miraculous one… One night, Queen Maya dreamed that an elephant with six tusks, carrying a lotus flower in its trunk, touched her right side. At that moment her son was conceived. Brahmins (learned men) came and interpreted the dream. The child would be either the greatest king in the world or the greatest ascetic (a holy man who practices self-denial). The future child would be named Siddhartha, which means he whose aim is accomplished. (Snelling, J. p 12-19) Later when Queen Maya was going to her father’s home to prepare for the birth, she stepped off her chariot in the Lumbini Gardens and held the branch of a sal tree to rest. In that instant, Siddhartha emerged from her right side without any help. The infant walked seven steps each in four directions of the compass, and lotus flowers sprouted from where his foot touched the earth. Then the infant said, No further births have I to endure, for this is my last body. Now shall I destroy and pluck out by the roots the sorrow that is caused by birth and death. Seven days later Queen Maya died. Mahaprajapati, Maya’s sister, looked after Siddhartha. King Shuddhodana shielded Siddhartha from all kinds of suffering and hardship.
When Siddhartha was about 20, he married Yasodhara, daughter of one of the King’s ministers, and one year later they had a child named Rahula (meaning fetter or impediment). At age 29, Siddhartha asked his charioteer, Channa, to take him out of the city two times without the consent of the king. During these two trips, Siddhartha saw Four Sights that changed his life. On the first trip, he saw old age, sickness, and death. On the second trip, he saw a wandering holy man, an ascetic, with no possessions. Siddhartha started questioning the holy man, who had a shaved head, wore only a ragged yellow robe, and carried a walking-staff. The man said I am… terrified by birth and death and therefore have adopted a homeless life to win salvation… I search for the most blessed state in which suffering, old age, and death are unknown.(Snelling, J. p33) That night, Siddhartha silently kissed his sleeping wife and son and ordered Channa to drive him out to the forest. At the edge of the forest, Siddhartha took off his jewelled sword and cut off his hair and beard. He then took off all his princely garments and put on a yellow robe of a holy man.
He then ordered Channa to take his possessions back to his father. Siddhartha then wandered through northeastern India, sought out holy men, and learned about Samsara (reincarnation), Karma, and Moksha. Attracted to the ideas of Moksha, Siddhartha settled on the bank of Niranjana River, and adopted a life of extreme self-denial and penance, meditating constantly. After six years of eating and drinking only enough to stay alive, his body was emaciated, and he was very weak. Five other holy men joined him, hoping to learn from his example. One day, Siddhartha realized that his years of penance only weakened his body, and he could not continue to meditate properly. When he stepped into the river to bathe, he was too weak to get out, and the trees lowered their branches to help him. In that instant, a milk-maid named Nandabala came and offered a bowl of milk and rice, which Siddhartha accepted.
The five holy men left Siddhartha after witnessing this. Refreshed by the meal, Siddhartha sat down under a fig tree (often referred to as the Bo tree, or Tree of Enlightenment) and resolved to find out an answer to life and suffering. While meditating, Mara (an evil god) sent his three sons and daughters to tempt Siddhartha with thirst, lust, discontent, and distractions of pleasure. Siddhartha, entered a deep meditation, and recalled all his previous rebirths, gained knowledge of the cycle of births and deaths, and with certainty, cast off the ignorance and passion of his ego which bound him to the world. Thereupon, Siddhartha had attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (enlightened one). His own desire and suffering were over and, as the Buddha, he experienced Nirvana…
There is a sphere which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air…which is neither this world nor the other world, neither sun nor moon. I deny that it is coming or going, enduring, death or birth. It is only the end of suffering.(www.buddhanet.net) Instead of casting off his body and his existence, however, Buddha made a great act of self-sacrifice. He turned back, determined to share his enlightenment with others so that all living souls could end the cycles of their own rebirth and suffering. Buddha went to the city of Sarnath and found the previous five holy men that deserted him earlier at a deer park. When they saw Buddha this time, they realized that he had risen to a higher state of holiness. The Buddha began teaching them what he had learned. He drew a circle in the ground with rice grains, representing the wheel of life that went on for existence after existence. This preaching was called his Deer Park Sermon, or Setting in Motion the Wheel of Doctrine. Siddhartha revealed that he had become the Buddha, and described the pleasure that he had first known as a prince and the life of severe asceticism that he had practiced. Neither of these was the true path to Nirvana.
The true path was the Middle Way, which keeps aloof from both extremes. To satisfy the necessities of life is not evil, the Buddha said. To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise, we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom and keep our mind strong and clear. Buddha then taught them the Dharma, which consisted of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The five holy men and others soon joined Buddha, accompanying him everywhere. As more joined, Buddha organized the Sangha, a community of Bhikkus (dedicated monks and later nuns). The Sangha preserved the Dharma and allowed bhikkus to concentrate on the goal of Nirvana.
On rainy seasons they would settle in Viharas (resting places in cave dwellings) followers who believed in Buddha’s teachings but could not follow the strict rule of the Sangha, were taught to follow the Five Precepts. Buddha returned to his birthplace in Kapilavastu, and his father was mortified to see his son begging for food. Buddha kissed his father’s foot and said, You belong to a noble line of kings. But I belong to the lineage of Buddha’s, and thousands of those have lived on alms.(www.who2.com) King Shuddhadana then remembered the Brahmin’s prophesy and reconciled with his son. Buddha’s wife, son, and cousin (Ananda) later joined the Sangha. When Buddha was about eighty, a blacksmith named Cuanda gave him a meal that caused him to become ill.
Buddha forced himself to travel to Kushinagara, and laid down on his right side to rest in a grove of shala trees. As a crowd of followers gathered, the trees sprouted blossoms and showered them on Buddha. Buddha told Ananda, I am old and my journey is near its end. My body is like a worn-out cart held together only by the help of leather straps. Three times, Buddha asked the people if they had any questions, but they all remained silent. Finally, Buddha said, Everything that has been created is subject to decay and death. Everything is transitory. Work out your own salvation with diligence. After passing through several states of meditation, the Buddha died, reaching Parinirvana (the cessation of perception and sensation).
Buddha is not a Supreme God nor the Creator of the Universe in Buddhism. Buddha is just an enlightened being. If a person enlightened, the person is Buddha too. All sentient beings can be Buddha. There are numerous enlightened beings in millions and millions of worlds in millions and millions of years. Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, was the enlightened being in the world of time. Although Buddha is the most supreme being known in all realms, he has no power to control everything. For instance, he is unable to change the principle of cause and effect. In other words, if you commit an evil deed, Buddha cannot save you by waiving the effect caused by your evil deed.
Nevertheless, Buddha can advise you on how to mitigate the diverse effect, if a person repents of his/her’s evil deed.( Snelling, J. p47-55) Buddhism is perhaps the only religion that claims the eventual extinction of itself, and also the sutra. Buddhism and its sutra inevitably abide by the universal truth of impermanence. Whichever exists, it will extinguish, and vice versa. Buddhism is a vehicle to carry all beings to the shore of the Sea of Suffering. When you arrive at the shore, get off the vehicle. Don’t attach to it! Let other beings use it. It is just a convenient tool to facilitate all beings to understand and certify the reality of nature and lives and liberate themselves. Thus, in view of the highest wisdom, all verbal and written Buddhism with names and forms are not real By the time of enlightenment, there will be no Buddhism. However, before one is enlightened, one has to study and practice Buddhism wholeheartedly and vigorously, cultivating all merits and virtues. (Buswell, R. p29-46)
Buddhism is pragmatic and practical. Buddhism was originated from and established for sentient beings. It teaches how to observe and understand and certify the reality of nature and lives in an objective and scientific way. Do practice and don’t just study theories, especially those which are abstract. Some people would like to know about the origin of the universe, finite or not, eternal or not before they will undertake to practice a religion. It is just like a man who is wounded by an arrow wishes to know who shoots the arrow, what the arrow is made of, and other irrelevant questions before he will have the arrow removed. Buddhism is optimistic and enthusiastic about life. It rejects the principle of fate, though it emphasizes karma. The principle of impermanence and the principle of no-self enlighten us that we should not attach and crave fame and wealth, not benefit ourselves by hurting others. One can enlighten and realize oneself by enlightening and realizing others.
Therefore, one has to cultivate and commit oneself to society. Without selfishness, we can really serve society and people. Without the craving and clinging to personal fame and wealth, we can be really free, comfortable and rich. The principle of the Middle Way enlightens us about the interdependent nature of existence, therefore we should not go extreme. Be optimistic! The secret of happiness is not doing things that we like, but liking things that we do. The 3 processes of learning, namely belief/faith, interpretation, practice and certification, are known as The Three Ways. The faith to religion should not be affected by the behaviour or performance of an individual in the religion. A group of people is just a miniature of society, having some good guys and some bad guys. All religions and philosophies have their doctrines, values and functions.
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