Buddhism was established in the sixth century BC in what is now northeastern India. The founder of the faith was a young man by the name of Siddhartha. He was also called Gautama, from his clan name; Shakyamuni, meaning sage of the Shakya; and the Buddha, the enlightened one, a name given him by village children he was teaching (Hanh 131).
Siddhartha was the crown prince of the Shakya kingdom and lived a life of privilege. He married, had a son, and seemed to be following the expected path for a person of his position. Then at the age of 29 he renounced it all. After encountering sickness, death, and old age outside the luxuries of the palace, and after experiencing a general revulsion to politics, Siddhartha decided to leave his family and comforts to find a truth that overcomes suffering. He studied with many teachers of the day and gained much knowledge but not the ultimate truth that he was seeking. In a desperate attempt he became a reclusive ascetic, one who practices self-denial, and for six years lived a life of extreme physical deprivation until, skin and bones, he was near death. Still he was unable to find the understanding he sought, and at the age of 35 he rejected asceticism as he had previously rejected a life of luxury. He began eating regularly and embarked upon a concentrated meditative effort to find the truth with a clear mind, unclouded by either physical suffering or opulence. During this effort his favorite place of meditation was a large pippala tree under whose cool shade he could concentrate his thoughts. It was there that the breakthrough took place, and the tree became known as the Bodhi Tree, the tree of awakening.
The Buddha described his enlightenment as total freedom from all suffering, complete knowledge of the nature of reality, and full awareness of all the dimensions of reality. At the core of the awakening was the understanding that there was no autonomous self, that everything in the universe is connected in a symbiotic relationship. For the next 45 years the Buddha formulated his understanding into a system of belief that was to spread throughout Asia, having a tremendous impact on millions of lives (Rhie & Thurman 22-23). During his lifetime the Buddha was joined in his monastic life by his son, wife, and mother, reuniting the family in a new spiritual unit.
Buddhism is based on the Three Refuges, also called the Three Gems: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community). The Buddha is seen as the manifestation of the ultimate goal of Buddhism, complete enlightenment, total understanding. In the original basics of Buddhism he is not seen as a god but as a person who has reached perfection. Images of the Buddha are honored as a mark of gratitude and a practice of reflection (Saddhatissa 46). The Buddha denounced blind faith and encouraged his students to question and investigate his teachings (Saddhatissa 43). He encouraged his followers to accept only what they could support with their own reason and what was wise and virtuous, and brought happiness. All other teaching was to be rejected (Hanh 421). Direct experience and not philosophical theories is the basis of the Buddha’s teachings. It was direct experience that brought about his enlightenment, and the process can have the same results for all those that follow. His objective was not to explain the universe, but to see the true face of reality through personal experience (Hanh 212-3). Human beings are not seen as subservient to the Buddha or any god. The person is not a “sinner” or repentant. Buddhist pilgrims begin their path to understanding, truth, enlightenment, and happiness as free thinkers with the guidance of the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha is no guarantee to success in any of the follower’s endeavors. Success or failure is the inevitable result of one’s own efforts. Reverence to the Buddha is to be shown by following his teachings through free will and with an inquiring mind (Saddhatissa 46).
The second refuge is the Dharma – the teaching. The metaphysics of the beginning or end of time or any such speculation was of no interest to the Buddha. He was interested in the present and his teachings are structured to make the present a beautiful and peaceful existence. His teachings are called the Middle Way. He taught the avoidance of excesses such as the sensual pleasures or punishing the mind and body. It is a path of moderation he encouraged that could lead to understanding, liberation and peace. At the beginning of his Middle Way are the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is subject to suffering. Birth, old age, sickness, death, sadness, anger, jealousy, worry, anxiety, fear, despair, desire, attachment, and clinging are types of suffering. The second truth is that this suffering is caused by ignorance, which many times leads to desire and attachment. The third truth is that this suffering can be extinguished by the elimination of desires caused by ignorance. Understanding the truth of life ends all suffering and gives true happiness. The fourth and final truth is that the Middle Way can guide one to this understanding by following the Eightfold Path: (1) Right Understanding: to begin the path we must see ourselves in accordance with the true nature of existence; we must see the suffering, the impermanence, and the selflessness. (2) Right Thought: to follow the way we must have our minds free of lust, ill-will, and cruelty; we must be willing to cast off anything that obstructs our way and give all merit gained to all beings. (3) Right Speech: we must refrain from lying, back-biting, harsh talk, and idle gossip. We must be conscious of the linkage between what we think and what we say. We must be sensitive to how our words affect people and use words of kindness and wisdom, free from dogmatism and inflamed passion. (4) Right Action: One should live according to the Five Precepts – (i) do not kill, but practice love to all beings; (ii) do not steal, but generously give; (iii) do not practice sexual misconduct, but practice self-control; (iv) do not lie, but practice honesty and sincerity; (v) do not use intoxicants, but practice restraint and mindfulness. (5) Right Livelihood or Vocation: on the path the follower should not pursue an occupation that would inflict harm or injustice to other beings. Traditional trades in which laymen should not engage are dealing (i) in arms, (ii) in living beings, (iii) in meat, (iv) in intoxicants, (iii) in poison. The person on the path should be free from acquisitiveness and pursue a life of duty and service. (6) Right Effort: to keep on the path to perfection the traveler must avoid ignoble qualities and foster noble qualities. In fostering what is good and rejecting what is evil, the Buddhist develops generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, honesty, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness, and equanimity. (7) Right Mindfulness: to follow the way we must keep a constant state of awareness of our mind, our feelings, our ideas, and our body. This mindfulness involves being conscious of the present moment and how our minds, feelings, ideas, and body are functioning with a full awareness, not worrying about the future or reliving the past, but being mindful of the present. (8) Right Concentration: towards the end of the path travelers must focus their concentration on full understanding through meditation. The mind must come to a total awareness of the impermanence and selflessness of all nature to find the final truth (Saddhatissa 58-63).
The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path form the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings and are the focus of intense study and application by those entering the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. For the layman, the Five Precepts mentioned under Right Action are the basics of following a secular Buddhist path and deserve more elaboration. The First Precept: the Buddhist is to refrain from killing, causing to be killed, or sanctioning the killing of any living being. “Living Beings” include everything from humans to insects. This precept is to nourish respect, compassion, and empathy for all living creatures (Saddhatissa 74). The first precept calls for the Buddhist to be a protector and preserver of life and celebrate the reverence of life. The Second Precept: we are to abstain from taking what is not ours or freely given to us. Stealing or theft of any kind is denounced. The Buddha recognized two types of theft, direct and indirect. Direct theft involves appropriating anything that does not rightfully belong to you. Indirect stealing involves any frauds or deceptions that cheat people out of what rightfully belongs to them (Saddhatissa 86). It is an injunction against any dishonest dealings and includes the gaining of wealth by the labor of others. This precept encourages practicing generosity as opposed to oppressive or exploitive behavior. The Third Precept: we are not to engage in sexual misconduct but remain faithful to our spouses and to respect the rights of others (Hanh 155). This precept commits the Buddhist to responsible sexual behavior based on love and long-term relationships. The Fourth Precept: this calls for the abstention from all falsehoods. One should not lie, conceal a lie, use exaggerations, or in any way depart from the truth. This includes spreading words that cause discord or hatred or contain information of which you are not certain. The Buddha reminds us that those who habitually lie or exaggerate lose all sense of the truth, while those careful to speak only what they know to be the truth are persons of wisdom. In speaking the truth the Buddhist should use words that spread confidence, joy, and hope, refrain from stimulating discord and division, and shun the use of any abusive language. The Fifth Precept: abstain from intoxicants. The basis of this precept is the fact that alcohol and drugs distort the person’s perception of reality, making it impossible to find the truth and understanding the Buddhist seeks (Saddhatissa 92-5). This precept encourages the Buddhist to consume only what stimulates a healthy mind and body. In contemporary terms this would include abstaining from the many types of modern entertainment that poison the mind.
These five precepts set a course by which the practitioner can avoid the suffering previously discussed, create harmony with family, friends and within oneself, and in general live a happy life (Hanh 155). The Precepts were created by the Buddha not as ends in themselves but as essential preliminaries and permanent accompaniment on the path to Enlightenment (Saddhatissa 99).
Buddhism originated and grew in a land that already had a long spiritual history. What we call Hinduism had been evolving in the region for thousands of years and deeply influenced Buddhism. A concept that is at the core of both Hinduism and Buddhism is Karma: the actions and deeds in one’s life are carried over into the next rebirth in an endless chain of cause and effect; like the waves on the ocean where each wave creates the next, so, too, previous lives form the next life unaffected by any outside power or divinity (Saddhatissa 29-30). The quality of the next reincarnation is subject to the actions and deeds of the previous life. It is said in relation to Karma, “He who speaks from a mind defiled, that one suffering follows as a wheel the foot that leads it,” and, “He who speaks or acts from a pure mind, that one happiness follows as his shadow that never leaves him” (Saddhatissa 21). The Buddha broke this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth with his enlightenment. By coming to a full and perfect realization of the truth he was no longer bound by the cycle, and through his teachings he offers others the same hope.
Another deeply entrenched Hindu tradition, closely related to karma and reincarnation, is the caste system. The grouping of people into strict hereditary social castes (classes) has a history stretching back for generations unknown. The Buddha rejected this system in relation to his faith. He declared that all people’s tears were salty and all people’s blood was red; to create division and prejudice was wrong (Hanh 131). He believed that his way to the truth knew no classes and he went so far as to recruit untouchables, the lowest caste, to join his monastic family where they became equal members, as all castes were dissolved in the Sangha.
Buddhism offered the lay people considerable guidance in their everyday lives even beyond the Five Precepts. One set of family guidance is the seven directions of a “Good Person”: maintain your parents, revere the head of the family, use gentle language, speak no slander, be generous, speak the truth, and do not give way to anger (Saddhatissa 119). These qualities point to the often reinforced tenants of the importance of the family and family responsibilities. Responsibilities also extend to friends. In choosing friends the Buddha advises us to select people who are kindly, free of avarice, understanding, of good reputation, generous, sympathetic, and wise. It is counseled to choose your friends carefully in that “whatever a friend does, whatever he practices, by association with him one becomes of such quality” (Saddhatissa 125).
Moral responsibility runs through every aspect of life. Leaders are expected to live lives of the highest of moral values as an example to those they are leading: “When the ruler keeps to the righteous ways, his people will be righteous also and peace will reign in the realm. A fool in exalted station causes great trouble” (Saddhatissa 140). It is a leader’s responsibility to use his knowledge, power, and skills to minimize poverty and distribute wealth so that none suffer hunger or degradation. The Buddha denounced the use of corporal punishment, imprisonment, and execution as means of controlling crime. He asserted that crime was a result of poverty and the best solution was for the leaders to build a healthy economy. They need to help farmers and small business men, to exempt the poor from taxation, to provide job training, and to establish a system of free will in choosing vocations (Hanh 522-3). But moral responsibility is as much with the masses as with the leaders. Each person must use her or his sense of morality to make decisions and help the community act as a unified entity. The moral character of each individual is the primary shaping force of a society (Saddhatissa 149).
While the practical moralities of Buddhism form the guidance for everyday life, the spiritual enlightenment of the Buddha forms the basis on which these moralities originate, grow, and have full meaning. This enlightenment of the Buddha has been described as follows:
He saw the oneness of the body and the mind, that each and every cell of the body contained all the wisdom of the universe. He saw that he only needed to look deeply into a speck of dust to see the true face of the entire universe – that the speck of dust was itself the universe and if it did not exist, the universe could not exist either…. In reality, all things were without a separate self. Non-self was the nature of all existence…. It was a thunderbolt that destroyed all wrong views (Hanh 108).
The central position of the Buddha’s awakening was this: that there are not separate entities in the universe, that all is interconnected, a part of everything else. There is no separate self. Non-self and interdependence were the keys to liberation and each individual already possessed the seeds of wisdom within, needing only to find them.
Shortly after the Buddha’s enlightenment he taught a group of country children what he had learned. He taught his concept of interdependence as follows:
We are rice plants, tangerines, rivers, and air, because without these things we could not be. When you children look at rice plants, coconuts, tangerines, and water, remember that in this life you depend upon many other beings for your existence. These other beings are a part of you. If you can see that, you will experience true understanding and love (Hanh 135).
To an adult student the Buddha taught the lesson in a more sophisticated but no less beautiful manner:
Take, for example, this leaf in my hand. Earth, water, heat, seed, tree, clouds, sun, time, space – all these elements have enabled this leaf to come to existence. If just one of these elements was missing, the leaf could not exist. All beings, organic and inorganic, rely on the law of dependent co-arising. The source of one thing is all things. Please consider this carefully. Don’t you see that this leaf I am now holding in my hand is only here thanks to the interpenetration of all the phenomena in the universe, including your own awareness? (Hanh 169)
While these concepts seem so simple they are yet surprisingly difficult to come to a full understanding of – to truly break through the concept of the separate self to the oneness that the Buddha revealed. The reason for this difficulty as explained by the Buddha is also simple – ignorance. Ignorance is a false way of looking at reality. In a state of ignorance one thinks the impermanent is permanent and that there is a separate self. This ignorance is the source of all suffering -of greed, anger, fear, jealousy, and pain. The Buddha realized people were often trapped by unjust social conditions but many times they were equally trapped by sorrows and passions they created themselves in their hearts and minds. The overcoming of this inner ignorance was the only true basis of social work. A change in heart had to proceed a change in society (Hanh 65-6). The Dharma of the Buddha shows the path to overcome the ignorance and find true understanding. The impact of ignorance goes as far as our perception of birth and death. The following is an account of the Buddha’s overcoming of this ignorance:
He saw how countless beings pass through countless births and deaths. He saw that these births and deaths were but
outward appearances and not true reality, just as millions of waves rise and fall incessantly on the surface of the sea, while the sea itself is beyond birth and death. If the waves understood that they themselves were water, they would transcend birth and death and arrive at true inner peace, overcoming all fear (Hanh 119).
Understanding is at the heart of Buddhism, and understanding is synonymous with love. This is not love based on lust, passion, attachment, discrimination, or prejudice. It is love founded in understanding and made manifest in kindness and compassion. Love cannot be based on a desire to possess another, as that kind of love only creates a prison. Love must be based on open understanding of another’s suffering and aspirations and the desire to make that other happy. This type of love extends beyond one’s immediate circle and emanates to all beings. This love\understanding leads to the compassion that fuels the most helpful of actions and services. Understanding produces a fruit called compassion. While compassion calls for a sharing of another’s suffering, it is a suffering that gives a sweet strength, not a bitter pain (Hanh 272-6). Understanding, love, and tolerance fuse to form a perfect union where people can live in happiness and most of the suffering in the world can subside. The Buddha said the following to his son:
Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return. Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return. Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success. Practice non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is because that is. That is because this is. Myself and others are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase after another (Hanh 321).
The Buddha’s promotion of open-mindedness stems from his understanding that what we see and hear is only a fraction of reality. If one accepts it as the whole of reality one has taken a distorted picture to be true. On the path to the truth the seeker must never unquestioningly cling to present views, but remain open to new understanding as it is revealed. Humility and open-mindedness are two essential qualities for making progress along the Middle Way (Hanh 451).
While this path is one that asks the traveler to be diligent and devoted, it is also a path that offers at its center happiness and joy for those that follow the teachings. While the Buddha fully acknowledged the role of suffering in our existences, he taught how love, understanding, kindness, and compassion were the vehicles to ease and transform the suffering into happiness. He said, “…suffering is not the true nature of the universe. Suffering is the result of the way we live our lives and our erroneous understanding of life” (Hanh 152). In contrast to much contemporary thinking on happiness, the Buddha asserted that happiness is not the result of satisfying desires. While the gratification of desires may give a temporary illusion of happiness, most often it is actually a source of suffering. True happiness to the Buddha is fully experiencing the wonders of life. It is living in the present moment without attachments. A breeze, the sky, a flower, a tree, the smile of a child in the present moment is the source of true happiness, with the full awareness that these things will pass away. The Buddha said, “A look filled with understanding, an accepting smile, a loving word, a meal shared in warmth and awareness in the present moment are things that create happiness” (Hanh 510- 3).
The ultimate happiness can be called Nirvana. The Buddha described it this way: “When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation, and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy, and freedom” (Hanh 234). It is the total destruction of lust, hatred, delusion, and all ignorance. It is the acquisition of complete truth, perfect vision, and knowledge. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. When the Buddha died with his perfect understanding, there could be no rebirth. His perfect karma did not create another wave on the sea of life; its perfection fused with the entire sea in total oneness, and such is the case for all who reach enlightenment.
As with all the world’s religions, Buddhism did not remain a monolithic faith. Within a century of the Buddha’s death division had already begun. The basic point of departure was the question of whether people find the way to enlightenment through their efforts alone or there are group avenues based on grace, love and salvation. The group taking the individualistic route became known by the name Hinayana, the little raft or vehicle. They later adopted the more positive name Theravada, or Way of the Elders. The group taking the broader approach became known as the Mahayana, the great raft or vehicle. The Theravada maintained the position that human beings were distinct individuals who need to find their own way in the universe. The key virtue was wisdom; the Buddha was seen as a human saint; they had minimal ritual; and prayer was confined to meditation. The Mahayanists maintained that people must be involved with others on the way to the truth and arrival could be based on salvation. The key virtue was compassion; the Buddha became a savior and sometimes a god; complex rituals evolved; and prayer became petitionary. While Theravada maintained its unity, its spread was limited to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Mahayana on the other hand spread through Mongolia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, and it fragmented into many various forms of Buddhism. Three of these many divisions of Mahayana are Chan Buddhism (known as Zen in Japan and the U.S.), Pure Land Buddhism that spread throughout Asia and Tantric Buddhism, that evolved in Tibet and is the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and his followers. This flexibility of Mahayana made it the dominant form and its variations have found followers around the world (Smith 180-8).
At the base of all forms of Buddhism are the basic teachings of the Buddha; teachings that encourage compassion, love, and mindfulness; teachings that are among the most passive and gentle of any in the world; teachings that promote harmony and peace; teachings that after twenty-five centuries still promise a life of beauty and tranquility.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkley, CA: Parrallax Press, 1991.
Rhie, Marylin M., and Robert A. F. Thurman. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. NYC: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.
Saddhatissa, Hammalawa., Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
Smith, Huston., The Religions of Man. NYC: Harper Perennial, 1989
1992 copyright Mark W. McGinnis
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