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Awakening with Buddhism

Buddhism is a dominant religion in the Eastern world with over 350 million adherents, increasingly popular in the West for the last two decades. We will often refer to this religion as teachings, because Buddhists refer to their God, Buddha as a teacher. His name was Siddhartha Gautama or Gotama, where the name Buddha is a title meaning the “Enlightened One” or “Awakened”. Historians can trace Buddha’s teachings to the fifth century before Jesus, when Buddha witnessed people’s sufferings and offered a guide on how to live a better life in the world. Like all other major religions, this one too has suffered through many divisions. Today, there are three major Buddhist schools: Theravada is also known as the “Doctrine of the Elders”, the Mahayana school known as the “Great Vehicle”, Vajrayana which we know as “Tibetan Buddhism”, but many smaller sects exist, following the same Buddhist principles. The Dalai Lama describes this branching as a proof that different traditions and beliefs can still exist in genuine harmony after so many centuries. He further explains that as people need different medications to treat a physical ailment, they need a different approach to deal with their emotional turbulence's.

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The Story of the Buddha

Before Siddhartha became the Buddha, he was a prince living in his father’s palace in today’s Nepal. His father was the king called Suddhodana and his mother, the queen named Mahamaya. Upon Siddhartha birth, astrologers told his mother that their young prince will be a great leader, but turn his back on great honors to become a spiritual teacher. His father wanted his son to become an emperor, so he decided to keep Siddhartha in the palace surrounded by worldly goods.

Siddhartha never left his father's home and he didn’t know about the world outside the palace. He was a quiet boy, who enjoyed his time amongst animals in the gardens. He wasn’t very interested in boyish games and learning belligerent skills. Siddhartha wanted to marry the daughter of King Suprabuddha, Princess Yasodhara. They got married and had a son, who they named Rahula. One day, Siddhartha finally convinced his father to let him out of the castle to see how the other people of his kingdom lived. Knowing his good nature, his father cleaned the streets from old and sick people before Siddhartha left the palace. But on the side of the road, he noticed an old man lying. He was fascinated by the sight, because Siddhartha had never before known that people can grow old.

His journey continued three more times, until he saw a dead man, a sick man and a hermit praying. The hermit told him that he would rather spend his days in prayers, searching for the truth, than indulging in worldly pleasures. This encounter made Siddhartha sure of his spiritual calling and he decided to leave the beautiful palace to search for enlightenment. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left the palace in the middle of the night, changed his royal suit for a simple robe, mounted his horse and went to search the land where the holy men gathered. He studied from the most famous Hindu Brahmin priests, spent his days in the forest, meditating and searching for spiritual awakening through asceticism. More than six years later, he deprived his body of nourishment and let the rain and the sun beat him down, in order to master pain and suffering. When he was skinny as a skeleton, with no energy, a young woman offered him food and he accepted. He sat down to meditate under the Bodhi tree (the tree of wisdom) and vowed that he would not stop meditating until he found an end to all sufferings. Demons were torturing him but he didn’t give up on his goal, until finally Siddhartha reached nirvana. In his spiritual enlightenment, he was able to find the reason of all human sufferings, sorrows and pains, which we recognize today as Buddhist teachings.

The Basics of Buddhism

The aim of Buddhism is liberation from the birth and death cycle, through a spiritual enlightening called nirvana. Every principle in these teachings will demonstrate how to accept and avoid all obstacles in your human life and understand your true human nature. When the Buddha entered the world of nirvana, he laid the Four Noble Truths. Almost 5000 years later, these truths are still the heart of all Buddhist traditions, they have never been used to start or support a holy war and knowing their nature, they will never be used for anything else but enlightening.

The First Noble Truth

The first noble truth states that all of our lives are surrounded in suffering. There are three aspects that explain this Truth. Suffering of suffering brings upon the idea that we are all experiencing pain, fear and mental distress. The second aspect of this Truth is the suffering of change. We have to accept the fact that everything changes, the joy fades, nobody and nothing will stay, and everything is a subject of decay and death. The third aspect of suffering is pervasive suffering. The concept states that even if we feel happy in this life, we will reincarnate and experience sufferings in our next lives. In Buddhism the word “suffering” (dukkha) has a deeper meaning than the agony of the body. It’s a state where we can’t find true happiness, because we let superficial pleasures create that happiness. And those pleasures can easily be taken away or die, which ultimately leads us to suffering. Ending of good things is suffering, experiencing sickness is suffering, the process of birth is suffering, death and aging are suffering.

The Second Noble Truth

The second noble truth is the cause of all sufferings. According to Buddhism, the main root of all our problems is our mind, or how we grasp things. There are three delusions that can cause human suffering: ignorance, anger or hatred and desire or attachment. By filling our minds with anger and hatred we can easily cause misfortune to others, thus creating bad karma for ourselves and eventually suffer the consequences. Attachment and desire can be explained with a simple age old Indian story that illustrates how people used to catch monkeys. They would make a hole in a coconut big enough for the monkey to squeeze his hand inside. They put sweets in the hole and wait for the monkey to grab the sweet. His great desire and attachment to the sweet will not let the monkey either let go of the sweet and release his hand, or take the sweet out and eat it. When the monkey becomes delusional from exhaustion, they would capture it. We don’t act like monkeys, of course, but Buddha says we need to learn to let go of the things that cause us short term pleasure and focus inwards, because the true happiness lays there. Ignorance as a concept is hard to grasp and it can never be clearly and completely understood. Only the Buddha is omniscient. The rest of us need to monitor our thoughts, actions and motivations that drive us to them. Otherwise we would end up doing things and saying something we do not know where it’s coming from (or out of ignorance).

The Third Noble Truth

If every Buddhist Truth until now seemed hopeless and negative, the Third Noble Truth explains that there is a way to end all our suffering. Once we accept the fact that all of our sorrows come from attachment, desire and ignorance, and everything we need to be happy is in ourselves, the cycle of suffering can be ceased and we can be enlightened.

The Forth Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth gives us the basic guidelines of how to achieve the spiritual enlightenment. It’s called the Noble Eightfold Path because it illuminates 8 steps that need to be taken in order to end all of our sufferings.

The first step is adopting the right view or understanding. It’s the introduction to the rest of the steps and an assembly of all the Noble Truths. Basically, this step explains that we are the only owners of our own karma and by accepting that, we are undertaking a path where we eliminate all ill thoughts and actions.

The second step is: right aspirations, thoughts or intentions. Here we decide what it is we really want in our lives, without being selfish, self-centered and concerned only for our own good.

The third step is: right speech. Here we avoid lying, using bad or harsh words and gossiping, about ourselves and others.

The fourth step is: right action or behavior. This step has similar rules like the Ten Commandments: don’t steal, don’t take what is not yours, don’t conduct in earthly pleasures (sex, intoxicants, and etc.). The fifth step is right livelihood. By following the previous steps, this step is self-implied.

The sixth step is right effort. Following this step, you do not hurry to your goal and you are not slow on your path either, but you use the right amount of effort. Once you come to this step, Buddhist teaching says you do not overwhelm yourself by speeding up your tempo or slowing down, but you exercise the same tempo until the end of your path.

Right mindfulness is the seventh step. While taking this step you need to be aware of yourself, your life, your ideas, your future or your past. You stay alert and mindful of your reality, you do not daydream about what could have been and you let your mind control your senses and imagination. About this step, the Buddha said that we are all a result of what we have thought, so we need to stay aware.

The final step, the eighth step is right concentration. Through meditation we will learn to take our attention from the outer points of the object (sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch) to its nucleus. These are only raw descriptions of the eightfold path, where the first three reveal wisdom axioms, the fourth and fifth secure our ethical conducts and the last three are mental disciplines.

Gods in Buddhism

Buddhists do not believe in Gods. They think that if there is a God who created this world, but then put himself outside of the world he is no longer a God. Buddhist teachings are created on three concepts or laws: Karma, Transmigration or Samsara and Nirvana. The law of karma refers to what people in the western world call the law of cause and effect. Unlike in Hinduism, where people are divided into classes and you can’t get out of the initial class in one lifetime, in Buddhism, you can break the cycle of rebirth. This can be done only by repaying past karmic debts, creating good karma in this lifetime and following the path. The concept of Samsara is the process of rebirth. According to Buddha, we don’t possess ego or self and there is no ultimate reality. Everything around us is a subject of birth, decay and death and the only thing we are passing through from this life to the next is our feelings, karma and impressions. Our design is similar to every other live being around us. An oak tree is still reborn as an oak tree. It may be stronger, wider and taller, but it’s still an oak tree. This law suggests that we are being reborn every time because new opportunity to be good is given to us. With each reincarnation, we remember the lessons we’ve learned from our last lives and each time we are closer to escaping from the cycle (nirvana).

In Christianity there is a heaven for the good, in Buddhism this is called nirvana. But here, Nirvana is not a place, but a state of the mind or being. We can be in Nirvana while we are still alive and that is the only goal or aim of our each reincarnation. There is no God or deity, who judges our actions, but the three concepts belong to us and they are our responsibility. Many Buddhist sects believe that God is actually everything around us that makes the universe and holds it together.

The Three Jewels are the three things Buddhists find refuge in during difficult times. The Buddha is the first, the Dharma or the teachings are the second and the Sangha is the third. The Sangha is the people who were already enlightened and can help others on their way to spiritual enlightening.

Holidays in Buddhism

Since the Buddha was born on a full moon, his reunification happens on a full moon day, the day when he entered nirvana was also a full moon day, Buddhists place special significance on full moon days. On a full moon day every monk and Buddhist has to go to a temple. They don’t visit their temples at specific times of the day, but everyone goes when he can.

Buddhists New Year also starts with the full moon. In different countries, the month changes. For instance, in Korea, China and Vietnam the New Year is celebrated in the end of January or the beginning of February, depending on the full moon date. In Tibet, this date is celebrated one month later. In Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand the New Year falls on the full moon in April. This holiday is celebrated three days instead of one. During this time, a candle must be lighted to give respect to the Lord Buddha. They bath the Buddha statues and visit their friends and family homes with good wishes. A day is selected for contemplation of the past year, their mistakes and activities.

The Vesak festival celebrates the birth of Buddha. This celebration is usually held on the full moon in May, or June in leap years, but the dates depend on the calendar used in the country. This is maybe the most special holiday in Buddhism. Many believers make donations, adopt animals from shelters, share meals with random people on the street and pour tea or water over the statue of Buddha.

Magha Puja Day is also celebrated on a full moon day in March. This is the day when the Buddha’s disciples assembled to follow his teachings.

The Anapanasati Day is celebrated on a different full or new moon date in every Buddhist tradition or region. On this day Buddha revealed the anapanasati or mindfulness of breathing. Every Buddhist visits a temple where they pray and meditate. On the Abhidhamma Day is said that the Buddha went to the Tushita heaven to teach his mother how to analyze her mental attitudes that caused her to make mistakes and helped her to cultivate the will to avoid all evil. On this day, Buddhists clean their homes, wash their clothes and sprinkle the monks with perfumed water. Buddhist monks never cook on holidays, instead everybody who visits the temple brings with them food for the monks.

The Loy Krathong day is called the festival of the floating bowls. If you are a Buddhist, on this day you have to make a bowl out of leaves, place flowers, incense sticks and candles inside and float them in a river. This ritual symbolizes letting go of bad luck.

Other than this and a few other symbolic ceremonies, Buddhists don’t have any other particular religious rituals. Buddha believed that the attention should not be wasted on rituals, but on unfolding the path of enlightenment. Their celebrations involve meditation, prayers and mindful observation, and all pleasures of the senses are forbidden on holidays. Food and flowers are placed in front of the Buddha statues, where the flowers are symbols that we won’t live forever. The Buddhist temple is called Vihara. All the temples are a place for education, where you can find shrine rooms with statues of Buddha and his disciples, libraries, lecturing rooms and rooms for meditation. You have to remove your shoes before you enter a Buddhist temple, to respect the Lord Buddha.

Buddhist Art and Ritual Objects for Your Home

Today, many people declare themselves as Christian Buddhists, Jewish Buddhists or Atheist Buddhists. In each religion a prayer is a prayer. It holds the same significance and it has the same aim. There are many ways to strengthen and deepen your prayers, and many other ways to bring happiness, through clarity in your home and life. The Tibetan prayer wheel is one way. On these wheels, usually the mantra of Avalokiteshvara is printed, written engraved. The wheel can be bought constructed out of stone, steel or fabric. The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM is recited while the wheel is turning and it’s said that one turning of the wheel is equal to the fortune of many Buddhas. Many yogis and teachers say that the prayer wheel is the most powerful tool with the capacity to harmonize the environment, inspire a peaceful state of mind, encourage compassion and assist Buddhist practitioners on their way to enlightenment. A Buddha statue is a nice addition to every home. The most common statue you can find on the market is the Buddha in a lotus posture. This statue depicts the time just before Buddha was enlightened and the demon Mara was tempting him. His left leg is touching the ground, symbolizing his prayers to the Earth Goddess to help him resist the demon temptresses. A Buddha statue with half closed eyes will help you in meditation. A statue with long hands indicates generosity and a full mouth symbolizes eloquent communication. The laughing Buddha is a very common tourist item and the legend says if you rub his belly, the Buddha will bring good fortune.

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