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Introduction to Buddhism

To more than 300 million persons worldwide, their day begins with an internal call to walk the path toward Budhi, pure enlightenment of the soul. This path, long and hard to navigate, leads Buddhists to follow the teachings of Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gotam, also known as Gautama Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamun Buddha or Buddha.

Gotam was born in 563 B.C.E. to a chieftain of the Sakya clan in Lumbini, on the border of today’s Nepal and India. At age 29, it became clear to him that indulgence and prosperity, which were pursued by so many people, did not bring happiness. Gotam explored the world’s existing philosophies and religions to find one that held the way to true happiness and contentment.

When he was 35 years old, Gotam finally attained enlightenment, called Buddahood. The way he found was called the ‘middle path.’ He spent the remainder of his life, until his death at age 80, teaching the principles of the Middle Way, called the Dhamma, meaning Truth. This middle path is a compromise between the renunciation movement common in his region; and, the other extreme of sensual indulgence.

Gautama is the primary figure of Buddhism. Oral tradition has collected and passed on his teachings, which were committed to writing about 400 years later. Buddha was not a god, nor did he ever claim any divinity. He was just a teacher, one who found the path to happiness and gave the road map to all mankind.

The Essence of the Buddha

The Buddha is neither a god nor an incarnation of god. Buddha is instead the title for any person, who has used exemplary behavior, has cultivated their mental abilities, and gained the wisdom to overcome the causes of life’s vagaries. The development of compassion is of the utmost importance.

Many Buddhists pay their respects to images or statues of Buddha. They are not adulating or begging favors of him. The images merely remind his followers to strive to develop love and harmony within themselves. Stooping to a statue expresses gratitude for his wisdom and teachings.

Buddhism does not depend on some external deity or power for so-called salvation. For good or ill, the individual is completely and entirely responsible for their own self-awakening. Using study and meditation, everyone has the ability eventually to achieve the Budhi state.

Buddhist teachings can be understood by anyone. There is no need to join any religious institution or to follow blindly any leader. Buddha asked not to be accepted as the end-all and be-all of the truth. Instead, Buddhism demands that each follower takes responsibility to find his or her own path to enlightenment.

The Buddha Gotam wrote:

”By oneself, indeed, is evil done; By oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; By oneself indeed is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.

Teachings of Buddhism

With its emphasis on individual action and its absence of worship, many consider Buddhism to be a philosophy rather than a religious belief.

Buddhism explains one’s purpose in life. It also leads one to realize the causes of injustice and inequality in this world. At the end, Buddhism is believed by its practitioners to give them a moral code that will lead them to real happiness and eventual self-awakening.

Buddha’s teachings about life, his sermons and monastic rules are believed by Buddhists to have been summarized by his followers then committed to writing about 400 years later.

The central teachings of all schools of Buddhism are encapsulated within the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. These teachings can cease Dukka and achieve self-awakening.

The basic teachings of Buddhism can be encapsulated as follows:

  • Lead a moral life.
  • Be aware and mindful of one’s actions and thoughts.
  • Develop understanding and wisdom.

The Four Noble Truths

The First Noble Truth is that life is subject to Dukkha , or “incapable of satisfying,” or “not able to bear or withstand anything”. This suffering consists of birth, aging, sickness, alienation from love and not getting what is desired. These five categories are affected by clinging. As well as this physical misery, there also exist psychic sorrows such as loneliness, fear, disappointment and anger. Determining the First Noble Truth shows how to confront these sources of pain and explains how one can avoid them.

The Second Noble Truth explains the origin of Dukka — greed, anger and a deluded mind. People feel pain if they want others to meet their expectations and who then fail to meet those hopes. The Second Noble Truth teaches that Dukka must be penetrated by abandoning the origin of suffering. Buddha states, ‘There is the origin of suffering, which is attachment to desire. Desire should be let go of. Desire has been let go of.’

The Second Noble Truth teaches followers instead to alter their desires, to avoid a lifetime of constant craving. The teaching explains that even if you do achieve your desired outcome, happiness will not automatically result. The most destructive desire is the longing to continue to exist. That craving creates a powerful energy that leads an individual to born, which leads to physical suffering.

The Third Noble Truth explains how to overcome Dukka. It is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. True happiness and satisfaction are possible if one gives up useless craving and lives each day as it comes. By not dwelling on past failures or some imagined future, living in the present can free us.

Buddhism strives to teach followers how to develop a reflective mind, contemplating why a situation is as it is. This mental state is the key to finding one’s way out of Dukka, freeing oneself out of unhealthy desires. When we are rid of these desires, we then have time and energy to help others. This state is called Nirvana, a state of mind not clouded by delusion.

The Fourth Noble Truthis the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth is that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path to follow to end all Dukka, or grief and suffering. Each of the Noble Eightfold Paths begins with the word ‘right’ or ‘perfect.’ The path is a sequence grouped into three sections, but it is not meant that these happen or are achieve in this order. Instead, it is meant that one should reflect upon situations in this order.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Wisdom

  • 1. Perfect Understanding is the awareness that the Four Noble Truths will lead one to overcoming Dukkha and acquiring Superior Right Knowledge, the Ninth Acquired Factor. By achieving Perfect Understanding, one realizes that ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.” It does not mean that total understanding is possible, but that if one follows the Path, Nirvana will be achieved.
  • 2. Perfect Aspiration requires that the follower should be constantly conscious of their actions and thoughts. Aspiring takes the place of desiring. By this awareness, the actions result in no harm to any living creature. This intention leads to acquiring Superior Right Liberation.

Ethical Conduct or Morality

  • 3. Perfect Speech requires that one take responsibility for one’s speech, ensuring that it is beneficial to the one who hears it.
  • 4. Perfect Action requires that one’s actions not harm oneself or any other living creature. We must take responsibility for one’s body and those of others. Actions must adhere to the Five Precepts, which are:

Avoid taking the life of any being. All living creatures are included in this precept. Some Buddhists are vegetarians. This precept includes taking the lives of the unborn, so abortion is not acceptable for population control. Contraception is acceptable, however.

Avoid taking things which are not given. More than just not stealing, this principle means not accepting anything that is not clearly intended specifically for you.

Avoid sensual misconduct. This means more than sexual misbehavior. Any overindulgence in sensual pleasures, such as overeating or drinking to excess, is included. This includes adultery, since this also is against the second precept, not taking that which is not freely given. A sexual relationship with one who is committed to another is considered stealing.

Rape and child abuse are also included as sensual misconduct. These cause mental and physical pain and, in addition, harm another living thing, signaling the breaking of more than one precept.

Refrain from false speech. Lying and deception are involved in this precept, as well as slander and speech not beneficial to the welfare of others.

Abstain from using substances that cause intoxication and recklessness. There is not any particular substance mentioned as evil in itself, but overindulgence in a substance such as alcohol or illicit drugs could cause the breaking of all the other four precepts.

  • 5. Perfect Livelihood means to earn a living in such a way as to not cause harm or suffering. Jobs such as selling intoxicants, firearms or animals for slaughter are inappropriate professions for Buddhists.

Concentration

  • 6. Perfect Effort involves the body, avoids evil that has not already arisen, rejects any evil that has already arisen, acquires wholesome things that have not yet been acquired, and stabilizes those wholesome characteristics that have already been acquired.
  • 7. Perfect Mindfulness speaks to the mind and the practitioner trains it in constant awareness of the effects of one’s actions by body, speech or mind to avoid harmful actions.
  • 8. Perfect Concentration cultivates the heart as it is affected by the mind and body to attain intuitive insight.

The basic teachings of Buddhism can be summed up thusly:

”Not to do any evil, To cultivate good, To purify one's mind, This is the Teaching of the Buddhas.”

The Schools of Buddhist Thought

There are two major and one minor schools of Buddhism. These schools have differing views on the path to liberation, or Nirvana.

  • 1. Theravada, or the School of the Elders, and Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. Theravada is followed mostly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
  • 2. Mahayana is found in East Asia and its traditions are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon and Tianai (or Tendai).
  • 3. Vajrayana, another branch, is followed in Tibet, Mongolia and nearby parts of China and Russia. Vajrayana is considered part of Mahayana.&

All of the practitioners of Buddhism follow the philosophy, the word meaning the love of wisdom, which is incorporated in these three essential ways of preparation:

  • 1. Leading a moral life. The English word morality is used to translate the Pali term of sila. Sila means being normal or, more properly, returning to one’s state of goodness and, therefore, normalcy.

Murder does not describe normal human nature. If it did, mankind would long ago have disappeared from the face of the earth. Buddhism teaches that killing means the perpetrator was blinded by avarice, anger or hatred. Those negative features of human nature twist humans into beings other than their true selves. Practicing sila means training oneself to preserve one’s true nature, rather than allowing it to be changed or overpowered by negativity.

  • 2. Being aware of one’s thoughts and actions.
  • 3. Developing wisdom and understanding.

"One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering. It is just ill and the ceasing of ill that I proclaim.” The Buddha

Buddhism’s Use of Meditation

They develop the required reflectiveness of mind/emotional balance, Buddhist practitioners practice mindfulness and concentration meditation. The recommended method is to concentrate on one object or one sensation. The object is to bring it into one’s consciousness and sustain the image or sensation to achieve continuity of presence in one’s mind.

Rather than continually being pulled to sensations and objects outside of oneself toward distraction and exhaustion, Mindful meditation centers oneself without these distractions. This promotes tranquility, what is called in Buddhism as ‘becoming.’

Further meditation, which concentrates on mindfulness and then letting go of worries and accepting insecurity, silence and the ceasing of all conditions, the result is peacefulness, which exists beyond tranquility.

The Three Schools of Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the only surviving type of Buddhism from its earliest days. The word ‘Theravada’ means ‘the Doctrine of the Elders’ in the Pali language. The primary aim of Theravada is to meditate to train one’s mind to encourage freedom of mind from any suffering.

Mahayana Buddhism is practiced mainly in East Asia. This school teaches only the Pali Canon, a religious text in Theravada Buddhism, but also includes other texts. This school believes that the practitioner must have and practice universal compassion and attain the “awakened mind” of the Buddhahood. This school also incorporates some mysticism.

Tibetan Buddhism is practiced mainly in Northern Asia. This is also a kind of Mahayana Buddhism, but it includes other teachings, practices and texts not seen in the eastern type. Some call this school Tantric Buddhism. It uses both Mahayana and Theravada scriptures.

Buddhist Religious Orders

Buddha himself founded the first orders of Buddhist monks more than 2,500 years ago. Their prescribed lifestyle was like the early sects of wandering ascetics. Buddha had studied under some of them and was obviously affected by them. Lay followers fed and clothed the monks and gave them shelter when needed. In return, the people were provided with assistance in their spiritual lives.

Monks traveled together, usually with some of their students or acquaintances who were also monks. They lived on the outskirts of communities and practiced their meditations in the forests. Monks were expected to live with little in the way of worldly goods. In Buddha’s time, there were many gardens and retreats provided to the monks and nuns by wealthy so they would have shelter during the rainy seasons.

Originally, only men joined the religious orders. Buddha recognized women followers after his stepmother asked for permission to live as an ordained practitioner. Female communities never developed in Tibet or Nepal. Theravada communities died out between the 11th and 14th century. Only East Asian female religious communities continue. Recently, there have been attempts to revive the female communities in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Unlike Christian orders, Buddhist monastics are not required to live in obedience to a superior, but they are required to honor their elders. Celibacy is the primary fact of life that separates the monastic from any other Buddhist. Also, they are required to live their lives in a simple and focused manner.

Daily and Periodic Rituals

In every household, temple and monastery, Buddhists have morning and evening services consisting of chanting, placing flowers, lighting candles and incense before an image or another symbol of the Buddha. Monks chant and the lay families offer prayers.

Flowers are symbolic of life, beautiful in one instant and wilted in the next. The fragrance of incense reminds one of the sweetness of moral virtue from those who are devout. The flame of the candle implies enlightenment.

The central rite of the day is the offering of food. The Theravada laity offers food to the monks. Mahayana laity makes food offerings to the Buddha in their morning or evening worship. For both, merit is shared.

At a Theravada monastery during their weekly Observance Day, rituals take place that allows both laity and monks to accelerate faith, discipline and understanding; and, to make and share merit. Sharing of food, water and sermons take place during these days.

Twice a month, Zen monks gather in the Buddha hall of their primary temple and chant for the welfare of the Japanese people. Pure Land Buddhists gather at their temple once a week to praise Amida.

Buddhist Rites of Passage

Major life transitions are marked by special rituals to mark, protect and bless the occasions. These passages are of unusual vulnerability — birth, birthdays, coming of age, marriage, entering a new home and death. Monks are the religious presiding officials over ordinations, funerals and death commemoration rites.

In the Japanese Pure Land, a lay priest presides over the first presentation of a child at temple, the confirmation of children at puberty, and of death. Japanese Buddhists marry at the Shinto shrine, presided over by Shinto priests.

Buddhist Festivals

Most of the festivals in the year of Buddhists celebrate the events in the life of Buddha or one of the Bodhisattvas, or enlightened ones. These dates are based on the lunar calendar and each differs from country and tradition. These are joyful and are usually celebrated by a visit to a local temple, giving food or other things to the monks.

They then listen to a Dharma talk. Later in the day, the celebrants give food to the poor to earn merit.

Afterward, the people walk around the temple three times chanting to honor the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma or the Path to Enlightenment, and Sangha or the community of those who have attained Enlightenment.

Buddhist New Year is celebrated on different days, depending on location. In Theravadin countries, such as Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos, it is celebrated for three days beginning on the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, it occurs the first full moon day in January. Tibetan Buddhists celebrate in March.

Buddha Day or Vesak is the principal celebration of the Buddhist year. Celebrated on the first full moon day in May, Buddhists worldwide celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. The name of Vesak is from the word from the Indian month in which it occurs.

Sangha Day (Magha Puja Day or Fourfold Assembly Day) celebrates the Buddha’s visit to the Veruvana Monastery in the city of Rajagaha. On this occasion, 1,250 arhats (or, “perfected ones”) were supposed to have come out spontaneously from their wanderings to pay their respects to the Buddha. It is celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month, or March.

Dhamma Day (Asalha Puja Day) commemorates the “turning of the wheel of the Dharma,” the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath Deer Park.

Observance Day (Uposatha) denotes the four traditional monthly holy days which are still observed in Theravada countries, the new moon, full moon and quarter moon days.

Kathina Ceremony (Robe Offering Ceremony) is held on any convenient day within one month of the termination of the three-month rains retreat season (Vassa). To celebrate, the laity gives new robes and other necessary items to the monks and nuns.

Festival of Floating Bowls (Loy Krathong) At the conclusion of the Kathin Festival season, when waterways are filled, this festival takes place in all of Thailand on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. Buddhists bring bowls made of leaves containing flowers, candles and incense sticks, and float them in the waterways. As they leave, all bad luck is thought to disappear. It was originally to pay honor to the holy footprint of Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.

Elephant Festival is celebrated to mark an important parable of Buddha. He used the case of a wild elephant, which is harnessed to a tame one to teach that a person new to Buddhism should be helped by an older Buddhist. Thai Buddhists hold this festival on the third Saturday in November.

The Festival of the Tooth celebrates the procession for this relic of the Buddha, his tooth. It is never seen, but kept inside many nesting caskets. The procession is carried out each year in August, on the night of the full moon.

Ancestor Day (Ulambana) is celebrated in Mahayana countries. The believe is that the gates of hell open on the first day of the eighth lunar month when ghosts are allowed to visit the world for 15 days. People leave food offerings during this period. On the 15th day, Ancestor Day, people visit the cemeteries to offer to their departed ancestors. Many Theravadas of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand also observe Ancestor Day.

Becoming a Buddhist

Being Buddhist does not involve accepting a belief system or memorizing doctrines. To be a Buddhist is to practice Buddhism.

Becoming a Buddhist requires making a pledge to practice Buddhism by taking the vows of refuge. This commitment generally involves daily meditation or practicing chanting, along with following Buddhist teaching in daily life. Some Buddhists practice alone, but most are strengthened by working with a teacher and within the companionship of other Buddhists.

Buddhists are required to treat others with patience, compassion and loving-kindness. It is hard to treat others in these ways when those virtues are not extended to Buddhists in kind. The teachings of the Buddha apply to the real world in which Buddhists find themselves and are, at the same time, both infinitely challenging and rewarding.

Misunderstandings About Buddhism

Buddhism teaches that nothing really exists. This is incorrect. Buddhism challenges people’s understanding of how things exist. Things, it is taught, have no intrinsic existence; that we only understand existence in a limited one-sided way.

Buddhism teaches we are all one Buddha taught that it is not right to say that the self is finite and it is incorrect to say the self is infinite. He stated that understanding the self requires us to go past concepts and ideas.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is not the same as observed by Westerners: that a soul transmigrates into a new body after the old body dies. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth states that the energy created by one life is reborn into another, not a soul.

Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarians. Some Buddhist schools insist on vegetarianism and all encourage it. In most, vegetarianism is a personal choice rather than a commandment.

Karma is Fate. The word karma actually means action, not fate. Karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. All create karma constantly and the karma created affects one constantly. Buddhists do not believe that something one did in a past life seals one’s fate in this life. The future is not seen as set, but able to change because of the decisions, acts and patterns of living.

Enlightenment means being blissed out all the time. The Sanskrit word that is often translated as enlightenment actually means awakening. Even the most awakened Buddhist still has to life in the real world.

Buddhism teaches we are meant to suffer. Often, the First Noble Truth is mistranslated as “life is suffering.” The word for suffering is Dukka, a Pali word that has many meanings. It can mean ordinary suffering, but also things that are temporary, incomplete or conditioned by other things.

Buddhism | Religion


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