Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others." Buddha: The Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 3.65, Sutta Pitaka, Pali Canon
Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions and has deeply influenced the character and evolution of Asian civilization over the past 2,500 years. It is based on the teachings of a historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived around the fifth-century B.C.E.
As it moved across Asia, Buddhism absorbed indigenous beliefs and incorporated a wide range of imagery, both local and foreign, into its art and religious practices. Buddhism continues to evolve as a religion in many parts of the world. Today, large numbers of men and women from diverse backgrounds throughout the world are following the Teachings of the Buddha. So who was the Buddha and what are his teachings?
The man who was to become the Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautam around 2,600 years ago as a prince of a small Janapad (territory) near what is now Kapilvastu, Nepal. Though he was raised in splendid comfort, enjoying aristocratic status, no amount of material pleasure could conceal life’s imperfections from the unusually inquisitive young man. At the age of 29, he left wealth and family to search for a deeper meaning in the secluded forests and remote mountains of Northeast India. He studied under the wisest religious teachers and philosophers of his time, learning all they had to offer, but they could not provide the answers he was seeking. He then struggled with the path of self-mortification, taking that practice to the extremes of asceticism, but still to no avail.
Then at the age of 35, on the full moon night of May, he sat beneath the branches of what is now known as the Bodhi Tree, in Bodh Gaya, India, and developed his mind in deep and luminous, tranquil meditation. Thus he gained the “Nirvana”, the enlightenment and from then on he was known as the Buddha, the Awakened One.
The Teachings of the Buddha
Having realized the goal of enlightenment, Buddha spent the next 45 years teaching a path which, when diligently followed, will take anyone regardless of race, class or gender to the same Perfect Enlightenment. The teachings about this path are called the “Dhamma”, literally meaning the nature of all things or the truth underlying existence. It is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to present a thorough description of all these teachings, but the following seven topics will give you an overview of what the Buddha taught.
Concept & Principle of Buddhism
- The Four Noble Truths (चार आर्य सत्य)
The main teaching of the Buddha focuses not on philosophical speculation about a Creator God or the origin of the universe, nor on reaching a heaven world ever after. The teaching instead is centred on the down-to-earth reality of human suffering and the urgent need to find lasting relief from all forms of discontent.
Thus the central teaching of the Buddha, around which all his other teachings revolve, is the Four Noble Truths:
- All beings, human and otherwise, are subject to suffering. (दु:ख)
- The cause of this suffering is craving and desire. (समुदय)
- By stopping this craving and clinging nirvana is attained. (निरोध)
- This peaceful and blissful Enlightenment is achieved through a gradual training, a path called the Eightfold Path. (मार्ग)
- The Noble Eightfold Path (आर्य अष्टांगिकमार्ग)
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, also called the Middle Path is the system of following these eight divisions of the path to achieve spiritual enlightenment and cease suffering. They are as follows:
- Right Understanding (सम्यक दृष्टि)
- Right Thought (सम्यक संकल्प)
- Right Speech (सम्यक वचन)
- Right Action (सम्यक कर्म)
- Right Livelihood (सम्यक जीविका)
- Right Effort (सम्यक प्रयास)
- Right Mindfulness (सम्यक स्मृति)
- Right Concentration (सम्यक समाधि)
For a practising lay Buddhist it consists of maintaining the five Buddhist precepts, which are to be followed called “Panchasheel” (पञ्चशील):
- Do not kill any living being;
- Do not steal;
- Do not get involved in sexual misconduct, or in particular adultery;
- Do not lie;
- Drinking alcohol and or do any drugs which will disrupt the mindfulness.
According to the Buddha, without perfecting the practice of virtue it is impossible to perfect Meditation, and without perfecting Meditation it is impossible to arrive at Enlightenment Wisdom. Thus the Buddhist path is a gradual one, a middle way consisting of virtue, meditation and wisdom, explained in the Eightfold Path and leading to happiness and liberation.
- Karma (कर्म)
Karma means ‘action’. Buddhism is a religion that revolves around the concept of Karma. According to the law of karma there are inescapable results of our intentional actions. There are deeds of body, speech and mind that lead to one’s own harm, to others’ harm, or to the harm of both. Such deeds are called bad or unwholesome karma. They are motivated by craving, ill will or delusion, and because they bring painful results they should not be done.
There are also deeds of body, speech and mind that lead to one’s own well-being, to the well-being of others, or to the well-being of both. Such deeds are called good or wholesome karma. They are motivated by generosity, compassion or wisdom, and because they bring pleasant results they should be done as often as possible.
This natural law of karma thus becomes the force behind, and the reason for, the Buddhist practice of morality and compassion in our society.
- Rebirth (पुनर्जन्म)
The Buddha clearly remembered many of his past lives. Even today many Buddhist monks and nuns, and others also, remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past lives, rebirth becomes an established fact which puts this life in a meaningful perspective.
The law of karma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes because it sometimes takes this long for karma to bear its fruit. Rebirth takes place not only within the human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many.
- No Creator God (अनीश्वरवाद)
The Buddha also pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind of being has the power to interfere in the working out of someone else’s karma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches individuals to take full responsibility for themselves. For example, if you want to be wealthy then be generous, trustworthy and diligent, and if you want to live in a heavenly realm then always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours from or to put it another way, there is no corruption possible in the workings of the law of karma.
No being is a Supreme Saviour because gods, humans, animals and all other beings are subject to the law of karma. Even the Buddha had no power to save – he could only point out the truth for the wise to see for themselves. Everyone must take responsibility for their own future well-being, and it is dangerous to give that responsibility to anyone else.
- The Illusion of a ‘Soul’ (अनात्मवाद)
The Buddha taught that there is no ‘soul’, no essential and permanent core to a living being. Instead, that which we call a ‘living being’, human or otherwise, can be seen to be but a temporary coming-together of many parts and activities – when complete it is called a ‘living being’, but when the parts have separated and the activities have ceased it is not called a ‘living being’ anymore
Schools and Traditions
One could say that there is only one type of Buddhism and that is the huge collection of teachings originally given by the Buddha. These teachings are found in the Pali Canon, the ancient scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, widely accepted as the oldest and most reliable record of the Buddha’s word. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos.
Between 100 and 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, some of the monks in the Buddha’s Sangha subsequently lowered the exalted status of the Arahant and eventually raised in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being said to be in training to become a Buddha). This group of monks and nuns was first known as the ‘Maha Sangha’, meaning the ‘great (part of the) monastic community’.
After centuries of development, previously unknown scriptures appeared, attempting to give a philosophical justification to the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the Arahant. The adherents to these new scriptures called themselves the ‘Mahayana’. Mahayana retained most of the original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures these are known as the ‘Agama’), but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed by layers of expansive interpretations and new ideas.
The Buddhism which established itself in China, and which is still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects the earlier development of Mahayana. From China, Mahayana spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan, one result of which was the emergence of Zen.
The Buddhism in Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia is a still later development which absorbed a lot from the local religions like Shamanism, Bon and Tantra, which eventually came to be known as ‘Vajrayana’.
Buddhism’s Relevance in the World Today
Today, Buddhism continues to gain ever wider acceptance in many lands far beyond its original home. People throughout the world, through their own careful choice, are adopting Buddhism’s peaceful, compassionate and responsible ways.
The Buddhist teaching of the law of karma offers people a just, incorruptible foundation and reason for living a moral life. It is easy to see how a wider embracing of the law of karma would lead any country towards a stronger, more caring and virtuous society.
From the very beginning, the practice of meditation has been at the very heart of the Buddhist way. Today, meditation grows increasingly popular as its proven benefits to both mental and physical well-being are becoming more widely known. When stress is shown to be such a major cause of human suffering, the quieting practise of meditation becomes ever more valued.
Forgiveness, gentleness, harmlessness and peaceful compassion are the well-known ‘trademarks’ of Buddhism, and they are given freely and broadly to all beings, including animals of course, and also, most importantly, to oneself. There is no place for dwelling in guilt or self-hatred in Buddhism, not even a place for feeling guilty about feeling guilty!
Teachings and practices such as these are what bring about qualities of gentle kindness, unshakeable serenity and wisdom, identified with the Buddhist religion for over 25 centuries and sorely needed in today’s world. In all its long history, no war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism. It is this peace and tolerance, growing out of a profound yet reasonable philosophy that makes the Buddha’s message timeless and always vitally relevant.