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Buddhism at a Glance

Buddhism originated in the 6th century B.C.E. in India, spread south to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Java, and Sumatra, and north to the Himalayan region, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Beginning in the 19th century, Buddhist teachings were carried to Europe and the Americas as well as parts of Africa and Australia. Unlike most of the world's other great traditions, Buddhism is not based on any conception of a Supreme Being or Godhead. Rather than depending on God's help to deliver us from evil and suffering (which is one view of theistic, or God-based, religions) Buddhism teaches reliance on human effort to relieve suffering. The Buddha is considered to be a historical figure, a human being who achieved great enlightenment, but not divine.

Although the Buddha taught no reliance on a Supreme Being, he nonetheless accepted much of the existing worldview of ancient India, with its panoply of gods and demons. In Buddhist artwork and scriptures, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as preaching to or interacting with various deities. And many Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha almost like a god, while revering other earthly and celestial beings who have reached enlightenment in a manner similar to the way Westerners or Hindus worship God. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?


Perhaps we can begin by noting that modern Buddhists practice their faith in different ways, as do Jews and Christians. For example, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who believes in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, and a Unitarian Universalist, who takes the scripture as largely metaphorical, are both Christians. For many Asian Buddhists, elements of the supernatural surround and suffuse their religion, partly the result of Buddhism's having for so many centuries existed alongside the folk religions of India and China, which are resplendent with gods and goddesses, demons and ghosts and all manner of supernatural happenings. Other Buddhists, particularly Western converts to Zen, choose to follow teachers who stress the nontheistic core of Buddhism, with its reliance on personal effort to achieve self-realization. Still others interpret the teachings regarding celestial beings, demons, paradises and hells, especially as taught by Tibetan Buddhists, as metaphors for various psychological and spiritual states, images that help them in their practice but that they do not need to take literally.


The Buddha also seemed to accept the prevailing Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma found in the Upanishads, although he altered the concepts as he incorporated them into his own philosophy. And so he didn't essentially question the Hindu vision of samsara, the Wheel of Existences with its continuous cycle of rebirth over thousands of lifetimes. In fact, according to some scholars, the Buddha held a view of the gods similar to that of the Greeks, feeling that the gods suffered from the same frailties and failings as humanity, and that their state was actually inferior to that of humans because only in a human lifetime can one achieve enlightenment.


Karma and Reincarnation


On the other hand, the Buddha rejected the Upanishadic concept of the Atman, or individual soul, that seeks to realize its oneness with Brahman, the Hindu name for the Godhead. The Buddha conceived of individuals as dynamic aggregates of various states, or skandas -- the constituents of personality including the body-mind, feelings, ideas, subconscious predispositions, and conscious awareness -- which dissolve and are reconfigured constantly (much the way medical science now tells us that every cell of our body dies and is recreated over a span of several years). He believed that one has no permanent, identifiable soul, a doctrine known as anatta or anatman. For the Buddha the mistaken identification of humanity with an individual, unchanging identity fixed in time is the root cause of all suffering and, ultimately, of death. This teaching along with its corollary, compassion for all sentient beings, make up the core of Buddhist Dharma, or collective teachings. Its numerous texts -- perhaps more than any other religious tradition -- and extremely complex spiritual practices and psychological analyses are all predicated on this basic insight.


The Buddha accepted the notion of karmic transfer from one form of existence to the next, but he saw each of these successive forms of existence as a continuity of moral development toward completeness rather than as an individual "personality" or soul -- today we might call this conditioning. Different philosophical schools offer various explanations of how the law of karma functions while still maintaining the cardinal Buddhist position of no permanent, intrinsic identity. One way of stating Buddhist teaching might be to say that certain tendencies are created in the subtle structure of our being by all of our past actions, and those tendencies -- as constantly changing and impermanent as the cells of our physical body -- are what are transferred across limitless lifetimes.


But the Buddha found no useful purpose in such speculation since it would not lead to release from suffering. As one scholar put it, Buddha never taught that there is no "self," only that such a self cannot be understood. Since he didn't find theological disputation helpful in achieving liberation, the Buddha maintained a "noble silence" about metaphysical questions as to whether the universe is eternal or infinite, whether an enlightened being continues to exist in some form after death, and whether there is a Supreme Being on the order of the Hindu Brahman. The Buddha was preoccupied with much more tangible problems, chief among them the suffering caused by the illusion of the separate ego, and the rampant violence of the age into which he was born, violence that he believed to be a direct outgrowth of the separation between the individual and the rest of society. His solution to the problem of human suffering is contained in what he called the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths


When the Buddha preached his first sermon, following his enlightenment, in the Deer Park at Sarnath, usually titled "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma," he put forth the Four Noble Truths that he had experienced in the course of his awakening:


  • all existence involves suffering.

  • the cause of suffering is craving.

  • release from suffering (nirvana) comes through eradicating passionate craving for material or sensual satisfaction.

  • the way to achieve that release is the Noble Eightfold Path. These eight ways of right being encompass right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.


One Buddhist scholar has suggested that the Four Noble Truths may be based on an ancient Indian medical formula of diagnosis, cause, prognosis, and treatment. Yet because of the way these four truths are formulated, Westerners often mistake Buddhism for a largely negating, pessimistic, and moralistic religion. Yet, in keeping with his Middle Way, the Buddha spoke of different kinds of happiness -- the happiness of sensory pleasures as well as of renunciation, of the family and of the monk. Scholars point out that his word "duhkha," usually translated as "suffering," also has overtones of "impermanence," "insubstantiality," and "discontent," giving it less the sense of pain than of the fleeting and illusory nature of existence: nothing lasts forever.


Furthermore, two of the Buddha's basic teachings are to do no violence to any sentient being and to strive for the liberation of all others. Perhaps for this reason, as much as for Buddha's teaching of the irrelevance of worldly striving, Buddhism has proven to be the least warlike of the major religions.

The Life of the Buddha


According to tradition, the historical personage known as Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family in Northern India, in the foothills of what is now Nepal around 563 B.C.E. (The dates of his birth and death are reckoned as 563-483 BC by Western scholars, 624-544 according to Sri Lankan tradition). Siddhartha led a sheltered existence in the court of his father Suddhodana, the king of the Shakya clan. According to the legends, Siddhartha bore the traditional 32 marks of an Enlightened One, and soon after his birth a soothsayer predicted that he would become, in the words of one commentator, "either a king whose chariot wheels would roll everywhere, or a preeminent sage who would set rolling the wheel of the good law throughout the world." Suddhodana, a member of the warrior-ruler caste, preferred the royal vocation, and shielded his son from any encounter with aging, sickness, death, or the ascetical Hindu monks of the time. He provided Siddhartha with three palaces and ten thousand dancing girls to keep his mind firmly rooted in the "real" world. But, as so often happens when manipulative fathers groom their sons to take over the family business, Siddhartha rebelled.

Legend states that at 16 he married a beautiful young princess named Yasodhara, by whom he fathered a son, Rahula. Esoteric or Tantric accounts insist that the dancing girls were actually well-trained sexual partners who sometimes combined their talents to perform the so-called yogini chakra with Gautama, during which he made love simultaneously with as many as nine women.


But by the age of 29, Gautama had come across aging, sick, and dying men outside the palace. These encounters with mortality blew down his father's carefully constructed house of cards, horrifying the young Siddhartha with the realization he later verbalized as "every living thing must decay." How could he enjoy his life of pleasure once he knew it all must end eventually? Hedonism having lost its appeal, Gautama was struck by the self-possessed and tranquil figure of a passing ascetic, who seemed to have found an answer to the dilemma of human pain and mortality, and he determined to become a monk himself. Leaving behind his wife and child, Siddhartha renounced the riches and pleasures of the palace and went in search of deliverance from suffering.


For a while the future Buddha practiced two yoga meditation tradtions until he realized that they would not permanently release him from suffering. Then he practiced the asceticism of the yogis of that time and place, nearly starving himself to death in the process. Finally he came to the conclusion that asceticism in and of itself was not the answer. The logical conclusion of denying the physical body is death, but the principles of reincarnation dictated that he would return in another body and be forced to repeat the process ad infinitum. During his life-threatening fast, he realized that enlightenment could be reached only through the vessel of the body, and there was a limit to how much deprivation his body could safely endure. And so Gautama abandoned the extreme asceticism he had been practicing in favor of a Middle Way between devotion to pleasures of the senses and complete denial of them.


Accepting a bowl of rice and milk that was offered him, he ate and his strength began to return. He then went and sat at evening under a nearby fig tree (now known as the Bodhi, or Bo, tree, the "Tree of Wisdom"), refusing to move until he had discovered the secret of release from suffering. In the early morning hours he realized the nature and cause of suffering and the way of release from these causes that constituted his enlightenment. He came to understand that one could be freed from suffering in this life by moderating its real causes: passionate craving, hatred, and ignorance. After sitting in meditation, the Buddha looked up at the morning star and said, "How wonderful. How wonderful. All things are enlightened exactly as they are!" He continued meditating for another 49 days.


All agree that he experienced nirvana, a Sanskrit word meaning "blown out," like a candle, representing the extinguishing of all desire. He chose to live and teach, however, wandering the land for the next 45 years, begging food and shelter and teaching in the vernacular to men and women of all castes.


After 45 years of preaching, at the age of 80, the Buddha died. His last words are said to be, "All composite things are decaying. Work out your salvation with diligence." ("Composite" refers to the belief that all objects and people are composed of changing and changeable factors, both psychological and physical.)


The Buddha left no writings. All Buddhist scriptures are based on accounts of his life and teachings passed down orally by his disciples from generation to generation. Traditionally, the accounts were committed to writing (in Sanskrit and in Pali, a Sanskrit-derived Indian dialect that may have been close to that spoken by the Buddha) within 100 years of the Buddha's death, but modern scholarship places the dates closer to the 2nd or 1st century B.C.E. The written records of his sermons and dialogues are known as sutras, similar in format to Hindu sutras, but closer in spirit to the Christian gospels.



Buddhism's Sacred Texts


Shortly after the Buddha's death, or Parinirvana, his closest disciples gathered to recall and recite all of the master's spoken teachings, by way of approving and codifying those sutras which they determined to be authentic. The sutras were not written down at first but were passed along in oral form for several hundred years, and so in the written form each sutra typically begins with the phrase, "Thus have I heard," followed by a description of where and to whom the Buddha was speaking. The original transmissions were reportedly in as many as five early tongues including Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and Magadhi, which the Buddha spoke. When the texts crystallized, they were in two main bodies, the Pali Canon of the southern Theravada tradition and the Sanskrit of the northern Mahayana tradition (written c.125-150).


The original sutras were divided into five collections known as nikayas, from the Pali word for "corpus." These five nikayas make up the pitaka or "basket" called the Sutra-pitaka. The fifth, Khuddaka nikaya, for instance, contains the famous Dhammapada ("Virtue-path"), 426 pithy verses of the Buddha's basic teachings, especially popular today in Theravadin countries. The same nikaya also houses the Theri-gatha, or songs of the female elders, some of the earliest enlightened women in Buddhism. The Buddha's most celebrated utterances are scattered throughout the sutras, such as his "Fire Sermon," which T. S. Eliot used as a major source for Part III of "The Waste Land."


The Sutra-pitaka, together with the Vinaya-pitaka (accounts of the origins of the first Buddhist community and the rules for monks and nuns) and the Abhidharma-pitaka (Buddhist psychology and philosophy), make up the Tripitaka, or "Three Baskets." This is the Pali canon of Southern Buddhist scriptures, and is paralleled by the even more extensive Northern Buddhist canon, which was probably written down later than the Pali canon but originated at about the same time.


Most of the scriptures have never been fully translated into English, which is understandable when we consider that no other tradition on earth has created a larger body of sacred texts. To take one example, the 40 sutras known collectively as the Prajnaparamita Sutra take up, in their Tibetan block print editions, 100 volumes of about 1,000 pages each. Set down in writing somewhat later than the Tripitaka, this sutra is believed by Western scholars to reflect elaborations on the words of the Buddha by Indian Buddhists beginning about 100 B.C.E., and as late as Nagarjuna. Mahayana Buddhist scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Sutra records the actual words of the Buddha, but that the texts were removed from the human realm by gods and dragons for 400 years to allow time for the renunciative, monastic life to purify and prepare people for the messianic nature of its teachings. Over the centuries, abridged versions of this great sutra have appeared, from the extremely short One Letter Sutra (its text is the letter A) to versions of 8,000, 18,000, 20,000, and 25,000 lines. In its original form, called the "Great Mother," it purports to be a complete record of Shakyamuni's audience on Vulture Peak Mountain, in which the Buddha states that he is only the latest of a line of avataric predecessors, and constantly asserts that Prajnaparamita -- the female embodiment of the Sutra -- produced all the Buddhas and is their mother and instructor. It also gives us the classic Buddhist mantra, Om mani padme hum, and predicts the coming of Maitreya (Skt. "Loving One"), the Buddha-to-be who waits to emanate at some time in the future to help any who have not yet realized enlightenment. Besides the sutras, the Mahayana canon contains many shastras, treatises that interpret and comment on the philosophical statements contained in the sutras.


Most Buddhist sects are based on one or another sutra. For example, followers of the Japanese sect of Nichiren Buddhism chant their faith in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or Lotus Sutra, a key sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese school of T'ien-t'ai ("School of the Celestial Platform") also bases its doctrine on the Lotus Sutra.


One of the most often quoted scriptures is a small section of the Prajnaparamita known popularly as the Diamond Sutra, a name that implies the penetration of the most impenetrable wisdom. Translated into Chinese in the year 401, the Diamond Sutra later became the first book ever printed (in 868), more than five centuries before the Gutenberg Bible.


Of all the Buddhist texts, the most popular in Europe and America, where it has sold millions of copies, does not directly present the teachings of the Buddha. Known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title coined by the American scholar who first translated it into English in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, the book's Tibetan name is the Bardo Thodol Chenmo ("the Great Liberation through Hearing in the Between"). It was originally committed to writing in the time of the 8th century Buddhist master Padmasambhava, probably either written or collated by him. Subsequently hidden in caves, it was revealed in the 14th century by the Tibetan Rigzin Karma Lingpa, himself believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava. The word "bardo" means, roughly, "suspended between," and refers to various states of consciousness experienced between death and rebirth. The Bardo Thodol, then, is nothing less than a guidebook to help dying and just-departed souls find their way through the potentially tortuous and confusing stages of the afterlife -- or, more properly, between-lives. Reportedly based on the accounts of lamas who had total recall of their own between-life experiences, the text is designed to be studied during one's life and to be read over the dying or newly dead. (Alongside Catholicism, with its last rites and funeral masses, Buddhism is the only other contemporary religion that features services explicitly designed to help the souls of the dead make the transition from the bodily state.)


The Bardo Thodol gives very specific, detailed accounts of the journey from death to rebirth, dividing it into three distinct stages: The Chikhai, Chonyid, and Sidpa Bardos. Remarkable correlations between the first stage described in the text and modern accounts of near-death experiences have been catalogued in Raymond Moody's popular book, Life After Life.

The Three Vehicles

Buddhism grew slowly until the third emperor of India, Ashoka (c. 273-237 B.C.E.), who ruled all but the southernmost part of the Indian subcontinent, became a convert. According to tradition, Ashoka was horrified at the human toll taken by his conquests in pursuit of a unified Indian Empire, and he embraced the Buddha's teachings of nonviolence. Ashoka's edicts in support of the Buddhist precepts against harming humans and animals and in favor of religious tolerance were engraved on large rocks and stone pillars for all the people to read. Under Ashoka, vegetarianism became state policy and Buddhism spread across most of India.


Over the next 400 years, Buddhism gradually divided into a number of schools and sub-schools. The pejorative overall term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") was later applied to these early schools by members of the second major branch, who called their school Mahayana ("Great Vehicle"). The only surviving Hinayana school is the Theravada ("Teachings of the Elders"), which spread south and east from India into what is now Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Bangladesh.


The Mahayana began developing around the 1st century B.C.E., mainly in Northwestern and Southern India, where Buddhism came into contact with foreign cultures. Certain teachers, believing that the religion had grown stale and had come to rely too much on the repetition of the sutras, set out to create a new body of work that would make the teachings more relevant and vibrant. These new teachings were presented as having been given by the Buddha but concealed for hundreds of years until they were needed. Some Buddhists reject the notion of any decline in the efficacy of existing teachings or practices, insisting that the Buddha had taught on several different levels, fully intending the more advanced levels to be presented only after the initial groundwork had been laid. According to this interpretation, the faithful first had to purify themselves by following the moral and ethical precepts of the Buddha before they would be ready to receive the more profound teachings of the Mahayana, and later of the Vajrayana. Mahayana traveled north in the 1st century to the Himalayan region, Central Asia, and China, later to Korea and Japan, and in the 7th century to Tibet.


Both Hinayana and Mahayana accept the basic tenets of Buddhism, but Hinayana stressed the liberation of the individual from the cycle of existence. The Hinayana ideal is the arhat, or fully liberated being who experiences nirvana for himself. But enlightenment was limited to male monks under this system; women had to be first reborn as men. Mahayana developed the ideal of everyone becoming a bodhisattva -- a fully enlightened being who, rather than experiencing complete nirvana, returns to help bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. This belief is predicated on limitless lifetimes to develop limitless abilities with which to help others achieve enlightenment. A bodhisattva ("enlightenment hero") is a being who, out of compassion, has made a vow to reach enlightenment for the sake of others, and who by definition is on the path to buddhahood. Bodhisattvas exist at various levels of development over many lifetimes; in the Mahayana tradition there are earthly and transcendent bodhisattvas. The former are still ordinary beings, male or female, who are developing their skills at helping others; the latter, who could also be called celestial or angelic bodhisattvas, are possessed of perfect wisdom and are no longer subject to samsara. Transcendent bodhisattvas can also be female, and few celestial beings are more highly revered by Tibetan Buddhists than Tara ("Savior"), the embodiment of the feminine aspect of compassion.


The understanding of nirvana itself in these two schools also differs substantially. For Theravadins, nirvana is the cut-and-dried extinction of craving, a one-shot deal that follows complete liberation from the bonds of craving. Mahayanists, on the other hand, believe that by the bodhisattva's very postponement of the bliss of nirvana, he or she has realized true nirvana -- that is, a condition of total detachment from any selfish craving, including the craving for eternal bliss. They refuse to make any ultimate separation of nirvana from the world of sense experience, as indicated by the phrase: "nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana." This leads to many questions about the Buddha's relationship to nirvana, put succinctly by the 2nd century patriarch Nagarjuna: "What is the Buddha after his Nirvana? Does he exist or not exist, or both, or neither? We never will conceive it!"

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