Is Buddhism a religion?
To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy, or way of life that focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life, and do not worship gods or deities.
Who was Buddha?
Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism. He was born in the north-eastern part of India into the family of the chief of the Shakya clan in Lumbini (now in Nepal), sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE (around 2,500 years ago). At the time of his birth, several scholars predicted he would become a great king or holy man.
He was raised in splendid comfort in keeping with his aristocratic status, but no amount of material wealth could satisfy the enquiring and philosophic nature of the young man. At the age of 29, after being shown the suffering of ordinary people in the villages beyond the palace by his charioteer, he decided to give up all his worldly goods, become a monk, and go out into the remote mountain regions in search of the deeper meaning of life.
At the time, philosophers and influential thinkers practiced asceticism, and measured a person’s holiness by their ability to deny themselves basic essentials such as food, drink, shelter, sleep and clothes. Siddhartha did likewise, and lived in a starved and weakened state for several years, eating only leaves and roots, wearing rags, and sleeping on a bed of thorns. He studied under the wisest religious teachers and philosophers of his time, learning all they had to offer… but it wasn’t enough for him. He eventually came to the conclusion that extreme asceticism was futile, and that there could be a Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-mortification. He began to eat normal food again, and his emaciated body gradually recovered. With faith in his own purity and strength, and unaided by any teacher, he knew that the answers he was seeking were in his own mind, and could be found through meditation.
At the age of 35, whilst famously sitting under a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, he vowed not to get up until he had found the truth. After 49 days of meditation, without moving from under the tree, he finally achieved Enlightenment, and thereafter was known as the Buddha or the Awakened One.
What did Buddha teach?
After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism; Three Universal Truths and Four Noble Truths, called the Dhamma, until his death at the age of 80.
Three Universal Truths
Everything in life is impermanent and always changing.
Because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or attachments to people doesn't make you happy.
There is no eternal, unchanging soul, and ‘self’ is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.
Four Noble Truths
Human life is full of suffering.
The cause of suffering is greed.
There is an end to suffering.
The way to end suffering is to follow the Middle Way.
Buddha also taught people not to worship him as a god. He said they should take responsibility for their own lives and actions. He taught that the Middle Way was the way to Nirvana (Enlightenment). The Middle Way meant not leading a life of luxury and indulgence but also not one of too much fasting and hardship. There are eight guides for following the Middle Way.
The Noble Eightfold Path
Understanding and viewpoint (based on the Four Noble Truths).
Values and attitude (compassion rather than selfishness).
Speech (don't tell lies, avoid harsh, abusive speech, avoid gossip).
Action (help others, live honestly, don't harm living things, take care of the environment).
Work (do something useful, avoid jobs which harm others).
Effort (encourage good, helpful thoughts, discourage unwholesome destructive thoughts).
Mindfulness (be aware of what you feel, think and do).
Meditation (calm mind, practice meditation which leads to Nirvana).
Where are Buddha's words written down?
After Buddha died, his teachings were gradually written down from what people remembered. The Ripitaka, or The Three Baskets, is a collection of Buddha's sayings, his thoughts about them, and rules for Buddhists monks, which were first written on palm leaves and collected together in baskets.
If Buddhism began in India, why is it in so many eastern countries?
There are over 500 million Buddhists today. After Buddha's death, some of his followers had some differences of opinion, which eventually led to their breaking away and forming separate kinds of Buddhism. There are two main types, Theravada, which spread to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and Mahayana which spread to Nepal, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Mahayana took on aspects of the cultures where it was practiced and became three distinct branches: Vajrayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.
“Just like a red, blue, or white lotus - born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water - stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I - born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world - live unsmeared by the world.”
The Five Precepts
Even though each form of Buddhism took on its own identity, all Buddhists follow a set of guidelines for daily life called the Five Precepts. These are:
Do not harm or kill living things.
Do not take things unless they are freely given.
Lead a decent life.
Do not speak unkindly or tell lies.
Do not abuse drugs or drink alcohol.
Thank you for reading this blog post. If you have any thoughts to share, or ideas for future posts, please do let me know. I would love to hear from you.