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  The term ‘Buddhism’ was coined in the early 19th century by European Orientalists to denote a set of religious practices and sacred texts they observed in central and southeastern Asia. But in the 2,500 years of its existence, Buddhism has spread far more widely. It has covered most of East and Southeast Asia, and has at some time or other influenced the religious and cultural life of places as far afield as Burma, China, India, Japan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and more recently, Europe and America.

The primary tenet of Buddhism is the cessation of ‘suffering’ (duhkha) in all its different forms. Duhkha is something more than the everyday suffering that most people encounter at some time or other. To Buddhists, the entire universe is subject to duhkha, and none—neither gods nor demons, neither those dwelling in hell or heaven—are exempt from it. Joys are always transient; life always ends in death and decay. Even death itself offers no salvation, since all sentient beings are constantly reborn into the endless cycle of death and rebirth. This understanding of the world is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic. Indeed, all the teachings of Buddhism point to the possibility of the cessation of duhkha. This cessation is what comprises the Buddhist notion of salvation—nirvana.

How is nirvana achieved? The Buddhist path to salvation or enlightenment is a matter of perfecting three essentials: (1) Morality, which involves the correct way of living, through the exercise of universal love and compassion toward all living beings. (2) Wisdom, which requires seeking an understanding and knowledge of things as they are, through thought and critical investigation. (3) Practice, involving mental development, through meditative exercises, concentration and insight aimed at a direct apprehension of reality.

These three essentials are not mutually exclusive. Morality, wisdom and practice are inseparably linked in Buddhism, not appended to each other like petals of a flower, but intertwined with one another like salt in the ocean (to evoke a famous Buddhist simile). They are basic ingredients of the path to salvation, which is open to all, and which is attained neither by blind faith nor by divine grace, but by ‘seeing things as they really are’.

Traditionally, to be a Buddhist is to ‘take refuge’ in the ‘Three Jewels’ (triratna), also referred to as the ‘Three Refuges’. These are: the Buddha (the ‘Awakened One’), the Dharma (the ‘Teaching’) and the Sangha (the ‘Community’). Through them one obtains release from duhkha. For worldly goals one may turn elsewhere, to local deities, Brahmanic rituals, magic and so on. Not surprisingly, Buddhism has always coexisted with other religious beliefs and has a clear tendency to accommodate the rituals of other ‘local’ religions. In most cases these ‘local’ beliefs were not seen as relevant to the spiritual quest, so could easily be tolerated. This inherent openness has facilitated the vast expansion and diversity of Buddhism.

The word buddha literally means ‘one who has awakened’. But in the Indian religious context it has become an honorific title for an enlightened being. According to Buddhist belief there have been many Buddhas, and many are to follow. The most recent Buddha, and the one usually referred to historically, is Siddhartha Gautama. He was probably born in the second half of the 5th century  BCE, of the Shakya clan residing in the northern part of India not far from the Nepalese border. Legend says that he was a prince, heir to his father\'s kingdom. Despite the worldly pleasures and luxuries of his royal upbringing, he sought a deeper understanding of life. His confrontation with the harsh realities of life prompted him to seek a way out of universal suffering. So he renounced family life and became an ascetic in search of the truth. For six years he wandered and studied under various religious teachers. Although he mastered all the known techniques, he did not find satisfaction. Then, at the age of 35 he decided to go his own way. Having taken a meal, he sat down under a tree (later to be known as the Bodhi-tree, ‘Tree of Wisdom’) and after deep contemplation came to the realization of the Truth. After this he became known as the Buddha, that is ‘The Awakened (or Enlightened) One’. He delivered his first sermon to a group of five ascetics in the Deer Park near modern Sarnath.

Buddha\'s teaching recognized no differences of caste or class. (This was a revolutionary step, also taken by his contemporary, Mahavira: see Jainism.) His intention was to open the path of salvation to all humankind. In many respects, Buddha\'s life epitomizes cardinal elements in Buddhist doctrine and ethics. An important element is the emphasis on the ‘middle way’, a key motif throughout Buddhism. The Buddha experienced both sensual pleasure as a prince and the agony of self-mortification as an ascetic. Both rejected in favour of the middle way.

Another important feature of Buddhism, highlighted in the life and death of its founder, is its humanity. Although there is no doubt that Siddhartha is portrayed as fully human, over-emphasizing this has, at times, been somewhat misleading. It is true that the Buddha is not a god and that Buddhahood is attained in the human circumstances as the culmination of many lives. Nevertheless, being a Buddha is being neither human nor god, but going beyond the nature of both.

The Buddha\'s first sermon at the Deer Park is called ‘The Setting-in-Motion of the Wheel of Dharma’. Dharma, the second of the ‘Three Refuges’, is a central term in Buddhism and in the whole development of Indian thought. It is both descriptive, meaning the way things are in reality, and prescriptive, referring to the way things should be; to stress this aspect it is often translated as ‘(natural) Law’ or the ‘Law of the Cosmos’. In Buddhism, to realize dharma is simultaneously to comprehend the Law of spiritual life and to achieve its goal.

The Buddha explained dharma in the form of the ‘Four Noble Truths’. These ‘Four Noble Truths’ occupy a special position in Buddhism. They are:

(1) Duhkha (see above) It is said that everything is duhkha: birth, ageing, sickness, death, parting, not getting what one wants, change, decay—in fact any experience, whether pleasurable or painful. Duhkha has three elements: the duhkha of suffering in the psychological sense; the ‘metaphysical duhkha’ that reveals the perpetual flux of all that there is, and the duhkha of that which conditions the very essence of being. One might simplify by saying that duhkha embraces all possible non-nirvanic states of being in their psychological and ontological sense.

(2) The Noble Truth on the Origin of Duhkha The cause of duhkha is the craving (literally ‘thirst’) for sensual pleasure, for something else, for more or for less, for being and for non-being. This craving is one link in a circular chain in which each element both begets and is begotten by its counterparts, ultimately locking one up in the prison of duhkha. This ‘chain’ is called ‘Dependent Origination’ and in it are embedded the principles of conditionality, reality and interdependence which form the core of the Buddhist explanation of all psychological and physical phenomena.

(3) The Noble Truth on the Cessation of Dhukha Supreme and final liberation is the ‘blowing out’ (the literal meaning of nirvana) of the fires of craving, hatred and ignorance (sometimes referred to as greed, hatred and delusion). The Four Noble Truths are often explained through a medicinal allegory. The human condition is diagnosed as being duhkha. The reason for this malady is craving, and if the cause of this malady is removed health ensues. Health in this allegory is nirvana.

(4) The Noble Truth of the Path (leading to the Cessation of Duhkha) The path has eight factors: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. These eight reaffirm the three essentials of Buddhist spiritual training and discipline mentioned earlier (moral conduct, wisdom and practice). The fourth Truth thus covers the whole of Buddhist teaching, creating an intricate and harmonious whole.

The more historical sense of ‘path’ refers to the Order of monks and nuns who formally undertake to pursue the Buddhist life and to abide the Discipline (vinaya) of the Order. There has always been a place for lay followers in Buddhism, and salvation has never been reserved solely for monks and nuns. Nevertheless, right from its inception, Buddhism has been characterized by the heritage of monks and nuns who have renounced worldly life, and have decided to commit themselves to strict training within the community of other monks and nuns. This is the meaning of the word sangha, which otherwise generally means the community of those pursuing the Path. Monks and nuns give up all worldly belongings and possess only a bare minimum of personal goods (three robes, alms bowl, belt, razor, needle and not much else). Traditionally, the monks and nuns lived as wandering religious beggars, settling in one place only for the three months of the rainy season. They relied on charity for food, clothing, shelter and medicines. Expulsion from the sangha was, and is, rare and enforced only for extreme cases, though a monk or nun is always free to leave if they wish.

The sangha plays an extremely important role in Buddhism. It is the protector and maintainer of knowledge of the dharma. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism is not linked to a specific place or a society and does not control the rites of passage. The core of ‘institutional’ Buddhism has always been more preoccupied with preserving the dharma through the lineage of a committed community, rather than through political power structures, or control of social customs and lifestyles.

From its inception, sangha lacked a supreme authority. The Buddha refused to establish a functional hierarchy or a successor. Authority in the sangha is seen as collective and precedence is granted simply according to seniority, calculated by the date of ordination. Teaching is passed on to each novice only by an appointed and accomplished teacher, who in turn was trained by a master in his own right, standing in line right to the Buddha himself. The idea of a lineage is central to sangha and the dominance of the master/pupil relationship within it complements the absence of a central authority, shifting the burden of authority to the personal level.

The key ideas described above are shared by all traditions of Buddhism. However, these ideas, and the terms which embody them, have been interpreted differently among different traditions throughout the ages. Although schism and heresy are recognized in Buddhism (and would constitute grave departure from the Buddhist path) doctrinal differences are not seen as a sign of weakness, but as part of the legitimate progression of the path, and, on the whole, do not create rifts in the dharma. Yet the regional and doctrinal differences are such that it has been the practice, of both Buddhists and Western scholars, to divide the cumulative tradition into more manageable parts. There are three great ‘vehicles’ (yana) which emphasize different understandings of the process and goal of salvation: the Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana), the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) and the Diamond Vehicle (Vajrayana, usually referred to as Tantra). The major school of the Hinayana existing today is the Theravada, which is widespread among the countries of Southeast Asia. Mahayana, the dominant form of northern and eastern Buddhism, spread from India to China, Tibet and Nepal, and then from China to Japan. Contemporary Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism (including Zen Buddhism) is all Mahayana. It tends to be more accommodating to change and local influence, and its sacred texts are written in an enormous diversity and plurality of languages. Vajrayana, or Tantra, owes much to mainstream Mahayana, yet it has much in common with the Hindu form of Tantric practice. At its core is a ritual system centred around the evocation of deities, the acquisition of supernatural powers and the attainment of enlightenment by means of meditation, ‘incantations’ (mantra), and yoga. OR

Further reading Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism; Popular Dictionary of Buddhism.



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