Buddhism was started by a man named Siddhartha Gautama who lived in northeastern India which today is part of Nepal. Siddhartha Gautama was born about the year 563 B.C. in the city of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha’s father was of the Kshatriya caste and was ruler of the Shakya tribe. Siddhartha grew up in luxury and as a young person was not aware of the suffering in the world. Eventually, however, Siddhartha went outside the palace where he saw four disturbing sights. He saw an old and frail man. He saw a man sick with disease. He saw a dead person’s corpse, and he saw a Hindu ascetic who was seeking enlightenment. In Buddhism, these encounters are called the “four sights”.
Siddhartha was profoundly affected by these sights and began a life-long study of suffering to learn the nature, cause, and remedy of suffering. At this time Siddhartha was married and had a young son but he left them in his search for enlightenment.*
At first Siddhartha began his inquiry into suffering by following the example of the Hindu ascetics. These men, who had abandoned worldly pleasures and possessions, seemed to be able to rise above the problem of suffering. In an attempt to follow their example, Siddhartha fasted for many days and almost starved himself to death before realizing that this extreme method did not lead to enlightenment.
When the path of asceticism did not lead Siddhartha to enlightenment, he looked for a lonely place to meditate. His travels led him to Gaya one of the Hindu holy cities on the banks of the Falgu River a tributary of the sacred Ganges River and he spent many days in meditation under a sacred fig tree. During his meditation Siddhartha ascended through the fourvarious stages of meditation and achieved enlightenment. Today this tree is known as the “Bodhi” or “Enlightenment” tree and Siddhartha is called “the Buddha” or “enlightened one”.
Siddhartha called his ideas “the Middle Path”. He believed that enlightenment is not found in pleasure or luxury nor in extreme asceticism but through a middle path that seeks to avoid all suffering by avoiding desire (tanha). Siddhartha Gautama was primarily interested in eliminating suffering.
After his enlightenment, Siddhartha gathered a small group of disciples and slowly his movement of the Middle Path grew larger and larger. The Buddhist monastic order is the Sangha.
Buddhists call Siddhartha “Shakyamuni” which means “wise man of the Shakyas”. His main teaching emphasized the search for Nirvana through the Four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering (Dukkha); 2) suffering is caused by desire, craving, and attachment (tanha) to the things of this world, 3) Attachment to the things of this world can be conquered; 4) One has victory over attachment to this world and can attain Nirvana through following the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is: 1) Right knowledge, 2) Right attitude, 3) Right speech, 4) Right action, 5) Right vocation, 6) Right effort, 7) Right mindfulness, 8) Right concentration.
For the next forty-five years until his death around 483 B.C. Siddhartha traveled throughout northern India spreading his teachings about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
At first Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings were passed down orally from monk to monk. His disciples did not write down or systematize his teachings until more than a hundred years after his death. Buddhist tradition states that a council of Siddhartha’s disciples took place in 400 B.C. This council was formed to help preserve Siddhartha’s teachings which had supposedly been memorized by his disciples. Several years later a second council was formed to reform some Buddhist practices, especially to stop Buddhist monks from accepting money.
Through the next hundred years Buddhist monks organized Siddhartha’s teaching into a coherent system, but Buddhist Scriptures were not written down until the third century B.C. under the influence of King Asoka, king of the Mauryan Empire.
Prior to becoming a Buddhist, King Asoka had engaged in a militaristic campaign to expand his kingdom. Through bloody warfare Asoka conquered other territories but his aggression and militarism left him feeling guilty. As a result of this guilt he sought the peace offered in the teaching of Buddha. Under King Asoka a third Buddhist Council was called in 250 B.C in the city of Patna close to the center of Buddhist influence in northeastern India. This council helped to codify Buddhist teachings, collect the various Sutras, and preserve the Buddha’s teaching.
Asoka also sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka and it is in Sri Lanka where Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings were first put into writing. These writings are called the “Pali Canon” because they were written in the Pali language of India. The writings are also called “Tipitaka” the “Three Baskets”. The three baskets are the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka is the discipline basket. These writings give standards and rules for Buddhist monks and nuns. The Sutta Pitaka is the teachings basket. The Suttas are are especially important to Theravada Buddhists because they believe these writings originated with Siddhartha Gautama. The Abhidhamma Pitaka are additional writings which explain Buddha’s teaching.
How did nuns become part of the Sangha? According to Buddhist tradition Siddhartha Gautama reluctantly allowed women into the sangha only after much pleading by Mahaprajapati, Siddhartha’s aunt and stepmother who had taken care of him when he was a child. The story is told that Mahaprajapati and five hundred other women of the Shakya clan shaved their heads like the Buddhist monks. Then these women walked barefoot over a long distance to meet with Siddhartha. But Siddhartha did not allow the women to join the sangha. Only when one of his male disciples asked Siddhartha if women could achieve Nirvana did Siddhartha concede that women in fact could achieve Nirvana. As a result of this decision, women were then allowed to become nuns. But Siddhartha added a caveat which reveals his displeasure at allowing women to be nuns. Siddhartha said that now that women were allowed in the sangha his movement would only last five hundred years rather than a thousand years as had been predicted.
Buddhism is no longer practiced in India. It is, however, practiced in Sri Lanka where it had its strongest beginning. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism expanded across Asia and has developed into two similar but different branches of Buddhism—Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism mostly practiced in Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. This branch of Buddhism is called Theravada or “The Way of the Elders” because it has tried to stay true to the oldest traditions of Buddhism. Those who follow this branch of Buddhism focus on the Buddha’s example as a monk. Many of these Buddhists live in monasteries and spend their time in meditation.
In addition to the Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path, other aspects of Siddhartha’s teaching have been passed down by the Theravada school. These teachings include:
1) When one understands that man’s problem is suffering he must enter into a life-long endeavor to overcome and eliminate suffering.
2) Karma must be overcome to be released from samsara.
3) Release from karma and samsara results in nirvana or enlightenment.
4) Nirvana is cessation of consciousness.
5) Consciousness is only a part of our existence and no true individual exists. Atman does not exist.
6) The doctrine of momentariness/impermanence. All things pass instantaneously from existence to non-existence. Nothing exists. No cause-effect relationship exists. Everything is illusion.
7) God does not exist.2
Mahayana Buddhism is practiced mostly in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia. Around the first century many Buddhists began to want a less rigid form of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism was seen by many people to be too strict. The rigors of monastic life, long periods of meditation, an academic approach to Buddhist philosophy, and concentrated leaning of the Tripitaka was too difficult for the average person, so some Buddhist monks began to teach another way. This way has become known as the Large Raft or Mahayana Buddhism.
Here is a story that helps explain the difference between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism from a Mahayana perspective:
Four men lost in the desert had become weak and were slowly dying of hunger and thirst. Eventually they come to a tall wall that seems impossible to climb. One of the four men decides to climb the wall and only with great effort makes the top of the wall. At the top the man yells with great joy and jumps to the other side. Then another of the men attempts the great climb and surmounts the top of the wall. He too yells with delight and jumps to the other side. Then one of the remaining two men makes the difficult climb. At the top he screams with great joy and jumps over the wall. Finally, the last of the four men makes his way up the wall. Only with great difficulty does he come to the top and is able to see the other side. It is a beautify paradise of green fields, fruit trees, and lovely lakes and rivers. He jumps down into the land of paradise and eats and drinks to his hearts desire, but unlike the first three who continue to live in the land of paradise he returns to the wall, climbs back to the desert land of heat and suffering so that he might lead others to the land of paradise.3
Four Noble Truths
Summery of Four Noble Truths:
1) Life is dukkha, suffering.
2) Dukkha or suffering is caused by tanha desire, craving, and attachment to the things of this world.
3) The problem of suffering can be solved. Attachment to the things of this world can be conquered. To rid ourselves of dukkha, suffering, we must get rid of tanha. When we stop being attached to this world then we will no longer suffer. Dukkha and tanha can be overcome through nirvana. Nirvana means “no craving”. When we reach Nirvana we no longer crave the things of this life so Dukkha or suffering comes to an end.
4) Dharma (the teaching of the Buddha) and the Eightfold Path is the middle way to nirvana and enlightenment. We can have victory over attachment to this world and can attain Nirvana through following the Eightfold Path.
Four Noble Truths: Explained:
1) Life is dukkha, suffering. Life is filled with pain, suffering, and anguish. All people suffer physical pain, emotional pain, and psychological pain. Compounding this suffering is the mistaken hope that one can escape suffering and enjoy a happy life. Escape from suffering is only an illusion. Life without pain is a contradiction. People try to cope with the difficulties of life by trying to make their life better. They hope that their life will eventually improve, but this hope is only an illusion. The pleasures of life are few, superficial and can never compensate for the pain we experience in life.
2) Dukkha or suffering is caused by tanha. Siddhartha taught that the source of suffering is Tanha. Tanha means “desire”, “grasp” or “attachment”. Tanha is craving and the inordinate desire for things or pleasures. Many people grasp for things and pleasure thinking that these will bring happiness. This kind of thinking is avidya. Avidya is our ignorance of the impermanence of reality. We believe that things or pleasures have real substance or lasting value so we grasp for them. But in reality all things are transitory and cannot bring happiness. In Buddhism, when grasping ceases, one passes from suffering to Nirvana.
Another contributing factor that leads to Dukkha is a misunderstanding of anitya. Anitya is the doctrine that all things are impermanent. Everything that exists is conditional and so as conditions change so do all things. Everything is constantly changing. Even the human person has no permanent “self”. Humans are anatman—no-self. Our soul does not exist as a permanent entity instead the self is an mingling of five ever-changing states. These five states or skandhas are: the body (physical shape), sense and sensations, perceptions and conceptions (visualizations), volitional actions, basic impulses, and karmic tendencies (samskaras), and basic consciousness. In Buddhism, no Self exists over and beyond the five skandhas also called “five aggregates”.
In Buddhism, Atman does not exist. Atman does not experience samsara. Since there is no atman, the person cannot be reincarnated. Buddhists do not talk about reincarnation but rather rebirth. After death the five aggregates are reborn as various traits come together to form a new life and body. This is Buddhist teaching of anatman, no soul. Each of the five skandhas are connected and do not exist separate from one another but the person into which they are formed is not permanent. The Buddhist position is that the rebirth is neither the same nor different from the one that died. At death the five skandhas flow into a great cosmic flow and then regroup to form a new aggregate until, finally, one of the aggregates escapes samsara and enters nirvana.
3) Attachment to the things of this world can be conquered. To rid ourselves of dukkha, suffering, we must get rid of tanha. When we stop being attached to this world then we will no longer suffer. Dukkha and tanha can be overcome through nirvana. Nirvana means “no craving”. When we reach Nirvana we no longer crave the things of this life so Dukkha or suffering comes to an end. Nirvana is achieved by overcoming ignorance as to the impermanence of all things and overcoming attachment or tanha. Another way that tanha can be overcome is by building karuna. Karuna is a Sanskrit word meaning “any action that is taken to diminish the suffering of others and could also be translated as "compassionate action."4
4) Dharma and the eightfold path is the middle way to nirvana or enlightenment. One has victory over attachment to this world and can attain Nirvana through following the Eightfold Path. Siddhartha Gautama’s eightfold path was middle way between materialistic hedonism and extreme asceticism.
The Eightfold Path
1. Right knowledge is the true understanding of the four noble truths.
2. Right attitude is the true desire to be free from attachment, ignorance, and hate.
3. Right speech involves speaking with wisdom and prudence while keeping away from lies, gossip, or slander.
4. Right action living in harmony with others by treating people with kindness and keeping way murder, theft, and adultery.
5. Right occupation means to be employed in a job that does not involve hurting others or harming animals.
C. Samadhi or meditation
6. Right effort is about keeping away from evil desires and nurturing good habits and attitudes.
7. Right mindfulness is the discernment to help us have right thinking to overcome impulsiveness and wrong thinking.
8. Right concentration is meditation that leads to insight into the impermanence of all things and the interconnectedness or contingent nature of all things.
Vajrayāna (Tantric) Buddhism
Vajrayāna Buddhism is called the “Diamond Vehicle” because of the Hindu name Vajra the diamond hard thunderbolt used as a weapon by the gods. Vajrayāna Buddhism is practiced mostly in Tibet, Japan, and Mongolia. It is a mixture of Theravada and Mahayana teachings with an emphasis on esoteric tantrism.
Tantrism is an ancient tradition comprised of secret and esoteric disciplines that include rituals, chants, making of mandalas, and sexual intercourse for the purpose of achieving a heightened spiritual level. These tantric rituals are kept secret and are known only to the initiated.5 Vajrayana Tantrism usually involves these features:
1. Spiritual disciple under the guidance of a master guru/yogi.
2. Belief that the phenomenal world is samara. Samsara includs the sensations and the passions. Samsara is only a manifestation of Nirvana thus no distinction exists between samsara and Nirvana the world of consciousness or Pure Mind.
3. Belief in the possibility of achieving permanent Nirvana by kundalini-shakti the liberation of the consciousness through yoga. Kundalini is described as a resting, inactive but potential force in men and women. Kundalini is described as being coiled up like a snake at the base of the spine. Through meditation and various esoteric practices, such as laya-yoga and kriya yoga the kundalini is awakened, and can rise up inside or alongside the spine. The progress of kundalini leads to different levels of awakening and mystical experience, until the kundalini finally reaches the top of the head, and produces an intense mystical experience.
4. Belief in reincarnation and the need for escape from samsara through Nirvana.
5. Belief that spiritual energy can be found through sexual intercourse.6
Buddhism developed into its own forms in Tibet because of Tibet’s relative isolation from the rest of India and South Asia where Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism were forming their own traditions. Buddhism first came to Tibet through Guru Rinpoche or as the Tibetans call him—the Precious Guru. Guru Rinpoche is a Mahaguru a Great Guru. Guru Rinpoche came to Tibet by invitation of King Trisong Detsen sometime in around A.D. 900. Guru Rinpoche stayed in Tibet for the next 55 years teaching Buddhism to the people who believed in a mixture of animism, folk religion, Daoism, and Hinduism.
Because Tibetan Buddhism developed largely in isolation from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism became distinctive. Tibetan Buddhism includes many traces of older folk religion such as belief in spirits, magical rites, divination, and exorcism. These features of the older folk religion continue to exist in Tibet and have mixed with Buddhist practices. One of the most prevalent features of this early folk religion which can be seen in Tibetan Buddhism is the fear of spirits and the need to protect oneself from being harmed by the spirits of the dead.
Another distinctive of Tibetan Buddhism is that it is a mixture of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists allow more openness to the laity and to women. Vajrayana Buddhists brought their preoccupation with Indian Tantrism. Tantrism in Tibetan Buddhism is characterized by esoteric teachings that include initiation ceremonies. These ceremonies center around the use of mandalas. A Mandala is usually some kind of colorful handmade geometric shapes. Often the shape is a circle with symmetrical geometrical designs. The designs form a sort of symbolic map of the spiritual universe. Tantrism also involves the use of mudras, or ritual gestures, and mantras, or sacred syllables, which are repeatedly chanted and used as a focus for meditation. A few sects practice sexual techniques in their ceremonies.
A key difference between Vajrayana Buddhism and other forms of Buddhism is its emphasis on ritual. In Vajrayana Buddhism ritual replaces meditation. Keeping vows and a strict devotion to ceremony is important in Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism reflects this emphasis. Tibetan Buddhism seems to be more inclusive allowing for influences from folk religion and Hinduism. Tibetan Buddhists worship a great multitude of deities and spirits. Some of these gods are great cosmic gods and some are local gods—gods of the rivers, mountains, and earth and sky.7
Another aspect of Tibetan Buddhism is its concern with helping a dying person “cross the borders of death”.8 Tibetans believe in bardo the place inbetween life and death. These six bardos are six stages or progressions through which a person must go on his or her journey to Nirvana. These bardos are explained in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Japanese Buddhism Zen Buddhism developed from within the Chinese Mahayana school known as Chan. Zen Buddhism is becoming increasingly popular in the West. In Zen Buddhism Koans are problems used by monks to help reduce ordinary ways of thinking. In Japan, the Zen enlightenment experience is called Satori.
Another Japanese Buddhist sect is the Tendai shu sect. Saicho went to China in A.D. 804 and learned esoteric Buddhism. He returned to Japan and began Tendai shu sect. Tendai sect emphasizes Nirvana in this life and the power of the Lotus Sutra. Kukai (A.D. 774-835) started the Shingon shu sect of Buddhism. The Japan Buddhist Federation it claims an alliance of 58 main Buddhist sects.9
Shingon shu is one of the oldest Buddhist sects in Japan. It was started by Kukai (A.D. 774-835). Kukai started a school in Kyoto where he taught Confucian philosophy and ethics and Mahayana Buddhism that he learned in China. According to the Shingon Buddhist International Institute, a devotee of Shingon Buddhism should practice daily prayers and meditaions. One of the prayers is to recite the Sanki – the Three Jewels. This prayer is said within a group that is led by a monk or a teacher. The prayer is:
Leader – We put our faith in Buddha.
Group – May we all together realize Buddhahood to attain awakening.
Leader – We put our faith in Dharma.
Group – May we all together dwell in Buddha’s teachings and attain the infinite wisdom.
Leader – We put our faith in Sangha.
Group – May we all together be of One in accord and harmony and live the life of Universal Brotherhood.10
Zen Buddhism developed from within the Chinese Mahayana school known as Chan. According to Zen Buddhists Siddhartha Gautama gave a special message called the “Flower Sermon”. In this sermon the Buddha taught that true reality does not come from didactic teaching or doctrines but through a direct experience of the teachers mind and consciousness through esoteric and symbolic meanings.
Zen enlightenment experience is called Satori. Zen Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that has become popular in Europe and the United States.
The Three Characteristics of Existence
Dukkha: suffering caused by attachment to things and a life filled with disappointment because everything is changing and transitory.
Anitya: impermancence, everything is in a constant state of change yet nothing cease to exist they simply appear to have disappeared and reemerged in a new state that resembles but is not the same as the previous state. All things are conditioned on things they once were.
Anatman: no-self. We only imagine we exist as a self. In reality we are made up of skandhas (aggregates) a collection of psychophysical aspects of our lives. These shandhas are in constant flux so that at death, the self, having never existed, is not reincarnated.
Questions for discussion
What are the three characteristics of existence
What makes Tibetan forms of Buddhism distinctive?
How do Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism differ?
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha.