Philosophy and Religion Buddhism

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Philosophy and Religion

Buddhism is a variety of teachings, sometimes described as a religion or way of life that attempts to identify the causes of human suffering and offer various ways that are claimed to end, or ease suffering, as well as cultivating a path of spiritual development that helps a person find the true nature of life. Buddhism emphasizes on experiencing, rather than teaching or learning. It considers meditation as the means to enlightenment and is based on a number of principles. The followers of Buddhism do not worship any God and follow the noble eightfold path to lead a meaningful existence.

It is said by some to be a body of philosophies influenced by the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Gautama Buddha. It is said by others to be a set of teachings to guide one to directly experiencing reality. (Many scholars say that there is not one Buddhism but many Buddhisms). Buddhism is also known as Buddha Dharma or Dhamma, which means roughly the "teachings of the Awakened One" in Sanskrit and Pali, languages of ancient Buddhist texts. Buddhism began around the 5th century BC in India with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly referred to as "the Buddha".

According to the scriptures, The Buddha presented himself as a model, but he did not ask his followers simply to have faith in his example of a human who escaped the pain and danger of existence. He encouraged them to put his teachings to the test and accept what they could verify on their own.

Many Buddhists also believe that there is no otherworldly salvation from one's karma. The suffering caused by the karmic effects of previous thoughts, words and deeds can be alleviated by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
Founded In: 6th Century BC
Place founded: North India
Founder: Siddhartha Gautama ("the Buddha"), an Indian prince
Followers: 376 million
Size: Fourth largest religion in the world
Main locations: China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia
Main Sects: Theravada and Mahayana (and Tibetan, or Vajrayana)
Sacred texts: Pali Canon (Tripitaka), numerous Mahayana sutras
Original language: Pali
Spiritual leader: Monk (lama in Tibetan Buddhism)
Place of ritual: Temple, meditation hall
Theism: Varies - Theravada is atheistic; Mahayana and Vajrayana are more polytheistic.
Ultimate reality: None, Nothing is permanent.
Holidays: Buddha's birthday, Buddha's enlightenment and lunar quarters

Three Main Schools of Buddhism:

Buddhism is classified in various ways. The normal English-language usage, as given in dictionaries, divides it into Theravada (also known by the derogatory name Hinayana) and Mahayana, with Mahayana split into East Asian (also known simply as Mahayana) and Tibetan traditions (Vajrayana or Lamaism).


In the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”), the Buddha tends not to be viewed as merely human, but as the earthly projection of a beginningless and endless, omnipresent being beyond the range and reach of thought. Moreover, in certain Mahayana sutras, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are viewed essentially as One: all three are seen as the eternal Buddha himself. Although the Mahayana movement claims that it was founded by the Buddha himself, the consensus of the evidence indicates that it originated in South India in the 1st century AD. Mahayana developed the esoteric Vajrayana school of Buddhism found mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia, although it is also in adjacent areas of China, Japan, India, and Russia. (The Vajrayana school claims to encompass all previous schools).

It constitutes an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new, Mahayana sutras, in addition to the traditional Pali canon or Agama texts, and a shift in the basic purpose and concepts of Buddhism. Mahayana sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma. Mahayana Buddhist schools de-emphasize the ideal, emphasized in Theravada, of the release from individual Suffering (Dukkha) and attainment of Awakening (Nirvana). Most Mahayana schools also believe in a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas that devote themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge, and the salvation of humanity and all other sentient beings (animals, ghosts, demigods, etc.). Zen Buddhism is also a school of Mahayana.

In Mahayana, the Buddha is seen as the ultimate, highest being, present in all times, in all beings, and in all places. The fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine were based around the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence "great vehicle") and the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisattva embodying transcendent Buddha-nature (the eternal Buddha essence present, but hidden and unrecognized, in all beings).


Theravada (“the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70% of the population) and most of continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand). It is also practiced by minorities in parts of southwest China. Theravada promotes that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith.

In Theravada, the cause of human existence and suffering is identified as the craving, which carried with it the defilements (anger, ill will, aversion, greed, jealousy, etc). These defilements are the habits born of ignorance which infest the minds of all unenlightened beings, preventing us from seeing the truth of reality. (Initially the defilements are restrained through mindfulness to prevent them from taking over the mind and bodily action. They are then uprooted through internal investigation, analyzing, experiencing and understanding the true nature of those defilements - this process will then lead the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment and nirvana).

Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Theravadins. It is said to be the perfect bliss and the person is liberated from the repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death. This practice is said to be the path toward self-realization and liberation.

Theravadins also believe that every individual is personally responsible for their own self-realization of the ultimate reality and liberation from the repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death, as they are the ones responsible for their own actions and consequences (karma). They have to follow and practice the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha, for self-realization and liberation.

For Theravadins, Buddha is only a Teacher of the Noble Eightfold Path.


Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism encompasses Vajrayana (a Sanskrit word that is a conjunction of vajra which may be translated as “diamond,” “thunder” or “indestructible” and “yana” or “vehicle”).

It is said that Vajrayana practice is the fastest method for attaining Buddhahood, however this is only the case for advanced practitioners who have a solid and reliable grounding in the preliminary practices. For practitioners who are not qualified, Vajrayana practice can be very dangerous, and will only lead to increased ego problems and more suffering if it is not practiced with the pure motivation of Bodhicitta (the wish to attain complete enlightenment – for all sentient beings).

Even for the qualified advanced practitioner, a specific Vajrayana practice should only ever be followed on the basis of receiving the appropriate initiation (also known as an empowerment) from a lama who is fully qualified to give that initiation.

The Buddha

Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from ancient India and the founder of Buddhism. He is generally recognized by Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha (Sammāsambuddha) of our age. The precise nature of such a supreme Buddha - whether "merely" human or a transcendental, immortal, god-transcending being - is differently construed in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada tends to view him as a super-human personage of supreme teaching skill and wisdom (un-contactable after his physical death), whereas Mahayana Buddhism goes further and tends to see him as a projection of an eternal, ultimate principle of Buddhahood, present in all phenomena, immortal and transcendent. The time of his birth and death are uncertain: most early 20th-century historians date his lifetime from circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE. The prime sources of information regarding Siddhārtha Gautama's life are the Buddhist texts. The Buddha and his monks spent four months each year discussing and rehearsing his teachings, and after his death his monks set about preserving them.


Siddhartha, destined to a luxurious life as a prince, was raised in a life of royalty the first part of his life. His father, King Śuddhodana, wishing for Siddhartha to be a great king, shielded him from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering. Although his father ensured that Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need, Siddhartha felt that material wealth was not the ultimate goal of life. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace in order to meet his subjects. Despite his father's effort to remove the sick, aged and suffering from the public view, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man. Disturbed by this, when told that all people would eventually grow old, the prince went on further trips where he encountered, variously, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. Deeply depressed by these sights, he sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Siddhartha escaped his palace, leaving behind this royal life to become a beggar. This event is known as "The Great Departure". He tried to find enlightenment through near total deprivation of worldly goods, including food, practicing self-mortification. After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing and almost drowned. He then began to reconsider his path. As he laid in the river, a boat passed him and he overheard the conversation that the two musicians aboard it were saying: "If you tighten the string too tight it will snap, but if it is too loose it will not play." From this, he realized that he would have to take a "middle-way" to reach enlightenment and not by using extremes. Sitting under a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. His companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left him. After 49 days meditating, at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment. From then on, he was known as the Buddha or "Awakened One." At this point, he realized complete awakening and insight into the nature and cause of human suffering which was ignorance, along with steps necessary to eliminate it. These truths were then categorized into the Four Noble Truths; the state of supreme liberation—possible for any being—was called Nirvana.


One of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha regarding the holy life and the goal of liberation is constituted by the "The Four Noble Truths", which focus on suffering or the unhappiness ultimately characteristic of unawakened, worldly life. The way to the cessation of suffering is called "The Noble Eightfold Path". Numerous distinct groups have developed since the passing of the Buddha, with diverse teachings that vary widely in practice, philosophical emphasis, and culture.

The Middle Way

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way which was said to have been discovered by the Buddha prior to his enlightenment (bodhi). The Middle Way or Middle Path has several definitions: it is often described as the practice of non-extremism; a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and opposing self-mortification.

It also refers to taking a middle ground between certain metaphysical views, e.g. that things ultimately either exist or do not exist (an explanation of the state of nirvana and perfect enlightenment where all dualities fuse and cease to exist as separate entities).
The Four Noble Truths

1. "the noble truth that is suffering"

2. "the noble truth that is the arising of suffering"

3. "the noble truth that is the end of suffering"

4. "the noble truth that is the way leading to the end of suffering"

According to the scriptures, the Four Noble Truths were among the topics of the first sermon given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, which was given to the five ascetics with whom he had practiced austerities. The Four Noble Truths were originally spoken by the Buddha not in the form of a religious or philosophical text, but in the manner of a medical diagnosis and remedial prescription in a style that was common at that time. The Theravada tradition considers these advanced teachings for those who are ready for them. The Mahayana position is that they are a preliminary teaching for people not yet ready for the higher and more expansive Mahayana teachings.

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to the cessation of suffering, the fourth part of the Four Noble Truths. This is divided into three sections: Śīla (which concerns wholesome physical actions), Samadhi (which concerns the meditative concentration of the mind) and Prajñā (which concerns spiritual insight into the true nature of all things).

Śīla is morality—abstaining from unwholesome deeds of body and speech:

1. Right Speech—One speaks in a non hurtful, not exaggerated, truthful way

2. Right Actions—Wholesome action, avoiding action that would do harm

3. Right Livelihood—One's way of livelihood does not harm in any way oneself or others; directly or indirectly

Samadhi is developing mastery over one’s own mind:

4. Right Effort/Exercise—One makes an effort to improve

5. Right Mindfulness/Awareness—Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness

6. Right Concentration/Meditation—Being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion.

Prajñā is the wisdom which purifies the mind:

7. Right Understanding—Understanding reality as it is, not just as it appears to be.

8. Right Thoughts—Change in the pattern of thinking.
Refuge in the Three Jewels

Traditionally, the first step in most forms of Buddhism requires taking refuge, as the foundation of one's religious practice, in Buddhism's Three Jewels.

1. The Buddha (“Awakened One”). This is a title for those who attained Awakening similar to the Buddha and helped others to attain it. The Buddha could also be represented as the wisdom that understands Dharma, and in this regard the Buddha represents the perfect wisdom that sees reality in its true form.
2. The Dharma: The teachings or law as expounded by the Buddha. Dharma also means the law of nature based on behavior of a person and its consequences to be experienced (action and reaction).
3. The Sangha: This term literally means "group" or "congregation," but when it is used in Buddhist teaching the word refers to one of two very specific kinds of groups: either the community of Buddhist monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis), or the community of people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening. According to some modern Buddhists, it also consists of laymen and laywomen, the caretakers of the monks, those who have accepted parts of the monastic code but who have not been ordained as monks or nuns.

Bodhi (Enlightenment)

(“Bodhi” – Chinese; “Satori”- Japanese)

Bodhi is both the Pāli and Sanskrit word traditionally translated into English as "enlightenment." The word "buddha" means "one who has achieved bodhi." Bodhi is also frequently translated as "awakening."

In Buddhism, bodhi means the awakening experience attained by Gautama Buddha and his accomplished disciples and refers to the unique consciousness of a fully liberated yogi (spiritual master). Bodhi is sometimes described as complete and perfect sanity, or awareness of the true nature of the universe. After attainment, it is believed that one is freed from the cycle of samsāra: birth, suffering, death and rebirth.

Bodhi is most commonly translated into English as enlightenment. This word conveys the insight and understanding (wisdom) possessed by a buddha and is similarly used in Christian mysticism to convey the saint's condition of being lit by a higher power - the merging of the human and the divine in theosis. There is no image of "light" contained in the term "bodhi", however. Rather, it expresses the notion of awakening from a dream and of being aware and knowing (reality). It is thus more accurate to think of bodhi as spiritual "awake-ness" or "awakenment", rather than "enlightenment" (although it is true that imagery of light is extraordinarily prevalent in many of the Buddhist scriptures).

Bodhi is generally thought to be attained by following the Eightfold Path - when the ten fetters that bind a human being to the wheel of samsara have been dissolved; when the Four Noble Truths have been fully understood and all volitional conditioning has reached cessation, giving rise to transcendent peace. At this moment, the psychological roots of all greed, aversion, delusion, ignorance, craving, and ego-centered consciousness are completely uprooted.

Bodhi is the ultimate goal of Buddhist life.

Nirvana (Sanskrit: निर्वाण; Mandarin: 涅槃, nièpán; Tibetan: mya-ngan-las-'das-pa;) is a Sanskrit word that literally means "to cease blowing" (as when a candle flame ceases to flicker) and/or extinguishing (that is, of the passions). It is a word used by the Buddha to describe the perfect peace of the mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states. This peace, which is in reality the fundamental nature of the mind, is revealed when the root causes of the afflictive states are dissolved. The causes themselves lie deep within the mind (the ‘subconscious’) but their undoing is gradually achieved by living a disciplined life (the eightfold path).

In Nirvana, the root causes of craving and aversion have been extinguished such that one is no longer subject to human suffering or further states of rebirths in samsara (the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth). The Buddha says of nirvana that it is "the highest happiness". This happiness is rather an enduring, transcendental happiness integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment (bodhi), rather than the happiness of blindful entertainment.

Nirvana (continued)

Nirvana in sutra is never conceived of as a place (such as one might conceive heaven), but rather the antinomy of samsara which itself is synonymous with ignorance.

When a person who has realized nirvana dies, his death is referred as his parinirvāna, or fully passing away, as his life was his last link to the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), and he will not be reborn again. Buddhism holds that the ultimate goal and end of samsaric existence (of ever "becoming" and "dying" and never truly being) is realization of nirvana.

What happens to a person once nirvana is ‘achieved’ cannot be explained, as it is outside of all conceivable experience. It is believed that some people who practice with earnestness and zeal can attain nirvana within a single lifetime, as did many of the first few generations of Buddha's disciples.

Important Terms and Concepts
Rebirth (Reincarnation)

Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the consciousness of a person (as conventionally regarded), upon the death or dissolution of the aggregates which make up that person, becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of aggregates which may again be conventionally considered a person or individual. The consciousness arising in the new person is neither identical to, nor different from, the old consciousness, but forms part of a causal continuum or stream with it. The basic cause for this persistent re-arising of personality is the abiding of consciousness in ignorance; when ignorance is uprooted, rebirth ceases. From an external perspective, each life appears as a link in a beginningless sequence of lives, varying in length and in quality.

The early Buddhist texts make it clear that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life. But the lack of a fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. One of the metaphors used to illustrate this is that of fire. For example, a flame is transferred from one candle to another. In the same way that it depends on the original fire, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next; they are not identical but neither are they completely distinct.

The type of rebirth that arises at the end of one life is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy. In traditional Buddhist cosmology, these lives can be in any of a large number of states of being, including those of humans, any kind of animal, and several types of supernatural being.

Buddhist meditation teachers also suggest that through careful observation of the mind, it is possible to see consciousness as being a sequence of conscious moments rather than a continuum of awareness. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. In this context rebirth is simply the persistence of this process. Clearly this explanation of rebirth is wholly divorced from rebirth which may follow bodily death.

Law of Karma - All living creatures are responsible for their karma — their actions and the effects of their actions — and for their release from samsara.

Karma ("act, action, performance") is the concept of "action" or "deed" understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect (the cycle called samsara) described in Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist philosophies. The philosophical explanation of karma can differ slightly between traditions, but the general concept is basically the same. Through the law of karma, the effects of all deeds actively create past, present, and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life, and the pain and joy it brings to him/her and others. In religions such as Buddhism that incorporate reincarnation, karma extends through one's present life and all past and future lives as well. (Actions do not create karma (good or bad) when performed by an individual in the state of Moksha/Nirvana).

Any action is understood to create "seeds" in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result when they meet with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra while others will liberate one to nirvāna.

Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between "good" and "bad", but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from a deluded mind can easily be "bad" in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the "actor". Every time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality rather than the outward appearance of the action that determines the effect.

Karma is thus used as an ethical principle and a cosmological explanation for the world. Buddhists believe that the actions of beings determine their own future, and because of this there are no private actions: all actions have a consequence. The emphasis of karma in Buddhism is on mindful action, not on blaming someone else for whatever happens to oneself.

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