Summary of Buddhism
Buddhism is a family of beliefs and practices thought by by most to be a religion and is formed upon the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, known as "The Buddha" (the Awakened One), who was born in the country that is today Nepal He taught in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent and died around 400 BC.
Buddhists recognize him as an enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end their suffering by understanding the nature of phenomena, thereby escaping suffering and rebirth (saṃsāra), that is, achieving Nirvana. The number of Buddhists in the world is between 230 million and 500 million, resulting in Buddhism being the 4th most popular world religion.
Concepts of Buddhists
Life and the World
Karma, the energy which drives Saṃsāra, is the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Good, skillful and bad, unskillful actions bear "seeds" in the mind which come to fruition in this life or in a rebirth to follow. The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the doing of positive actions is called Śīla
In Buddhism, Karma refers to those actions that spring from mental intent and bring about a consequence or result. Each time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality that determines its effect.
Rebirth refers to a process in which beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception to death. Each rebirth happens within one of five realms, according to Theravadins, or six according to other schools. These are subdivided into 31 planes of existence.
- Naraka beings: those that live in one of many Narakas (Hells)
- Animals: sharing space with humans, but considered another type of life.
- Preta: Sometimes sharing space with humans, but invisible to most people; an important variety is the hungry ghost
- Human beings: one of the realms of rebirth that attaining Nirvana is possible
- Asuras: variously translated as lowly deities, demons, antigods; not recognized by Theravada (Mahavihara) tradition as a separate realm.
- Devas including Brahmas: translated as gods, deities, spirits, angels, or left untranslated.
Rebirths in the higher heavens, known as the Śuddhāvāsa Worlds (Pure Abodes), can only be attained by anāgāmis (non-returners). Rebirths in the arupa-dhatu (formless realms) can be attained only by people who can meditate on the arupa-jhānas.
According to East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, there is an intermediate state in between one life and the next, but Theravada rejects this.
The Cycle of Samsara
Sentient beings crave pleasure and are averse to pain from birth to death. In being controlled by these attitudes, they perpetuate the cycle of conditioned existence and suffering (Samsara), and produce the causes and conditions of the next rebirth after death. Each rebirth repeats this process in an involuntary cycle, which Buddhists strive to end by eradicating these causes and conditions, applying the methods laid out by the Buddha.
According to the Pali Tipitaka, the Four Noble Truths were the first teaching of Gautama Buddha after attaining Nirvana. They are sometimes considered as containing the essence of the Buddha's teachings and are presented in the manner of a medical diagnosis and remedial prescription – a style common at that time:
- Life as we know it ultimately is or leads to suffering/uneasiness (dukkha) in one way or another.
- Suffering is caused by craving or attachments to worldly pleasures of all kinds. This is often expressed as a deluded clinging to a certain sense of existence, to selfhood, or to the things or phenomena that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness.
- Suffering ends when craving ends, when one is freed from desire. This is achieved by eliminating all delusion, thereby reaching a liberated state of Enlightenment (bodhi);
- Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the path laid out by the Buddha.
An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way, which is said to have been discovered by Gautama Buddha prior to his enlightenment. The Middle Way or Middle Path has several definitions:
- The practice of non-extremism: a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification
- The middle ground between certain metaphysical views (e.g., that things ultimately either do or do not exist)
- An explanation of Nirvana (perfect enlightenment), a state wherein it becomes clear that all dualities apparent in the world are delusory (see Seongcheol)
- Another term for emptiness, the ultimate nature of all phenomena, lack of inherent existence, which avoids the extremes of permanence and nihilism or inherent existence and nothingness
Mahāyāna Buddhism received significant theoretical grounding from Nāgārjuna (perhaps c.150–250 CE), arguably the most influential scholar within the Mahāyāna tradition. Some of the writings attributed to him made explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, but his philosophy was argued within the parameters set out by the agamas. Nāgārjuna asserted that the nature of the dharmas (hence the enlightenment) to be śūnya (void or empty), bringing together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman (no-self) and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). His school of thought is known as the Madhyamaka. He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system.
Sarvāstivāda teaching, which was criticized by Nāgārjuna, was reformulated by scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asanga and were adapted into the Yogācāra (Sanskrit: yoga practice) school. While the Madhyamaka school held that asserting the existence or non-existence of any ultimately real thing was inappropriate, some exponents of Yogācāra asserted that the mind and only the mind is ultimately real. Not all Yogācārins asserted that mind was truly existent, Vasubandhu and Asanga in particular did not. These two schools of thought, in opposition or synthesis, form the basis of subsequent Mahāyāna metaphysics in the Indo-Tibetan tradition.
In the Mahayana school, emphasis is also often placed on the notions of Emptiness (shunyata), perfected spiritual insight (prajnaparamita) and Buddha-nature (the deathless tathagatagarbha, or Buddha womb, inherent in all beings and creatures). In the tathagatagarbha sutras the Buddha is portrayed proclaiming that the teaching of the tathagatagarbha constitutes the "absolutely final culmination" of his Dharma—the highest presentation of Truth (other sūtras make similar statements about other teachings). This has traditionally been regarded as the highest teaching in East Asian Buddhism. However, in modern China all doctrines are regarded as equally valid. The Mahayana can also on occasion communicate a vision of the Buddha or Dharma which amounts to mysticism and gives expression to a form of mentalist panentheism.
Nirvana means "cessation", "extinction" (of craving and ignorance and therefore suffering and the cycle of involuntary rebirths Samsara), "extinguished", "quieted", "calmed"; it's also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West. Buddhists believe that anybody who has achieved nirvana is in fact a Buddha.
Bodhi is a term applied to the experience of Awakening of arahants. Bodhi literally means "awakening", but is more commonly referred to as "enlightenment". In Early Buddhism, bodhi carried a meaning synonymous to nirvana, using only some different metaphors to describe the experience, which implies the extinction of raga (greed, craving), dosa (hate, aversion) and moha (delusion). In the later school of Mahayana Buddhism, the status of nirvana was downgraded in some scriptures, coming to only refer to the extinction of greed and hate, implying that delusion was still present in one who attained nirvana, and that one needed to attain bodhi to eradicate delusion:
"An important development in the Mahayana [was] that it came to separate nirvana from bodhi ('awakening' to the truth, Enlightenment), and to put a lower value on the former (Gombrich, 1992d). Originally nirvana and bodhi refer to the same thing; they merely use different metaphors for the experience. But the Mahayana tradition separated them and considered that nirvana referred only to the extinction of craving (passion and hatred), with the resultant escape from the cycle of rebirth. This interpretation ignores the third fire, delusion: the extinction of delusion is of course in the early texts identical with what can be positively expressed as gnosis, Enlightenment." —Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began
Therefore, according to Mahayana Buddhism, the arahant has attained only nirvana, thus still being subject to delusion, while the bodhisattva not only achieves nirvana but full liberation from delusion as well. He thus attains bodhi and becomes a buddha. In Theravada Buddhism, bodhi and nirvana carry the same meaning, that of being freed from greed, hate and delusion.
Devotion is an important part of the practice of most Buddhists. Devotional practices include bowing, offerings, pilgrimage, chanting. In Pure Land Buddhism, devotion to the Buddha Amitabha is the main practice. In Nichiren Buddhism, devotion to the Lotus Sutra is the main practice.
Refuge in the Three Jewels
Footprint of the Buddha with Dharmachakra and triratna, 1st century CE, Gandhāra. Traditionally, the first step in most Buddhist schools requires taking refuge in the Three Jewels as the foundation of one's religious practice. The practice of taking refuge on behalf of young or even unborn children is mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya, recognized by most scholars as an early text (cf. Infant baptism). Tibetan Buddhism sometimes adds a fourth refuge, in the lama. In Mahayana, the person who chooses the bodhisattva path makes a vow or pledge, considered the ultimate expression of compassion. The Three Jewels are:
- The Buddha. This is a title for those who have attained Nirvana. See also the Tathāgata and Gautama Buddha. The Buddha could also be represented as a concept instead of a specific person: the perfect wisdom that understands Dharma and sees reality in its true form.
- The Dharma. The teachings or law of nature as expounded by the Gautama Buddha. It can also, especially in Mahayana, connote the ultimate and sustaining Reality which is inseparable from the Buddha.
- The Sangha. Those who have attained to any of the Four stages of enlightenment, or simply the congregation of monastic practitioners.
According to the scriptures, Gautama Buddha presented himself as a model. The Dharma offers a refuge by providing guidelines for the alleviation of suffering and the attainment of Nirvana. The Sangha is considered to provide a refuge by preserving the authentic teachings of the Buddha and providing further examples that the truth of the Buddha's teachings is attainable.
Buddhists generally undertake to live by the five precepts, which are common to all Buddhist schools. If they wish, they can choose to undertake the eight precepts, which add basic asceticism.
The five precepts are training rules in order to live a better life in which one is happy, without worries, and can meditate well:
- To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient life forms)
- To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
- To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
- To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)
The precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice. In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of dana and ethical conduct will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower heavens is likely, even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting one's aims to this level of attainment.
In the eight precepts, the third precept on sexual misconduct is made more strict, and becomes a precept of celibacy. The three additional precepts are:
- To refrain from eating at the wrong time (only eat from sunrise to noon)
- To refrain from dancing and playing music, wearing jewelry and cosmetics, attending shows and other performances
- To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and bedding
Buddhist meditation is fundamentally concerned with two themes: transforming the mind and using it to explore itself and other phenomena. According to Theravada Buddhism the Buddha taught two types of meditation, samatha meditation (Sanskrit: śamatha) and vipassanā meditation (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā). In Chinese Buddhism, these exist (translated chih kuan), but Chan (Zen) meditation is more popular. According to Peter Harvey, whenever Buddhism has been healthy, not only monks, nuns, and married lamas, but also more committed lay people have practiced meditation. According to Routledge's Encyclopedia of Buddhism, in contrast, throughout most of Buddhist history before modern times, serious meditation by lay people has been unusual. The evidence of the early texts suggests that at the time of the Buddha, many male and female lay practitioners did practice meditation, some even to the point of proficiency in all eight jhānas.