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An Introduction to Buddhism

By Dr. Meredith Sprunger

This document contains a brief historical overview of Buddhism, the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a description of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, a description of basic beliefs and an outline of Buddhism in today's world.

Buddhism: The Religion of Peaceful, Ethical Self-culture

Buddhism began in India in the sixth century B. C. as a reform movement in Hinduism. It was the first religion of the world to become international and today (1982) has a membership of 254,867,450. The founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a rich ruler of the Kshatriya caste. There are legends of his non-human conception, supernatural birth, and of his future greatness prophesied by a Hindu saint. Gautama married at the age of nineteen and later had a son. He lived a luxurious and sheltered life but while riding outside the royal compound he saw a decrepit old man, a diseased man, a corpse, and an ascetic monk. He became obsessed with the fact that all must face age, sickness, and death and he determined to find an answer to this anxiety and suffering.

Leaving his wife, son, family, and inheritance Gautama clipped his hair and beard, exchanged clothes with a beggar and began his quest. For years he tried to solve the problem of suffering first through philosophy and then by extreme asceticism but found no inner peace.

Finally, around the age of thirty-five he sat down under the shade of a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment; The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as the Buddha (enlightened one). This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil.

The First Noble Truth points out that the human condition is steeped in suffering, that in some way life has become estranged from reality. The Second Noble Truth tells us the cause of life's dislocation. Anxiety and suffering are caused by indulging in inherently insatiable desires. All forms of selfishness tend to separate us from others, life, and reality. The Third Noble Truth states a logical conclusion: suffering will cease when we suppress, overcome, and master these cravings and desires. We must develop non attachment to the things of the world. The Fourth Noble Truth tells us how this cure is accomplished--by following the Noble Eight-fold Path.

Buddha's analysis of the problems of life in the Four Noble Truths is essentially that of a therapist; and the Eight-fold Path is the course of treatment through training. First one needs to have right knowledge in order to have the facts, principles, and values to establish a wise life plan. Second, right aspirations are required to give power to this plan. The heart as well as the head must be dedicated to our goals. Third, right speech is needed to take hold of what is in our consciousness which controls our thinking. We need to change our speech and thinking toward truth and charity. Fourth, right behavior should be initiated to further change and control our lives. We must follow the Five Precepts: do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, or drink intoxicants. Fifth, we should engage in a right livelihood. Spiritual progress is difficult if one's occupation pulls in the opposite direction. One should not take work which weakens or destroys life but serve in those occupations that promote life. Sixth, right effort is needed to keep us growing in spiritual attainment. Buddha laid great stress on the importance of the will in determining our destiny. He had more confidence in the long steady pull than in quick spurts of activity. Seventh,, we need right mindfulness to sustain our growth. Few teachers have equaled Buddha's emphasis on the mind as the shaper and determiner of the course of human life. The Damma-pada opens with the words, "All we are is the result of what we have thought." We should wisely control our state of consciousness. Eighth, right contemplation and absorption finally brings the aspirant into a transmutation of consciousness which transcends the worldly preoccupation with things, desires, and suffering. Those who have followed the eight-fold path and arrived at the point of achieving Nirvana are called arhat, or "saint."

Gautama Buddha taught a way of life devoid of authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, and the supernatural. He stressed intense self-effort. His last words before he died at the age of eighty were, "Work out your own salvation with diligence." Gautama accepted the law of karma and reincarnation. He saw Nirvana not as a state of extinction or annihilation but as "the highest destiny of the human spirit." It is so totally different that it is "incomprehensible, indescribably, inconceivable, unutterable...bliss."

Buddha did not believe in the existence of a personal God; nor did he believe that man had a soul. He tended to deny the existence of substance of every kind and saw the transitoriness of all finite things and beings; he stressed impermanence. Man's life after achieving Nirvana is unfathomable - "reborn does not belong to him nor not-born, or any combination of such terms." Some scholars have pointed out that Buddhism in its earliest form was not a religion but a system of psychological-ethical discipline based on a pessimistic philosophy of life. Although there is some truth in this evaluation, there is much that is positive in Buddha's teaching.

The scripture of Buddhism is the Tripitaka (Three Baskets of Wisdom), made up of the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), the Sutta Pitaka (Teaching Basket), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Higher Doctrine Basket). Parts of the Tripitaka such as the Dhamma-pada and the Sutta-Nipata are among the most expressive religious books in the world. Some of Buddha's parables are very similar to those used by Jesus.

Buddhism has been divided into two major branches which have in turn been subdivided into numerous sects. Today one may find in this one family of religions nearly every form of religious belief and expression on the planet.

Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) or Theravada Buddhism concentrated in Southeast Asia is conservative and more closely follows the original teachings of Buddha. It sees man as entirely dependent on self-effort, teaches wisdom as the key virtue and regards religion as a full-time job, primarily for monks. They regard Buddha as a saint, eschew metaphysics and ritual, and limit prayer to meditation. Their ideal is arhat (sainthood).

Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism has spread throughout the world and rests on the principle that Buddha taught many things in secret to the elect who could properly interpret them. It sees man as involved with others and saved by grace. It teaches compassion as the key virtue and believes its religion is relevant to life in the world; therefore, it is a religion for laymen as well as monks. The Mahayana branch sees Buddha as a savior, welcomes metaphysics and ritual, and engages in petitionary prayer. Their ideal is the Bodhisattva--a mortal who has achieved enlightenment and after death postpones Nirvana attainment to serve in heaven answering prayers and helping mortals who are in need. Mahayana Buddhism regards Buddha as a divine savior--pre-existent, planfully incarnate, supernaturally conceived, miraculously born, sinless, with a redemptive purpose, all knowing, and everlasting. Buddha has been made a member of the Buddhist Trinity.

Buddhism received its greatest impetus from the Indian emperor, Asoka, who was converted in 297 B. C. and became convinced that Buddhism was a religion for all of the peoples of the world. Accordingly, he sent missionaries throughout the known world. Asoka also called the third council of Buddhism in 247 B. C. for the purpose of determining the true canon of Buddhist scriptures.

The main branches of Mahayana Buddhism are the Pure Land Sect, the Intuitive Sects, the Rationalist Sects, the Sociopolitical Sects, and the Tibetan Sect. The Pure Land Sect seeks to achieve salvation and life after death in the "pure land of Western Paradise." They believe in Dhyani Buddhas who are lesser deities who help human beings. Their priests may marry and their worship practices parallel the church and Sunday school services of Christianity.

The Intuitive Sects such as Ch'an and Zen emphasize that the truths of religion do not come through rational thought processes but through a sudden flash of insight. They believe the externals of religion are unnecessary. Reason is to be distrusted more than anything else; therefore riddles and various techniques of irrationality are used to confuse reason and trigger an intuitive flash. Zen is so concerned with the limitations of language and reason that it makes their transcendence the central intent of its method. Experience, not words are important. So they sit hour after hour, day after day, year after year seeking to develop their intuitive powers.

The Rationalist Sects believe that in addition to meditation one should utilize reason and a study of the scriptures in order to find the truth. All approaches to enlightenment may be useful at times but in reality there is only one true Buddhist teaching and one must study the scriptures of Buddhism in order to know this truth. The Chih-i sect in China and the Tendai sect in Japan stress the importance of the rational approach.

The Sociopolitical Sects such as the Japanese Nichiren sect have had great effect on the social and political dynamics of various nations. The founder of Nichiren thought that all of the sects of Buddhism were a perversion of the true teachings of Buddha and were leading peoples to hell. He came to believe the only scripture one needed to study was the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren teaches a simplified form of Buddhism and uncompromising patriotism.

Tibetan Buddhism is representative of sects that emphasize the use of magic words or formulae to achieve various goals. Tibetan people traditionally have used incantations, spells, and magic to protect themselves from demons. Tibetan monks or lamas invented the prayer wheel to augment their defenses against evil. By the 14th century monastery leaders became more powerful than kings and for all practical purposes the country was ruled by Buddhist priests. The lamas of Tibetan Buddhism have been divided into two orders, the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats. The leader of the larger Yellow Hat group is known as the Dalai Lama who was virtually ruler of Tibet. China in 1950 set up a puppet government in Tibet and when the Dalai Lama attempted to overthrow Chinese rule in 1959 the rebellion was crushed. The Dalai Lama and a few of his followers escaped to India.

During the twentieth century Buddhism is experiencing a revival. This new awakening may have been augmented by Christian missionaries who translated the ancient Buddhist texts and made them available for all to study and by the rise of Asian nationalism. Buddhism today is once more a missionary religion.

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