What is Buddhism?
Photographer : Brian Jeffery Beggerly
Buddhism is a philosophy of life and the world around us. It is a way of understanding why things happen in life, and what you can do as part of an inter-connected web of living beings. Buddhism is not really a religion. Though it has religious elements, the Buddha is not a god. Prayers in Buddhism are a sign of respect rather than worship.
Buddhism is a philosophy based on testing rather than faith. The Buddha constantly told his followers not to believe anything he said until they had tested his followings and accepted them as true.
Who was the Buddha?
The current Buddha was born as Siddhattha Gotama/Siddhartha Gautama in North India during the 6th century BCE. He was born into a wealthy family, hidden away from the real world by his well meaning father. However when he wandered outside his palace he discovered the truth of the real world—suffering, old age, and death. He became a religious hermit and after mediation reached Enlightenment at the age of 35. He spread the dhamma/dharma (the teachings that eventually came to be called Buddhism) until his physical death at 80.
What do Buddhists believe?
The main sects of Buddhism are Theravada (based in Sri Lanka and South Asia) and Mahayana (based in China, Korea, Japan). There is also the Vajrayana sect (based in Nepal and Tibet).
All Buddhists of all sects believe in the same things.
Kamma is the law of cause and effect. Buddhists believe that every individual action causes an individual reaction. You can imagine with 6.5 billion people on earth how much kammic energy is being generated! Importantly, kamma teaches that it is the intention of the act that matters not so much the act (so if you meant well, you will receive positive kammic effects or reactions). Kammic effects are not generated instantly (so if you have deliberately done something bad, you can try and stop the bad action and reverse the kammic!)
Buddhists believe that most people are trapped in samkara/samsara, the wheel of life. They think we are continually born and then die over and over, because of the energy generated by our kamma. During this process we are affected by dukkha (temporary feelings such as pleasure and pain). The constant affect of dukkha makes us upset, happy, rushed, emotional, but no matter how good or bad, we all face the final end—death. Buddhism teaches you a way of getting out of this cycle and thus attaining Enlightenment. Enlightenment is described as a stage of everlasting joy and bliss because you are finally free from dukkha and samkara.
How do you reach Enlightenment?
The key message of Buddhism is to develop compassion and wisdom. Compassion and wisdom will free you from samkara. Compassion is thought of as loving kindness for all living beings. Wisdom is thought of as a sense of understanding about the true nature of the world (such as through understanding the Four Noble Truths, below). Buddhism promotes combining both compassion and wisdom, which is referred to as the ‘middle’. This is why Buddhism is sometimes called the ‘Middle Path’.
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life is dukkha (temporary feelings such as pleasure, pain).
2. Dukkha is caused by craving.
3. If we can give up craving we can end dukkha.
4. We can end craving by following the ‘Noble 8 Fold Path’.
The Noble 8 Fold Path
There are eight things Buddhists try to cultivate—right view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and contemplation. These eight things are all interlinked and support each other.
5 Moral Precepts
To follow the 8 fold path, 5 moral precepts were recommended by the Buddha:
1. No killing
2. No stealing
3. Avoid sexual misconduct (as in, don’t cheat on your partner).
4. Don’t tell lies
5. Don’t get drunk (!)
Why? Because these things end up causing dukkha.
Some other philosophical concepts in Buddhism
Buddhism and other religions
- The principle that nothing is permanent! (called “anicca”). The Buddha was quite clear on this—nothing in our pre-Enlightened world is permanent.
- The principle that there is no soul! (called “anatta”). Again the Buddha was very clear on this—souls can not be transferred during reincarnation. Everyone is a mixture of five forces, and on death these forces dissipate and reform to create new beings.
- No such thing as justice through reincarnation. Buddhism doesn’t believe in justice through reincarnation. So, if you are bad you won’t necessarily come back as a cockroach! This is because Kamma only produces individual effects; good and bad kamma doesn’t add up or balance out against each other. And, Kamma is only one of many factors determining why some people are born lucky while others aren’t.
The Buddha deliberately did not mention anything about a creator god, or multiple universes, or the meaning of life. He had one plain message— life is dukkha and this is how you get out of it. Buddhism welcomes the teachings of other religions but with a greater emphasis on individual actions rather than worship to a god.
How do I know this?
Buddha Dharma Education Association, http://www.buddhanet.net/
Walpola Rahula 1978, What the Buddha taught
, Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd