Golden Buddha at Traimit Witthayaram Temple, Bangkok, Thailand. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Initiation Rituals and Membership
There are different requirements for membership, depending on which Buddhist tradition a person desires to join. All traditions require a person to declare taking refuge in the three treasures (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and upholding the precepts held by the monks, nuns, or laity. Some Buddhist traditions no longer have monks or nuns, but are composed solely of laity. The formula found in Going to the Threefold Refuge must be recited three times. The utterance need not be public, but could be a self-administered declaration as long as the individual has a clear understanding of what the Dharma of the Buddha is. The formula is “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha. I take refuge in the Buddha, the incomparably honored one; I take refuge in the Dharma, honorable for its purity; I take refuge in the Sangha, honorable for its harmonious life. I have finished taking refuge in the Buddha; I have finished taking refuge in the Dharma; I have finished taking refuge in the Sangha.”
It is estimated that there are approximately 500 million Buddhists in the world today. There are four to six million Buddhists in the United States. American Buddhism is diversified since different immigrant groups practice their traditional form of Buddhism. In addition, many Americans learn about and strive to practice Buddhism following the teachings of different leaders.
Hui Dong Explains Buddhist Teachings
I. Life of Shakyamuni Buddha
No biography was written of Shakyamuni Buddha, the tradition’s historical founder, until four hundred years after his death. Some biographies are rather straightforward while others interweave religious myths and literary invention. The stories about the Buddha are not as important for their historical accuracy, but rather as an ideal model for later generations. The stories that exist do at times differ, but the following account highlights generally accepted important moments of his life.
A prince named Siddhartha was born to Suddhodana Gautama, the King of the Shakya clan, and Queen Maya in Lumbini Garden at, the southern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains around 560 BCE. His mother died a few days after his birth and her sister, Siddhartha’s aunt, married Siddhartha’s father and raised Siddhartha. Due to his father’s position, Siddhartha enjoyed a life of wealth and luxury and was protected from the sufferings of life. He married a beautiful princess, Yasodhara, and soon had a son, Rahula. However, he became more and more concerned with religious considerations. On successive trips outside the palace, he saw a very old man, a very ill man, a corpse, and a religious mendicant. He began to reflect on the suffering that all people faced. As a result, Siddhartha decided to abandon his life in the palace and become a mendicant. This became known as the Great Renunciation and occurred when he was 29 years old.
The prince followed some of the spiritual teachers of the time, but after mastering their disciplines and relentlessly practicing asceticism, he found himself no closer to overcoming the suffering he had witnessed. After six years of such practice, with his body and mind weak from severe self-mortification, he gave up on these paths to seek his own. He was 35 years old when he reportedly sat under a bodhi tree in meditation for a period of seven weeks and realized enlightenment, true insight into reality and overcame suffering. For the next 45 years until his death at age 80, he traveled around India teaching all classes of people what he had experienced and gained many disciples. He became known as a Buddha, an Enlightened One, and was revered as Shakyamuni, the Sage of the Shakya clan.
After Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, the history of Buddhism can roughly be divided into four major periods. The first three lasted about five hundred years each and marked major developments in the religion.
II. Early Buddhist Developments (500 BCE to 0 CE)
During Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, he formed a Sangha, a Community of followers, which consisted of four groups: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. To join the Sangha, a person had to proclaim that he or she would take refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma (both the Buddha's teachings and the truth they conveyed) and the Sangha. The practice centered on what became known as the Three Trainings.
The first of the trainings was learning the precepts or rules governing the Sangha. The different groups that made up the Sangha had different sets of precepts. Of special importance for the monks and nuns were those sets known as the Ten Precepts, although the full list contained well over two hundred precepts and was slightly different for each group. The Ten Precepts involved abstention from taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, drinking liquor, eating after noon, watching dancing, singing, and shows, adorning oneself with garlands, perfume, and ointments, using a high bed, and receiving gold and silver. Of these ten, the first five were emphasized as having special significance for the laity. The laity was also asked to financially support the monks and nuns. Overall, the precepts were not viewed as commandments set forth from the Buddha, but rather as rules directed to help the Sangha reach enlightenment, with detailed procedures on how to deal with those who were accused of breaking the precepts. The Buddha said that the Sangha had the power to change minor rules, although he did not explicitly list which were the minor ones.
The second of the trainings was meditation. During this period, meditation became the practice of mental development. There were two basic types. One, which was also widely practiced throughout India before the Buddha, involved focusing on one point to enter higher mental states. The second, called Vipassana or insight meditation, was more unique to the Buddha. This type developed insight into the basic nature of life and led to the liberation of the mind into nirvana. Due to the time needed to develop this practice, laity was not expected to become skilled in meditation.
The third of the trainings was wisdom. This was a product of the first two trainings. It represented the highest stage of spiritual cultivation and progress. The laity, due to the lack of skill in meditation, was not expected to reach the same depth of wisdom as the monks or nuns, but could work towards a good rebirth through which an individual could eventually reach enlightenment.
The Buddha also directed many of his followers to spread the Dharma to benefit others. They went forth and spread Buddhism throughout India and the surrounding parts of Asia. However, during the three-month rainy season they gathered at retreats, which later became the origin for Buddhist monasteries.
Another important practice that developed was devotion towards sacred sites (such as sites where the Buddha became enlightened) and stupas (monuments housing ashes or relics of the Buddha or popular disciples). In addition, objects of worship were developed. Initially, statues of the Buddha were not used as they are found generally only after 100 CE. Instead, more abstract representations appeared. For example, one common object was a pair of footprints, representing the Buddha’s time on earth and the path he set forth. A lotus symbolized Buddhism as the Buddha urged his followers to be like the lotus which rises from the mud and murky water to bloom beautifully. Still others included a wheel with eight spokes, representing the Wheel of Life and the Eightfold Path.
During this first period of Buddhism, divisions appeared based on different interpretations of the teachings and precepts that had been compiled upon the Buddha’s death. One of these early Buddhist traditions, Theravada or the Way of the Elders, is still in existence today. This Buddhist tradition is practiced primarily in the Southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma.
III. The Development of Mahayana Buddhism (O CE to 500 CE)
Around 100 BCE, a reformulation of the teachings occurred as Buddhism encountered new cultures, ideas, and changing social forces in India. Within the Buddhist community, the laity began to exert more influence in the Sangha. These reformulations also included new literature attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha. In doing so, the historical person Shakyamuni was minimized and replaced by a description of a cosmic Buddha who became the embodiment of the Truth.
Approximately 200 years after these new texts appeared, this trend became systematized and began a new movement within Buddhism. It was called Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle, as its teaching became the means by which all people could reach enlightenment. The older form of Buddhism, called Hinayana, or the Lesser Vehicle, of which Theravada Buddhism survived, could only be followed by a comparatively small number of adherents.
The reformulations developed during this period can be summarized under three headings.
1. A shift from psychological to metaphysical
As Buddhism came into contact with other cultures and ideas, it began to look beyond its emphasis on the development of mind and nature to the understanding of universal truths not limited by culture. The central idea of Mahayana, based on the teachings of impermanence and interdependence, is often called, Emptiness, Oneness, or Suchness. Emptiness means that all things are without permanence since everything changes as it influences and is influenced by everything else. There are therefore no truly separate objects but only an ever-changing Oneness. When the mind catalogs objects into separate groups, these objects are not reality and do not reflect what they ultimately are. Thus, the usual way of thinking of the world has no validity. One must transcend this and truly experience the world, its Suchness without this limited and ultimately false labeling. To truly understand emptiness, wisdom became emphasized. Given the world’s interdependent nature, one is compelled to act with compassion to end all human suffering.
2. A shift in the goal of Buddhism
In the early stages of Buddhism the goal was to become an Arhat, a worthy one or saint, someone who had realized the ideal of spiritual perfection and had attained nirvana. However, in this reformulation process coupled with the laity gaining greater influence, a new goal of gaining wisdom and practicing compassion was developed. The original goal of becoming an Arhat oneself was seen as being ultimately self-centered. The new goal was developed to achieve the status of a Bodhisattva, a person who worked to perfect his or her own wisdom, achieved enlightenment, but then forgoes nirvana to help those who are suffering.
With this new goal, a new set of practices was laid out. These practices were called the Six Paramitas or Perfections, methods that the Bodhisattva worked to bring to perfection. They are selfless giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom.
To bring individuals to enlightenment, given that their levels of understanding may be very limited, the Bodhisattva employed skillful means, methods suitable to a person’s level of development. For example, people were compared to different plants in a garden with different needs and speeds of growth. More deeply understood, all teachings, descriptions, and concepts were in the end only skillful means as the Ultimate Reality was beyond such forms.
3. A lessening of the centrality of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha
The Mahayana texts began to describe cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as ways of depicting Ultimate Reality and the ideals of the Mahayana Path. Many such Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were named in the Mahayana texts and became part of the devotional practices that developed. Some popular Bodhisattvas were Maitreya (the Bodhisattva who would become the next Buddha on Earth like Shakyamuni), Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of compassion who was known in China as Kuan-yin, Japan as Kannon, Korea as Kwanum, and Vietnam as Quan-an), and Mahasthamaprapta (the bodhisattva of wisdom). Some popular Buddhas were Akshobhia (Imperturbable), Amida (Infinite Light and Life), and Vairochana (Shining Out; known in Japan as Dainichi – Great Sun).
Forms of devotion began to spread within the laity and the next historical period of Buddhism witnessed the development of distinct schools and large lay following. These were called Pure Land schools as it was believed that each Buddha presided over a land free from any defilement. In particular, Amida Buddha became a popular object of devotion. Maitreya Bodhisattva also received a sizable following as well as Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. These Buddhas and Bodhisattvas became very popular to invoke in fulfilling any type of need.
The relationship between these Buddhas and Shakyamuni Buddha was described in the concept of the three bodies of the Buddha. The first, body was Dharmakaya or Dharma-body. This was reality in its absolute aspect, true Emptiness that was beyond any conceptual formulation. The next body was Sambhogakaya, Enjoyment-body or Glorious-body. This category included the cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which allowed people to get some insight into Dharmakaya. The third body was Dharmakaya or Manifested-body. These were people or beings that appeared on Earth to express Dharmakaya. Shakyamuni Buddha was included in this category.
During this second period of development, Mahayana Buddhism spread into Central Asia and China. Its attraction was partly due to its freer interpretation of the teachings and practices than was found previously. Today, it is mainly in the countries of China, Korea, and Japan that Mahayana Buddhism is practiced. Both Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism are practiced in Vietnam, although the former is predominant.
IV. Tantra and Chan (500 CE to1000 CE)
Around 500 CE, a new movement began to form in Buddhism. It became known as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism or Vajrayana, the Diamond (i.e. Unbreakable, Adamantine) Vehicle. It began in India and was influenced by new ideas within and outside of India. This movement, began to develop new magical practices and teachings, including mantras (sacred words), mudras (sacred postures), mandalas (sacred art), and new deities. Generally, these practices were kept hidden until the master deemed the student ready to manage them, unlike previous teachings which were accessible to any interested follower. However, the purpose of performing these practices remained the same as Mahayana’s Six Perfections of realizing ultimate wisdom and compassion.
With this new development, as during the Mahayana movement, many new writings appeared. These writings were not attributed to Shakyamuni but to a mythical Buddha. With this new development, a new ideal also came into being. The goal was now to become a Siddha, a person who attained Buddhahood in this body here and now through these magical practices and was so cosmically tuned to reality that no restraints existed. As a result, such a person could manipulate cosmic forces at will. These new practices and philosophies took many years to become systematized.
Although these teachings and practices were very popular and spread to all areas where Buddhism existed, it is mainly practiced today in Central Asia, in Tibet and Mongolia, along with the Shingon School in Japan. The Dalai Lama is a practitioner of this type of Buddhism.
Another major development of this period developed in China and was known as Chan, which literally means meditation, and was later established in Japan where it became known as Zen. Historically, the tradition was formulated by Hui-neng around 700 CE, although the tradition traced itself back through a master and disciple lineage directly to Shakyamuni Buddha. It began as a tradition specializing in meditation, but developed into a philosophy uncompromisingly focused on practical realization. It did not discard all forms, for it kept the monastic system and scriptural study, but clearly designated them secondary to meditation and a direct spiritual realization, described as sudden enlightenment that went beyond words. Many of this tradition’s revered practitioners were noted for their deliberate breaking of traditional Buddhist etiquette. It also brought a do-or-die intensity to meditation practice along with a formless meditation described as wall gazing or in Japan as just sitting, in which one attempted to directly encounter, without words or concepts, one’s fundamental mind.
There are many similarities between the two developments of this period. Like Tantra, and unlike Theravada and Mahayana that saw becoming a Buddha as a goal that took many rebirths to fulfill, Chan saw Buddhahood as being achievable in this very life. Chan also emphasized the master-disciple relationship since only a person who had achieved enlightenment could lead another down a valid path and verify that person’s realization. In fact, Chan was seen as a direct transmission from the master’s mind to the mind of the student.
Many new writings were composed. Hui-neng’s treatise, The Diamond-Cutter Discourse, was seen as being on the same level as Shakyamuni Buddha’s words. This tradition collected many of its master’s words to aid in the focus of meditative practice. Famous among these meditative practices were seemingly nonsensical or paradoxical statements that helped a practitioner experience that which was beyond words. In Chinese this became known as kung-an or in Japanese koan. One of the most, famous of these was developed by a Japanese Zen master named Hakuin who asked, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
This development that originated in China spread to large areas in Asia. Today it is found in Japan as Zen, in Korea as Son, and as one component of Chinese and Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist practice.
V. The Fourth Period (1000 CE to present)
The last period was notable for the historical developments in different areas of the world rather than for new doctrinal developments.
In India, Buddhism declined and started to disappear from many areas around 1200 CE and had completely disappeared around 1500. This was due to many factors, such as the Muslim invasions, the decline of support for the Buddhist monasteries by society, and a lack of renewal that led to its incorporation in Hinduism. However, after India gained its independence from Great Britain, Bhirmrao Ramji Ambedkar led a mass conversion of many Untouchables to Buddhism, those outcasts who did not belong to any of the four classes of India’s caste system. This conversion was as much for political purposes and equal rights for this class as for religious reasons. The number of people involved with this conversion was estimated at 600,000.
In other parts of Southeast Asia, both Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism spread, but were later replaced by Theravada Buddhism and is still the form of Buddhism practiced there today.
Although encountering periods of persecution, Buddhism seeped deep into Chinese culture. During the last fifty years a great exodus of Buddhist, clergy in China and Tibet occurred as a result of the policies of the communist regime. Some monasteries still operate in both of these areas today.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late sixth century from Korea and China. Early in this fourth period, many of today’s popular forms of Buddhism developed in Japan. These were characterized by focusing on one particular practice in order to attain enlightenment in a more direct manner, just as the Tantric and Chan developments occurred in the third period. Many types of Japanese Pure Land Schools developed during this period, the most popular today being Jodo Shinshu, True Pure Land Sect, also known as Shin Buddhism in the West.
One of the main points of disagreement between the Pure Land Schools in Japan was whether true devotion to Amida Buddha occurred through one’s practice or one’s faith. Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, held that he lived in a time so far removed from Shakyamuni Buddha’s life that he was not able to adequately perform any devotional practice or have a sincere faith in Shakyamuni Buddha. Instead he taught that the ability to exercise faith was based on the work of Amida Buddha, someone who lived much closer to Shinran’s time. He also taught that the devotional practice of repeating Amida’s Sacred Name, Namo Amida Butsu, was a response mainly of gratitude to Amida’s saving grace which expressed the Infinite Wisdom and Compassion of Ultimate Reality.
During this period in Japan, different forms of Zen Buddhism appeared. In particular, one school known as Soto Zen was founded by Dogen. He taught zazen or sitting meditation and was widely admired by many outside of Zen circles for his writings and practice. The other main type of Zen was known as Rinzai Zen. This type placed more emphasis on koan and characterized enlightenment as a sudden experience that an individual may have more than once, while Soto Zen described it as a gradual attainment.
A monk named Nichiren founded another Buddhist tradition that appeared in Japan during this period. Important to his teaching was his emphasis on one particular Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra. The practice he upheld involved chanting the phrase, “Namu myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo,” Salutation to the Lotus sutra, which he held to be sufficient to achieve salvation. Three large groups in the United States today that acknowledge Nichiren as their founder are the Nichiren Buddhist Church of America, the Nichiren Shoshu, and the Soka Gakkai International USA.
In the United States, different immigrant groups continue to practice their countries of origin forms of Buddhism. As Americans have become interested in Buddhism, many additional groups have begun. Three types of Buddhism in particular are finding popularity: Zen, Tibetan, and the Vipassana meditation of the Theravada tradition. The Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai International USA groups have been very successful in gaining members that are not ethnically Japanese. Almost all forms, however, have undergone changes as they adapt to American culture. Many people in the United States consider themselves Buddhists, but they do not have any long term present or past affiliation with any Buddhist group, having gained their philosophy and practice from books or other media.
There are many different Buddhist traditions existing and given the developments in the religion, it is very difficult to make a statement that would hold true for all traditions. For example, although it is probably true all Buddhist traditions would agree that the ultimate goal for its followers is to become Buddhas, how this is accomplished, what scriptures are essential, what practices are important, and even what it means to become a Buddha may differ radically among them.
Buddhism and Common Beliefs of the Times in India
In India at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, the belief that there were six realms of existence into which a person could be reborn after death was already present. These six realms were the realm of gods or heavenly beings, demi-gods, human beings, animals (which exist in the human realm), hungry ghosts (which also exist in the human realm, but are undetectable and tormented by an insatiable hunger), and hell (the realm of extreme torture and pain). An individual’s rebirth was determined by his or her actions. If the person’s actions ultimately were deemed good, then rebirth would take place in the first three realms. The second three were for those whose actions ultimately were considered to be bad. However, all six realms were not permanent states of being. When the merit or improbity of people’s actions was depleted, they would be reborn into the realm determined by their actions in the previous realm. This cycle of birth and death was known as samsara.
In Buddhist cosmology the assumption is that numerous gods preside in numerous heavenly realms over human beings. Shakyamuni Buddha, however, considered being born as a human being to be ultimately superior to being a god, because only human beings possessed all of the conditions necessary to enter nirvana and achieve Buddhahood.
Shakyamuni Buddha in examining this cycle of birth and death taught that nirvana transcended and ended samsara. Thus, when one became enlightened, that person would no longer be subject to samsara. The Buddha said the human realm was the best for attainment of nirvana since in the other five realms an individual would be caught up in the conditions of the realm and could not be introspective. If a person could not be introspective, no change would take place and thus the cycle of samsara could not be broken.
Today, different Buddhist traditions have degrees of how literal this Wheel of Life is understood. Some see the six realms as metaphors of how in life individuals experience times of heavenly pleasure (like the heavenly beings), great strength and ambition (demi-gods), introspection (humans), instinctual reaction (animals), great desire (hungry ghosts) , and extreme pain (hell). For them attaining nirvana meant the escape of a roller coaster existence for one of lasting serenity.
Indian society was separated into four distinct classes or castes determined by birth. A person born into one class remained so located throughout his or her life. However, the Buddha preached that an individual’s actions, not birth, determined the status and so judged those who joined his order, regardless into which class they were born. He taught that all people have a Buddha-nature or the potential to become a Buddha themselves.
The Four Noble TruthsNow this, monks, is the noble truth of pain:
birth is painful; old age is painful;
sickness is painful; death is painful;
sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful.
Contact with unpleasant things is painful;
not getting what one wishes is painful.
In short, the five groups of grasping are painful.
the craving, which leads to rebirth,
combined with pleasure and lust,
finding pleasure here and there,
namely the craving for passion,
the craving for existence,
and the craving for non-existence.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the cessation of pain:
the cessation without, a remainder of craving
the abandonment, forsaking, release, and non-attachment.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the way that leads to the cessation of pain:
this is the noble eightfold way, namely,
correct understanding, correct intention,
correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood,
correct attention, correct concentration,
and correct meditation.
Samyutta Nikaya, 5:420
Many accounts of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life state that in his first sermon he taught what became known as the Four Noble Truths. The first of these noble truths is that life is dukkha. Dukkha was often translated as suffering, but also would include feelings of frustration, anxiety, and irritation. It can be summed up as the experience of life which does not, go the way people want life to go ranging from tragedy to minor inconveniences. The second noble truth states that the cause of dukkha is self-centered, blind desire. Since people desire to have life go their way and life doesn’t revolve around their wishes, they experience dukkha. The third noble truth states that since self-centered, blind desire is the cause of dukkha, a person must eliminate this desire to be free from dukkha. The fourth noble truth provides the means to accomplish this. This last truth is called the Noble Eightfold Path for it contains eight, components: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right, Action, Right Living, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation. To fully understand these Four Noble Truths and walk the Noble Eightfold Path is to extinguish dukkha, attain nirvana, and become enlightened.
The Buddha also called this process of overcoming dukkha as following the Middle Path. In the Buddha’s life he, as a prince, experienced extreme self-indulgence and as an ascetic, tried extreme self-mortification. Both, he found, were unspiritual and useless and thus he promoted a way between these two extremes.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Fourth Noble Truth is called the Noble Eightfold Path. Of the eight components of the path, the first two are generally grouped under wisdom, the next three under morality, and the last three under mental development. The dharma wheel is a symbol of the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight components of this path, as presented in the traditional order, can be described as follows:
1. Right View (Understanding) – This component can be viewed as the correct way of interpreting and viewing the world. This also includes the abandonment of all dogmatically held wrong views.
2. Right Intention (Thought) – The Buddha argued that all human thought and action comes from basic intentions, dispositions or roots which are capable of deliberate cultivation, training and control. The roots of wrong action are greed, aversion and delusion. Right Intention is to be free from these roots.
3. Right Speech – Since speech is the means of communication, the Buddha emphasizes the cultivation of right modes of speech. This is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. The Buddha explained right speech as to abstain from false speech (especially not to tell deliberate lies) to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.
4. Right Action – This ethical principle involves the body as a natural means of expression, since it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. This principle is also explained in terms of abstinence: to abstain from harming sentient beings, to abstain from taking what is not given, and to abstain from sexual misconduct.
5. Right Livelihood – This means that a person should earn a living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. Four specific activities are identified as harming people and should be avoided: dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings, working in meat production and butchery, and selling intoxicants and poisons.
6. Right Effort – This step is viewed as a prerequisite for the other principles of mental development. Without effort, which itself is an act of will, nothing can be achieved. Mental energy is the force behind right effort and this can be used either for unwholesome or wholesome activities.
7. Right Mindfulness – This step involves precision and clarity. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with a clear conscience. Usually the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception. This impression is then conceptualized almost immediately and interpreted in the right of other thoughts and experiences. The potential of providing the wrong conception is inherent in the whole process. Right mindfulness enables people to be aware of this process of conceptualization in a manner that permits active observance and control.
8. Right Concentration – This refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness. Right concentration means that, people are completely absorbed in nowness, in things as they are.
Concept of Deity
Buddhism does not have a God-concept which involves a deity or supreme being who created the universe and who has developed a relationship with human beings. Nor did Buddhism incorporate the notion that God is some abstract principle or ground of being as was true in Hinduism, for example. In the Hindu Upanishads, God is equated with Brahman, the ultimate reality and ground and source of everything that is. Given the Buddhist cosmology, the gods are viewed as mortal, having extremely long life spans and are only minor players in the lives of the Buddhists.
The path followed in Buddhism depends on one’s own efforts and not upon the saving grace from a god or goddess. A spiritual master is viewed as the path maker who goes on ahead, but the disciples must walk the path themselves. The Dharmapada states, “striving should be done by yourselves; the Tathagatas are only teachers. The meditative ones who enter the way are delivered from the bonds of Mara [death].” (Maxim 276)
The Three Marks of Existence
Much of the philosophy that Buddhism developed is based on the following three attributes: impermanence, no-soul, and suffering. The first of the three marks is impermanence. Nothing has a permanent, everlasting form or essence since all things are constantly changing. This change, however, is not random but, determined by the circumstances that preceded it. This characteristic of change is labeled co-dependent origination since things in the present are viewed as a product of the actions and situations of all things before. The second mark follows from the first for if all things are constantly changing and affecting each other, then all things, including human beings, have no permanent or individual nature or ego. Things do not exist separately from each other but are interdependent in their appearance and disappearance.
The third mark, which follows from the first two, states that, there is dukkha and nirvana. To live believing that, things and people do not change and are independent from one another is to live with self-centered, blind desire and thus with dukkha. To live with a true understanding of the first two marks of existence is to experience nirvana.
The Nature of the Buddha’s Teachings
Although he identified himself as enlightened, the Buddha emphasized that people should not follow his teachings just because he said so, but rather to rely upon their own experiences to verify their validity. One group of villagers, having been visited by several different religious figures who preached different and sometimes contradictory views, asked the Buddha who to believe. The Buddha advised that they should not be led by reports, tradition, hearsay, religious texts, logic, appearances, speculative opinions, seeming possibilities, or the idea that a certain person is their teacher. Instead, he said they should learn for themselves and give up those teachings that led to unwholesome living or were wrong and follow those that led to wholesome living and were good. The Buddha included his own teachings as those that should be so examined.
The Buddha, therefore, did not center his disciples around himself personally. He encouraged each to be his own refuge and work towards his own enlightenment. The Buddha was also very tolerant and respectful of other religions and religious leaders. The tradition upholds that a person could become enlightened without having encountered the Buddha or his teachings.
The Buddha also steered the focus of his disciples on ways of overcoming dukkha rather than centering on metaphysical questions. He likened such endeavors to a person, who was shot by a poisoned arrow, and tried to find out who shot the arrow, what the person’s background was, and what kind of equipment was used instead of first having a doctor treat the wound. The Buddha said that a person’s spiritual life and attainment of nirvana did not depend on the answer to such questions.
This is the practice based on unsurpassable wisdom. Literally the word means to have reached the other shore. Six paramitas are generally identified as behaviors demonstrated by a person who had already reached the other shore. They are giving, discipline, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. Each Paramita or perfection has an opposite. They are respectively desire, immorality, anger, laziness, mental distractions, and stupidity or ignorance. The meditation on the six paramitas is as follows and is done daily:
1. Dana Paramita – May I be generous and helpful.
2. Sila Paramita – May I be pure and virtuous.
3. Ksanti Paramita – May I be patient! May I be able to bear and forbear the wrongs of others.
4. Virya Paramita – May I be strenuous, energetic, and persevering.
5. Dhyana Paramita – May I practice meditation and attain concentration and oneness to serve all beings.
6. Prajna Paramita – May I gain wisdom and be able to give the benefit of my wisdom to others.
Arhat – It literally means a worthy one or saint, someone who has realized the ideal of spiritual perfection, and has attained nirvana. Upon death, the arhat will become extinguished. This term is primarily used in Theravada Buddhism.
Bodhi – This is the Sanskrit word for enlightenment and is achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path which constitutes freedom from all desires. Bodhi gives the individual the wisdom of perceiving the ultimate reality, which entails the power and ability to work to change that reality in certain ways, especially to help people in need.
Bodhisattva – In Theravada Buddhism it refers to a person who is on the way to enlightenment, but has not yet, fully entered into that state. In Mahayana Buddhism it refers to a person who has achieved enlightenment, but who forgoes nirvana to help those who are suffering.
Chan – A Buddhist tradition that involves meditative practice and teaches that ultimate reality is not expressible in words or logic, but is to be grasped through direct intuition, either gradual or sudden. This is also the Chinese name for Zen Buddhism.
Dana – A giving ritual, characteristic in Theravada Buddhist family homes, that involves gifts of food to the monks who conduct chanting, especially at the time of the death of a loved one. It is also one of the Six Paramitas or perfections.
Dharma – It means truth, reality, or that which truly exists. Dharma also means principles of behavior that people ought to follow so as to fit in with the right natural order of things.
Dukkha – Dukkha is the suffering that characterizes human life from both physical and psychological causes.
Emptiness – This is usually the description of the state of enlightenment. Emptiness is the Buddhist way of saying that ultimate reality is incapable of being described. Emptiness should not be seen as another place. It is identical to the world or universe people experience in this life.
Karma – This is the moral law of cause and effect. People build up karma (both good and bad) as a result of their actions. This then determines the state of existence to which an individual is reborn and can be on any of the six levels of existence.
Kanjur – The Tibetan scriptural collection of texts with the sayings and words attributed to the Buddha. The corresponding Tibetan collection of traditional commentaries on the Kanjur is termed the Tanjur.
Kung-an or koan – A paradoxical thought exercise in the Chan/Zen tradition aimed at impressing on the disciple that religious insight goes beyond the limitations of verbal formulations and logic.
Mahayana Buddhism – It is a form of Buddhism that emerged around the first century in northwestern India and spread to China, Korea, and Japan. Also known as the Greater Vehicle, it is the largest and most influential of the three main forms of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism holds that there are five Buddhas who have or will manifest themselves in the earthly realm. The fifth Buddha who will come in the future is known as Maitreya.
Mara – The word refers to death or the Lord of Death and is the personification of evil and temptation.
Marks of Existence – There are three marks of existence: suffering (dukkha), impermanence, and no-soul.
Middle Way – This is the way to enlightenment espoused by the Buddha since he discovered that the life of extreme indulgence and the life of extreme asceticism do not lead to enlightenment and nirvana. A middle way between the two extremes leads to enlightenment.
Nirvana – Nirvana is the state of absolute bliss associated with final enlightenment and is the goal towards which all Buddhists strive. The enlightenment is the step immediately before it. A person becomes aware of the ultimate reality in enlightenment and becomes unified with that reality in nirvana.
Paramita – It literally means to have reached the other shore. It means a perfection of virtues. Of early Buddhism’s list of six perfections, Mahayana Buddhism emphasized the perfection of wisdom (prajna). The other paramitas are giving, discipline, patience, effort, and meditation.
Parinirvana – This is the ultimate state of bliss and perfection which can only be achieved when a person (Arhat) has departed this life. This is different from nirvana which is achievable by people in this life.
Precepts – This is the set of moral rules for Buddhists. Five are followed by both the lay people and the monks of the Sangha and an additional five are followed by the monks and nuns. The full list of precepts number over 200, with slight variation, although the ten listed are most significant.
Puja – The term means honor, respect, or devotional observance. Most commonly the word refers to the devotional observances conducted daily at monasteries. The term today includes devotional observances conducted by all adherents either in public or at home.
Pure Land – It is the form of Buddhism that focuses on the Buddha Amida. Pure Land is aimed at the average person in its recognition that most people cannot achieve enlightenment and so are doomed to stay in samsara. Amida Buddha set up a Pure Land in the west, a paradise, to which people can go when they die. To gain entrance, people simply call on the power of Amida Buddha.
Shakyamuni – This was the title given to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha as he was the sage of the Shakya clan of which his father was the ruler.
Samsara – Samsara is the continual cycle of death and rebirth. This death and rebirth is dukkha and is viewed negatively as suffering.
Sangha – The Sangha is the community of Buddhist monks and nuns. This term can also refer to the monks as a whole group.
Stupa – Hemispherical mound built to mark or contain a Buddhist relic. In time, tall monuments with spires were added to or developed out of stupas.
Sutra – A discourse attributed to Shakyamuni or another important disciple. More than 10,000 sutras were collected in the Sutta Pitaka, one of the three parts of the Pali Canon.
Taisho Shinsu Daizokyo – The Chinese Buddhist Canon which contains 55 volumes along with a supplement of 45 additional volumes.
Tanjur – The Tibetan collection of commentaries on the Kanjur, the collection of the sayings attributed to the Buddha.
Theravada Buddhism – It is one of the earliest forms of Buddhism which today is practiced in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The term refers to the teaching of the elders. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the individual over the group, believing that individuals must reach nirvana on their own. Its central virtue is wisdom which the arhat has achieved in this life and reaches nirvana upon death.
Tripitaka – It is the collection of early Buddhist sacred writings in the Pali language. The word means three baskets and the Tripitaka contains three sections. The first section deals with rules of monastic discipline, the second section contains discourses by the Buddha, and in the third section are the treatises on doctrines and abstract philosophy.
Vajrayana Buddhism – This is the tantric branch of Buddhism which became established in Tibet, Mongolia, and the Shingon School in Japan. A vajra is a diamond and the term means the Diamond Way. This form of Buddhism claims that individuals can reach nirvana in a single lifetime. This achievement is possible when a person uses all of the powers available, including those of the body.
Vesak Day – This is the Theravada Buddhist festival celebrated on the full moon day in May commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.
Vipassana – A form of meditation practiced in Theravada Buddhism. Its goal is to realize the three marks of existence and lead to the true character of emptiness. This form of meditation is considered a prerequisite for attaining nirvana.
Wheel of Life – The Wheel of Life is a symbol consisting of three concentric circles and signifies samsara. Each of the rings has symbolic meaning.
Zazen – Zazen is the practice of extended periods of meditation. The monks sit quietly for long periods of time in the lotus position. This form of meditation is unique to Zen and involves the study of the self.