BUDDHISM WAS STARTED BY SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA
The Buddhist religion began with Siddhartha Gautama, who was born son of a king in northeastern India in bc 563. Reared in a beautiful palace, and trained as a prince, his father tried to protect him from the sorrows of the world by surrounding him with wealth and pleasures.
He married a beautiful princess, who bore him a son. One day when his son was still an infant, he informed his father that he wanted to see what life was like outside the palace. This excursion changed him forever because he saw ‘the four passing sights:’
- He saw a decrepit old man and was told that everyone will become physically weak.
- He saw a sick man afflicted by disease and was told that everyone will suffer pain.
- He saw a funeral procession with a corpse on its way to cremation and was told that everyone will die.
- He saw a shaven-headed religious beggar, clad in a simple yellow robe, but radiating peace and joy in the midst of all the sorrow around. The tranquil look on the beggar’s face convinced Gautama that, paradoxically, this is really the highest level of living.
Immediately he left the palace and his family in search of enlightenment and that became known as ‘the Great Renunciation.’ The former prince, now a beggar, wandered from place to place seeking wisdom to overcome life’s miseries. One day, deep in meditation under a fig tree, he reached what he claimed to be the highest degree of consciousness. After seven days under the tree – revered now as the ‘bodhi’ (tree of wisdom) – the ‘truths’ he learned there he would later impart to the world not as Siddhartha Gautama, but as the Buddha (‘the enlightened one’).
He soon gathered around him a band of 60 people – the beginning of the Buddhist order of monks – and he taught them his views. Then, they traveled around together proclaiming and expanding these ‘truths’ and making disciples.
THERE’S NO GOD, ONLY NATURAL ORDER AND REASON
Buddhism has no god in the Christian, Muslim or Hindu sense. Buddhists believe the universe evolved by itself and that it operates by natural power and law, not by divine command. There’s no such thing as sin against a supreme being. Sin is only a social matter.
The Buddha never claimed to be divine. He claimed only to be an enlightened teacher. Actually, according to Buddhist doctrine as it has evolved, he is but one in a great line of Buddhas. There have been four principal Buddhas, of whom Gautama was the latest. The fifth and final Buddha, Maitreya, is yet to come; some Buddhists have made attempts to identify Jesus as the final Buddha. Also, some Buddhists have deified Gautama.
The Buddha taught that there’s nothing within us that’s metaphysically real. There’s no ‘self’ or ‘soul’ or ‘spirit.’ Everything can be understood in natural terms. He taught that it’s the duty of every parent to have his children educated in science and literature and that no one should believe what is spoken by anyone, written in any book, or affirmed by any tradition unless it’s in accord with reason.
After physical death, there’s rebirth to another existence. The merits and demerits of a person’s past existences determine his condition in the present one. Everyone has prepared the causes and effects of the life which he now experiences.
Buddha taught that ignorance produces desire... and unsatisfied desire is the cause of rebirth... and rebirth is the cause of sorrow. Therefore, to end sorrow, we need to end the cycle or rebirths. To end the cycle, we must let go of our desires. It’s our ignorance, he said, that causes desire. Ignorance can be overcome by showing tolerance and brotherly love to all men, by showing kindness to the animal kingdom, by repressing cravings for selfish and sensual pleasures, and by developing intelligence.
GOAL IS TO END REBIRTHS AND ACHIEVE NIRVANA
The Buddha said our present existence arises out of our actions in previous existences, by the law of cause and effect (karma), in a complex chain of causes during a great number of lifetimes. A bad life may accrue demerits which will lengthen the cycle. The important question is how to end the wearisome rebirths and all the misery they bring. (One Buddhist manuscript claims that the Buddha had already lived 550 previous lives.)
The Buddha taught that a liberating purification is effected by following, with sincerity and continual meditation, ‘the noble Eightfold Path,’ which he described as: (1) right way of seeing things, (2) right aspirations, (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, (5) right way of making a livelihood, (6) right endeavors, (7) right awareness, and (8) right meditation.
Doing these right things with intense consciousness will ultimately (perhaps over thousands of years) bring a person to the final goal, ‘nirvana’ (which literally means ‘blowing out’ the flame of desire). Nirvana ends rebirths and sufferings and is eternal formless bliss. Nirvana is the one thing not caused by anything else. Nirvana is not a place and not annihilation; it’s a state of being that surpasses anything experienced in this world of conventional understanding.
THERE ARE MANY BUDDHIST SECTS AND SCRIPTURES
Siddhartha Gautama died at age 80. His body was cremated by his disciples and his ashes were divided between eight clan groups. Each built an elaborate sacred ‘stupa’ to house the ashes and these ornate little buildings became the focus of devotion; becoming early prototypes of the pagodas which today enshrine Buddhist relics.
There are now many sects of Buddhism, each with its own groups of sacred writings. The extreme bulk of Buddhist scriptures – over 5,000 volumes – makes it almost impossible for the average Buddhist to understand and practice the often contradictory teachings found in them.
So many forms of organization, cults and beliefs have developed within Buddhism – even in the fundamentals of the faith – that, like Hinduism, it has become a family of religions rather than a single religion.
In actual practice, Buddhism is often intertwined with local folk religion, including spiritism and ancestor worship, and with other religions such as Confucianism and Taoism. In these religious systems, there’s a tightly drawn hierarchy of family and social relationships and the belief that we should strive to achieve perfection through duty, learning, hard work and virtue.
(from the Dhammadada):
‘By meditation and perseverance, by tireless energy, the wise attain to nirvana, the supreme beatitude.’
‘When the wise man in his vigilance puts away heedlessness and ascends the tower of wisdom, he looks down, being free from sorrow, upon the sorrow-laden race of mankind. As from a mountain-top, the wise man looks down upon the foolish men in the valley.’