With some 376 million followers, Buddhism is the world’s sixth largest religion. Twenty-seven centuries ago, the man who would become Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama turned his back on comfort and privilege to pursue the meaning of life. He became known as “the Enlightened One,” or the Buddha, and taught his followers the cause of suffering and the way to end it.
The main tenet of Buddhism is that death is only a transition for each life to continue in some other form—human, divine, or animal. The form depends upon karma, or the results of personal behavior in the last life.
Life’s biggest problem, no matter what the form, is suffering. Suffering is overcome by advancing on a path to enlightenment, which is the ability to extinguish the flame of desire and to cut any attachment to self. Once desire is dampened and attachment severed, nirvana is achieved. Nirvana is the ultimate state of being in which there is no more suffering, making further rebirth unnecessary.
When used in a broad sense, a buddha is any individual who discovers the true nature of reality through years of spiritual study, investigation of the myriad religious practices of his or her time, and meditation. This transformational discovery is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. Therefore, any person who awakes from the “sleep of ignorance” by understanding the true nature of reality is called a buddha.
One becomes a buddha through the study of Siddhartha’s words, which are called dharma (not to be confused with another definition of dharma that refers to the underlying order in nature and humans in response to that). One puts these words into practice through leading a virtuous life in order to purify the mind. The aim of Buddhist practice is to end the stress of existence. The dharma states, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”
Practitioners of Buddhism follow the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Middle Way. Through these, practitioners eventually end ignorance and unhappiness, attaining the liberation of nirvana.
Most Buddhists recognize the existence of supernatural god-like beings, but adherents do not believe in an omnipotent creator (i.e., God). All Buddhists recognize a transcendent truth that some perceive as a “Buddha Nature” infused in all things.
Buddhism was an outgrowth of Hinduism that shaped the background and early years of Buddhism’s revered founder. Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a wealthy and influential North Indian nobleman, lived around 563 - 483 BC. Tradition says that Siddhartha’s mother died at his birth, and a prophet predicted shortly thereafter that the baby Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father, in an attempt to make sure that his son would follow in his footsteps, made certain that Siddhartha never had any dissatisfaction with life and therefore would forsake a spiritual path. Siddhartha was raised in a palace and was carefully isolated from sad, sick, and dying people.
But at the age of 21, Siddhartha came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and a wandering holy man. The four sights led Siddhartha to the realization that birth, old age, sickness, and death come to everyone. From this realization came the "Great Renunciation,” in which the young man of privilege left it all—rank, caste, and his wife and child—to become a wandering holy man in search of the deepest meaning of life.
Siddhartha tried meditation with two hermits, began training in Hindu ascetics, and practiced techniques of physical and mental austerity. He was troubled with many unanswered questions. Leaving behind Hinduism, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further.
After discarding asceticism to concentrate on meditation, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way—a path of moderation between extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
To strengthen his body, he accepted some buttermilk from a passing village girl. Then he sat under a bodhi tree and vowed never to rise until he had found the truth. Siddhartha found what he was looking for seated under the tree and, as the Enlightened One, he preached what has become known as Buddhism for the next 45 years. The Buddha founded two monastic communities of monks and nuns who continued his teaching after his death.
According to tradition, the Buddha once helped solve the problem of grief for a woman whose son had just died. She came to the Buddha and asked him to comfort her. He put a tiny mustard seed in her hand and told her to collect one mustard seed from every one of her neighbors but only if they had never lost a loved one to death. She returned later with the same mustard seed and the comforting awareness that every person has been touched by death.
Siddhartha himself died in the town of Kushinagara of food poisoning after eating bad pork given to him by a local blacksmith. His body was cremated. His ashes and possibly other sacred relics were allegedly given to various temples or buried in religious monuments called stupas. Visiting the Buddha’s ashes has since become an important pilgrimage for Buddhists.
Buddhism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent in the five centuries following the Buddha’s death and into Central, Southeast, and East Asia over the following two millennia.
The Tripitaka is a collection of Buddhist scriptures compiled between 500 BC and 45 BC. The Tripitaka contains three divisions or “baskets.” The first is in the Pali language and is used by Southern Buddhists. There are two Mahayana versions written in Chinese and Tibetan, and they are used by Northern Buddhists.
The Tripitaka baskets include:
Vinaya Pitaka, which codifies the rules, regulations, and disciplinary conduct for life in a Buddhist monastery.
Sutta Pitaka, a compilation of the stories of the life and teachings (dharma) of the Buddha.
Abhidhamma Pitaka, an ancient dictionary that defines religious terms and discusses elements of existence and casual relationships.
Additionally, Theravada Buddhists consider the Dhammapada, an anthology of Buddhist proverbs and teachings, as a sacred text. Its message defines the right path to wisdom in a transitory world.
Mahayana Buddhists include in their canon later books not recognized as authoritative by southern Buddhists. These are:
The Siksha Samukhya, which presents the sutras (the scriptural words of Buddha) written by Santideva who, like Buddha, renounced a life of indulgence and embraced the Mahayana form of Buddhism. For this reason, his work has limited sacred value to the Theravada branch.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Translation of the Word of the Buddha, the Translation of the Treatises, the Great Scripture Store (Chinese), the Lotus Sutra, and the Heart Sutra.
Chapter 1 (The Twin-Verses)
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.
The world does not know that we must all come to an end here; but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.
He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled, immoderate in his food, idle, and weak, Mara (the tempter) will certainly overthrow him, as the wind throws down a weak tree.
He who lives without looking for pleasures, his senses well controlled, moderate in his food, faithful and strong, him Mara will certainly not overthrow, any more than the wind throws down a rocky mountain...
...The follower of the law, even if he can recite only a small portion (of the law), but, having forsaken passion and hatred and foolishness, possesses true knowledge and serenity of mind, he, caring for nothing in this world or that to come, has indeed a share in the priesthood.
Chapter 2 (On Earnestness)
Earnestness is the path of immortality (nirvana), thoughtlessness the path of death. Those who are in earnest do not die, those who are thoughtless are as if dead already.
Those who are advanced in earnestness, having understood this clearly, delight in earnestness, and rejoice in the knowledge of the Ariyas (the elect).
These wise people, meditative, steady, always possessed of strong powers, attain to nirvana, the highest happiness...
...Fools follow after vanity, men of evil wisdom. The wise man keeps earnestness as his best jewel.
Follow not after vanity, nor after the enjoyment of love and lust! He who is earnest and meditative, obtains ample joy.
When the learned man drives away vanity by earnestness, he, the wise, climbing the terraced heights of wisdom, looks down upon the fools, serene he looks upon the toiling crowd, as one that stands on a mountain looks down upon them that stand upon the plain.
Chapter 9 (Evil)
If a man would hasten towards the good, he should keep his thought away from evil; if a man does what is good slothfully, his mind delights in evil.
If a man commits a sin, let him not do it again; let him not delight in sin: pain is the outcome of evil.
If a man does what is good, let him do it again; let him delight in it: happiness is the outcome of good.
Even an evildoer sees happiness as long as his evil deed has not ripened; but when his evil deed has ripened, then does the evildoer see evil.
Even a good man sees evil days, as long as his good deed has not ripened; but when his good deed has ripened, then does the good man see happy days.
Let no man think lightly of evil, saying in his heart, It will not come nigh unto me. Even by the falling of water-drops a water-pot is filled; the fool becomes full of evil, even if he gather it little by little.
Let no man think lightly of good, saying in his heart, it will not come nigh unto me. Even by the falling of water-drops a water-pot is filled; the wise man becomes full of good, even if he gather it little by little...
...Some people are born again; evildoers go to hell; righteous people go to heaven; those who are free from all worldly desires attain nirvana.
Chapter 24 (Thirst)
The thirst of a thoughtless man grows like a creeper; he runs from life to life, like a monkey seeking fruit in the forest. Whomsoever this fierce thirst overcomes, full of poison, in this world, his sufferings increase like the abounding Bîrana grass. He who overcomes this fierce thirst, difficult to be conquered in this world, sufferings fall off from him, like water-drops from a lotus leaf...
Siddhartha was not only the first buddha but also by far the most important. He taught his followers to seek release from their stresses in life by looking inside themselves. A common Buddhist saying is, “Be a lamp unto your own feet,” meaning one does not need an outside light or a transcendent deity to find enlightenment.
Enlightenment ultimately means nirvana, the state in which all desire is extinguished, and realization of self does not exist any longer. Nirvana is neither positive nor negative in a moral sense, and although it is viewed as a happy existence, there is no expectation in it for feelings of joy. A Buddhist who has attained nirvana has escaped the world of cause-and-effect and is free from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Falling short of nirvana, a Buddhist is subject to karma or the moral and spiritual consequences of his or her actions. If the sum of deeds is more good than bad, the Buddhist moves forward toward happiness, perfection, and enlightenment. Conversely, if karma is bad, they return to a former state of existence or, worse, to a lower life form. Extremely special people who have made it to nirvana return as enlightened souls called bodhisattva or sometime as lamas, who teach humanity about the path to freedom.
There are four stages in the Buddhist life:
The Stream, the entrant who catches only a glimpse of nirvana in the teaching of the Buddha.
The Once, the returned who is destined to be reborn into this physical world before experiencing full nirvana.
The Never, the returned who has an even deeper knowledge of nirvana that assures that he or she will not be reborn.
The Worthy, the one who is completely free of desire. This person has experienced nirvana and will know it fully at death when all matter, sensations, perceptions, mental cognition, and consciousness disappear forever.
Advancing through these stages requires intimacy with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Three Jewels.
The Four Noble Truths
All human life is about suffering. Nothing lasts—not happiness, not sadness, not things good or bad. From the moment humans are born, our bodies start to die and decay. The world is an illusion. There is no self, no permanence and things that we think are necessary are fleeting. This state of temporary being is what causes sorrow and suffering.
The causes of suffering are desire and ignorance. Being ignorant of the true nature of things, people always strive to obtain something they think they want. The absence of what is wanted causes pain.
Suffering will finally stop when we attain nirvana, a state of being in which we understand the true nature of existence and no longer feel desire.
The way to attain nirvana is with the Eightfold Path. The Buddhist who lives this middle path accepts the truths as Buddhism outlines them, and avoids killing, stealing, lying, abusing sex, and taking any intoxicants.
The Eightfold Path
In order to fully understand the Four Noble Truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, the Buddha recommended that a path with eight attributes be followed. Buddhists should practice:
The Right View, by realizing the Four Noble Truths;
The Right Intention, by commitment to mental and ethical growth in moderation;
The Right Speech, by which one’s words do not cause harm, do not exaggerate, and are truthful;
The Right Action, by behaving wholesomely and not harming others;
The Right Livelihood, in which one’s job does not harm oneself or others;
The Right Effort to keep improving;
The Right Mindfulness to cultivate the mental ability to see things clearly for what they are; and
The Right Concentration to reach enlightenment and eliminate the ego.
Some Buddhists say that the Eightfold Path is a progression of stages through which the practitioner moves, the culmination of one stage leading to the beginning of another. Others say that all stages of the Path require simultaneous development.
The Three Jewels
Acknowledging the Four Noble Truths and making the first step in the Eightfold Path require a foundation of religious practice, otherwise known as the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
Buddha, with a small “b,” or the Awakened One, is a title for one who has attained enlightenment similar to the first Buddha.
The dharma is the teachings or law as expounded by the Buddha. The Buddha presented himself as a model and beseeched his followers to have faith in his example as a human who escaped the pain and danger of existence. The dharma provides guidelines for the alleviation of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. Dharma also means the law of nature based on behavior and its consequences.
The Sangha literally means group or congregation, but when it is used in Buddhist teachings, it refers to two specific kinds of groups. These are a community either of Buddhist monastics or of people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening, i.e., ones who have entered the stream to enlightenment. As Buddhism migrated to the West, a new usage of the word emerged: a meditation group or any sort of spiritual community. Whatever the degree of enlightenment, the Sangha is meant to preserve the authentic teachings of the Buddha and to present examples that his teachings are attainable.
Many Buddhists believe that there is no otherworldly salvation from one’s karma. The suffering caused by the karmic effects of previous thoughts, words, and deeds can be alleviated by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Buddha of some Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra, also teach that powerful sutras can, through the very act of being heard or recited, wipe out great swathes of negative karma.
Buddha originally spoke the Four Noble Truths not as religious or philosophical dialogue, but in the form of the common medical prescription of his time. Buddha said that his followers should use his teachings only if they help. He compared worrying about things such as an afterlife to ministering to a person who has been shot with an arrow by contemplating who made the arrow, rather than simply removing it.
Buddhism has a variety of sects, nearly all of which agree on the Four Noble Truths. One of the areas of difference is the Hindu caste system. Some Buddhist sects accept it as a social reality but reject it as way of indicating that any person is superior to another. Other sects reject the caste system entirely. Regardless of the sect, the unifying belief of Buddhism is that people of any class can achieve nirvana if they live in an enlightened way.
BRANCHES OF BUDDHISM
Buddhism has two primary schools of thought. The first, Theravada Buddhism, is known as the Doctrine of the Elders and is practiced in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Because Theravada historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called “Southern Buddhism.” Theravada Buddhism is the sect most popular in the West. This school of thought emphasizes the role of the individual in transforming the universe. The practitioner must gain wisdom that gives insights into the nature of reality and the causes of anxiety and suffering, and reveals that everything is an illusion.
The second school, Mahayana Buddhism, is practiced in Nepal, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism is also known as “Northern Buddhism” because it migrated northwards from India. It postulates that humans are not alone in this world but are helped in our spiritual journey by bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva is a semi-divine being who voluntarily renounces nirvana to return to the earth to help others attain enlightenment.
In Theravada Buddhism, a bodhisattva is regarded differently, namely as someone who has yet to reach nirvana, but is on the road to reaching it and can teach others the journey.
The goal of every Buddhist is to be a person of compassion. This quality is not automatic but must be cultivated by connecting with a bodhisattva.
Theravada Buddhism is known as the smaller vehicle of the two main branches of Buddhism because not many people want to walk down the path of celibacy and poverty it requires. Most monks and nuns live in a community and give up almost everything except a robe, a belt, a begging bowl, and a needle and thread. They eat but one meal a day.
Theravada Buddhism came into existence as a reform movement against some aspects of Hindu tradition. It sought to give an equal voice to women, wipe out the inequalities of the caste system, and do away with the concept of reincarnation (samsara). The movement did not meet its goals, but it did develop into a religious tradition that venerated the words of Siddhartha Gautama.
Mahayana Buddhism is known as the greater vehicle and embraces the majority of Buddhist followers today.
In his lifetime, Siddhartha did not answer several philosophical questions. Is the world eternal or non-eternal? Finite or infinite? What is the nature of unity? How is the body separated from the self? What is it like for a person to attain the complete non-existence of nirvana? Mahayana commentators explain that the Buddha remained silent on these and other questions because they distract from practical activity for realizing enlightenment.
In numerous Mahayana sutras and tantras, the Buddha stresses dharma. The Buddha himself cannot be truly understood with the ordinary rational mind. Both the Buddha and reality (ultimately they are one) transcend all worldly logic. What is urged is study, mental and moral self-improvement, and veneration of the sutras that are as fingers pointing to “the moon of Truth.” It is necessary, however, that a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism let go of reason.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are only two of thousands of sects within Buddhism. Some of the better-known Buddhist offshoots include Zen, Shingon, Pure Land, Soka Gakkai, and Lamaism.
Zen Buddhism, a Japanese form that became a significant spiritual movement in the twelfth century AD, is perhaps the best-known sect. It promotes sudden enlightenment as opposed to the more traditional Buddhist view that enlightenment comes gradually.
Lamaism is the Tibetan form of Buddhism that is also practiced in Mongolia. Lamas, who are teachers and priests, provide guidance. The most famous of these is the exiled Dalai Lama, whose role in Tibet was meant to be both a sectarian leader and a priestly leader.
BUDDHISM IN THE MARKETPLACE
The different schools of Buddhism generally align in terms of what the lay Buddhist should do to cultivate good business practices. Buddhism in the marketplace translates into adhering to the Five Precepts. The Five Precepts are training rules for life. Breaking any of them results in bad karma.
Avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings, not just humans, because killing something as lowly as a bug could mean killing a loved one who died last year and was reincarnated as that bug.
Avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. People should avoid taking anything not intended for them.
Avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct, but it admonishes overindulgence in any sensual pleasure, including the practice of gluttony.
Avoid false speech. This precept covers lying and deceiving, slander and gossip, and any speech not beneficial to the welfare of others.
Avoid substances that cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept does not imply that there is any intrinsic evil in alcohol, for example, but a Buddhist should infer that indulgence in drink could cause the breaking of the other four precepts.
The Buddha’s advice to a group of lay people on how to live a good life was: (1) be energetic and diligent in performing your job; (2) take care of your wealth; (3) associate with true friends, meaning wise and virtuous people who will help you, protect you, and guide you in the path of morality and religion; and (4) do not spend more than your means allow, but do not be tight-fisted either, clinging to your wealth.
Charity and generosity are encouraged in Buddhism. The wealthy in particular have an obligation to help the poor. The word for a Buddhist monk, bhikshu (or for a nun, bhiksuni) means “beggar.” The traditional giving of alms to the Sangha, the community of monks, is as old as Buddhism itself. Every morning people place food into the begging bowls of monks.
In an ideal world, Buddhist practice would lead to completely ethical business behavior. But as the Buddha himself taught, people are motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion—even Buddhists.
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."
—Udanavargu 5:18, Dhammapada, 1983