Introduction to Buddhism

There are around 400 million people in the world today who call themselves Buddhist, in South East Asia, China, Japan, Tibet and increasingly in Europe and the US.

Buddha of CompassionThey follow the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, who was born around 2,500 years ago in what is now Nepal.

He was born the son of a great and wealthy ruler and kept in ignorance of disease, suffering and death. When he saw these things for the first time they had such a powerful impact on his mind that he left the wealth and comfort of his father’s palace and set of to seek enlightenment as a wandering mendicant. The word Buddhist comes from the Pali word budhi which means awakened. After 6 years of searching, study and meditation Siddartha gained enlightenment and awakened at the age of 35. He had found a way to overcome the inevitable suffering of this life and he spent the rest of his life teaching the Dharma, or truth, to anyone who asked it of him until his death at the age of 80.

Buddhism is not a religion in the way that Christianity or Islam is a religion. It is often described instead as a philosophy. Buddhists do not worship a God, ask for favours or concern themselves with the creation of the universe. The Buddha himself was a mortal man, just as we all are, and taught that awakening was possible for all. A statue of the Buddha with hands resting gently in his lap and smiling compassionately teaches us to strive for compassion and wisdom also. Bowing to the statue is an expression of gratitude for his teachings.

Buddhists do not believe that we are inherently sinful and in need of redemption and forgiveness. On the contrary Buddhists believe that underneath the layers we wrap around us to insulate us from the sufferings of this world we all have a Buddha Nature which is good, pure and true.  The task is the peeling away of these layers and revealing this shining goodness.

Buddhism has no dogma. There is nothing that Buddhists are required to believe in or take on trust or faith. Indeed one of the Buddha’s earliest teachings instructed his followers to examine all that they have been taught, see if it makes sense to them and if possible test it empirically before accepting it.

The Buddhist path can be summed up as aspiring to lead a moral life and trying to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions and their consequences. Commitment to non harming and striving to develop wisdom, compassion and understanding.

Prayer FlagsThe Buddhist path reveals a purpose to life and provides a code of practice or way of life that leads to true happiness.

The outward expressions of Buddhism vary greatly around the world. This is not because it is divided into sects or that there have been great schisms but merely that Buddhism has taken on the various flavours of the cultures in which it has flourished. The essence of the teachings, the Dharma, remains remarkably consistant throughout the Buddhist world. The teachings of the Buddha fill many volumes but can be summed up by The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths define suffering and show how it can be ended. The first truth is that life is inevitably about suffering. Life includes pain, old age, disease and death. We also suffer loneliness, fear, anger and other forms of psychological distress.

The second Noble Truth is that all this suffering is caused by craving, attachment and aversion. We are always craving after material things in the hope that they will make us happy. When the pleasure they bring proves to be fleeting we crave after something else, the origin of retail therapy.

We often crave another person, projecting on to them our imagined ideal of the perfect lover or friend, believing that once we have that person in our life we will be truly happy ever after. When they turn out to be just another ordinary person we are unable to love them for who they really are because they fail to live up to our imagined ideal. Again we set ourselves up for disappointment. We crave the approval of others, fame and worldly success but these things only bring temporary satisfaction. By seeking happiness from these things we only increase our suffering or at best go from one short lived pleasurable experience or relationship to another.

The third Noble Truth is that everyone can free themselves from this trap. True happiness and contentment are possible. If we stop craving and learn to live correctly one day at a time, not dwelling in the past or the imagined future, then we can become happy and free.

The Fourth Noble Truth is that the way to do this is by taking the steps necessary to live our lives correctly. These steps are known as the Eightfold Path. This path not only leads to happiness but eventually to awakening.

The EightFold Path

The EightFold PathThe Path is

  1. Right View
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Right is the traditional translation of the Sanskrit word for perfect but “right” does not imply that there is also a “wrong”. Buddhism is not judgmental in that way. A better translation might be skillful.

Those few short words carry a great deal of meaning at many levels but a short explanation is:

Right View and Right thought means what and how we think shapes everything we say and do. We must ensure we act from the right motives, with good intentions. Our mind set must be compassionate and thoughtful.

Right Action means following the five lay precepts which are:

  1. To avoid taking the life of any sentient being.
  2. Not taking anything that is not freely given.
  3. To abstain from sexual misconduct, usually interpreted as not harming another by your sexual activity, and avoiding sensual over-indulgence.
  4. To refrain from untrue speech.
  5. To avoid intoxicants, thus losing mindfulness.

Again this is a very brief description of some very complex ideas. These values are not handed down from on high nor are we judged by our ability or inability to keep the precepts. Buddhist morality is a matter of what will help us generate wisdom and compassion and further our awakening.

At the heart of this is the idea of moral cause and effect known as Karma or personal responsibility if you prefer.

Right Speech means not only avoiding lies but also refraining from harsh, hurtful words and frivolous or scandalous gossip.

Right Livelihood means avoiding any means of earning a living that includes weapons, trafficking in human beings, slavery and prostitution, being involved in the breeding or slaughter of animals for meat, making or supplying poisons or intoxicants.

Right Effort means doing what ever it takes to reach awakening. It will not be easy or quick but you must keep at it constantly checking your motives.

Right Mindfulness is intelligent alertness. To be mindful we need to be fully focused on what we are doing. This is the heart of meditation, an important part of the path to awakening. Another part is concentration, one-pointed and without distraction.

Concentration and mindfulness come together in meditation. Mindfulness directs the power of concentration. Concentration provides the power by which mindfulness can penetrate into the deepest level of the mind.

The Eight Spoked Tibetan Dharma WheelOn a personal level Buddhist practice brings many benefits. People who practice Buddhism often notice that their lives are less stressful. Buddhism allows people to accept life as it is, live in the moment, not hanker after material possessions or cling on to people or things believing them to be the source of happiness. Kindness is a common factor. Buddhism encourages the development of kindness and compassion, not only to others but also to yourself.

There is a great deal more to the teachings, tradition and practice of Buddhism than I have found space for in this brief introduction but I trust it has given you a fleeting flavour of the Buddhist path to happiness. If it has kindled your interest I hope you will read some of the wealth of excellent material on the Internet or in the many books in publication today.