What is Buddhism?
Lord Buddha’s Birth and Early Life
Buddhism starts first, of course, with the story of the Buddha. Lord Buddha was born sometime between 550 BCE and 400BCE. If recent discoveries in Lumbini, southern Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha, are correct, then the older dating, of around 550 BCE would be the more accurate estimate for his birth. The future Buddha was born a prince, and named Siddhartha Guatama, of the Shakya clan. His given name of Siddhartha means “he who achieves his aim.”
According to stories of the Buddha, his mother gave birth to him under a tree, amidst wondrous signs. Shortly after his birth, an astrologer predicted that he would be either a great worldly leader, or a greatly realized spiritual being. His parents, upon hearing this prediction, and wanting to ensure that he upheld his born destiny to rule their kingdom, ensured that he never left the palace walls, and only received the best education and training that befits a future king.
As the future Buddha grew up, he excelled in his studies and this training. He also possessed a strong and innate sense of ethics. As expected of a future king, he took a wife, who bore him a son. One day, he did find his way outside the palace walls, and there for the first time, as a young adult, he encountered the realities of his people, seeing for the first time sickness, old age, suffering and death. Deeply dismayed by what he saw, he returned to the palace and reflected upon what he had seen, and contemplated how he had been purposefully sheltered from the conditions under which his people lived, and in fact, the experiences which all people must undergo at some point in their lives.
Renunciation and Practice
After a short period of consideration, he resolved at the age of 29 to secretly leave the palace and to become a mendicant, to learn and to practice all that the spiritual traditions of his time had to offer – including deeper philosophical and religious contemplation, asceticism, yogic practices, and meditation practices. He slipped away from the palace, and cut his long hair, leaving his family, his wealth, his trusty steed and his man servant behind. For a number of years, as he engaged in the practices of a wandering renunciant, he made ever greater progress, surpassing the attainments of his fellow ascetics, even fasting to the point of near starvation, but always retaining the sense that despite very deep states of meditation, and the attainment of certain abilities arising out of his training, he had not yet reached ultimate realization, that the ultimate truth had still to be uncovered. Traveling throughout Nepal and India, in search of those who might know, he came to the understanding that he had reached the limits of the Indian sages, yogis and ascetics of his time.
Through a profound dissatisfaction with the more superficial attainments he had accomplished, and deeply motivated to uncover the ultimate, he resolved not to leave his seat under the Boddhi tree, not far from a river, in Bodhgaya, India. Placing kusha grass under this tree, he took his seat. There, at the age of 35, after forty-nine days of sitting in silent meditation, without leaving his seat, he finally attained Enlightenment.
The night before the Buddha became Enlightened, he was tested and taunted by many demons and ghosts, as well as enchanting girls, who all tried to distract him and take him away from his ever deeper states of meditative absorption. However his determination was unfailing, and he remained unswayed by their supernatural displays. At dawn, the supreme awakening occurred, amidst miraculous displays.
The first person to meet the Buddha after he had attained Enlightenment, was a young girl, named Sugata, who offered him a bowl of milk and rice pudding, which he accepted with thanks, saying that one should follow the Middle Path of moderation, neither eating too much, nor too little. For some time he rested quietly in the Supreme State, and did not engage with others.
Indeed, for two weeks after his realization, the Buddha did not speak, but was absorbed in the state of ultimate realization, experiencing inconceivable visions, wisdom displays, and manifesting a number of miracles. Nature herself bore witness, and many wondrous signs were experienced by many people.
Finally, after this period, and once the Buddha had traveled to Sarnath, he gave his first teaching, on The Four Noble Truths. Five of his ascetic friends had happened upon him in the forest. These friends had berated him in the past for his single minded obduracy in pursuing the ultimate, beyond their own attainments, beyond which they could not conceive. Upon seeing the Buddha directly, his realization was clearly seen and experienced, and they asked him if had attained Enlightenment, and if he would teach them.
Lord Buddha, upon being asked about his experiences, did not divulge much, as it was clear to him that the capacity of his peers was not yet developed enough to understand them. All that he said to them, with great gentleness, was: “I am awake.” Preferring to rest in the ultimate, for the most part in states of supreme quiescence and deep, peaceful abiding, he taught to them in a way that they could understand, and so he set forth The Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhist wisdom, as his first teaching.
The Four Noble Truths
Since the time the Buddha had seen that life contains sickness, old age, suffering and death, he had sought to achieve Nirvana – a heavenly state, or release from the sufferings of Samsara – the state of the ordinary world. The Four Noble Truths, as taught by the Buddha, are:
- The truth of suffering, or dukkha. (Dukkha can also be translated as anxiousness, or a persistent state of dissatisfaction.)
- The truth of the origin of suffering.
- The truth of the cessation of suffering.
- The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Often Buddhism is portrayed as beings pessimistic, however this is quite inaccurate. Lord Buddha was a realist, he saw and experienced the reality of samsara, and sought to transcend it through the practice of meditation and insight, or Vipassana, and through following The Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. He clearly saw the law of twelve fold dependent origination and of karma, and so, seeing this, advocated The Noble Eightfold Path as the way to transcend and ultimately be released from cyclic existence. In this regard, Buddhism is eminently practical and grounded, and shows that there is a better way. Buddhism is neither nihilistic nor eternalist, but acknowledges that there is: no inherent self-nature, and that in this sense everything is empty, that all things that exist in the conventional sense arise out of interdependence, are compounded, and subject to change and decay, and so are impermanent, and that existence follows the laws of cause and result, and so is subject to the law of karma.
Not doing any evil
Performing what is skillful
Cleansing one’s mind
That is the teaching of the Awakened.
There is no fire like passion
No loss like anger
No pain like the aggregates
No ease other than peace.
Not by harming life
Does one become noble
One is termed noble
For being gentle to all living beings.
— From the Dhammapada (Words of the Buddha)
The Nature of Mind and Higher States of Awareness
Mind reacts to the process of this play of dependent origination, and so experiences suffering, due to the kleshas or defilements of ignorance, craving, aversion, pride or envy. By developing insight, practicing an ethical life, meditating, and learning to master one’s own reactions, we start to taste freedom. Nirvana is actually our natural state of pristine awareness, it is a state of peace, in which Buddha nature flowers forth of its own. We simply need to recognize it, and rest in it. After some time, one starts to realize that the endless process of striving after things does not bring happiness, and so one starts to simply enjoy one’s own natural wealth of being. During higher states of meditation, one does indeed experience peace, bliss and an extraordinary clarity starts to shine forth.
Since Buddha nature is inherent in all sentient beings, a profound respect for life is a natural consequence and mark of one’s understanding. Nor can any God save you. You must save yourself, through leading an ethical life, reflecting, meditating, and recognizing the ultimate state. While divine beings exist in other realms, they too are subject to karma. The one who can help the most, is a living teacher, through example, instruction, guidance and blessings. To the degree one is able to generate love and devotion, to that degree blessings are able to flow and be received unimpededly. These blessings help one to understand the subtler levels of insight and deeper realities than are apparent in the conventional, conditioned sense. Therefore, studying with a qualified teacher helps one to progress much faster, which is why the Buddha automatically attracted the early Sangha, for they saw so clearly in him the fruit of his practice, his state of deep peace and the spontaneous manifestation of compassionate blessings. Indeed, this first Sangha was eminently fortunate, even if not necessarily of advanced capacities, since they witnessed the Buddha’s unparalleled realization directly. Over the great stretches of aeons and in various worlds and universes, fully realized Buddhas appear and work to help beings, in the ways most appropriate to their era or epoch.
For these reasons the Buddha Dharma teachings have flourished and persisted to this day. In the beginning, according to the capacities of the early Sangha, which was monastic, and lived as mendicants, like the Buddha, the focus was on ethics, which was best upheld through a monastic life, by following a pure life, and by adopting the Vinaya rules set forth by the Buddha and the followers of his teachings, or again, the Sangha. However over time the Sangha grew, and the focus of their practice also expanded, over time. Buddism recognizes reincarnation, the Buddha himself clearly saw his own past lives as part of his Enlightenment. Thus, after many lives of practicing meditation, extensive study, and living pure celibate lives, the capacities of the Sangha grew over time. In this way, the schools of Buddhism too have evolved over time. Buddhism today is the fourth largest global religion and continues to attract new adherents, at a rapid pace. Often there are discussions on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, since it is not theistically oriented in the sense of a central god who saves those followers that are devoted to him. Indeed, Buddhism, distinct from Hinduism, believes in the non-existence of the self, whereas Hinduism, through the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, encourages its followers to attain self-realization, or the union or yoga of Self or Atman with the chosen Hindu God (Brahman in the case of Advaita Vedanta (creator, though not much worshiped), Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva, the destroyer of evil tendencies, are the more famous forms of Hindu worship). Buddhism recognizes these beings in the conventional sense, but holds that they are not absolute, as no individual being is absolute. Even Nirmanakaya Buddhas pass, after the passage of enormous lengths of time.