Buddhism is one of the biggest religions in the world and is very popular in East Asia. Countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Thailand have many Buddhists. Although Buddhism has many different schools and sects, all Buddhists aim to end suffering in their lives and other peoples’ lives. All Buddhists are told to cultivate wisdom and compassion in order to become enlightened and attain something called nibbana.
The Life of the Buddha
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama. He was an Indian prince who lived 2,500 years ago. Some Buddhists believe that when he was born he could talk and walk and that every where he walked a lotus flower blossomed. It was also said that he was born out of his mother’s side. Before he was born his mother, Queen Maya, dreamt of a white elephant. In some Asian cultures a white elephant is seen as good luck. Unfortunately his mother died seven days after he was born.
However, not all Buddhists believe this story. Some say that the story of the Buddha’s birth was exaggerated after the Buddha’s death and that the Buddha was simply a remarkable human being who was born as a normal baby.
Nonetheless, the traditional story suggests that Siddhartha Gautama’s father, King Suddhodana, was visited by a wise man who said that his son would either be a great king or a holy man. King Suddhodana did not want his son to be a holy man, as he wanted his son to carry on his family’s reign. He decided to keep the Buddha in the palace surrounded by luxury. The idea was to avoid contact with anything that could motivate Siddhartha to become a holy man. Therefore, the young prince had everything he wanted and was waited on hand and foot. He also married a beautiful wife and had a healthy son.
Despite all these things, Siddhartha was still not fully content. He could not find happiness with all the pleasures and material wealth of the palace. He also wanted to know about life outside the palace. One day he and his loyal charioteer, Channa, planned to leave the palace without the king’s permission. On his four trips out of the palace, Siddhartha saw four things that would change his life. The first three were an elderly person, a sick person and a dead person. The prince had been shielded from these sights all his life. The things he saw shocked, confused and scared him, but he was not put off from seeing more. On the fourth trip he saw another person. However, this person was not elderly, sick or dead, but seemed genuinely happy and content. It was a holy man. This caused Siddhartha to think about his life, the suffering of the real world and how someone could become happy like the holy man. He then decided to leave the palace and find out how to end suffering himself. This was a hard decision as it meant leaving his wife and son. Nonetheless, he felt he had no choice as the questions burning in his mind were too great.
Siddhartha lived as ascetic for seven years. This meant he had no processions and begged for his food. He listened to different holy and wise men teach, he practiced yoga and meditation and he thought about the meaning of life. Throughout this period he challenged himself in many ways. He starved himself so much that he could feel his backbone by touching his stomach, he spent days in the hot sun naked and would spend hours meditating. However, the Buddha felt that this was wrong and not helping him understand why people suffer and how to be happy.
One day a young girl offered the fasting Siddhartha some rice, which he accepted. This lead to him realising that when searching for answers one must not go to extremes, such as starving oneself. Instead, one must follow the Middle Way. This means he decided to eat enough to stay healthy and to make sure he had some level of comfort when practicing mediation.
Not long after this Siddhathra sat beneath a Bodhi tree and meditated through the night. As he meditated he concentrated more and more on suffering, what causes suffering and how to end suffering. The traditional story suggests that a demon called Mara tempted the prince during this period of meditation with his beautiful daughters and other pleasures, but Siddhartha remained focused until he understood the causes of suffering and how to live without suffering. He also gained an insight into his former lives as well as how we all get reborn due to our good and bad actions, which is called karma. Buddhists believe that Siddhartha then became enlightened and experienced nibbana. Nibbana is a state of mind without greed, hatred or delusion and means we do not suffer.Siddhartha then became ‘the Buddha’, which means ‘awakened one’ in the ancient Indian language of Pali.
After his enlightenment the Buddha taught for many years. He did not want to be a religious leader, but his teachings gained a large number of followers.
Buddhist Beliefs: The Four Noble Truths
Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha. He taught that there are Four Noble Truths, which are dukkha (suffering), samudaya (that all suffering has a cause), nirodha (that there can be an end to suffering) and ariya magga (the way out of suffering, often called the Middle Way or Noble Eight Fold Path). Buddhists accept these ‘truths’ and try to end suffering by being aware of the first three truths and following the last truth.
The Buddha said that everyone suffers or experiences dissatisfaction, which he called dukkha. Whether you are a wealthy prince or a slum dweller, you will experience some kind of suffering or dissatisfaction in your life. The millionaire may worry about his social status, what people think of him and whether he is respected by other people. Of course, despite being rich, he can still feel sad, angry or unwell at times. The slum dweller may suffer due to his poverty or by the way other people treat him. The Buddha also taught that even when people are happy, they may gradually start to feel scared of losing what they have or that the good times may end. For example, money, friends and family all make us happy, but they do not last forever and they can still have their ups and downs. Money has to be earned, can be lost and can make us greedy whereas family and friends can fall out, become ill and, at worst, pass away, which does not bring us happiness. To help Buddhists understand the Buddha said that there are three types of dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction). The first is ordinary suffering, such as being ill, stubbing your toe or getting stressed. The second is suffering of change, such as being sad that a relationship ends, a friend or relative dies or even having a ‘Sunday sulk’ when the weekend’s over. The third is suffering of conditioned existence, which can be described as the frustrations of being human.
The Cause of Suffering (Samudaya)
Samudaya is the ‘cause of suffering’. The Buddha taught that suffering is caused by craving (tanha) and ignorance (avidaya). There are three types of craving. The first is craving sensual pleasures, such as delicious food. If we crave too much of these pleasures they can have negative effects, such as being sick or becoming obese in the case of craving food. The next type of craving is everlasting life or youth. We cannot live or stay young forever and trying to will only lead to disappointment and frustration. The last type of craving is oblivion, which is a symptom of suffering as one does not want to live. Of course, if we are ignorant of these cravings, then Buddhists believe our suffering will only get worst.
The End of Suffering (Nirodha)
Although the first two truths are quite depressing, a Buddhist will say that there is hope for an end to suffering. Importantly, there is the state of nibbana (nirvana). This is a state of mind where craving stops and ignorance no longer exists. Once a Buddhist is enlightened they understand all the causes of their suffering and then experience nibbana. Therefore, nirodha is the acknowledgement of an end to suffering.
The Middle Way/Eight Fold Path (Ariya Magga)
In order to attain enlightenment and nibbana a Buddhist must practice the Middle Way and follow the Noble Eightfold Path. The Middle Way means you should live your life in a way that avoids extremes. For example, people should not allow themselves to be too stressed or too laid back. We should not starve ourselves or overeat. The Middle Way suggests living a in a practical way. As a guide, the Buddha taught that Buddhists should follow eight steps towards perfecting the Middle Way, attaining enlightenment and experiencing nibbana. This is called the Noble Eight Fold Path. A Buddhist should have:
The Three Marks of Existence
Buddhists believe that there are three things that affect our existence whether we like it or not. These are suffering (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and no self (anatta). Firstly, we all suffer or feel dissatisfied at sometime during or life (see above). Secondly, Buddhists believe that all existence is impermanent (annica) and that absolutely nothing lasts forever. People die, plants rot and things break down. Some things, such as aging, change from moment to moment and change at a very slow rate whereas other things, such as melting snow, are more obvious. The last mark is one many people dislike. It states that all living things, including humans, have no self or eternal soul. Unlike Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism does not teach that we have souls. The Buddha taught that we are conditioned by the world around us.
Probably the most famous Buddhist belief is karma. The word karma is Sanskrit and means ‘action’. The Buddha taught that all actions have consequences. Thus, people often sum karma up as “what goes around, comes around”. If you do bad things you will get bad karma and bad things happen to you. If you do good things you get good karma and good things happen to you. However, karma is not fate. All karmic consequences are due to cause and effect. A criticism of karma is that some people do bad things and nothing bad happens to them. A Buddhist may argue that karma takes time. A bad action can be a ‘bija’, which is a ‘karmic seed’ as the bad things will happen in the future. Some Buddhists believe your bad karma will result in bad things happening in another life.
Many Buddhist believe in rebirth. This is often referred to as reincarnation. It is the belief that when you die you will be reborn with another life. This is why many Buddhist try to get good karma. Some Buddhists believe you can be reborn into six different types of realms (places). These realms are the human realm, animal realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, hell, the realm of the titans or giants and the realm of the gods. Of course, you need good karma for the last three and bad karma for the former three. However, some Buddhists believe that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth have been misinterpreted and that rebirth really means rebecoming. Rebecoming suggests that these teachings are metaphorical. For example, the six realms are states of mind and if you become a drug addict you are ‘reborn’ as a hungry ghost or, if you get angry and act like a yob, you get ‘reborn’ as an animal. Some Buddhists would believe this as we have ‘no self’ or soul’. Nenetheless, it could be our karma that gets reborn as our actions will continue to influence other lives for good or bad after we die.
Buddhists believe that greed, anger and delusion all create bad karma and poison our lives. A Buddhist must be mindful of these three and avoid being greedy, angry or deluded about the world and reality. The three are often represented as a pig, snake and cock.
Buddhists aim to exist in a state of mind called nibbana or nirvana. This is a state of mind where one no longer feels anger or hatred and is no longer deluded about having a ‘self’ or soul. In other words, nibbana/nirvana is an escape from the three poisons described above. A Buddhists will, therefore, not create any more bad karma and will not suffer in another rebirth. Unlike Heaven and Hell, nibbana/nirvana is not an actual place.
Most Buddhists have a chant that states they “take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha”. This means they look to the Buddha’s life for happiness and safety from suffering. They also look at what he taught, which is often called ‘the Dharma’, and the Sangha, which is the community of monks, nuns and other Buddhists, for support and comfort in their lives.