May 04

What is Buddhism? A Brief Introduction.

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More than 2500 years ago the Prince Siddhaththa Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Gautama Supreme Buddha, the Blessed One. He proclaimed the well-expounded Dhamma to teach human beings and Devas (heavenly beings) the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukka). The profound teachings of the Gautama Buddha can be well defined in the following verse:

‘To cease from all evil; cultivate the good; purify your mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas.’
Dhammapada – 183

This is the teaching that leads one from darkness to light, from hatred to compassion, from ignorance of reality to true wisdom and liberation.
Let’s find out more about how this teaching takes you from Sila (Virtue) to Samadhi (Mental Concentration) and ultimately to Panna (Wisdom).

Gautama Supreme Buddha, the Blessed One

Prince Siddhaththa was born in the Lumbini grove, under the shade of a flowering Sal tree, as the royal scion of Sakyan clan of the land of Kapilavatthu in Northern India. His father, King Suddhodana ruled the land and his mother was Queen Mahamaya.
Prince Siddhaththa was raised with an abundance of luxury and sensual pleasures with three palaces named Ramya, Suramya and Subha at his disposal. The prince grew up to excel in the arts and education in preparation to become a worthy successor to King Suddhodana. Despite the king’s efforts to shield him from life’s miseries, the prince was given to serious contemplation and a curiosity to learn about truth in order to comprehend the reality of the true nature of the mankind.

At the age of sixteen, Prince Siddhaththa was married to Princess Yasodara, a charming young devoted princess according to Indian custom at the time. As the prince grew older and matured, he ventured out to visit the city with Channa, his chariot driver. Prince Siddhaththa was deeply moved by four visions that jolted him out his worry-free life of sensual pleasures. The first was the sight of a very old man in dirty clothes, weakened with age, with wrinkled skin and trembling body, walking with great difficulty. The second was the sight of a very sick man, seemingly of only skin and bone, writhing and crying out in pain. The third was the sight of a group of weeping relatives carrying a corpse on their way to the cremating grounds. The young prince was deeply disturbed by these three sights and understood the whole world was entangled with suffering.
The fourth vision, however, was in stark contrast to the previous three experiences. The sight of a recluse, walking in a calm and serene manner created an immediate and lasting impression on Prince Siddhaththa. On inquiry the Prince learnt that the recluse was someone who had abandoned the life of a householder to search for true happiness and liberation. This final recognition led the prince to develop a sense of detachment from the ephemeral pleasures of the world. He returned to the palace in deep contemplation. Having already seen the great infatuations of youth, of health, and of life, the prince was now overcome by a powerful and compassionate urge to find a solution to overcome the suffering of old age, illness and death, for himself and for all beings.

At the age of twenty-nine he left the palace, making the difficult decision to leave behind his beautiful wife, his new-born son Rahula, the rest of his family, wealth and luxury. This was the great renunciation of the prince whose great compassion and determination inspired him to seek the ultimate truth of existence. Prince Siddhartha Gautama became an impoverished ascetic (Bodisathwa) wandering from place to place in his quest for the truth; he quickly mastered the full range of knowledge of two famous masters of meditation at that time, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. However he didn’t find any teachings that related to the annihilation of suffering of all beings. Having not been satisfied with this, he continued to look for the ultimate solution.

The ascetic Gautama sought liberation through rigorous self-mortification for six long years, submitting him to rigorous ascetic practices leaving himself virtually at death’s door and no closer to his goal of liberation. In later years, the Supreme Buddha would give an awe-inspiring account of the extreme fasting and self-torment that he endured. Realising the futility of these penances, the ascetic Gautama looked for an alternative, having not being satisfied with the traditions and established fundamental beliefs. Suddenly he remembered how he had experienced the peace of breathing meditation in his childhood. Renewed confidence arose in his mind: “This is the path to Enlightenment,” he said to himself. He realised that he had to take normal food to heal his weakened and emaciated body first before attempting to strive further.

“Though only my skin, sinews and bone remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet I will never stir from this seat until I have attained full Enlightenment ”

He made his inflexible final resolution before sitting down under the Bodhi tree on the bank of River Neranjhara at Buddhagaya. Striving mightily and by gradual stages he reached the fourth jhana or meditative absorption. He gained perfect focus of his mind where everything was reflected in its true perspective. Then he completely cleansed his mind free from lust and impurity, pliable, alert, steady and unshakeable. With his focused mind, he was able to recall his former existences, also known as “the reminiscence of past births”(Pubbe-nivasanussati Nana). He recollected his former existences one by one, starting with his most recent past life, then to the one before and to hundreds of thousands of lives beforehand till the dissolution of many world cycles; then the evolution of many world cycles. In this way, he was able to look back through his own previous lifetimes and the previous lifetimes of his family members as well as those led by others around him. He developed the ability to look through the past lifetimes and the suffering of all beings in this way. This is the first knowledge he realised in the first watch of that night.

Then he directed his mind to the perception of the death (disappearing) and rebirth (reappearing) of beings instantly (Cutupapata Nana). With purified clairvoyant vision he perceived beings disappearing, and reappearing in another state of existence. This is the second knowledge he realised in the middle watch of that night.

Then he directed his purified mind to “the comprehension of the cessation and destruction of taints” (Asavakkahaya Nana); “this is suffering”; “this is the arising of suffering”; “this is the cessation of the suffering” and “this is the path leading to cessation of the suffering”. This is the third knowledge he realized in the last watch of the night. Having achieved these three pieces of knowledge with supreme determination and complete faith in his own purity and strength, unaided by any teacher, the Bodhisatta (as he is known before Enlightenment) at the age of thirty-five, by virtue of his own efforts, gained the state of supreme spiritual perfection and attained Supreme Enlightenment. Ignorance was dispelled and wisdom arose; darkness vanished and light arose. By comprehending The Four Noble Truths in all of their fullness (see below), he became The Supreme Buddha, the Enlightened One. He proclaimed: “This is my last birth, now there is no more existence; no more rebirth”.

The Supreme Buddha then spent the next forty-five years teaching the Dhamma before his Parinirwana or passing away in the city of Kusinara at the age of eighty.

The Four Noble Truths

The central conception of Buddhism is The Four Noble Truths comprehended by the Supreme Buddha when he attained enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Dukkha, (suffering): the concept of dukkha is the most essential concept within the teachings of the Supreme Buddha. Suffering is the fundamental problem of life that the Blessed One sought a solution for. All mental and physical sufferings such as birth, ageing, disease, death, association with the unloved, separation from the loved, dissatisfaction from not getting what one wants, all are examples of suffering. The Supreme Buddha also taught that all things are impermanent and therefore pain-laden and unsatisfactory.
  2. Samudaya,( the arising of suffering): The Blessed One taught that the root cause of suffering and the long cycle of birth and death is tanha or Craving. He described three types of craving, namely, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for continued existence and craving for non-existence. As long as one is attached to existence through one’s ignorance driven by the illusion of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ the ever-continuing process of birth and death will keep on going.
  3. Nirodha,( the cessation of suffering): The attainment of Nibbana or Enlightenment results in the cessation of suffering. One who attains this exalted state of liberation and supreme happiness is called an Arahant.The Blessed One described the attainment of the ultimate goal in Buddhism as the complete cessation, giving up, abandoning, a release and detachment from craving.
  4. Magga, (the path leading to the cessation of suffering): The path leading to the cessation of suffering is called the Middle Way or the Noble Eightfold Path. It is called the Middle Way because it avoids the two extremes of indulgence in sensual pleasures and self-mortification in the form of severe asceticism in order to gain liberation from suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path (The Buddhist Definition of the Middle path)

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of the following eight factors:

  1. Right Understanding (Samma Ditthi): The first factor of the path means to understand things as they really are and not as they appear to be. It means a clear understanding of the reality of life acknowledging the nature of Dukkha and the remaining noble truths. Right understanding is of the highest importance because the remaining seven factors are guided by it.
  2. Right Thought (Samma Samkappa): This consists of thoughts of goodwill, loving kindness, compassion and thought renunciation.
  3. Right Speech (Samma Vaca): This is abstinence from false speech, slander, harsh speech and idle chatter.
  4. Right Action (Samma Kammanta): This means abstinence from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva): This entails not dealing in arms and lethal weapons, animals for slaughter, , intoxicating drinks, drugs, poison, and causing suffering to other human beings.
  6. Right Effort (Samma Vayama): The function of Right Effort is fourfold: to prevent the arising of evil and unwholesome thoughts (Anger, Jealousy, Ill will) that have not yet arisen; to abandon evil and unwholesome thoughts that have already arisen; to develop wholesome thoughts (loving kindness, compassion, goodwill) that have not yet arisen; to maintain a favourable object of concentration (meditation).
  7. Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati): This means complete awareness and clear comprehension of one’s body, mind, feelings and all phenomena.
  8. Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi): This is the attainment of perfection in meditative concentration resulting in deep unification, peace and purity of mind.

The Supreme Buddha’s teaching on Kamma and RebirthM

“Cetanaham bhikkave kammam vadami”
‘Volition, O monks, I declare, is kamma’ is the Supreme Buddha’s definition of kamma.
According to Buddhism, Kamma is volition, which is a will, a force. Having willed, man acts, through body, speech and mind, and actions bring about reactions. Tanha or Craving gives rise to deeds, deeds produce consequences, consequences bring about new desires, new craving. This process of cause and effect, action and reaction, is a natural law. It is a law in itself, with no need for an external agency or power of a God that punishes the ill and rewards good deeds. Man is always changing either for good or for evil. This changing is unavoidable and depends entirely on his own will, his own action, and on nothing else.

According to Buddhism, there is no life after death or before birth that is independent of kamma or acts of will. Kamma and rebirth go arm in arm. The Supreme Buddha taught that the human world is but one among many, including heavens, hells, animals, ghosts and titans. One may be born into any of these depending on the kamma one has accumulated.
The attainment of Enlightenment by following the Noble Eightfold Path is the only way to end the repetitive cycle of birth and death. The law of kamma can only be fully understood in the context of multiple lifetimes and complex types of kamma that take varying amounts of time to bear their fruit.

Buddhism and the concept of true nature

The Paticca Samuppada or Law of Dependent Origination shows clearly how the Supreme Buddha unraveled the mystery of how life is created. The path to enlightenment is completely dependent on one’s own effort. There is no creator, God or savior in Buddhism. Buddhism does recognise the existence of heavenly realms. , Similar to human beings, the heavenly beings in these realms are also subject to the all-encompassing law of impermanence that results in passing away and rebirth. Rebirth in a heavenly realm is not to be regarded as an ultimate refuge. The ultimate refuge is Nibbana or liberation from rebirth achievable only by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

According to the Supreme Buddha, none can grant deliverance to another who prays or begs for it. The highest freedom is attained only through self-realization and self-awakening to Truth. Buddhism is completely free from compulsion and coercion and does not demand blind faith of the flower.. Buddhism, from beginning to end, is open to all those who have eyes to see and a mind to understand the reality and true nature of life.

The Role of Buddhist Monks – the Maha Sangha

Buddhism consists of the “Triple Gem” namely the teacher Supreme Buddha, the Dhamma or teaching and the Sangha or monastic community. The Sangha consists of disciples of the Supreme Buddha who decide to leave behind mainstream or lay life and fully dedicate their lives toward the realisation of Enlightenment.
The life of a Buddhist monk is guided by a detailed and refined code of conduct (Vinaya) to aid the cultivation of virtue. The simple and austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk helps one focus single-mindedly on attaining the fruit of the path to liberation. Buddhist monks live both in community and in solitude, each contributing factors for the development of deep states of meditation and wisdom.

There is a wholesome relationship of nourishing interdependence between Buddhist monks and Buddhist lay people. It is a customary tradition of the Buddhist lay community to provide the requisites of Sangha such as food and material needs, and in return the monks and nuns help the lay community by teaching the Dhamma and provide an inspiring example.

Buddhist monks are not priests who perform rites of sacrifice or stand as an intermediary between human beings and “supernatural” powers; Buddhism teaches instead that each individual is solely responsible for his own liberation. Therefore there is no need to win the favour of a mediating priest. The Blessed One uttered “You yourselves should strive on; the Thathagatas (Buddhas) only shows the path.”
To understand the world within, one must develop the inner faculties, one’s mind. The Supreme Buddha taught us with great compassion: “Mind your mind. The wise tame themselves.”

Closing Remarks

The Supreme Buddha showed that there is no easy way or short cut to achieving true happiness and escaping suffering. He showed that it is a gradual process of diligent training, training in speech, deed and thought, which bring about true wisdom culminating in full Enlightenment and the realisation of Nibbana. There is only one way (Ekayano Maggo) for liberation to attain Nibbana- the Noble Eightfold Path. The Supreme Buddha left a wonderful legacy, his sublime Dhamma, in order to allow us to comprehend the nature of suffering and the way to overcome this.

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