teachings of the Buddha have been a way of life for millions of people
in the East for over two and a half thousand years. Yet, in the West,
it is only comparatively recently that many have turned away from materialism
to seek answers in Buddhism. Part of the reason for this development
may well lie in Buddhism’s age-old refusal to demand blind faith from
its followers. As the Buddha himself always insisted that people see
for themselves the truth of his teachings, we hope that you may be encouraged
by this brief introduction to explore further for yourself the rich
and varied religious philosophy that is Buddhism.
Gotama, the man who was eventually to become the Buddha, was born heir-apparent
to the Sakyan royal family during the sixth century BC at Lumbini in
Southern Nepal. Right from his birth, the young prince was surrounded
by wealth and great privilege. He was destined to become king of one
of the most important royal families in the region. Yet as he grew older
and more mature, he began to question many aspects of the princely life.
Finally, he became so totally disillusioned with the ostentatious wealth
and power of the Sakyas that he felt compelled to abandon his royal
heritage and become an ascetic. For six years, Siddharta wandered the
Ganges Plain, meeting many of the most famous religious teachers of
the day and subjecting himself to the ascetic religious practices demanded
by these teachers. Gradually these practices caused him to become physically
very weak and he began to realise that the answer to his searches lay
not in the extreme asceticism of others but in his own experience. One
day, whilst in deep meditation beneath a tree (which became known as
the Bodhi or Bo tree), he attained a state of enlightenment that enabled
him to comprehend the true nature of life. This unique achievement eventually
led him to be called the Buddha, which literally means ‘The Awakened
attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha became aware
of certain profound truths concerning the nature of life which formed
the basis of his teachings (Buddha Dhamma). With his newly acquired
wisdom, he could see that all beings in the universe are subject to
certain natural laws and, moreover, that they are trapped in an endless
round of existences. Death is just one phase of this cycle and is repeatedly
followed by rebirth which is yet another phase of this endless round.
The Buddha was able to perceive fully how beings passed from one existence
to another, and how their circumstances changed according to their deeds.
He saw that these many lives, both the happy and the unhappy, were fleeting
in nature and subject to perpetual change. The term dukkha, loosely
translated as ‘suffering’, is used to denote this unsatisfactory, impermanent
state of affairs.
discourses delivered by the Buddha to his followers, known as the Suttas,
are preserved in the ancient language of Pali, and are recited frequently
by Buddhist monks.
Wheel of Life
to the Buddha, existence, both animate and inanimate, is in a dynamic
state of flux. As part of this ever-changing cosmos, all sentient beings,
including humans, are caught up in an infinite cycle of birth, growth,
decay and death. Death is followed by rebirth and the cycle is repeated
indefinitely. The principal reason for this, the Buddha said, lies in
our lack of understanding of the true nature of things, which allows
us to engage in actions that serve to perpetuate the process. Right
understanding, in the Buddhist sense, is not just an intellectual concept
but rather an intuitive experience gained through periods of long mental
and spiritual growth which help us to relinquish our desires. It is
our lack of this form of understanding which enables various desires
(tanha) to take a firm hold of us. These can take many shapes;
desire for enjoyment of the senses, desire for material gain, desire
for survival and even for self-destruction. Such powerful desires perpetuate
the cycle of existences (samsara). This interdependent process,
whereby an effect is the result of a cause and the effect then becomes
yet another cause, is known as ‘Dependent Origination’ or ‘Conditioned
Genesis’. It is one of the main tenets of Buddhism and is entirely unique
to Buddhism. This process is often symbolically depicted in Buddhist
art by a wheel - the Wheel of Life.
Kamma and Rebirth
in Pali, Karma in Sanskrit) which literally means ‘action’, produces
results in accordance with the principle of cause and effect. In Buddhism,
this is one of the important natural laws which governs existence. Here,
all the intentional actions which we perform produce corresponding
results affecting both ourselves and those around us. Kamma produces
results which we all experience both mentally and physically. A positive
action committed with good intentions will result in a beneficial, positive
reaction for all concerned, whilst a negative action undertaken with
ill intent will result in a harmful, negative reaction. However, the
results of a negative action can be lessened or even neutralised by
a positive one. It is the momentum generated by accumulated kamma
that leads to the continuity of existence. The conditions which we
will experience in our future lives are dependent on the net result
of our accumulated kamma.
Path to Deliverance
of us who are caught up in the Wheel of Life will continue the cycle
almost indefinitely until such time as we are able to realise the unsatisfactory
nature of our existences and to relinquish our desires. At this moment,
there will no longer be the desire to continue and, by letting go, we
break the cycle of continuity forever. This is the ultimate state to
which all Buddhists aspire - the attainment of Nibbana (Nibbana
in Pali, Nirvana in Sanskrit).
path to the realisation of Nibbana is the avoidance of extremes in life.
The ‘Middle Way’ is the Buddhist way of life; a self-development
progression through the Noble
Eight-fold Path which comprises Right Understanding, Right
Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort,
Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. These, when practised
diligently, develop qualities of virtue, concentration and wisdom. Meditation
is a very important part of the Buddhist way of life as it leads to
the development of a penetrating wisdom, which enables us to see the
true nature of existence. This must, however, be founded on morality.
Hence the importance that Buddhists place on ethical conduct. In order
to purify both the verbal and bodily actions, a Buddhist undertakes
to observe five precepts (Panca-sila), which are recited daily:
- Abstain from destroying life
- Abstain from stealing
- Abstain from sexual misconduct
- Abstain from lies
- Abstain from intoxicating drinks
Spread of Buddhism
the first millennium after the death of the Buddha, Buddhism spread
rapidly and radiated outwards from India and across much of Asia. Rather
than overwhelming the local beliefs, cultures and traditions, Buddhism
absorbed a whole range of very different patterns of religious belief
to form a number of ‘hybrid’ forms of Buddhist thought. It was this
hybridisation which led to the development of various different schools
of Buddhism. Theravada, considered to be the original teaching,
is widely practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos,
whilst Mahayana is found mostly in China, Japan and Korea. A
further form, known as Vajrayana, is practised in Tibet. Whilst
there is complete agreement on all matters of doctrine, the actual practice
of the teachings differs widely, with much emphasis on ritual in some
of the schools. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Buddhism, by contrast
to many other religions of the World, has always practised tolerance
to those holding different beliefs and has never at any time in its
history indulged in forced conversion.
Questions and Answers
Buddhists are often, seen praying to the Buddha, offering flowers
and covering Buddha Statues with gold leaves. Is this a way of acquiring
are no prayers as such in Buddhism since, by definition, Buddhism
cannot be classed as a religion (i.e., there is no ‘creator god’).
The Buddha, having attained Nibbana, and after his death, is
beyond the call of prayer. Certain rituals and practices are later
additions to Buddhism and satisfy people’s need for expression and
worship. Buddhists kneel before an image of the Buddha or a Bodhi
tree and reflect on the virtues of the Buddha and may recite the five
precepts. When performed with good intentions, these can be considered
as beneficial kamma.
If there is no ‘creator god’ in Buddhism, how is the origin of the
universe to be accounted for?
belief that every result has a cause leaves no room for the belief
that the universe was created out of nothing. The universe and its
components are also subject to the cyclic law of birth, death and
rebirth and therefore an absolute beginning is inconceivable. The
Buddha was more concerned with a solution to the immediate problem
of how to release us all from the cycle of death and rebirth than
expounding theories on the possible origins of the universe. The question
of the origin of the world was one which the Buddha refused to answer.
Buddha realised that any answer would create much controversy and
argument. He said that it was not necessary to know it in order to
achieve the goal of Buddhist practice and made an analogy with a man
shot in the arm by a poisoned arrow. He would not allow anyone to
pull the arrow out of his arm until he had received the answer to
various questions, such as: who shot the arrow? who made the feathers?
etc. The Buddha said that before he could obtain an answer to such
questions, the poison would enter his bloodstream and kill him. Similarly,
we have an urgent problem - we have to endure the unsatisfactoriness
of existence. We should apply ourselves exclusively to eradicating
Is there a purpose in life?
is no specific purpose or scheme of things to which life has to conform,
except that it is operative within certain laws (eg kamma)
governing the universe. Certain individuals have been described by
the Buddha as ‘Wanderers in the samsara’ (cycle of life), perpetuating
their continued existence by their own actions. There is, however,
a very definite goal to life, namely the extinction of dukkha
and release from conditioned existence.
How is Nibbana different from the everlasting heaven, as taught in
some religions; is it the total annihilation of the human personality?
is not a realm of existence. Nibbana literally means ‘blowing
out’- blowing out the causes that produce results in the cycle of
life - hence there will be no rebirth. Nibbana cannot be described
in terms of our normal experience, which is so limited. Nibbana
is not subject to the law of cause and effect, therefore it is permanent.
Can Nibbana be attained in this life or the hereafter?
is to be attained in this life, not after death. The Buddha and many
of his followers have attained this state during their own lifetimes.
After death, there is no more rebirth.
If the present life is the result of past actions, is a person’s life
present life is very much conditioned by past kamma, not only
in the immediate past but in the preceding lives as well, depending
on the intensity of the particular kamma. However, life is
in a state of flux and the results of past kamma can undergo
change due to subsequent actions. Hence, to that extent, everything
is not predetermined. On the question of freewill, the whole existence
is relative, conditioned and interdependent, hence there cannot be
an absolute freewill. It is important to understand that, how
we act today conditions the life we will have in the future.
Is kamma carried by the soul during reincarnation from one
life to another?
non-existence of a permanent soul or spirit that reincarnates from
one life to another is fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. A permanent
soul cannot exist in an ever-changing interdependent process of mind
and matter which constitutes a living being. However, the momentum
of accumulated kamma results in a new existence. The individual
so born is neither the same nor different. Buddhism, therefore, describes
this process as ‘rebecoming’ or ‘rebirth’ in preference to reincarnation
which implies a resurrection of the same entity.
Are animals subject to rebirth and can humans be reborn as animals?
teaches that human existence is just one of many realms or planes
of existence in the universe and that an individual may be born into
a particular plane depending on the results of his or her kamma.
Hence, a being who has acquired unfavourable kamma may be born
into the animal plane which is considered to be below the human plane.
According to the Buddha, there are sub-human planes, which can be
miserable, and many higher planes where the existence is blissful
and the life spans are exceedingly long. This is what a Buddhist means
by the terms ‘hell’ and ‘heaven’. The Buddha said that human existence
is unique in that it provides the best opportunity for further development
to higher levels and for the attainment of Nibbana.
What proof is there of past life?
ability to recall past lives can be acquired through meditative practice.
There have also been a number of authenticated cases of spontaneous
recall among very young children. The Buddhist explanation for ‘gifted’
children is that they are only experiencing memories from a previous
existence. Differing kammic inheritance, brought from previous
lives, may also explain the differences between identical twins.
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering - why such a pessimistic view?
looks at life in an objective and realistic way - with neither optimism
nor pessimism. It needs only a little reflection to realise that life
for the majority is a continuous struggle for survival. The word dukkha
means much more than the English word ‘suffering’. It also includes
such concepts as unsatisfactoriness, incompleteness, uncontrollability,
imperfection, and emptiness. By following the ‘Noble Eight-fold Path’,
the mind is gradually cleared of illusions and, with the development
of clear sight, it becomes possible to see intuitively the true nature
Should Buddhists abstain from eating meat and taking alcohol even
Buddha did not advise his followers to abstain from eating meat. He
was aware that prohibition would make it difficult for people in certain
cultures to survive as Buddhists. On such matters, Buddha left the
choice up to the individual. One should be aware that killing an animal,
even for food, has its kammic consequences. Alcohol taken even
in moderate quantities affects the mind. Those who are following the
path of purification should avoid it altogether.
Note on Meditation
aim of Buddhist meditation is to cleanse the mind of defilement and
disturbances, to gain Insight (Vipassana) which leads
to the understanding of the true nature of things. The essential
features are mindfulness and awareness.
are many methods of meditation described in the ancient texts. A very
effective type of meditation recommended by the Buddha himself is
the ‘mindfulness of breathing’. Here the awareness is focused and
sustained at the point where the breath enters and leaves the body
- the tip of the nose.
meditating, a quiet place should be chosen when there is no rush.
Sit comfortably, with the spine erect, without leaning - leaning may
cause drowsiness. Relax and let the breath flow naturally without
being forced. The mind may wander off, which is quite natural in the
initial stages. Be aware that the mind has wandered, and bring back
awareness gently but firmly to the tip of the nose. Note that the
breath itself is not important, and no effort should be made to follow
the passage of it in and out of the body: it is the sensation produced
at the nostrils, which should be the object of meditation.
Begin with 20 minutes or so and with regular practice a state of calmness
will be experienced. Daily practice of this simple technique is highly
Books on Buddhism
the Buddha Taught
Ven Walpola Rahula
Mind and the Way
in Plain English
Ven H Gunaratana
Heart of Buddhist Meditation
Four Foundations of Mindfulness
Ven U Silananda
Buddhist Vihara (Keystone
Dictionaries of World Religions
for Key Stage 2. The Clear Vision Trust
Buddhism (Buddhism for Key Stage 3). The Clear Vision Trust, Manchester
BFSS National Religious Education Centre, which is based at Brunel
University’s Osterley Campus, has a comprehensive collection of educational
materials on many aspects of Buddhism. For further information, please
contact the Resources Officer on 020 8891 0121 x 2656
Sabba papassa akaranam
-etam Buddhana sasanam
cease from all evil
To cultivate good
To purify one's mind
the advice of all Buddhas
is the forerunner of all states
Mind is their chief; mind made are they
also Fundamental Topics
presentation is available as a booklet from:
London W4 1UD
020 8995 9493
Fax: 020 8994 8130