The 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.
Siddharta 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 One’.
After 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.
The 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.
According 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,(Kamma 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.
The Path to Deliverance
All 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).
The 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
The Spread of Buddhism
In 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.
Some Questions and Answers
1. Buddhists are often, seen praying to the Buddha, offering flowers and covering Buddha Statues with gold leaves. Is this a way of acquiring good Kamma?
There 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.
2. If there is no ‘creator god’ in Buddhism, how is the origin of the universe to be accounted for?
A 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 dukkha.
3. Is there a purpose in life?
There 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.
4. How is Nibbana different from the everlasting heaven, as taught in some religions; is it the total annihilation of the human personality?
Nibbana 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.
5. Can Nibbana be attained in this life or the hereafter?
Nibbana 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.
6. If the present life is the result of past actions, is a person’s life already predetermined?
The 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.
7. Is kamma carried by the soul during reincarnation from one life to another?
The 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.
8. Are animals subject to rebirth and can humans be reborn as animals?
Buddhism 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.
9. What proof is there of past life?
The 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.
10. Buddhism teaches that life is suffering - why such a pessimistic view?
Buddhism 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 of existence.
11. Should Buddhists abstain from eating meat and taking alcohol even in moderation?
The 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.
A Note on Meditation
The 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.
There 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.
When 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 recommended.
General Books on Buddhism
What the Buddha Taught
Ven Walpola Rahula
Introduction to Buddhism
The Mind and the Way
Books on Meditation
Mindfulness in Plain English
Ven H Gunaratana
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
Ven U Silananda
Books for Children
Buddhist Vihara (Keystone series)
Buddhism, Dictionaries of World Religions
Buddhayana: Living Buddhism
Buddhism for Key Stage 2. The Clear Vision Trust
Living Buddhism (Buddhism for Key Stage 3). The Clear Vision Trust, Manchester
The 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
To cease from all evil
To cultivate good
To purify one's mind
This is the advice of all Buddhas
Mano pubbangama dhamma-
Mind is the forerunner of all states
Mind is their chief; mind made are they
This presentation is available as a booklet from:
LONDON BUDDHIST VIHARA
London W4 1UD
Tel: +44 20 8995 9493
Revised: August 2015