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The way of the Buddha

The Buddhist Society, U.K.

The Life and Teachings of the Buddha

Gautama the Buddha was born in northern India about 2,500 years ago. The exact place of his birth is understood to be the Lumbini Garden, which nowadays lies just inside the border of the little Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.

Gautama's father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the tiny kingdom of the Sakyas. Naturally, he was delighted to have an heir who could follow him on to the throne. Naturally he was not very pleased when a wise man predicted, upon seeing the new arrival, that if he did not become a great world ruler he would become a great religious teacher.

King Suddhodana knew that it would be experience of the hard, painful things of life that would turn Gautama's mind in the direction of religion, so he did everything in his power to keep them out of the young prince's life. Gautama was thus brought up in a sealed world of security and luxury. He lived in beautiful palaces, wore clothes of the most splendid materials, ate only the finest foods, and was generally entertained and waited upon in the best style.

Gautama grew up and eventually married a young princess, Yasodhara, who bore him a son, Rahula. One day, however, he persuaded his groom, Channa, to drive him down to the nearby town, where he had not been till then. In all, he was to make four trips to the town which were to totally change his life. On the first trip, he met an old man, on the second a sick man, and on the third he met a party of people carrying a corpse to the cremation ground. Not having seen old age, sickness and death before, he was naturally deeply shocked. In fact so shocked that palace life was no longer pleasant or even bearable for him. He became very concerned with the fact of suffering and with finding a way of ending it. On a fourth trip to the town, he came upon a possible way of finding an answer to his problem. He met an ascetic, a holy man: one who had given up everything to follow the religious life. Despite having nothing, this man radiated a calmness that suggested to Gautama that he had somehow come to terms with the unpleasant fact of suffering.

So Gautama decided to follow the example of the ascetic. He slipped out of the palace in the dead of night, exchanged his splendid silken robe for the simple orange one of a holy man, and cut off all his beautiful black hair. Then, carrying nothing but an alms bowl for people to put food in, he set off on his great search. Gautama went to all the most famous religious teachers of his day and learned all they had to teach. In the process, he subjected his body to great hardship and torment. He lived in terrifying forests, burning in the heat of the midday sun and freezing at night; he slept on beds of thorns; sometimes he lived in cemeteries; he starved himself until he became so thin that if he touched his stomach he could feel his backbone. But still he could not find an answer to his fundamental problem and he realised that if he kept on that way he would probably die before finding one.

He therefore decided on a Middle Way between luxury and austerity. He took a little food much to the disgust of his fellow ascetics, who promptly left him. Then he sat himself on the immovable spot under a great Bo tree at a place nowadays called Bodh Gaya. He was determined to sit there until he found an answer or die trying.

During the night of the full moon of May, Gautama passed into deep meditation and gained various kinds of new knowledge. He saw into his past lives; he saw how karma works (karma means volitional action: action done by choice or conscious decision; it has inevitable effects - good actions produce good results, bad actions produce bad results); he also saw how to overcome desire, attachment to existence and clinging to false or fixed views. Finally, as the morning star rose, he awakened as from a dream and could declare: 'It is liberated . . . birth is exhausted, the Holy Life has been lived out, what was to be done has been done, there is no more to come . . .' He was Gautama no more but The Buddha The Awakened One. He had seen things as they really are. Sometimes he is spoken of as having attained Nirvana. Nirvana is - the extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion. Its true nature cannot be put into words; a person must know it for himself in his own heart.

At first the Buddha was reluctant to tell other people about what he had discovered. He felt they would not understand. He was persuaded, however, that there were some 'with but a little dust in their eyes' who might benefit from being told. He therefore went to Isipatana (modern Sarnath, near Benares) where he delivered his first sermon in a deer park. Thus began a forty-five year teaching career.

The Buddha taught all classes, conditions and types of men and women, and, indeed, all beings. The way that he taught is often called The Middle Way, because it teaches that we should try and keep to a middle path between all extremes. Soon the Buddha gathered around himself a following ready to give up everything to hear his teachings and put them into practice. Thus was born the Sangha: the community of Buddhist monks and nuns, which from the start was supported by a large lay community.

As a man, the Buddha's life had eventually to end. He passed away when he was about 80 at Kushinara. Naturally, his followers were deeply grieved. His final words to them were: 'Impermanent are all compounded things. Strive on heedfully.' Afterwards, he passed into what Buddhists call his parinirvana or Full nirvana, a state that can no more be conveyed in words than his first Nirvana.

Fundamental Buddhist Teachings

Gautama was not a god, a prophet or any kind of supernatural being. He was, as we have seen, one who was born, lived and died a human being. But a remarkable human being, who discovered a way of achieving true wisdom, compassion and freedom from suffering. Rather he rediscovered a very old way that had always existed.

The Buddha did not teach that a God created the Universe. Rather he pointed to a great Law or Dharma running through everything that exists. It is by living in accordance with this Law that true Wisdom and compassion and hence freedom from suffering may be achieved. Suffering may only be overcome, however, by being met and endured. In the Buddha's words: 'Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering.' Fundamental Buddhist doctrines include the following:

The Three Signs of Being

(1) Change,
(2) Suffering,
(3) No "I "

The first, Change, points out the basic fact that nothing in the world is fixed or permanent. We ourselves are not the same people, either physically, emotionally or mentally, that we were 10 years - or even 10 minutes ago! Living as we do, then, as shifting beings upon shifting sands, it is not possible for us to find lasting security.

As regards the second Sign, we have already seen how it was Suffering that sent the Buddha off on his great spiritual quest, though suffering is not a very good translation of the original word, dukkha. Dukkha implies the generally unsatisfactory and imperfect nature of life. Please do not think, though, that Buddhists believe that life is all suffering. They believe that there is joy in life, but know that life can't be all joy; even in the most fortunate of lives there must be suffering.

No-I, the third Sign, is a little more difficult. Buddhists do not believe that there is anything everlasting or unchangeable in human beings, no soul or self in which a stable sense of 'I' might anchor itself. The whole idea of 'I' is in fact a basically false one that tries to set itself up in an unstable and temporary collection of elements.

Take the analogy of a cart. A cart may be broken down into its basic components -axle, wheels, shafts, sides, etc. Then the cart is no more; all we have is a pile of components. In the same way 'I' am made up of various elements or aggregates (skandhas): form (body), perception, conception, volition and consciousness (mind). Upon death these elements do not vanish from the face of the universe, they form new combinations elsewhere. Thus the whole universe is a great, ever-changing orchestration of interconnected movements without beginning or end.

The Four Noble Truths

(1) Suffering and unsatisfactoriness exist.
(2) The cause of Suffering and unsatisfactoriness exists.
(3) The cause may be brought to an end.
(4) The means whereby this may be achieved: The Noble Eightfold Path.

As we have seen, Buddhism begins with the fundamental fact of suffering. But before we can do anything about it, we must know its cause, which is the deeply-rooted sense of 'I' that we all have. Because of this we are always struggling to get things that are pleasurable and avoid things that are painful to find ease and security, and generally to manipulate people and situations to be the way I want them. And because the rest of the world does not necessarily fit in with what I want, we often find ourselves cutting against the general flow of things, and getting hurt and disappointed in the process. Suffering may be therefore brought to an end by transcending this strong sense of 'I' so that we come into greater harmony with things in general. The means of doing this is The Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path

(1) Right Seeing.
(2) Right Thought.
(3) Right Speech.
(4) Right Action.
(5) Right Livelihood.
(6) Right Effort
(7) Right Mindfulness.
(8) Right Contemplation.

Right Seeing is important at the start because if we cannot see the truth of the Four Noble Truths then we can't make any sort of beginning. Right Thought follows naturally from this. 'Right' here means in accordance with the facts: with the way things are - which may be different from how I would like them to be. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood involve moral restraint refraining from lying, stealing, committing violent acts, earning one's living in a way harmful to others, and things like that. Moral restraint not only helps bring about general social harmony but also helps us control and diminish the sense of 'I'. Like a greedy child, 'I' grows big and unruly the more we let it have its own way. Next, Right Effort is important because 'I' thrives on idleness, and in any case if we are not prepared to exert ourselves we cannot hope to achieve anything at all. The last two steps of the Path, Right Mindfulness and Right Contemplation, represent the first footholds on the shore of No-I. They involve meditation. In the most basic form of Buddhist meditation, a person sits upright in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. He quietly watches the rise and fall of the breath. If thoughts, emotions or impulses arise, he just observes them come up and go like clouds in a blue sky, without rejecting them on the one hand or being carried away into daydreaming or restlessness on the other.

The Three Fires

'Your house is a fire, burns with the Three Fires; there is no dwelling in it' - thus spoke the Buddha in his great Fire Sermon. The house he speaks of here is the human body; the three fires that burn it are Desire/Wanting, Anger and Delusion. They are all kinds of energy and are called 'fires' because, untamed, they can rage through us and hurt us and other people too! Properly gentled through spiritual training, however, they can be transformed into the genuine warmth of real humanity.

In General

'Not to do any evil; to cultivate good; to purify one's heart - this is the teaching of the Buddha.'

Although Buddhists value highly such virtues as loving kindness, humanity, patience and giving, perhaps they value compassion most of all. The idea of ahimsa or harmlessness is very closely connected with compassion. The compassionate desire to cause no harm to other beings (Buddhists would include animals, plants, inanimate objects and even the world in general in this) has caused many Buddhists to become pacifists or vegetarians, although they are not obliged to do so. In all things Buddhism places great stress on self-reliance and the Buddha himself told his followers not to believe a thing because he told it but to test it for themselves.

Buddhism is also a very practical religion and aims at helping people to live their lives; it is as much if not more concerned with giving people things to do as with giving them things to believe. Doing things like chanting a simple formula, visiting a temple to make an offering or to perform prostrations - such simple acts help to reduce a person's sense of 'I.'

Buddhists also try to practice the Buddhist virtues actively in their everyday lives. The final goal of all Buddhist practice is to bring about that same awakening that the Buddha himself achieved.

The Spread of Buddhism

Buddhists follow three main traditions. There are those who adhere to the Theravada or Southern tradition, those who adhere to the Mahayana or Northern tradition and those who adhere to the Vajrayana or Tibetan tradition.

Long ago, Buddhism began to spread southwards from its place of origin in northern India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indo-China and other South East Asian countries. It also moved northwards into the Himalayan kingdoms (Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal), Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia, and also into China, Korea and Japan.

This was a fortunate development because Buddhism all but died out in India after the Moslem incursions of the 11th Century ce. In more modern times, the spread of Communism has also virtually obliterated Buddhism from various other countries where it was once strongly established (e.g. China, Vietnam, Tibet, etc.). There is now a resurgence of Buddhism in these countries. Nowadays, however, Buddhism is attracting an increasing following in Europe and the Americas. In Asia, it is thriving in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Korea and Japan.

The Sangha

In Theravada (southern) Buddhist countries, the monks (bhikkhus) are easily recognized because they wear the characteristic orange robe, have their heads shaven, and go about barefoot. They are given a new name and the robe, and will have to live according to a code of 227 rules (the Vinaya). A monk may decide to disrobe (cease being a monk) at any time.

Bhikkhus live a strict, simple life of meditation, study and work, with very short hours of sleep and only one meal a day. They do not own money or any possessions to speak of. They help with the important task of teaching and assisting lay people, and conducting ceremonies.

In Mahayana (northern) Buddhist countries there are two main branches, the Tibetan with monks wearing the characteristic maroon robe, and the Far Eastern, which also has an unbroken line of nuns, where the robes are black or grey.

Buddhist Festivals and Ceremonies

Buddhism has tended to merge into the everyday life of the countries where it has taken root. Buddhist festivals have religious, social and historical dimensions, and in some countries (e.g. Nepal) these are numerous and very colourful. The highpoint of the Buddhist calendar in Theravada countries is WESAK, when the birth, Enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha are celebrated. This generally falls on the full moon day of the month of May each year. In Mahayana (northern) Buddhist countries, there are regional and sectarian differences as to how these great events are celebrated.

There are no universal Buddhist birth, marriage and death ceremonies (rites of passage). These also vary from country to country and from traditition to traditition. In many places, however, monks or priests will participate in some way, by chanting from the scriptures (sutras), giving blessings, delivering a sermon and so on: also the people involved may go to a Buddhist monastery or temple for some kind of ceremony.

Suggested further reading:

Introducing Buddhism, Irmgard Schloegl (The Zen Centre)
What the Buddha Taught, Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula (Wisdom Books)
Buddhism, Christmas Humphreys (Pelican)
A Short History of Buddhism, Edward Conze (Allen & Unwin)
The Life of the Buddha, Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa (Allen & Unwin)
An Introduction to Buddhism, Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa (The Buddhist Society)
Buddhism for Schools and Colleges Papers, Anil D Goonewardene (The Buddhist Society)
The Dhammapada, (The Buddhist Society)
Buddhist Scriptures, ed. Edward Conze (Penguin)
The Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling (Rider/Century Paperbacks)
The Buddhist Directory, (The Buddhist Society)

The above books are normally available from the Buddhist Society U.K. Send for "Introductory Book List", adrress:

The Buddhist Society,
58 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PH
Tel: 0171 834 5858
Fax: 0171 976 5238

Source: The Buddhist Society, U.K., http://www.thebuddhistsociety.org 

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last updated: 20-07-2006