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Buddhism - An Introduction

Graeme Lyall


In the year 563B.C. on the border of modern day Nepal and India, a son was born to a chieftain of the Sakya clan. His name was Siddhartha Gotama and at the age of thirty-five, he attained, after six years of struggle and through his own insight, full enlightenment or Buddhahood. The term 'Buddha' is not a name of a god or an incarnation of a god, despite later Hindu claims to the contrary, but is a title for one who has realised through good conduct, mental cultivation, and wisdom the cause of life's vicissitudes and the way to overcome them. Buddhism is perhaps. unique amongst the world's religions in that it does not place reliance for salvation on some external power, such as a god or even a Buddha, but places the responsibility for life's frustrations squarely on the individual. The Buddha said:

By oneself, indeed, is evil done; By oneself is one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone; By oneself indeed is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.

His teaching can be summarised as:

Not to do any evil,
To cultivate good,
To purify one's mind,
This is the Teaching of the Buddhas.

To many people of other faiths the term 'Buddha' conjures up ideas of idol worship and concepts, such as, that Buddhists are atheists, such concepts being an anathema to the followers 'of the, so called 'religions of the book’. Buddhism, certainly, is very different from the Semitic religions, but it may surprise many of its critics to know that the Buddha condemned idolatry. When, just prior to his passing away, he was asked how he could be remembered he replied that those who practised his teachings would remember him best. Prior to the arrival on the Indian sub-continent of the Bactrian-Greeks, Buddha images were unknown. The Buddha foresaw that worship of him in any form would result in his deification with its consequent emphasis on seeking salvation from an external power rather than identifying Nirvana, the eradication of greed anger and delusion, as being solely within one's own power. Indeed, he was right. For many ethnic Buddhists, he is a God from whom they ask favours. We must recognise that the world’s major religions are different and we should accept those differences with respect and appreciation. For example, Buddhists feel uncomfortable in acknowledging a Creator of the world, however Buddhists do accept that there is a transcendental state possible of realisation by each and every one of us. We certainly do not accept the concept of an anthropomorphic god but many Christians, Jews and Muslims would join us in such a rejection. Buddhists, generally, are uncomfortable in using the term "God", because there is no clear definition of to what such a term refers. In the case of the Buddhists, too, before they criticise other faiths for their belief in "God", they should ascertain what the person from the other faith means by "God". Too often, arguments are purely semantic. What one calls "God" may be covered by another term by your opposite number. A fundamentalist Christian, for example, would view God in an anthropomorphic way which is totally different to that of a mainstream Christian. A Jew or a Muslim would view God in a totally different sense to the average Christian. Indeed, an anthropomorphic view of God would be considered by Jews and Muslims to be idolatrous. If, as is the case with many modern theologians, one holds the Tillichian view that God is the "Ground of Being" - the very fact of existence - then no Buddhist could argue with this. However, a Buddhist would be hesitant in using the term ‘God’. The Buddhist concept of Nirvana, the highest state attainable is described in the Itivuttaka, one of the books of the Buddhist canon thus:

‘Monks, there is an unborn, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this that here is born, become, made, compounded. But, monks, since there is an unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, therefore the escape from this that here is born, become, made and compounded is apparent.’

In Indonesia, for example, where five religions are officially recognised on condition that they express a belief in God, the above definition from the Itivuttaka is accepted as the Buddhist definition of God. This to a Buddhist is the ultimate reality - and is not the ultimate reality to most religious people an unborn, uncreated, not-made and not compounded, which is beyond description. To a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, this may be termed ‘God’, whereas a Buddhist would use the term ‘Nirvana’. I feel that we are talking about a similar concept.


The essential teachings of the Buddha are accepted as pivotal to all schools of Buddhism, however, they differ mainly on the emphasis that they place on certain aspects of the teaching and in their interpretation of the rules (Vinaya) governing the conduct of the clergy (Sangha). The Theravada school claims to adhere strictly to the original teachings of the Buddha as contained in the Pali cannon (scriptures) and it emphasises the goal of personal salvation (Arahant ideal) for the individual follower. The Sangha of the Theravada is expected to observe to the letter the 227 rules laid down in a collection of books called the Vinaya, which includes such rules as eating only prior to midday and refraining from handling money. Four of these 227 rules, if broken, entail expulsion of the transgressor from the monastic order. They are: killing a human being, sexual intercourse, stealing and falsely claiming supernormal powers.

The Mahayana school is less rigid in its interpretation of the Teachings and emphasises the importance of the follower's becoming a Buddha for the salvation of all living beings (Bodhisattva ideal). The Sangha observes strict vegetarianism (unlike the Theravada where vegetarianism is optional) but they will eat in the evening. This change of eating rules became necessary when the Teaching spread to colder climates. The post-midday meals are regarded as medicine. The rule prohibiting the handling of money has been seen by the Mahayana Sangha as impractical in today's world, and it has been reinterpreted as not amassing wealth, whilst a transgression of the celibacy rule entails only demotion in some sects of the Mahayana. Other Mahayana sects, notably in Korea and Japan, admit married priests.

The Vajrayana school is essentially the same in its interpretation of the Teachings as the Mahayana but it stresses the importance of the acceptance of a personal Guru (teacher) who initiates his followers into the, so-called, secret teachings (Tantra). Neither the Theravada nor the mainstream Mahayana schools accept that there are such things as 'secret teachings' in Buddhism. The Gelugpa sect of the Vajrayana is the only Tibetan sect that insists on the celibacy of its clergy.


The central teaching of all schools of Buddhism is grounded in the "Four Noble Truths".

The first truth is that life is subject to Dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as ‘suffering’ but it is much more than that. It certainly means physical and mental suffering but it also means that life is full of frustrations - we would always prefer things to be other than the way they are. As we grow old, we wish we could remain young. If we are poor, we wish we could be rich. When we are separated from our friends and loved ones, we are saddened. Dukkha is birth sickness, old age, pain and despair, separation from those whom we like and association with those whom we dislike. All of these are examples of Dukkha and that is the First Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth states that the Cause of Dukkha can be attributed to three things - greed, anger and a deluded mind. We tend to be attached to people and material things and when we are separated from them, we suffer regret. We cling to these things as if they will last forever and we find it hard to accept the fact that they don’t. We get angry or have aversions to those things that we do not like. Buddhism teaches that anger harms the one who is angry more than the object to which this anger is directed. Anger causes heating of the blood and an unpleasant appearance. The more we get angry with someone and they react to our anger the more this anger increases. Anger is unproductive - it doesn’t solve the problem. Our minds are deluded because we do not see things as they really are - that is, subject to impermanence (anicca, Pali), frustrating (dukkha, Pali) and devoid of a permanent self or substance (anatta, Pali). Everything, material or immaterial, is subject to change or impermanence. Perhaps you are sitting in a comfortable chair listening to this talk. If you remain in that chair for the next three hours, without moving, do you still think you could regard the chair as comfortable? Believe me, I do not intend to keep you here for the next three hours. If you remained fixed in that chair for a month, you would probably find that you are crippled and unable to move. If you remain in that chair for a hundred years, you will probably be a skeleton and the chair will be fairly seedy too. What starts as being regarded as ‘comfortable’ can soon change to being uncomfortable. Everything is relative. The way we see things depends on the time, place and current situation. We, ourselves, are subject to this change. Every cell in our body is constantly ageing and dying and being replaced. Our thoughts and ideas are constantly changing or being modified. Your thoughts and ideas, since you arrived here today, are different. They have changed considerably. Is there anything in you which is not subject to change? This is why Buddhists say, in the ultimate sense, there is no ‘you’ or unchanging self entity. This change and this "no self’ is difficult to accept and is, therefore, Dukkha.

The third Noble Truth concerns the overcoming of Dukkha, that is, overcoming the greed anger and delusion that are the source of Dukkha. Accepting change as a characteristic of life and not becoming angry or frustrated about it is part of the way to overcoming Dukkha. The overcoming of Dukkha is termed "Nirvana". Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind - a mind that sees things as they really are and not clouded by delusion.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the method taught by the Buddha for attaining the state of Nirvana. It is the Noble Eightfold Path. You may be wondering why the term ‘Noble’(Ariya) is used for the Path. One who walks the Path is considered to be a noble person.

The eight steps of the Path are:

Right Understanding is knowledge that the Four Noble Truths lead to the overcoming of Dukkha. It does not imply a total understanding of these Truths but a confidence that, by following the Path, the result will be attained.

Right Thought is to be constantly aware of one’s thoughts and actions and thereby avoiding harm to any living creature. Right Speech is awareness of one’s speech so that, what one says, is beneficial to the hearer.

Right Action is to be aware of one’s actions and observe the five precepts so that one does not cause harm to oneself or any other living creature. The five precepts are:

To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just to humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected. This would include the unborn, so abortion is not an acceptable alternative for controlling the population, however, contraception is not an issue as far as Buddhists are concerned.

To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended for you.

To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature. A Buddhist should be mindful of the possible effects on themselves and on others of improper sexual activity. This precept would include adultery because this also breaches the precept of not taking what is not freely given. A relationship with someone who is committed to another is stealing. Similarly in cases of rape and child abuse, one is stealing the dignity and self respect of another. One is also the cause of mental pain, not to mention physical pain so one is causing harm to another living being. Therefore, such behaviour is breaking several precepts.

To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.

To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself, but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.

These are the basic precepts expected as a day to day training of any lay Buddhist.

Right Livelihood is to earn one’s living in a way that does not cause harm or suffering. Such occupations as the selling of intoxicants, firearms or animals for slaughter would be considered inappropriate for Buddhists.

Right Effort is the avoiding of evil which has not already arisen, rejecting evil which has already arisen, the acquiring of wholesome things which have not yet been acquired and the stabilising of those wholesome characteristics that have already been acquired.

Right Mindfulness is training in constant awareness of the effects of one’s actions, whether of body, speech or mind, and thus avoiding harmful actions.

Right Concentration is cultivating the mind through concentration and meditation so that one attains intuitive insight.

Most Buddhists believe that, upon the dissolution of the body, rebirth may take place in a state consistent with the qualities of the consciousness energy, or resultant of past actions (karma) at the time of death. This rebirth may occur in human form, animal form, as a ghost (preta), in a blissful state (deva) or in a woeful state. Each of these states is impermanent and lasts as long as the karmic energy, which was the cause of rebirth, sustains it. In other words, we are subject to a constant round of rebirths (Samsara) until Nirvana, or the release from rebirth is attained. The Theravada tradition believes that rebirth is instantaneous upon the death of the individual, whereas the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions believe in an intermediate state (antarabhava), which can last until the right conditions for rebirth prevail. Three conditions are necessary for conception in the womb of either a human or animal to occur, that is, male sperm, female ovum and the karmic energy.

Karma is not a reward or punishment for past actions but rather a natural result or outcome of them. Buddhists do not accept the concept of a creator god who sits in judgement on his creation. We are our own creator by our past actions. We are what we have done and we will be what we are now doing is what the Law of Karma states. On a popular level as taught in institutionalised Buddhism, whenever misfortune or happiness befalls us, it is due to our past karma. This tends to imply a punisher or rewarder, in other words a judging god, an idea which Buddhists reject. That is why many modern Buddhist scholars interpret Karma as a psychological phenomenon. Bad actions cause remorse, regrets and feelings of guilt which disturb our peace of mind, whereas good actions bring joy and happiness and peace of mind.

Another important doctrine is that of the Heavenly States (Brahma Vihara) which all Buddhists should cultivate. They are Boundless Loving-kindness (Maitri, Sanskrit - Metta, Pali), Boundless Compassion (Karuna), Boundless Joy (Mudita) and Boundless Equanimity (Upekkha). The practice of these four should be directed towards all living beings. The Buddha describes "Boundless Loving-kindness" as that unconditional, selfless love that a mother has for her only child. Boundless Compassion is the feeling of wishing to take onto oneself the sufferings and sorrows of others. This compassion is especially emphasised in the Mahayana school where followers will take the Bodhisattva Vow which promises to postpone the attainment of Enlightenment until all suffering creatures may be saved. Boundless Joy is rejoicing in the good fortune of others. It is the opposite of envy or covetousness. Boundless Equanimity is the cultivation of an even mind - one that is unmoved by either happiness or misfortune.


Buddhists of all schools regularly perform the action of ‘Taking Refuge’. A refuge is a shelter or safe haven and similarly, in Buddhism, taking refuge is considered to be a protection. The refuges are:- The Buddha - the teacher, is referred to in the scriptures as "Teacher of gods and men". The Dharma (Sanskrit) or Dhamma (Pali) - his teaching. Before the Buddha passed away, he told Ananda, his chief disciple, that after his passing, the Dharma would be the teacher. The Sangha - is the community of followers. More specifically, it refers to those who have left home to follow the spiritual life, the Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis. In the broader sense, it includes those who are following his teachings whether they be monastic or lay. The initial recitation of the "Three Refuges", before a member of the monastic Sangha, constitutes formally becoming a Buddhist. In the Tibetan tradition, an additional refuge is added, that of taking refuge in the Guru (teacher), who initiates the Cela (student).

Another important devotional practice is the recitation of the five precepts, known as the ‘Panca Sila’ (Pali) or Panca Shila (Sanskrit). These are training rules and, unlike, say, the Ten Commandments in Christianity, they are not based on fear and feelings of guilt. A Buddhist should undertake training to try to observe these precepts but, if a precept is broken, one should analyse one’s action and try to avoid breaking it in the future. This is not to suggest that the consequences of this unwholesome action (Karma) will be avoided - the admonition in the Christian Bible, "as ye sow, so shall ye also reap" applies to Buddhists as well as to Christians. The emphasis in Buddhism is to train one’s self-awareness of one’s actions and their effects on both one’s self and others and to avoid unwholesome actions and cultivate beneficial ones.

A Buddhist ceremony will usually start with the offerings of lights, incense and flowers on the shrine. Occasionally, fruit, cakes and drinks will also be offered but the lights, incense and flowers have very special significance.. The lighting of a candle symbolises the teaching (Dharma) which lights up the darkness of ignorance. The incense symbolises the good conduct which permeates the atmosphere with pleasantness, whilst the flowers remind us of impermanence. What is beautiful today, fades with time and eventually becomes ugly.

Other important devotional practices are the chanting of sutras (sermons of the Buddha or other great teachers), prostrations before a Buddha image, and, most importantly, practising meditation. The chanting of sutras is often, mistakenly, referred to as Buddhist prayers. Buddhists do not pray to a god, however, Buddhists from the Mahayana tradition will sometimes pray to Bodhisattvas for assistance and blessings. Prostrations are considered a means of paying respect to the teacher in a similar way to people respecting those who have passed away by placing flowers on a grave. Prostrations also are a means of cultivating humility. The Buddha condemned ‘rites and rituals’ as being useless and not conducive to salvation. The practice of prostrating before images is more a part of institutionalised Buddhism rather than being a part of the Teaching itself.

Meditation (Bhavana) is a central part of Buddhist practice. In the Theravadin tradition, two forms of meditation, calm (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana) are recognised as essential practice in achieving spiritual progress. Calming the mind is achieved by concentration on a specific object and excluding all extraneous thoughts. Often, the breath or the movement of the diaphragm is used as a suitable object for concentration. At other times, objects, such as coloured discs (Kasinas) or meditation beads (Mala) or even counting the breaths are used to fix the mind during this preliminary practice. Once the mind has been trained in concentration, the meditator can then reflect on the feelings and sensations of the body, noting them as they arise and pass away. This practice is known as Vipassana and is the means of cultivating insight or mindfulness.

In the Cha’n (Zen, Japanese) tradition, two techniques are employed. One method is to concentrate on the breath and then try to clear the mind of all thoughts whatsoever. This method eliminates the constant chatter of the mind and results in an awakening (satori). Another Cha’an technique is to ponder a question (Kung-an, Chinese, Koan, Japanese), which has no rational answer. Typical koans are, "what was your face before you were born?" "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" or the word "Mu". These techniques are aimed at pushing the mind beyond rational thought in order to experience the ultimate awakening.

A technique used by the Pure Land Sect of the Mahayana is to constantly recite the name (nien-fo, Chinese, nembutsu, Japanese) of the Buddha of infinite light, Amitabha Buddha (Omi t’o-Fo, Chinese, Amida Butsu, Japanese). This, again, is a means of fixing the mind on one object and not dissimilar to repetitions of prayers used by many Christians. The result is a calmed mind, and, according to Pure Land Buddhism, rebirth in the Pure Land where enlightenment may be attained by listening to the teaching of Buddha Amitabha.

The foregoing is by no means a comprehensive introduction to the teachings of the Buddha and such a short introduction can hardly do the teaching justice, however I hope that it inspires you to investigate the teachings further. Buddhism is not a belief system but a practice which will result in a more harmonious society.

Source: Buddhist Council of NSW, http://www.zip.com.au/~lyallg/

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