Buddhism is practised by 376 million people and ranks 6th in terms of practitioners. In Buddhism life is a cycle of rebirths in trying to get to Nirvana or enlightenment with relief from earthly suffering or desire. Gautam attained the title of Buddha by getting rid of reincarnation through his finding of spiritual insight.
The Middle Path in Buddhism represents a new theory of high moral values with which Buddhists practise their religion. It is concerned with human thought and behaviour and their consequences. There are two characteristics of the Middle Path – (1) dependent origination and (2) noble eightfold path.
Dependent Origination shows the process of human activity and the Noble Path shows the practice that enables one to uplift oneself towards reaching nirvana – the real truth, which salvationally infused into samsara (universe), is not bound and imprisoned in it.In the Buddhist concept the elimination of human suffering by grasping the truth about “Reality” will lead to Nirvana – the ultimate manifestation of dharma. It is a deathless realm where dependent origination holds no sway.
Reality is a big philosophical word, more so in Buddhism. I cannot understand it. Buddhist sutras devote considerable space to the concept of reality with each of two major doctrines – the Doctrine of Dependent Origin (pratitya – samutpada) and the Doctrine of cause and effect (karma and vipaka).
Simplified, Reality in Buddhism is called ‘dharma’ (Sanskrit) or ‘dhama’ (Pali). Unlike in Hinduism it refers to the system of natural laws that constitute the natural order of things. Dharma is therefore, reality as-it-is (yatha-bhuta).
The ultimate reality is samsara – endless existence. The universe exists because of causal actions, and all things and beings are bound by causal actions (sutta-nipata).
The Buddha did not speak about faith or belief. He explained his ideas logically and asked people not to blindly follow the words of any teacher, including himself, but to look at their own experience and consider which ideas helped them to cultivate compassion and avoid delusions.Gautam (family name) or Siddhartha (wish fulfilled) was a Hinduised Kirata – a Nepalese born to a Chieftain (Suddhodana) at Kapilavastu at the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. It is 110 km from Gorakhpur, the eastern district in Uttar Pradesh.
There is controversy about the exact date of the Buddha’s birth. It is generally accepted in Theravada countries to be 544 or 554 BCE. His mother died after one week of his birth and was brought up by her sister.
Buddha was actually born at Lumbini, near Kapilavastu when his mother Maya Debi was on her way to her parents’ house at Rangaram.
During his childhood at Kapilabastu Buddha saw the suffering of people in old age, and with disease and poverty. One day he saw a Sadhu (mendicant) who (apparently) had conquered all these. He then decided to relinquish his worldly comforts and seek a path to “salvation” or Nirvana.
The young Gautam came down to the plains of India to meditate and find the truth about the miseries and infirmity of the old age. He began his quest in the traditional Hindu way of meditation, but realised that he was not getting anywhere.He changed his method in the quest for truth and reality. He began to engage in “smrti” (sati) or mindfulness. That is, he engaged himself in developing full consciousness about and within himself – referred to in “the seventh step of the eightfold path”.
He was 35 when he began to meditate under the famous bodh (banyan) tree at Gaya in Bihar. After six years he became enlightened and known as Buddha (budh = the awakened one).
Five weeks after his enlightenment he travelled to Sarnath, 13 km from Varanasi and made his first sermon at the “deer park” (Mrigadava) to his five disciple monks in 588 BCE
As well as in his “The Four Noble Truths of dhama”: 1. suffering; 2. the cause of suffering; 3. the cessation of suffering; and 4. the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Buddha’s sermons examine the role of suffering in human existence, the causes of suffering, and the mental discipline that can help people to minimise or escape from suffering. He had no claims to divine revelation or any appeal to an authority like God.
In Buddhism the beginning of the universe and men remains unexplained. Nothing happens by chance. There is no ‘coincidence.’ If you want something good to happen in the future then you should practise good deeds now (cause and effect).
A couple of centuries after Buddha’s death Ashoka (304-232 BCE), the first Buddhist Emperor of India spread Buddhism not only in India but to Sri Lanka, the Far East and the northwest.
Contrary to historical writings that Buddhism spread from south India to Burma, I was told by my Burmese tour guide at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (March 2012) that according to Burmese tradition, two merchants, named Tapussa and Ballikan from the area around Rangoon, were travelling in north India when they met Buddha by chance, soon after his enlightenment. They offered him rice cakes and honey and asked him for a token of their visit. He gave them eight hairs from his head.
When they came back home they put the eight hairs enshrined deep within what became the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in Myanmar. The present pagoda is huge covering the ancient shrine, swathed in 60 tons of gold leaf.
Buddhism declined in India after a thousand-year period due to aggressive Hinduism. It had practically disappeared in another five hundred years. Buddhism is now a foreign religion to Indians.
As Buddhism spread across the continents it transformed itself from the original teachings of Buddha. During the life of the Buddha, there were no written records of his teachings. They were passed on by word of mouth.From about hundred years after the death of the Buddha, two major schools of thought emerged: Mahayana- meaning ‘the great raft,’ as their approach was available to more people and Theravada- meaning ‘the ways of the elders.’ It was earlier known as Hirayana – ‘the lesser raft,’ as the group stayed along with traditional teachings.
Theravada – the orthodox form of Buddhism prevails in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. The Theravada school follows the scriptures or the original Buddhist teachings. These are in essence: earnest, hopeful and self-sufficient humanism as displayed in “Dharmapada” canon and sacred (poetic) songs.
The Theravada teachings were adapted to the needs of those who have made some progress and have gained partial insight. Their concept of Nirvana is the same as that taught by the Buddha. This means that the entrance into Nirvana was the natural effect of his achievement from the worldly possessions. In Theravada the individual effort leads to enlightenment but for the self only.
Mahayana Buddhism is practised in China, Japan, Tibet and Korea. It is again divided into several strands including Zen and Tantric Buddhism.
In Mahayana, one must work towards enlightenment but must include others. Theravada doctrines lay emphasis on meditation with personal dedication such as being a monk or nun. The Mahayana encourages practice among the general community. Theravada was written in Pali while Mahayana in Sanskrit.In general, the Theravadas do not worship the Buddha. They simply honour him by walking clockwise around domes known as Buddhist stupas that hold a relic of the Buddha.
The Mahayana worship images of the Buddha that are set up in pagodas and their homes. The Mahayana doctrines are only revealed to those who had reached a point where they could understand and follow them.
The Mahayana concept of Nirvana is not only the renunciation of power and worldly possessions, not merely for his own peace but in pity for the suffering mankind.The essence of Buddhism is a vast subject. In my opinion (I may be wrong) it is an exercise of reason as the best guide for belief and action with an educated morality. The Dalai Lama in Britain in 1984 explained simply as “compassion”.
The writer is based in the UK