What is Buddhism?
Buddhism focuses on mindfulness, wakefulness or awareness of each activity and each moment of life, recognizing each thing, each thought, and each activity for what it is. The most basic technique is sitting meditation and the practice of mindful breathing in order to bring about calm, ease, joy, and concentration, and eventually insight. Sitting meditation is supplemented by the practice of mindfulness of each activitywalking, eating, speaking, waiting in line, driving, and writing. There are techniques to make the practice of mindfulness easier.
Faith is at the core of Buddhism, but it is not blind faith. The Buddha taught that people should not believe anything just because it is said by some authority, even himself, that only after experimentation if you find that a teaching or a practice is in accord with your own intelligence and experience should you believe it or put it into practice. Practice is the key. The means and the end of Buddhism are inner peace and world peace. As the late President of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, A.J. Muste, used to say, "There is no way to peace; peace is the way." That is an excellent summary of the teachings and path of the Buddha.
Recommended books on Basic Buddhism:
The Life of the Buddha
Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was born approximately 560 B.C. to a royal family, leaders of the Shakya clan, on the boundary of India and present-day Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The wise men of his region said he would grow up to be a king or a sage, and his family did everything in their power to assure that he would choose to be a king and inherit their palace. Siddhartha was raised in luxury, but when he was 29, seeing an old man, a sick man, and a corpse, he realized that the only way for him to be happy in his life would be to understand and overcome the causes of these basic sources of suffering, and he left the palace to seek enlightenment.
For six years he practiced asceticism, studying various forms of meditation with the leading Hindu teachers of his day. He became weaker and weaker from not taking care of himself, and one day, he passed out along the road. A young woman saw him and fed him a glass of rice-milk. When he recovered, he realized that the extremes of indulgence and asceticism are not helpful and he vowed to practice the "middle way." He ate moderately and continued to practice his sitting meditation. Sensing that a breakthrough was imminent, he sat down on some kusha grass under a pippala tree, and vowed not to get up until the answers to the questions he had been asking himself for six years revealed themselves: What is the meaning of life? Why is there so much suffering?
Shortly after he sat himself down, the evening star appeared, and in the course of the night, Siddhartha had many visions and insights into his own mind and into the world. Finally, as the morning star revealed itself in the sky, Siddhartha had this great insight: Everything is in flux. All things are interdependent. Nothing is permanent. Everything is endowed with sacredness, with the nature of being truly awake. Siddhartha was given the appellation "Buddha," he or she who has awakened. The Buddha's first sermon was given to five young men he had been practicing asceticism with. This lecture is referred to as the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma. "Dharma" is sometimes translated as "law" or "truth." It is the word used for all of the teachings of the Buddha and is one of the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha (teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community of practitioners).
Recommended books about the life of the Buddha:
The teachings of the Buddha
The teachings of the Buddha were orally transmitted for about five centuries and then written down. They are called "sutras," literally this means thread, as in suture. There are hundreds and hundreds of sutras--on the Awareness of Breathing, on the Foundations of Mindfulness, on the Middle Way, and so on. They were first organized following the Buddha's passing away at the age of 80. Councils divided the Buddha's teachings into three categories, or "baskets": sutras, rules of discipline, and psychology.
The Four Noble Truths
In his first sermon, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:
- Suffering exists. We suffer when we experience pain. We suffer when we do not get what we want. We suffer when we get what we want but it does not last indefinitely. We suffer when we have some idea of what we want and the reality is a bit different. This is the First Noble Truth.
- The cause of suffering is desireour inflexible desire for things to be other than what they are. According to the Buddha, the problem is not that we are not getting what we want, it is that we want too much.
- The Third Noble Truth is that it is possible to put an end to suffering by learning to live more simply and be content with what we do have. This is sometimes referred to as putting an end to desire, but it doesn't mean that we desire nothing at all; it means that we recognize desire as desire, and we act on some desires, such as the desire to make others happy, but we do not expect that we will realize happiness by satisfying our desires.
- The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a way, a methodology, for realizing this life of joy, and it is called the Eightfold Path: Right understanding, aspiration, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Upon hearing these teachings, one of the five listeners himself realized the truth of the Buddha's teaching and became his first disciple.
Recommended books to study the teaching of the Buddha:
Please also see www.accesstoinsight.org: an outline of the Pali Canon, with modern translations of more than 900 important sutras, all indexed by sutra name, subject, proper names, and similes.
The spread of Buddhism
During the past 2,500 years, many schools of Buddhism have developed, emphasizing different aspects of the Buddha's teachings. Among those still existent, all are represented in North America. The Theravadin (Elders) Buddhists dwell today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. They are the most traditional in attempting to most literally following the words and practices offered by the Buddha during his lifetime. Like all Buddhists, they recognize that the Buddha was a man, not a god, but they hold tightly to the teachings of the first teacher. In America, these teachings are often known as Insight Meditation (vipassana), and emphasize mindfulness of each activity, physical sensation, and thought. In China, many schools developed, the most famous of them that is now in America is the Zen school. Zen means meditation, and this school emphasizes sitting meditation as the primary means to awakening.
Vajrayana or the Diamond Way is the kind of Buddhism found in Tibet, and it is also popular in the U.S. There are many practices for the transformation of states of mind in the direction of enlightenment, including meditation, prostrations, chanting, and study. In the 11th century, Moslem invasions swept the Indian subcontinent, and with the exception of Tibetan Buddhists in exile in the North following the Chinese invasion of their homeland and ex-untouchable Buddhists mostly near Bombay, Buddhism no longer is to be found in the land of its birth. (Human rights violations of members of the Sangha in Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, the rise of Catholicism in Korea, and the rise of materialism in Japan and Thailand seriously threaten the continuation of Buddhism in Asia.)
Buddhism comes to the West
Buddhism has had some contact with the West since the time of Alexander the Great, but the first Buddhist teachers to come to North America were Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen master, and Anagarika Dharmapala, a Ceylonese monk, both of whom lectured at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
Buddhist practice today
According to the American Buddhist Congress, four to five million Buddhists reside in North America, largely Asian immigrants. There are approximately 500,000 Americans who practice Buddhism whose ancestry is not Buddhist. The two most well-known teachers of Buddhist practice alive today are His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam, both of whom draw thousands to their lectures and retreats when they visit here every year or two.
Recommended books about the spread of Buddhism