This article presents a an in-depth introduction to Buddhism, including the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (or Tantric) schools of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Dharma. In short, this is an introduction to the teachings of Gautama Buddha based on research from Thai language texts, as well as interviews with Thai, Lao, and American monks and scholars.
What Is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a religion founded by Prince Siddhartha approximately 530 BCE, which focused on understanding the path to salvation in a world of constant suffering. Siddhartha was given the name the Buddha, which means “enlightened one,” by his followers. Today, someone who is considered enlightened might also be called a Buddha. It focuses on how an individual’s actions can lead to salvation instead of relying on the intervention of a god or ritualistic acts.
There are two main branches of Buddhism with different practices, but they all have some fundamental similarities. They believe that Siddhartha was the son of a powerful king, and that his father brought him up surrounded by all the pleasures of the world, isolated in the palace, so that Siddhartha would never know sorrow. The prince grew up, married, and had a child, always surrounded by luxury.
But one day, the prince rode through the city outside the palace, and he witnessed suffering for the first time. He saw an elderly man, a diseased man, a corpse and a hermit. The first three sights filled him with dread and despair, while the last sight filled him with peace. For the first time he experienced unhappiness and he wondered why.
Siddhartha slipped out of his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his wife and son, and became a hermit determined to find the cause of suffering. He met sages and yogis, meditated and contemplated for six years. He performed great austerities in order to understand the path to enlightenment.
After six years of searching, Siddhartha came to the understanding that “unhappiness is the result of desire and attachment to material items.” That is when he became known as the Buddha.
The Buddha taught that everything changes in the world, yet desire makes us crave for eternal material pleasures. When the pleasures wither away, we are unhappy. True happiness arrives when one accepts that change is the ultimate reality of the material world, and that nothing lasts forever.
The Buddha taught that understanding this led to enlightenment, and that enlightenment is the path to breaking free from samsara or material existence. This breaking free is called nirvana.
The teachings of the Buddha are often referred to as the Dharma, but this is also often translated as the Truth or the Wheel of the Law.
Basic Beliefs in Buddhism:
The Buddha did not try to explain whether there was an ultimate God or not, or what the proper rituals and sacrifices were to achieve oneness with God. Instead, he taught that we must strive through our own efforts to achieve liberation from anguish and suffering. The Buddha espoused an easily understood philosophy, based on the Four Noble Truths:
- The first Noble Truth is that all impermanent objects and beings are subject to suffering.
- The second truth is that the arising of suffering comes from our own ignorance and attachment to impermanence.
- The third truth is the realization that there is an end to this suffering and anguish, and that end is the knowledge of the ultimate reality.
- The fourth Noble Truth is that the Eightfold Path is the way to achieving this ultimate reality. The Eightfold Path consists of the following:
- Developing Right View or Right Understanding. This means knowing and understanding the Four Noble Truths.
- Right Thinking or Right Aim, meaning to strive for Perfect Wisdom, or the understanding of ultimate reality. The goal should be to overcome delusion and achieve freedom of mind.
- Adhering to Right Speech, meaning to refrain form lying, slander, perjury, or hurtful speech.
- Right Action. To avoid taking the life of or killing any living creature. To abstain from stealing and sensual or sexual misconduct. To abstain from all hurtful or vengeful acts.
- The fifth part is Right Living, which means to abstain from all evil ways of living; to abstain from all evil methods of livelihood.
- Right Effort, which means to conquer all hurtful, vengeful or evil states of mind they may have already arisen, and to develop and maintain good states of mind. Such states of mind would include loving kindness for all beings, compassion and pity for all creatures, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
- Right Mindfulness. This means to cultivate dispassion, detachment, calm, tranquility, and indifference to all that is impermanent and, thus, not of the ultimate reality. To disregard all that is perceived, remaining dispassionate from both the pleasures as well as the pains arising from the creation of senses and sensuality.
- The eighth part is Right Concentration, which means to develop one-pointedness of mind through intense meditation and reflection.
Buddhism and Karma
Karma is usually translated as either “action” or the law of cause and effect. That we suffer at present because of past harmful or spiteful actions. Karma underlines the importance of all individuals being responsible for their past and present actions. When taking actions, it is best to look at what effect this will have on others, and why is it that we are taking these actions. The difference between the Buddhist belief in Karma and the Christian belief in divine intervention can be seen this way; A Christian might look at someone who was born with disabilities and say that “God created them that way for a reason.” A Buddhist might look at the same person and say, “they had bad karma from a previous life.”
In Buddhism, wisdom is the experience and understanding of the impermanence of material things and that those tat are impermanent are not a part of the ultimate reality. Buddhism strives to balance both wisdom and compassion. Buddhism stresses wisdom, learning, and insight. Buddhist monks generally study traditional Buddhist texts, while others study different forms of meditation, and still other study both to advanced levels.
In Buddhism, Compassion means to strive for an understanding that all beings are in a situation similar to ours, and that we should thus be ready to sympathize and provide caring. By using wisdom to understand the true nature of ourselves, we can better use compassion to understand the true nature of others.
The Two Main Branches of Buddhism:
As mentioned above, both of the major branches of Buddhism believe in the above story of prince Siddhartha reaching enlightenment. However, they vary in the role of this in the grand Buddhist cosmos. The two major branches are Theravada (meaning “Path of the Elders”), and Mahayana (meaning “Great Vehicle”).
Theravada Buddhism is practiced in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other parts of South East Asia. It is often called Southern Buddhism because of the path it took through Southern India to Southeast Asia. This system remains true to the original teachings of Prince Siddhartha, (also known as Sakyamuni Gautama Buddha), that are found in the Pali scriptures. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are the main focus of the school.
They believe that the Buddha was a man who liberated himself through meditation and contemplation. They look upon him as a teacher as opposed to a deity, and so images of the Buddha in these lands are revered or venerated, not worshipped. In this system, each individual must strive to liberate oneself through enlightened actions. Neither gods nor magic spells can assist the process.
The Mahayana school is known as the Greater Vehicle because it incorporates many of the concepts found in Hinduism and in the original Tibetan religious beliefs. It is practiced in East Asia, especially in Tibet, China and Japan. It reached these lands via Central Asia.
This system introduced new metaphysical concepts such as the notion of “nothingness” or “sunya” through Sanskrit scriptures written by scholars such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and Asvaghosha. Hsuan-tsang of China visited India in search of these texts which were then translated into Chinese and Japanese.
This system also introduced the concept of Bodhisattva and the goddess called Tara. People no longer had to take up difficult vows to attain ‘nirvana’; they could simply earn merits and liberate themselves by worshipping Bodhisattvas who, in their infinite compassion, worked for human welfare.
Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism:
The Vajrayana system is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism, and represents the occult branch of Buddhism that is today practiced mainly in Tibet and some parts of Bhutan and Nepal.
Also known as Tantric Buddhism, it owes its origin to the scholar Padmasambhava who went to Tibet from Bengal. He assimilated Hinayana and Mahayana doctrines of Buddhism with the pagan Bon religion of Tibet and the occult practices of Tantric Hinduism.
Thus beside meditation and contemplation, Vajrayana also prescribes the visualization of Buddhas passionately embracing their shaktis and the use of ritual diagrams (mandalas), special chants (mantras), specific postures (mudras) and sexual practices (maithuna) to attain enlightenment and liberation.
The idea of these practices is not to indulge the senses. The aim is to experience and understand the fleeting nature of the material world. A true adept or siddha thus becomes fully aware that material existence or ‘samsara‘ is no different from spiritual release or ‘nirvana’.
One does not have to run away from the world to be free – one can embrace the material world and still be spiritually free.
This is of course only a very brief description of Tantric Buddhism and the Vajrayana tradition, and we are not trying to imply that we are experts in this field. We do hope that if you are interested in finding out more that you will seek out expert guidance.