Siddhattha Gotama was born into the family of a ruling clan about 2,500 years ago. His father was the chief of this clan which lived in northern India close to the border of what is now Nepal. As the only son of the chief, he lived a life of ease and luxury surrounded by riches and women. However, even as a youth he realized that he would get no lasting satisfaction from such a lifestyle.
He began to see that all human existence is unavoidably subject to illness, old age and death. At the age of 29, and inspired by the sight of a calm and dignified hermit, he decided to forgo his luxurious lifestyle. He left his wife and child in the good hands of the royal family to seek the answers to lasting happiness. After 6 years of wandering and severe ascetic practices, he realized that neither a decadent lifestyle nor extreme asceticism would lead him to the answers he sought.
He decided to pursue the ‘Middle Way’ between these two extremes. He then settled down under a Bodhi tree, relaxed, had a good meal and resolved not to get up until he found the answers. After a night of deep meditation, full understanding came to him. From then on, the Prince became known as the Buddha which means literally, the ‘Awakened One’.
The Buddha then spent the next 45 years of his life teaching what he finally came to understand. He founded a community of monks known as the Sangha, and Buddhism spread throughout northern India. Kings, nobles, merchants and peasants became his disciples and followers, and even now countless people everywhere benefit from his Teachings.
He passed away peacefully into final Nibbana at the age of 80. More on the life and Teachings of the Buddha.
The Four Noble Truths
On gaining enlightenment, the Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths.
- All beings are subject to Dukkha.
Dukkha is usually translated as suffering but it actually encompasses a wide range of negative feelings including stress, dissatisfaction and physical suffering. Dukkha exists as all beings are subject to illness, separation from loved ones, not getting their desires, aging and death.
- Dukkha arises from desire and craving.
All beings crave pleasant sensations, and also desire to avoid unpleasant sensations. These sensations can be physical or psychological, and dukkha arises when these desires and cravings are not met.
- Dukkha can be overcome by the elimination of desire and craving.
Nibbana is the state of peace where all greed, hatred and delusion, and thereby dukkha, have been eradicated.
- There is a way out of dukkha, which is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Dukkha can be reduced, weakened and finally eradicated and Nibbana thereby attained, by following this path as taught by the Buddha.
Buddhism is occasionally criticized as being overly pessimistic as it seems to focus on suffering rather than on happiness and joy. However, all conditions of happiness and joy are impermanent because all beings are subject to sickness, old age and death, and as a result, all beings are undeniably subject to dukkha.
Instead, Buddhism is actually realistic as the Buddha has taught us how to overcome or reduce dukkha, and how to achieve the permanent bliss of Nibbana. By following the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha, Nibbana can be experienced even in this present lifetime.
The Noble Eightfold Path
- Right Understanding
To understand and accept the Four Noble Truths.
- Right Thought
To cultivate thoughts of generosity, loving-kindness and compassion.
- Right Speech
To refrain from lying, slander, harsh words and gossip. To cultivate truthful, peaceful, kind and meaningful speech.
- Right Action
To abstain from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. To cultivate harmlessness, honesty and faithfulness.
- Right Livelihood
To avoid occupations involving killing (of both humans and animals), the sale of animal flesh, the trading of humans, weapons, poisons and intoxicants. Occupations which are unethical, immoral and illegal should also be avoided.
- Right Effort
To apply mental discipline to prevent unwholesome thoughts from arising, and to dispel unwholesome thoughts that have arisen. To develop wholesome thoughts, and to maintain those wholesome thoughts that have arisen.
- Right Mindfulness
To be aware of the body, and bodily postures and sensations. To be aware of the mind and its thoughts, emotions and feelings. To be aware of the Dhamma.
- Right Concentration
To practice meditation to train the mind to be focused and disciplined in order to cultivate and acquire wisdom.
The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path reworded for the Modern Practitioner.
The Three Marks of Existence
The Buddha also discovered that all existence has three characteristics.
All things are impermanent, and everything is in the process of changing into something else. For example, we are all in the process of aging. Even the stars and galaxies are in the process of change.
Because all things are impermanent, existence is subject to dukkha. There will always be the craving for the pleasant, and the aversion to the unpleasant, resulting from the ever-changing nature of existence.
There is no permanent or unchanging self. The ‘self’ which we are conditioned to believe exists, is comprised of nothing more than different mental and physical constituents, which are in a state of constant change because of Cause and Effect.
Because there is no permanent unchanging self, Buddhism denies the existence of an unvarying immortal soul passing from one life to the next. According to Buddhism, the mind or consciousness moves from one life to the next.
In a seeming paradox, a 70 year old person is neither different from nor similar to, the person he was as a 20 year old. This difference and similarity is both psychological and physical. Likewise, the mind or consciousness which moves from one life to the next is also neither different from nor similar to that of the previous life.
For example, if the flame from a candle is used to light another candle, the flame of the second candle is neither the same nor different from that of the first candle. This is even though the flame from the second candle originated from the first candle.
Kamma is carried along with the consciousness towards the next life.
At first these may be difficult concepts to grasp. But with knowledge and understanding, and the practice of Insight meditation, realization and comprehension will eventually arise in the practitioner.
The Buddhist Texts
The Teachings of the Buddha, known also as the Dhamma, were collated into three separate sets of books. These books are collectively known as the Tipitaka, or the Three Baskets. The total amount of material is vast and is estimated to be more than twice that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Although some changes and revisions in the Tipitaka are inevitable over the 2,500 years or so it has been in existence, it is estimated that up to 90% of the Teachings remain unaltered. This is because when it was recited, it was done so with several hundred monks reciting together at the same time. When it was finally committed to writing around 80 BC, large groups of monks also undertook this task in unison. This made changing or altering the Tipitaka very difficult. Reproductions of the original texts survive today and are well preserved in Sri Lanka.
The Sutta Pitaka
Subdivided into five separate collections, the Sutta Pitaka contains all of the Buddha’s discourses as well as several from his most senior disciples. The Buddha was extremely successful in his Teachings as he used the language of the common people, which is called Pali.
He adapted the manner and style of His discourses such that he used simpler concepts for the ordinary folk, and more complex ideas for educated and intellectual audiences. He taught everyone from peasants to kings.
The Teachings range from guidelines for individual behaviour to highly sophisticated commentaries on politics and social philosophy. They are pragmatic and readily applicable to daily life. And despite being taught more than 2,500 years ago, His Teachings are still very much pertinent today.
The Vinaya Pitaka
Also divided into five books, the Vinaya Pitaka lays down the rules and guidelines for the Sangha or the community of monks and nuns. With every monk and nun having equal rights, the Sangha is possibly the earliest form of a democratically governed organization still functioning today.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka
Known as the Higher Teachings of the Buddha, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is a monumental and extremely complex and sophisticated approach to the Dhamma. It contains the Buddhist doctrines arranged and classified in a highly systematic set of seven books.
Although traditionally attributed to the Buddha, many commentators now regard the Abhidhamma as the work of later scholar monks who distilled the Teachings of the Buddha into this amazing set of documents.
It deals with the concepts of existence and reality. It analyzes the human thought processes and examines the constituents of mind and matter. Many of its concepts relating to reality and perception have anticipated the works of modern thinkers and scientists.
The Buddhist Traditions
Why are there different Buddhist traditions?
Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years ago, and through this long passage of time, three main traditions have evolved. These developments took place as Buddhism adapted to the conditions and cultures of the different countries it spread to.
However, the Buddha’s Teachings have proved to be very resilient as while the outer trappings may be dissimilar, the core Buddhist doctrines remain the same among the various traditions. For example, the acceptance of the core doctrines, or “Unifying Points“, between the different traditions was formally endorsed by the World Buddhist Sangha Council in Sri Lanka in 1966.
Buddhists accept and respect diversity, and consider the various traditions merely as different routes to the same destination. Generally, the different traditions assist and support each other along this route.
To make a brief comparison with Christianity which was founded about 2,000 years ago, the World Christian Database lists 9 major denominations and more than 9,000 separate sub-denominations. Many of these denominations have fundamentally different and mutually exclusive doctrines.
Briefly, what are these different Buddhist traditions?
The Theravada tradition is the oldest and most conservative. It is the closest to the original form of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha Himself. It is simpler than the other traditions in approach, with few ceremonies and rituals, stressing instead on discipline and morality and the practice of meditation.
The Mahayana tradition started to develop in India between about 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. It has adapted to different Asian cultures absorbing elements of Hinduism and Taoism. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes compassion and faith with the goal of helping all others attain enlightenment. The Zen, Nichiren and Pureland sects are included in Mahayana Buddhism.
The Vajrayana or Tibetan tradition arose in India around 700 A.D. when Buddhist Indian monks brought over to Tibet a brand of Buddhism with tantric practices. This combined with elements of the local Bon religion, gives Vajrayana some of its unique practices. It tends to rely more on rituals, mantra chanting and visualizations. The most well-known figure of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is the spiritual head of the Vajrayana tradition.
In Buddhism, the different traditions are viewed like different flavours of ice-cream. It is the same thing but with different tastes appealing to different people.
Why are the same words spelt differently in the various Buddhist traditions?
During the time of the Buddha, the language commonly used was Pali, as opposed to Sanskrit which was used primarily by the Brahmins, the priests of Hinduism. The Buddha chose to speak and teach mainly in Pali as He wanted as many people as possible to learn and benefit from His Teachings.
The Theravada school of Buddhism uses Pali spellings and pronunciations, and the Mahayana/Zen and Tibetan schools use mainly Sanskrit. Examples of Pali spellings would be Dhamma, kamma, nibbana. The Sanskrit versions of these words would be Dharma, karma, nirvana.
This website uses Pali spellings as Pali is the language closest to that used by the Buddha Himself.