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Buddhism Overview

GOLD EGGS TAOISM
"Simple living habits are of the best." - Buddha

This site seeks to hand over Buddhist essentials for living. All may be taken up for self-help or self-development. Looking into some of the texts and extracts here may be likened to a walk along a path through a varied landscape. Views open up after some time too. Good luck.

Themes are repeated and enlarged on on the coming pages.

Twig

Buddhism is a means to help self-development, preserve a happy living, and ease suffering, in response to teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Gautama Buddha. Buddhism is also known as Buddha Dharma or Dhamma (in Pali). Buddhism began around the 5th century BCE in India. There are many Buddhisms, not just one, some scholars say. anyway Buddhism is rooted in the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

At the age of 29, the formerly well protected prince Gautama met an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a monk or an ascetic. Gautama was deeply depressed by these four sights and concentrated on meditating for about five years. He came up with the Middle Way of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. When he was 35, he had an "Awakening" or "Enlightenment". After this attainment he was known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha, and spent the rest of his life teaching many others. He died 80 years old.

Soon after the first Buddhist council was held. This and subsequent counsils sought to preserve the teachings. They were transmitted orally for many generations while Indian Buddhism went through many stages. At some period after the Second Council the Buddhist community (sangha) began to break into separate factions. Accounts differ about it, though. Buddhist schools branched out. For all that, teachings on rebirth, karma, and the Four Noble Truths were common to all of them, and monks following different schools of thought seem to have lived happily together.

After some centuries Buddhism was spread beyond India and exposed to a variety of influences, from Persian and Greek civilization, and non-Buddhist Indian religions - themselves influenced by Buddhism.

Buddhism gradually declined in India and was virtually extinct there by the time of the British conquest.

Despite differences, there are common threads to almost all Buddhist branches:

  1. All accept the Buddha as their teacher.
  2. All accept the Middle Way and the Noble Eightfold Path, at least in theory.
  3. All accept that both lay members and monastics can pursue the path toward inner enlightenment.
  4. All consider Buddhahood to be the highest attainment.

Mahayana

It is unknown exactly where in India Mahayana stems from. During the dynasty of the Guptas (3-400s) Mahayana centres of learning were established, the most important of them was the Nalanda University in north-eastern India.

In Mahayana ("Great Vehicle"), emphasis is placed on the notions of shunyata, perfected spiritual insight (prajnaparamita) and Buddhic Essence. The supreme goal is attaining a Buddha's "Great Self" (mahatman) in mahanirvana, great nirvana. Mahayana views the Tripitaka scriptures of Theravada as valid but have additions to them and other texts too, including the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

Mahayana Buddhism shows a great deal of doctrinal variation and development over time, and variation of practice. There is much agreement on general principles, and disagreement over which texts are more authoritative.

The Buddhism practiced in Tibet, the Himalayan regions, and Mongolia is Mahayana in origin, and so is native Eastern Buddhism as practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam. Chan (Zen) survived into the 1900s in a small number of monasteries in China til some time after the communist takeover. Further, in Japan Buddhism has five denominations: Chan/Zen; Pure Land; Nichiren; Shingon, a form of Vajrayana; and Tendai.

Ch'an (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese) both stem from dhyana, the Sanskrit word for deep meditation. So Zen Buddhism emphasises meditation as a means to waking up. As a result Zen places less emphasis on scriptures, without neglecting them though. It teaches that sitting in meditation (i.e. zazen) expresses the inborn Buddha nature, and that Enlightenment, the awakening of the Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature, is our natural state somehow. Meditation and other means are for reaching into the realm of the True Self and True Person, which is equated with the Buddha himself.

Zen also adheres to Buddha's calls to self-exertion without reliance on others.

Vajrayana

Vajrayana, the "Diamond Vehicle", is solidly based on Mahayana, and accepts all the basic concepts of Mahayana. But it also includes a vast array of spiritual and physical techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice, perhaps as a result of combining and developing elements that had already existed for centuries. Vajrayana is alternatively called Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric Buddhism, or esoteric Buddhism.

There are many methods, and some are delicate too. Using these techniques, a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in some years, it is claimed. In addition to the Mahayana scriptures, Vajrayana Buddhists recognise texts called Buddhist Tantras.

Nalanda University became a centre for the development of Vajrayana theory and continued as the source of leading-edge Vajrayana practices up through the 1000s.
      In the Tibetan tradition it is claimed that Buddha taught tantra, insider teachings, that were written down long after the Buddha's other teachings.

These practices, scriptures and theory were transmitted to China, Tibet, Indochina and Southeast Asia. China generally received Indian transmission up to the 1000s including tantric practice, while a vast amount of what is considered to be Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) stems from the late (800s-1100s) Nalanda tradition.

There are many claims in this world.

Theravada

Theravada ("Doctrine of the Elders", or "Ancient Doctrine") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It is generally closest to early Buddhism. The Theravada school bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon and its commentaries. The Sutta collections and Vinaya texts of the Pali Canon (and the corresponding texts in other versions of the Tripitaka), are generally considered by modern scholars to be the earliest Buddhist literature, and they are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism.

Theravada says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith.

The Theravada and other early Buddhist Schools traditionally believe that the texts of their canon contain the actual words of the Buddha. The followers of Theravada Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pali Canon as definitive and authoritative. For the Theravadins, the Mahayana sutras are works of poetic fiction, not the words of the Buddha himself.

Jhana (dhyana, contempation) is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and a method to Nibbana (Nirvana).

Theravada is primarily practiced today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Buddhism today

Buddhism is now again gaining strength in India and world-wide. The number of Buddhist followers range from estimated 310 and 350 million. The estimates are in dispute because it is difficult to agree on who counts as a Buddhist. Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world. The monks' order (Sangha), which began during the lifetime of the Buddha in India, is among the oldest organizations on earth.

The teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world, and Buddhist texts are increasingly translated into local languages. In the East, Buddhism is a familiar part of the establishment, and in the West, Buddhism is recognized as one of the growing spiritual influences.

Is Buddhism a religion? It depends on how you look at it. It is, mainly, a path to awakening (enlightenment), based on harmonious self-help first and foremost and sticking to helpful teachings. What is called the Middle Way or Middle Path of non-extremism or Noble Eightfold Path is the core element. It is variously expounded. A common grouping is of three great steps.

Buddha teaches that it helps onwards and upwards to adhere to it:

  1. Speak in a non hurtful, not exaggerated, truthful way
  2. Act wholesomely, avoiding action that would do harm
  3. Stick to a way of livelihood that does not harm in any way oneself or others; directly or indirectly
  4. Make solid efforts to improve
  5. Go for seeing things for what they are with clear mind
  6. Be aware of the present
  7. Understand reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
  8. Think beneficial thoughts

There are still other ways to interpret the Eightfold Path of progressive stages to move through in life. But morality, ethical behavior, is the basis of mind cultivation.

There are several great precepts. The first five of them are not given in the form of commands. They are decent how-to's for living a better life where one is happy, without worries, can meditate well, and thus develop mind and improve one's conditions. The five are for lay Buddhists, who may reach Enlightenment. One is to refrain from:

  1. Taking life (non-violence towards sentient life forms)
  2. Taking that which is not given. (not committing theft, then)
  3. Sensual (sexual) misconduct.
  4. Lying (thus: speaking truth always)
  5. Intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. (Refrain from alcohol and drugs, then.)

Monks and nuns have to take up further, stricter precepts that lay Buddhists, also fit for Enlightenment, may do without. What matters is cultivating awareness, mindfulness, skilfulness, and leading a decent, sound life of progress - inner and preferably outer progress too.

Doctrinal study is considered fit for some people at some stages up to a point. Still, currently there is not a single text widely accepted as being central to all Buddhist traditions.

The Dhamma He taught is not merely to be preserved in books . . . it is to be learned and put into practice in the course of one's daily life. [Narada Thera]

Contents


Buddhism overview, Literature  

The first article above is based on material in a book by abbot Ajahn Brahmavamso (born in London in 1951, ordained in Bangkok at 23, now the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
[www.buddhistforbundet.no/bs/basicmethod.shtml]

EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica - see Britannica Online, s.v. "Buddhist meditation", "Buddhism", "Visuddhimagga".

Garfield, Jay L. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Goleman, David. The Varieties of the Meditative Experience. London: Rider, 1975.

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