Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama who was born in India in 560 B.C. Gautama grew up in luxury as a wealthy prince. Although his father tried to shelter him from the suffering in the world, he experienced the Four Sights: 1.) old man (age), 2.) diseased man (disease), 3.) corpse (death), 4.) ascetic (the way beyond death). That experience motivated him to leave everything and search for salvation. In his quest, he joined with a group of Hindu ascetics. (Asceticism = a lifestyle of self-denial for a spiritual purpose.) Gautama excelled in the practice of asceticism, but he realized that it didn’t help him reach his goal. That realization led him to discover the importance of following the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the path between indulgence and asceticism.
One day, while meditating intensely under a tree, Gautama attained enlightenment and thus became the Buddha – “the Enlightened One.” He discovered the Four Noble Truths which lead to nirvana (the state of eternal bliss and freedom from suffering). While the Buddha could have immediately entered nirvana, out of compassion he decided to stay and help others reach nirvana. (Nirvana literally means blowing out. It is the point when the life energy that is transferred through reincarnation is snuffed out.) He gathered a group of followers and taught for the next 45 years. At the age of 80, the Buddha died from food poisoning.
The Buddha’s teaching agreed with the Hindu concepts of karma, samsara, reincarnation, and nirvana. The Buddha, however, rejected the Hindu caste system, the sacrificial system, and the idea that deities can help with the quest for salvation. He also rejected the concept of the Atman—the idea that ultimate reality resides in each individual—and replaced it with the concept of “No self.” According to Buddhist teaching, proper meditation will lead to the realization that because we are constantly changing, we don’t have a self. And that means, “The essence of Buddhism is, there is no essence” (pg. 76). (This is the complete opposite of the Hindu view of the self. Hinduism teaches that our essence is Brahman (divine), while Buddhism teaches that we don’t have an essence.) This realization leads to the end of selfish desires because if there’s no self, there’s no point in having selfish desires. But if there’s no self, how does reincarnation work? The answer: The self is not transferred, but the bundle of energy is transferred and that transference is based on karma. Reincarnation is like a candle flame that is passed from one candle to another.
The Four Noble Truths
- All is suffering. (Dukkha = suffering. Life is full of pain and even our happy experiences will end in pain.)
- Suffering is caused by desire. (Tanha = selfish desire.)
- Suffering can be brought to cessation.
- The solution to suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Three Jewels of Buddhism: 1.) the Buddha, 2.) the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), 3.) the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community). The Three Forms (Vehicles) of Buddhism: 1.) Theravada: “The Way of the Elders” – following the teachings of the Buddha leads to nirvana; the Buddha cannot help with the quest for salvation because he’s beyond the reach of humans; salvation is only available for monks. 2.) Mahayana: The Great Vehicle – the Buddha is a divine savior, trusting in the Buddha (and all past Buddhas) leads to nirvana; also trust should be placed in bodhisattvas – “Buddhas in the making” – those who exist between earth and heaven and provide divine assistance. Mahayana teaches that salvation is available for all. Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, and Korea. 3.) Vajrayana: Tibetan Buddhism – salvation is available in this lifetime. This form of Buddhism is unique in its institution of lamas (= a hierarchy of clergy headed by the Dalai Lama).
Memory Tool: G44.noself.33 (Gautama, 4 Sights, 4 Noble Truths, there is no self, 3 Jewels, 3 Vehicles)
Recommended Text: Brodd, Jeffrey. World Religions, A Voyage Of Discovery, 3rd. ed. Terrace Heights, Winona, MN.: St. Mary’s Press, 2009.