Most people believe that Buddhism is a religion. It is true that it does have a big monastic sangha, (community) and rituals that give it that holy vibe, but I personally feel it’s more of a philosophy of our existence and the meaning of life. In this article, I am going to give a concise introduction to what I understand about it. Buddha was not a Buddhist but a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. Who was born into a very privileged life in a walled-off palace, in what is now northern India about twenty-five centuries ago. Wrapped up in a life of luxury, and comfort, where no one was sick, disabled, or old he had no idea of life beyond pleasure and the suffering outside his palace walls. Then one day at the age of 29, the prince asked his faithful charioteer, Channa, to drive him through his father’s great city. Channa tried to shield him from any unpleasant sights but was not able to do so. When the prince saw a sick person, an old man, and a corpse, which he had never seen before, it shook him to his core, as he realised that no riches would protect him from old age, sickness, and death. Continuing on, he then noticed a spiritual seeker, a mendicant ‘holy man’ sitting in peaceful mediation, and the urge to seek peace of mind arose deeply in him.
That night when everyone was asleep he renounced his worldly life, escaped his palace, and began a spiritual quest. He spent many years pursuing teachers and punishing his body with ascetic practices such as extreme, prolonged fasts. It was believed that punishing the body was the way to elevate the mind and that the door to wisdom was found at the edge of death. However, after six years of this, the prince felt only frustration. Eventually, he realized that the path to peace was through mental discipline, which could only be realised through meditation.
At Bodh Gaya, in the modern Indian state of Bihar, he sat in meditation beneath a ficus tree, ‘The Bodhi Tree’, until he rediscovered the ancient path of enlightenment. This is a state of freedom from ignorance, craving, and desire, which leads to a peaceful, calm, happy mind, as well as liberation from attachment to worldly desires and ending the endless cycles of rebirth and suffering. (Sounds good doesn’t it?)
From that time on, he was given the title ‘The Buddha’ or ‘The Awakened One’, which in Sanskrit means a person who has awakened to the true nature of reality. We all live in a fog of illusions created by mistaken perceptions and impurities – hate, greed, and ignorance. A Buddha is one who has become free from the fog. It is said that when a Buddha dies he or she is not reborn but passes into the peace of Nirvana, which is not a ‘heaven’ but a transformed state of existence or mind.
After his awakening, the Buddha was hesitant about teaching others the truth of suffering that he had realized. He thought that this truth was so profound and radical people wouldn’t believe or listen to him. However, out of compassion for all sentient beings and their suffering, he decided he must try. He gave his first sermon in modern-day Sarnath, near Benares on The Four Noble Truths (I will explain this in another article.) He then walked from village to village, attracting disciples along the way, and spending the rest of his life, around 45 years, teaching people and pilgrims the Buddha-Dharma of how to realize the nature of their minds to overcome suffering and attain enlightenment. He founded the original order of Buddhist monks and nuns, many of whom became great teachers also.
The Buddha died in Kushinagar, located in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, in the early 5th century, about 483 BCE. But the truth of his Dharma is still alive today.
There are three main schools or Yana’s (In Sanskrit and Pali: Vehicle), methods of spiritual practice in Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana which are centered on the idea of reaching enlightenment and finding Nirvana. Which is the ultimate goal for all Buddhists. However, these three schools of Buddhism believe in different paths to reach Nirvana and were taught by the Buddha in response to the various capacities of individuals.
Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism – The lesser vehicle.
This movement is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). The name means ‘the doctrine of the elders’ – the elders being the senior Buddhist monks. This school of Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhists strive to become Arhats, one who has gained insight into the true nature of reality, achieved nirvana, and gain freedom from the cycles of worldly existence or samsara.
Mahayana Buddhism – The greater vehicle.
This movement arose within India around the beginning of the common era and by the 9th century became the dominant influence on the Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia, which it remains today. This method was taught to those with greater capacity with an emphasis on actions of mind. Compassion is very important and Mahayana Buddhists after reaching enlightenment may choose to stay in the cycle of samsara/ existence, out of compassion to help others to achieve the same state.
Vajrayana Buddhism – The diamond or thunderbolt vehicle.
This movement developed in India around the 6th or 7th century CE. The word Vajra refers to the diamond-hard thunderbolt that was used as a weapon by the Hindu god of thunder and rain, Indra. Yana refers to the way or the spiritual vehicle, for achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. This method was taught to those exceptional beings that were able to directly realise the nature of the mind. Vajrayana Buddhism proposes that it can provide a faster path towards enlightenment, thus reducing the need of experiencing several lifetimes before reaching enlightenment, and contain many more skillful means (Upaya). The importance of the theory of emptiness is central to the Tantric Buddhist view and practice. Emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness but that nothing is permanent and thus everything is permeated by an underlying condition of impermanence and instability. This means that nothing exists of its own accord but only through interdependence upon all other things.
So, that is my brief view of what I understand about Buddhism. I hope you find it useful.