This article first appeared in Kairos in 2007
What is Buddhism? Who is the Buddha? What do Buddhists believe? With the Dalai Lama’s visit to Australia these questions might be going through our minds.
The life of the Buddha (c. 563-c. 483 BCE).
Siddhartha Gautama was born into a princely family of the Shakya clan in Kapilavastu in what is now Nepal. He was brought up in the comfort and splendour of the palace; he married and had a son. One day he ventured beyond the confines of the palace and saw sights, which shocked him: an aged man, a sick man, and a corpse, and realized that suffering afflicts all human beings. After meeting a monk and being struck by his serenity, Siddhartha, at the age of 29, left the comforts of the palace and went to the forest in pursuit of truth. He spent six years practising austerities in the company of other mendicants but achieved nothing.
One night after sitting under a pipal tree at Bodh Gaya in north India he ‘awoke’, he became ‘The Enlightened One’ (buddha). Then, in the deer park at Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) he began his work of teaching or, as the Buddhists put it, he began to ‘turn the wheel of righteous truth (dharma)’. Till the age of 80 he travelled throughout the region gathering disciples and imparting instruction till his passing (paranirvana) at Kusinagara, in modern day Nepal.
- Under the pipal tree at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha realised the Four Noble Truths: namely, that all is suffering; that the root of suffering is ignorance and attachment; that the solution to suffering is the cessation of ignorance and attachment; and that one should embark on the Noble Eightfold Path which is summarised in terms of morality, meditation, and wisdom.
- ‘Suffering’ is not so much physical as metaphysical: existence is transient and inadequate, and leads only to the cycle of birth and death. Past acts (karma) are like a seed which sprouts in repeated incarnations. The Buddha’s teaching shows how we can be liberated from the consequences of this infernal cycle (samsara) and attain nirvana (disappearance) which is not simply annihilation but a state of consciousness beyond definition.
- The Buddha promoted the Middle Path, avoiding the extremes of pleasure and austerity that are ineffective, and adopting an attitude of balance in all things. He promoted loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
- If there is a creed in Buddhism it could be summed up in the ‘three refuges’: “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Dharma (sacred teaching); I go for refuge to the Sangha (the community of monks).”
- The Buddha opposed the Brahmins of his day, rejected their sacred books – the Vedas – as well as their sacrificial practices and the caste system. Hinduism and Buddhism, however, are ‘in the same boat’ just as Judaism, Christianity and Islam share many essentials.
The spread of Buddhism
The Buddha established communities (sangha) of monks who collected his teachings in what is called ‘the Tripitaka’ (‘the three baskets’). Buddhism received a major impetus under Ashoka (269-232 BCE), the first emperor of India, who after a shocking battle near Bhubaneshwar in Odisha State converted to Buddhism and promoted it throughout his dominions.
Buddhist communities spread throughout India; north through Tibet to China and Japan; south to Sri Lanka; and across the Bay of Bengal to South East Asia, profoundly influencing the life and culture of these regions. It is now attracting many followers in Europe, North America and Australia.
Buddhism is divided into two main branches: Theravada (‘the way of the ancients’) practised in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand; Mahayana (‘the greater vehicle’) practised in China, Japan and Indochina, to which can be added Vajrayana (‘the diamond – or thunderbolt – vehicle’) which is practised in Tibet and of which His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the most famous representative. These traditions have many sub-branches with their respective traditions and scriptures and rituals.
An important feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who delays his entry into nirvana out of compassion for suffering humanity and who sets about teaching them and accumulating merit for their sake.
The following prayer can stand as a summary of the Buddhist attitude:
“May all sentient beings possess happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be parted from the happiness which is without suffering.
May they abide in equanimity, free of attachment and aversion to near and far.”
Buddhism and Christianity
- While there are many ‘gods’ in Buddhism, there is no worship of a personal God in the Christian sense, nor is the Buddha a saviour in the Christian sense. It would be incorrect, however, to call Buddhism ‘atheistic’ or just a ‘philosophy’. It is universally classed as one of the most profound spiritual traditions.
- Whereas Christianity proclaims the Good News, Buddhism stresses the unknowability of God. The experience of the unknowability of God is not foreign to the experience and writings of some of the Church’s most notable mystics and saints. At the same time, the Christian tradition holds strongly to the teaching that God the Father can indeed be known through knowledge of His Only Son ‘to know me is to know the Father’. The Good News makes Christ knowable. And further again Christians have the promise “I am with you always” and “I will send you an Advocate.”
- And the knowability and closeness of God does not end there for the Catholic. We firmly believe that we have God with us in the Blessed Sacrament and that at communion we join with Christ in the embrace that anticipates the eternal embrace – one with Jesus Christ and joined as one with the Church community.
- The doctrine of reincarnation is a notable feature of Buddhism, whereas Christianity stresses the resurrection of the dead.
- There is no Pope in Buddhism. On the other hand, the role of the spiritual teacher is paramount. The disciple entertains a heart-felt love for the teacher and serves him or her with humility.
- How would Jesus look upon Buddhism? He would see men and women who are firmly committed to the spiritual path and who wish to bring peace and healing to the world. Surely, as he did to the young man who from his youth kept all the commandments, Jesus would look upon the Buddhists and love them.