Buddhism is a religion developed by Siddhartha Gotama, sometimes Siddartha Gautama, who was born around 566 BCE in Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. After living a life of privilege, then giving it up for a life of asceticism, Siddhartha became enlightened, or awakened, to the idea that the only way to escape suffering in life is through practicing deliberate non-attachment. Today, that initial meditation has led to the practice of Buddhism in about six percent of the world’s population.
Siddhartha’s, or as he was renamed, Buddha’s awakening evolved into the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Although today there are several recognized variants of Buddhism, most believe in the Truths and the Path as the way to receive Nirvana, a state of bliss on earth.
The first truth is that life is composed of suffering, physical and mental. The second, is that we have pain on earth because we are attached to the world or despise the world. Constantly wanting more, we will continue to suffer more. Thus the second truth realizes that by detaching ourselves from the cycle of wanting and craving, we deliver ourselves from suffering.
The third truth is that true happiness is possible on earth, depending upon the degree to which we can detach ourselves from wanting worldly things. If we give up “wanting,” we can attain Nirvana. Finally, the fourth truth is that the Noble Eightfold path is the path toward achieving this detachment and thus attaining Nirvana.
- The eightfold path involves the following:
- Right understanding means we understand suffering in the proper context, and know through the eightfold path that we can end it.
- Right thinking frees the Buddhist from ill thoughts toward others.
- Right speech frees our tongues from lies or evil comments.
- Right action means no actions that involve stealing, killing or harming another, or being unchaste.
- Right livelihood means abstaining from work that would create more pain for others. In some cases, this means never manufacturing weapons. A Buddhist could not write for a gossip magazine, as this would contradict right speech. Work undertaken should help and not hurt others.
- Right effort is mental energy applied to following the other path guidelines.
- Right mindfulness focuses on seeing the world clearly, untainted by wantings or cravings. Right mindfulness is achieved through contemplation of the body, feelings, and state of mind.
- Right concentration focuses on developing concentration through meditation.
Schools of Buddhism focus or lean toward one or several principles, and often follow different teachers or Bodhisattvas that came after Siddhartha. Trying to describe such different schools would be like listing all the versions of Christianity. It can be said that two major types of Buddhism exist, Theravāda and Mahāyāna. Theravāda is primarily practiced in Southeast Asia. Focus tends to be on attaining right effort and concentration by developing the mind. Through meditation people may become holy like Siddhartha, though they will never attain the holiness of the Buddha.
Mahāyāna tends to be focused on more priestly endeavors, and is primarily found in Northeastern Asia. It is often called Tibetan Buddhism, but is also the source for Zen Buddhism. Both the Buddhism of Tibet and Zen seem more readily received in the Western world, than Theravāda.
Some call Buddhism non-religious because it does not focus around a god, but rather a way of life. People may revere Buddha, or Siddhartha, but they do not pray to, or petition him. Buddhist statues are meant for contemplation and inspiration, rather than as sites to pray. In some ways Buddhism is quite compatible with the practice of other religions. Much of Christ’s teaching center on many of the same concepts, however Buddhists are opposed to mortification of the flesh.
Though most Buddhists live in Asia, there is much interest in the West regarding the philosophy of Buddhism. Many recognize the well-known actor Richard Gere, as a Mahāyāna Buddhist who follows the Tibetan school. This Tibetan tradition is linked to the current Dalai Lama, whose teachings are respected by virtually all practicing Buddhism. His continued crusade for non-violence and his life in exile since Chinese occupation of Tibet, has made him a world leader.