Buddhism is a major world religion practiced in it’s various forms mainly in the orient . It is a non-theistic, humanistic religion. According to the buddhanet website, the global population of Buddhists numbers around 350 million. Buddhism originated in India, but spread to other countries where it became dominant, while becoming almost extinct in India. With Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie, Tina turner, and Phil Jackson (NBA Coach) openly declaring themselves to be Buddhists and the Dalai Lama introducing Buddhism and making it attractive, it is becoming more and more popular in the west. A lot of hollywood movies also popularize different aspects of Buddhism making it more attractive and acceptable. The non-theistic aspect of Buddhism with it’s focus on suffering ,compassion and nonviolence, has made it more acceptable to the academia and media and an attractive alternative to mainstream religion.
With an increase in the interest in Buddhism and it’s acceptance by academia and media, it is important that we learn what Buddhism is and how it does and does not answer the most important questions pertaining to human life.
Buddhism was founded on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha, who was the prince of the Shakya clan in the kingdom of Kapilavastu (Nepal), in his spiritual quest, renounced his family and position and attained enlightenment (in India, near a town called Gaya) and taught his path of finding liberation from the cycle of birth and death, which came to be called Buddhism.
Divisions and Spread:
Buddhism spread from India to Srilanka, South East Asia, China, Japan and Tibet. As it spread it took up different forms, synthesizing the various belief systems it encountered in different countries and cultures on it’s way. Out of this synthesis many schools and sects developed but only a few survived.
The major sects of Buddhism which are operational at present include:
The Buddhist Scriptures include
A. Pali Canon (Three Baskets)
1. Vinaya-Pitaka (Basket of Order)
2. Sutra-Pitaka (Basket of Instructions)
3. Abhidharma-Pitaka (Basket of higher teaching)
B. Other Scripture
1. The Mahavastu
2. Milindapanha (Questions of King Milinda
3. Saddharmapundarika (The lotus of the good law sutra)
4. Prajnaparamita Sutra (The Perfection of Wisdom)
Major Doctrinal themes
Four Noble truths:
1. Life is suffering
2. Craving is the cause of suffering
3. In order to end suffering one must end craving
4. The means to end craving is the noble eightfold paths
Noble Eightfold path:
It includes three-fold training
I. Training in wisdom (Prajan)
1. Right Views
2. Right Intention
II. Training in Morality (Shila)
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
III. Training in Concentration (Samadhi)
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right absorption
God: No creator God exists because there is so much suffering. Since suffering is extensive, creator God does not exist.
Later schools originating from the Mahayana Buddhism came to recognize “enlightened beings”, devotion to whom was part of requirement to achieve nirvana.
Man: Does not have a soul.
Rev. Ahmed shah, in his book “Buddhism and Christian faith”, gives the following description.
“The individual self is the emperical self.It is an aggregate of five elements. One physical and four psychic.
I. Physical Element – Name and form ,which is a synthesis of five inherent dhatus propetries namely time ,space, form , energy and heat.These appear as body wghich is given a name.
II. Psychic elements: The four psychical elements are –
1. Samskars -Mental disposition like instinct and subconscious factors
2. Samjna – Sense perceived knowledge – the knowing aspect of self
3. Vadana -Feeling aspect of self
4. Vijnana – Value judgement and volitional aspect of the self.
Self or ego is an agregate the above elements.It is only a functional unity and does not have any metaphysical entity or being.”
Rebirth not Reincarnation: According to buddhanet website , buddha believed in and taught rebirth but not reincarnation. Since reincarnation involves soul , which incarnates a new body and since buddhism does not believe in the soul , buddhists do not believe in reincarnation but only in rebirth.
“Buddhism teaches that when a person dies they are reborn and that this process of death and rebirth will continue until Nirvana is attained. This raises the question : “What is the person?” Most religions believe that the core of the person, the real person, is the soul, a non-material and eternal entity that survives in the afterlife. Buddhism on the other hand says that the person is made up of thoughts, feelings and perceptions interacting with the body in a dynamic and constantly changing way. At death this stream of mental energy is re-established in a new body. Thus Buddhism is able to explain the continuity of the individual without recourse to the belief in an “eternal soul”, an idea which contradicts the universal truth of impermanence.”
“Reincarnation: The belief that at death the soul leaves the body and reanimates a new one. Reincarnation is a fundamental belief in Hinduism and several other religions but it is rejected by Buddhism which denies the existence of a soul.”
Nirvana: “The word Nirvana comes from the root meaning ‘to blow out’ and refers to the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. When these emotional and psychological defilements are destroyed by wisdom, the mind becomes free, radiant and joyful and at death one is no longer subject to rebirth. Buddhist philosophers have long debated about whether Nirvana is absolute cessation or an ineffable transcendental state. During the Buddha’s lifetime he was sometimes accused of being a nihilist, a charge he strongly denied, adding,
“One thing and only one thing do I teach, suffering and the cessation of suffering”. It would seem therefore that Nirvana is neither complete nothingness or existence being in the way that these words are usually used. One thing is certain though, it is not a heaven state and it is not the absorption of the individual soul into an Absolute, an idea that is more indicative of Hinduism. However, whichever way it is understood, the Buddha’s saying that “Nirvana is the ultimate happiness” (nibbanam paramam sukham) makes it clear that it is a worthwhile goal.”
The salvation equivalent in Buddhism is Nirvana. Nirvana is the goal of Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha.If one attains nirvana, he does not enter into the cycle of birth and death. That in Buddhism is salvation. Getting extinguished.
Heaven and hell: No heaven or hell.
Judgement: No judgement.
Eternal life: No eternal life. Their goal is simply, “No more rebirths”.
Faith: Different understanding from what Christians consider as faith.
“Buddhism is not a religion of faith. Faith is important, not because it leads to salvation, but because the psychological qualities it imparts motivates one to walk the Path, prepares one for the journey and sustains one until results are achieved. Emotionally it is an attitude of serenity and joy which frees one from the discomfort of doubt and thus prepares the mind for meditation. Volitionally it is a strong and courageous act of will which concentrates all one’s energies on the ideal that one can see ahead but not yet reach.Intellectually it is the acceptance of doctrines that cannot be immediately substantiated by direct experience, a willingness to wait with patience and trust until the gaps in the evidence can be filled. The objects of faith in Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and in the Mahayana, the bodhisattvas also. Most schools of Buddhism have substantially the same attitudes to faith, one notable exception being Japan’s Jodo Shin Shu School founded in the 13th century. In a remarkable parallel to Protestantism, Jodo teaches that humans, being utterly evil and powerless, can only be saved by absolute faith and even that faith is given by the Buddha’s grace.”
Morality: There is a moral law, but it is not absolute. There is no moral law giver. Their understanding of morality is different.
The Theravada Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said,
“We can bring the practice all together as morality, concentration and wisdom. To be collected, to be controlled, this is morality. The firm establishing of the mind within that control is concentration. Complete, overall knowledge within the activity in which we are engaged is wisdom. The practice in brief is just morality, concentration and wisdom, or in other words, the path. There is no other way.”
Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor of theology and a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, explains,
“There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. ‘Buddhism’ encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. … When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation–whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion–and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha’s teachings.”
As chah said, “To be collected, to be controlled, this is morality.” This is the Buddhist understanding of morality.
Dhamma: The whole body of teachings and way of nature and life.
“A Pali word (the Sanskrit equivalent being Dharma) with meanings as diverse as ‘nature’, ‘teachings’, ‘justice’, ‘normal’, ‘truth’ and ‘good manners’. As the word is commonly used in Buddhism it means the teachings and doctrine’s of the Buddha. But these teachings and doctrine’s are called Dhamma because they explain and describe the nature of things, the way things are, the way they operate.”
W. Rahula, “Wrong notions of Dhammata (Dharmata)” in Zen and the Taming of the Bull. London, 1978;
T. Stecherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word ‘Dharma’.London, 1923.
Abhidhamma: “Abhidhamma was a Super law , or ultimate law an impersonal principle, which governed all aspects of reality.” —- Rev.Ahmed Shaw
“Referring to both a system of thought and a genre of literature the name Abidhamma could be translated as “Pertaining to Dhammas”. As a system of thought Abhidhamma grew out of two trends in early Buddhism. The first of these was the analytical or reductionist trend. For example the Buddha taught that the individual was made up of mind (nama) and body (rupa) which he often further analysed into the five aggregates. Each of these aggregates could again be analysed, the body for example into solidity, fluidity caloricity and space. This was as far as the Buddha himself went, but the early Buddhists continued the process of analysis until they arrived at what they believed to be the most basic constituents of reality which were called Dhammas.
These dhammas were said to be absolutes, not in the sense that they were ultimate realities but in the sense that they were not capable of being further analysed. The second trend that led to the development of Abidhamma was the particular way that change was seen. The Buddha took an empirical approach to change, seeing it as taking place gradually or at different velocities; for example he spoke of the stream of consciousness (sotavinnana). The early Buddhists however came to understand change as being a discreet momentary event. Thus all dhammas were said to arise, persist for a minute period of time and then pass completely away before the next dhamma arose. This was known as the Theory of Moments (Khanavada).
Whereas the Buddha’s teachings in the suttas are generally empirical and practical, Abidhamma is speculative and theoretical.”
Creed of Buddhism
This is what the Buddhist monks keep chanting throughout the day.
Dhammam Saranam Gachchami (I take shelter in Dhamma)
Samgham Saranam Gachchami (I take shelter in Samgha)
Buddham Saranam Gachchami (I take shelter in Buddha)
Humanity’s problem and the Buddha’s solution
There is no soul in man. So there is no reincarnation, but only rebirths, from which the Buddha gives liberation. Rebirth is because of transmigration of the person from one body to another at death. Transmigration occurs because of attachment caused by craving or desire.
Desire/Craving produces attachment with it’s objects. Actions proceed from this desire and attachment and these actions are called Karma. The Desire and Karma keep a man in the cycle of rebirths. With every birth comes suffering due of the ignorance about desire and karma. From this existence which is always attended by suffering, the buddha seeks to give liberation (nirvana), through his teachings by helping man avoid any future rebirths and become non-existent.
This passage from the Sutta Pitaka tells us what exactly, Gautama Buddha meant by Nirvana:
“The Lord said: Nirvana is release from dukkha (suffering) of life. Dukkhas (Sufferings) are caused by avidya(ignorance);trishna (desire) and karma (actions)”
2. Response to 101 Questions on Buddhism by John Renard
3.Buddhism and Christian Faith by E.Ahmed Shah