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Buddhism: An Overview

Author: Lena Santos

BUDDHISM, as recognized by its million followers in the eastern and western world, is both a religion and a philosophy. It originated from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who become the Supreme Buddha, the enlightened or the awakened one. It was founded in Northern India by Gautama Buddha (circa 563 to 460 BCE).

Based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the goal of Buddhism is to escape from suffering and from the cycle of rebirth: the attainment of nirvana. It encourages meditation and the observance of certain moral precepts. Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally by his disciples. During his lifetime, monastic order has been established. Buddhism was promoted by Emperor Ashoka in India during the 3rd century BCE but later on almost completely died out by the 13th century. However, it spread in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and it moved through Central Asia and China, Tibet, Korea and Japan. In the 19th century, Buddhism spread to Europe and the United States of America and it became increasingly popular in the West by the second half of the 20th century.

As it expanded across Asia after Buddha’s death, Buddhism evolved into two or three forms:

  1. Theravada Buddhism (Southern Buddhism) is dominant in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos.

  2. Mahayana Buddhism (Northern Buddhism) has been largely found in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia

  3. Vajrayana Buddhism (Tantric Buddhism, Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Esoteric Buddhism, or True Word Sect). Some consider this to be part of Mahayana Buddhism; others view it as the third Buddhist path. Other additional forms are: (1) Tibetan Buddhism developed largely in isolation of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism because of the remoteness of Tibet; and (2) Zen Buddhism which has been developed from within the Chinese Mahayana School known as Chan.

Buddhism followers in the world are estimated between 350 and 1,500 million and now considered as the world’s fourth largest religion, next to Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

Buddhism is divided into a number of different traditions just like Christianity and Islam. Those traditional beliefs also share common fundamentals.

Buddhism shares with Hinduism belief in karma which means the person’s action in current and previous lives, believed to decide his/her fate in future existences; dharma or proper behavior and truth, is manifested in the life and teachings of Buddha; and reincarnation which means the rebirth of a living being after death in any form- human, animal or a supernatural being.

In contrast to Christianity and Islam, Buddhism does not involved belief in God or supernatural powers or the existence of the human soul. Indeed, there is a very wide gap of distinctions in Christians, Muslims and Buddhists beliefs.

The Buddhists perceived the world as a place of suffering, frustration or pain where nothing is permanent; and of egolessness, refers to human mental activities-panic, confusion, impulse/perception, consciousness and feeling. In short, the three marks of existence in Buddhism are: impermanence (Anicca); dissatisfaction (Dukhha) and non-SELF (Anatta).

The basic doctrine of Buddhist beliefs is best described in the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS, the first sermon Gautama Buddha preached after his enlightenment, on which he explored human suffering.

  • The first noble truth is that suffering exists, it is real and universal and its causes are: loss, old age, sickness, pain, frustrations and death.

  • The second noble truth is that there is a cause for suffering, it is the desire to manipulate things and can take many forms such as hunger for sensual pleasures; yearning for fame; the need to avoid disagreeable emotions like anger, fear or jealousy.

  • The third noble truth is that there is an end to suffering, it ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana or the state of enlightenment; or the state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

  • Lastly, the fourth noble truth is that there is a path leading to the cessation of suffering and for suffering to cease, one must follow the Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Accordingly, the noble Eightfold Path can be achieved through training and practices. These are (1) Sila: Morality, good conduct, virtue based on the fundamental principles of equality and reciprocity; (2) Samadhi: meditation, mental development and concentration. To develop one’s mind is to gain wisdom which gave us personal freedom and help us strengthens and control our minds and also maintains good conduct; and (3) Prajna: insight, discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. If your mind is pure and calm, wisdom will be revealed.

The first two paths (right view and right intention) of the Eightfold Path, refers to discernment; the last three (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration) belong to concentration; the middle three (right speech, right action and right livelihood) are related to virtue.

The basic goal of the four noble truths is the attainment of nirvana, simply means liberation from suffering of humanity and the cessation of struggle which complicated the process of survival of mankind. It aims to return humanity into simple and dignified human beings.

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