What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is typically classed as a religion, but is this right? Well, this obviously depends on how you define religion. I can imagine how some ‘religion-friendly’, but ‘supernatural-averse’ friends of mine would take liberties with this term defining it as something like, “a systematic collection of beliefs about the universe and its origins, especially as these relate to humanity”. This is very… safe. No supernatural or mystical loose ends to hang any particular ‘religion’ with. But unfortunately, this has gone too far. Quite simply, this definition is not what we mean when we say ‘religion’; if it was, then all of metaphysics (a branch of philosophy) and parts of the sciences (e.g. cosmology and physics) would be ‘religion’. No, this is just too broad.
Oxford online dictionary defines religion as, “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” This captures something essential that the previous definition lacked; namely, the inclusion of some kind of deity (or deities).
This is where we first realise that we may have misrepresented Buddhism by calling it a religion for at least three reasons; 1) worship of a supernatural being is not central to Buddhism, 2) Buddhism is not primarily a system of belief, and 3) Buddhism has its sights firmly locked on the here and now, not some other ‘higher’ plane or ‘afterlife’.
First, there is a devotional aspect to Buddhism and while it is true that there are a number of enlightened, supernatural beings and Buddhist deities (sometimes including the Buddha himself), the worship of these beings is not the central practice of Buddhism. ‘Praying’ to one of these supernatural deities doesn’t really make sense the same way it does for other ‘real’ religions because the Buddha isn’t the kind of being who answers prayers or bestows miracles upon true believers and visits punishments upon wrong-doers. He certainly never claimed to be a God (or the son of one) and he never claimed to be unique in any way (a prophet or someone otherwise specially chosen). In fact, the notion of a Creator God or a Supreme Judge is completely absent from Buddhism.
Second, although there are many beliefs Buddhists adhere to (some of which are fairly far-out, too), faith is nevertheless not a central element in Buddhism. Religion typically asks… no, demands, that we believe its doctrines and that this belief forms the core of our spiritual lives. Sure, we might have other things to do after we believe (don’t lie, care for others, etc.), but as long as you believe (and aren’t too much of a douche) you’re pretty much golden. As far as Buddhism goes however, belief counts for nothing; believing in Buddhist tenets (and not being too much of a douche) gets you absolutely no closer to the goal of Buddhism (exactly what this is, we will find out later).
In Buddhism Without Beliefs (Batchelor, 1997), Batchelor argues the same thing; that Buddhism, as the Buddha taught it, was completely focused on understanding the truth of our reality and acting upon it. The truth could be known through four simple propositions (which we will encounter later, known as the four noble truths) but understanding and acting upon them (that is, making them a part of your very being, not just facts you believe) required spiritual practice. In short, Buddhism is a method, not a belief.
A Christian believes in God, believes Jesus came to earth to redeem our sins, and so on. That is what it means to be a Christian. It is the core of Christianity, that is, the way it was right from the outset. Of course, you are also supposed to act a certain way but the primary factor is belief. You can be a total scumbag your whole life but then one day decide to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour and, boom, Just like that, you’re one of the good guys.
The core of Buddhism is nothing like that.
The same holds for all groups we would call ‘religions’. Faith is paramount; it is necessary and sufficient; because God, Allah, Vishnu, or whomever you happen to believe in, is just so happy that you’ve decided to come to His team that He is prepared to forgive all sins… as long as you truly believe. This is true for the core of all religions.
The core of Buddhism is nothing like that.
Third, the goal of Buddhism is to awaken to the truth of your authentic being (or attain enlightenment)… here and now, not when you die, not on a higher plane of existence, and not thanks to the favour of a deity. Buddhism is totally focused on the human mind, in the human body, in this human life, on this earthly planet, and eliminating the suffering that it creates for us (more on this later). There is a supernatural framework, but it is just that, a framework. It’s not the final goal and it’s not the ticket to the final goal. The centrepiece in the Buddhist system is the human mind; specifically how it creates/shapes our reality and how we should use it if we desire true happiness.
In Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Smith & Novak, 2003) the authors weigh in on this discussion by identifying six features that make up all religions:
1. Authority – believing what someone says just because they say so, even when what they say contradicts what we experience (this is called ‘faith’ in some religions)
2. Ritual – the performing a certain action in a certain way that is believed to produce some certain outcome
3. Speculation – explanations about aspects of existence. Why are we here? Where do we come from? Etc.
4. Tradition – venerating what was done by those before us
5. Grace – the idea that things are set up to our advantage; often by a supernatural Being
6. Mystery – appeals to the supernatural
Although many (with the exception of numbers 6 and maybe 3) of these things have crept into Buddhism over the years, Smith and Novak argue that Buddhism as the Buddha taught it, included none of these things:
1. Authority – the Buddha specifically told his disciples not to believe what anybody told them, even him. He advised they try the teachings for themselves and if they worked, adopt them, if they didn’t, drop them
2. Ritual – the Buddha saw all rituals as empty actions and even saw the belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies as one of the ‘ten fetters’ that bind the human spirit
3. Speculation – the Buddha refused to engage in theorising; his teachings were all practical
4. Tradition – the Buddha encouraged his students to question and challenge traditional beliefs and actions
5. Grace – the Buddha’s teachings required intense effort. There was no easy pass to enlightenment and no deity to smooth the path before us
6. Mystery – the Buddha taught that all mysterious and supernatural feats/powers were only distractions from the real spiritual path
That’s the argument for why Buddhism isn’t a religion, predicated on Buddhism, as the Buddha taught it, but there are also two arguments for why Buddhism should be considered a religion; 1) over time, Buddhism has split in ways that have seen some traditions incorporating much of the above listing of elements that go into a religion (including Buddha as a kind of divine ‘saviour’ who can intervene in our lives for our benefit) and 2) even Buddhism, as the Buddha taught it, includes a significant supernatural framework.
First, Batchelor quite rightly notes that over time, the four noble truths have, in the eyes of many Buddhists and Buddhist traditions, become propositions which are often believed, rather than facts we learn and incorporate into our being through our actions. This reduces Buddhism to just another set of doctrines some people believe and others don’t, and allows it to be compared to those other groups of people whose ‘beliefs’ differ; Christians, Muslims, etc.
Also in a more general sense, I think it is true that Buddhism has been significantly distorted from what the Buddha actually taught. All religious groups claim this (Islam today is nothing like what Muhammad taught) and they are right to a certain degree but nowhere near as much as they would typically like to believe. The core of most religions, as their founders taught them, haven’t changed that much. In fact, nothing on the planet remains as stubbornly intractable and resistant to change as religion.
Buddhism started out as a (largely) non-supernatural method to achieve happiness by understanding how the mind works and changing the way we see and respond to life. However, it has since become mired in deity-filled swamps and saddled with as much supernatural baggage as you could care to carry (at least as it is practiced by many today). The beginning ‘agnosticism’ of the Buddha (see the parable of the poisoned arrow below) has hardened into a core set of supernatural dogmas to be believed and devotional practices that are indistinguishable from worship and prayer.
Before I get on to the second point I need to amend one thing. The simple definition of religion I proposed at the outset was probably a little too narrow. Any religion worthy of the name includes an appeal not just to a superhuman being, but also some kind of supernatural realm/framework (Smith and Novak’s number 6 above). And so the second argument for considering Buddhism a religion, even Buddhism, as the Buddha taught it, is that while the early Buddhism lacked the superhuman controlling power, the faith crutch, and the supernatural focus that are so important in most religions, there is nevertheless a significant supernatural element that I do think can’t be dropped without altering the essence of what Buddhism is.
The Buddha, in his time, taught concepts like reincarnation, karma, and the 6 planes of existence (among which dwell humans, gods, and even ‘ghosts’). These concepts have been important to Buddhism from the outset and while it is quite true I think, that Buddhism doesn’t need these elements (i.e. Buddhism without these supernatural aspects isn’t impossible or contradictory; a claim no other religion can sensibly make, by the way), they are still a part of Buddhism as the Buddha taught it. Even though we can take the supernatural out of Buddhism and apply the practices meaningfully in our lives, this doesn’t give us licence to redefine the practice from our modern, secular perspective just to suit our own preferences (we would become ‘neo-Buddhists’ if we did).
So there are arguments for and arguments against. Where to from here? To settle this debate, we have to realise that the problem in asking whether Buddhism is a religion or not, turns not only on our definition of ‘religion’ but also on how we define ‘Buddhism’. It has turned out that there is no adequate single definition for Buddhism because tradition has pulled different parts of it in different directions, and these directions are crucial to the issue of whether Buddhism is to be considered a religion or not.
When people argue over whether Buddhism is a religion or not, the first problem (which makes the argument unresolvable) is that they aren’t talking about the same thing. They are talking about different forms of Buddhism and what’s more, both forms are equally valid. No one side is more justified than the other in claiming their understanding of Buddhism is the one and only ‘true’ one (this, in itself sounds quite religious).
The facts are that Buddhism as it is practiced by many today is certainly a religion (the practitioners believe in deities that give aid and they endorse a highly supernatural framework), but Buddhism, in the spirit in which, I think it is fair to say, it was originally taught (and is still taught in places today) was not a religion; and equally importantly, it has a core that doesn’t depend on these religious aspects like other religions do; Buddhism ‘works’ without the supernatural trappings.
Ignoring the supernatural leanings Buddhism has evolved to include is just as misleading as ignoring the non-supernatural core of Buddhism. So, ultimately, the only sensible conclusion left to make is that Buddhism is sometimes a religion and sometimes not. It can be approached today as a religion (with all the supernatural bells and whistles), but it can also be approached as a non-religious practice designed to understand the mind and eliminate suffering from our lives. The choice is yours; the blue pill or the red pill. And the extent to which the particular form of Buddhism you choose includes a belief in an intervening and protecting deity and a supernatural framework, will determine the extent to which you belong to a religion or not.
The Man Behind Buddhism
The Buddha’s real name was Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was his personal name and means “he whose aim is accomplished”. Gautama was his family name. He is also often called Shakyamuni, which means sage of the Shakyas, where Shakya was the name of the clan to which he belonged. ‘Buddha’ is actually a title bestowed on any enlightened being and means “Awakened One” although in everyday speech it is not uncommon to refer to Gautama as the Buddha. He was the son of the King of his clan (i.e. a prince) and lived in the 5th century BCE. His clan lived in an area in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border.
Some people think he was a normal person who just happened to achieve enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Others say he achieved enlightenment (Buddhahood) in a previous lifetime and, after spending time with other Buddhas, came to earth to teach what he had learned.
Tradition holds that he was born from the right side of his mother’s body without causing any pain and immediately afterwards took seven steps before declaring that this was going to be his last life.
The king was overly protective of Siddhartha and worked hard to make sure that the young prince was not exposed to suffering or death or any other harsh realities of life. Siddhartha got married at 16 to a woman named Yashodhara and had a child with her called Rahula. Life was perfect until Siddhartha discovered something unpleasant about the world in what are called the “Four Visions” or the “Four Passing Sights”.
He left the palace (at age 29) to see the kingdom he would one day rule but in doing so was exposed to three unavoidable realities of human life; sickness, old age, and death. He was shocked by these revelations and on his fourth excursion he met a homeless wanderer who, in response to the prince’s question, said he was someone who had given up his household life to find a way out of the suffering of the world. Siddhartha decided right then and there that this was the path for him, too.
Leaving his home and family, Siddhartha first learned meditation from two renowned Hindu teachers. He learned a lot about raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, and a lot about Hindu philosophy as well, but quickly realised that this would not be enough to allow him to complete his mission. Next, he trained in extreme ascetism (denial of the body), essentially starving himself but he realised this too brought him no closer to his goal of overcoming suffering. At this time, he founded the principle of the ‘Middle Way’, a path that walked the line between self-indulgence and self-denial.
Finally, Siddhartha sat under a fig tree, later known as the Bodhi tree (the tree of Enlightenment), and determined that he wouldn’t get up until he achieved enlightenment. Under this tree, legend has it that Mara the Tempter, the embodiment of evil, and all his sons and daughters attempted to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration; Gautama prevailed.
He passed through ever deeper levels of meditation and burned away the layers of unknowing that clouded his mind. In the ‘first watch’, he saw, one by one, his many thousands of past lives. In the ‘second watch’, he saw the death and rebirth of the whole universe and understood the law of karma, how past actions influence current situations and current actions influence future ones. In the ‘third watch’, he came to understand the principle which he would later call the heart of his message; the law of causal interdependence (or dependent arising). With these revelations in hand, he banished the last vestiges of ignorance from his mind and attained enlightenment. He was 35 years old.
One tradition tells what happens next the following way; the Buddha’s (as he now was) first instinct wasn’t to teach what he had learned because he doubted anyone else had the determination to persevere as he had. Fortunately for us, the god Brahma Sahampati appeared and convinced Shakyamuni that some people had the potential to reach enlightenment.
Other traditions hold that Mara appeared again after Shakyamuni’s enlightenment and attempted to entice him to slip away into the bliss of nirvana and leave earth behind, for none on earth would be able to understand, let alone follow the path he had trodden. In this version, it was the Buddha who declared that he believed some had the strength to attain enlightenment and elected to remain on earth.
Whatever the actual reason, the Buddha decided to hang around and teach. Over time, his community (sangha) grew until it numbered in the tens of thousands. He accepted members from all levels of society and afforded everyone the same respect equally. He even accepted women disciples and established an order of nuns. In doing so, he not only rejected sexism, but rallied against the infamous caste system that divided Indian society into clear and distinct stratas. He held that a brahmin (the highest priestly caste) was not someone born into a certain caste, but someone who was tolerant, peaceful, and honest.
After the Buddha died the first Buddhist council was convened and at this time the sangha recounted all of the Buddha’s teachings they could recall and committed them to memory. The teachings were divided into three ‘baskets’; the basket of discourses which contains information about how to train your mind to gain the insights that lead to enlightenment; the basket of discipline which outlined the rules of conduct for the monks and nuns in the sangha; and the basket of higher teachings which were teachings about reality itself. These teachings were transmitted from generation to generation through memory and were not written down until perhaps 100 BCE. The works that codify these teachings are called the Pali Canon and represent the fullest and most complete teachings of the Buddha that we have.
Buddhism grew quite quickly from here but did so through peaceful means. No one was forced to become a Buddhist. It wouldn’t even make sense to do so because, apart from the fact that not harming others is a central tenet of Buddhism (all religions claim this as their central tenet but none apart from Buddhism actually honoured it), being a Buddhist isn’t about allegiance to a particular creed or doctrine; it’s a way of life. Plus, because of the complete inward and individual focus of Buddhism, it was genuinely able to remain free of political interests, interests that have successfully corrupted every religion that has ever made the mistake of seeking worldly power.
A second council was convened about 60 years after the first and this led to the first major schism in Buddhism. Two distinct groups came from this; Theravada (“Doctrine of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”). Theravada is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, while Mahayana is practiced throughout Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
The Theravada tradition is more conservative in approach, restricting itself to the Pali Canon. The Mahayana tradition has embraced the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings rather than the letter, and as such as been more liberal (and in a sense less dogmatic), including a number of later writings, not attributable to the Buddha, in its Canon of teachings.
One of the biggest single differences between the two traditions is the emphasis placed on the goal. Theravada emphasises self-liberation (the arhat) whereas Mahayana values the compassionate bodhisattva who works for the benefit of all sentient beings. The following table outlines the major differences:
Key virtue: wisdom
Ideal: the arhat who attains enlightenment
Downplays metaphysical speculation
Humans work for liberation on their own
The Buddha was a human teacher
Focuses on the Pali Canon of texts
Recommends the monastic life as the best environment for achieving nirvana
Key virtue: compassion
Ideal: the bodhisattva who delays personal nirvana to help others attain it
Has complex and involved rituals
Has elaborate metaphysical beliefs
Humans can receive favour from divine powers
The Buddha was a saviour
Includes a number of other religious texts written subsequent to the Pali Canon
Enlightenment is equally accessible to laypeople as to monks/nuns
As you can probably see, much of what Smith and Novak (2003) defined as ‘religious’, remained largely absent from the Theravada tradition but slipped in with the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism.
In the third century BCE, the Indian Emperor Ashoka underwent a spiritual crisis after seeing the amount of bloodshed he had caused and decided to rule according to the Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassion. Prior to this, Buddhism had appealed largely to the well-educated and highly placed individuals in Indian society but after the Emperor’s influence Buddhism became a religion of the people. The Emperor also sent emissaries to neighbouring countries to spread the word of the Buddha. He was mainly responsible for the spread south and east of Theravada Buddhism.
In the second century CE, King Kanishka did for Mahayana Buddhism what Emperor Ashoka did for Theravada Buddhism, spreading Buddhism north and east. At first, Buddhism encountered considerable cultural resistance in China where it conflicted with the Confucian ideal of an ordered universe in which harmony could be maintained by carrying out ones proper role in the proper way. However, in 220 CE, when the Han dynasty fell and insecurity and instability gripped the country, the teachings of impermanence and suffering that Buddhism espoused seemed to resonate more with the Chinese. There are also a number of similarities between another influential Chinese religion/philosophy, Daoism, and Buddhism which made Buddhism more accessible. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Buddhism’s lack of focus on social and familial obligations has been a constant source of tension for the Chinese and the more modern challenges of Christianity and communism have both hurt Buddhism in the country.
Ironically, as Buddhism was successfully exported to lands in which it was not the native religion, Buddhism was to decline sharply in its birth country. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Muslim rulers destroyed major Buddhist temples and monasteries which, because it was predominantly practiced in monastic form without as strong a lay following as other religions, contributed to the precipitous decline. Buddhism also suffered by being assimilated into various Hindu groups which were growing in popularity at the time; some groups even made the Buddha one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu.
In addition to discussing Buddhism through the eyes of the Theravada tradition, I will also approach it from two traditions in Mahayana Buddhism that have become well-known and widespread. The first is Zen. Zen Buddhism (or ‘Chan’ as it is called in China) comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘meditation’. Popular legend states that Chan Buddhism was carried from India by a monk named Bodhidharma who went to China in the sixth century and taught meditation to those he met. It was introduced to the West from Japan and so is typically associated with Japan although it was carried to Japan from China.
The second Mahayana tradition popular in the West is called Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) or tantric Buddhism and is popular in Tibet. Tantra is quite involved and typically requires a fully qualified master, or guru. One aspect of Tantric Buddhism approaches the mystical through sex but because of the West’s near obsession with sex, this is virtually the only aspect that has gained any popularity. Tantra actually has two meanings, “extension” and “interpenetration”. The former refers to the many texts that were added to the traditional corpus to ‘extend’ its breadth. The latter meaning reflects the fact that the Tantric texts focus on the interrelatedness of all things.
At the root of Buddhism is a deceptively simple concept which has nothing to do with higher realms, gods, or mystical experiences. All of Buddhism turns on the mind. The central tenet of Buddhism is not that the Buddha was real or that he will protect you if you pray to him; it is that your mind shapes and determines all of your experiences. The external circumstances of your life are therefore less important in bringing you happiness or suffering than your internal circumstances (your mind).
This may not seem like much of a revelation and to our new-age and self-help saturated modern minds it is probably something of a cliché by now, and yet it stands at the centre of Buddhism. Buddhism is first and foremost concerned with how the mind works to create our reality and how we can use our minds to eliminate suffering.
This is what I mean when I said that Buddhism is not focused on any supernatural or otherworldly pursuits. Rather, it is concentrated solely on the individual and how that individual’s mind is working to create their reality; is it perceiving reality authentically, as it really is, or is it operating from ignorance, chasing fleeting and temporary forms of satisfaction that are ultimately unfulfilling?
The Fundamental Teachings
Four Noble Truths
1. The truth of suffering – This first truth simply says that life is suffering. Now, there are two caveats to make here. The first is that ‘suffering’ does not mean just pain or discomfort. The Sanskrit word, dukha, is broader than that, meaning something more like ‘out of joint’, ‘improperly aligned’, or simply dissatisfaction, as in the negative feeling we have when something that we don’t want to happen, happens (or when something that we do want to see happen, doesn’t happen). Second, ‘life is suffering’ isn’t the same as the pessimistic, defeatist, ‘life is hell and nothing good ever happens’. Of course in any typical life, good things and bad things happen, but ‘life is suffering’ means that the next downturn in life’s rollercoaster is just around the corner and most of us are just stuck helplessly reacting. Something good happens then we feel good for a time, then something bad happens and we feel bad. This up and down rollercoaster ride can itself be considered a form of suffering. We have little or no control over when we will feel good or bad and even when we are lucky enough to be going up, we know we won’t stay up there for long.
The Buddha identified six moments in life where suffering becomes particularly obvious:
- Aging (Not just physical deterioration; as we grow older we suffer in a number of different ways mentally too)
- Getting what we don’t want
- Not getting what we do want
Two additional features of life make suffering inevitable: 1) even when we get what we desire, the pleasure from this is always fleeting and impermanent; 2) we ourselves (our ‘selves’) are impermanent and illusory and therefore unsatisfying and more importantly fundamentally unsatisfiable.
2. The cause of suffering – The second truth says that all suffering comes from craving or desire. There are two levels on which to understand this ‘truth’. On a more trivial level our desire to get something or have some event happen creates suffering by making us think we will finally be happy when we get this one thing. We desire something (or someone) and are miserable without it because we have made the mistake of tying our happiness to it. We think that promotion or bigger house or newer car or that girl (or guy) will finally make us happy so if we don’t get it, we suffer, and even if we do get it, we eventually become dissatisfied and/or want something newer or bigger (or more beautiful/more handsome) and so the cycle continues. The point is that we never achieve release from this incessant desire because none of the objects thereof are capable of satisfying us completely and making us permanently happy (yet this doesn’t stop us from trying).
On a deeper level, in always craving something outside us to make us happy, we are ultimately grasping for a concrete sense of self that will finally be expressed in its entirety. This is also an illusion (we will talk more about the self later) which continues the cycle of suffering.
The second noble truth has also been described as the desire for private fulfilment; impossible for the two reasons mentioned above; nothing in this world can sate this desire and ultimately there is no self to fulfil.
I should point out that not all desires are bad. We must desire food and drink or we would die, we should also desire liberation through spiritual practice and for others to be happy. The sense in which desire is negative is concerned with what and how we desire. If we desire things that cannot aid our attainment of peace and abiding tranquillity (including all temporary experiences and physical objects) and if we desire things in a way that causes us distress because we don’t have them, or that results in attachment if we do get them, then suffering is unavoidable.
3. The cessation of suffering – The third truth is an acknowledgement that we can put an end to suffering by putting an end to craving and craving can be stopped by removing its cause, which is ignorance. Buddhism teaches that if we were to truly understand the first two truths; I mean really pierce the veil of ignorance and know ‘deep down in your bones’ how true they are, then all craving would be eliminated and with it suffering.
4. The path that leads to the cessation of suffering – The fourth truth is the path that leads to this complete understanding and conquering of ignorance (and cessation of suffering); the eightfold path.
The Eightfold Path
This is the action plan the Buddha devised for shattering the ignorance that belies our suffering. Note that this is not a ritual which can be carried out mechanically or a gift bestowed from the Buddha himself to believers; it outlines a training regime which must be applied with rigorous dedication if the final goal is to be realised.
1. Right view – understanding the four noble truths.
2. Right intent – ensuring your intentions are always honourable and noble.
3. Right speech – the two elements of this are honesty and charitable speech (no gossip, abuse, etc.).
4. Right action – not performing actions which harm others, killing, stealing, etc.
5. Right livelihood – ensuring that you remain kind and honest in your job.
6. Right effort – apply concerted effort in your spiritual practice.
(Both of steps 7 and 8 below revolve around meditation)
7. Right mindfulness – being aware of what is happening in and around you at all times. Paying attention to all mental and physical events with a cool, objective mind.
8. Right concentration – develop deep focusing skills free from distraction and dullness.
The Three Marks of Existence
These are three characteristics that apply to everything in the natural order, a full understanding of which can lead to liberation:
1. Impermanence – All things change, therefore clinging to anything (person, thing, experience, emotion, etc.) will eventually lead to suffering.
2. Suffering – Nothing in the physical world (or even in the mind) can bring lasting satisfaction or peace.
3. No-self – The experience of a permanent, core substance underneath each ‘thing’ (especially the human substance we call self) is an illusion. This is the same as the delusion of independent existence (see the ‘law of causal interdependence’ below).
Buddhism teaches that no matter how deeply you look, you will never find a separate, solid, “I” at the core of your being who is actually experiencing the events which arise in your body and mind. All you will find is these momentary, non-stop series of events and “I” is basically a convenient way of bundling them into a whole so that we can talk about them.
Buddhist teachings divide what we think of as a concrete, enduring ‘self’ into five aggregates; material form, feeling and sensation, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.
The Law of Causal Interdependence (or Dependent Arising)
This is the concept that forms the basis for many other concepts in Buddhism, including karma, rebirth, suffering, even the possibility of liberation from all of this, and was the pinnacle of Shakyamuni’s awakening experience.
It says that nothing exists independently; everything is intimately interconnected with everything else through a complex and subtle web of relationships that stretch across the entire universe. Although this concept is relatively easy to explain, its implications are quite dramatic.
Consider a tree. What is it? Well, obviously the bark, wood, and leaves but is that all? The rain, soil, and wind all influence its growth. The animals that make their homes in and around the tree form a part of what we might call the tree’s ‘life-story’. The seasons and weather all contribute to making the tree what it is. All of these things and more make up what the tree ‘is’, but all of these things were influenced and affected by a host of other things, and these by still more things, and so on until you have catalogued every ‘thing’ in the universe.
At this point we truly come to understand that nothing exists by itself; not in the trivial sense that one independent ‘thing’ affects another independent ‘thing’, which affects a third independent ‘thing’, and so on; but in the deeper sense that there are no independent ‘things’ at all. To describe any apparently independent ‘thing’ requires a description of all other apparently independent ‘things’ and this is what the third of the three marks of existence points to when it says that all identity (even of the human self, the “I”) is an illusion. There is only one ‘thing’… and it is us.
Four Aspects to Spiritual Practice
As far as I know these aspects aren’t one of the many ‘official’ lists you will probably have realised by now Buddhists love making, but they are nevertheless important and fundamental tenets in Buddhism:
1. Ethical behaviour – this is really nothing to do with trying to label actions right and others wrong or avoiding the wrath of an angry deity; ethical guidelines in Buddhism are about ensuring that students are able to maintain focus on the ultimate goal of understanding reality and liberating themselves from suffering. Some actions are therefore prohibited, not because they are ‘evil’, but because they distract one from the task at hand or retard ones spiritual progress.
These ethical rules usually come in the form of ‘precepts’. There are five basic precepts Buddhist laypeople are generally required to take:
- I undertake to abstain from taking life
- I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given
- I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct
- I undertake to abstain from false speech
- I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants
Monks in the Theravada tradition usually add to these five more precepts including, no eating after lunch; no dancing, singing, instrumental music, or watching shows; and no perfumes or cosmetics. The Vajrayana tradition has ten precepts similar to those in the Theravada tradition divided into actions of body, speech, and mind:
Door number one – Body
Door number two – Speech
Door number three – Mind
Monks in the Vajrayana tradition also often take bodhisattva vows in which they vow to put the welfare of others before their own. Zen has sixteen precepts the practitioner agrees to live by.
2. Meditation – this isn’t really undertaken to calm the mind or reduce stress (although these are some of the benefits); the purpose is to probe the nature of reality and the self thereby freeing oneself from ignorance.
3. Devotion – this is an important element in Buddhism. As different from most religions however, devotion is not demanded or expected by a deity; instead devotion is a way for practitioners to forge a deeper connection to teachers and the teachings, again with the aim of strengthening the disciple’s commitment.
4. Loving compassion – this is a trait that is highly valued and deliberately cultivated in Buddhism. Karma goes part of the way as a rational explanation of why we should be kind to others but I think the most complete justification is to be found in the Buddhist belief that there is no individual, localised self. Since the notion of individual ‘selves’ is an illusion, we are all ‘one’. When one has truly understood this insight, harming anyone or anything no longer makes sense because you are only harming yourself.
Until one has fully awoken to this truth though, two aspects of loving compassion can be discerned which reflect this truth even in the midst of the illusion (something like mirror images of the fundamental truth), 1) Recognising that we are all members of the same family, and 2) Realising that we are all equal.
To expand on the first point; even on a more mundane level, our interconnectedness and close reliance on other people is easily demonstrated. Think of your chair. Someone had to cut the tree down, another person shaped and constructed it, and another person opened the store that would sell it to you. Of course, this is a much simplified account of the people you relied on just to get the chair you are sitting on now but you can use your imagination to see how the web of interconnectedness spreads from there. Every circumstance of your life depended (and depends) on other people, and they in turn depended on others, and so on and so on. Truly no man is an island, and even if he wanted to be, he couldn’t (this is essentially the law of causal interdependence which is discussed in more detail later).
Expanding on the second point; it doesn’t take much thought to realise that every human being on the planet is engaged in exactly the same task. We all desire to be free and happy from suffering. To be sure, some of us are more deluded about how to achieve this than others (“If I steal that car, I will finally be happy”), but since when have hatred and anger ever been a solution to ignorance?
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels (or Three Treasures)
The three jewels are the Buddha, Dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and Sangha (the Buddhist community). Taking refuge is usually done by stating the following:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
The act of taking refuge is, like most required actions in Buddhism, another way of strengthening the disciple’s commitment and forging a connection to the goal of Buddhism. It also reminds the student of the sources of support available to him or her as their spiritual quest progresses.
This section contains concepts and beliefs that are important in understanding Buddhism and which I think help give Buddhism a contextual frame of reference. Some of the things mentioned in this section are crucial ‘background’ features that the above ‘fundamental teachings’ are built into whereas others are less vital in terms of the goal of Buddhism but taught and believed with equal fervour. I have divided this section into two; the first half covers beliefs Buddhism couldn’t do without, while the second treats beliefs less central to the main line of Buddhist teaching.
Much of the material in this section is mystical in nature or deals with the supernatural. As such it is where Buddhism expresses its more mystical/religious side.
Framework – Crucial
Buddhists believe there are SIX REALMS OF EXISTENCE listed below from highest to lowest:
1. Gods – this realm is populated by long-lived beings who, depending on the karma that brought them here, may be absorbed in pleasure or in deep concentration. This realm, although perhaps looking something like what a Christian might imagine heaven to be like, is not nirvana. The god realm is temporary and the gods who live there have not achieved complete liberation from suffering. As a result, when the god’s positive karma is expended, he or she will fall back to a lower level.
2. Demigods – this realm is similar to that of the gods above them but because it is inferior in certain respects, they experience great jealousy, and this is the greatest delusion of this realm. As a result of this, they tend to be prone to fighting and are usually depicted in battle.
3. Humans – As we all know, this realm is full of the suffering of sickness, old age, and death as well as a near unquenchable desire for what we don’t have. Despite this, there are a number of pleasures associated with the human realm as well. It is considered quite a fortunate realm to be born in because there is enough suffering to motivate us to break free of samsara (see below) and enough freedom to realise it and do something about it.
4. Animals – this realm is characterised by a basic struggle for survival and a life dominated by instincts they can’t control.
5. Hungry ghost – this realm is full of beings who live with continual frustration and unsatisfied craving. The main form of suffering in this realm is continual hunger and thirst. Bad karma from miserliness is believed to land one here.
6. Hell-beings – this realm is filled with the most intense suffering of all the realms. It appears comparable to the Christian notion of hell and only the most terrible actions (such as murder) are sufficient to generate enough negative karma to earn one a rebirth here.
Quite different from typical Christian-influenced Western thought, none of these realms are permanent. The god realm is as impermanent as the Hell-being realm (although it is obviously a more comfortable form of impermanence to endure) and movement between the realms is never-ending. Hence the reason the Buddhist seeks liberation from being born in any one of them. None of them reflect the ultimate truth of reality.
Also note that being reborn in a particular realm is not a reward for ‘good behaviour’ or a punishment for ‘being bad’. Indeed, there isn’t even anyone to hand out any rewards or punishments. Rebirth in a certain realm occurs according to ones accumulated karma and is more like the operation of a natural law rather than the judgement of any one being.
SAMSARA(“cyclic existence”) is the Buddhist term for the endless cycle of birth and death we are all stuck on. The word conveys the sense of an uncontrollable wandering which leads nowhere. The nature of samsara is suffering and it is the goal of Buddhism to free oneself from this interminable cycle.
This obviously encapsulates the idea of reincarnation. After you die, rather than going on to an afterlife or simply ceasing to exist, Buddhists believe we are reborn in a new form. This rebirth is not restricted to the human realm of existence. If we have regressed spiritually, we may find ourselves reborn in one of the lower realms as an animal or ‘hungry ghost’ or conversely, if our karma has been good we might be reborn in a higher realm or even in a Buddha-field. The only way to break free from this cycle is to attain nirvana in one of these lifetimes.
You might argue that this is a depressing way to look at life. Is life really all that bad? Not necessarily (although for vast numbers of us living below the poverty line it is), but the point is that we all ride a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows each and every day with little to no control over which one we experience at any one time. Feelings of irritation, depression, anger, jealousy, even hatred are never more than a careless word or a well-placed insult away from upsetting your equanimity. And even when you do feel happy and satisfied (which typically just happens, i.e. it’s not something you control at will) it is only temporary.
KARMA is a vital part of Buddhism. It is basically a system of cause and effect which holds that your actions have consequences. Kind, compassionate actions will yield different consequences from cruel, selfish ones. This is actually quite an empowering doctrine because it means that you are responsible for your own life. It is important to realise that karma doesn’t last forever; it is ‘used up’ in the form of your experiences. Individual instances of karma, like everything in life, are only temporary although the ‘karmic machine’ will continue to turn for as long as you remain in ignorance.
Karmic effects can be felt in this lifetime but one special feature of karma is that there may be a time lag between the action and the effects, and this time lag can span one or even several lifetimes. Your actions in this lifetime may not produce their karmic consequences until three or four lifetimes from now! This is the reason bad people may seem to prosper (at least for now) and compassionate people may suffer.
Karma may also influence the conditions into which you are born in a future lifetime. Good karma may see you born into a wealthy family with plenty of opportunities to be exposed to Buddhism and therefore a good chance of continuing your spiritual training, but bad karma, on the other hand, may land you in a poor family with little chance for a good education and slim prospects of finding the Dharma.
Another important feature of karma is that it is intention-driven. Accidents don’t count. Only deliberate, intentional actions bring karmic consequences.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some great universal scheme of reward and punishment designed to churn out ethical boys and girls. Actions aren’t intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the way Western ethics has tended to think. Actions produce consequences, but there is no Grand Orchestrator spying on you from above handing out rewards to those who follow the ‘rules’ and punishments to those who break them.
Tradition has it that when the Buddha attained enlightenment he was able to see an individual’s karmic pattern and so could understand their current life situation in great detail.
When a practitioner does something to incur negative karma (such as violating one of the precepts) he or she can atone for it through a kind of confession, which may take place with a monk, alone in front of a Buddha image, or just alone to him or herself. This atonement doesn’t erase the negative karma but it does strengthen the practitioner’s resolve for the future.
Negative karma can also be purified. In the Theravada tradition, practicing virtuous living and engaging in spiritual training are generally considered sufficient for protecting one from negative karmic consequences. In the Vajrayana tradition, purification can be accomplished by applying the four opponent powers (the four R’s):
1. Regret – this entails feeling genuinely sorry for any harm you have caused and admitting your mistake. This should not be confused with guilt which is considered to be a negative emotion labelling one as ‘bad’ and focusing on the past
2. Resolve – this involves determining not to perform the harmful action again
3. Reliance – this entails depending on your refuge in the Three Jewels and ‘directing’ the non-virtuous action against them, allowing them to purify your karma
4. Remedy – this means taking positive actions to counterbalance the negative one. E.g. if you stole something, you might purify your karma by giving something away
One final point to note about karma concerns the collection of what is termed, ‘merit’. It is believed that virtuous actions build a store of positive energy, ‘merit’, that yields positive results in accordance with the law of karma. The person who benefits from your action is called the ‘field of merit’ and the more worthy the field of merit, the greater the merit created. Since monks and nuns are the most worthy of all fields of merit, offerings given to them (traditionally food) or the Buddhist temple create the most merit.
Buddhism spends a considerable amount of time looking at and coming to terms with DEATH. It distinguishes between the general, intellectual understanding that every human will die sometime and the deep, personal realisation that you will die one day. Most people seldom think about their death (note the, ‘their’) unless they are confronted with it through external circumstance, e.g. by someone close to them dying. But even this experience typically results in no more than a moment’s reflection before other thoughts and emotions crowd it out. Death is so important in Buddhism because it forces an honest accounting of what really matters most to you in this life.
Being born a human being represents a great opportunity to a Buddhist because, in a number of respects this realm is the most conducive of the six realms of existence to achieving enlightenment. As such, this lifetime is precious and the realisation that it will come to an end all too quickly can help focus our energies in the right direction.
This, you might call it ‘obsession’ with death, might sound depressing and even morbid, but the fact is that death is a reality of human existence. Most religions tend to downplay death, teaching that if you follow their specific rules, death is nothing more than a gateway into an eternity of good times. It’s not enough in Buddhism to believe in a particular creed, donate some money to a charity, and help little old ladies cross the street. Enlightenment (the only goal of Buddhism) cannot be achieved these ways and does not arise naturally at death if you just believe in the Buddha. Spiritual progress is not found in an afternoon of confession and repenting; it requires diligent practice over years. Death puts an end to this practice and with it, an end to this opportunity for progress. At death, unenlightened Buddhists don’t all go to a ‘Buddhist heaven’, they will be reborn, and the conditions of this new birth will reflect the progress they have made on the spiritual path in this lifetime.
Another way of looking at it is this:- other religions value and look forward to the afterlife more than life itself; Buddhism is the exact opposite of this. This life is the most precious thing (if for no other reason, enlightenment happens in life, not death) and your death brings that to a close. Another thing is that religions typically teach that some deity is looking out for you and, as such, your death happens according to some divine plan. This is another device which makes death less of a threat. In Buddhism, death is an impersonal event, not part of a grand plan, and this gives it much more of an existential punch.
With this said, Buddhism recommends that the practitioner keep his or her death in the forefront of the mind as a constant reminder and motivator and Buddhist spiritual training even includes meditations specifically focusing on death. The following are some important reflections that such meditations often encourage:
- The certainty of death
o Nothing you can do will allow you to escape it
o Your lifespan is always shrinking
o You will die whether or not you have achieved anything worthwhile in your life
- The time of your death is uncertain
o No one’s lifespan is guaranteed
o Many factors can contribute to your death
o The human body is fragile and susceptible to any number of life-threatening diseases and circumstances
- What won’t help you at your death:
o Friends and relatives
o A healthy, strong body
Although all Buddhist traditions value death as a motivator and existential reality there are some differences in how the different traditions look at it.
The Theravada tradition sees death as nothing more than the boundary marker of this life and the next. As such, the only option is to stop being reborn which is achieved, ironically by understanding that there is no self to die and no self to be reborn. The self is an illusion and when this is understood death (and rebirth) will have been avoided.
In the Vajrayana tradition, the unique nature of death can be an opportunity for enlightenment itself. Vajrayana practitioners believe in a subtle ‘energy’ body that exists in addition to the physical one. The energies that support every function of the physical body (including thoughts and emotions) flow through this subtle body. Vajrayana practice is designed to awaken a more ‘refined’ energy and have this flow through your body. This results in a state called the mind of clear light.
The mind of clear light is also experienced by everyone at death, even if only for a moment and, if one has trained enough in life, remaining conscious during this clear light experience at death gives one an opportunity to use it to achieve spiritual awakening. Even if you are unable to achieve complete liberation, you may still be able to direct your mind enough so that you can achieve rebirth in favourable conditions for achieving enlightenment (possibly even in the so-called Buddha-field).
Zen Buddhism advocates fearlessness in the face of death. In overcoming the illusion of separateness, the Zen practitioner recognises that he or she is one with everything and not, in fact a separate little “I” amongst other separate “I’s”. In a practical sense, the everyday focus of Zen recommends giving your full attention to whatever activity you are engaged in so that you dissolve the self (the separate subject) into the action itself leaving nothing behind but an event.
Although Buddhism has more than its fair share of MYSTICAL AND SUPERNATURAL BELIEFS, as the above makes clear, most Buddhists see supernatural powers, energies, altered states, and other psychic phenomena as a distraction from the real purpose of spiritual training, which is to achieve enlightenment.
To be clear, they believe these things are real, they just see them as more impermanent experiences. You might start seeing visions that foretell the future, but according to Buddhism these visions won’t (and can’t) do anything to alleviate the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and the illusion of the self) from your life. You still haven’t penetrated your ignorance to an insight capable of creating truly lasting happiness, a truth so fundamental that it doesn’t change because it’s not an experience at all; it is the nature of reality itself.
You might be wondering where all the answers to the big questions are. How did the universe appear? Where did humans come from? Is the universe eternal? Does a Buddha exist after death? It is usually one of the main jobs of religion to explain these and other equally profound questions. Buddhism doesn’t have much to say on the matter though. In fact, the Buddha was notorious for avoiding abstract discussions and for keeping his teachings practical. Ultimately, the Buddha considered these questions meaningless because whatever the answer, it wouldn’t alleviate our suffering or help us reach a permanent, lasting happiness.
THE PARABLE OF THE POISONED ARROW captures this sentiment perfectly:
A monk complained to the Buddha that if wouldn’t answer his questions about the universe then he would give up his Buddhist training. Shakyamuni asked him to imagine a man wounded by an arrow. The man’s relatives find a doctor who can remove the arrow but he refuses assistance until he can have a long list of questions answered. Questions such as, “What was the name of the man who shot me? Which village does he come from? How tall is he? What kind of wood was the arrow made from?”, etc. This wounded man would die long before his questions can be answered.
In the same way, a person who will not follow the spiritual path until all his questions about life can be answered, would die long before he could receive satisfactory answers.
The point is that it just doesn’t matter what the answers to these questions are – they are irrelevant to the spiritual life. Whether the world is eternal or not, a person is still faced with suffering in the form of sickness, old age, death, sorrow, unquenched desire, and so on. The ONLY thing that matters in life is overcoming this and finding a permanent source of equanimity and peace.
Framework – Sundry (There are many events/beliefs which could be presented in this section but I have chosen only a few to give the reader a general impression)
Buddhists undertake PILGRIMAGES and regard four sites to be of major significance:
- Lumbini – the site of the Buddha’s birth
- Bodh Gaya – the site where he attained full enlightenment
- Sarnath – the site of his first discourse
- Kushinagar – the site where he died
Some Buddhist tradidtions perform CIRCUMAMBULATION around sacred objects. Pilgrims walk around the sacred object (e.g. a statue, shrine, etc.) in a clockwise direction, keeping the object to their right at all times.
Buddhists are awaiting their own version of a SECOND COMING. They believe that the era of Shakyamuni’s teachings will last 5,000 years (we are already halfway through) and afterwards, the Dharma he taught will be lost to us. At this point, basically everything is going to turn to s*%t. Morality will be a thing of the past as hatred and greed take over, diseases and sickness will ran rampant, and natural disasters will cause havoc on earth.
When things have gotten as bad as they can, the future Buddha, Maitreya, will appear and usher in a new era of peace and happiness. I should note that Buddhists believe Maitreya is currently abiding in a realm called ‘Tushita Heaven’.
Buddhists REVERE CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS, particularly those associated with the Buddha. Two examples of this are a so-called ‘Temple of the Sacred Tooth’, in Sri Lanka, which enshrines a tooth said to belong to Shakyamuni Buddha, and a golden monument in Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda, which contains eight of the Buddha’s hairs.
It is believed that the Buddha ASCENDED TO HEAVEN where his mother had been reborn and imparted some special teachings to aid her in reaching enlightenment. Afterwards, he descended back to earth.
Another legend is that of the ‘great miracle of Sravasti’, where the Buddha is believed to have displayed MIRACULOUS POWERS. Legend says that after his enlightenment, the Buddha declined to engage with other philosophy or religious teachers in either debates or contests of ‘powers’ but, realising that he could attract many followers in one hit, he finally agreed to take part in one such challenge.
To win the contest, it is reported that, while levitating, water poured from his feet and fire came from his shoulders. The other masters along with their followers immediately became disciples of the Buddha.
In Pure Land Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism popular in East Asia) three texts, called the Land of Bliss Sutras, supposedly teach one how to live and die so that one can earn rebirth in the BUDDHA-FIELD (or Pure Land), created by Amitabha Buddha. Once being born in this higher realm, the practitioner receives instruction from Amitabha Buddha and a number of bodhisattvas until liberation is complete. The individual then has the choice of returning as a bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help sentient beings achieve enlightenment or to stay in the Pure Land.
The fundamental (and only) goal of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment. ‘Enlightenment’ is a formidable concept to understand as it is often accompanied with lots of flowery language that doesn’t really explain anything like, “merging with the All”, or “transcending time and space”, but it needn’t be like this.
Enlightenment describes someone who has put an end to their suffering and who has completely overcome ignorance and desire. It also signals that the individual has completely severed all ties to samsara and therefore need not be reborn again in any plane after death.
It is essentially a permanent state of mind where one has completely and totally seen through the inauthentic and illusory to the true nature of reality. This knowledge is not intellectual but ‘ingrained’ in the very core of the master’s being so that he or she no longer experiences suffering in any form and abides in complete tranquillity, contentment, and bliss.
This difference between intellectual knowledge and what I will call essential knowledge may be hard to understand. I look at it like this. As children, your parents probably told you that the stove is hot and you shouldn’t touch it. Even though you believed them, what did you do as soon as their backs were turned? You touched it and got burned. From that day on, touching the stove never even enters your mind as a feasible choice in life.
Likewise, reading about Buddhist beliefs gives you knowledge but even though you ‘know’ (intellectually) that your mental habits are conditioning your responses or that the self is an illusion, you continue to act in ways that reinforce these untruths; you still desire a new car, still get upset when someone insults you, etc. An enlightened master (someone for whom the intellectual knowledge has become essential) no longer experiences desire for something or anger at anyone, in the same way that you no longer experience the urge to touch the stove; he or she believes in your intellectual truth so deeply that desiring something or getting angry is just no longer a feasible choice in life.
The words of one of the Buddha’s disciples capture this distinction between intellectual and essential knowledge perfectly:
“Those truths of which before I had only heard, now I dwell having experienced them directly within the body, and I observe them with penetrating insight.” [i]
Enlightenment is the only instance of permanence to be found anywhere in Buddhism because while everything else is an experience and therefore temporary; enlightenment is not an experience; it is a piercing insight into the nature of reality itself.
The term ‘enlightenment’ has recently attracted to itself a somewhat negative association as being an ‘emptying’ or ‘annihilation’ or ‘extinction’ of the ego. To the Western mind this sounds like nihilism. This is not true. Enlightenment is not the extinction of everything, it is the extinction of greed, hate, delusion, and perhaps most terrifyingly, the extinction of the individual, finite self we imagine ourselves to be.
This may very well seem like the extinction of everything to an individual and in a way it is. But Buddhism maintains it does not leave ‘nothing’ in its wake, rather once one can get beyond the individual, a far greater, permanent, and abiding sense of bliss awaits.
Although different Buddhist traditions all see enlightenment in fundamentally the same way, there are some differences which it will be interesting to note. I will briefly look at the same three traditions highlighted in the preceding section; Theravada, Vajrayana, and Zen.
Nirvana (a word which carries the same meaning as ‘enlightenment’ and literally translates as ‘extinguishing’, meaning to ‘extinguish’ the desire, hatred, and ignorance that prevents us from seeing reality as it really is) is achieved through four stages and by following three specific training methods. The three methods are:
1. Moral discipline – this is largely dealt with through adherence to the eightfold path (see next section) and cultivating compassion.
2. Concentration – this refers to meditation.
3. Wisdom – this includes the study of Buddhist teachings and the knowledge gained from direct insight.
The four stages a Theravada disciple progresses through are:
1. Stream-enterer – This person has broken three of the ten fetters (see diagram below) and will attain nirvana within seven more lifetimes.
2. Once-returner – This person has weakened the fourth and fifth fetters (in addition to breaking the first three) and will also attain nirvana within seven rebirths. However, the once-returner will only be reborn in the human world once more.
3. Non-returner – This person has completely abandoned the lower five fetters and will not be born again in the human world.
4. Arhat – This person has achieved nirvana and is fully awakened. Upon death the Arhat will not be reborn again in any plane, having wholly escaped samsara.
The Ten Fetters:
1. Belief in a self-identity
2. Doubt in the Buddhist teachings
3. Attachment to rituals
4. Sensual desire (craving)
5. Ill-will (aversion)
6. Desire for material rebirth
7. Desire for immaterial rebirth
8. Conceit (pride)
Nirvana is attained through looking deeply into the heart and mind. Three realisations that are important here are:
1. The cultivation of compassionate activity for the benefit of all beings.
2. Discovering the truth that there is no self.
3. Discovering that reality is non-dual, meaning that the subject-object distinction is an illusion.
Vajrayana Buddhism begins the path to enlightenment by cultivating positive qualities, such as loving-kindness and compassion, before progressing to insights into the nature of the mind and reality.
Being a part of the Mahayana tradition, Vajrayana Buddhism places more emphasis on the previously mentioned Bodhisattva (a being who works for the benefit of all beings) than the Theravada tradition and tends to see this as the ultimate goal rather than the Arhat.
Zen Buddhism tends not to promote a progressive path to liberation like other traditions. Rather, it teaches that enlightenment is always available to anyone at any time. In essence, we are all enlightened Buddhas, right here and now… we just don’t know it. Therefore, realising this truth, rather than coming after a path of rigorous spiritual practice, can be experienced immediately as a sudden burst of insight called satori (“understanding”). This perspective asserts that nothing needs to be added or changed to inspire enlightenment; all you need to do is awaken to the true nature of your mind and reality, and that can be done in a heartbeat.
Some Zen masters de-emphasise enlightenment as a goal by teaching that sitting in meditation is itself the experience of nirvana. In general though, Zen masters are famous for their focus on everyday activities and for downplaying the significance of any special ‘awakened’ state.
Zen also has a strong tradition of ‘special transmission’ where insight is ‘transmitted’ directly from master to disciple without words. This tradition has its origins in another Buddhist legend. One day, the Buddha picked up a flower and showed it to a group of his followers. One of his disciples smiled, experiencing the wordless transmission the Buddha had offered. This conforms to Zen’s reluctance to use words and intellectual concepts to engage with a topic they see as being ultimately inexpressible by reason.
Despite the less path-oriented approach that Zen masters sometimes teach, there is a ‘path’ highlighted in something known as the ten ox-herding pictures. The ten pictures represent the stages of training the mind by comparing them to taming an ox, starting at the first picture with an individual’s search for the ox and ending on the tenth with complete liberation.
The Practice - Meditation
Meditation is the principal tool Buddhism relies on to achieve enlightenment. It is used as a purifying tool and a way to gain insight into the true nature of reality, i.e. overcome ignorance to liberate oneself from suffering. In short, meditation is the method used to get to know our own minds (the central concern of Buddhism).
As a preliminary step to understanding meditation, look at how your mind is operating right now. It has been conditioned and influenced by countless sources throughout your entire life, sources that have shaped your attitudes and conditioned your current responses as surely as a potter moulds clay into the shape he wants. Even a cursory examination of our minds will reveal that by in large, our mental lives are lived as a series of ‘blind’ reactions to external stimuli with little to no genuine thought. We just follow old, well-trodden, habitual modes of thinking and react in ways we have been conditioned to act since birth. Someone cuts us off in traffic and immediately we get angry. Why? Of course we can justify it to ourselves but the truth is that the anger does not follow the justification, the justification follows the anger, and the anger is nothing but a conditioned response. We see an ad on TV for the latest Apple I-Pad and a sudden desire is aroused in us to buy it. It truly seems that if we only had that I-Pad, we would be happy. How is it that this desire can be aroused in us so quickly? Again, we can, of course, articulate why we need the I-Pad but the desire arose prior to our reasoned analysis, it was a conditioned reflex.
The first goal of Buddhist meditation is to first notice this ‘mindless’ way most of us live our lives and second, by noticing it gain some control over it so that we are able to stop simply reacting to external situations according to our conditioning. From this relatively modest starting point, concentration abilities are enhanced and deep penetrating insights into the nature of reality are sought.
The three skills that Buddhist meditation aspires to cultivate are:
1. Mindful awareness – mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist meditation and essentially means paying attention to what you are experiencing; thoughts, feelings, sensations, moods, etc., all without passing judgement. Usually we comment on and judge everything as soon as we notice it; “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, etc. Mindfulness asks us to simply observe without resistance, judgement, or attachment to what is happening.
2. Concentration – your powers of concentration naturally deepen the more you practice mindfulness and this allows you to experience deeper levels of absorption in the experience of the present moment as it is.
3. Insight – meditation opens the door to a personal, meaningful insight into the true nature of reality and the self, which dispels the ignorance upon which your suffering is grounded and frees you from your habitual patterns. It is this that leads to greater joy and peace, ultimately leading to liberation and enlightenment. Although the different ‘schools’ may express the exact nature of this insight in different ways, the liberating quality remains the same.
At the risk of plying one too many lists, let me throw one more at you; meditation is the culmination of a three-step process that lays the groundwork for the ultimate insight and goes by the name, the three wisdoms:
1. The wisdom gained from listening – this is like the information-gathering phase where material is actively sourced and listened to or read.
2. The wisdom gained from reflection – this is another active phase and involves analysing the assimilated information until its meaning has been understood.
3. The wisdom gained from meditation – this is a less active phase where you meditate on the conclusions you reached from reflective contemplation and they are allowed to become fully integrated into your person, they permeate your mind, and become more than just an intellectual truth for you. They become truths that change you from the inside out, you don’t just know the truths you are them.
There are a number of different meditation techniques. Some require the student to focus attention on the breath, others involve meditation on certain objects, others just encourage an objective ‘witnessing’ of any and all thoughts/impressions that arise without passing judgement or attaching to them. But all meditation is a method for ‘getting behind’ the overactive conscious mind and thereby seeing things as they really are, not as we have been conditioned to see them.
Theravada uses vipassana (“insight”) meditation which aims to directly perceive the impermanence and illusory nature of the self. It starts by developing concentration. Typically the meditator fixes his or her attention on a single object, often the breath. This practice enhances concentration abilities and allows the practitioner to experience tranquillity in the form of a calm, peaceful mind. This state is called samatha.
Onto samatha, the meditator then adds the vipassana practice, which involves directing the samatha enhanced awareness to observe some aspect of the body or mind. There are four ‘fields’ (sometimes called the four foundations of mindfulness) where this awareness can be directed. The first two relate to the body and the last two relate to the mind.
1. Body – this involves being aware of general aspects of the body and includes any of six examples (breathing, body posture, constant change in body activity, the loathsomeness of the body, the material elements of which the body is composed, and the inevitability of the decay of the body).
2. Body sensations – this involves observing physical sensations that arise in the body (butterflies in the stomach, flushed cheeks, etc.)
3. Mind – this involves observing general states of the mind or moods (confused, worried, calm, etc.)
4. Mind objects – this refers to observing ones thoughts.
The idea is to observe each of the four fields without judgement and without comment, just noticing. With practice, the aim is to achieve a deep, penetrating insight, one that knows essentially not just intellectually, into the truth that each of these fields displays the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and lack of self-existence) and thereby liberate oneself from them.
The two keys that make vipassana meditation powerful are; 1) the deep insight into the ‘self’ and 2) not what the meditator observes, but how. The meditator must observe the body and mind in a detached way so that he or she doesn’t identify with them, i.e. without judgement or comment. The whole point of this is to see through the illusory nature of our body and mind and we can’t do that if we are continually validating them by making them ‘ours’.
Tantric meditation practices operate through quite unique methods. Tantric practitioners use their bodies more than any other tradition and the reason for this is to enhance focus and concentration by creating ordered and rigorous patterns out of what are typically disordered and irregular events.
These methods involve elaborate rituals that require complex meditations involving:
- Detailed meditative visualisations typically of one of the many deities the tradition values
- The repetition of mantras which focus the mind through sound
- The use of mandalas (complex, mystical diagrams) that focus the mind through sight. Rituals with mandalas also serve as ways of inviting deities into the presence of the practitioner. They are often for one-time use
- Mudras (stylised and choreographed hand gestures) which focus the mind through movement
For followers of this tradition, meditation is about the present moment and seeks to bring about a flash of insight into the true nature of reality. Such a spiritual awakening often comes about, not only based on the student’s efforts, but also as the result of a ‘special transmission’ from the teacher to the disciple.
The point of this story is that the truth of ultimate reality can be expressed clearly and directly without words. Words serve to overlay mental concepts onto reality which allows us to understand it intellectually but which also obscure the more fundamental truth that the division of the world into experiencer and experienced, or subject and object, is illusory; i.e. reality is simply experience itself. Zen is an attempt to realise this non-conceptual, non-dual nature of reality.
Rinzai Zen makes use of the famous ‘koans’ (or ‘paradoxical stories’) to bypass our rational, conceptual minds and arouse a direct insight into reality. An example of a well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The master typically poses the koan and asks the student to reflect on it in meditation for a time, after which he or she will offer a response that the master either accepts or rejects.
Soto Zen focuses on zazen (sitting meditation) which emphasises correct posture and unbroken awareness of the present moment. The master may strike sleepy students with a stick to help them maintain focus.
Another important feature of Zen is carrying the focused attention one develops in meditation over into everyday tasks. In this way, all of life becomes an opportunity for spiritual practice.
 There is such a breed of folk out there nowadays; people who reject the myths and superstitions of religion while nevertheless maintaining its importance and extolling the ‘benefits’ that come with it. As it relates to Christianity, I call such people ‘neo-Christians’.
 This refers to a term I have coined for Christians, neo-Christians, who deny that Christianity needs its supernatural and mythical elements to be effective.
 Mahayanists even coined a pejorative word to describe the practice of those who aim only for personal liberation, Hinayana, which means “Lesser Vehicle”.
 Although bear in mind that, given that the teachings of the Buddha were recounted after his death, committed to memory and passed down orally for four hundred years before being written down in the first century, no one really knows what the Buddha actually taught anymore.
 See the ‘framework-sundry’ section below.
 See the next section for a discussion of the six realms.
 See the next section for more about this.
[i] Samyutta Nikaya, Apana Sutta, quoted in Smith and Novak (2003), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, p. 83.