What is Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism was Buddha Shakyamuni who lived and taught in India some two and a half thousand years ago. Since then millions of people around the world have followed the pure spiritual path he revealed. The Buddhist way of life of peace, loving kindness and wisdom is just as relevant today as it was in ancient India. Buddha explained that all our problems and suffering arise from confused and negative states of mind, and that all our happiness and good fortune arise from peaceful and positive states of mind. He taught methods for gradually overcoming our negative minds such as anger, jealousy and ignorance, and developing our positive minds such as love, compassion and wisdom. Through this we will come to experience lasting peace and happiness. These methods work for anyone, in any country, in any age. Once we have gained experience of them for ourselves we can pass them on to others so they too can enjoy the same benefits.

Meditation

Meditation is at the heart of the Buddhist way of life. It is basically a method for understanding and working on our own mind. We first learn to identify our different negative mental states known as ‘delusions’, and learn how to develop peaceful and positive mental states or ‘virtuous minds’.

Then in meditation we overcome our delusions by becoming familiar with virtuous minds. Out of meditation we try to maintain the virtuous minds we have developed and use our wisdom to solve the problems of daily life. As our mind becomes more positive our actions become more constructive, and our experience of life becomes more satisfying and beneficial to others.

Anyone can learn basic meditation techniques and experience great benefits, but to progress beyond basic meditation requires faith in the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Usually people find this develops naturally as they experience the benefits of their meditation practice.

The spiritual path

The teachings of Buddha reveal a step by step path to lasting happiness. By following this path anyone can gradually transform his or her mind from its present confused and self-centered state into the blissful mind of a Buddha.

As Geshe Kelsang says in his popular book Eight Steps to Happiness:

Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha, someone who has completely purified his or her mind of all faults and limitations and has brought all good qualities to perfection. Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by the clouds of delusions.

Just as the thickest clouds eventually disperse, so too even the heaviest delusions can be removed from our mind. Delusions such as hatred, greed, and ignorance are not an intrinsic part of the mind. If we apply the appropriate methods they can be completely eliminated, and we shall experience the supreme happiness of full enlightenment.

Having attained enlightenment we shall have all the necessary qualities – universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom and boundless spiritual power – to lead all living beings to the same exalted state. This is the ultimate aim of Mahayana Buddhism.

History of Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism in this world is Buddha Shakyamuni. He was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal. ‘Shakya’ is the name of the royal family into which he was born, and ‘Muni’ means ‘Able One’. His parents gave him the name Siddhartha and there were many wonderful predictions about his future. In his early years he lived as a prince in his royal palace but when he was 29 years old he retired to the forest where he followed a spiritual life of meditation. After six years he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.

He was subsequently requested to teach and as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Introduction to Buddhism:

‘As a result of this request, Buddha rose from meditation and taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism. Later, Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism. In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are also beginning to flourish in the West.’

In all Buddha Shakyamuni gave eighty-four thousand teachings. His intention in founding Buddhism was to lead living beings to permanent liberation from suffering. He realized temporary liberation from suffering and difficulties is not enough. Motivated by love and compassion his aim was to help living beings find lasting peace or nirvana.

Buddhism Beliefs

Since some background knowledge of rebirth and karma is useful for understanding Buddhism, there now follows a brief introduction to these topics taken from Geshe Kelsang’s book, Eight Steps to Happiness:

The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body.

The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, call ‘the very subtle mind’. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end, and it is this mind which, when completely purified, transforms into the omniscient mind of a Buddha.

Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Positive or virtuous actions sow the seeds of future happiness, and negative or non-virtuous actions sow the seeds of future suffering. This definite relationship between actions and their effects – virtue causing happiness and non-virtue causing suffering – is know as the ‘law of karma’. An understanding of the law of karma is the basis of Buddhist morality.

After we die our very subtle mind leaves our body and enters the intermediate state, or ‘bardo’ in Tibetan. In this subtle dream-like state we experience many different visions that arise from the karmic potentials that were activated at the time of our death. These visions may be pleasant or terrifying depending on the karma that ripens. Once these karmic seeds have fully ripened they impel us to take rebirth without choice.

It is important to understand that as ordinary samsaric beings we do not choose our rebirth but are reborn solely in accordance with our karma. If good karma ripens we are reborn in a fortunate state, either as a human or a god, but if negative karma ripens we are reborn in a lower state, as an animal, a hungry ghost, or a hell being. It is as if we are blown to our future lives by the winds of our karma, sometimes ending up in higher rebirths, sometimes in lower rebirths.

This uninterrupted cycle of death and rebirth without choice is called ‘cyclic existence’, or ‘samsara’ in Sanskrit.

This uninterrupted cycle of death and rebirth without choice is called ‘cyclic existence’, or ‘samsara’ in Sanskrit. Samsara is like a Ferris wheel, sometimes taking us up into the three fortunate realms, sometimes down into the three lower realms. The driving force of the wheel of samsara is our contaminated actions motivated by delusions, and the hub of the wheel is self-grasping ignorance. For as long as we remain on this wheel we shall experience an unceasing cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, and we shall have no opportunity to experience pure, lasting happiness. By practicing the Buddhist path to liberation and enlightenment, however, we can destroy self-grasping, thereby liberating ourself from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth and attaining a state of perfect peace and freedom.