Though not very well known outside of Asia before the twentieth century, today Buddhism is well established throughout North America, Australia, Western Europe, Latin America, and The Soviet Union as well as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, China and Korea. There are currently anywhere from 350 to 500 million Buddhist throughout the world.
The birth of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, (Sanskrit spelling) or Siddhattha Gotama, (Pali spelling), is steeped in legend and myth. His mother, Queen Maha-Maya conceived him in a dream. According to the Jataka and Buddha-charita, four guardian angels took her to the Himalaya Mountains, bathed her in Anotatta Lake to remove her every human stain, and then at Silver Hill, in a golden mansion, Buddha, as a white elephant, walked around her three times and entered her womb.
When the king was told of this he summoned 64 Hindu priests for their interpretation of the dream. They told him that if his son should live the royal life he would become a monarch but if he left he would become the Buddha. Then 32 miracles happened. The thousand worlds quaked, the fires went out in all of the hells, diseases ceased, musical instruments played themselves, the ocean's water became sweet . . .
In a garden of sal trees known as Lumbini Grove, with the tallest tree offering her a branch for support, the Queen delivered the Buddha. He immediately took seven strides to survey the entire Earth and proclaimed himself chief, best and foremost.
A more practical explanation of the Buddha's birth is that on a full moon in May in the year of 623 (or depending on the source, 560, 563, 567 B.C.E. ) he was born in the district of Nepal as an Indian Sakyan Prince to his father, King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya. His mother died shortly after his birth. Mahā Pajāpati Gotamī became his foster mother.
When he was sixteen he married his beautiful cousin, Princess Yasodharā. For thirteen years he lived a life of luxury, unaware of the harsh reality outside of the palace gates. At the age of 29 his son Rāhula was born, whom he viewed as an obstacle, for he became aware of the suffering caused by disease, age and death. He renounced his royal life of pleasure, left home, embraced the simple ways of austerity and went forth in search of truth. It is often said that the turning point in his life had been inspired by seeing a sick man, an old man and a dead man. It caused him to agonize over the meaning of life. He first tried the life of a holy man, renouncing the worldly life for six years with Hindu teachers but found this brought no answers.
Yoga, meditation, fasting and self denial wasn't the way to enlightenment. Doing away with the excesses of his former princely life as well as those of the ascetic he discovered the Middle Way. He spent four or seven weeks in meditation under a fig tree resisting the temptations of Mara, the devil, until he reached enlightenment. A state of mind that was supposed to transcend knowledge and understanding.
Achieving this state, he became the Buddha, or enlightened or awakened one. Achieving Nirvana, the perfect peace. The Buddha is perceived slightly different depending on the school of Buddhist thought to which one subscribes. Either he was just a man who found enlightenment and taught it to others, or he was the final in a series of Buddha to come to preach to the world, or he is one of the Bodhisattva, those enlightened teachers assisting others to achieve Nirvana.
Setting out to teach, the Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park in the city of Benares to only five bhikkus or disciples. In order to follow the course of the Middle Way, he taught, one must become well acquainted and practice the Four Noble Truths.
The noble truth that is suffering.
The noble truth that is the arising of suffering.
The noble truth that is the end of suffering.
The noble truth that is the way leading to the end of suffering.
Gautama was the Tathagata, or teacher, of the Middle Way, encouraging his disciples to seek the truth on their own, without divine inspiration. The idea struck a chord in Indian society, as a condemnation of the corrupted and selfish practices of the Hindu Brahmans, social restriction and oppression of the caste system and impractical asceticism of the mystic religions. The first sangha, or order of monks was established as Buddhism begin to gain acceptance. Gautama died when he was 80 years old.
About 200 years after his death, in the third century B.C.E. Emperor Aoeoka, who was ruling over most of India, made Buddhism the State religion. He had been inspired to do this by seeing the suffering caused by his own conquests. He built Buddhist monuments, and sent out missionaries throughout India, Syria, Greece, Egypt and Sri Lanka effectively beginning the spread of Buddhism throughout the world.
During the sixth and seventh centuries as Buddhism was spreading it was losing influence in it's homeland of India. The order of monks began to delve deeper and deeper into the philosophical and metaphysical, losing touch with the common people. By the thirteenth century the state had reverted to Hindu practice, and Buddhist holy places were in ruins. Buddhism was all but gone from India. In the twentieth century political upheaval in China and Southeast Asia put Buddhist under severe trial. Monasteries and temples were destroyed and monks and nuns were driven away, imprisoned or killed, though this didn't have a lasting effect.
Though there is much debate among Buddhist scholars as to whether or not it is true, tradition indicates that shortly after Gautama's death a council of five hundred monks gathered to decide what his authentic teachings had been. This seems highly unlikely since it was not until five hundred to a thousand years after his death that these teachings were committed to writing as late as the fifth century C.E.
The first of these were written in Pali during the reign of King Vattagamani Abhaya of the first century B.C.E. By the time the earliest canonical texts had graduated from oral tradition to the written word Buddhism had separated into different schools. The Three Baskets, or Three Collections were the first teachings to be committed to writing. They consist of 31 books organized into three collections called the Tipitaka (Pali) or Tripitaka (Sanskrit). The Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) consists of rules and regulations for the monastery, the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses) consists of sermons, proverbs and parables and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Ultimate Doctrine) consists of doctrinal commentaries. These are commonly accepted by the Theravada school.
There is a monumental wealth of writings connected to the Mahayana school. The Buddha's intention of keeping his teachings within reach of every class of people, educated or simple, has at times, been thoroughly put to the test. It seems to have surpassed the complexities he originally had rejected in Hinduism. The Hindu Karma and Samsara resonate still throughout Buddhism, at least in part, though Buddha rejected the immortal soul and considered the person as a combination of physical and mental forces. The difficulties arise with a conflict of the anatta (no self) and the gradual acceptance of the transmigration of an immortal soul, reincarnation, ancestor worship and hell.
In addition to Karma and Samsara, there is, of course, Nirvana. Impossible to explain it can only be experienced. The word itself means "blowing out, extinguishing." Some describe it as a cessation of passion and desire, a liberation from the sensory - of pain, fear, desire, love, hate. Eternal peace. Really a cessation of individual existence.
There are four primary schools of Buddhism, though various sects in those schools. The Mahayana or Greater Vehicle is most prominent in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. It subscribes to the idea of enlightenment as available to everyone, not through self discipline but through faith in Buddha and compassion for all living things. Due to its more liberal approach there have sprung from this school many sects.
The Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) or Theravada (Way of the Elders) school of Buddhism can be found primarily in Thailand, Laos, Burma and Sri Lanka. More conservative of the schools, it is centered on gaining wisdom and working out salvation through a renunciation of the world. In other words, the life of a monk in a monastery devoted to meditation and study. The goal of monastic life is to become liberated from suffering of life in a sense, and to gain spiritual perfection as an arhat.
Lamaism is also known as Tibetan Buddhism or Mantrayana (Mantra Vehicle) due to their use of mantras. A sort of chant with a series of meaningless syllables. They focus on ritual, prayer, magic and spiritism. The sort of complicated rituals in this school must be taught through lamas such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. When a lama dies the search for a child to whom the previous lama is said to have reincarnated into as the next one is sought out.
Zen Buddhism gets its name from the words chan (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana which means meditation. Important to this school is works and study. You can see the influence of this Buddhism in art forms such as poetry, gardening, flower arrangement, ink painting and calligraphy, especially as this school tends to thrive in the Western countries.
It is common in Buddhism today for monks to give little attention to the sublimity of the religion. Nirvana is commonly thought to be an unrealistic goal and meditation is no longer practiced. The more specialized Buddhism is the more it estranges itself from the original teachings. Much of it has drifted from the grasp of the people and replaced with complex doctrine, traditions, legends, myth and division. In this sense the teachings of Buddha, not unlike any other teachings transmogrified by the religious, has failed itself.
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