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Around the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the shade of a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as the Buddha. This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil. People should follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, so that they can enter the perfect state of nirvana.
The Buddha told people not to have many worldly possessions. Then they would not feel pain or be unhappy. The Buddha taught people to be kind and gentle. They must not kill or hurt living beings. He wanted people to think good thoughts and to help other people. According to Buddha' s teaching, each person lives many times. This is called reincarnation. If a person is bad during one life, he might be an animal or an insect in the next life. The Buddha taught that if people lived a very good life, after many births they would not have to come back to earth any more. Then they would have reached the state of nirvana, a state in which there is no death or birth.
The Four Noble Truths
The First Noble Truth points out that the human condition is steeped in suffering, that in some way life has become estranged from reality. The Second Noble Truth tells us the cause of life's dislocation. Anxiety and suffering are caused by indulging in inherently insatiable desires. All forms of selfishness tend to separate us from others, life, and reality. The Third Noble Truth states a logical conclusion: suffering will cease when we suppress, overcome, and master these cravings and desires. We must develop non attachment to the things of the world. The Fourth Noble Truth tells us how this cure is accomplished---by following the Noble Eight-fold Path.
The Eight-fold Path
Buddha's analysis of the problems of life in the Four Noble Truths is essentially that of a therapist; and the Eight-fold Path is the course of treatment through training. First one needs to have right knowledge in order to have the facts, principles, and values to establish a wise life plan. Second, right aspirations are required to give power to this plan. The heart as well as the head must be dedicated to our goals. Third, right speech is needed to take hold of what is in our consciousness which controls our thinking. We need to change our speech and thinking toward truth and charity. Fourth, right behavior should be initiated to further change and control our lives. We must follow the Five Precepts: do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, or drink intoxicants. Fifth, we should engage in a right livelihood. Spiritual progress is difficult if one's occupation pulls in the opposite direction. One should not take work which weakens or destroys life but serve in those occupations that promote life. Sixth, right effort is needed to keep us growing in spiritual attainment. Buddha laid great stress on the importance of the will in determining our destiny. He had more confidence in the long steady pull than in quick spurts of activity. Seventh,, we need right mindfulness to sustain our growth. Few teachers have equaled Buddha's emphasis on the mind as the shaper and determiner of the course of human life. The Damma-pada opens with the words, "All we are is the result of what we have thought." We should wisely control our state of consciousness. Eighth, right contemplation and absorption finally brings the aspirant into a transmutation of consciousness which transcends the worldly preoccupation with things, desires, and suffering. Those who have followed the eight-fold path and arrived at the point of achieving Nirvana are called arhat, or "saint."
The Buddha's Teachings
Gautama Buddha taught a way of life devoid of authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, and the supernatural. He stressed intense self-effort. His last words before he died at the age of eighty were, "Work out your own salvation with diligence." Gautama accepted the law of karma and reincarnation. He saw Nirvana not as a state of extinction or annihilation but as "the highest destiny of the human spirit." It is so totally different that it is "incomprehensible, indescribably, inconceivable, unutterable...bliss."
Buddha did not believe in the existence of a personal God; nor did he believe that man had a soul. He tended to deny the existence of substance of every kind and saw the transitoriness of all finite things and beings; he stressed impermanence. Man's life after achieving Nirvana is unfathomable - "reborn does not belong to him nor not-born, or any combination of such terms." some scholars have pointed out that Buddhism in its earliest form was not a religion but a system of psychological-ethical discipline based on a pessimistic philosophy of life. Although there is some truth in this evaluation, there is much that is positive in Buddha's teaching.
The scripture of Buddhism is the Tripitaka (Three Baskets of Wisdom), made up of the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), the Sutta Pitaka (Teaching Basket), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Higher Doctrine Basket). Parts of the Tripitaka such as the Dhamma-pada and the Sutta-Nipata are among the most expressive religious books in the world. Some of Buddha's parables are very similar to those used by Jesus.
Buddhism has been divided into two major branches which have in turn been subdivided into numerous sects. Today one may find in this one family of religions nearly every form of religious belief and expression on the planet.
Theravada Buddhism's Teachings
Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) or Theravada Buddhism concentrated in Southeast Asia is conservative and more closely follows the original teachings of Buddha. It sees man as entirely dependent on self-effort, teaches wisdom as the key virtue and regards religion as a full-time job, primarily for monks. They regard Buddha as a saint, eschew metaphysics and ritual, and limit prayer to meditation. Their ideal is arhat (sainthood).
Mahayana Buddhism's Teachings
Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism has spread throughout the world and rests on the principle that Buddha taught many things in secret to the elect who could properly interpret them. It sees man as involved with others and saved by grace. It teaches compassion as the key virtue and believes its religion is relevant to life in the world; therefore, it is a religion for laymen as well as monks. The Mahayana branch sees Buddha as a savior, welcomes metaphysics and ritual, and engages in petitionary prayer. Their ideal is the Bodhisattva---a mortal who has achieved enlightenment and after death postpones Nirvana attainment to serve in heaven answering prayers and helping mortals who are in need. Mahayana Buddhism regards Buddha as a divine savior--pre-existent, planfully incarnate, supernaturally conceived, miraculously born, sinless, with a redemptive purpose, all knowing, and everlasting. Buddha has been made a member of the Buddhist Trinity.
Other branches of Buddhism's Teachings
The Intuitive Sects such as Ch'an and Zen emphasize that the truths of religion do not come through rational thought processes but through a sudden flash of insight. They believe the externals of religion are unnecessary. Reason is to be distrusted more than anything else; therefore riddles and various techniques of irrationality are used to confuse reason and trigger an intuitive flash. Zen is so concerned with the limitations of language and reason that it makes their transcendence the central intent of its method. Experience, not words are important. So they sit hour after hour, day after day, year after year seeking to develop their intuitive powers.
The Rationalist Sects believe that in addition to meditation one should utilize reason and a study of the scriptures in order to find the truth. All approaches to enlightenment may be useful at times but in reality there is only one true Buddhist teaching and one must study the scriptures of Buddhism in order to know this truth. The Chih-i sect in China and the Tendai sect in Japan stress the importance of the rational approach.
The Sociopolitical Sects such as the Japanese Nichiren sect have had great effect on the social and political dynamics of various nations. The founder of Nichiren thought that all of the sects of Buddhism were a perversion of the true teachings of Buddha and were leading peoples to hell. He came to believe the only scripture one needed to study was the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren teaches a simplified form of Buddhism and uncompromising patriotism.
Tibetan Buddhism is representative of sects that emphasize the use of magic words or formulae to achieve various goals. Tibetan people traditionally have used incantations, spells, and magic to protect themselves from demons. Tibetan monks or lamas invented the prayer wheel to augment their defenses against evil. By the 14th century monastery leaders became more powerful than kings and for all practical purposes the country was ruled by Buddhist priests. The lamas of Tibetan Buddhism have been divided into two orders, the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats. The leader of the larger Yellow Hat group is known as the Dalai Lama who was virtually ruler of Tibet. China in 1950 set up a puppet government in Tibet and when the Dalai Lama attempted to overthrow Chinese rule in 1959 the rebellion was crushed. The Dalai Lama and a few of his followers escaped to India.
During the twentieth century Buddhism is experiencing a revival. This new awakening may have been augmented by Christian missionaries who translated the ancient Buddhist texts and made them available for all to study and by the rise of Asian nationalism. Buddhism today is once more a missionary religion.