‘Impermanent are all created things. Strive on with awareness.’
(Said to be the Buddha’s last words)
There are 350 million Buddhists worldwide.
Buddhists do not worship gods or deities. Buddhists believe that the pathway to enlightenment is found by personal spiritual development. Buddhism developed from Hinduism, and while there are some fundamental differences between the two there are also some core beliefs which they both share. According to the 2001 Census, there are approximately 152,000 Buddhists living in Britain today.
It is believed that Siddhartha Gautama was born about the year 566B.C.E. He was the son of a wealthy and powerful ruler in what is now southern Nepal. Prior to his birth, a sage foretold that he would become either a great king or a religious teacher. Siddhartha’s father eager to ensure that his son became a great king rather than a religious leader kept his son isolated within the kingdom’s walls; he gave him a life of supreme luxury so that he would have no reason to question the values of worldly power and material comfort. Siddhartha was raised as a prince, married and had a child.
According to the legend, in his early 30s, he finally made his way outside the palace walls where he was confronted with old age, illness and death. Deeply affected by these human conditions, he renounced his life of luxury and left the palace to pursue a life of asceticism – studying with various teachers, in the hope of realising freedom from suffering.
Eventually he saw that, in spite of the most extreme austerity, he was no nearer his goal. He adjusted his practice eventually finding the Middle Way, between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. This insight arose while he was sitting under the Bodhi Tree deep in meditation. Through his own efforts, he became a Buddha – a fully enlightened one. Following that experience he devoted the remainder of his life to guiding others, so that they too could realise nirvana (the extinction of suffering and its causes). He established Orders of male and female mendicant disciples the Sangha who, in return for material support, would offer guidance and encouragement to the lay disciples.
At the age of 80, the Buddha finally lay down between two trees and passed gently from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This is referred to as Parinirvana (complete extinction). His body was cremated. There are currently two major schools of Buddhism Theravada and Mahayana Theravada (the Way of the Elders) has as its main scripture the Pali Canon teachings of the Buddha that were memorised and eventually collected together about 150 years after the parinirvana. The emphasis is on personal liberation through meditative reflection and good moral conduct. The Theravada school of Buddhism survives today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism emerged around 100 C.E.. This view of Buddhism focuses more on the importance of compassion and service, and the notion of emptiness. This form of Buddhism is most likely to be found in Japan, Korea, Mongolia and China.
There are also other forms of Buddhsm. Two other forms which are derived from Mahayana Buddhism are Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists consider the most important Mahayana teachers to be Bodhisattvas those who deserve Nirvana but who postpone entry to it until all sentient beings are rescued from the rebirth and suffering.
Tibetan Buddhists also use yogic discipline to transcend and redirect desire with the ultimate goal of uniting with the Ultimate Reality. This practice, called Vajrayana, ties in with the Hindu tantric practice.
In Zen Buddhism the major focus is on the value of personal meditation. The word, Zen, means ‘meditation’.
Zen stresses the importance of discovering one’s own ‘original mind and true nature’.
Rather than stating a doctrine that must be believed, the Buddha’s teaching (the Dharma) points out certain
facts of human existence that we can each realise for ourselves. These can be summarised as follows:
1. There is Suffering – and suffering must be understood if we are to free ourselves from it.
2. There is an Origin of Suffering. We suffer because of attachment to desires for sense pleasures,
existence or annihilation.
3. There is the Cessation of Suffering. Suffering ends when we relinquish that attachment to desire.
This happens gradually as we come to appreciate the limitations of human existence that all
conditions are impermanent, unsatisfactory and lack an enduring selfhood.
4. There is the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. There is a way of looking at life and living it
that little by little leads to the ending of suffering in our lives. This is known as the Eightfold Path,
Right View (understanding suffering and its causes)
Right Intention (Kindness, Compassion, Generosity)
Right Speech (True, Helpful, Timely)
Right Action (motivated by kindness, rather than selfishness)
Right Livelihood (that does not exploit or harm other sentient beings)
Right Effort (to cultivate what is good and renounce what is harmful)
Right Awareness (wholesome presence)
Right Collectedness (appropriate focus)
From this Eightfold Path it is clear that, for a Buddhist, practice extends to include every aspect of life. The
emphasis is not so much on what we do although, clearly, it is much better to contribute to the welfare of
others than to undermine it but on the motivation behind our speech or action, since that is what is most
powerful in determining the outcome both for ourselves and others.
Three aspects of Buddhist practice are dana (giving, or generosity); sila (ethical conduct) there are five
precepts that all Buddhists try to follow in their lives; and bhavana (mind development or meditation), in
which the practitioner uses certain exercises (eg noting the breath) to cultivate a basis of mental calm that
enables observation of mental activity, and hence the arising of insight.
In Buddhist countries there may be many temples at which people gather to perform pujas, or worship, of
the Triple Gem (The Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). However, pujas can also be done at home, individually, in
small groups, or including an invited group of monks or nuns.
Typically, when worshipping in the home, a Buddhist will have a shrine with a Buddha statue and traditional
offerings of candles, incense and flowers.
In Buddhist temples a statue of the Lord Buddha is always the main focal point. Additionally there may be a
stupa, or monument, containing sacred texts or relics. Stupas may be very large (several metres high) or
tiny; they can be made of a variety of materials including stone, metal, wood or even concrete, and
although the overall shape can vary, the basic form is of a circular broad base tapering to a fine spire.
Actual communal worship practices vary widely among the different Buddhist traditions. Components of
worship include some form of bowing, chanting, meditation or circumambulation of a temple or stupa.
Because of the wide variety of Buddhists in the world it is impossible to represent all of the denominations
and varying traditions.
The main events of the Buddha’s lifetime which may be commemorated in different ways by the different
Buddhist traditions include the birth, enlightenment and parinirvana. For Theravada Buddhists these are
celebrated together on the full moon of May. Other traditions may have specific festivals at different times
for each event.
· Nirvana Day Celebrated on the 15th February, it is the date that Buddhist observe his passing.
· Buddha Day This is the celebration of the Buddha’s birth. It occurs on the 8th April.
· Bodhi Day This day marks the day that Siddhartha sat under the tree (a Bodhi tree) and eventually