A brief description of Buddhism as I understand it.
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on May 14, 2011
(Talk given to U3A University of Third age students in Swindon on 1-9-2008)
– Dr. Dharma Bhakta Shakya
The Buddha – teacher
So who was Buddha? He was not born Buddha. He was born as a prince Siddartha Gautama in a place called Lumbini in present dayNepalmore than 2500 years ago. As a prince he lived in luxury but was not happy completely. He had a tendency to reflect on various aspects of life. Once he was found meditating deeply under a tree when he was only a little boy when every one else was enjoying one of the festivals. It was said that he had four visions
– a vision of an old man who was week due to old age,
– a vision of an ill man crying in pain
– a vision of a dead person taken to a cremation ground by his relatives and
– Finally he had a vision of a recluse (an ascetic) who had left home, who did not seem to have any worry in life and who was calm and composed.
These four visions had a great impact in him. He thought:
“Youth, the prime of life, ends in old age and man’s senses fail him when they are most needed. The hale and hearty lose their vigour and health when disease suddenly creeps in. Finally death comes, unannounced perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly without any invitation and puts an end to this brief span of life. Surely there must be an escape from this unsatisfactoriness, from ageing and death.”
Frequently he thought of leaving home and live a life of an ascetic.
So at the age of 29 he left the palace in search for a remedy for life’s universal ill. Initially he learned meditation from renowned teachers of the time but he was not satisfied from what he had learned. He then led a life of austerity with the belief that liberation was possible only by rigorous self mortification. He practised austerity for many years until he almost died. He realised that neither the life of luxury nor the life of austerity led him any where near his goal.
Then he remembered peace and calm he had experienced during his childhood when he meditated under a tree. So after exploring and struggling for six long years, he found a peaceful place and sat cross legged and meditated under a tree which later became known as Bodhi tree inGaya,India. He sat with firm determination to find the truth.
“Though only my skin, sinews and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment”
He meditated the whole night (6 PM – 6 AM). His mind became very concentrated and became very calm. In this state he realised four truths: These are:
– There is suffering
– There is cause for suffering which is craving
– It is possible to reduce or eradicate the suffering and
– There is a path leading to cessation of suffering..
So at the age of 35 he was enlightened and became Buddha. After his enlightenment he spent the rest of his life, 45 years travelling towns and villages in Northern India preaching what he had discovered until he passed away at the age of 80 at Kusinagar inIndia. All the teachings and thousands of books written on Buddhism are based on these four truths.
According to Buddhism all of us have Buddha nature and have potential to become Buddha with training and practice.
The Dhamma – His teaching:
So what did he teach for 45 years? The Buddha realised that what he had discovered was not easy for ordinary people to understand. The ability to understand depends on your spiritual ability. Hence he taught according to abilities of his listeners in simple and easy to understand language.
So what is this simplified version? There is a very interesting story which explains this.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese Emperor who was interested in Buddhism. One day he came to know that a famous Buddhist monk was in the city. So he asked him to be brought to the palace. After paying due respect and giving him mid day meal the emperor asked the monk. Could you explain to me in simple language what Buddha taught? The monk replied:
* Do no evil
* Do good and
* Purify your mind.
Hearing this, the emperor replied “Is that it?” It is so simple that even the children know them.
The monk replied”Yes, Your Majesty it is so simple that even the children know them but to practise it even the emperor of China will find it difficult.”
This is true. As a lay Buddhist we are supposed to observe at least five precepts (moral code) i.e. to train our mind to abstain from harming any living beings intentionally, to abstain from taking what is not given, to abstain from indulging in sexual misconduct, to abstain from using wrong speech and to abstain from taking intoxicating drinks or drugs that will make us heedless. These are just guidelines not commandments, for happy and peaceful life. You take these precepts voluntarily and if you do not like them leave them on your free will. Nobody is going to force you to observe them.
Obviously if some one decides to become a monk or nun there are many more rules, in fact hundreds of them.
When you look at these precepts they look so simple to follow but when you look deeply and practise it is not that easy. Just to give you a few examples:
The first precept tells us to abstain from harming any living being. It includes all living beings including the smallest insects who breathe. Most of us do not kill human beings or animals. What about small living beings like mice, insects etc.? If you have mice in your house our first instinct is to use trap or some poison to kill them because our perception of mice are that they are vermin.
Similarly, if you find one fine morning that snails have eaten your beautiful flowers you have spent so much time and energy in planting and looking after them in your garden. What shall we do? Shall we use snail pellets to kill them?
A colleague of mine fromBurmatold us that Burmese people do not even kill the mosquitoes. They just try to shoos… them away.
The second precept advices us to abstain from taking anything unless it is given to us by the person who owns it. People usually think this means not to steal from some one’s house or rob some one. Suppose you come to work late and leave work early and expect to be paid in full even for the hours you have not worked. That is stealing. If the employer deduct money from your pay for the hours you have not worked you will be angry. Similarly if an employer exploit you and pay you less than what you deserve he will be breaking the precept. Using office time and equipments like telephone, computers, photocopy machines, printers etc. for our personal purposes, taking small items like pens, papers, envelopes etc are also against the second precept. These are there for office use not for personal use..
How about buying cheap goods from our high street knowing fully well that these are made by exploitation, by cheap labour?
Regarding speech: A kind and gentle word spoken at the right time can have a lasting positive effect. A wrong speech spoken hastily without due care can make a best of friend a life long enemy. These precepts are to be observed in our every day life seven days a week, 365 days a year for our own benefit and for the benefit of our society.
I was told that the above teaching is not exclusive to Buddhism but common to other major religions of the world as well. His Holiness Dalai Lama told us during his recent visit toUKthat he was once invited to a mosque a few miles from where he is living inIndia. During the discussion the Imam of the mosque told him that according to Islam, Muslims are suppose to treat even their worst enemy as their friends and show them compassion. He told us it was not different from what Buddha told his followers. At one time the Buddha told monks “If a dirty, foul smelling bandit comes and cut your arms and legs with double edged saw you should not get angry. If you do you are not followers of mine.”
According to my Christian friends this was the sentiment Jesus Christ expressed at the time of his crucifixion. Instead of getting angry he said “Father, forgive them. They did not know what they were doing”
There are highly attained Buddhist monks who actually practised this type of compassion. In one of Dalai Lama’s books he has recounted a conversation he had with a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned by Chinese for many years and tortured. When he was released, he escaped toIndiaand came to see Dalai Lama. During the conversation Dalai Lama asked him if he was afraid during his imprisonment. He replied yes, many times but his worst fear was that he might loose compassion towards his torturers.
Looking at the precepts it looks like they consist of just negative aspects but they also have positive aspects which go hand in hand. Without compassion one can not restraint from harming others. The idea is to train our mind to reduce cruelty towards all living beings. Without having kind heart and generosity in the mind it will be difficult to practise the second precept. Again the idea is to train our mind to be ready to help those who are in need of help when ever, where ever in what ever capacity we can without expecting anything in return. . This does not mean that you have to give every thing until you become bankrupt. The aim of the Buddhist precepts is the control of man’s verbal and physical actions, his behaviour. This is the foundation for Buddhist practice for not doing harm and doing good. This is a gradual process. With this solid foundation you practise meditation to purify your mind.
Some people come to Buddhist meditation centres to practise meditation saying that they are stressed and want to practise meditation to reduce their stress level. They do not want to know any thing else. After a few months they get disappointed and stop coming. It is like trying to build a house without a proper foundation.
However many people who come to Buddhist meditation centres find meditation beneficial to them and they continue the practice. It also depends on a good teacher. For example if I had asked some one how to get to Swindon from Slough today if I was told to take M4 heading forLondoninstead of telling me to take M4 towards West then I would have never reachedSwindon. Most likely I would have got disappointed and gone back toSlough. So to learn and to practice meditation it is not enough just to have interest but you also need to find a good teacher.
Meditation is the heart of Buddhism. If you meditate even for 10 -15 minutes every morning you will be in a better frame of mind to face the day. You will be able to cope stress and strain of life better. Meditation does not mean just sitting quietly all the time. Of course at the beginning you need to do that to concentrate and to develop mindfulness. Once you are familiar with it you can practise mindfulness in every thing you do, brushing your teeth, doing washing up, eating, walking, driving etc. When you do things mindfully you are less likely to make mistakes and you will be less stressed. As your practice progress you can achieve deep concentration. With deep concentration you will develop the habit of deep listening, which will help you to understand others better. With deep concentration and mindfulness in every steps of your life will lead to insight- the wisdom. In Buddhism wisdom means seeing things as they really are, not what they appeared to be.
Your mind will be in peace and you become open to others. Every one becomes your friends.
When you have this type of mental attitude it is not difficult to have rapport with others. Dr. Howard Cutler wrote about H H Dalai Lama in one of his books about an incident during a week long teaching in ArizonaUniversitymany years ago. “One morning after his public talk the Dalai Lama was walking along the path coming back to his hotel. Noticing one of the hotel housekeeping staff standing by the elevators, he paused to ask her ‘Where are you from?’ for a moment she was taken back but answered shyly, ‘Mexico’. He paused briefly to chat with her for a few moments and then walked on, leaving her with a look of excitement and pleasure on her face. The next morning at the same time, she appeared at the same spot with another of her house keeping staff, the two of them greeted him warmly before he got into the elevator. The interaction was brief but, but two of them appeared flushed with happiness as they returned to work. Every day after that, they were joined by a few more of housekeeping staff at the designated time and place, until by the end of the week there were dozens of them in their crisp grey-white uniforms forming a receiving line that stretched along the length of the path that led to the elevators.”
Again you do not have to be a Buddhist to have this type of compassion, understanding, kindness and mental purity. Mahatma Gandhi is respected because of his practice of non violence. He advised his followers not to retaliate even under extreme provocation during struggle for Indian independence. Mother Teresa devoted her life working and helping the poorest of the poor in the slums ofCalcutta. Nelson Mandela adapted the approach of reconciliation instead of revenge after his release from prison. When you learn about these great people you start thinking that it is still possible to have peace in the world we live in. I am sure there are many more enlightened people in the world other than the ones I have mentioned.
The Buddha’s teaching would have died along with him if not for the Sangha – the Buddhist monks, nuns and their lay supporters. His teaching was maintained by his disciples in oral tradition until the first century BC when for the first time they were written in Palm leaves inSri Lanka. Buddhist monks and nuns are our teachers and our guide in our spiritual path. Lay supporters provide them with the requisites so that they can devote their whole life in the practice of the Dhamma without having to depend on earning for their living. It is not enough just to read books and gain knowledge about Buddhism. You really need practising monks and nuns to guide us. When your practice falters and you get lazy, community of monks and nuns give you inspiration to carry on. Practising the Dhamma in a big group is very beneficial. When you forget to practice mindfulness if you see your fellow practitioners doing it, it will give you inspiration. That is why it is so vital to have Sangha – community of monks, nuns and lay followers for the success of your practice.
In conclusion I want to highlight just a few points about Buddhism. I thought of summarising these few points because when I have attended study days like this one if some one has asked me what did I learn a few days later I would have forgotten almost every things except a few interesting points. Hence, I thought if I summarise a few points in conclusion you might remember them.
- One does not have to be a Buddhist to follow Buddha’s teaching. Any one can follow and practise them if they find his teaching beneficial to him/her. The Buddha had always encouraged his followers not to blindly believe in his teachings out of reverence to him but to examine it thoroughly as a gold smith examines the gold. Only then accept it if you find it true and beneficial to you.
2. There is no coercion, conversion or compulsion in Buddhism. Buddha has always told his listeners that he had found the path he had travelled beneficial to him. Hence he advised the fellow human beings to travel the road but whether you travel or not is entirely up to you. The Buddha only shows the way it is up to you whether to follow it or not.
3. Buddha never claimed to be anything other than a human being. He was not a god, nor a son of a god, nor a messenger of a god, nor an incarnation of a god. In answer to a question from a Brhamin he simply told him he was a Buddha.
- The Buddha’s Ancient Path –Venerable Piyadassi Thera
- The Art of Happiness – H H Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
- The Art of Living – Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka – William Hart