Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
The background to the Buddhist belief system is very different from the Hebraic religions. The Buddhist faith begins with the belief in reincarnation – that beings are reborn as animals, humans and even gods. What we are reborn as is defined by our kamma / karma, our good and bad deeds and, more importantly, our good and bad intentions. With these concepts as a background, a Buddhist is best described as someone who takes the Three Refuges: in the Buddha (Gotama / Gautama), the Dhamma / Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and nuns). Thus the Dhamma / Dharma holds the key beliefs for Buddhists. When discussing the Dhamma / Dharma a good place to start is the Four Noble Truths. These are:
1. The belief that dukkha / duhkha (usually translated as suffering) exists – in negative events such as sickness and death, and also in things that are pleasing, because the pleasure will end.
2. The acceptance that the origin of dukkha / duhkha is craving. This keeps beings in samsara, the eternal cycle of rebirth and hence suffering.
3.The statement that the cessation of dukkha / duhkha does exist. This is normally defined as nibbana / nirvana.
4. A description of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha / duhkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddhist beliefs strongly affect religious practice. While the vinaya acts as a code for the sangha, the Noble Eightfold Path acts as a guide for both lay and monastic Buddhists alike – particularly ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, and ‘right livelihood’. Coupled with this, the belief that kamma / karma affects our rebirth means that Buddhists will try and do things that are kammically / karmically good, such as giving, while avoiding things that are kammically / karmically bad, for example harming other living beings.
The way Buddhist beliefs translate into life, with an attempt to lead a good ethical life being a priority for most Buddhists, is very similar to other religions. Compared with Christianity, for example, many similarities can be seen: respect for life, rejection of violence, emphasis on charity and good deeds. However, it is important to remember that Buddhist beliefs are based on a background of kamma / karma and reincarnation with gods being ‘on this side’ of salvation, and so also subject to death and rebirth.
Claims of religious truth are not often made in Buddhism. Instead, the Buddha taught that followers should investigate all claims for themselves. However, since most people are not far enough advanced on the Path to verify such teachings as Anatta / anatman, kamma / karma et al, initial faith in the authority of the Buddha, his Dhamma / Dharma and the Sangha (for example, the Three Refuges) is necessary.
Buddhism can be divided into 3 main groups: Theravada, Eastern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. While these groups share certain core beliefs, there are some differences in interpretation. The main difference is between the Mahayana (a kind of Buddhism adopted in Eastern and Northern Buddhism) is the belief that nirvana is not the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Instead everyone should aim to become a Bodhisattva and eventually a Buddha and help with the salvation of all beings. Theravadins, on the other hand, believes that, while the Bodhisattva path is the best possible goal, it is not for everyone, only the noble few. The majority of people should aim for nibbana / nirvana.
Tradition has it that the teachings of the Buddha were gathered together and agreed upon at the First Buddhist Council, shortly after the death of the Buddha. These agreed teachings were initially transmitted orally, but became texts around 1st century BCE. The Pali Canon is usually thought to represent the earliest stratum of texts. It is divided into three: the Suttas (the discourses of the Buddha), the vinaya (a code by which the Sangha should live by), and the abhidhamma / abhidharma (a systemization of the philosophy, psychology and metaphysics found in the suttas. This was built up gradually over a period of time). Mahayana Sutras appeared later and tend to hold key Mahayana ideas concerning the path of the Bodhisattva and emptiness.
The source for Buddhist doctrines and ideas is the Buddhist texts – the Pali Canon or the Mahayana Sutras. The source of these is the Buddha himself: the ideas encapsulated in the texts come directly from the Buddha and so derive their authority from him. However, the Buddha never claimed to create any doctrines or ideas himself, he simply discovered the way things really are, the knowledge of which leads to nibbana / nirvana. This means that Buddhists do not necessarily have to blindly believe in empty dogmatism since the real source for their ideas is experience. One can experience the way things really are for oneself – in Buddhism emphasis is laid on empirically testing claims when one is able. This is particularly true in the Theravadin tradition.
The authority for leadership arises in different ways for different Buddhist traditions. In the first instance, the Buddha led his sangha due to his spiritual accomplishments. Similarly the arahats / arhats who did a great deal of teaching did so because of their accomplishments. However, the Buddha tried to avoid problems of hierarchy so refused to name a leader after he died. Instead he simply based the order of speaking on seniority, meaning in practice, those who had been monks longer. The Theravadin tradition maintains this idea – so one may see a more spiritually experienced young monk still paying respect to a less experienced one simply because the latter has been in the Sangha longer. However, for the laity, any monk or nun can be viewed as a spiritual leader. Members of the Sangha have the authority to act as leaders to the laity because they are seen as more spiritually accomplished, having laid aside the lay life to become mendicants. They are viewed as more knowledgeable when it comes to the Dhamma / Dharma, so are worthy teachers. In Mahayana traditions leadership may be based on spiritual attainments or because one is believed to be the incarnation of a bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama, for example, is chosen as a child due to certain physical characteristics and information given by his predecessor. He has authority as a leader because he is believed to be the emanation of the bodhisatta / bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Finally, leaders can be hereditary, as in Japan for example, and so gain authority to lead from their family history.
In practice authority is expressed in a number of ways. The scriptures are treated reverently, with the chanting of certain texts making up a significant part of Buddhist worship. The Buddha is treated with devotion by all Buddhists. Often offerings of incense, water or food are made in front of statues of the Buddha and most Buddhist families have an image of the Buddha, which is usually stored on a high shelf (the elevated position is a mark of respect). Members of the Sangha are treated with respect and supported by devote lay Buddhists – alms food is donated, monasteries and temples are maintained etc. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader for many Tibetan Buddhists, and as such, is always treated respectfully with his teachings followed.
While authority can be evaluated in a number of ways, it is usually based around experience. For example, the Buddha always asked his followers (or those who were able) to meditatively explore his teachings and even use their paranormal powers to psychically investigate him. Thus the Buddha said that everything he taught, including his achievements and attainments, could be experientially evaluated. The same applies to the authority of the arahats / arhats, their colleagues can use psychic powers to investigate their achievements. Authority from textual sources is derived from the beginning phrase “thus have I heard”. This indicates that the teaching came directly from the Buddha and so is stamped with his authority.
The most important person associated with the foundation of Buddhism is the Buddha – Siddattha / Siddartha Gotama / Gautama (or Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit) also known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni (sage of the Shakyas). The precise dates of the Buddha’s life are uncertain. A widespread Buddhist tradition records that he was in his 80th year when he died and the dates for his life are most widely quoted as 566-486 BCE. However, recent scholarly research, using rock edicts and named monks and nuns and their recorded ages, has suggested that the dates should be brought forward, placing the Buddha’s death closer to 400 BCE rather than 500BCE. The Buddha also had important disciples who helped with Buddhism’s foundation: Sariputta / Sariputra was renowned for his wisdom, and the Buddha named him as his chief assistant in turning the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel. Moggallana Maudgalyayana was Sariputta’s friend and was particularly renowned for his psychic abilities; Ananda was the Buddha’s cousin and attendant and is known as the Guardian of the Dhamma / Dharma. Finally King Asoka / Ashoka, living a couple of centuries after the death of the Buddha, was extremely influential in the propagation of the Dhamma / Dharma.
The ancient Indians were more concerned with philosophy rather than chronologies and biographies. We therefore have a clearer idea of the Buddha’s thoughts and ideas than we do of his life. However, accounts of the Buddha’s life were developed after his death. Siddattha / Siddartha was born a prince in Lumbini, Ancient India, now modern day Nepal. He was examined by Brahmins and it was predicted he would one day be either a great king or a Buddha. His father, preferring his son to be a great king rather than a renouncer, tried to hide all suffering from him and ensured he lived a life of comfort. However, at the age of 29 the Buddha saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. Depressed by this, Siddattha / Siddartha left the palace, his wife and his son to become a mendicant and overcome old age, illness and death. He tried various ascetic practices, taking his austerities and self-mortification to such a point that he nearly starved to death. After collapsing in a river and nearly drowning he reconsidered; having taken some milk and rice from a girl named Sujata he realised a middle way between over indulgence and asceticism was preferable. He sat down underneath a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi Tree and vowed never to rise until he had found the Truth. After 49 days of meditating, at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha travelled in the Gangetic Plain teaching to an extremely diverse range of people – from nobles to outcastes, from street sweepers to mass murderers and cannibals. He set up the Sangha, the monastic community, which aided his teachings. At the age of 80 the Buddha entered Parinibbana / Parinirvana and told his disciples to follow no leader, but to follow his teachings.
Sariputta / Sariputra and Moggallana / Maudgalyayana were the two principal disciples and arahats / arhats of the Buddha, who both became ascetics on the same day. There are many stories about the two which emphasize Sariputta’s / Sariputra’s wisdom and Moggallana’s / Maudgalyayana’s psychic abilities. For example, a mischievous yaksa decided to irritate Sariputta / Sariputra by striking him on the head. Moggallana / Maudgalyayana saw this occurring with his psychic abilities, and warned his friend, though unsuccessfully. However, due to his great spiritual wisdom, Sariputta / Sariputra perceived the terrible blow that the yaksa delivered as only a light breeze. Moggallana / Maudgalyayana expressed amazement that Sariputta / Sariputra barely noticed the attack, while Sariputta / Sariputra was equally surprised that Moggallana / Maudgalyayana had foreseen all of this.
Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, was famous for his retentive memory with many of the Suttas / Sutras attributed to him. He famously petitioned the Buddha to allow nuns into the Sangha.
The Buddha represents the paradigm for human behaviour; he achieved as much as one possibly can by becoming a Buddha, all through personal striving. However, in terms of realistic models for modern Buddhists, the Buddha can seem somewhat ‘out of reach’. Therefore, the disciples are often easier to identify with. Each one highlights specific values Buddhists hold important; Sariputra’s / Sariputra’s wisdom is aspired to through studying the Dhamma / Dharma; Moggallana’s / Maudgalyayana’s psychic abilities are sought through meditation; and Ananda’s compassion and dedication to the Buddha is searched for through devotional practices.
The most important and most famous contemporary Buddhist leader is the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Gelug sect. Successive Dalai Lamas form a lineage of reborn magistrates which traces back to 1391 – the current one is the 14th. Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lamas to be the incarnation of the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
The title Dalai Lama was first bestowed by the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan upon Sonam Gyatso in 1578. Gyatso was an abbot at the Drepung monastery and was considered to be the most eminent lama of his time. Since he was the third member of his lineage the title was given posthumously to his predecessors and he became the third Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama with the support of the Mongol ruler Gushri Khan, united Tibet. The Dalai Lamas then continued to partially rule Tibet until the People’s Republic of China invaded the region in 1949 and before taking full control in 1959. The current Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Dharamasala in India, where he, along with a great many Tibetan refugees, currently reside. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama monks initiate a search for the lama’s reincarnation – a small child. Familiarity with the possessions of the previous Dalai Lama is considered the main sign of reincarnation. The search usually requires a few years, the child is then trained by other lamas. The current Dalai Lama has insisted that he won’t be reborn in any territory occupied by China, and has even suggested that he may by the last Lama.
The current Dalai Lama has been incredibly important as a spiritual leader for the thousands of Tibetan Buddhists living in exile all over the world. Chinese communists in the 1960s attempted to destroy everything to do with religion. However, the Dalai Lama was instrumental in keeping Tibetan Buddhism alive, established the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government in Exile), and has been fighting for the freedom of Tibet.
For other Buddhists important contemporary leaders are usually members of the Sangha. Monks and nuns provide spiritual leadership through meditation classes and Dhamma / Dharma talks. In some communities they also provide social care for the poor and act as teachers for children. In Thailand, for example, most boys will spend at least a year as a novice monk and be taught by the Sangha. The teachings will range from basic literacy to extended doctrines.
Members of the Sangha represent spiritual and moral values through their undertaking of the vinaya rules and the 10 Precepts. Their appearance identifies them as leaders with saffron robes showing the abandonment of normal lay clothes and all this entails, shaved head illustrating the abandonment of vanity, and begging bowl illustrating their dependence on alms.
Members of the Sangha offer a means by which the laity can live a good life in contemporary society. The Sangha is viewed as a huge field of merit in that giving members alms or food, supporting academic studies and maintaining buildings is a means of generating enormous amounts of merit. Monks and nuns also help as guides to the laity, giving Dhamma / Dharma talks as well as taking meditation classes.
Cush, D. 1994. Buddhism (Student’s Approach to World Religions). London: Hodder.
Gethin, R. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism (OPUS). Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.
Gombrich, R.F.& Bechert, H., 1991. The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture (The Great Civilizations). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Gombrich, R.F., 1988. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices). London: Routledge.
Harvey, P., 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (Introduction to Religion). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, P., 2000. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London: Routledge.
Williams, P., 2008. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices). London: Routledge.
In Association with Amazon