Ways of Living

Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;


Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.


The Eightfold Path

The Buddha taught that existence has three fundamental characteristics, known as the Three Marks. These are: Dukkha / Duhkha (suffering); Anicca / Anitya (impermanence); and Anatta / Anatman (not-Self). One of the most important teachings in Buddhism concerns the first of these marks, Dukkha / Duhkha, and is found in the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths follow the traditional Indian methodology that doctors used to analyse and treat diseases: define the disease, establish the cause, define the end result of the cure, then detail what one needs to do to be cured. This is why the Buddha is often seen as a doctor, offering a cure to suffering. Thus, the first of the Four Noble Truths states that pain and suffering exists. The second states that the cause of suffering is craving. The third truth asserts that an end to suffering can be achieved through one’s own efforts. Finally, the fourth truth details the way to end suffering – this is the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path is extremely important in Buddhism since it impacts on how people live: Buddhists attempt to propagate right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation. Thus the Buddhist belief in the Noble Eightfold Path means that believers try and live better lives in accordance with the morality encapsulated in it. The same can be said of the Buddhist belief in Kamma / Karma – that Kamma / Karma is not just action based but intention as well, with that good intentions and actions leading to good results and bad intentions and actions leading to bad results. These results can be experienced in this life or the next, to the point of affecting what you will be reborn as. This means that the Buddhist belief in Kamma / Karma leads Buddhists to attempt to lead good, moral lives. This impacts society with members attempting to impart Buddhist values in all their social interactions. Equally, Buddhist leaders attempt to rule or govern according to Buddhist beliefs. King Asoka / Ashoka is a good example of this – building hospitals, helping the poor and promoting animal welfare.

The benefits of Buddhist beliefs on individuals and communities are clear from the above. Beliefs promote social cohesion amongst citizens, with encouragement away from acts of selfishness and towards the general good. If the ruler follows the example of King Asoka then the whole of society benefits. On an individual level, Buddhism can offer meaning to lives and engender a sense of belonging in a community. Meditation can help one overcome life’s problems, from exams, to dealing with excruciating pain or the loss of a loved one.

The Scriptures

The sacred text in Theravada Buddhism is the Pali Canon. Preserved in the language of Pali, it was written down from oral tradition onto palm leaves at the Fourth Buddhist Council, 1st century BCE, in Sri Lanka. It was not printed until the 19th century. The Pali Canon contains three categories or pitakas (baskets): the Vinaya Pitaka (dealing with rules for monks and nuns); the Sutta Pitaka (discourse, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples); and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (detailed expansion of the philosophy and psychology found in the suttas). Because of these three baskets the Pali Canon is also known as the Tipitaka – Three baskets. The Vinaya Pitaka deals with rules for the sangha. These rules are preceded by stories explaining how and why the rules were devised as the Buddha encountered behavioural problems and disputes among his followers. The Sutta Pitaka is a collection of tales and discourses of the Buddha. It is divided into five collections or Nikayas: the Digha Nikaya (34 long discourses); the Majjhima Nikaya (152 medium length discourse); the Samyutta Nikaya (thousands of short discourses); the Anguttara Nikaya (thousands of short discourses); Khuddaka Nikaya (a miscellaneous collection of prose and verse). The Abhidhamma Pitaka, literally meaning higher dhamma, is a collection of texts which give a systematic philosophical description of the nature of mind, matter and time. This is generally seen as a systemization of the teaching found in the Suttas.

In Mahayana, there is a different collection of sacred texts. Broadly speaking most of the texts were originally written in Sanskrit, although very old Tibetan and Chinese translations exist. Followers of Mahayana have a large number of additional Sutras to Theravada. Mahayana Buddhists claim that these Sutras were heard by monks through meditation after the Parinirvana of the Buddha. The Mahayana Sutras caused some controversy when they began to appear (around the 1st century BCE) as they claim to be the word of the Buddha. However adherents of Mahayana believe that the Sutras are authentic accounts. While there is no Mahayana Canon, some Sutras, like those contained in the Perfection of Wisdom literature (e.g. the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra) are considered fundamental to most Mahayana traditions. They advocate the Mahayana goal of Buddhahood, the path of the bodhisattva that leads to it, compassion and ideas on emptiness.

As Buddhist texts contain the teachings of the Buddha they are usually studied academically. In the past this tended to be the reserve of the Sangha who would then pass the teachings on to lay Buddhists. However, in the last 200 years the texts have become much more widely available in many more languages. This means that lay Buddhists also now have the opportunity to study these texts. In the context of worship, the texts are often chanted. This not only keeps up the oral tradition, but can aid understanding of the texts through repetition. Listening to the sound of chanting, as well as participating in it, is also an excellent way to still the mind and should therefore be viewed as a form of meditation. Many Mahayana texts are self-glorifying and so are highly revered by Mahayana Buddhists. They are often chanted as ways of generating merit or as ways of warding off evil.

The Pali Canon is preserved in the Pali language while the Mahayana Sutras are preserved in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. In all of the texts specialist Buddhist language is used: e.g. kamma / karma, anatta / anitya, bodhisattva etc. However, language in the abhidhamma / abhidharma particularly is sometimes very specialist. Buddhism teaches that there are two levels of truth – conventional and ultimate. For example, when one speaks in terms of “I”, “self” etc, one is speaking conventionally. The abhidhamma / abhidharma attempts to speak ultimately by breaking things down into their constituent parts. Thus instead of speaking of e.g. Jane Smith, the abhidhamma / abhidharma tries to describe the interacting things that make the “continuum” that appears as Jane Smith.

After the emergence of the Mahayana Sutras, Buddhists texts have remained fairly static. However, an important addition to the Pali Canon is the commentaries. These commentaries give the traditional interpretations of the scriptures. The major commentaries were based on earlier ones, now lost, in Old Sinhalese, which were written down at the same time as the Canon, in the last century BCE. Two of the most important commentaries are Buddhagosa’s Visudimagga (5th century CE) and Dharmapala’s commentary (sometime before the 10th century CE).

The Journey of Life

In the Abrahamic religions life and death are believed to be linear: a being is born, lives and then dies, at which point their soul or other part that survives death passes to a domain that is inaccessible to living beings and remains there indefinitely, or until the end of the world. This is not the case in Buddhism. Life is not thought of as a linear journey. Instead it is a cycle of birth and death through samsara going on indefinitely until one can liberate oneself (Nibbana / Nirvana).

Buddhists believe that one can be reborn in any one of Six Realms: the Deva (god) Realm, the Asura (demi-god) Realm, the Human Realm, the Animal Realm, the Preta (Hungry Ghost) Realm, and the Naraka (hell) realm. Where one is reborn depends on one’s Kamma / Karma. This Buddhist idea of reincarnation is difficult to understand since at face value it seems to conflict with the Buddha’s teaching on Anatta / Anitya. Therefore rebirth should be thought of in terms of a constantly changing stream of consciousness. At death the Five Khandhas / Skandhas, which conventionally constitute a person, break up and become one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of Khandhas / Skandhas, which again may conventionally be considered a person. The consciousness arising in the new person is neither identical nor different from the old consciousness – it is just part of a causal continuum or stream. Early Buddhist texts often use fire as a useful analogy here – rebirth is like flame passed from one candle to another or fire that spreads from one field to another. In both cases the new flame depends on the original, there is a causal relation between them, but they are not identical, nor are they completely distinct. In this way Buddhist texts emphasis that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life, but at the same time there is a causal link.

Buddhism does not have any specific ceremonies for rites of passage like birth, adolescence, marriage etc. This is because these events are seen as this worldly and consequently not relevant to the Buddhist path. These sorts of rites are practiced by Buddhists, but they are local rites relevant to particular cultures and should not be thought of as Buddhist. Sometimes a Buddhist monk may be present or participate in ceremony, in marriage for example he may offer a blessing to the couple, but the ceremony itself is not Buddhist. However, in some Buddhist countries, Thailand for example, boys aged between 8 and 20 sometimes enter a monastery as a novice for a year or two. This is seen as generating merit for the boys and their parents, while giving them a taste of monastic life to see if they like it – most do not go on to take full ordination. In many countries this period as a novice also is very important to the boy’s education.

Buddhists view death as the dissolution of the Five Khandhas / Skandhas, which inevitably leads to rebirth unless one has become enlightened and achieved nibbana / nirvana (which can be translated as “the Deathless”). Although fear of death is natural, Buddhists attempt to face death with equanimity and fearlessness and place a great deal of importance on being in the right frame of mind when one dies since this will affect where one is reborn. Because of this, drugs which may cloud the mind are often refused by someone dying, although a pragmatic attitude is usually taken since extreme pain will also hinder the right state of mind. Buddhist monks will often be called in (much like chaplains are at Christian hospitals) to assist the dying, comfort them, and help them prepare and achieve the best possible rebirth. In Tibet it is believed that there is a period between dying and being reborn known as the bardo. It is thought that in this period one can achieve a good rebirth or even enlightenment, particularly if one has the right guidance. Therefore lamas recite the Bardo Thodol (traditionally known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but literally meaning “liberation through hearing in the intermediate state”) over the dying, the dead, or an effigy of the dead.

Buddhism and science are generally considered to be compatible with each other. This is because Buddhist world views tend not to conflict with scientific ideas like concepts of the universe and evolution. The main reason for this is that the Buddha refused to discuss such questions how the world originated or why there is suffering (questions which cause many problems for Abrahamic religions’ relationships with science). However, Buddhists do have ideas of expansion and contraction of world systems, which fits in well with modern ideas of the expanding and contracting universe and the evolution of species.

Holy Days and Celebrations

There are many celebration days in the Buddhist calendar. These festivals are always joyous occasions. Typically lay people will visit the local temple or monastery in the morning and offer food to the monks, take the Five Precepts and listen to a Dhamma / Dharma talk. In the afternoon, people often distribute food to the poor in order to generate merit, and in the evening they might join in a ceremony of circumambulation of a stupa three times as a sign of respect to the Buddha, Dhamma / Dharma and Sangha. The celebrations will usually conclude with evening chanting of the Buddha’s teachings as well as meditation.

Some celebrations are specific to a particular Buddhist tradition or ethnic group, for example in the Mahayana tradition many festivals celebrate the birthdays of bodhisattvas. When considering Buddhist festivals it is also important to remember that, with the exception of Japan, most Buddhists use the Lunar Calendar and the dates of festivals vary from country to county and between traditions.

The major Buddhist festivals include the following: Wesak (or Visakah Puja or Buddha Day) is traditionally a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, but his Enlightenment and death are also celebrated. This is the major Buddhist festival of the year and is held on the day of the first full moon in May, except in a leap year when the festival in held in June. Wesak day is usually a public holiday in Buddhist countries and Buddhists assemble at their temple before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the Triple Gem. Devotees may bring offerings such as flowers, candles and incense. These symbolic offerings remind followers that just as flowers wither and candles and incense burn out, so too is life subject to change, decay and destruction. Buddhists are also encouraged to refrain from eating meat on Wesak day with butchers and places selling alcohol usually closed. Sometimes symbolic acts of liberation are made, where animals or birds are released. Additionally, Buddhists will feed monks and the poor, take the Precepts, listen to Dhamma / Dharma talks, chant, meditate and offer homage to the Triple Gem

Buddhist New Year, in Theravadin countries (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Lao), is celebrated for three days from the first full moon in April. In some Mahayana countries it starts on the day following the first full moon in January, but dates are very much dependent on ethnic background. For example, Chinese Koreans and Vietnamese Buddhists celebrate in late January or early February (depending on the full moon), while Tibetans usually celebrate a month later.

Asalha Puja Day (or Dhamma / Dharma Day) commemorates the first teaching of the Buddha and the turning of the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel, to his old ascetic colleagues at the Sarnath Deer Park. This festival is usually held on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately July).

Ulambana (or Ancestor Day) is mainly celebrated in Mahayana countries although some Theravadins also participate. It is held during the first fifteen days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that ghosts visit the world during these days, so food offerings are left out to relieve their suffering.

Uposatha is mainly observed in Theravada countries and is held on each new moon, full moon and quarter moon days (ie around once a week). For the laity this is a chance to renew vows and take precepts, visit monasteries, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks and meditate. Monks will confess any violations of the vinaya then chant the Patimokkha (a set of rules for monks). Depending of the speed of the chanting this can take from 30 minutes to an hour. The laity are often allowed to listen and many find it a peaceful experience, settling the mind and aiding meditation.