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Who was Buddha?
Buddhism started with the Buddha. The word ‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ — in the sense of having ‘woken up to reality’. The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in Nepal around 2,500 years ago. He did not claim to be a god or a prophet. He was a human being who became Enlightened, understanding life in the deepest way possible. Siddhartha was born into the royal family of a small kingdom on the Indian-Nepalese border. According to the traditional story he had a privileged upbringing, but was jolted out of his sheltered life on realising that life includes the harsh facts of old age, sickness, and death. This prompted him to puzzle over the meaning of life. Eventually he felt impelled to leave his palace and follow the traditional Indian path of the wandering holy man, a seeker after Truth. He became very adept at meditation under various teachers, and then took up ascetic practices. This was based on the belief that one could free the spirit by denying the flesh. He practised austerities so determinedly that he almost starved to death. But he still hadn’t solved the mystery of life and death. True understanding seemed as far away as ever.So he abandoned this way and looked into his own heart and mind; he decided to trust his intuition and learn from direct experience. He sat down beneath a pipal tree and vowed to stay there until he’d gained Enlightenment. After 40 days, on the full moon in May, Siddhartha finally attained ultimate Freedom. Buddhists believe he reached a state of being that goes beyond anything else in the world. If normal experience is based on conditions — upbringing, psychology, opinions, perceptions — Enlightenment is Unconditioned. A Buddha is free from greed, hatred and ignorance, and characterised by wisdom, compassion and freedom. Enlightenment brings insight into the deepest workings of life, and therefore into the cause of human suffering — the problem that had initially set him on his spiritual quest. During the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha travelled through much of northern India, spreading his understanding. His teaching is known in the East as the Buddha-dharma or ‘teaching of the Enlightened One’. He reached people from all walks of life and many of his disciples gained Enlightenment. They, in turn, taught others and in this way an unbroken chain of teaching has continued, right down to the present day. The Buddha was not a god and he made no claim to divinity. He was a human being who, through tremendous effort of heart and mind, transformed all limitations. He affirmed the potential of every being to reach Buddhahood. Buddhists see him as an ideal human being, and a guide who can lead us all towards Enlightenment.
Soon after his Enlightenment the Buddha had a vision in which he saw the human race as a bed of lotus flowers. Some of the lotuses were still mired in the mud, others were just emerging from it,and others again were on the point of blooming. In other words, all people had the ability to unfold their potential and some needed just a little help to do so.So the Buddha decided to teach, and all of the teachings of Buddhism may be seen as attempts to fulfill this vision — to help people grow towards Enlightenment. Buddhism sees life as a process of constant change, and its practices aim to take advantage of this fact. It means that one can change for the better.The decisive factor in changing oneself is the mind, and Buddhism has developed many methods for working on the mind. Most importantly, Buddhists practise meditation, which is a way of developing more positive states of mind that are characterised by calm, concentration, awareness, and emotions such as friendliness. Using the awareness developed in meditation it is possible to have a fuller understanding of oneself, other people, and of life itself. Buddhists do not seek to ‘evangelise’ or coerce other people to adopt their religion, but they do seek to make its teachings available to whoever is interested, and people are free to take as much or as little as they feel ready for.
The ideals at the heart of Buddhism are collectively known as the ‘Three Jewels’, or the ‘Three Treasures’. These are the Buddha (the yellow jewel), the Dharma (the blue jewel), and the Sangha (the red jewel). It is by making these the central principles of your life that you become a Buddhist.The BuddhaThe Buddha refers both to the historical Buddha and to the ideal of Buddhahood itself. The whole Buddhist tradition derives from the historical Buddha and all schools regard him as their root founder, guide and inspiration. Going for Refuge to the Buddha means seeing him as your ultimate teacher and spiritual example. It also means committing yourself to achieving Buddhahood – Enlightenment for the sake of all beings – which means that you aim to become someone who sees the nature of reality absolutely clearly, just as it is, and lives fully and naturally in accordance with that vision. This is the goal of the Buddhist spiritual life, representing the end of suffering for anyone who attains it.The DharmaThe Dharma primarily means the teachings of the Buddha, or the truth he understood. The word ‘Dharma’ has many meanings but most importantly it means the unmediated Truth (as experienced by the Enlightened mind). As a term it also encompasses Buddhist teachings as that same Truth mediated by language and concepts. In this second sense, Dharma is the teaching that was born when the Buddha first put his realisation into words and communicated it to others at Sarnath in Northern India. The occasion is traditionally referred to as ‘the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma’, and the eight-spoked Dharma wheel is a common emblem of Buddhism.As well as this, Dharma refers to the entire corpus of scriptures which are regarded as constituting the Buddhist canon. These include records of the Buddha’s life (known as the Pali Canon), scriptures from a later date, and the written teachings of those people who have attained Enlightenment over the centuries. The whole canon is many hundred times as long as the Bible and it represents a literature of unparalleled riches. It includes works such as The Dhammapada, The Diamond Sutra, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.Another meaning of Dharma is the practices which are outlined within the scriptures. Despite the wealth of its literature the essence of Buddhism is very simple: it is finding ways to transform oneself. It could be summed up as ‘learning to do good; ceasing to do evil; purifying the heart’ (as The Dhammapada says).Regarding the Dharma as a refuge means seeing these teachings as the best guide to reality, and committing yourself to practising them. The Triratna approach emphasises the central teachings that are common to all the main schools. These teachings emphasize the development of mindfulness and kindness, examining our actions in the light of our ethical values, and seeing how our thoughts condition our lives.As the Buddha’s central teachings are explored, they connect with the great Buddhist qualities of wisdom and compassion. Sincere engagement with basic Buddhist practices offers a context for understanding and engaging with the deeper teachings of Buddhism. As Sangharakshita asserts: ‘There are no higher teachings, only deeper realisations.’Our approach is radical in the sense that it gets back to the animating spirit and the foundational teachings. Any element of that tradition can be an inspiration to the extent that it is an expression of the Dharma. Today people can be said to be heirs to the whole Buddhist tradition – an incomparable store of spiritual experience and guidance.The SanghaAll of us need other people to learn from. If we are to practise the Dharma we need the example and teaching of others who have done so before us, especially those who have gained insight into the nature of reality themselves. So the third of the Three Jewels is the Sangha or the spiritual community.More broadly ‘sangha’ also refers to the people with whom we share our spiritual lives. We need the guidance of personal teachers who are further along the path than we are, and the support and friendship of other practitioners. This is very important because Buddhism is not an abstract philosophy or creed; it is a way of approaching life and therefore it only has any meaning when it is embodied in people. And in the broadest sense the Sangha means all of the Buddhists in the world, and all those of the past and of the future.Beyond this, the ideals of Buddhism find their embodiment in archetypal figures known as Bodhisattvas. For example, Avalokitesvara is the embodiment of Compassion, and he is depicted with four, eight, or a thousand arms with which he seeks to help all living beings; Manjusri is the embodiment of Wisdom and he is depicted carrying a sword with which he cuts through ignorance. Together the Bodhisattvas and the other Enlightened teachers are known as the Arya Sangha or community of the Noble Ones.Our SanghaThe Buddha once said that kalyana mitrata – spiritual friendship or ‘friendship with what is beautiful’ – is the whole of the spiritual life.
Another formulation of the path is the Threefold Way of ethics, meditation, and wisdom. This is a progressive path, as ethics and a clear conscience provides an indispensable basis for meditation, and meditation is the ground on which wisdom can develop.EthicsTo live is to act, and our actions can have either harmful or beneficial consequences for ourselves and others. Buddhist ethics is concerned with the principles and practices that help one to act in ways that help rather than harm.The core ethical code is known as the Five Precepts. These are not rules or commandments, but ‘principles of training’, which are undertaken freely and put into practice with intelligence and sensitivity. The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that life is complex and throws up many difficulties, and it does not suggest that there is a single course of action that will be right in all circumstances. Indeed, rather than speaking of actions being right or wrong, Buddhism speaks of them being skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala). Many Buddhists around the world recite the five precepts every day, and try to put them into practice in their lives.MeditationMeditation is the second stage of the threefold way. There are many things in life that are beyond our control. However, it is possible to take responsibility for and to change one’s state of mind. According to Buddhism this is the most important thing we can do, and Buddhism teaches that it is the only real antidote to the anxiety, hatred, dis-contentedness, sleepiness, and confusion that beset the human condition. Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a clear seeing of the true nature of things. By engaging with a particular meditation practice, one learns the patterns and habits of the mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being. With discipline and patience these calm and focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly tranquil and energised states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.Motives for learning meditation vary. Some people want to improve their concentration for work, study, or sports; others are looking for calm and peace of mind. Then there are people trying to answer fundamental questions about life. With regular practice, meditation can help all of us to find what we are looking for. Meditation Courses are excellent contexts for learning. Meditation Retreats offer ideal conditions to take things further. Preparation - When you sit down to meditate you need to set up your meditation posture in a way that is relaxed but upright, usually sitting on a cushion and probably cross-legged. If this is not easy you can sit kneeling or else in a chair. Then you close your eyes, relax, and tune in to how you are feeling. It is important to be sensitive to your experience because this is what you work with in meditation. It is a good idea to take some time to sit quietly before starting a meditation, to slow down and relax. Some gentle stretching can also help.WisdomThe aim of all Buddhist practices, including meditation, is prajna, or wisdom. The Buddha taught that the fundamental cause of human difficulties is our existential ignorance – our failure to understand the true nature of reality and wisdom is the opposite of this.To start with, we simply need to hear the teachings that indicate the Buddhist vision of life. Then we need to reflect on them and make sense of them in relation to our own experience. But prajna proper means developing our own direct understanding of the truth.It is not enough to know the Buddha’s philosophy, or even to have a good understanding of it. The ultimate aim is to realise the truth for oneself and to be transformed by that realisation.The Buddha taught that life - everything we experience - has three characteristics. He called these the three marks of conditioned existence.Firstly he said that all life is dukkha, or unsatisfactory. He also said that it is impermanent. Everything in the universe, including ourselves and the thoughts that make up our minds, is in a constant process of change. And yet we act as if the world around us is predictable and stable, and we live our lives as if death were not a certainty. Buddhists reflect on the fact of impermanence, and try to live with this understanding. Thirdly, wherever we may look in life for something solid and unchanging, we only find flux. So he said that all existence is anatta or insubstantial. There is no fixed, abiding essence to things, and no eternal soul within human beings. A person who is wise in the Buddhist sense will naturally see life in terms of these qualities or marks, and prajna means setting aside the pleasing illusions that we adopt to make life comfortable, and to live more and more on the basis of these truths. A full comprehension that nothing lasts, or has anyfixed substance, has an utterly transformative effect. This also means that everything in life is interconnected: no individual is entirely separate from other individuals, and humanity is not separate from the world it inhabits. From this naturally arises compassion, or universal loving-kindness, which is the counterpart of wisdom.
The Four Aryan (or Noble) Truths are perhaps the most basic formulation of the Buddha’s teaching. They are expressed as follows: 1. All existence is dukkha. The word dukkha has been variously translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anguish’, ‘pain’, or ‘unsatisfactoriness’. The Buddha’s insight was that our lives are a struggle, and we do not find ultimate happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience. This is the problem of existence. 2. The cause of dukkha is craving. The natural human tendency is to blame our difficulties on things outside ourselves. But the Buddha says that their actual root is to be found in the mind itself. In particular our tendency to grasp at things (or alternatively to push them away) places us fundamentally at odds with the way life really is. 3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. As we are the ultimate cause of our difficulties, we are also the solution. We cannot change the things that happen to us, but we can change our responses. 4. There is a path that leads from dukkha. Although the Buddha throws responsibility back on to the individual he also taught methods through which we can change ourselves, for example the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddha’s ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ is a further ‘unpacking’ of the ‘Threefold Way’ and is perhaps the most widely known of the Buddha’s teachings. It is ancient, extending back to the Buddha’s first discourse and is highly valued as a treasury of wisdom and practical guidance on how to live our lives. Traditionally the teaching is seen as highlighting eight areas or ‘limbs’ of ‘right’ practice (Sangharakshita prefers ‘perfect’ to ‘right’), which sit in mutual relationship to one other and are each essential elements in an integrated approach to the Dharma:Right Understanding or Perfect VisionRight Resolve or Perfect EmotionRight Speech or Perfect SpeechRight Action or Perfect ActionRight Livelihood or Perfect LivelihoodRight Effort or Perfect EffortRight Mindfulness or Perfect AwarenessRight Meditation or Perfect Samadhi