A look at some of Buddhism’s guiding principles
This month’s faith feature is a look at the Buddhist religion.
While its local community is much smaller than other religions we have featured, Buddhism is in fact one of the world’s largest religions and considered among the 12 mainstream religious beliefs.
Buddhism originated in ancient India in the 6th century BCE. It is based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama.
Gautama was a spiritual teacher in South Asia and is believed to be a “fully enlightened” being who taught the path to spiritual freedom, also known as nirvana.
Gautama was born into a wealthy family as a prince in present day Nepal. He took notice of the suffering of humanity, renounced his wealth and became a monk. Gautama spent his time meditating and travelling, depriving himself of worldly possessions in the hope that he would be able to better understand the truth of the world around him.
This search for truth culminated in an experience of deep meditation where it is believed he achieved enlightenment, or nirvana, under a Bodhi tree – the tree of awakening – in the city of Bihar, India.
From this epiphany Gautama became known as “Buddha”, or “the enlightened one”.
Buddha spent the remainder of his life travelling through India and teaching others what he had learnt. His followers became known as Buddhists.
His teachings can be summed up in the Four Noble Truths:
• Dukkha: all life is imperfect and involves suffering.
• Samudāya: the cause of suffering is desire.
• Nirodha: suffering can end.
• Magga: the way to end suffering is by following the Noble Eightfold Path – right understanding; right intention; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration.
Simply put, these teachings explain that suffering exists, it has a cause and it can end through specific intentional action. These truths make up the essence of Buddha’s teachings, but also leave much unexplained.
There are, however, guiding principles that Buddhists adhere to in order to live a morally good life and aid achieving enlightenment. These principles are known as the Five Precepts and include:
• To refrain from taking life. Not killing any living being, including animals. As such, many Buddhists choose a vegetarian lifestyle.
• To refrain from taking what is not given. Not stealing from anyone.
• To refrain from the misuse of the senses. Not having too much sensual pleasure.
• To refrain from wrong speech. Not lying or gossiping about others.
• To refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind. Not drinking alcohol or taking drugs that inhibit your ability to think clearly.
These precepts are considered important to eliminating human suffering and achieving nirvana, which is the main aim of Buddhism.
Another fundamental component of the faith is principle of karma. Karma is essentially the sum of a person’s actions which will decide their future fate. While it is now a common term loosely used by people of varying beliefs, karma is deeply connected to the Buddhist cycle of rebirth.
Buddhists believe that when someone dies, they will be reborn again as something else. What they are reborn as depends on their actions in a previous life. Humans go through an unknown number of cycles of rebirth over many lifetimes that can span six realms – the realm of the gods, the realm of the angry gods, the realm of animals, the realm of the tormented being, the realm of the hungry ghost, the realm of humans.
Buddhism is a unique world religion as it does not acknowledge a divine creator or supreme being. It accepts the existence of celestial beings, but these beings are not considered to be creators or eternal. As such, it is often referred to as a nontheistic religion, a huge contrast to the monotheistic and polytheistic faiths.
While an ancient eastern belief system, Buddhism has spread across the western world through immigration and has gained popularity. It particularly appeals to people who have an agnostic or atheistic world view and are more concerned with living a moral life versus achieving eternal life or salvation.
This increased interest in the faith comes at a time when many people are experiencing suffering. Over the past two decades in particular, Buddhism has seen an increase in acceptance in western culture as meditation and mindfulness have become highlighted as impactful mental health practices.
Simple practices, such as becoming aware of one’s breathing and thoughts through meditation, are also fundamental Buddhist teachings and have scientifically proven mental and physical health benefits.
Recent popularity aside, Buddhism is indeed an interesting and thought-provoking set of beliefs with approximately 400 million adherents spread across the globe. We hope to share the stories of those within the Buddhist faith in our local community.