1. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born of the Sakya clan in northern India (in 560 B.C.). His father was a nobleman, of the Kshatriya class or caste. According to legend, at Gautama's birth it was foretold that he would either become a great political ruler of all India or he would become a spiritual redeemer. To make sure of his son's political future, Gautama's father protected him from the pain and suffering of human beings. Despite this "sheltering," Gautama is said to have witnessed "Four Passing Sights" -- a man wracked by disease, a man decrepit with old age, a corpse, and a monk begging alms. These sights so affected the sensitive Gautama that he resolved to leave his relatives and his life of luxury in order to discover for himself the truth of human life and suffering.
2. At first, he studied meditation with three Hindu ascetics. This did not answer his question. Then, he tried severe self-mortification and fasting, almost to the point of death. This too, he resolved, was not the answer. He determined that when it comes to the needs of the body, the "Middle Way," or the mean between excess and defect, is proper. One should give the body what is natural and necessary and no more. Finally, Gautama tried a new more intense period of meditation. This led to his enlightenment or awakening under the famous fig tree or, as it is now called, the "Bodhi" tree. Bodhi means enlightenment or awakening. The title "Buddha" means one who is wide awake. According to Gautama, men sleep away their lives in senseless and self-centered preoccupations; this self-centeredness can lead only to pain and suffering. The illusion of selfish craving blocks awareness of things as they really are. Self-centered striving is a painful dream from which humans must awake in order to have peace. After his enlightenment, Buddha was tempted by the evil one (Mara) to enjoy this nirvana or peace by himself; for, as Mara tried to deceive him, no one would listen to Buddha or understand what he was saying. But Buddha replied, "There will be some who will understand." Gautama possessed a rare combination of mind and heart; he was extremely logical and philosophical and at the same time extraordinarily loving and compassionate. In fact, one might say that the two branches of Buddhism that later arose, the Theravada (or Hinayana) and the Mahayana, were based on these two sides of the Buddha himself. Theravada Buddhism stressed meditation. Mahayana Buddhism stressed compassion.
3. Gautama taught for many years. His teaching was regarded as heretical by conservative Hindus. After all, Gautama disregarded many of the traditional Hindu religious views. First, he questioned the authority of the Brahmins or the priestly caste or class. In fact, he rejected all divisions into castes and the proscription of certain individuals as "outcastes." Many of Gautama's most famous disciples were at one time "outcastes." According to Buddha, each person can and must strive for enlightenment through his own efforts. Secondly, though he was extremely "philosophical" in his own way, Buddha had no patience with philosophical systems or metaphysics. What one does, not what one believes, is important. When asked about eternity of the world and life after death, Buddha replied that explaining such things will not solve the problem of human suffering here and now. Thirdly, Buddha had no interest in miracles and rituals. He taught that there was no quick road to salvation or nirvana. Neither god nor ritual can bestow salvation; salvation must be worked for by each person through self-discipline, practice, and meditation. Years after Buddha died, Buddhism was indeed transformed into a full-blown religion with rites, mysteries, and other such trappings. But this was not Buddha's original intention. When asked if he was a god, Buddha replied, "I am not a god." Buddha did not want to be prayed to or worshipped.
4. After nearly fifty years of teaching, Buddha died (480 B.C.) from eating a poisonous mushroom accidentally served up by a friend. With great compassion and sensitivity to his grieving friend, Buddha told him that he had had two exceptional meals in his lifetime. The first was the meal he enjoyed under the fig tree after he had attained nirvana. The second was this meal served by his friend, that opened the gates to final release from suffering.
5. Buddha's first sermon at Benares contained the essence of his message. There he taught there the "Four Noble Truths":
6. There are no simple explanations of the Eightfold Way, but some brief comments might be of help:
7. As Buddhism spread to countries throughout the Far East, two main branches developed: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada, the Buddhism "of the elders," emphasized solitary meditation and detachment from the world. The Arhat or sage, who had achieved bodhi or enlightenment, was the central figure of Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhism pejoratively referred to Theravada Buddhism as "Hinayana" Buddhism. The word yana means "raft." Hinayana means "little raft." Mahayana means "big raft." Mahayana Buddhists were critical of Theravada Buddhists, who seemed to restrict salvation to but a few -- the monks. Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, believed that salvation was for everyone. Mahayana Buddhism was seen as a big raft that could carry everyone -- all living creatures in fact -- from suffering to nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists, who stressed universal compassion (karuna), were not content until the last blade of grass would be saved, would be carried over to nirvana. Thus, although Gautama had stressed both enlightenment (bodhi) and compassion (karuna), the branches of Buddhism were less able to maintain this balance. Mahayana Buddhism eventually had broader popular appeal and a greater following throughout the Far East.
8. For Mahayana Buddhism, the central figure is the Bodhisattva (enlightenment-being), who postpones his own enlightenment in order to help others. This concept is found in Theravada Buddhism, but is especially emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana Buddhism, the Arhat (the saint or sage or solitary enlightened one in Theravada Buddhism) has not completely shaken off attachment to I or mine. The Arhat seeks and wins Nirvana for himself, sees himself as different from others, set off from others. This separating off or dividing himself from others is seen, according to the Mahayanists, as an indication that ego has not yet been extinguished, that the "turning-about" has not yet been achieved. In other words, once the ego and ego-concerns have been extinguished, to celebrate one's enlightenment would be missing the point; such celebration would be but another manifestation of "ego." According to the Mahayanists, one who has reached enlightenment does not see himself as different from others. He is more like them than he has ever been before. Before enlightenment, one struggles in the midst of others; one climbs the highest mountain to get a better view. After enlighenment, one is once more down below in the midst of others; one is different and sees differently, but one is not conscious of the difference. One is filled with universal love and compassion.
9. The Bodhisattva, according to the Mahayanists, must take the whole of creation with him into Nirvana. Unselfishness goes beyond giving material goods to the needy (although this is also necessary) to helping the suffering towards enlightenment (release from suffering). The Bodhisattva does not separate himself from others, either in the mind or in the heart; he must wait until everyone has been helped into Nirvana. The Bodhisattva sees no individual persons, yet is resolved to save individual persons; he sees the center of the universe as nowhere in particular and everywhere and therefore is not biased toward himself or any one; at the same time, he is "other-centered" and places the well-being of others ahead of his own. In him, love is not lust or desire or need to have or possess or bring others and things to himself, but a clear flowing stream that issues from his heart and toward others to cleanse and refresh them.
10. To be enlightened, one must see the truth that all things are empty. Sunyata means emptiness; sunya means relating to the swollen. Thus, things are empty or swollen or hollow. Our personality, built up from the five skandhas, is swollen but also hollow inside. Swollen can also mean filled with something foreign. According to this meaning, personality contains nothing that really belongs to it; it is filled with foreign matter. Thus, the "self" is empty and open in itself; it is in fact an emptiness, an opening, a place or space where things and people can enter. We tend, however, to fill this space with clutter, like a vacuum cleaner bag filled with dust and dirt and debris sucked in from the world. We call this debris our own; we feel we can not live without it; we name the whole collection "self" and we pride ourselves (self-esteem) on our self-possession. These attachments, bodily, sensational, perceptual, emotional, intellectual, though they cause us suffering, are tied so tightly to our ego (or rather, the ego is the tying) that we are unwilling to untie them. We are unable to "lighten up," "loosen up," stop taking ourselves so seriously, see ourselves in perspective, see ourselves as no more and no less important than others, see our needs as not absolute, see that this ego which we believe to be the center of the universe is not in fact the center, see that the center is nowhere or everywhere (as God in Christianity is nowhere and everywhere). Even more absurdly, our suffering as the result of self-preoccupation itself can become an ego possession that we can not let go of. We can become morbidly attached to our own misery (a pathological state).
11. Emptiness is not nothing; it is the absence of self (ego or center or point of reference) or self-effacement, self-extinction. It is openness. Intellectually, we are open when we do not cling to a yes or no, when we do not insist on defending an opinion (from our military bunker -- the ego); we are ready to listen and to learn because we have not shut out what we do not believe. We call this open-mindedness. Emotionally, we are empty when we are free of bias; we have emptied out prejudices, preferences, etc. The empty heart, uncluttered by particular concerns, has room for all. It is neither a storehouse for things nor a pure nothingness. It is a realm of infinite possibility. It is like the clear, empty, tranquil sky, where birds and clouds and rain enter and leave without restraint, without being captured or "possessed" or "owned" or "hitched to an ego." Emptiness is the pure "can be." As an empty room is full of room, so the emptied heart can let in everyone (without possessing).
12. Another word for reality without me, myself, and I connotations is suchness: reality as it is in itself without subjective references, interpretations, self-reference, etc. Enlightenment means emptying out rigid actualities, becoming full of possibility (openness), and viewing and loving the world as it is in itself (not as we wish it or need it to be). Enlightenment means waking up to see things as they really are for the first time -- not from a self-centered point of view, but from a universal or total point of view. Self-preoccupation is a self-centered sleepiness wherein the real world is never able to penetrate past the self-constructed dream world -- the idiosyncratic world of my interests, my suffering, my needs, my goals, my friends, my failures, my successes, my religion, my God. The real world is clear, transparent light; the self is a paintbrush or a colored glass that tints everything. Suchness is the plain, homely truth that things are what they are apart from our desires and claims.
13. Enlightenment is characterized by:
14. Of some interest is the "Unlimited," a method for cultivating the emotions. There are four stages to this method:
Questions for Discussion:
1. Describe Siddhartha Gautama's life and its importance for Buddhism. What were the "Four Passing Sights"? Describe his coming to enlightenment.
2. How was Gautama's teaching regarded by conservative Hindus? Explain.
3. Name and explain the Four Noble Truths.
4. List and describe briefly the Eightfold Way.
5. Explain in detail right mindfulness and right concentration, the steps on the Way closest to nirvana.
6. How did Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism differ? What do the words Hinayana and Mahayana mean? What do they refer to?
7. Who were the central figures of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism? Discuss their importance. Was Gautama himself closer to one than the other? Explain.
8. Explain emptiness. How do Westerners view emptiness? How do Westerners view non-possession? Contrast Aristotelian self-fulfillment with Buddhist self-extinction.
9. What is suchness?
10. Describe non-attainment? Why can one not "strive for" enlightenment?
11. Describe non-assertion? How might a Westerner view non-assertion? Discuss.
12. Explain the difference between non-relying and "self-reliance."
13. Is nirvana a state of "trance" or self-hypnosis? Explain. Does nirvana give one a glimpse of a transcendent realm? Discuss.
14. Explain the "Unlimited" and its importance for cultivating universal compassion.
15. Do Buddhists believe in a "spiritual soul"? Explain.
16. Describe the process of transforming selfish grasping into unselfish giving.
17. Name the five skandhas. How is the self or ego fabricated over and above these five skandhas? Why does this cause suffering? How can the process be reversed and suffering be reduced?
18. What is nirvana? What is nirvana not?
19. Using the metaphor of crossing the river by raft, describe Buddhism and nirvana. Explain in this way, also, the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism.
20. Compare the notions of craving, suffering, and "happiness" in Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Hobbes, Kant, and Buddhism.
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