At least 300 million people around the world are practicing Buddhists and it is estimated that perhaps another 300 million people practice a Chinese folk or traditional religion which is a mix of various religious beliefs including Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Buddhism is considered by some to be the fourth-largest religion in the world, behind Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, but in some countries, including China, Vietnam and North Korea, it is difficult to know how many people consider themselves to be Buddhists. Buddhist beliefs have also influenced Western thought, but people practicing Zen meditation or who believe that their thoughts become their own realities (both taught by Buddha) may not consider themselves to be Buddhists and are also not among the official number of practicing Buddhists.

Buddhism is nearly a half a millennium older than Christianity. The numerous Buddhist texts are based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was born into a royal family in what is now Nepal in 563 B.C. (The year is sometimes given as 565, but it was within a few years of this date certainly). Buddhism emphasizes living a moral life, being mindful and aware of your thoughts and actions and developing wisdom and understanding. It is a peaceful, introspective religion with focus on each individual’s spiritual growth. One individual’s becoming more conscious of his or her own thoughts and actions leads to them being compassionate, honest and moral, which in turn benefits all others.

Buddhism is often seen as a religion of detachment, but the Buddha did not advocate total withdrawal from life and the community of others. Rather, the emphasis is on realising that a deeper truth and undying peace lies within us all that we can tap into whenever we want to, despite the pain and suffering we will inevitably sometimes see around us. The Buddha advocated compassion and tolerance for all living things, which is why many Buddhists are vegetarians (although the Buddha did not make that a strict rule) and why there would never be a war fought for Buddhist principles.

Siddhartha Gautama

When people refer to Buddha, they mean Siddhartha (also called Siddhartha) Gautama, although there were other buddhas before him and there will be other buddhas in the future. Buddha itself means Enlightened One or Awakened One. (For example, in one type of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, anyone who has reached self-realisation without instruction and teaches it to others is called a Buddha.) Siddhartha was born in to a life of luxury; his father was King Suddhodana and his mother Queen Maha Maya of the kingdom of Kapilvastu. A famous seer reportedly told the king shortly after his son’s birth that Siddhartha Gautama would either be a great holy man or a king, a prediction that was echoed by other seers invited to celebrate the birth. King Suddhodana wanted his son to be a powerful king and so planned to keep Gautama away from anything that might lead him to take up the life of a holy man. Siddhartha, however, was by nature introspective and meditative. Although he excelled at everything including riding, archery and fencing as well as scholarly studies and was reportedly robust and in excellent physical condition, he still seemed withdrawn and no number of beautiful girls or lavish parties his parents offered him could long raise his spirits. In a continued effort to make him happy, he was taken on four trips outside the city, each time leaving out of one of the city gates. It was on these excursions that he came across the famous ‘four sights’ that would change his life forever. Gautama saw aging, illness and death and he realised that people beyond the palace walls were suffering. He then saw an ascetic and decided to one day also renounce luxuries in an effort to find truth.

Shortly afterward, Siddhartha Gautama’s father and his aunt Mahapajapati (his mother died on the seventh day after her delivery) married him to his cousin Yasodhar in order that Gautama would remain at the palace. The future Buddha and his wife had a son, Rahula, which in Indian thought actually left Gautama free to leave since the birth of a son fulfilled his karmic duty to his father and to his wife. That is precisely what Gautama did – he fled the palace and took up the life of an ascetic, begging for alms. He was soon taken under the wings of two hermit teachers respectively, first Alara Kalama and then Udaka Ramaputta, who taught him to reach very deep meditative states, which proved very easy for Gautama to obtain. Although they asked him to take their places, he refused. He then went on to nearly starve himself to death in six years of practicing self-mortification. which at that time was the other way to seek enlightenment besides doing meditation. When he nearly died from weakness, he reconsidered his plan of action and discovered the Middle Way between the self-mortification he had put himself through and the self-indulgence he had known in his earlier life.

Up until this point, five friends had accompanied Gautama on his quest, but when he began to accept food and changed his behaviour, they thought he had abandoned the cause and left him He had sat himself down in the shade of a pippala tree (a type of fig tree), refusing to get up until he had reached enlightenment. He was tempted by evil spirits but used his power of concentration to dissolve any fears and to disregard any temptations put in his way and eventually he understood the Four Noble Truths and the secret to true peace and happiness. (Now the tree where he sat is called a Bodhi tree, or Enlightenment Tree.)

The Four Noble Truths

1. There is suffering. Everyone suffers.
2. There is a cause of suffering. We ourselves cause it through our threefold craving – sensual craving, craving for existence and craving for wealth and power. Coupled with ignorance of the law of nature, our cravings cause our suffering.
3. Suffering can cease. When someone gives up their threefold cravings and their ignorance, they can reach Nirvana, or the extinction of cravings.
4. There is a path toward the cessation of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path or the Middle Path is the way toward ending suffering.

The Eight-fold Path

The eight-fold path concerns being moral by using moral speech and action and earning a moral livelihood. The mind must focus on thoughts and actions and wisdom must be developed through understanding the Four Noble Truths and developing compassion. Each step of the path is to be followed:

1. Right View. See the world through Buddha’s eyes, with compassion and wisdom.
2. Right Thought. We are what we think. Think kind thoughts to develop good character.
3. Right Speech. We earn respect and trust when we speak kind and helpful words.
4. Right Conduct. Actions speak louder than words.
5. Right Livelihood. We must not hurt others through our employment (e.g. we must not make money through human trade, the killing of animals, intoxication, etc.)
6. Right Effort. Always doing our best and having the right attitude toward other people. This also means not wasting effort on things that are harmful to us or to others.
7. Right Mindfulness. Being aware of our thoughts and deeds.
8. Right Concentration. Focus on one thing at a time.

The Buddha himself said that none of this should be accepted just because someone else says it is true, but should be put to each individual’s own test and accepted only when someone knows for themselves that it is true. After his enlightenment, the Buddha delivered his first sermon to his friends, who became the first Buddhist monks, or Sangha. He spent the next 45 years of his life traveling in the Gangetic Plain, teaching his doctrine (Dharma) to anyone from nobles down to mass murderers and making thousands of converts. His religion was open to all.

The Buddha and the Sangha traveled throughout the year except during the four months of the vassana rainy season, when flooding made it difficult to get around. During these months, the Sangha stayed in a monastery, park or forest and the people came to them. Two leading disciples soon joined the Sangha, Sariputta and Mahamoggallana. The Buddha’s father heard of his son’s enlightenment and sent delegations to call the Buddha back to Kapilavastu. Ten delegations were sent – the first nine times the message was never conveyed and the delegates simply joined the Sangha. The tenth time, the delegates also converted, but they gave the message and Buddha agreed to come home two years after his enlightenment. King Suddhodana ended up converting to Buddhism, as did many of the members of the royal family, including the Buddha’s son Rahula at the age of seven, who became one of the ten chief disciples. Cousins also joined, including Devadatta who would later become an enemy and try to kill the Buddha on several occasions.

When Suddhodana died, the Buddha returned again, and subsequently an order of nuns was established. His foster mother asked to join the Sangha, but the Buddha at first refused. She was determined, however, and led a group of royal women to Rajagaha, following the Sangha. The Buddha accepted them and acknowledged that their capacity for enlightenment was the same as that of men, but women were given additional rules to follow (Vinaya). The Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara, also became a nun. The Sangha helped to spread the Buddha’s teachings, which include the following ideas:

The Triple Jewel

The triple jewel in Buddhism is The Buddha, who is the guide; the Dharma or teachings, which is the path and the Sangha, or the teachers or companions along the way. The Triple Jewel provides people with a foundation and with support as they follow their spiritual path, and there is a special ceremony for taking refuge with the Triple Jewel during which someone must say with great sincerity in front of an ordained monk or nun:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dharma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

The Five Precepts

These are the basic rules, much like the Ten Commandments. They have been passed down from the Buddha himself.

1. No killing (Respect for life)
2. No stealing (Respect for others’ property)
3. No sexual misconduct (Respect for our pure nature)
4. No lying (Respect for honesty)
5. No intoxicants (Respect for a clear mind)

The Wheel of Life

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. When someone dies, their consciousness enters one of six paths of rebirth. They can return as heavenly beings, humans, asuras (beings who appear as humans or animals either in heaven or on Earth who have many advantages but still like to fight), hungry ghosts who suffer from constant hunger and hell-beings. Leading a good life will cause you to be reborn as a heavenly being, human or asura; while living a life of misdeeds will cause you to be reborn into the lower realms of hungry ghosts or hell-beings. To escape the wheel of life and death, three poisons must be eradicated: the poisons of greed, hatred and stupidity. By eradicating these things, we can become enlightened and escape the wheel. There are four stages to enlightenment: Arhats enlighten themselves. Patyekabuddhas are hermits who seclude themselves for self-enlightenment. Bodhisattvas enlighten themselves and others, and Buddhas are perfect in enlightenment.

After the Great Passing of the Buddha

The Buddha announced that he would soon be entering Parinirvana or the final deathless state when he was 80 years old. He ate his last meal, an offering by a blacksmith, became violently ill, and died. He insisted on the blacksmith’s knowing that his passing had nothing to do with the meal.

The Sangha passed down his teachings orally for three generations until they were written down. According to scriptures, the first Buddhist council was held shortly after the Buddha’s passing to collectively recite Buddhist teachings. Some scholars, however, doubt that it was held at all. Over the next 100 years, the Sangha grew and a second council was held to discuss points of dispute. After this, the Sangha started to break into separate factions. Today there are three main traditions: Theravada, East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, although some scholars break it down into just two divisions: Theravada and Mahayana.

Buddhism in China

Buddhism has greatly influenced Chinese art, literature, philosophy, politics and medicine. Buddhism spread to China from India through trade, and has all but died out in its native country although it has continued to flourish elsewhere. There are records of Yuezhi envoys coming into China in 2 BC and talking about the Buddhist faith. The Han Emperor Ming (58-75 AD) sent an envoy to northwest India to ask about Buddha, after which time paintings and statues of the Buddha began to appear in what was then the Middle Kingdom. Chinese delegates brought back two missionaries named Dhamaraksa and Kasyapa Matange in the year 67 AD, which marks the official introduction of Buddhism in China. By the middle of the 1st century, Buddhism had spread to areas north of the Huai River. Emperor Mong’s brother, Prince Liu Ying of Chu, was the first important personage to convert to Buddhism, although there is some evidence that Emperor Ming himself converted.

Buddhist scriptures were first translated into Chinese in 148 AD, but translators apparently made use of existing Chinese terms that were employed by Taoism, bringing two fairly compatible philosophies somewhat closer together. The translator Kumarajiiva provided a more clear and precise translation of the Buddhist texts in 401 AD, but by then, Buddhism in China had already been greatly influenced by Taoist ideas. Buddhism and Confucianism, on the other hand, were not so compatible, although Buddhism itself is tolerant to other religions. The Buddhist ideas of individual enlightenment and monasticism seem to be in opposition of the Confucian insistence on holding family and emperor above all. That is perhaps why parts of the Buddhist texts were emphasized more than others in China, particularly the part about filial piety, which struck a chord with the Chinese population. Buddhism was also made compatible with the existing ancestor worship.

The chaos caused by the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD may have helped to spread Buddhism, although Taoism inspired people to defy the emperor. Still, it was Confucianism that was the most prominent religion at this time. Later turmoil during the Sixteen Kingdom and Southern and Northern Dynasties further spread Buddhism, however, and it eventually gained state support. This official support of Buddhism would found a new Chinese ideology, held by diverse populations but fostering a greater sense of a single Chinese identity. At first, Buddhism was stronger in the North than in the South among officials, where Confucian and Taoist beliefs were held strongly by the ruling clans. Among the common people, however, Buddhism spread quickly in the south as well as in the north.

The influence and example of the Sangha was of primary importance in spreading the religion. Confucianism had no such holy men. By conducting themselves in a moral fashion, the Buddhist monks obtained the respect of the people who began to look to them for guidance. By the 6th century, Buddhism was as strong as Taoism. Buddhism also spread through the copying of texts: copying them was supposed to bring good karma. These manuscripts were printed using movable blocks, which was a huge improvement over copying them by hand. A copy of the Diamond Sutra dated from 868 AD is the first dated example of this type of printing.

The monk Xuanzang brought back Indian scriptures during the Tang Dynasty and sought to promote Mahayana Buddhism over Theravada Buddhism. The Tang capital became an important Buddhist centre, and from there, the religion spread to Korea and Japan. Again, Buddhist ideas merged with those from Confucianism and Taoism, partly due to using existing Chinese words when translating from the Indian scriptures.

That Buddhism was thriving at this time can be seen through the many scripture-filled caves and other structures still in existence. Among the most famous caves are the Longmen Grottoes, the Mogao Caves, and the Yungang Grottoes. The largest stone Buddha in the word is the Leshan Giant Buddha, carved during the 8th century to look down on three rivers.

Opposition to Buddhism in China

Some Chinese opposed Buddhism because it came from abroad. The Buddha did not speak Chinese, nor understand the Chinese respect for sovereignty or family, according to critics. Emperor Wuzong of the Tang Dynasty is said to have hated the sight of Buddhist monks and in 845 AD ordered the destruction of 4,600 Buddhist monasteries and 40,000 temples. Furthermore, 250,000 Buddhist monks and nuns had to give up their Buddhist lifestyles. (Emperor Wuzong also persecuted Christians, for the same reason that it was foreign to China.) Ancient Buddhism never fully recovered from this effort to stamp it out entirely.
During the Cultural Revolution all religions were repressed, including Buddhism. But already in the early 1970s, there were signs that some religious activity could be tolerated. Monasteries reopened for visitors and universities were allowed to teach courses in Chinese philosophy, which included the major religions. Buddhism in Tibet is perhaps the most dramatic example of religious revival, with its monastic communities, popular festivals and pilgrimages, although there are continued tensions between the Chinese state and those who strive for greater Tibetan independence.

Modern Chinese Buddhism

In Mainland China and Taiwan, the most popular form of Buddhism is a mix of Pure Land and Chan (Zen in Japanese) schools.

Buddhist Symbols

The umbrella
The Golden Fish
The Treasure Vase
The Lotus
The Conch Shell
The Endless Knot
The Victory Banner
The Dharma Wheel

The Buddhist Flag

The Buddhist flag was created in 1880 to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress and is often flown at Buddhist celebrations worldwide. The flag represents the six colours that shone around the Buddha’s head as he reached enlightenment. There are actually five colours, blue (universal compassion), yellow (the Middle Way), red (blessings), white (purity and freedom) and orange (wisdom). The sixth colour is made of all those colours together, but the flag’s design shows them in separate bands.

Buddha statues and sculptures
Images of the Buddha are found all over the world and in many Chinese homes. Buddhists don’t so much pray to these images or ask favors of them, but rather pay their respect to Buddha by paying respect to the images. The statues are also reminders: a statue of the Buddha with his hands in his lap and a compassionate smile on his lips is a reminder to develop love and peace within ourselves. Bowing to the statue is an expression of gratitude for Buddha’s teachings.

Quotes from the Buddha

All wrongdoing arises because of the mind. If mind is transformed, can wrongdoing remain?

All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.

He is able who thinks he is able.

He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

To keep the body in good health is a duty . . . otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

You will never be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.

It is a man’s mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.

Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

The mind is everything. What you think you become.

The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.

The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

You can search throughout t he entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection that you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.

Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.

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