Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Buddhism
Buddhism is more of an ethereal and psychological approach to God, than a religion. But because it has a systematic approach to devotion, it is classified as a religion. There are over 350 million followers of the enlightened one.
The doctrine and teachings of Buddha were handed down by oral tradition for several centuries after his transition. After this time, they were written and took the form of a canon. Some of the earliest writings we have are from the Ceylonese monks. This is called the Pali version, which is the best authority for early Buddhism.
Another version of the canon is found among the monks of northern India. There are few basic differences between the two canons. After the advent of the Christian Church, these writings take on a remarkably different development. At this time there was a scholastic expansion and elaboration of Gotama’s teachings. During this period the classification of the basic teachings was also started.
There are two major schools of Buddhism. The “Mahayana” School follows the path of “glory realization” meaning they see Buddha as one who gave up the world so all man might find the Truth. The sutras which are distinctively Mahayana are explained by stating that each branch of Buddhism was given teachings by Buddha according to their spiritual development. These sutras hold the key to realization so one may become either Buddha Amitabha (those who have gained Buddhahood and continue evolving after transition) or Bodhisatt (those who have gained purification and emancipation but refuse to enter Nirvana out of love of mankind and return to help them find salvation.)
The other school of Buddhism is called Theravada Buddhism. It holds closely to the original ideal set by the first followers of Gautama. The ideal monk is called the “arahat”, — one who has renounced all so he has obtained “tanha” thus going beyond the life cycle into Nirvana. Yet there is joy and hopefulness here not displayed even among Buddha’s disciples.
In a cosmic sense, the Theravada’s hold the whole cosmos in “momentariness.” Yet this lack of stability within a form does not hamper one’s spiritual development or the growth of the cosmos. The real line of continuity is in the “causal laws” which no follower of Buddha denies. All being is thus, causally interrelated to the total beingness of the cosmos.
Buddhism is then an extension of Hinduism, cleaned and strengthened with an esoteric-scientific knowing. Buddha gave his followers four “Noble Truths” as guidelines; they are:
- “The Noble Truth Concerning Suffering”
All sentient existence is suffering continued through an endless succession of lives under the inexorable law of retribution.
- “The Second Noble Truth”
The origin of suffering is the craving and desire either on a physical level or a spiritual level. This is caused by ignorance.
- “The Third Noble Truth”
If one wishes to end the suffering, this can be done by letting go of desire. Buddha said, “Whatsoever is subject to origination is subject to cessation.”
- “The Fourth Noble Truth”
This is the “Middle Path” which leads to the cessation of suffering. It is above the sensual plane and keeps away from self-torture.
It is the “Noble Eight-fold Path”: Right View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
The goal of the path is Nirvana. This is not defined in Gautama’s teachings though all disciples seek this goal.
The canon which contains these laws is called the Dharma.
The Dharma consists of “Three Baskets”
- Discourse (sutra)
- Abstract Doctrine
We must not assume that all the teachings were written. Buddha said that the “Noble Truths” must be learned from the Supreme Buddha. Only after countless reincarnations on this plane with the sole aim of each lifetime of becoming a buddha can one achieve the full Light. He then descends from Heaven in a dense body gaining the supreme illumination and preaches the Truth. When the buddha goes through transition, he enters complete Nirvana and can neither hear nor answer prayers. His memory is honored by the brothers who meditate upon him and receive much from doing this.
The external “Order” of Brother is on an equal basis with Buddha and the Law and Doctrine. It is one of the “Three Jewels” and therefore of supreme veneration.
For over two centuries we have little or sketchy accounts of the growth of Buddha’s teachings. Between the transition of Buddha and the time when the religion started gaining national attention, two Councils were held which are of importance. The first Council is called “Rajagaha.” It was held shortly after Gotama’s transition and defined and fixed the canon of discipline and doctrine. The other Council, held a century after is called the Council of “Vesali.” This Council settled ten disputed points of discipline.
After 250 B.C. Buddhism began its conquest of India. Missionaries were sent into the Himalayan regions, south to Burma and west to the Greeks. Even though other dynasties were hostile to Buddhism, the missionary work bore fruit and areas like Ceylon became strongholds.
Soon after the spread of Christianity, two schools appeared. Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle”, and Theravada “Little Vehicle” school.
Through the seventh century these two schools existed side by side although some of their teachings were radically different. Buddhism adjusted itself to its surroundings and merged comfortably with Hinduism, although the two faiths remained distinct. In the twelfth century Islam dealt an all but fatal blow to Buddhism in northern India. Monasteries were destroyed or forced to close and many ancient writings were reduced to ashes. After the initial wave had passed, Buddhism was all but extinct in India proper.
Buddhism was brought into China about the first century C.E. By the fourth century it had become part of the cultural heritage of China. From China, Buddhism was transmitted to Korea and Japan.
Buddhism as taught by Gautama is today found only in Ceylon and parts of Viet Nam and Burma. In the last twenty years the West has become increasingly aware of Buddha’s teachings. Unfortunately, the teachings are often altered to fit the Western mind and end up a collection of moralistic sayings. Buddhists in some areas of Asia, especially Japan and Viet Nam have become increasingly militant. The message of Buddha, the Enlightened One is the same as the message of Jesus Christ. His teachings are now coming to their culmination in this New Age.
“I pile no wood for fires or altars.
I kindle a flame within me…
My heart the hearth, the flame the redempted self.”
When Buddha began his work, it was a period of “radical social readjustment and deepening religious need.” There were wars between the local rulers which gave added power to the formation of a rigid caste system. Life was becoming a fight just to have enough food and shelter.
The past was choking religion to death. The Vedas were taught as the final authority rather than living truths which were to be viewed through each generation’s eyes. Rite and ceremony became the norm of one’s devotion rather than actions. Cosmologies abounded, some teachers holding more than one and each teacher claiming his was reality.
Yet Buddha saw at the core that religion was once again losing contact with the people. Dogma and ceremony was choking all practical fulfillment. Into this, Buddha infused light and love and swept it clean.
Buddha taught that the Self is Lord. Man should seek to walk with God always. Tibetan Buddhists look to the manifestation of God in every facet of human life. Out of this an abstract system of thought emerges, a belief which remains stubbornly practical at its core.
Buddhist logic relies very much upon the Law of Cause and Effect. All things spring from a cause, and the First Cause is God. Man awakens (thus, Bodhisattva, “an awakened being”; Buddha, “awake” or “The Wake”) through a chain of causes. The being striving to become awakened in many life-times, that is, possessing the “will to live” works with and through the wheel of karma to achieve further life-times until he is able to achieve Nirvana.
As stated previously, Buddha did not bother to define Nirvana or Heaven. He was much too concerned with the practical needs of the people. From the bits and pieces where he alludes to Nirvana it might be likened to “the flight of the Alone to the Alone, ascending into Heaven.”
Buddha did not have much to say about Karma. He stated that the Law of Karma controls the universe as well as individuals. It is due to ignorance (“avidya”) and involves many rebirths. A Doctrine of Ignorance resulted with twelve Nidanas, or steps on the causal chain. According to the Abhedharmakosa, “Being ignorant in our previous life as to the significance of our existence, we let loose our desires and act wantonly. Owing to this karma we are destined in the present life to be endowed with consciousness, name-and-form, and six organs of sense, and sensation; and to cling to these illusive existences which have no ultimate reality whatever.”
Much of this has to do with knowing, of Knowledge. Each school defines different forms of Knowledge. These different views are taken from Buddha’s teachings. Illusion is one form that appears in every school. It is stressed that many of life’s troubles are illusions springing from ego, which is nourished by ignorance. Relative knowing accepts the fact that the absolutes cannot be gleaned from every day life. To therefore deal with everyday situations, relative truth is sufficient.
Absolute Knowledge (Truth) is for the enlightened. It is perfect knowing and is the goal all Buddhists strive towards. Absolute Knowledge (prajna) leads to Nirvana.
Buddhists also stress the doctrine of Tathata or “suchness.” This is taking things as they are. It is not, however, a separate entity in itself, but is the one-ness of all things. Suchness means, “being so.”
Finally, Buddhists imply void when speaking of suchness. Void, or Sunyata is the state of all objects which are experienced and which we incline ourselves to these are Void, of Void from Void, with Void, and in Void.
Buddhism can teach us much. In a fundamental sense, it is Logic and Reason spiritually applied in a practical way. Buddha knew that only after man can control his own universe, his own animal, can the Light become a part of his reality. Buddha once told his followers that “I live, yet not I, but the Law within me.” St. Paul told the Galatians that he also lived, yet did not, for it was Christ within him.