The Buddha and Jesus: Teachers Above Forms

When we come to compare the Buddha and Christ we are struck by many resemblances of thought but also by great differences of circumstances and career. Both were truly spiritual teachers who rose above forms and codes: both accepted the current ideals of their time and strove to become the one a Buddha, the other Messiah. But at the age when Christ was executed Siddharta Gautama was still in quest of truth and still on the wrong track. He lived nearly fifty years longer and had ample opportunity of putting his ideas into practice.

Different Paths

So far as our meagre traditions allow us to trace the development of the two, the differences are even more fundamental. Peaceful as was the latter part of the Buddha's life, the beginning was a period of struggle and disillusion.

He broke away from worldly life to wear out his body with the severest mortification; that again he found to be vanity and only then did he attain to enlightenment. And though he offers salvation to all without distinction, he repeatedly says that it is difficult: with hard wrestling has he won the truth and it is hard for ordinary men to understand.

Troubled as was the life of Christ, it contains no struggle of this sort. As a youth he grew up in a poor family where the disenchantment of satiety was unknown: his genius first found expression in sermons delivered in the synagogue—the ordinary routine of Jewish ritual. The temptation, though it offers analogies to Gautama’s mental struggle and particularly to the legends about Mara, was not an internal revolution in which old beliefs were seen to be false and new knowledge arose from their ashes.

So far as we know, his inner life was continuous and undisturbed, and its final expression is emotional rather than intellectual. He gives no explanations and leaves no feeling that they are necessary. He is free in his use of metaphor and chary of definition. The teaching of the Buddha on the other hand is essentially intellectual. The nature and tastes of his audience were a sufficient justification for his style, but it indicates a temper far removed from the unquestioning and childlike faith of Christ.

Relationship with the World

Sick people naturally turned to Jesus: they were brought to him when he arrived in a town. Though the Buddha was occasionally kind to the sick, no such picture is drawn of the company about him and persons afflicted with certain diseases could not enter the order.

Christ teaches that the world is evil or, perhaps we should say, spoiled, but wishes to remove the evil and found the Kingdom of Heaven: the Buddha teaches that birth, sickness and death are necessary conditions of existence and that disease, which like everything else has its origin in Karma, can be destroyed only when the cause is destroyed.

The Buddha accepted invitations but he did not so much join in the life of the family which he visited as convert the entertainment offered to him into an edifying religious service. Yet in propaganda and controversy he was gracious and humane beyond the measure of all other teachers. He did not call the priests of his time a generation of vipers, though he laughed at their ceremonies and their pretensions to superior birth.

Though the Buddha passed through intellectual crises such as the biographies of Christ do not hint at, yet in other matters it is he rather than Christ who offers a picture and example of peace.

Christ enjoyed with a little band of friends an intimacy which the Hindu gave to none, but from the very commencement of his mission he is at enmity with what he calls the world. The world is evil and a great event is coming of double import, for it will bring disaster on the wicked as well as happiness for the good. "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He is angry with the world because it will not hear him. He declares that it hates him and the gospel according to St John even makes him say, "I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me”.

The little towns of Galilee are worse in his eyes than the wicked cities of antiquity because they are not impressed by his miracles and Jerusalem which has slighted all the prophets and finally himself is to receive signal punishment. The shadow of impending death fell over the last period of his ministry and he felt that he was to be offered as a sacrifice. The Jews even seem to have thought at one time that he was unreasonably alarmed.

But the Buddha was not angry with the world. He thought of it as unsatisfactory and transitory rather than wicked, as ignorant rather than rebellious. He troubled little about people who would not listen. The calm and confidence which so many narratives attribute to him rarely failed to meet with the respect which they anticipated.

In his life there is no idea of sacrifice, no element of the tragic, no nervous irritability. In his previous existences, when preparing for Buddhahood, he had frequently given his life for others, not because it was any particular good to them but in order to perfect his character for his own great career and bring about the selflessness which is essential to a Buddha. When once he had attained enlightenment any idea of sacrifice, such as the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, had no meaning.

Gautama instituted a religious order and lived long enough to see it grow out of infancy, but its organization was gradual and for a year or two it was simply a band of disciples not more bound by rules than the seventy whom Christ sent forth to preach.

Jesus’ maxims are the perfect expression of courtesy and good feeling with an occasional spice of paradox, such as the command to love one's enemies, yet the experience of nearly twenty centuries has shown that this morality is not for the citizens of the world.

The churches which give themselves his name preach with rare exceptions that soldiering, financing and the business of government—things about which he cared as little as do the birds and the lilies of the field—are the proper concern of Christian men and one wonders whether he would not, had his life been prolonged, have seen that many of his precepts, such as turning the other cheek and not resisting evil, are incompatible with ordinary institutions and have followed the example of the great Indian by founding a society in which they could be kept.

The Goals of the Teachers

There are many resemblances between the Gospels and the teaching of the Buddha but the bases of the two doctrines are different and, if the results are sometimes similar, this shows that the same destination can be reached by more than one road. It is perhaps the privilege of genius to see the goal by intuition: the road and the vehicle are subsidiary and may be varied to suit the minds of different nations.

Christ, being a Jew, took for his basis a refined form of the old Jewish theism. He purged Jehovah of his jealousy and prejudices and made him a spirit of pure benevolence who behaves to men as a loving father and bids them behave to one another as loving brethren.

Such ideas lie outside the sphere of Gautama's thought and he would probably have asked why on this hypothesis there is any evil in the world. That is a question which the Gospels are chary of discussing but they seem to indicate that the disobedience and sinfulness of mankind are the root of evil.

A godly world would be a happy world. But the Buddha would have said that though the world would be very much happier if all its inhabitants were moral and religious, yet the evils inherent in individual existence would still remain; it would still be impermanent and unsatisfactory.

Yet the Buddha and Christ are alike in points which are of considerable human interest, though they are not those emphasized by the Churches. Neither appears to have had much taste for theology or metaphysics. Christ ignored them: the Buddha said categorically that such speculations are vain.

Indeed it is probably a general law in religions that the theological phase does not begin until the second generation, when the successors of the founder try to interpret and harmonize his words. He himself sees clearly and says plainly what mankind ought to do.

Neither the Buddha, nor Christ, nor Mohammed cared for much beyond this, and such of their sayings as have reference to the whence, the whither and the why of the universe are obscure precisely because these questions do not fall within the field of religious genius and receive no illumination from its light.

Argumentative as the Buddhist suttas are, their aim is strictly practical, even when their language appears scholastic, and the burden of all their ratiocination is the same and very simple. Men are unhappy because of their foolish desires: to become happy they must make themselves a new heart and will and, perhaps the Buddha would have added, new eyes.

Neither the Buddha nor Christ thought it worth while to write anything and both of them ignored ceremonial and sacerdotal codes in a way which must have astounded their contemporaries. The law-books and sacrifices to which Brahmans and Pharisees devoted time and study are simply left on one side. The former are replaced by injunctions to cultivate a good habit of mind, such as is exemplified in the Eightfold Path and the Beatitudes, the latter by some observances of extreme simplicity, such as the Lord's Prayer.

In both cases subsequent generations felt that the provision made by the Founders was inadequate and the Buddhist and Christian Churches have multiplied ceremonies which, though not altogether unedifying, would certainly have astonished the Buddha and Christ.

For Christ the greatest commandments were that a man should love God and his neighbours. This summary is not in the manner of Gautama and though love has an important place in his teaching, it is rather an inseparable adjunct of a holy life than the force which creates and animates it. In other words the Buddha teaches that a saint must love his fellow men rather than that he who loves his fellow men is a saint.

The Christian nations of Europe are more inclined to action than the Buddhist nations of Asia, yet the Beatitudes do not indicate that the strenuous life is the road to happiness. Those declared blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the pure and the persecuted. Such men have just the virtues of the patient monk.

Christ's phrase about rendering unto Cesar the things that are Cesar's seems to dissociate his true followers (like the monks) from political life. Money and taxes are the affair of those who put their heads on coins; God and the things which concern him have quite another sphere.

The Buddha and Muhammad: An impossible comparison?

The personality of the Buddha invites comparison with the founders of the other world-religions. I’ll try to present a comparison between the Buddha and Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Both were seekers after truth: both found what they believed to be the truth only when of mature years, the Buddha when about thirty-six, Muhammad when forty or more: both lived to be elderly men and possessed great authority. But there the analogy ends.

The Great Achievements of Muhammad

Perhaps no single human being has had so great an effect on the world as Muhammad. His achievements are personal and, had he never lived, it is not clear that the circumstances of the age would have caused some one else to play approximately the same part. He more than Cesar or Alexander was individually the author of a movement which transformed part of three continents.

No one else has been able to fuse the two noble instincts of religion and empire in so perfect a manner, perfect because the two do not conflict or jar, as do the teachings of Christ and the pretensions of his Church to temporal power. But it is precisely this fusion of religion and politics which disqualifies Islam as a universal religion and prevents it from satisfying the intellectual and spiritual wants of that part of humanity which is most intellectual and most spiritual.

Law and religion are inextricably mixed in it and a Muslim, more than the most superstitious of Buddhists or Christians, is bound by a vast number of ties and observances which have nothing to do with religion.

A Different Teacher

It is in avoiding these trammels that the superior religious instinct of the Buddha shows itself. He was aided in this by the temper of his times. Though he was of the warrior caste, he was not on that account tempted to play a part in politics, for to the Hindus, then as now, renunciation of the world was indispensable for serious religion and there is no instance of a teacher obtaining a hearing among them without such renunciation as a preliminary.

According to Indian popular ideas a genius might become either an Emperor or a Buddha but not like Muhammad a mixture of the two. But the danger which beset Siddharta Gautama, and which he consistently and consciously avoided, though Muhammad could not, was to give authoritative decisions on unessential points as to both doctrine and practice.

There was clearly a party which wished to make the rule of his order more severe and, had he consented, the religious world of his day would have approved. But by so doing he would have made Buddhism an Indian sect incapable of flourishing in lands with other institutions.

If Buddhism has had little influence outside Asia (until the last century), that is because there are differences of temperament in the world, not because it sanctions anachronisms or prescribes observances of a purely local and temporary value.

In all his teaching the Buddha insists on what is essential only and will not lend his name and authority to what is merely accessory. He will not for instance direct or even recommend his disciples to be hermits. "Whoever wishes may dwell in a wood and whoever wishes may dwell near a village."

Akin to this contrast is another—that between the tolerance of Gautama and the persecuting spirit of Islam. Muhammad and his followers never got rid of the idea that any other form of religion is an insult to the Almighty: that infidels should if possible be converted by compulsion, or, if that were impossible, allowed to exist only on sufferance and in an inferior position.

Such ideas were unknown to Siddharta Gautama. He labored not for his own or his Creator's glory but simply and solely to benefit mankind. Conversion by force had no meaning for him, for what he desired was not a profession of allegiance but a change of disposition.

Buddhism for the Non-Buddhist Layman

My new "mini-book" Buddhism for the Non-Buddhist Layman is now available. This
e-book is a quick and to the point introduction to Buddhism. With its 30 pages, it covers the fundamental tenets of Buddhism in a way anyone could understand. It is ideal for those people interested in Buddhism and who don't know where to start. I really recommend it as a starting point.

The book is divided in three chapters:

  1. The Buddha: Here I present our teacher, the Buddha. Who is this man who set this incredible and fascinating tradition in motion? Why did he have so much influence?

  2. The Buddha's Insight: Here I talk about the theoretical teachings of the Buddha. What he taught about the nature of the world and the self. You don't need to be a monk or a Ph.D. in Philosophy, you will see that what he taught is pretty easy to understand and to experience in our life.

  3. The Path To Achieve Liberation: This chapter describes the Path the Buddha pointed out to achieve liberation. What should we do? How should we live?

The Real Mystery of Buddhism

There was a question I always wanted to make to a serious practitioner of Buddhism. What do you really believe about the doctrine of transmigration? Once I knew a Tibetan monk, he was a recognized reincarnation of a great monk from a previous generation. I took him aside one day and said: “Well, there is nobody else listening, nobody will overhear our conversation, tell me what it was like to be a monk in Eastern Tibet in your previous incarnation.”

He just left. He smiled at me and said: “I can’t even remember what I have for breakfast, let alone what I did in my previous life”. I took from that not just a sneaky way of avoiding the question, but also a rather subtle and effective reminder of something important about Buddhism. There is nothing more mysterious about the passing from one life to another than there is in our passing from one moment to another. Read that last sentence again if you need.

Everything Changes

We constantly change and the person who is here today is different from the person who was here yesterday. To grasp the reality of ourselves we have to come to terms with that changeable aspect of our experience. Even in this moment, everything that we experience is flowing through us, constantly changing. So, the person who started a minute ago to read this article now has become something completely different.

The concept of no-self helps us understand why Buddhists do not consider the doctrine of suffering particularly pessimistic. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s simply realistic. It’s simply a fact of the nature of reality. We have to accept that the human personality and everything around it is constantly changing.

Living With Suffering

The cause of suffering is not the change itself, but the human desire to hold on to things and prevent them from changing. Buddhists that look at the world through the lenses of no-self, do not approach it in a pessimistic way. They understand that if everything changes, it’s possible for everything to become new. It’s possible to approach even the most difficult situations in life with a sense of lightness, buoyancy and freedom.

When we live or encounter with Buddhist cultures we encounter people who are not oppressed by a depressive or sad vision of the world, but we find a sense of lightness. People are quick to laugh, and quick to let go of things that are painful. Why? Because everything changes, everything is impermanent. In the end, there is nothing to hold on to.

The Practice of Tantra

A common question about Tantra is wether there is anything that distinguishes the practitioners of Tantra from the ordinary practitioners of other traditions. Who are these people? Who practice Tantra in this form?

The Siddhas

The earliest bands of Tantric practitioners were known as Siddha or perfected ones. We can call them simply saints as it is often done in writings about the Tantric tradition. As you might expect, the stories of the Siddhas depict them as people who have rejected the conventions of Indian society. They are often described as living in cremation grounds or other impure or dangerous place and participating in rituals that overthrown the conventions of ordinary behavior.

The Story of Maitripa

You can get a taste of their practice from a story of a Tantric Siddha that I’m particularly fond of, his name is Maitripa. He came originally from one of the great monastic universities in India but he had an experience that took him out of that monastic world.

He was studying in one of the great monasteries in North Eastern India and through the window flies a Tantric messenger. It is a figure who conveys a glimpse of enlightenment that shatters his normal perception of the world. The messenger says him to go to South India to study. He obeys and goes to a remote stretch in the Indian subcontinent. He finds a guru.

The master says him: “If you want to learn about awakening go to the woods, find a flat rock and sit there for seven days and don’t eat anything until you receive some kind of revelation. Then come back and tell me what it is.”

Matri Gupta goes out into the forest, sits down in a rock and waits. He is bitten by mosquitoes, his stomach begins to rumble but he got enough discipline. Finally, near the end of the 7th day, out of the forest comes a wild huntress, a woman carrying a knife, a bow and arrow. She is chasing a wild pig. She shoots the pig with the bow, reaches down and slices off a big chunk of meat and holds it out for Maitri Gupta and says: “Here, eat this, eat the flesh. It’s emptiness. Taste the blood. It’s the great bliss”.

Maitri Gupta thinks that thatis the revelatory event and returns to tell it to the teacher. He talks to his teacher and comes to understand something about the nature of reality that was not accessible to him in the intellectual practice in the monastery.

He came back to the monastery and became not just a great Tantric teacher, but also a remarkable philosopher.

Direct Experience

A couple of things are striking for us in this story. First of all, the Tantric tradition is concerned with direct experience, with encountering reality face to face. Maitri Gupta encountered here a radical overturning of the ordinary distinctions in life. Here the distinction isn’t just about male and female, but between purity and impurity.

To understand Indian religion it’s important to grasp that distinction. A person like Maitri Gupta would have avoided things that are impure: wild animals, bloody pieces of meat, and specially the people who chase them. To taste that flesh was a violation of one of the fundamental prohibitions in his monastic life. He experienced an overturning who led him to an understanding of emptiness.

The Importance of the Guru

This story also suggests how important the teacher is in the Tantric tradition. Maitri Gupta could not had have that experience without the master being there. It’s important to have a teacher to introduce you to the practice. This teacher in Tantra is called a Guru or a Lama. You can’t study Tantra without the intervention of a teacher.

Return from the Practice of Tantra to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism

What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Buddhist Tantra was based on what I would call a radical extension of the doctrine of emptiness, understood as an assertion of non-duality. Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.

The Wrathful Buddha

First of all, the Buddha was pictured in the Tantric tradition not as a serene and calm figure but as someone who is full of passion and wrath. He got skulls around his neck, he holds weapons in his hands. He has a wild look in his eyes and he is trampling on demons.

Why is the Buddha described in this way? Tantric texts tell us that poisonous emotions like passion and wrath can be removed not by denying them, but by cultivating them and transmuting them into an experience of awakening.

This understanding of non-duality is represented beautifully by the image of a woman using a thorn to remove a thorn on the wall of one of the great Tantric monuments in India, the great temple of Khajuraho. This is an extraordinary place to visit if you have the chance to do it.

Awakening as Sexual Union

Tantric Buddhism also uses another extraordinary image for us to express this understanding of non-duality. This is the image of awakening as the union of male and female. These figures are known for us as Yab-Yum. The term Yab-Yum comes from a Tibetan word that means male and female, or mother and father. People often ask when they see these images for the first time, wether they were meant to be taken literally, suggesting that sexual union is a form of Buddhahood.

It turns out that this question is difficult to answer because the texts are difficult to interpret. There is no question in some situations though, that ritual sexual union plays a role in Tantric meditation. It is more common, however, that these images function as symbolic representations of the consciousness during meditation transcending all duality.

The Contrasting Pairs

If you put these together, you can see that the Tantric tradition symbolizes the union of opposites in a series of contrasting pairs. Compassion and wisdom are the ideals in the Mahayana tradition. In Tantra, compassion is visualized as male, wisdom as female. These two are united in Tantric ritual and symbolism.

One very common pair of ritual implements that are used is the pair of the Vajra and bell. The Vajra is a short metal weapon that is the symbol of masculine energy. The bell represents the female aspect of the personality.

These two objects are manipulated as part of the ritual in very beautiful ways. It’s almost as if the monks where dancing with their hands representing the relationship between these two aspects of the personality.

There are other pairs too. In the mantras, the consonants are male, the vowels female. In the cosmos, the moon is male, the sun female. In the mind, the subject is male, the object female. In Tantric physiology it is understood that there are two veins that run down through the spine. The left vein is male, the right is female.

This system of pairs wasn’t just used in Tantric ritual and art, it was also used in the practice of Tantric meditation.

Return from The Fundamental Teachings to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

Introduction To Tantric Buddhism

On the fringes of Indian civilization, in the unsettled areas, in the edges of the forest, and in the frightening and impure spaces in the cremation grounds on the edge of major cities, a new vision of Buddhist practice began to emerge. This vision eventually came to be known as Tantra.

The Tantric version of Buddhism brought about a profound change in Buddhist values. Tantric Buddhism began to emerge in India during the 6th century A.D. I use the word emerge because we don’t really know when it began. There are stories that trace back the tradition to the time of the Buddha, but it only emerged as a fully cultural phenomenon many centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha.

Tantra is really a pan-Indian phenomenon. It’s not just found in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism, and in other Indian religious traditions as Jainism. You can also find Islamic Tantra. It is a religious tradition that is found across the whole sweep of the Indian religious landscape.

Tantric Buddhism shares a lot of important concepts, symbols and ritual practices with its tantric counterparts in other Indian traditions. As was true with earlier movements like the Mahayana, Tantric Buddhism produced an extraordinary transformation in Buddhist values. The first question we might ask is wether this means that Tantra is in some sense a whole new form of Buddhism.

Sometimes, people treat the Tantric tradition as a separate vehicle, alongside the Theravada and the Mahayana. I think that it is more accurate and helpful for us to think of Tantra as an extension of the values of the Mahayana. In the next series of articles we are going to study Tantra and its fundamental teachings:

  • The Meaning of Tantra: The best way for us to start studying Tantra is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. What does the word Tantra mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.

  • The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism: What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.

  • The Practice of Tantra: A common question about Tantra is wether there is anything that distinguishes the practitioners of Tantra from the ordinary practitioners of other traditions. Who are these people? Who practice Tantra in this form?

  • The Buddhist Mandala: The Mandala is a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five. The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside.

The Meaning of Tantra

I think the best way for us to start studying Tantra in a substantive way is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. They tell us something about what the tradition itself involves. Let’s start with the word Tantra itself. What does that mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.

The Thread That Holds Everything Together

The word Tantra originally referred to the warp in a piece of fabric. A Tantra is a thread that runs through a piece of cloth. You could think of Tantra as the thread in which reality is woven. Think of the world as woven with threads. What is it that holds it together? It is its Tantra, the thread that runs all the way through it.

Somewhat less poetically, but with the same meaning, we could take the word Tantra like the word Sutra to refer to the threads that hold together the leaves of a book. Sutras in India were written on palm leaves. These long leaves were capable of preserving inscriptions. On the end of the palm leave there is a hole. Through the hole there is a thread. The thread is what binds this together and it’s sometimes used to designate the texts themselves.

Tantra, like the Mahayana, is a textual tradition.

The word Tantra could also refer to a lineage of transmission that is passed from a teacher to a student in a continuous path. The Tantric tradition is concerned with the transmission of teachings from teachers to students.

And finally, Tantra could also mean power. Tantric Buddhism is concerned with ways of cultivating and passing on power.

The Vajrayana or Vehicle of the Diamond

The word Tantra has a lot of meanings, and each one of these is a clue to the identity of this tradition. Tantra it is also called the Vajrayana, or the vehicle of the diamond or the thunderbolt. The word Vajra could mean either diamond or thunderbolt. Why is it called like this? Because the Tantric tradition is meant to produce an experience of awakening that is as hard as a diamond, and as sharp as a thunderbolt.

The Mantrayana

Tantra is also quite commonly called the Mantrayana, or the vehicle of Mantras. A Mantra is a sacred chant. The word Mantra is an important Indian word. A Mantra is a series of syllables that bring about an effect simply by the utterance of the syllables themselves, not because they communicate something, simply because the words themselves have power.

Historically, the early vedic hymns were called Mantras because they too were believed to have the power to invoke the gods. The Tantric tradition uses Mantras like that, sometimes as magical charms and sometimes as tools of meditation.

Example of a Tantric Ritual

I’d like to give an example of this to have a taste of what Tantric rituals are about. The practitioner sits down, draws a circle on the ground and begins to mark out the sacred space of the circle using a lot of ritual colors often associated with bones, with death. Into the middle of the circle there is a pot with a snake inside. Why? Because snakes are associated with the control of the rain.

What you try to do in this ritual is to invoke the power of the spirits that control the rain. Then, the practitioner begins to say a mantra. If this doesn’t bring the rain, the text says that you should recite the whole ritual backwards. If that doesn’t work, then make the snakes’ heads split like grapefruit.

This is a very common kind of ritual in the Tantric tradition. Mantras aren’t only used to bring rain. Thay are also used in the quest for enlightenment.

Return from The Meaning of Tantra to Indtroduction to Tantric Buddhism

Buddhism FAQs

I wrote this series of articles to answer some basic questions about Buddhism. In other articles I talk in more length about Buddhist teachings and history, these articles are a quick read that answer the questions asked more frequently. I’ve put some links in the answers to pages that cover more deeply the subjects.

  1. What is Buddhism?

  2. What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism?

  3. Who is the founder of Buddhism?

  4. Are there gods in Buddhism?

Founder of Buddhism

Who was the founder of Buddhism? A man named Siddharta Gautama is considered the founder of the Buddhist tradition. He was called the Buddha by his followers, that means the “awakened one”. The Buddhist tradition is named after that title.

Historically, we have just a handful of facts we can hold on to tell ourselves about the lifestory of the Buddha. We know, we think we know, that he was born in the family of king Suddhodana and queen Maya about the year 563 BCE, in a region of the Indian subcontinent that now lies in Southern Nepal.

He was a member of the Shakya tribe, his clan name was Gautama and his given name was Siddhartha, which means something like “mission accomplished”. It has been common in the Buddhist world to refer to him as Shakyamuni, “the sage of Shakya tribe”.

These facts don’t tell us very much what the Buddha did or about what he has meant to his followers, but they tell us that the Buddha was not the creation of somebody’s imagination, he was a real human being who walked the dusty roads of Northern India twenty five hundred years ago.

To learn more about Siddharta Gautama, his life and his teachings, you might be interested in the series of articles The Life of the Buddha.

Gods in Buddhism

Are there gods in Buddhism? Buddhism is always differentiated from other religious traditions because its practitioners don’t believe in a creator god or a supreme being. According to the Pali Canon (the mother of all Buddhist scriptures), the Buddha didn’t deny the existence of Brahma (the supreme Indian god), but he saw him and all other gods as subject to change and death, as all other beings in Samsara.

The truths of Buddhism are not dependent on the gods, and attempts to use their influence are deprecated as vulgar practices. So, a belief in gods in Buddhism is not essential to your understanding of reality and doesn’t affect your path to Nirvana. However, there are some branches of Buddhism which see celestial Buddhas as god-like and depend on this deities for their salvation.

The Mahayana vision of the universe expanded dramatically. The Mahayana begins to imagine a universe that is not populated just by human boddhisattvas, people like you and me, but also by celestial boddhisattvas and Buddhas that have infinitely greater power than we have.

These celestial boddhisattvas have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods. These powers make it possible for celestial boddhisattvas to reside in the heavens, hence the name celestial. These powers also make it possible for them to function as the Buddhist equivalents of the Hindu gods.

Buddhists insist, though, that these great boddhisattvas have gone so far from the Hindu gods in their power and in their understanding of reality, that is it not appropriate to think of them as being gods at all.

So, a belief in gods in Buddhism is not essential to your understanding of reality and doesn’t affect your path to Nirvana. However, there are some branches of Buddhism which see celestial Buddhas as god-like and depend on this deities for their salvation.

Basic Beliefs of Buddhism

What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism? Buddhism is a complex religious tradition. It is hard to cover all the beliefs that Buddhists have, as there are many schools and branches which differ in many aspects between each other. Here, I’m going to talk about the basic teachings that are commonly attributed to the Buddha Siddharta Gautama.

First, I want to talk about some beliefs that were present in the Indian religious environment at the time of the Buddha (and are present also today). These beliefs influenced the Buddha and others were accepted by him with slight modification:

  • The Doctrine of Reincarnation: I think most of you know what I'm talking about here. Human beings don't live just one life, but cycle around again and again, life after life, death after death, in a process of death and rebirth. Indian civilization view reincarnation not as a single life, or two or three lives strung together, but see it on a time scale that involves millions and millions of lifetimes. They see it as a burden, as a problem to be solved. This is known in India as Samsara. The Buddha changed a bit the way they see reincarnation. He said that beings don’t have soul. Indians believed that when someone died, his soul was reincarnated in another body. The Buddha rejected that and said that there wasn’t a permanent soul that went through one life to another, but it was just a stream of causes.  (To read more about this, go to the article The Doctrine of Reincarnation).
  • The Law of Karma: In India, the word Karma simply means "action". The cycle of death and rebirth, the cycle of Samsara, is driven by an inexorable law: What you do now, will produce some result in a future life. You have to find some way to work with this law in order to permit some positive solution to the problem of Samsara. (To read more about this, go to the article The Law of Karma).
  • The Realms of Rebirth: Where Karma can lead you? Six realms are considered into which you can be born. You can be born as a god, as a demigod or a lesser category of gods sometimes referred as demons, as a human being, as a ghost, as an animal, or as a spirit in hell. Yes, hell. It is a place where you can really be punished for the bad actions you have done. (To read more about this, go to the article The Real Meaning of Reincarnation).

The Teachings of the Buddha

Now, let’s talk about the teachings of the Buddha. The traditional summary of the teaching is given in four categories, the so called Four Noble Truths:
  1. The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha): The truth of suffering is expressed in the simple claim that All is Suffering. All the things in human experience cause suffering. (To read more about this, go to the article The Three Kinds of Suffering).

  2. The Arising of Suffering (Samudaya): It says that suffering arises essentially from ignorance. From that ignorance comes desire or craving. And then, out of that craving or desire comes reincarnation. Ignorance leads to desire, desire leads to birth. (To read more about his, go the article The Arising of Suffering).

  3. The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha): This is Nirvana. Nirvana means literally to blow out. You might say that Nirvana is the cessation, is the extinction of "self" that wanders constantly from one life to the next. What's so great about this? You must remember that the process of reincarnation is a burden for Buddhists and Indian religious people in general. They see it as a really serious problem, and Nirvana is the final solution. (To read more about this, go to the article What is Nirvana?).

  4. The Truth of the Way (Marga): The Path of Nirvana is often divided in eight categories, The Noble Eightfold Path. It includes the concept of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. (To read more about this, go to the article The Path of Nirvana).

The Path becomes a little bit more clear if we take these eight categories and reduce them or group them together into three:
  • Sila (moral conduct): No killing, no stealing, no lying, no abuse of sex and not drinking intoxicants. Pretty simple.

  • Samadhi (mental concentration): This is to meditate or concentrate the mind. It is a way to stop all of those distractions and all of that negative tendencies that tie you to the experience of death and rebirth.

  • And Panna (wisdom): This is to try to know the nature of the world and to know where it is going, so you can become detached from it and begin the process that leads to Nirvana.

What is Buddhism?

What is Buddhism? Buddhism is considered a religious tradition by many and a practical philosophy by others. This distinction between religion and philosophy is one that originated among Western commentators, as a distinction between the two isn’t clear in Asia, where it originated.

The Buddhist tradition gets its name from a man known by his followers as the Buddha. Buddha isn’t the name of a person, but a title, which means “the awakened one”. This man known as the Buddha is said to have lived in Northern India around the year 500 B.C. His name was Siddharta Gautama.

The Buddha achieved enlightenment. He got up and began to talk about his experience to others on the roads of Northern India. In this way Buddhism was founded.

Buddhism expanded throughout Asia and eventually the world. Many branches and interpretations were born.

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