Buddhist Beliefs

What are the beliefs of Buddhism? This is one of the most common questions people make about Buddhism, or any religion for that matter. In this case, this is not an easy question to answer. Buddhism is a really complex tradition and involves many layers and different schools. To try to understand what Buddhism is all about, we can talk first about the beliefs that are shared by all or most of the Buddhist schools. To learn about this common beliefs, read my article Basic Beliefs of Buddhism.

In that article you will find some of the core beliefs that most Buddhists accept. In this article I want to talk in more length what the Buddha taught according to two of the most important branches of Buddhism: the Mahayana and the Theravada.

Theravada: The Doctrine of the Elders

Theravada is a word that means “doctrine of the Elders”. It is the oldest surviving school. It is said that it was founded around one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. They accept as their scripture the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the mother of all Buddhist scriptures, it is accepted by the other branches of Buddhism (of course, including other additional scriptures).

What is the Pali Canon about? Well, the Pali Canon contains what are considered the traditional teachings of the Buddha, what we here in the West commonly think of when we hear the word Buddhism.

The Buddha said that his teaching was suffering, its origin and cessation. Pretty simple? Well, it took him many and many life times to find and fully grasp the meaning of suffering. What he understood is summarized in the so called Four Noble Truths:
  • The Truth of Suffering: the Buddha said that all in life causes suffering, no matter how pleasurable or good something seems. Everything ultimately leads to suffering.

  • The Truth of the Origin of Suffering: the Buddha talked about a complex chain of causes that originates suffering. This is synthesized by pointing out the most important links in the chain: Ignorance, desire, birth. This means that all suffering is ultimately rooted in ignorance. This ignorance about reality or ourselves leads to desire. This desire is what causes suffering and keep us in the cycle of deaths and rebirths.

  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: the Buddha said that the cessation of suffering is Nirvana. Nirvana is a concept difficult to grasp. It literally means to extinguish. Extinguish what? Extinguish the causes that lead us to suffering and to rebirth.

  • The Truth of the Path: the Buddha also taught about what to do to achieve Nirvana. He talked about moral conduct, mental concentration and wisdom. Moral conduct and mental concentration are like supporting elements to achieve wisdom, which is what will lead us to Nirvana.

Further Reading: The Four Noble Truths

These are the teachings of the Buddha according to the Theravada. This paradigm makes it difficult to lay people to seek Nirvana. In traditional Buddhism and in the Theravada tradition, the goal of lay people is to get good karma and consequently a good rebirth that may get them closer to Nirvana. They also have to support the monastic community, as monks and nuns can’t work in lay activities.

Monks and nuns are the ones who seek Nirvana really seriously. They have an additional series of regulations. For example, they can’t sleep in soft beds. They also can’t carry food from one day to the next. Everyday they have to get for their food and eat it in that moment.

The Path

Until now, we’ve just mentioned what people have to do to achieve Nirvana. They have to abide some rules of moral conduct, they have to engage in mental concentration or meditation and to try to find wisdom. The ultimate goal of Theravada is to achieve wisdom, which will lead to Nirvana.

What is this wisdom about? What should we know? The Buddha taught about the nature of reality and, more importantly, about the nature of the self. In this case, we should say the non-nature of the self, because the Buddha said that what we commonly identify as our “self” does not exist.

Self does not exist? What does this mean? It means that nothing lasts from one moment to the next. Nothing has an identity that endures from one moment to the next, including persons. Now you are not the same person that you were ten years ago. You are not the same person that you were one second ago. We don’t have an identity that endures from one moment to the next.

Then, you may ask, if there is no self, who is reading this article? The Buddha said that what we commonly call our “self” is a bundle of momentary phenomena. These skhandas, as the Buddha called them, are: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. If we identity with one or more of these phenomena suffering arises. Following this, suffering is extinguished by relinquishing attachments to any of these phenomena. This is wisdom.

With this, I think we covered the basic beliefs of the Theravada tradition.

Further Reading: The Marks of Existence
What am I?

Mahayana Buddhism: A New Paradigm

The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle”, changes the style, the tone and the content of Buddhist practice in profound ways. It opens up the practice of Buddhahood to lay people as well as to monks and nuns. It also involves a far more extended vision of the cosmos than anything that came before.

Theravada Buddhism in South East Asia is in some ways very different from Buddhist practice at the time of the Buddha, but still represents, quite deliberately, a conservative option.

The name Mahayana comes from the literature of the movement itself. It is a name that is used to distinguish itself from what it saw as the Buddhism that came before. The basic premise of the Mahayana is that the Buddha gave his final and real teachings to a select group of followers. These teachings were not recorded in the Pali Canon, but in numerous “Sutras”.

The Boddhisattva Ideal

So, what is new with the Mahayana? The fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is what is called the Boddhisattva Ideal. A Boddhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, somebody who isn’t a Buddha yet but plans to be one in a future life. A Boddhisattva in the Mahayana tradition doesn’t attempt to go straight to Nirvana but he turns to this world and attempts to help others along the path to salvation. This means that Boddhisattvas can include lay men as well as monks and nuns, because all of us can be understood as being part of the path to Buddhahood.

Boddhisattvas that come back like this to this world to help others cultivate two important virtues. One is wisdom, that great virtue that was discussed in the early accounts of the Buddhist path that leads you to Nirvana. In addition to that, Boddhisattvas explicitly develop the virtue of compassion. The word is Karuna, a crucial Mahayana word.

So, Boddhisattvas cultivate two virtues. Wisdom, a contemplative and quiet virtue, that has to do with understanding the nature of the self and the nature of the world. And compassion, a virtue that has to do with actively seeking the welfare of others.

How is the Boddhisattva ideal expressed in ritual and in philosophy? The most important concept to express the Boddhisattva ideal is the concept of the Bodhicitta, a word we translate as the “mind that seeks enlightenment”.

What is it? Simply the aspiration to seek enlightenment for the sake of all other beings. Boddhisattvas who enter the Boddhisattva path start with some kind of gut feeling. “I want to be enlightened in order to bring that enlightenment to others”. This mind of enlightenment is generated and cultivated as the Boddhisattva path proceeds.

The Lay Boddhisattvas

Boddhisattvas described in Mahayana literature are often human beings just like ourselves. In the earlier tradition we always were talking largely about monks and nuns. The ideal practitioners of the Buddhist path were monks and nuns who engaged in an act of renunciation and pursued a monastic life. Now, this tradition was opening up explicitly for lay people. This is a way of saying that lay Buddhist values and the lay Buddhist life is a place where you can pursue the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. You can become a Boddhisattva and bring to ordinary lay life all the values of Buddhist life.

You can go out and have a couple of beers, you may live with your family, you may even go to a gambling hall, but you always do it in a way that is going to bring Buddhist values into that place. The Boddhisattva is engaged in the world. This is a crucial shift of the basic understanding of Buddhist life and it had a radical effect on Buddhism throughout Asia.

The Celestial Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

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. Here we are going to talk about these “deities” and how they affect the lives and practices of Buddhists in the Mahayana world.

Further Reading: Mahayana Devotion

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