A Brief Introduction to Buddhism

by Kenryu T. Tsuji

Part 1 - Founder of Buddhism

Amid the vernal splendor of Lumbini Garden, Gautama, the Buddha, was born in 566 B.C., a son of a wealthy and powerful king, Suddhodana, the ruler of the Sakya clan, at Kapilavastu in the modern state of Nepal.

The Buddha was given the name Siddhartha, which means "He who has attained his aim."

Rejoicing over the birth of the heir, the king made elaborate arrangements to see that nothing was lacking in the life of the prince.  For his mental and physical education, sages, soldiers and athletes from all parts of the country were summoned to the castle.  Whether it was knowledge requiring the highest of intellect or games taxing the utmost of his physical prowess, the young prince showed remarkable skill of mastery.  At 19 he was married to the fairest maiden of the land, Princess Yashodra who bore him a son, Rahula.  The royal couple lived amidst inconceivable luxury.

In spite of this unsurpassed beauty and comfort that surrounded the prince at all times, he felt a deep despair.  He wanted to go out and seek the Light of Truth.  The faint stirring in his heart steadliy grew stronger until at last he could not restrain himself from cutting the fetters that bound him to this existence.  Leaving his sleeping son and wife, he went forth into the still Indian night, with great resolve to find salvation for himself and his fellow men.  He was then 29 years of age.

For six years he mingled with ascetics and hermits, practicing the difficult system of salvation they taught, subjecting the body to the severest of disciplines, but he realized that the extremes of asceticism like luxury led one nowhere.  The truest path to enlightenment, he found, lay in the patient and systematic examination of all aspects of life, and discovering the solution to its sufferings.

As he quietly meditated under the Bodhi Tree, there developed in him a deep spiritual insight into the nature of existence.  When the day ended and the first stars showed their lights in the sky above, Gautama attained Enlightenment, the highest wisdom man has yet reached.  One by one the heavy doubts of life and death, of sorrow, its cause and cure, vanished - the great mystery had finally been solved.  He became Buddha, the Fully Enlightened One.

He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life in a labor of love and compassion, spreading the Teachings the whole breadth and length of the country.  He passed away at the age of eighty, leaving the following message to his sorrowing disciples: "The Dharma which I have given you shall be your Teacher, when I am gone."

So great has been the influence of his Dharma, that today it is estimated that one-third of humanity pays homage to his Noble Teachings.

Part 2 - The Three Pitakas

The Tripitaka or literally the "three baskets" are a collection of the sacred books of Buddhists in which the Teachings of the Master have been preserved.  The Pitaka are composed of the three main divisions known as Sutra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.

The Sutra Pitaka

The Sutra Pitaka contains the discourses, addresses and sermons of the Buddha, dealing with the method of salvation for the laity.

The Vinaya Pitaka contains the moral standards to be observed by the priests, and various rules and conduct of the order.

The Abhidharma Pitaka contains the metaphysics and the philosophy of Buddhism.

The Tripitaka is a voluminous collection of Chinese texts, numbering 13,520 scrolls in 100 bound volumes of 1000 pages each.  Included in this collection are three volumes, containing general catalogs of the Tripitaka.

These Pitaka were handed down to this day in various editions, the oldest being the Pali and Sanskrit editions.  Other editions are the Chinese and Japanese editions.  Some parts have been translated into English and other European languages.

Part 3 - The Doctrine

1. Characteristics of the Buddha's Teachings

When one studies the Teaching of the Buddha, he is surprised to find its closeness to the modern scientific spirit.  Across the span of over two milleniums and a half, this scientific method links the sage of India to the foremost scientists of our day.

The Buddha constantly taught his disciples to accept nothing on hearsay, tradition or dogma.  No statement was to be accepted because it had authority.  Not even his own words were to be taken on trust.  He urged his followers to investigate all principles he preached, and to test them out by every test of reason and by its application to everyday life.

Truly, there is faith in Buddhism but it is not a belief in divine revelation.  The Sanskrit word "Shraddha" means faith, but it "is based on an unfolding experience that is verifiable by both the self and others, and carries a sense of process and continuance.  The Buddhist Faith is a cosmic process that goes on unfolding into aspiration, into knowledge, into realization of wisdom, into the self-giving of Bodhisattvas (followers of the Buddha who work for the salvation of mankind), into Buddhahood (Principle and Practice of Mahayana Buddhism)."

2. Buddhism and the Theory of God

Buddhism does not deny the existence of God, but it interprets this complex concept in its own way.  If by God we mean an ultimate reality, Buddhism affirms this.  The Buddhist God is impersonal.  We say that it is so great that it is beyond the comprehension of man.  "We can neither define, describe nor usefully discuss the nature of that which is necessarily beyond the comprehension of our finite consciousness."  Hence, it is sometimes called the Namelessness.

3. The Four Noble Truths

"This, O Bhikkus (Buddhist Monks) is the Noble Truth of Suffering: decay is suffering; illness is suffering, death is suffering.  Presence of objects we hate is suffering; separation from objects we love is suffering, not to obtain what we desire is suffering.

This, O Bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering; Thirst that leads to Rebirth, accompanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there... thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity.

This, O Bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering; it is the complete cessation of this thirst - a cessation which consists in the absence of every passion with the abandoning of this thirst, with the doing away with it, with the deliverance from it, with the destruction of desire.

This, O Bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the Path which leads to the cessation of suffering: that holy Eightfold Path, that is to say, Right Views, Right Aspirations, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation."

This was the first sermon that was preached by the Buddha.  A quick glance at this sermon might lead one to conclude that the Buddha was pessimistic in his view of life.  However, if one reads the above quotation carefully, he will understand that the Buddha recognized the values of life.  "In fact the whole thing of transiency is to be found in the very fact that these passing things are good.  That is why it is sad to lose them."  But he warns that the joys and happiness  are not final values for they are transitory.

The supreme goal set before all Buddhists is the escape from suffering, ignorance and illusion and the attainment of the Truth and Enlightenment.  Only in the pursuit of this lofty ideal will man find the true meaning of Happiness and Joy.

"He who loves the Law lives happily, with his mind at ease."

4. The Eightfold Noble Path

This is the fourth of the Noble Truths, which leads to the cessation of suffering.  The eightfold path consists of:

Right Views...right understanding of the Buddha's Dharma (Law).
Right Aspirations...high and noble aims.
Right Speech...speaking of kind words.
Right Conduct...right behavior.
Right Livelihood...honest, professional life
Right Effort...perseverance in goodness.
Right Mindfulness...right use of the intellect.
Right Meditation...meditation on the Buddha and the Dharma.

5. The Nature of Existence

Anitaya - Impermanence
Dukkha - Suffering
Anatman - Egolessness

a. Anitaya - This is a Sanskrit word meaning that nothing in this world is permanent.  Everything that we see around us seems the same but is actually in a state of constant flux.  The flowers that bloom today will wither tomorrow.  Impermanence is a law of the universe which nothing can escape, from the mightiest of astronomical systems to the microscopic forms of life.

b. Dukkha - This word is rendered into English as suffering, sorrow, dissatisfaction.  The first Noble Truth can be summed up in this one word.  The cause of Dukkha as can be seen in the Second Noble Truth as Desire or the Clinging to pleasure, existence and prosperity.  By the complete eradication of desire by man's own conscious efforts, the Buddha taught that man can attain the realm of absolute Peace and Bliss (Nirvana).  The Buddha taught the existence of suffering but he also taught the way of deliverance from suffering.  He not only diagnosed the sickness but he prescribed a practical cure - the faithful following of the Eightfold Path.  "This above all do I teach," he said, "Suffering and the Deliverance from Suffering."

c. Anatman - This is the doctrine that there is no permanent entity in man which separates him from others, the ego, self or soul.  The self or the "I" is made up of a number of attachment groups such as body, sensation, perception, will and consciousness."  Just as the word 'house' is but a mode of expression for wood and other constituents of a house, surrounding space in a certain relation, but in the absolute sense there is no house...in exactly the same way the word living 'entity' and 'Ego' are but modes of expression for the five attachment groups.  The Buddha did not teach the existence of an individual soul which exists apart from the body and differentiates each one from his neighbor.  The "soul" in Buddhism is not an individual, human, animate existence, but is the "spark" of the "Universal Flame" which unifies all animate and inanimate objects.  This is the philosophic basis of the Buddhist Doctrine of the Oneness of Life.

6. Karma

Karma is a Sanskrit word taken from the root "kri" to do or to make, meaning action.  On a physical plane karma acts as the law of cause and effect, and on a moral plane, it is the "law of conservation of moral energy."

It follows from this law, therefore, that the seeds of good or evil planted by man must necessarily be reaped by him.

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts.  If a man speaks or acts with a good thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him."

Man is the sole creator and the builder of his destiny.  He is completely free to mold his future from actions based on sound judgement.

7. Nirvana

Nirvana is the summum bonum or the Highest Good for all Buddhists.  It is the supreme goal for those who heed the path to Buddhahood.  Nirvana literally translated means the extinction of desire.  Desire is the sinful grasping state of mind and heart which makes man desire this illusory world.  When he extinguishes the fire of desire, he attains peace or Nirvana.

Through ignorance of the Truth, he allows himself to cling to his individual separate self as final, without realizing that he is part of a greater whole.  When the last fires of desire are put out, man loses his small self and is immersed into the Universal Self, just as "the dewdrop slips into the shining sea."

Nirvana is not a geographical location.  It is the state of highest consciousness.

8. Bodhisattva

The ideal man is the Bodhisattva - an aspirant to Buddhahood, who is ever willing to give up even his own salvation for the salvation of his fellow men.  His service to his community is motivated by a deep faith in the Three Treasures - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

The supreme purpose of his life is not the pursuit of wealth and pleasure but the increase of his own virtue and wisdom as well as that of his fellow men.

He, therefore, devotes himself to the practice of the Six Perfections - Giving, Morality, Endurance, Effort, Meditation, and Wisdom.