In our fourth ar­ti­cle on religions, we explore the spir­i­tual be­liefs of the Bud­dhists

DRUM - - In The Classroom -

THOUGH there are only 25 000 Bud­dhists in SA, it’s the world’s fourth-largest re­li­gion, with a fol­low­ing of about 520 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide.


Bud­dhists don’t wor­ship a god. In­stead they fo­cus on per­sonal spir­i­tual de­vel­op­ment and gain­ing in­sight into the true na­ture of life. The Bud­dha isn’t a god but a man who be­came en­light­ened. Bud­dhism de­vel­oped in In­dia in re­ac­tion to

Hin­duism. The founder of Bud­dhism was born a Hindu and the religions have many of the same be­liefs such as rein­car­na­tion – that all liv­ing things go through a con­tin­u­ous cy­cle of death and re­birth. A way to es­cape this cy­cle is to build up good

karma – if you do good things, good things will hap­pen to you, so when you die you’re rein­car­nated in a bet­ter life than the one be­fore.

Hindu so­ci­ety is di­vided into five castes (so­cial classes), from the low­est (street sweep­ers) to the high­est (priests). There’s no way to es­cape your caste – all you can do is be­have prop­erly to build up good karma in the hope that in your next life you’ll be re­born in a higher caste. Fi­nally, if you have enough good karma you reach nir­vana (en­light­en­ment), break free from rein­car­na­tion and be­come one with the uni­verse.

Bud­dhists be­lieve nir­vana can be reached by any­one who fol­lows the right path, no mat­ter their caste.


The Bud­dha was born about 2 500 years ago in Lumbini, Nepal. He was a prince called Sid­dhartha Gau­tama and had ev­ery­thing his heart de­sired. A seer had pre­dicted he’d be­come a great king if he stayed in the palace or a great re­li­gious leader if he left.

His fa­ther wanted him to be­come a king so kept him in the palace. The prince grew up in lux­ury, mar­ried and had a son. But Sid­dhartha felt un­happy.

When he was 29 years old, the prince came into con­tact with real pain and suf­fer­ing for the first time. He left the palace and saw four sights that had a deep im­pact on him: a sick man, an el­derly man, a dead man and a monk. The first three made him re­alise that even a rich prince couldn’t es­cape ill­ness, suf­fer­ing and death. The monk in­spired Sid­dhartha to leave be­hind his good life, his fam­ily and wealth. He went in search of peace and calm and to find a way to es­cape the suf­fer­ing and grief of the world. Dur­ing his trav­els he searched for an­swers to ques­tions such as, “Why must peo­ple suf­fer?” and, “What causes suf­fer­ing?”


For six years Sid­dhartha fo­cused on prayer and medit­ation. He also fasted (didn’t eat) for long pe­ri­ods. But this didn’t sat­isfy him either. He still hadn’t es­caped suf­fer­ing. He aban­doned this strict way of liv­ing but didn’t re­turn to his pam­pered life. He tried to fol­low the Mid­dle Way – nei­ther liv­ing in self-de­nial and poverty nor liv­ing in lux­ury.

One day sit­ting un­der a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, In­dia, he started to med­i­tate deeply. He vowed to stay in the area un­til he un­der­stood the truth of the uni­verse. Af­ter med­i­tat­ing for 49 days he reached en­light­en­ment and be­came known as the Bud­dha (“the En­light­ened One”).

He de­cided to teach oth­ers how to reach en­light­en­ment and spent the last 45 years of his life trav­el­ling and teach­ing what he’d learnt to oth­ers. He died aged 80 in around 483BC.


The ba­sics teach­ings of Bud­dhists are the Four No­ble Truths, which ex­plain why hu­mans suf­fer and how to over­come this. From this the Bud­dha de­vel­oped the Eight­fold Path, which will ul­ti­mately end suf­fer­ing. The Four No­ble Truths Life is full of suf­fer­ing ( dukkha). Suf­fer­ing is caused by three poi­sons or evils: greed and de­sires (wants), ig­no­rance and delu­sion and ha­tred and de­struc­tive urges. Suf­fer­ing can be ended if a per­son stops de­sir­ing things, such as more power. To stop suf­fer­ing, you must fol­low the Eight­fold Path. The Eight­fold Path (the Mid­dle Way) Right un­der­stand­ing: know the truth (based on

the Four No­ble Truths).

Right in­ten­tion: re­sist evil (by plac­ing ser­vice to oth­ers above the self).

Right speech: don’t say any­thing that could hurt oth­ers (lies, harsh words, gos­sip).

Right ac­tion: do the right things (be­have peace­fully, help oth­ers, don’t hurt liv­ing things).

Right liveli­hood: do use­ful work that doesn’t harm oth­ers.

Right ef­fort: try to free your mind from evil (with pos­i­tive thoughts).

Right mind­ful­ness: be in con­trol of your feel­ings, thoughts and deeds.

Right con­cen­tra­tion: de­velop the men­tal fo­cus to reach mind­ful­ness.


Once you rid your­self of the three poi­sons (blown out the flames of de­sire, delu­sion and ha­tred) you’ll reach nir­vana. This doesn’t mean you dis­ap­pear from the phys­i­cal world into a heav­enly realm but that you’ve reached a state of mind in which you feel spir­i­tual joy with­out neg­a­tive emo­tions. You have deep com­pas­sion for all liv­ing things.

Af­ter death a per­son who’s reached nir­vana breaks free from the cy­cle of rein­car­na­tion.


Af­ter the Bud­dha’s death his fol­low­ers be­gan to or­gan­ise a re­li­gious move­ment based on his teach­ings. In the third cen­tury BC the In­dian em­peror Ashoka the Great made Bud­dhism the state re­li­gion. He built monas­ter­ies and sent mis­sion­ar­ies to spread Bud­dhism through­out the known world. There were Bud­dhists in China in about 50BC and in Ja­pan in the sixth cen­tury AD. In the 19th cen­tury Chi­nese im­mi­grants spread Bud­dhism to North Amer­ica and South Africa, and Ja­pa­nese im­mi­grants took it to South Amer­ica.


In Bud­dhist prac­tice ( puja), fol­low­ers

chant to­gether to show their love for the Bud­dha. To thank him for his teach­ings they also bring small of­fer­ings of flow­ers, can­dles, in­cense and clean wa­ter to a tem­ple, which can take many forms such as a pagoda or stupa.

Bud­dhists can also prac­tise at home. They set aside a room in their house for a statue of the Bud­dha where they med­i­tate or read from the Trip­i­taka, a col­lec­tion of sa­cred Bud­dhist texts.


There are two main branches of Bud­dhism: Ther­avada and Ma­hayana. Ther­avada (“the teach­ings of the el­ders”) is found es­pe­cially in South­east Asia and is seen as closer to the orig­i­nal form of Bud­dhism. In this tra­di­tion only monks can achieve nir­vana. They also see the Bud­dha as unique.

Ma­hayana (“the great ve­hi­cle”) spread north through Ti­bet and China and has ab­sorbed many lo­cal tra­di­tions. In this tra­di­tion any­one can achieve en­light­en­ment and there have been other Bud­dhas be­fore and af­ter Sid­dhartha.

One of the ways to reach nir­vana is to med­i­tate. This is to prac­tise dis­tanc­ing your­self from your thoughts and emo­tions. It’s a way to stop your mind rush­ing about and sim­ply to be – not judging or think­ing but be­ing at peace and fo­cused. Bud­dha stat­ues have mean­ing from head to toe: closed eyes show meditation, a dot on the fore­head sym­bol­ises en­light­en­ment and the serene smile points to a calm na­ture.

Giv­ing alms ( dāna) to monks is be­lieved to pu­rify the mind of the giver. Bud­dhists gather to cel­e­brate the Bud­dha’s birth­day at the Jo­gyesa tem­ple in Seoul, South Korea, where it’s a public hol­i­day. Each lantern has a tem­ple-goer’s wish at­tached to it. Many tem­ples pro­vide free meals and tea to all vis­i­tors on this day.

Ti­betan Bud­dhist prayer wheels in Swayamb­hu­nath. Spin­ning these wheels is the same as chant­ing a num­ber of prayers and helps build good karma. Or­di­nary Bud­dhists give alms (food and ne­ces­si­ties) to monks as a form of re­spect and con­nec­tion to Bud­dhism, not as char­ity.

Prayer flags fly from the top of the stupa at Swayamb­hu­nath in Nepal. Bud­dhists be­lieve the prayers writ­ten on the flags will be blown by the wind to share good­will with ev­ery­one. Ten­zin Gy­atso is the 14th Dalai Lama, the head monk of Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

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