In our fourth article on religions, we explore the spiritual beliefs of the Buddhists
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.
WHAT IS BUDDHISM?
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?”
THE MIDDLE WAY
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 BUDDHA’S TEACHINGS
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.
THE TEACHINGS SPREAD
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.
BRANCHES OF BUDDHISM
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.