A Brief Introduction To Buddhism
Thich Nguyen Hanh
What Is Buddhism?
In reality it is not important how people perceive Buddhism; as a religion, a philosophy, a doctrine of morality, or all of the above. It does not matter how it is viewed. Buddhism is simply the way of life. The important thing is not to talk about it, but to practice it, to live it in order to transform one's life from ignorance to enlightenment, from suffering to wholesomeness. A hungry man cannot be fed by talking about food. It is then also true that, in order to understand Buddhism, one cannot just talk about it, but should instead practice it in life. It should be noted that through such practice, the Buddha became a person awakened, enlightened, and full of compassion. To those who are still immersing themselves in ignorance and sorrows, Buddha is the teacher who guides them to the Right Path. And with the Right Path opened, man himself must walk that path in order to be liberated from ignorance and sorrows.
"No one saves us but ourselves
No one can and no one may,
We ourselves must walk the Path
Buddhas merely teach the Way."
- Dhammapada verse 276 -
Buddhism As A Religion
You may consider Buddhism as a religion, because it engages in worshipping, ceremonious services, and praying. However, we would like to highlight that while the other religions worship a God or a divinity like an Almighty Creator; Buddhists revere the Buddha out of respect and gratefulness as a Great Teacher, who has shown them the way to free themselves of sorrows and lead them to truth and serenity. It is similar to a child's gratitude toward his parents for loving and nurturing him; or like a student honoring his teachers for the education and guidance that enrich his mind. Buddhists customarily use incense, flowers, and light to venerate the Buddha. These items have only symbolic values. Incense symbolizes the virtues, flowers symbolize beauty and pureness; and like everything on this earth, they indicate the impermanence; and light symbolizes the wisdom or spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, Buddhists worship the statue of Buddha, not in the essence of any absolute authority, but rather as an example to be emulated. The statue is symbolic of the compassion, the wisdom and the virtue that the Buddha has attained, and these are all the attributes that Buddhists are cultivating today, with the aspiration to become like the Buddha in the future. This statue has the same symbolic significance as a flag has to a national allegiance.
There are ceremonious services and prayers in the life of Buddhists. The basic services are to bow in front of the Buddha and chanting of the Buddha's teachings. Bowing is to illustrate respect and to practice modesty. Chanting the Sutras (Buddhist Scriptures) helps to retain all the Buddha's teachings, full of love and wisdom. Following those teaching is to free oneself from a life full of worries, fears, and all the temptations that drive mankind to self-destruction. Praying in the Buddhist faith is not to ask for favors from the Buddha as Buddhists do not perceive the Buddha as a God or Divinity with supernatural power, able to decide man's destiny, but rather as a person with enlightenment, an awakened one, and a compassionate being. For that reason, Buddha is viewed as a perfect example to be followed. Therefore when Buddhists pray, they use their prayers as a gate to reach peacefulness, like a patient who needs anesthetics to ease his pains during surgery. Praying is also a way to express one's wish to be free from suffering. Praying also helps Buddhists to generate the much needed energy to support them in their quest for right cultivation, to perfect themselves, to reject evil, and to embrace goodness. There is nothing superstitious about the way Buddhists practice their beliefs. Buddhists exercise only the form of beliefs that are meaningful and logical to the heart and mind, and to the livelihood of mankind.
Buddhism As A Philosophy
You may say that Buddhism is a philosophical doctrine because all of the Buddha's teachings contain profound philosophies and perspectives pertaining to human life and nature. These views greatly influence mankind in their thoughts and actions. Many Western philosophers regard the Buddha as one of the greatest philosophers of all times. However, if Buddhism is a philosophical doctrine, then it should not be construed as a philosophy to philosophize - the type of philosophy that is filled with theories which speculate about life; and therefore, it seldom has any effect on the reality of human life. On the contrary, Buddhism is the philosophy of life (the Way of Life), of change, and of mankind's transformation. Buddhism talks about ignorance and enlightenment, instead of accepting the concept of "original sin", of "salvation", or of reward/punishment principles from some supreme deity, as other religions do.
There is a popular example from Buddhist teachings that illustrates this theory: a man walked in the dark of the night and came across a rope. He thought it was a snake; he became frightened. This person would cease to be fearful, if he knew that it was just a rope and not a snake. The philosophy of Buddhism is the philosophy of transformation: transform one's ignorance to develop one's wisdom, to lead oneself to the understanding of the truth. Only through the understanding of the truth can man liberate himself from suffering and fear. Consequently, the right understanding is the first step of basic characterization and determination. One must truly understand in order to do right and to live right. It is indeed a philosophy of pragmatism, and not pessimism or optimism. Since it is pragmatic, Buddhism exposes life the way it is. Life is unsafe and unwholesome; consequently, man could never completely satisfy all his desires. Man is confined by the boundaries of birth, old age, sickness, death, being away from his loved ones, being close to those he dislikes, has unfulfilled wishes, etc. Because all things in life are not permanent or real, everything will change and will deteriorate/decay. That is life, and that is the Buddhist teaching. That is the First of the Four Noble Truths, "mundane existence is suffering," all existing beings will have to experience adversities and sorrows.
That is life; but because man is ignorant of the true nature of reality, he cannot see clearly; therefore he is being controlled by the desires of the senses. Because of his unsatisfied desires, man becomes discontented. That is the Second Noble Truth that Buddhism is showing us.
Bur Buddhism does not stop here. Suffering is a reality, and that reality is caused by ignorance and desires; then the absence of suffering is another reality that man can attain as the Buddha did. To cease suffering and to attain true happiness, according to Buddhism, is Nirvana. This is the Third Noble Truth.
The path to the cessation of suffering and to true happiness, the path that the Buddha had walked on, are the many methods used to end suffering. They are the Noble Eightfold Path:
1. Right Understanding is "right perspective", "right outlook" or 'right view". It is the right way of looking at life, nature, and the world as they really are. It is to understand suffering and the manner in which to transcend suffering.
2. Right Thought is "right thinking". Think of what is truly needed to be thought of, with a methodology which will bring the understanding of the real truth, so as to be liberated from suffering.
3. Right Speech is to say what is truly needed to be said, with sincerity and relevance, so as to help others understand the real truth and be liberated from suffering.
4. Right Action is "right conduct". These are actions which benefit oneself and benefit others, in the present and in the future.
5. Right Livelihood is "ethical livelihood". Work and career need to be integrated into the life of a Buddhist.
6. Right Effort is "right endeavor" or "right diligence". Diligently cultivate our practice and be well-educated. Drive toward self-liberation and self-awareness, and help others drive towards liberation and awareness.
7. Right Mindfulness is "right awareness" or "right attention". One should constantly keep one's mind alert and be aware of phenomena that affects the body and mind.
8. Right Concentration is "right meditation". Through direst experience, concentrate the attention on a single meditative object, in order to have the calmness and collectedness needed to develop true wisdom.
This is the Fourth Noble Truth. Please be mindful that the word "Right" here intends to illustrate the approaches in which to embrace the truth, from the true awareness of the nature of suffering and its causes, to speech, action and other methods of proper cultivation, so as to be liberated from suffering, to live a peaceful life, and to realize true wisdom. All matters which are not relevant to the truth will not lead to this noble purpose.
The above mentioned Four Noble Truths are essentially related to the most fundamental composition of humankind, which is the matter of suffering and happiness. All of the Buddhist sutras that contain the Buddha's teachings are based on these Four Noble Truths. The Buddha and Buddhism do not condone a senseless philosophy, or one that is out of touch with mankind and life. Following is an example frequently cited in the Scriptures: The Malunka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya) states that if a man is wounded by a poisonous arrow, the first thing he should do is to remove the poisonous arrow and find a way to treat the wound. It is not wise for him to first try to find out the source of the arrow or to locate the person who shot that arrow. The logic here is to use the wisdom that Buddha taught - to survive first, rather than trying to acquire the knowledge that would otherwise lead him to death. Human beings are suffering. The objective is how to cease these sufferings? This is the kind of logic that the philosophy of Buddhism addresses and resolves.
If the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhist structure, the pillars of that structure are the Dependent Origination. Buddhism does not acknowledge any supreme being, a creator of this world, who has sole authority to determine the destiny of all existence. Buddhism also does not accept the concept of the first and sole condition, which creates all beings and things. Buddhism maintains that all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. They are the conditions that lead to the arising and the cessation of all things. Those are the teachings of the Buddha, as recorded in the Scriptures:
From the existence of this, that becomes.
From the happening of this, that happens.
From the non-existence of this, that does not become.
From the non-happening of this, that does not happen.
"The twelve Links of Dependent Origination" were then formed from this fundamental concept of dependent origination. Those twelve links are: Blindness or Ignorance > Will to Live > Sub-conscious Mind > Name and Forms > the Six Organs of the Senses > Contact > Perception > Desire > Clinging > Formation of Being > Birth > Death. They are the causal links that explain the essence of all suffering and the cyclical nature of life in the cosmos; therefore they are called the Wheel of Life, a continuous cycle with no beginning. At the same time, they bring forth a cultivation path that guides us to be liberated from this cyclical nature of life. Also from the awareness of the dependent origination, we can truly see the impermanence, the no-self of all existences, so as not to be attached or bonded by our extremist views; to help us adopt the Middle Way, the Way to realize Emptiness, and to gain Nirvana.
Buddhism As Morality
You may also say that Buddhism is a system of moral doctrine, because the Buddha always emphasizes the moral aspects of human life. In Buddhism there is a whole system of precepts that lead Buddhists to a life of virtues. This system does not take a form of commandments. It does not promise reward or threaten punishment. Morality and the Buddhist precepts are based totally on one's own free will, not on some pleasant promise or somber threat from the Buddha or from some divinity. There are Five Precepts in Buddhist life.
1. Not to kill, but to cherish and protect all lives.
2. Not to take what is not given, but to respect the things of others.
3. Not to engage in improper sexual conduct, but to practice purity of mind and self-restraint.
4. Not to lie or use injuring speech, but to caringly speak the truth.
5. Not to abuse substances such as alcohol or drugs, which confuse or weaken the mind, but to keep the mind clear.
Buddhists aspire to uphold these Five Precepts, because they are conscious of the facts that these precepts lead to wholesomeness for them, for mankind, and for society. Realizing the nobleness of these Five Precepts, true Buddhists strive for unyielding commitment to live by them.
Let's look at the society and the world that we are now living in. Whether one is a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist, one can clearly see that this society and this world are confronting many tragedies created by mankind. To live the life that embraces the Five Precepts is the Buddhist solution to the eradication of all the misfortunes that shatter life and societies.