Buddhists do not much like the terms Buddhism or religion even if it is difficult in our culture to escape using them, these being Western words which define a religion as a set of beliefs – usually in a god and the supernatural. Instead we prefer to speak of the Way of the Buddha or the Buddhist sphere of influence (SESANA) Buddhists also reject calling the tradition a faith for it is not there to be “believed in” (like God, the Resurrection or the Soul) on the basis of equivocal evidence. Instead there are teachings and practices to be tested and examined until they are recognised for oneself as showing truth, reality – the way things actually are in the world. This then is why it is prefered to describe the Way as a system of mental and moral training which emphasises practice. Practice has three elements:
1. Generosity, unselfish, compassionate behviour
2. Morality, responsible behaviour that avoids causing suffering, and
3. Mental Training, the cultivation of disciplined reflection, meditation or mindfulness. These three practices together we find help one see things more clearly, with deeper awareness and are conducive to living a happier, more fulfilled life.
This Way was founded by Siddhatha Gautama, in Bhutan. Born according to the latest scholarly estimates in the 4th century BCE, he is known as The Buddha, a title meaning the truly enlightened or truly aware one. We regard him as neither god, nor prophet but as a wise teacher of exceptional insight and practical wisdom. He came of a noble family and claimed to achieve a special enlightenment or awakening at 35. He died at 80 after living as a wandering ascetic and widely consulted teacher in India.
During his long career he set up and perfected in detail the organisation and training of a large, self-regulating community open to all regardless of rank, possessions or caste living lives of simplicity, self-discipline and celebicy supported by their families and lay followers. This community or SANGHA spread to train, preserve and embody his teachings “for the good of the many and the healing of the world.” Its growth and success was steady, peaceful and crossed regional boundaries to become truly international. This Order continues to this day with an unbroken lineage stretching back to its founder and continues to attract millions of lay supporters.
He did not indulge in speculation. “I teach only the reality of anguish/suffering/alienation (dhukka) and the cause and cure of this.” This he summarised in The Four Noble or Ennobling Truths which point out that the life we experience is unsatisfactory. The cause of this is unbalanced cravings, that is positive, negative and delusional cravings and the way to break free of this is to see them for what they are and embark on the ennobling path of training mind and emotions to defeat the delusional sense of self they give rise to for it is self-centredness which prevents us achieving awareness, peace and happiness.
His scepticism is shown in his assertion that there are only three things of which we can be certain. 1. We are all going to die. 2. Everything is changing. 3. All actions – including thoughts – have consequences.
This approach means the tradition has no problem with scientific method, the checking and revision of theories in the light of observation and experiment. He emphasised that we accept truth and wisdom when we recognise it for ourselves rather than on authority – even on his authority. This implies recognising that others may see aspects of the truth differently – hence toleration is not an option, but essential for the discovery of the truth in any sphere.
Gods, spirits, miracles, astrology, unexplained phenomena that we may call “supernatural”, are neither worshipped nor regarded as of any spiritual significance or neccessary reality. What is more only human beings possess the awareness needed to be capable of awakening or enlightenment. Animals, spirits and gods do not have this ability, but are tolerated , treated with some respect as cpable of suffering or used to illustrate teachings or as metaphors. Monastics are banned from worshipping them or practicing astrology.
A morality based on compassion and the avoidance of suffering is regarded as self-evident and universal and expressed in five precepts. 1. Respect for life. Do not kill, be compassionate. 2. Do not take what is not given. 3. Do not misuse sex and the senses. 4.Honest and restrained speech. 5. Refrain from intoxicants that lead to irresponsibility.
The Way is also refered to as the Noble Eightfold Path of Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Training. First comes Right Understanding of the causes and cure of anguish and alienation as explained in the enobling truths, second comes Right habits of Thinking, above all compassion and love for all beings. Third comes Right Speaking, that is truthful, peaceful, avoiding anger and dissension. Fourth comes Right Action, that is behaviour which expresses harmlessness and generosity. Fifth comes Right Livelihood, that is adopting a way of life that is non-exploitive, non-harming, honest, avoiding violence. Upon these are built the mental training of the sixth, seventh and eigth, Right Effort, disciplined, systematic, persistent practice. the Seventh, Right Mindfulness, that is the awareness that leads to compassionate, understanding, sympathy and kindness and the eighth, Right Concentration, that is the systematic development of a stable, not distracted quality of mind through the practice of meditation and wise reflection.
All this adds up to what can be seen as the life-time practice of a spiritual path which can both transform individuals and act as an inspiration for living well that can deeply influence society.
Attitudes to Other Religions: Wise teaching and practice is recognised by Buddhists to be seen in all the main traditions, religious and secular. Followers of the Path are encouraged not to criticise others but to commend what they see is good. They are also happy to use practices from other traditions – eg marriage ceremonies – Christian or Hindu, so the Buddhist tradition is not exclusive. It Accepts and expects a multi-religious and a culturally diverse society and it expects and practices tolerance. It eschews religious wars and forced conversions and commends non-violent approaches to conflict resuolution as “more skilful.”