Buddhists: Introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism can trace its origin back at least 2500 years, when the founder of the faith, Siddhartha Gotama, was sitting under a banyan tree at the age of 35. He had spent several years exploring various spiritual practices that were common in India at that time, but none of them, from his point of view, went far enough in terms of answering the fundamental questions of existence – why is there old age, sickness and death, and how can the unsatisfactoriness of life be fully transcended?
Using meditation as an aid, he gained Enlightenment by penetrating into the truth of existence, seeing in visionary form the way that craving and grasping leads to many kinds of suffering, and ultimately the whole round of birth, death and rebirth. Living a life governed by love, compassion, wisdom and awareness was the key to working on craving, which would lead to the complete transformation of human life.
The Buddha, meaning the Enlightened One, then began to conceptualise the teachings that would enable anyone to transform themselves, and he spent the next 45 years of his life travelling around northern India spreading these teachings (the Dharma) and collecting a community of practising spiritual aspirants around him (the Sangha).
One of the most important conceptual formulations of the Buddha's teaching is that of the Four Noble Truths:
The truth of unsatisfactoriness or suffering
Unsatisfactoriness is a fact of our existence, whether in the form of bodily pain and discomfort, or the psychological grief and distress that comes from not having what we want or having to be in contact with what we do not want. Old age, sickness and death involve suffering; at a deeper level, an existence not governed by compassion and altruism is also suffering.
Suffering is caused by greed, hatred and delusion
For many people, the most intense suffering they undergo is due to swinging between greed and hatred, both of which are forms of ignorance. We suffer when we crave for someone or something intensely, or feel hatred towards someone or something because they do not meet our demands or needs. The delusion that we are separate, fixed selves fuels the swinging between greed and hatred, and keeps people bound to the wheel of life, death and rebirth.
Suffering can be overcome and happiness attained
Greed, hatred and delusion, strong though they may be, can be overcome by engaging in a variety of spiritual practices, leading to a life increasingly filled with ethical behaviour, happiness and compassionate action for self and others.
The Eightfold Path leads to happiness and enlightenment
The Eightfold Path describes how a Buddhist can achieve this transformation of himself or herself in every area of life – emotions, speech and communication, action, energy, work and all aspects of the mind, thus gradually moving in the direction of Enlightenment.
Buddhism is a way of life rather than an organised religion; it is intended to be a collection of ways to help individuals seek betterment and Enlightenment, not a set of ritualistic practices. How this Enlightenment is sought may well be based on the words of the Buddha, but the practice of Buddhism is extremely diverse, and Buddhists from different regions will have different rituals, ways of teaching and interpretations of the central ideas.
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