As we have learned, religion is very difficult to define. Each different religion comes with their own specific set of rules, beliefs, and practices. The religion that I chose to learn about was Buddhism. Buddhism was founded over 2,500 years ago in India. Since then it has evolved to many different parts of the world and has formed different sects within the religion itself. Siddhartha Gautama created the religion and throughout his practices he reached Nirvana, becoming the Buddha.
Siddhartha Gautama, the “Buddha”, was born into a life of privilege as the son of a chief of a very noble clan. His father forced him to live a very sheltered life forbidding him to ever leave the palace. His future was already laid out for him and he had everything he could ever want so his father believed he didn’t need to see anything outside of the gates. One day he grew curious of what life was like outside of the confines of his palace and snuck out to explore his surrounding town. While he was out he saw four sights that drove him to a life of simplicity and exploration. The first sight was an old man who was both frail and weak and this is when he experienced his first revelation. This revelation was that no one is young and fit forever, time is forever fleeting and no one can avoid aging. The second sight he saw was a sick man and he realized that he had never been exposed to the issue of sickness or ailing because of his privileged and sheltered life. Thirdly, he saw a corpse as part of a funeral procession. This went along with the old man realization of how life is not something that lasts forever, it changed his perspective. Finally, the last sight Gautama saw was a holy man. Seeing this man made him realize that he did not want his predetermined life of luxury and riches, he wanted to see what other possibilities are out there in life. These realizations all combined made him leave his arranged fiance and royal life to explore faith and go on a journey to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana, which would be the start of his pathway to becoming the Buddha. This pathway is called “The Middle Way”, living between two extremes in life, something that those who participate in the Buddhist religion strive to live by as well. There are some people who have attained enlightenment yet postpone achieving nirvana in order to help others reach enlightenment. These people are known as Bodhisattvas and they reflect the selfless nature of the religion as a whole.
The background of Siddartha Gautama establishes some of the basic ways to live and what people who participate in Buddhism are supposed to expect in their lives. What summarizes or characterizes the essence of the Buddhist faith are many different practices and beliefs, but two significant things that help to describe the essence are the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight “right” ways of life. In no particular order the ways are; right thought, right understanding, right concentration, right effort, right action, right livelihood, and right mindfulness. The Buddha taught that following these ways of life would lead to the end of suffering, which is part of the fourth stage of the Noble Truths. The first of the Noble Truths is Dukkha, the truth of suffering. This comes from the first three sights Siddartha saw on his journey: old age, sickness, and death. The second Noble Truth is Samudāya, the origin of suffering. These causes of suffering are greed and desire, ignorance, and hatred. The third of the Truths is Nirodha, the end of suffering. Siddartha taught that to get rid of the desire that causes suffering you have to liberate yourself. This is the step where you are meant to achieve nirvana. Nirvana is what all Buddhists strive for, it is the state of perfect peace. The fourth and final Noble Truth is Magga, the path to end suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path described above. Skandha is another element of the essence of Buddhism. Skandha is the five components that give Buddhists a sense of self. According to Buddhists, these five elements sum up a person’s individual and physical existence. The elements include: the body, perceptions, feelings, natural tendencies, and thought. Ultimately this means that individuals are experiencing constant change because the elements never stay the same.
Along with the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Skandha, all Buddhists strive to follow in order to achieve Nirvana, a major aspect of this religion is Dharma. The Buddha’s teachings are known as Dharma. These teachings include wisdom, patience, generosity, and compassion. Under Dharma, every Buddhist lives by five moral principles that prohibit: lying, sexual misconduct, killing any living thing, taking what is not given (greediness), and using drugs or alcohol. There are three sacred texts/scriptures that Buddhists respect and use to live by the Tipitaka, Sutras, and the Book of the Dead. The Tipitaka is thought to be the earliest collection of Buddhist writings. The Sutras number more than 2,000 sacred teachings while the Book of the Dead is the Tibetan text that describes the stages of death in depth.
The religion of Buddhism started in India, but has spread to three different main sects in different geographical areas: Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant branch in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka and translates to mean “the way of the elders”. One of the main differences of Theravada Buddhism from Buddhism is that they believe in the supernatural while Buddhism does not. Mahayana Buddhism is dominant in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. This branch has adopted more local traditions towards Buddhism since being prevalent in mainly Asian locales which differentiates from Buddhism that is not distinct to a specific area. Tibeten Buddhism is arguably the most well known from those who are not familiar with the details of Buddhism because of the monk Dalai Lama. This sect is typically in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia, and northern India. The Dalai Lama is thought by many to be the reincarnation of a former lama that, while living, had agreed to be reborn in order to help humanity.
Overall, the essence of Buddhism to live a life of purpose while following the Middle Way, acknowledging the Four Noble Truths thus striving to achieve Nirvana and becoming ultimately enlightened. Buddhism is a complex religion to describe in only a limited number of pages because there are so many different sects, monks, areas of belief, and terms that are important to know if you are a part of the religion. However, describing the background of Siddartha’s journey in wanting to become the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and how Buddhism has spread to different parts of the world while adopting different practices along with the original Buddhist guidelines helps to describe the spirit of the religion as a whole.
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