Buddhism started almost two and a half thousand years ago and spread throughout the Ganges basin of Northern India. It was started by Gotama, the son of a chieftain of the Shakya clan which then straddled the border of present day Nepal and India. The earliest accounts of Gotama’s life portray him as a ‘drop out’ in search of spiritual truth. After studying asceticism and meditation with several different Gurus he finally discovered his own means to enlightenment and became the ‘fully awakened one” – the Shakyamuni Buddha. Later Buddhism develops this largely historical account into a solar myth. The Buddha becomes a prince who leaves his kingdom to show all sentient beings a path from suffering to liberation. Furthermore, this historical Buddha is but one of many buddhas who are all manifestations of a timeless transcendental Buddha, the principle of Awakening. As such there have been buddhas in the deep past and there are buddhas still to come. The name of the next and immanent is the Maitreya Buddha.
Buddhism spread from India throughout South East Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East. During this journey it has expressed itself through a variety of schools, some of which no longer exist. Today we find in Sri Lanka, and much of South East Asia, the Theravada school, the ‘School of the Elders’, which is closest to the earliest Buddhism. To the North and in the Far East is found Mahayana Buddhism, the ‘Greater Vehicle’, a later development that in its turn gave birth to further variations, amongst which is Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, which is most closely associated with Tibet. Today, in the West where all forms flourish, it is unfashionable to think in terms of what was the original and ‘true’ Buddhism. Instead (we may believe) all forms of Buddhism are equally valid expressions of a shared impulse adapted to local time and place.
How things are – the three marks of existence and Buddha Nature
Buddhism, in its simplest forms is phenomenological – it stays close to experience. It observes that the entire universe, and we as part of it, have “the three marks of existence”. Firstly everything is impermanent, nothing lasts. Secondly, because of this we too do not last, there is nothing about us, no self or essence, that is eternal and unchanging. And lastly, because of this undeniable quality of transience, any one who attempts to found their happiness on the belief that things are unchanging is bound to experience suffering. The three marks of existence: transience, no self and suffering.
Some forms of later Buddhism came to put how things really are more positively. Our underlying, fundamental and true nature, not the transient personality, but our ‘Buddha Nature’, is already perfect and is only obscured by our ignorance of it. This luminous and compassionate nature is identical with the fundamental nature of the entire universe. Indeed the whole universe is nothing but an expression of it.
The illness, diagnosis, cure and the medicine – the Four Noble Truths
At the very start of his teaching career the Buddha taught his understanding of how we may move from suffering to spiritual awakening. He presented it rather like a doctor who is confronted with a complaint that he diagnoses, recognises the cure for and then treats. This is called the ‘Four Noble Truths’. The noble truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the ending of suffering and the eight-fold path leading to the ending of suffering. Buddhism perceives physical and emotional life as ultimately unsatisfactory and the source of a variety of sufferings. It is the source of suffering because we are driven by desires that may never be completely fulfilled. The cure for this is to be no longer driven and alternatively to rest in our awakened nature. The medicine to realise this is the Buddhist path. Later Buddhism developed the details of this analysis but in its essentials it remains unchanged. Human life is as it is and will always require a means to live it well.
The heart motivation behind all Buddhist writing is to bring the three root passions, greed, hatred and ignorance to an end. At the earliest strata of Buddhism there are three collections of writings, called the Tripitaka: The Vinaya, rules conditioning the living of a monastic life that supports the Buddhist path. The Sutras, stories of the Buddha and his students meeting other people and talking about the path. The Abidharma, all the teachings contained in these conversations condensed and abstracted into a theory of how everything arises and dissolves. This last steers the path between believing things have something timelessly real about them, eternalism, and the opposite, that they do not exist at all, annihilationism. Later Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism continued to produce its own scriptures called Sutras and Tantras. The latter are ascribed, not to the historical Buddha, but the transcendental principle of Buddha-hood and were received, not aurally, but as visionary revelations.
Buddhist practice – refuge and the eightfold path
In nearly all schools of Buddhism this begins with our taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The teacher, his teaching and the community who practice the teaching. It then continues with greater or lesser explicit reference to the eight-fold path which may be divided into three sections: 1. Conduct, consisting of generosity and not harming others through our speech, actions or livelihood. 2. Meditation, achieved through developing effort, concentration and mindfulness. This is also frequently referred to as developing the meditation practices of concentration and insight. 3. Wisdom, the fruit of the first two. In the Theravada tradition this is understood as the profound experiential knowledge of the three marks of existence that leads to awakening and liberation from suffering. In the Mahayana it is the path of the Bodhisattva who generates compassion and recognises shunyata, the basic emptiness of all phenomena. In the Vajrayana traditions, broadly speaking, it is the recognition of the true nature of the mind, our always, already awakened Buddha Nature, spacious, intrinsically aware and limitlessly compassionate.
The fruit – the end of the path
Different Buddhist traditions envisage this slightly differently. The Theravada holds the ideal of the Arahat – becoming spiritually enlightened and passing away into Nirvana beyond any further rebirths and consequent suffering. The Mahayana holds an ideal of the Bodhisattva – pausing at the last step of this journey and lingering in the world, over countless lifetimes, until such a time that ones actions have enabled all sentient beings to reach enlightenment. The Vajrayana shares in the motivation of the Bodhisattva but portrays it expressed through the persona of the Siddha – a tantric ‘magician’ who lives and teaches a more radical and efficacious teaching outside of conventional mores and the consensus reality.
Nigel Wellings January 2009