Teachings of the Buddha
To understand the basic principles of Buddhism, it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell or to chant mantras. The aim of the Buddha was simply to show mankind how to live without turmoil and in harmony with all living creatures by following The Middle Way between the extremes of over-indulgence and self-denial. Buddhism affords believers an oasis where they can regain equilibrium by following the Middle Way. Buddhism enables people to look at life anew and stop blaming God, the universe, and others for their plight. They are the creators of their own worlds. Once they can grasp this great truth, life becomes a joyful journey.
To this end, he introduced the Eight-Fold Path and the Ten Precepts, as well as the Four Noble Truths. While monks must practice all the precepts, the lay Buddhist (if he is to be called Buddhist) is expected to follow the five main precepts.
Buddhist principles are based on the basic idea of cause and effect, also known in eastern philosophy as karma. According to this law every intention, thought and action has a consequence that equals the energy invested in it. From good deeds come good results. Leading a disciplined life can ensure that suffering is kept to a minimum. The calm mind that comes from a disciplined life leads down the path of spirituality to the goal of all human life – self-realization, or what the Buddhists call Nirvana.
The Buddhist philosophy and way of life are laid out in the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path and the Five Precepts. The first three doctrines are pursued by those who either adopt a monastic life or are involved in a deep philosophical interpretation of Buddhism.
The Philosophy of Buddhism
The Buddha presented his philosophy in the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering: Disease, death and emotional pain are inevitable.
- Attachment causes suffering: An attempt to derive happiness from things that have shape and form results in suffering because these are not permanent.
- To cure suffering, free yourself from attachment: The cause of suffering is attachment, so make attempts to free yourself from attachment.
- The eightfold path will show you the way out of suffering: The Buddha taught practical ways to end suffering through eight pursuits – right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right view, right intention, right mindfulness, and right effort.
The Five Precepts are what a “lay Buddhist” is expected to follow in day-to-day living.
The Five Main Precepts
- Refrain from killing: In order to live harmoniously with all living creatures and create positive instead of negative vibrations, the Buddhist must be vegetarian. This is necessary for the growth of compassion.
- Refrain from stealing: In order to be free of guilt, and not cause pain to others, Buddhists must not take anything that is not freely given.
- Refrain from sexual misconduct: The Buddha taught his disciples that sexual desire is the greatest obstacle to enlightenment and the most difficult to overcome. Sexual misconduct is forbidden.
- Refrain from lying: To tell a lie is to deny the truth, and a Buddhist centers his life around truth – whether it is the truth of his spiritual path, the truth about himself, or the truth of the universe. Denial of the truth leads to confusion, guilt, and disharmony.
- Refrain from drugs and alcohol: If we are to clearly see the truth, and gain an accurate perception of life and reality, our minds must be free from the delusion and fuzziness caused by alcohol and drugs. An alert mind is capable of controlling actions efficiently and directing them along virtuous paths.
The Buddha is one, yet diverse are the paths leading to him!
Over the centuries, the many Buddhist sects that came into being either died out or were absorbed into three main streams – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
What led to the first schism among the Buddha’s followers? It was primarily the perceived role of a Buddhist. The Theravada school held that the chief aim of a practitioner was self-liberation through enlightenment; the practice of instructing others in Buddhism was secondary.
The Mahayana school differed. Their ideal was the Bodhisattva (literally, Buddha-to-be), an evolved being who deliberately chooses rebirth over attaining personal enlightenment, to help liberate others from the endless cycle of existence (samsara). Vajrayana differs from its parent school, the Mahayana, more in terms of its esoteric practices rather than philosophy.
While Theravada established itself and continues to exist in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, Mahayana developed into an umbrella organization for various sects, spreading northwards via Nepal and Tibet into China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea. Today, Theravada exists as one major school while Mahayana has eight Chinese schools – four of them emphasizing practices and another four based on philosophy. Mahayana also includes the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism.
The scriptures of Theravada, known as the Pali Canon, have three divisions, each consisting of several books. The Mahayana Canon incorporated many of the teachings of the Pali Canon, expanded upon it and rejected some of its monastic rules. The language of Theravada teaching is essentially Pali, supplemented by local languages, while Mahayana Buddhism is taught entirely in the local language.
Theravada was deeply influenced by Indian culture; its scriptures contain references to the ancient Indian religious texts. In China, Buddhism and the native philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism influenced each other.
Differences in practice, architecture, and lifestyle
The extreme simplicity of practice was an original feature of Buddha’s teachings. Theravada Buddhism continues this tradition, with minimal use of ritual. Mahayana, however, absorbed the cultural traditions of its adoptive countries and has varied and elaborate rituals. Vajrayana’s use of the bell, drum and ritual dagger and paintings of deities have greatly inspired Tibetan art and crafts.
There are marked differences in temple architecture. Theravada temples have simple, clean lines, with the focus on the idol of Sakyamuni Buddha. Mahayana temples have more decorative elements and contain different sections for Sakyamuni and the three main Bodhisattvas.
Some similarities are seen between the two major schools when it comes to contemporary lay practices, such as accepting the Five Precepts and meditating on a daily basis.
On special days, Theravada followers observe a fast, study the scriptures and visit monasteries to offer their support. Mahayana practitioners study or listen to discourses about Buddha’s teachings, make ceremonial offerings and practice repentance. Both schools reinforce the need to imbibe the Buddha’s Eightfold Path on these days.
Theravada emphasizes the importance of undertaking pilgrimages; Mahayana exhorts its practitioners to take Bodhisattva vows. Vajrayana, besides incorporating many of these practices, also involves reciting of mantras and initiation into esoteric practices.
There are differences in the lifestyle of monks. Members of the Theravada eat just one meal a day. Mahayana leaves it to individual practitioners to exercise this option. While the Mahayana schools observe vegetarianism (barring Tibet, for geographical reasons), the Theravada schools do not consider it essential.
Thus, the schools of Buddhist thought that evolved after the passing of the great spiritual leader reveal more differences than similarities in philosophies, traditions, and practices. There is little that unites them other than the central figure of the Buddha himself.