For centuries, Buddhism has been the dominant religion of the Eastern world. Today it remains the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea, and much of southeast Asia. With the rise of the Asian population in the U.S., Buddhism has made a tremendous impact in the United States. Presently, there are over 300,000 Buddhists in the U.S. It remains the dominant religion in the state of Hawaii and many prominent Americans have accepted this religion, including the former governor of California, Jerry Brown.(1)
The Origin of Buddhism
Buddhism began as an offspring of Hinduism in the country of India. The founder was Siddhartha Gautama. It is not easy to give an accurate historical account of the life of Gautama, since no biography was recorded until hundreds of years after his death. Today, much of his life story is clouded in myths and legends which arose after his death. Even the best historians of our day have several different--and even contradictory--accounts of Gautama's life.
Siddhartha Gautama was born in approximately 560 B.C. in northern India. His father Suddhodana was the ruler over a district near the Himalayas which is today the country of Nepal. Suddhodana sheltered his son from the outside world and confined him to the palace where he surrounded Gautama with pleasures and wealth. Despite his father's efforts, Gautama one day saw the darker side of life on a trip he took outside the palace walls.
He saw four things that forever changed his life: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a beggar. Deeply distressed by the suffering he saw, he decided to leave the luxury of palace life and begin a quest to find the answer to the problem of pain and human suffering.
Gautama left his family and traveled the country seeking wisdom. He studied the Hindu scriptures under Brahmin priests, but became disillusioned with the teachings of Hinduism. He then devoted himself to a life of extreme asceticism in the jungle. Legend has it that he eventually learned to exist on one grain of rice a day which reduced his body to a skeleton. He soon concluded, however, that asceticism did not lead to peace and self realization but merely weakened the mind and body.
Gautama eventually turned to a life of meditation. While deep in meditation under a fig tree known as the Bohdi tree (meaning, "tree of wisdom"), Gautama experienced the highest degree of God-consciousness called Nirvana. Gautama then became known as Buddha, the "enlightened one." He believed he had found the answers to the questions of pain and suffering. His message now needed to be proclaimed to the whole world.
As he began his teaching ministry, he gained a quick audience with the people of India since many had become disillusioned with Hinduism. By the time of his death at age 80, Buddhism had become a major force in India. Three centuries later it had spread to all of Asia. Buddha never claimed to be deity but rather a "way- shower." However, seven hundred years later, followers of Buddha began to worship him as deity.(2)
The Way of Salvation
The question Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, sought to answer was, Why is there pain and suffering? Also, he held to the Hindu belief of reincarnation: after death one returns to earthly life in a higher or lower form of life according to his good or bad deeds. This belief prompted a second question that needed to be answered, How does one break this rebirth cycle? The basic teachings of Buddhism, therefore, focus on what Gautama believed to be the answer to these questions. These basic tenants are found in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Let us begin with the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is that there is pain and suffering in the world. Gautama realized that pain and suffering are omnipresent in all of nature and human life. To exist means we will all encounter suffering. Birth is painful and so is death. Sickness and old age are painful. Throughout life, all living things encounter suffering.
The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of suffering. Gautama believed the root cause of suffering is desire. It is the craving for wealth, happiness, and other forms of selfish enjoyment which cause suffering. These cravings can never be satisfied for they are rooted in ignorance.
The Third Noble Truth is the end of all suffering. Suffering will cease when a person can rid himself of all desires.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the extinguishing of all desire by following the eight-fold path. "The eight-fold path is a system of therapy designed to develop habits which will release people from the restrictions caused by ignorance and craving."(3)
Here are the eight steps in following the eight-fold path. The first is the Right Views. One must accept the four noble truths. Step two is the Right Resolve. One must renounce all desires and any thoughts like lust, bitterness, and cruelty. He must harm no living creature. Step three is the Right Speech. One must speak only truth. There can be no lying, slander, or vain talk. Step four is the Right Behavior. One must abstain from sexual immorality, stealing, and all killing.
Step five is the Right Occupation. One must work in an occupation that benefits others and harms no one. Step six is the Right Effort. One must seek to eliminate any evil qualities within and prevent any new ones from arising. One should seek to attain good and moral qualities and develop those already possessed. Seek to grow in maturity and perfection until universal love is attained. Step seven is the Right Contemplation. One must be observant, contemplative, and free of desire and sorrow. The eighth is the Right Meditation. After freeing oneself of all desires and evil, a person must concentrate his efforts in meditation so that he can overcome any sensation of pleasure or pain and enter a state of transcending consciousness and attain a state of perfection. Buddhists believe that through self effort one can attain the state of peace and eternal bliss called Nirvana.
Above from: http://wri.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/buddhism.html
Christians would do well to become conversant with Buddhism if they (we) want to reach our culture. Young people who have come of age without any religious instruction will be attracted to a number of elements in the eight-fold path. I will be considering what some of these elements are in upcoming posts. I think Buddhism will also appeal to some middle age folks who may be tiring of the nebulous nature of the New Age philosophies they adopted in the eighties and nineties. Stay tuned.