Many argue that Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion. While it seems to bear all the hallmarks of a religious belief, the main difference is that any worship is not given up to a deity or creative power. Instead, Buddhists are continually striving for a state of enlightenment and the teachings of Buddha are integral to that process. However, unlike many religions, the teachings are there to be questioned and tested, rather than accepted outright. Buddha said that “Monks don’t accept what I say just out of respect for me. Just as gold is tested in the fire, test my words in the fire of spiritual experience.”
Who was Buddha?
Buddha was born in Nepal in the 6th Century and enjoyed the privileged position of being the son of a tribal leader. At that time, he was known by his original name, Siddhartha Gautama. With the majority of his needs catered for and no need to work, Siddhartha fell to contemplation, considering the meaning of man’s existence, life, death and the process of growing old.
A major turning point came in his life at the age of 29; he met a ‘sadhu’ or ‘good man,’ who had given up all his material possessions to go in search of ‘the truth.’ This meeting had a profound effect on Siddhartha, who decided to follow suit, leaving his wife, child and comfortable lifestyle behind.
Siddhartha wandered through the region, directionless and without a map. He sought out the most prominent spiritual teachers and soaked up all they had to say, but was always left feeling as though there was something else - an elusive something that was missing from all he learned. As he travelled, Siddhartha began to deny himself material goods in every aspect of his life, going so far as to undertake long periods of fasting. While his impressive periods of abstinence earned him followers and disciples, they also served to make him weak and he realised that this could interfere with his search for the truth, so he began to eat again.
At the age of 35, he arrived at a place now known as Buddha Gaya. The story is that he stopped under a tree by a river and, exhausted from his travels, decided to relax as much as possible, not pushing so hard to find the truth. Whether he realised it or not, Siddhartha entered a state of deep meditation, through which he accessed his subconscious. His subconscious revealed to him his past lives, the consequences of all his actions and how each incarnation had been a stepping-stone to this particular moment. During this trance, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and his journey was now over; he had become the Buddha, or ‘enlightened one.’
A Buddhist is constantly striving to reach that state of enlightenment in which all the secrets and mysteries of life will be revealed. Meditation is at the core of this belief system and monks will spend many hours a day in a state of altered consciousness, hoping that they will achieve the ultimate spiritual awakening. However, since it gained popularity in the West during the 19th Century, Buddhism has adapted, allowing those who want to absorb it into their lives to do so on their own terms. Practitioners are not required to mediate all day, every day. Instead, they can choose when, where and for how long they want to dedicate time to accessing their higher selves.
The Eightfold Path
Most religions are defined by their beliefs. For Buddhists, simply believing a scripture or a doctrine defeats the purpose of the whole system. The Buddha taught that we are all able to uncover the truth of life’s mysteries for ourselves, focussing on a practical, spiritual approach, rather than simple acceptance of what we are told by religious leaders. At the heart of all the disciplines embraced by Buddhists, is the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path was revealed to Buddha’s disciples in his first sermon, after he’d achieved enlightenment. As the name suggests, it is broken down into eight categories:
● Right Intention: Buddha believed that our thoughts are the forerunners of our actions and that they have as much weight as a practical act: “If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage…. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.”
● Right Speech: Buddhists are taught that if they have nothing useful or beneficial to say, it is better to remain silent. Just as violent words engender violent thoughts and deeds, peaceful words also generate peaceful thoughts and actions.
● Right Action: Buddha taught that we should act with compassion and understanding to those around us and the environment in which we live.
● Right Livelihood: the Buddha said that “a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants and business in poison.” In essence, Buddhists need to work in industries that benefit others somehow and do not betray the Five Precepts, the basics of which are described, above.
● Right Effort: this is the effort required to rid oneself of negative energies and traits and to promote positive aspects of your character.
● Right Mindfulness: being fully mindful is the practice of observing everything as it actually is and not filtering it through our own subjective opinions. In employing Right Mindfulness, Buddhists seek to achieve a non-judgemental and accepting state of mind.
● Right Concentration: this is the realisation that the potential to reach enlightenment is ever-present and, given the right state of mind, it can happen at any given time. Right Concentration is the discipline of understanding that there is no such thing as the ‘separate self;’ we are all one and that any sense of being ‘apart’ or alone is merely an illusion.
Buddhism can be seen as a set of teachings about tolerance and as a path to self-improvement, rather than as a religion, in the traditional sense.