The way to Nirvana
Among major world religions, Buddhism is unique. There is no worship of a specific deity, no ongoing debate concerning origin and no theology. Even Buddha, the central figure of Buddhism, is not venerated as a deity or prophet. Rather, Buddhism focuses on the human condition.
In all, Buddhism counts around 300,000,000 followers worldwide and may be considered as a mixture of religion and philosophy. Buddhism seeks to explain the purpose of life, injustice and inequality and to provide a set of guidelines that leads to true happiness.
Additionally, it stresses the importance of leading a moral and just life, to always be mindful of the consequences of thoughts and actions and to always strive to develop wisdom and understanding.
Buddhism can trace its origins back to the fifth or sixth century BC, with the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, in the North East of India.
Born into a wealthy family in 593 BC, at the age of 29, he came to realise that material wealth and other physical pleasures of life did not guarantee happiness. Therefore, he began to investigate the various religions and philosophies of his time to see if he could uncover the true path to happiness.
After six years of searching and studying, he discovered the ‘middle path’ and was enlightened. He subsequently spent the remaining forty-five years of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism, known as the Dharma. During his lifetime, the Buddha never claimed to be a god nor asked to be worshipped.
He claimed no divine revelation. His teachings and wisdom were the product of his personal studies and investigation. Statues of him are prevalent today, but these are seen as signs of respect to his teachings and are not intended for use as veneration.
Following his death, the Buddha’s teachings gradually spread through modern-day Pakistan and Central Asia. In the following centuries, Buddhism arrived in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. Eventually it would establish a presence throughout much of Asia, although it would disappear in India until its reintroduction in the twentieth century. Today, there are two main branches of Buddhism. The first of these is Southern, or Theravada, Buddhism, which can be found in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, South Vietnam and Thailand. The second is Mahayana Buddhism, found in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Bhutan and Tibet.
The Buddha’s teachings were numerous, but the fundamental tenets of Buddhism can be summed up thus:
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
The first truth is that life consists of suffering. This should be seen neither in a pessimistic nor an optimistic light, but simply as a fact of life. Life is not perfect and it never will be. All too often, it fails to live up to our expectations.
Old age, sickness and death are inescapable. Desires and cravings abound, and pleasure provides only a temporary respite. Even if there are no direct causes of suffering afflicting us, we remain unfulfilled and unsatisfied.
The second truth uncovers the root of suffering and identifies three roots of evil: greed, ignorance or delusion, and hatred.
The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and true happiness is possible to attain. Removing oneself from earthly attachment is a pivotal step towards this. The concept of nirvana – that is to say, enlightenment – comes under this truth.
Nirvana is a state of profound spiritual joy devoid of negative emotions and fears. Anyone who reaches nirvana can thereafter spend more time helping others and caring for all living things.
The fourth truth is the Buddha’s solution concerning the end of suffering: a set of principles known as the Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way. The eight divisions are Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
THE FIVE PRECEPTS
The Five Precepts is the system of morality for Buddhists and outline the ethics that practicing Buddhists should adhere to. They consist of: the prohibition of taking the life of any sentient being, the prohibition of theft, the prohibition and condemnation of sexual misconduct, the refraining from falsehood either spoken or committed to and the prohibition of intoxication, whether through drugs, alcohol or any other means
THREE UNIVERSAL TRUTHS
- Everything in life changes. Nothing lasts forever and therefore we should be prepared to let go of material possessions and interpersonal relationships.
- Possessing materials or over-depending on other people does not lead to happiness.
- People cannot stay the same indefinitely. The self is a mixture of ever-changing characteristics and attributes.
Karma is the teaching that every action has consequences. The concept of karma stresses the importance that all individuals should take responsibility for their past, present and future actions. Buddhism teaches that, through mindfulness, we can come to realise the consequences of actions we have taken and, if the outcome of our actions is negative, how to modify our behaviour so that we can alter karma.
One does not have to be a practicing Buddhist in order to test its teachings. Ultimately, Buddhism teaches that the answers to the problems and challenges we face in life lie within ourselves and not without.
This is another way in which Buddhism differs from other religions and belief systems, in that it does not consist of a set of direct rules which must be adhered to. Rather, it is an open and flexible series of lessons which every individual approach and adopts in their own way.
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