Understanding Buddhism

Founded in India over 2500 years ago, Buddhism is the dominant world religion in the East, and the fourth largest religion worldwide. With more than 360 million followers, Buddhist concepts and teachings have had a significant influence upon the arts, cultures and philosophies of meditation and non-violence around the world.

Buddhism is technically not a religion in the strictest of the sense, in that it generally does not offer worship and honor to a supernatural being. Rather it is a system of teachings and traditions that focus on an individual’s personal spiritual development. By delving into an understanding of the true nature of life, the followers of Buddhism believe they can eventually attain Nirvana, a place where suffering no longer exists.

The Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism finds its origins with its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince of a royal Hindu family. Although there is not a great deal of historical data, tradition places the time of his life around 500BCE. At the age of twenty-nine, the prince left the comforts of the kingdom to find the deeper, true meaning of life. Realizing the futility of material wealth and sensual pleasures, he spent several years meditating on the nature of temptations, evil and suffering. Eventually, he became enlightened with the realization of the ability to overcome all earthly desires. As the Buddha – or Enlightened One – he then set out to teach others about the pathway he had discovered.

Beliefs & Sects

Buddhist beliefs vary throughout its different sects and schools of thought. Most of the groups share a reverence for the figure of the Buddha and the goal to end the cycles of rebirth and suffering. Some of the sects are atheistic in nature while others embrace deities as a part of the understanding of truth. Most Buddhists embrace a concept of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Four Noble Truths

  1. To live is to suffer. A common thought among many Eastern religions, suffering is a continual thread through man’s existence.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire. Men cause their own suffering when they get too attached to the things of the world.
  3. One can eliminate some suffering by eliminating desire.
  4. Desire can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Noble Eightfold Path

  1. The right view: a realization of the stature of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. The right intention: a commitment by the individual to achieve enlightenment.
  3. The right speech: consistently speaking in a way that is neither hurtful nor exaggerated.
  4. The right action: a lifestyle that would avoid anything that would hurt others.
  5. The right livelihood: participating in a job that does not do harm to oneself or others.
  6. The right effort: consistently making a purposeful effort to improve oneself.
  7. The right mindfulness: the mental discipline to see things as they really are.
  8. The right concentration: the state where one reaches enlightenment, where suffering and the selfishness of the ego disappear.

The largest of the sects of Buddhism is Theravada Buddhism, which is most popular in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, is very philosophical in nature. Mahayana Buddhism finds its most followers in China, Taiwan and Japan. Mahayanas have incorporated several deities and stronger religious elements into their teachings. Vajrayana Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism, is practiced primarily in Tibet and Mongolia, and is one of the few strands of Buddhism that remains present in India.

Zen Buddhism is a school of the Mahayana Buddhists that developed in China in the 6th century and spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In China, Zen Buddhism is known as Ch’an and became influential in Europe and the Americas. The ideas of Zen involve attempting to understand the meaning of life without being misled by logical thought. Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are used by those seeking a mystical understanding of their own religion.

Death & Mourning

Death marks the transition from one life to the next for an individual. This cycle of life in Buddhism, is called the samsara and is represented by the bhavacakra or “wheel of life.” The bhavacakra is a drawing that is believed to have been sketched by the Buddha himself.

Thinking and meditating about death is regarded as important in Buddhist teaching. Death is seen as a very meaningful, spiritual experience for both the one dying and the family and friends that are left behind. Any death reminds the follower that life in any cycle on earth is short. It then is vital for the follower to make that life meaningful by peaceful actions and words.

Many Buddhists teach that the goal of the follower is to live a life with no regrets and no reason to fear death. People who live life to the best of their ability do not fear death and die in a state of happiness or bliss. It is often believed that dying without fear ensures a good rebirth.

There are three common teachings about death that are to be contemplated and considered. These three will help dispel fears and promote a strong, positive rebirth. The first is the concept that death is certain; there is no possible way to escape death. Life has a definite limit. It is common for Buddhists to see that each moment brings one closer to death – in essence all are dying from the moment they are born.

The second teaching is that the time of death is uncertain. The entire scope of life is random and unsure. Death can occur for the young before the old, the healthy before the sick. There are many causes of death. In fact, even the things that seem to sustain us can actually lead to our demise.

The final teaching is that the only thing that helps an individual at the time of death is the spiritual and mental disciples that have been learned throughout the life. One faces death alone; therefore one must prepare thoroughly for the inevitable day.

After Life

According to most strands of Buddhism, after death one is either reborn into another body, a concept of reincarnation that the Buddhists call transmigration, or enters nirvana. Only a true Buddha who has attained complete enlightenment, would be able to achieve the state of nirvana.

The Buddha compared the cycle of one life to another to lighting successive candles using the flame of the preceding candle. The flame is loosely connected from one to the other, but it is not the same flame and certainly not the same body. This concept differs from the permanent, eternal soul that is understood by the Judeo-Christian ethic and other religions.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

While the practice of customs and rituals associated with death will vary depending on the sect or school of Buddhism and upon the levels of commitment and understanding of the follower, some Buddhists follow the Indian custom of burning the body at death. Tradition has that the Buddha’s body was cremated, thus setting an example for all followers. Groups that have assimilated other traditions and belief systems may offer choices of other final resting options.

Family and friends, led by monks, gather while an individual is dying. The monks lead in chants and readings to provide comfort for the family, as well as create a spirit of peace for the dying. It is believed that good words and good people will help soothe the soul and prepare it for a good rebirth.

After the death, the preparation of the body seeks to continue the reverence and peace that was begun during the times leading up to death. This calm approach continues to create a positive atmosphere to help the spirit have a positive experience in the next life. The time and energies spent helping someone else’s death and transmigration will provide the right karma that will translate to their own time of death.

Each sect and school has different traditions about the gifts and offerings given in honor of the deceased. Several Buddhist’ traditions have the gifts being given to the monks rather than the surviving family. All gifts are seen to create a goodwill which helps the lingering spirit of the dead person migrate to the next life.

Grief & Mourning

In general Buddhists teach that it is natural to grieve the loss of family members and friends at the time of their death. The grief comes from the loss of companionship, as well as the adjustment to life without the deceased. Many Buddhists also see the grief as a very personal, almost self-centered feeling which bemoans the individual’s loss.

During grief, a person also spends time thinking about the temporary nature of his own life. Even the death of a stranger is a reminder of the inevitable personal outcome which can come at any time. Such grief should cause a time of personal reflection and dedication to the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.