What is buddhism
At its core, Buddhism is an Eastern religion which asserts that suffering is a fact. Practitioners of Buddhism strive to lessen or end this suffering, both in this life and the next, through a variety of beliefs, practices, and rituals. In this report, I discuss the history of Buddhism and how it began, who practices Buddhism today, the essential beliefs of Buddhism, different sects within the religion, and how and why it is practiced.
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While the exact dates are disputed, Buddhism was created by Siddhārtha Gautama (known as Buddha) sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BC in India.
Gautama was born into royalty, and spent the early part of his life enjoying the wealth that came with that. However, in his late 20s, the man now known as Buddha realized that wealth does not necessarily equate with happiness. He spent several years gaining as much knowledge as he could, before sharing his beliefs and what he'd learned with everyone he met. This began the religion known today as Buddhism.
Buddha first introduced Buddhism in India, from where it spread throughout Eastern Asia to China, Burma, Japan, Tibet, and parts of southeast Asia. In the 20th century, the religion traveled to the West where it is now gaining popularity.
When Buddha first introduced his beliefs in India, the region was experiencing "a period of great social change and intense religious activity." Because of this upheaval, Buddhism spread quickly and is now an extremely important influence on Asian culture.
While the religion was first introduced between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, Buddhism began to die out in popularity around the 7th century, and became all but obsolete around the 12th century, after the fall of the Pala Empire. The religion wasn't revived until the 19th century, "when Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the help of British scholars." The main goal at this time "was to restore the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, and they were very successful in building temples at all Buddhist sites, all of which have monks."
PRACTITIONERS AND SECTS OF BUDDHISM
Today, Buddhism is practiced by nearly 300 million people throughout the world. While the religion remains most popular in Asia, it has spread to the West in the past 200 years and is quickly gaining popularity there as a way of dealing with daily stress and anxieties.
Over the years since Buddha introduced the religion, Buddhism has broken into several sects. While there are dozens in existence today, they can all be broken into one of four major sects. These include the Ancient Three, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana; as well as a more recent addition, Zen Buddhism. While each sect is practiced throughout the world, individually they are predominant in specific regions or countries.
The first of the Ancient Three, Theravada, translates to "The Way of the Elders." This sect of Buddhism is practiced primarily in Southeast Asia, throughout Thailand, Myanmar, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Theravada focuses on the Pali scriptures, and believes that practitioners can achieve enlightenment through "studying these ancient texts, meditating, and following the eight fold path."
Mahayana, the second of the Ancient Three, translates to "Greater Vehicle," and is the dominant sect of Buddhism in East Asia. This sect of Buddhism "focuses on the idea of compassion and touts bodhisattvas, which are beings that work out of compassion to liberate other sentient beings from their suffering, as central devotional figures." There are a number of branches formed under Mahayana, including Zen, Pure Land and Tantric Buddhism.
The most recent and final of the Ancient Three is Vajrayana, which translates to "Diamond Vehicle." This "is an esoteric sect that is predominant in Tibet and Nepal." Practitioners of Vajrayana "believe that the physical has an effect on the spiritual and that the spiritual, in turn, affects the physical," and regularly practice rituals, chanting, and tantric techniques on their path to enlightenment.
Finally, Zen Buddhism originated in China. The practice "treats Zen meditation and daily practice as essential for attaining enlightenment, and deemphasizes the rigorous study of scripture."
Despite the variety of sects into which Buddhism has broken, all Buddhists believe essentially the same things, and follow very similar practices and ideals. I will discuss these individual beliefs and practices in further detail below.
At its core, Buddhism is the belief that suffering is a fact which can be lessened through specific practices. Throughout every sect, Buddhists believe in karma, the cycle of rebirth, and the necessity of enlightenment in order to lessen suffering. In order to reach that goal, Buddhists believe in Four Noble Truths, and the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are the most basic fact of Buddhism, but also "leave much unexplained." These truths include the Truth of Suffering, the Truth of the Cause of Suffering, the Truth of the End of Suffering, and the Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering. Essentially, this means that Buddhists believe that while suffering is a fact of the world, it can be ended through specific practices and teachings.
The Buddhist view of Karma follows that of the Four Noble Truths, in that it refers to the negative and positive consequences of each of our actions, and how that result contributes to or lessens suffering in both this and the next life. Essentially, there is good karma, bad karma, and neutral karma. Good karma, which is brought about by positive actions such as generosity or meditation, "brings about happiness in the long run;" while bad karma, brought about by actions such as lying or stealing, results in additional suffering in the long run. Additionally, neutral karma refers to actions such as sleeping, eating, or breathing, which have neither a positive nor a negative impact in the long run.
The extent to which various actions result in good or bad karma is "determined by five conditions: frequent, repetitive action; determined, intentional action; action performed without regret; action against extraordinary persons; and action toward those who have helped one in the past."
Finally, "Karma plays out in the Buddhism cycle of rebirth," which says that there are a total of six planes which any living being can be reborn after death. Of these planes, three are "fortunate," and three are "unfortunate." Ultimately, individuals with "favorable, positive karma are reborn into one of the fortunate realms: the realm of demigods, the realm of gods, and the realm of men;" while those with negative karma are reborn into one of the three unfortunate realms: the realm of animals, the realm of ghosts, the realm of hell.
Throughout their lives, Buddhists strive to practice the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path includes right speech, action and livelihood; right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and right understanding and thought.
Finally, Buddhists practice the Five Precepts. Unlike the 10 Commandments practiced by Christians, these precepts are not commands or requirements. Instead, they represent goals which all Buddhists should strive towards in their lives; while there is no specific punishment for failing to abide by these precepts, Buddhists believe that to break one results in negative karma. The Five Precepts are: avoid killing, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, tell the truth, and avoid mind-altering substances.
PRACTICE AND RITUALS
The specific rituals and practices which individual Buddhists follow depends partially on which sect they belong to. For example, some sects focus primarily on scripture, while others feel that specific rituals and meditation are more important. That said, many of the same rituals are observed throughout every sect of Buddhism.
Among those rituals practiced in the Buddhist religion are meditation ("mental concentration and mindfulness"), mantras ("sacred sounds"), mudras ("symbolic hand gestures"), prayer wheels ("reciting mantras with the turn of a wheel"), monasticism, pilgrimage ("visiting sacred sites"), and veneration of Buddhas and Deities. Each of these practices and rituals "are intended to aid in the journey to enlightenment, and bring blessings on oneself and others."
Buddhism centers on the belief that centering is an inherent part of life, which can be lessened through specific practices and rituals which result in good karma. The religion was founded by Siddhārtha Gautama sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. Since then, Buddhism has spread throughout East Asia and into the West, where it is practiced largely by those wishing to deal with daily stress and anxieties. Approximately 300 million people throughout the world practice Buddhism.