Buddhism is big, in fact it could now be considered a global religion and philosophy of life. The 2,500 years that it has existed, from the time of its founder Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), Buddhism has grown from a small spiritual community in northern India to a global religious phenomena.
Buddhism has made an enormous impact on the development of civilizations in and around India, most notably Southeast Asia and later on China, Tibet, Korea and Japan.
Buddhism is fundamentally the story of the Buddha’s life and the subsequent contributions, thoughts and actions of those that wished to follow in his footsteps to attain nirvana/enlightenment.
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In this overview we’ll go through everything related to what Buddhism is all about, let us begin!
- Buddhism originates with the Indian sage the Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama. He lived about 2500 years ago and was, according to the Buddhist traditions and stories, a prince in what is today Nepal or northern India.
- Buddhism entered China around 600 C.E. through the effort of traveling monks and merchants. From China, Buddhism subsequently spread to Japan, Vietnam and Korea.
- In the 8th century, Tibet was introduced to Buddhism, this was most likely done by buddhists travelling across the Himalayas from India.
- According to the Buddha, nothing has a permanent identity, this is known as anattā, the buddhist doctrine of no-self. This doctrine entails that there is no permanent identity or personality that continues from one moment to another. It appears to do so because of the momentum, it’s a process like a flickering flame or a flowing river. For example a flame seems to be one continuous entity, but it is not, its the causal continuity that makes it appear so, in truth if you look closer you realize that the flame is always flickering and changing. Expressed in a more down to earth manner, the human personality and what we take to be our identity is always subject to change from one moment to the next, which makes it inherently unstable and prone to suffering.
- The concept of a single and/or personal God who through a conscious act of will created the world does not exist in Buddhism.
- Many people, scholars included, view Buddhism more in terms of a philosophy of life rather than a religion in which in the West are traditionally familiar with.
- To understand the Buddha and Buddhism its important to be familiar with the rich religious history of India, especially the Vedas and later the Upanishads. Buddhism offered a solution to an age-old Indian and Hindu problem that the previous holy Vedic scriptures and sages were deeply involved with, fundamental questions/problems like the origins of the universe, self-knowledge, death, reincarnation, suffering, illusion, maya, samsara etc. In other words Buddhism inherited the traditional Indian quest and seeking for knowledge.
- The powerful idea of reincarnation was also inherited from earlier Indian and Hindu traditions, belief systems and texts.
- The main goal or state of being in Buddhism is referred to as Nirvana, which literally means “to blow out” or to “extinguish”. This timeless state of consciousness is characterized by a sense of existential freedom, silent joy and psychological serenity. Nirvana is most often translated into english as enlightenment.
- Anyone can be a Buddha, in essence, a Buddha is one who is awake to a timeless truth, one who has attained to a deep, intuitive understanding of what causes human suffering and subsequently ‘blown them out’ in the nirvanic sense, one who has transcended ignorance i.e. the samsaric wheel of birth, death and rebirth.
- One important thing to know about Buddhism is that it isn’t some static set of teachings that the Buddha laid out and which have been fully preserved and followed to our day and age in one unbroken lineage. Like many religions and philosophies, the subsequent generations have had their own role to play which led to the rich diversity that exists within buddhism today.
- The main branches of Buddhism today is Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada.
- Zen (Chan) Buddhism first arose in China when the buddhist teachings came into contact with the already existing rich indigenous traditions, mostly Daoism and a tinge of Confucianism.
- Buddhism as a philosophy and way of life has been thoroughly involved with the political realm of Buddhist societies. Most notably King Asoka, an Indian emperor who lived during the 3rd century BCE.
- The dharma of the Buddha are the teachings and pointings that expressed the Buddha’s state of nirvana. The dharma is there for followers to apply in their own life and spiritual quest. It is the Buddha’s most significant legacy and one of the best ways for us to understand the content of his realization.
- The Four Noble Truths can be viewed as the summarization of the teachings of the Buddha. According to tradition they are the summary of Siddhartha Gautama’s first sermon to his disciples. The traditional text is called “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta” or “Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma”.
Here they are in the right order:
1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
2. The truth of the arising of suffering
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (also known as nirvana or nibbana)
4. The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
- The three marks of existence in Buddhism are the three characteristics that define all existence and living beings. Impermanence (aniccā), suffering or chronic discontentment (dukkha) and non-self (anattā).
- The earliest buddhist scriptures were all written in the classical Indo-Aryan liturgical language Pali.
- In the centuries after the passing of the Buddha, there was an emergence and flourishing of buddhist art and architecture. Different types of shrines were built to venerate and worship the example of Buddha’s life and teachings, these shrines often functioned as focal nodes of pilgrimage for buddhists. Moreover different shrines were dedicated to different aspects associated with the Buddha, ranging from shrines dedicated to his footprints to his begging bowl. One of the most common types of shrines were the stupas, which are mound-like solid structures that contained relics associated with the Buddha and/or the buddhist teachings. It is evident that these shrines were symbolically significant and were most likely intended to help the followers of Buddha to better live a life according to the dharma.
- The first depictions of the seated Buddha, that we know of, is from the 1-2 centuries ACE. Notable examples are the ‘Indrasala architrave’ from the 1st century ACE and the ‘Kimbell seated Bodhisattva’ from the 2nd century ACE.
- Hellenism, after the advent of Alexander the Great, had an significant impact on the development of Buddhist art in certain parts of India. These specific regions that were hellenized showed the undeniable influence of Greek artists and sculptors, most notably the clothing and distinct muscular anatomy that was so common in the Greco-roman world.
- The Mahayana branch of Buddhism emerged in the first century ACE. The name Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” and was used in contrast to Hinayana or the “Lesser Vehicle”, which were the movements that preceded them. The Mahayana literature and teachings trace their source to the sermons of the Buddha himself, in some traditional Mahayana sources they even go so far as claiming that the Mahayana teachings were purposefully held secret until the world was ready to receive it. For scholars, however, the actual origins of the Mahayana movement is still uncertain.
- One of the fundamental ideas of Mahayana Buddhism is the notion and ideal of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva was/is an enlightened being that has attained to nirvana but still hasn’t left the wheel of samsara, this is in order to help and guide the peoples of this world to nirvana.
As a philosophy of life, Buddhism offers a powerful way to find existential contentment in a world and life thats always changing. Our way out of suffering or perhaps more correctly, unsatisfactoriness, is through insight and understanding of the roots of ignorance. Its waking up to the truth of ourself as something much more subtle yet magnificent than our capricious identities and personality.
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s also currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.