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This paper attempts to describe Buddhism from what has been learned in the different religions sessions. It presents an introduction to Buddhism’s core philosophy and principles followed by the story of the tradition’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, and his enlightening journey from prince to ascetic, and then Buddha. Furthermore it will discuss the spread of Buddhism and the diverse sects that developed in South and East Asia including some of their core beliefs and practices. The discourse will then jump to Buddhism present in the western world, specifically in the United States. The Conclusion of the paper will discuss my personal reflections while writing the paper.
Buddhism’s core philosophy and principles
Fatima-Zahra Saadeddine
Southern New Hampshire University
This paper attempts to describe Buddhism from what has been learned in the different religions
sessions. It presents an introduction to Buddhism’s core philosophy and principles followed by
the story of the tradition’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, and his enlightening journey from
prince to ascetic, and then Buddha. Furthermore it will discuss the spread of Buddhism and the
diverse sects that developed in South and East Asia including some of their core beliefs and
practices. The discourse will then jump to Buddhism present in the western world, specifically in
the United States. The Conclusion of the paper will discuss my personal reflections while writing
the paper.
Core Philosophy and Principles
The best way to go on describing the core ideas behind the Buddhist tradition is to say that it is a
nontheistic philosophy that focuses on an individual’s struggle in life, and proposes that instead
of looking for answers around or beyond us, one should look within to find truth and
enlightenment. Buddhists that attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in
1993, clarified that Buddhism is a religion of wisdom powered by compassion as well as the
search for enlightenment. Furthermore, salvation is available to all who wish to attain it through
the removal of defilements and delusions boosted by a life of self-reflection and meditation.
They went on to say that the founder of the tradition is not God nor any form of deity, but is a
man who attained Buddhahood or enlightenment (Fisher 143). Believers in this tradition usually
look into three main areas for inspiration; Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. These are
commonly referred to as the Three Jewels or the pillars that act as a refuge point to practicing
Buddhists. The fact that there are diverse sects, implies that they may be looked at and
understood through different paradigms, nonetheless the basis remain the same. The Buddha
refers to the path one could take to reach salvation and enlightenment embodied in the life of the
Buddha. The Dharma forms the core teachings of the Buddha presented in the Four Noble Truths
and the Noble Eightfold Path to liberation. Last, but not least, the Sangha which is the Buddhist
community, especially those devotional to the cause of preserving and teaching the Dharma are
also considered a source of refuge (Fisher 151).
The Buddha’s life and his path to salvation will be mentioned in the following section, but here,
the focus will be on the Dharma as well as briefly on the Sangha. The Four Noble Truths are the
foundation of Buddha’s teachings and outline his perspective on life. The first is that suffering,
distress, and dissatisfaction are inevitable in one’s life. Second, suffering results from craving,
based on ignorance. Third, Suffering will cease when craving is ceased. And last but not least,
there is a way to accomplish the latter state, and it is by adapting the Noble Eightfold Path
(Fisher 143-144). Simply put, it is an approach meant to purify an individual from the lust of
craving and drive one to wholesomeness in both thought and action. The first step in this path is
acquiring the “right view” by deeply understanding the Four Noble Truths, allowing one to
comprehend reality correctly. It is the ability of seeing through illusions of lust and ignorance
that cause pain and dissatisfaction. Here it has to be kept in mind that everything one does or
says is only a projection of their mind. If it is corrupt or misguided then disaster will follow, but
if the mind is enlightened by the noble truths then one shall be capable of the right view. The
second, is “right resolve” which implies choosing the correct motivation or intention to actively
throw-off selfish desires and ego, and be able to enjoy a relaxed and clear life without the
limitations of self-centeredness. Third, is “right speech” meaning honesty and sincerity in all that
is said for the propose of tranquility and harmony in the community, keeping in mind that a
believer should avoid lying or deceiving, gossiping, and using harsh language. Fourth, is “right
conduct” in accordance to the five basic precepts of ethical behavior listed in the tradition. To
avoid destroying life and property, stealing from others, sexual misconduct, lying, and the use of
intoxicants (Fisher 145-146). Fifth is “right livelihood” implying that the way by which an
individual earns a living does not violate the latter five precepts. The sixth is “right effort” which
is to actively work on eliminating impurities from the mind, and strive to act wholesomely in all
situations. The seventh and eighth points in the Eightfold Path are distinctive in nature and
require great effort to implement. The seventh is “right mindfulness” which requires deep
meditation and discipline. It is centered on the act of cultivating awareness while being aware of
the mind’s treacherousness. The eighth step in the path compliments the latter and advances it to
“right meditation”, and applying it to discipline the mind from its restless nature. In my opinion,
the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path truly summarizes the core philosophy and ideals
behind the Buddhist tradition. One who wishes to take it as a path of self-enlightenment must
recognize that the truth lies within and can only be after rigorous mindfulness and concentration
on one’s own mind and actions. As the tradition spread, various schools developed with differing
meditation techniques and practices, nonetheless, the core idea of coercing the mind from
temptations through mindful acts and more importantly intentions is a common theme to all on
the path to enlightenment or Nirvana. The latter is the goal of Buddhist practice, and is believed
to be the most desirable state of mind. Nirvana was described by Buddha as the quietude of the
heart where all suffering ceases due to the elimination of cravings and a life liberated from
worldly attachment (Fisher 149). Famous meditation master, Ajahn Chah, described mindful
meditation through the following summarized metaphor; “Let things take their natural course.
Let your mind become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool where all kind of
wonderful animals will come to drink. There you will clearly see the nature of all things, and
watch as strange and wonderful things come and go while you are still. That is the happiness of
Buddha” (Kornfield and Breiter)1
The Legend of Siddhartha Gautama: Prince, Ascetic, and then Buddha
According to traditional sources, the legend of the Buddha began when Queen Maya of Sakya,
later mother of Siddhartha, had a dream where a great six tusked white elephant carrying a lotus
entered her womb. Months later, Siddhartha was born miraculously without human intercourse.
Mystics foresaw this as a sign that this baby will either be a great king or an enlightened teacher
(Chernow and Vallasi 387). This put his father, the chief of the Shakyas, on nerve where for
many years to come he kept Siddhartha within the confines of luxury and comfort. He did
everything in his hands to train him as a warrior as well as to take the throne as his successor.
Unfortunately for this father, Siddhartha choose the latter path when he decided to look beyond
the life of extreme luxury offered to him throughout his youth. At age 29, the prince left the
confines of the palace to see the world outside its illusionary walls where upon doing so he
confronted four sights that changed his life forever. The first of the sights was that of a man bent
due to old age, then another man struck with sever sickness, followed by a corpse, and finally a
mendicant monk seeking spiritual happiness rather than material pleasures (Chernow and Vallasi
387). Siddhartha was shocked by the first three, realizing that suffering and death are concrete
realities that seem to be unescapable. Nonetheless, the sight of the old monk gave him hope and
pushed him to realize that there may be a way to avoid these realities, and from that point on, he
1 From (Fisher 525) – Citation
made it his destiny to find out how. Siddhartha forsake his princely title and every aspect of his
old life, including his wife and new born son, to become a wondering acetic keen on finding the
truth behind suffering and how to be liberated from it (Fisher 140). Throughout his travels, he
came across many ascetics that taught various methods to spiritual enlightenment, including
yogic meditation. Siddhartha mastered such methods, but did not find ultimate satisfaction. He
later resorted to methods of extreme fasting as well as very basic living conditions, where he was
exposed to all the harsh elements of nature. Remaining on this path for about six years, he
decided to give it up due to his fear that this method might lead to his premature death before his
reaching of enlightenment. He then decided to accept moderate food and shelter to improve his
health followed by his decision to sit under a tree in a place called Bodh Gaya where he swore he
would not move until he found what he has been looking for – true liberation from suffering and
enlightenment. After a long struggle with the temptations of the evil Mara who persuaded him to
forsake his goal, that full mooned night, Siddhartha finally reached the status later called
Buddhahood (Chernow and Vallasi 387). Upon doing so, he traveled to the city of Sarnath and at
its deer park he preached his first sermon referred to as “the setting into motion the wheel of the
Dharma” (Chernow and Vallasi 387). The first to accept what he preached were five pervious
ascetics companions that now become his disciples. The Buddha preached the Four Noble Truths
as well as the Eightfold Path to all those who approached him no matter what social caste or
background they were from. He spent the reminder of his life traveling and preaching throughout
Northern India, living off the simple denotations along with other monks part of the Sangha. It is
claimed that he passed away at the age of eighty without appointing any successor, and before
doing so, he advised his disciples to seek refuge in his example, Buddha, his teachings, Dharma,
and the Buddhist community, Sangha.
Spread of Buddhism: Development of Sects and Variations
The Buddhist tradition can be traced to its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime in
the 4th century B.C. He lived and traveled throughout the North-East of the Indian Subcontinent,
and was illuminated in an area that is known as Bihar today (Fisher 150). From there, he sent
missionaries to surrounding regions and abroad in order to spread the Dharma. About two
centuries after his death, an Indian emperor by the name of Ashoka adopted Buddhism as a way
of life, and set about officializing it within has realm as well as sending missionaries abroad as
far as Syria on one end, and modern Sri Lanka on the other (Chernow and Vallasi 387). He is
said to have chosen Buddhism due to its peaceful and compassionate nature, being fed up with
the wars, violence and bloodshed he witnessed while expanding his realm (Buswell 34). King
Ashoka’s Empire was wide and vast, covering almost the entire subcontinent, and throughout
that empire he built stone pillars with the Dharma inscribed on them in order to educate the
masses on Buddhists ideals and encourage social responsibility and harmony (Fisher 150). His
period marked the zenith of Buddhism in India, but soon after it went into decline due to a
revival of traditional Hinduism initiated by the Brahmins. By the 12th century, Buddhism almost
completely disappeared from its hearth in India (Chernow and Vallasi 387). Nonetheless,
Buddhism become ingrained in Southeast as well East Asia in a list of countries including
Myanmar, Cambodia, China, and Japan among others where the tradition is very much alive
today. The three main sects of Buddhism are; Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Minor sects
like Pureland and Zen exist within the Mahayana branch.
Theravada – Way of the Elders
Theravada Buddhism is considered the most traditional sect that exists today, and is predominant
in Southeast Asia in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos (Buswell
836). It honors earlier scriptures such as the Pali Conan, encourages its followers towards the
Three Jewels for refuge, and focuses on meditation. Theravada developed in Ceylon, modern Sri
Lanka, and is known to be the only surviving school from an array of traditional sects that have
once existed (Chernow and Vallasi 387). The tradition includes devotional practices for it lay and
monistic believers, but it also focuses on the meditational practices stressed by earlier Buddhism.
There are two main meditational branches; “Samatha”, calm abiding, and “Vipassana”, insight
(Fisher 153).
Mahayana – The Greater Wheel
The Mahayana branch evolved in the first century B.C, when the Mahayana sutras or scriptures
were developed beyond the Pali Canon (Chernow and Vallasi 387). They taught that all things
are empty and devoid, emphasizing the practice of compassion as well as wisdom to liberate all
creatures from suffering (Fisher 157). This tradition is quite devotional compared to Theravada
Buddhism, and mentions the existence of countless Buddha’s and bodhisattvas from our world
and beyond who have reached an illuminated god-like status of being. Devotees have access to
their stories and deeds through the many sutras available throughout the Mahayana practicing
world. These Sutras emphasis the need to strive to be a bodhisattvas, an eternal being who not
only looks for self-enlightenment, but is concerned for the enlightenment of others through true
compassion. Along with other Buddhist sects, it is traditionally found in China, Vietnam, Koreas,
Taiwan, and Japan, uniquely adapted within the cultural and spiritual frame work of each
individual nation (Buswell 492).
Vajrayana – The Diamond Vehicle
Originally a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana is considered a branch in its own right by
many scholars. This tradition has its roots in India and has historically been practiced in
Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim, but mostly centered in Tibet. Vajrayana Buddhism
emphasis three stages, the first stage requires the concentration of the mind, and riding it of all
worldly attachment. The stage is special training in compassion and wisdom, similar to that of
mainstream Mahayana. The third stage is what is called Vajrayana which happens to be an
esoteric path, taken only be those with sustainable knowledge, to accelerate the process of
enlightenment and nurture it within a single lifetime (Fisher 170). In Tibet, the spiritual head of
the nation is also its political leader, and is referred to as the Dalai Lama or “Ocean Teacher”. At
first they were leaders of a permanent monistic order, but in the thirteenth century they were
bestowed the nominal rule of their homeland by Mongol overlords (Chernow and Vallasi 2744).
Dalai Lama’s are believed to be the incarnations of a Bodhisattvas or a Buddha, identified at a
very young age (Chernow and Vallasi 2744).
Buddhism in the West – United States
In many ways, Buddhism is a tradition that has found its appeal among diverse civilization in the
past, and continuous to do so today. From its early days, its philosophy and core principles have
spread rapidly from India through the Silk Road to adjacent lands and beyond. Like any global
religion, it developed unique characteristics influenced by local religions and cultures wherever
it went. The Buddhism that developed in China for example is unique to China since it arrived
there and found existing systems of belief and philosophies, such as Taoism and Daoism, which
profoundly influenced the way the tradition is viewed and practiced by the Chinese (Chan 107).
Political as well as social implication play a big role in the acceptance and diffusion of the
tradition too, since it has to find the moral and financial patronage of the elites, which it did in
China. The appeal of Buddhist philosophy and practice has found its place in the West, especially
in recent times. The process of transmission, acceptance, and diffusion of the tradition in western
societies is similar in some aspects, but almost completely different when comparing the social,
political, and economic differences between the modern western world, and that of historically
Buddhist nations. We must ask what made Buddhism so appealing to societies that have
traditionally practiced it, and for the West today. Montgomery believes that their internal and
external factors in the religion that either allow for its popularity and diffusion or its restriction to
a society. He further elaborates that religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam share certain
bases they have in common, first they all stem out of older traditions that are restrictive in nature,
and the second is that they are based on the concept of universal salvation for whoever accepts
their doctrine (Johnson 337-338). Buddhism which started as a philosophy rather than being
based on legalistic tradition, has an edge since it can more easily be diffused with an individual’s
or societies’ previous ideological beliefs or way of life. And indeed this is what happened with
Buddhism in the past, and is happening in today’s post-modern world. What is meant by the
post-modern or post-industrial here is a secular society where religious devotion is not part of
daily life, and religion is privatized or completely absent (Mackey 353-367). In such societies, a
common symptom has been the feeling of alienation due to values such as individualism and
consumerism evident in the western world today (Lutzow 243). This pushed many westerners
experiencing alienation to seek answers from local religions or traditions abroad. Buddhism is
one that has gained significant popularity throughout the western world, and especially the
United States (Gregory 233-263). The earliest contact between the two worlds in modern history
was in the 19th century when migrants from East Asia established communities in places like
California and Hawaii. Along with their labor, they also brought their faith. These communities
often invited learned men from their home countries to attend ceremonies and give lessons,
eventually establishing organizations such as the Buddhist churches of America (Fisher 175). In
1893, the World Parliament of Religions event was held in Chicago, a Buddhist expressed that
King Ashoka spread Buddhism from India to the rest of Asia, and taught it a noble lesson of
tolerance and gentleness, the Buddhists present will do the same in the eyes of the West (Fisher
175). This event along with previously mentioned factors, along with other, sparked interest in
the study of Buddhism in the West, where many also adopted its philosophy and practices. In the
United States, Buddhism become especially popular after World War II. The tradition
experienced a boom in the religious landscape of the nation since the 1950s that continues to
expand today, with recent estimates claiming up to four million followers both Asia-American
and Caucasian – 0.5 to 1.5 of the total population (Gregory 233-263). There are Americans who
identify with another religion, yet highly sympathize with Buddhism, claiming that the tradition
has had a profound impact on the way they understand and practice their respective religions.
There are also those who may have no religious believes, but nonetheless, live by Buddhist
ideals and practice some type of meditation without necessarily believing in the devotional
practices of mainstream Buddhism. The latter factors indicate the dilemma that researchers face
when attempting to pin-pointing those officially practicing the tradition under a recognized
school, those that adhere to it philosophically, and those who practice it along with another
religion (Gregory 233-263). An interesting point to make here is that Buddhism in America can
be divided into two main parties; one type brought by Asian immigrants, “Ethnic Buddhism”,
that happens to be an extension of schools and traditions found in their native lands, the other is
what is called “White or Euro-American Buddhism” (Gregory 233-263). The first group are
usually born Buddhist and trace their tradition to Zen, Pureland or Jodo Shinshu, on the other
hand, the second group are usually converts to a tradition or restrict themselves to the
philosophy, maybe some meditational practices as well (Gregory 233-263). An important factor
to consider is that Buddhism has also become culturally iconic, not only in America, but on a
global scale as well. It appears in works of literature, music, art, and popular entertainment
(Gregory 233-263). This further makes it more accessible to audiences in the U.S, and elsewhere,
especially in the digital age where an individual has liberal access to information.
Conclusion – Reflection
Writing this paper, I have learned a lot about this fascinating tradition, its history, the different
ways it is practiced, and ultimately, its philosophy. Unfortunately, I was unable to extensively
cover the different shades of Buddhism as believed and practiced by its adherents throughout the
globe, nonetheless, whatever little material I read and been able to cover here has indeed
enlightened me in ways I never imagined. Buddhism had always been a mystery to me, and I am
glad that my curiosity lead me to read and write about it. Reflecting on the tradition itself, I
found that its core principles are shared by mystic traditions in the Abrahamic religions, to some
extant at least. I am no expert, but I believe that there exists at least some basic similarities
between the philosophical concepts of early Buddhism and Sufi Islam, especially those Sufi
traditions found in modern Turkey, Iran, India, and throughout central Asia. The latter being a
likely zone influenced by Buddhism due to its proximity to the Buddhist world as well as its
Buddhist history prior to the arrival of Islam. Sadly, many Buddhist relics and temples in that
part of the world have been destroyed by zealot rulers and warlords, and in modern times by
ongoing conflicts as well as terrorist organizations. An example would be the 2001 destruction of
the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two large and elaborate statues, by the Taliban. To finally conclude, I
would like to mention that there exists philosophical similarities between the teachings of Jalal
ad Din Rumi and those of the Buddha. From what I know, Rumi was originally from Persian
Central Asia, a region that I mentioned had a Buddhist past. From his poems and the little I know
about him, it is advent that there are common grounds between the two paradigms. Who knows,
maybe my curiosity will land me into reading and writing about the topic.
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