On the fullmoon day of May, in the year 623 B.C., there was born in the district of Nepal (Lumbini), a Sakya Prince named Siddhattha Gotama, who was destined to be the greatest religious teacher in the world.
On the fullmoon day of May, in the year 623 B.C., there was born in the district of Nepal (Lumbini), a Sakya Prince named Siddhattha Gotama, who was destined to be the greatest religious teacher in the world. Brought up in the lap of luxury, receiving an education befitting a prince, he married and had a son. His contemplative nature and boundless compassion did not permit him to enjoy the fleeting material pleasures of a Royal household. He knew no woe, but he felt a deep pity for sorrowing humanity. Amidst comfort and prosperity, he realized the universality of sorrow. The palace, with all its worldly amusements, was no longer a congenial place for the compassionate prince. The time was ripe for him to depart. Realizing the vanity of sensual enjoyments, in his twenty-ninth year, he renounced all worldly pleasures and donning the simple yellow garb of an ascetic, alone, penniless, wandered forth in search of Truth and Peace.
It was an unprecedented historic renunciation; for he renounced not in his old age but in the prime of manhood, not in poverty but in plenty. As it was the belief in the ancient days that no deliverance could be gained unless one leads a life of strict asceticism, he strenuously practiced all forms of severe austerities. “Adding vigil after vigil, and penance after penance”, he made a superhuman effort for six long years.
His body was reduced to almost a skeleton. The more he tormented his body, the farther his goal receded from him. The painful, unsuccessful austerities which he strenuously practiced proved absolutely futile. He was now fully convinced, through personal experience, of the utter futility of self-mortification which weakened his body and resulted in lassitude of spirit.
Benefiting by this invaluable experience of his, he finally decided to follow an independent course, avoiding the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The former retards one’s spiritual progress, and the latter weakens one’s intellect. The new way which he himself discovered was the Middle Path, Majjhima Patipada, which subsequently became one of the salient characteristics of his teaching.
One happy morning, while he was deeply absorbed in meditation, unaided and unguided by any supernatural power and solely relying on his efforts and wisdom, he eradicated all defilements, purified himself, and, realizing things as they truly are, attained Enlightenment (Buddhahood) at the age of 35. He was not born a Buddha, but he became a Buddha by his own striving. As the perfect embodiment of all the virtues he preached, endowed with deep wisdom commensurate with his boundless compassion. He devoted the remainder of his precious life to serve humanity both by example and precept, dominated by no personal motive whatever.
After a very successful ministry of 45 long years the Buddha, as every other human being, succumbed to the inexorable law of change, and finally passed away in his 80th year, exhorting his disciples to regard his doctrine as their teacher.
The Buddha was a human being. As a man he was born, as a man he lived, and as a man his life came to an end. Though a human being, he became an extraordinary man, but he never arrogated to himself divinity. The Buddha laid stress on this important point and left no room whatever for anyone to fall into the error of thinking that he was an immortal divine being. Fortunately, there is no deification in the case of the Buddha. It should, however, be remarked that there was no Teacher, “ever so godless as the Buddha, yet none so god-like”.
The Buddhas point out the path, and it is left for us to follow that path to obtain our purification.
“To depend on others for salvation is negative, but to depend on oneself is positive”. Dependence on others means a surrender of one’s effort.
In exhorting his disciples to be self-dependent the Buddha says in the Parinibbāna Sutta: “Be you islands unto yourselves, be you a refuge unto yourselves, seek not for refuge in others”. These significant words are self-elevating. They reveal how vital is self-exertion to accomplish one’s object and, how superficial and futile it is to seek redemption through benignant saviors and to crave for illusory happiness in an afterlife through the propitiation of imaginary Gods or by irresponsive prayers and meaningless sacrifices.
Furthermore, the Buddha does not claim the monopoly of Buddhahood which, as a matter of fact, is not the prerogative of any specially graced person. He reached the highest possible state of perfection any person could aspire to, and without the close-fist of a teacher he revealed the only straight path that leads thereto. According to the Teaching of the Buddha anybody may aspire to that supreme state of perfection if he makes the necessary exertion. The Buddha does not condemn men by calling they wretched sinners, but, on the contrary, he gladdens them by saying that they are pure in heart at conception. In his opinion the world is not wicked but is deluded by ignorance. Instead of disheartening his followers and reserving that exalted state only to himself, He encourages and induces them to emulate him, for Buddhahood is latent in all. In one sense all are potential Buddhas. One who aspires to become a Buddha is called a Bodhisatta, which, literally, means a wisdom-being. This Bodhisatta ideal is the most beautiful and the most refined course of life that has ever been presented to this egocentric world, for what is nobler than a life of service and purity?
As a man he attained Buddhahood and proclaimed to the world the latent inconceivable possibilities and the creative power of man. Instead of placing an unseen Almighty God over man who arbitrarily controls the destinies of mankind, and making him subservient to a supreme power, he raised the worth of mankind. It was he who taught that man can gain his deliverance and purification by his own exertion without depending on an external God or mediating priests. It was he who taught the ego-centric world the noble ideal of selfless service. It was he who revolted against the degrading caste system and taught equality of mankind and gave equal opportunities for all to distinguish themselves in every walk of life.
He declared that the gates of success and prosperity were open to all in every condition of life, high or low, saint or criminal, who would care to turn a new leaf and aspire to perfection. Irrespective of caste, color or rank he established for both deserving men and women a democratically constituted celibate Order. He did not force his followers to be slaves either to his Teachings or to himself but granted complete freedom of thought.
He comforted the bereaved by his consoling words. He ministered to the sick that were deserted. He helped the poor that were neglected. He ennobled the lives of the deluded, purified the corrupted lives of criminals. He encouraged the feeble, united the divided, enlightened the ignorant, clarified the mystic, guided the benighted, elevated the base, dignified the noble. Both rich and poor, saints and criminals loved him alike. Despotic and righteous kings, famous and obscure princes and nobles, generous and stingy millionaires, haughty and humble scholars, destitute paupers, down-trodden scavengers, wicked murderers, despised courtesans… all benefited by his words of wisdom and compassion.
His noble example was a source of inspiration to all. His serene and peaceful countenance was a soothing sight to the pious eyes. His message of Peace and Tolerance was welcomed by all with indescribable joy and was of eternal benefit to everyone who had the fortune to hear and practice it.
Wherever his teachings penetrated it left an indelible impression upon the character of the respective peoples. The cultural advancement of all the Buddhist nations was mainly due to his sublime Teachings. In fact, all Buddhist countries like Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, etc., grew up in the cradle of Buddhism. Though more than 2500 years have elapsed since the passing away of this greatest Teacher, yet his unique personality exerts a great influence on all who come to know him.
Is It a Philosophy or a Religion?
The non-aggressive, moral and philosophical system expounded by the Buddha, which demands no blind faith from its adherents, expounds no dogmatic creeds, encourages no superstitious rites and ceremonies, but advocates a golden mean that guides a disciple through pure living and pure thinking to the gain of supreme wisdom and deliverance from all evil, is called the Dhamma and is popularly known as Buddhism.
The all merciful Buddha has passed away, but the sublime Dhamma which he unreservedly bequeathed to humanity, still exists in its pristine purity.
The all merciful Buddha has passed away, but the sublime Dhamma which he unreservedly bequeathed to humanity, still exists in its pristine purity.
Although the Master has left no written records of his Teachings, his distinguished disciples preserved them by committing to memory and transmitting them orally from generation to generation. Immediately after his demise 500 chief Arahants -who had reached Enlightenment versed in the Dhamma and Vinaya -monastic rule- held a convocation to rehearse the Doctrine as was originally taught by the Buddha.
The Tipitaka was compiled and arranged in its present form by those Arahants of old. During the reign of the pious Sinhala King Vattagamani Abhaya, about 83 B.C., the Tipitaka was, for the first time in the history of Buddhism, committed to writing on palm leaves (ola) in Ceylon. This voluminous Tipitaka, which contains the essence of the Buddha's Teaching, is estimated to be about eleven times the size of the Bible. A striking contrast between the Tipitaka and the Bible is that the former is not a gradual development like the latter. As the word itself implies, the Tipitaka consists of three baskets. They are the Basket of Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), the Basket of Discourses (Sutta Pitaka), and the Basket of Ultimate Doctrine (Abhidhamma Pitaka). The Vinaya Pitaka which is regarded as the sheet anchor to the oldest historic celibate order -the Sangha mainly deals with rules and regulations which the Buddha promulgated, as occasion arose, for the future discipline of the Order of monks (Bhikkhus) and nuns (Bhikkunis). It described in detail the gradual development of the Sasana (Dispensation). An account of the life and ministry of the Buddha is also given. Indirectly it reveals some important and interesting information about ancient history, Indian customs, arts, science, etc.
In the Tipitaka one finds milk for the babe and meat for the strong, for the Buddha taught his doctrine both to the masses and to the intelligentsia. The sublime Dhamma enshrined in these sacred texts, deals with truths and facts, and is not concerned with theories and philosophies which may be accepted as profound truths today only to be thrown overboard tomorrow. The Buddha has presented us with no new astounding philosophical theories, nor did he venture to create any new material science. He explained to us what is within and without so far as it concerns our emancipation, as ultimately expounded a path of deliverance, which is unique. Incidentally, He has, however, forestalled many a modern scientist and philosopher.
The Buddha did not preach all that he knew. On one occasion while the Buddha was passing through a forest he took a handful of leaves and said: “O Bhikkhus, what I have taught is comparable to the leaves in my hand. What I have not taught is comparable to the amount of leaves in the forest”. He taught what he deemed was absolutely essential for one's purification making no distinction between an esoteric and exoteric doctrine. He was characteristically silent on questions irrelevant to his noble mission.
Buddhism no doubt accords with science, but both should be treated as parallel teachings, since one deals mainly with material truths while the other confines itself to moral and spiritual truths. The subject matter of each is different.
The Dhamma he taught is not merely to be preserved in books, nor is it a subject to be studied from an historical or literary standpoint. On the contrary it is to be learnt and put into practice in the course of one’s daily life, for without practice one cannot appreciate the truth. The Dhamma is to be studied, and more to be practiced, and above all to be realized; immediate realization is its ultimate goal. As such the Dhamma is compared to a raft which is meant for the sole purpose of escaping from the ocean of birth and death (Samsara).
Buddhism, therefore, cannot strictly be called a mere philosophy because it is not merely the “love of, inducing the search after, wisdom”. Buddhism may approximate a philosophy, but it is very much more comprehensive. Philosophy deals mainly with knowledge and is not concerned with practice; whereas Buddhism lays special emphasis on practice and realization.
It is neither a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood, for it is not “a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural being”.
Buddhism does not demand blind faith from its adherents. Here mere belief is dethroned and is substituted by confidence based on knowledge, which, in Pali, is known as Saddha. The confidence placed by a follower on the Buddha is like that of a sick person in a noted physician, or a student in his teacher. A Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha because it was he who discovered the Path of Deliverance.
A Buddhist does not seek refuge in the Buddha with the hope that he will be saved by his personal purification. The Buddha gives no such guarantee.It is not within the power of a Buddha to wash away the impurities of others. One could neither purify nor defile another. The Buddha, as Teacher, instructs us, but we ourselves are directly responsible for our purification.
Although a Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha, he does not make any self-surrender. Nor does a Buddhist sacrifice his freedom of thought by becoming a follower of the Buddha. He can exercise his own free will and develop his knowledge even to the extent of becoming a Buddha himself. The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning or understanding.
Though there is no blind faith, one might argue whether there is no worshiping of images etc., in Buddhism. Buddhists do not worship an image expecting worldly or spiritual favors, but pay their reverence to what it represents. An understanding Buddhist, in offering flowers and incense to an image, designedly makes himself feel that he is in the presence of the living Buddha and thereby gains inspiration from his noble personality and breathes deep his boundless compassion. He tries to follow his noble example. The Bodhi tree is also a symbol of Enlightenment. These external objects of reverence are not absolutely necessary, but they are useful as they tend to concentrate one's attention. An intellectual person could dispense with them as he could easily focus his attention and visualize the Buddha.
For our own good, and out of gratitude, we pay such external respect but what the Buddha expects from his disciple is not so much obeisance as the actual observance of his Teachings.
Furthermore, it must be mentioned that there are not petitional or intercessory prayers in Buddhism. However much we may pray to the Buddha we cannot be saved. The Buddha does not grant favors to those who pray to Him. Instead of petitional prayers there is meditation that leads to self control, purification and enlightenment.
Meditation is neither a silent reverie nor keeping the mind blank. It is an active striving. It serves as a tonic both to the heart and the mind. The Buddha not only speaks of the futility of offering prayers but also disparages a slave mentality. A Buddhist should not pray to be saved, but should rely on himself and win his freedom.
In Buddhism there is not, as in most other religions, an Almighty God to be obeyed and feared. The Buddha does not believe in a cosmic potentate, omniscient and omnipresent. In Buddhism there are no divine revelations or divine messengers. A Buddhist is, therefore, not subservient to any higher supernatural power which controls his destinies and which arbitrarily rewards and punishes. Since Buddhists do not believe in revelations of a divine being Buddhism does not claim the monopoly of truth and does not condemn any other religion. But Buddhism recognizes the infinite latent possibilities of man and teaches that man can gain deliverance from suffering by his own efforts independent of divine help or mediating priests.
Buddhism cannot, therefore, strictly be called a religion because it is neither a system of faith and worship, nor “the outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a God or gods having power over their own destiny to whom obedience, service, and honor are due.”
Is Buddhism an Ethical System?
It no doubt contains an excellent ethical code which is unparalleled in its perfection and altruistic attitude. It deals with one way of life for the monks and another for the laity. But Buddhism is much more than an ordinary moral teaching. Morality is only the preliminary stage on the Path of Purity, and is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. Conduct, though essential, is itself insufficient to gain one's emancipation. It should be coupled with wisdom or knowledge. The base of Buddhism is morality, and wisdom is its apex.
In observing the principles of morality, a Buddhist should not only regard his own self but also should have a consideration for others we well -animals not excluded-.
In observing the principles of morality, a Buddhist should not only regard his own self but also should have a consideration for others we well -animals not excluded-. Morality in Buddhism is not founded on any doubtful revelation nor is it the ingenious invention of an exceptional mind, but it is a rational and practical code based on verifiable facts and individual experience.
It should be mentioned that any external supernatural agency plays no part whatever in the moulding of the character of a Buddhist. In Buddhism there is no one to reward or punish. Pain or happiness are the inevitable results of one's actions. The question of incurring the pleasure or displeasure of a God does not enter the mind of a Buddhist. Neither hope of reward nor fear of punishment acts as an incentive to him to do good or to refrain from evil. A Buddhist is aware of future consequences, but he refrains from evil because it retards, does good because it aids progress to Enlightenment. There are also some who do good because it is good, refrain from evil because it is bad.
To understand the exceptionally high standard of morality the Buddha expects from his ideal followers, one must carefully read the Dhammapada, Sigalovada Sutta, Vyaggapajja Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Karaniya Sutta, Parabhava Sutta, Vasala Sutta, Dhammika Sutta, etc. As a moral teaching it excels all other ethical systems, but morality is only the beginning and not the end of Buddhism. In one sense Buddhism is not a philosophy, in another sense it is the philosophy of philosophies.
As a moral teaching it excels all other ethical systems, but morality is only the beginning and not the end of Buddhism. In one sense Buddhism is not a philosophy, in another sense it is the philosophy of philosophies.
In one sense Buddhism is not a religion, in another sense it is the religion of religions. Buddhism is neither a metaphysical path nor a ritualistic path.
It is neither sceptical nor dogmatic.
It is neither pessimism nor optimism.
It is neither eternalism nor nihilism.
It is unique Path of Enlightenment.
It is neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence.
It is neither absolutely this-world nor other-worldly.
The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma -Dharma in Sanskrit-, which, literally, means that which upholds. There is no English equivalent that exactly conveys the meaning of the Pali term.
The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the Doctrine of Reality. It is a means of Deliverance from suffering, and Deliverance itself. Whether the Buddhas arise or not the Dhamma exists. It lies hidden from the ignorant eyes of men, till a Buddha, an Enlightened One, realizes and compassionately reveals it to the world. This Dhamma is not something apart from oneself, but is closely associated with oneself.