Buddhism is one of the main world religions with a complex history and system of beliefs.
It encourages a path of practice and spiritual development leading to the understanding of the true nature of reality. Buddhist practices, such as meditation, are a means to change oneself, develop awareness and kindness, and to seek wisdom.
Buddhism originated in the middle of the first millennium B.C. in north-east India (the ancient kingdom of Magadha). No precise information exists about Indian society at that time, so there are no definitive answers to many questions.
Scientists were able, however, to discover that the religion developed as it spread from the north-eastern region of South Asia through Central, East and Southeast Asia. The history of Buddhism is characterized by the development of numerous movements, splits, and schools. Today, about 7 million people practise Buddhism in India. The country can truly be called the capital of Buddhism.
According to historians, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, lived from 566 to 480 B.C. He was the son of an Indian warrior king, and early in life he led an extravagant existence, revelling in the privileges of his social caste. But he became bored with the royal life and Gautama went into the world seeking understanding. After meeting an old man, a very sick one, a corpse, and an ascetic, Gautama became convinced that suffering lies at the heart of all things. He renounced his princely title and became a monk. He deprived himself of worldly goods in the hope of finding the truth of the world around him.
The culmination of Gautama’s search came during meditation beneath a tree, where he finally understood how to banish suffering and achieve the resulting salvation. After achieving enlightenment, Gautama became known as the Buddha, which means “the enlightened one.” He spent the rest of his life travelling around India, teaching others what he understood.
After Buddha’s death, his teachings were gradually written down based on what people remembered. Tripitaka, or Triple Basket, is a collection of Buddha’s scriptures and rules for Buddhist monks. Tripitaka was first recorded on palm leaves then collected in baskets.
After Buddha’s death, some of his followers had disagreements which eventually led to a split between believers and the formation of certain types of Buddhism:
Mahayana absorbed aspects of the local cultures where it was practised and developed into three separate branches:
Although each form of Buddhism has found its individuality, all Buddhists follow a set of guidelines for their everyday lives called “the Five Precepts”. They must:
The experience of the Buddhist tradition that has accumulated over thousands of years has created a resource for those who choose to follow a path that eventually leads to Enlightenment or the State of Buddha.
The enlightened individual clearly sees the nature of reality as it is and lives fully and naturally according to this vision. This is the purpose of the Buddhist spiritual life, and symbolises the end of suffering for anyone who achieves it.
Since there is no idea of worshipping a creator god in Buddhism, some people do not consider it a religion in the usual (Western) sense of the word. The basic principles of Buddhist teaching are simple and practical:
Thus, Buddhism speaks to all people regardless of race, nationality, caste, sexual orientation or gender. It teaches practical techniques so that people understand and use them to transform their experiences and take full responsibility for their own lives.
Buddha discovered three universal truths and four noble truths, which he then taught to his followers for 45 years.
Three universal truths:
Four noble truths:
Buddha taught people not to worship him as a god. He said they should take responsibility for their own lives and actions. To put an end to suffering, he recommended that the Middle Path, which was considered the shortest path to Nirvana, should be followed.
The Middle Path means giving up luxuries and pleasures, but not to the extreme—there are no fasts and deprivations in Buddhism. But there are eight of Buddha’s instructions to adhere to in order to follow the Middle Path.
The Eightfold Path includes:
Meditation is an important practice for most Buddhists. They seek the truth inside themselves and try to understand the Buddha’s teachings (enlightenment or nirvana). Nirvana is freedom from unnecessary suffering and an opportunity to be fully alive and remaining present in your life. It’s not a state that can be described in words—it goes beyond words.
Meditation means focusing the mind on achieving an inner silence leading to a state of enlightenment.
You can meditate in a variety of ways:
There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world and most of them live in Asia. They practise different forms of Buddhism, but all traditions are characterized by a lack of violence and dogmas, tolerance towards differences and, as a rule, practicing meditation.
Although Buddhism in India has virtually disappeared (from around the 12th century A.D.) — perhaps due to the all-encompassing nature of Hinduism, Muslim invasions or too much stress in the monks’ way of life — it’s viability as a religion has been proved in the Asian countries where it was transferred.
Half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, however, they make up only 18% of the country’s population. Most Buddhists of the rest of the world live in East and South Asia — 13% in Thailand (where 93% of the population are Buddhists) and 9% in Japan (35% Buddhists). Only about 1.4% of the world’s Buddhists live outside Asia.
Buddhism in Russia is sparsely spread – only about 1% of Russians identified themselves as Buddhists as of the mid-2000s. However, Buddhism occupied an important place in Russian culture long ago, thanks to which several prominent Russian Buddhist figures appeared in the world.
Buddhism encourages people to take responsibility for their lives without moralizing or seeking to understand the causes and effects of any action (i.e. understanding karma). Like gravity, the law of karma works always and everywhere.
Buddha explained in great detail how our thoughts affect our future and how our words and actions determine our lives. What we do now accumulates good or bad impressions in our heads. Knowing this gives us more freedom and helps us regain control of our lives.
Karma is not destiny. We may choose not to do harmful things and thus avoid creating the causes of future suffering. To sow the seeds of good results, we must take positive actions.
Representatives of other religions like to believe that the symbol of Buddhism is a Buddha statue in the Lotus position. The symbolism of the religion is not limited to this. There are eight favourable signs described by Kelsang Gyatso in the booklet “The Buddhist Temple of Kadampa in the Buddhist Center of Manjushri Mahayana”:
The first Japanese monks practised self-torture, believing that it was possible to achieve enlightenment in this way. They led an austere way of life and performed special spiritual practices, bringing their bodies to a critical state in order to turn them into incorruptible relics.
Monk Kukai was the first to practice the process of self-mummification. For 10 years, he followed a special diet – eating only nuts and seeds, drinking only pure spring water. He diligently performed the hardest physical work in the monastery to get rid of fat and water in his body.
In the city of Samui in Thailand, the mummified body of the monk Luang Pho Daeng is on display in the local temple (the entrance to the territory is free). The monk consciously mummified himself in modern times, (1976), so that witnesses were aware of the event. Luang Pho Daeng predicted the date of his death in advance, passed his knowledge to his disciples and died on the appointed day, May 6, at the age of 79 while frozen in the lotus position. Now the monk’s body is stored in a glass sarcophagus and has no signs of decomposition. It reminds followers of Buddhism that all Buddha’s knowledge is meaningful and can be achieved by any person.
Buddhism indicates the path that all people can follow to eventually abolish suffering. However, it is a very controversial religion. The head of the School of Tibetan Buddhism and the traditional leader of Tibet, Dalai Lama, escaped from China-controlled Tibet in 1959 to India, in fear of his life.