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When teaching the Buddha regarded himself as a guide and physician, diagnosing ailments and pointing out the path to recovery. As presented now in texts, he taught in the basic components of Hindu cosmology and psychology (long cycles of time, and equally periods through which a self or soul, atman, is reborn as it moves, controlled by karma as cause, toward freedom or salvation, moksa), but modified them drastically: he saw all appearance as characterized by dukkha (transience, anicca, accompanied by suffering that arises if one seeks something permanent or eternal in its midst). It follows that there cannot be a soul, but only the sequence of one moment giving rise to the next, constituting appearances with characteristic possibilities (human, for example, as oppose to animal, through the skandhas, aggregations). The no-soul doctrine is referred to as anatman. It follows equally as well that there can be no eternal God, independent of the cosmos, who creates it. There are many gods in Buddhism, which is, especially at the popular level, an extremely theistic religion. But God, or gods, is part of the process, having the characteristic appearance, as opposed to that appearance of animal or human.
Buddhism, known as The Way, is not a religion in the Western meaning, but was the teaching of Siddartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, commonly known as Buddha or the Buddha. Adherents of this Buddhist way generally refer to it as Saddharma (roughly, the True Law); members of the southern schools (Hinayana or Theravada) using the Pali term, Buddhism Dhamma (That Which Upholds). Siddartha Gautama set forth the essentials in his first sermons to his initial followers. The sermons contained the following teachings:
The first sermon, (see Dhamma-cakkapavattana-sutta) called either Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law or the Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness, begins with a broad statement about the avoidance of two extremes. The first is the habitual devotion to passions, the pleasures of sensual things, and a low, ignoble, and unprofitable way of seeking self-satisfaction; the second extreme is habitual devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and also unprofitable (here the Buddha is referring to a common Hindu practice as well as other rigorous practices of other religions, it might be added). Instead, the Buddha advocates a Middle Path he discovered himself, which opens eyes and bestows understanding, leading to peace, insight, higher wisdom, and above all, to nibbana. He called this the Ariyan (Noble) Eightfold Path. Such a path entails Right Views, Right Aspirations, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Mode of Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Rapture.
Suffering is the central fact in living. The Noble Truth of suffering is that birth is attended with pain; decay is painful; disease is painful; death is painful. Union with unpleasantness is painful; painful is separation with the pleasant; any unsatisfied craving is also painful. In brief, the five Aggregates of Attachment are painful.
The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering is the thirst to gratify the senses or the craving for material gains. This craving leads from rebirth to rebirth.
The Noble Truth for the annihilation of suffering is to give up, to get rid of, to be emancipated from the craving thirst that causes so much woe.
The only Path that leads to the passing away of the pain of existence is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddhism has no place for the supernatural. The Buddha tackled this question immediately in order to benefit his disciples. In the sermon, On the Nonexistence of the Soul he outlined the problem of consciousness, as he understood it. He argued, the body cannot be the eternal soul, for the body dies. Neither do sensation, perception, the predispositions, and consciousness together constitute the eternal soul, for all these attributes are transitory; and, what is transitory is evil; and, what is transitory and evil and liable cannot be called an "eternal soul." The true disciple will develop disgust for the body, sensation, dispositions, and consciousness, and thus divested of desire will be freed, will become aware that he is freed, will know that becoming or rebirth is exhausting, that he has lived the pure life, and now the cycle of birth and rebirth, time of mortality, is ended.
The various schools of Buddhism have developed the different processes of attaining nibbana. Some teach a simple but rigorous following the Way; others teach enlightenment comes through regular and constant meditation (the various Ch'an and Zen methods are examples); or through an instantaneous awakening as the result of solving an apparently insoluble mental or verbal problem; and the koan, a Zen verbal puzzle. It has been found stressing the endurance of pain and suffering has produced the often-repeated change of pessimism and cheating within members. However, as the Buddha pointed out, after self-discovery, that the essential truth for virtually all of mankind suffering is the all-to-common fate, also emphasized that the followers of the Dhamma must still try to follow the Way with zest, or piti, and be cheerful and open, and also aid others. Instead of rationalizing suffering as a test of God, or the gods, Buddhism takes it for granted that suffering exists in the world and tries to eradicate it. It is taught that suffering will exist as long as there is craving, and can only be annihilated by following the Eightfold Path.
The Dhamma may be called the law of cause and effect, both of which embrace the entire body of the Buddha's teachings; and, whether Buddhas, Gautama or others, arise or not, the Four Noble Truths exist. The Buddhas can only reveal these Truths, which lay hidden in the abyss of time, and show the Way to salvation. And in the bottom, only the individual can attain his own salvation; the Buddhas can only teach there is a Way. It is the individual's responsibility to follow it-"Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a Refuge. Abide with the Damma as a Refuge. Seek no external refuge." In other words, look within, for the Lord Buddha, buddhahood, is inside you.
History: By the time of Gautama Buddha's death around 480 BC there was a well-organized group of followers including the monks or bhikkus (literally, beggars) assembled into the Brotherhood, the Sangha, who were committed to a life of meditation, prayer, and supporting themselves by alms, and usually based on a center, the Vihara, from which they were sent off on long periods of wondering except in the rainy season. The bhikkus were typical of India's holy men, but followed the Middle Way preached by Gautama Buddha, without the customary austerities and other penances, eschewing the extreme life styles, such as nudity, of some Hindu sects. For about two centuries the Sangha was but one of many similar groups on the subcontinent. However, there was considerable development of doctrine over the same period. A canon of sacred texts, later named the Tripitaka, was assembled, based upon the Buddha's words, as memorized by his chief disciple, Amanada, and previously transmitted orally. A great Council was held shortly after the Buddha's death, and a second one was held a century later, where a dispute over the correctness of doctrine divided the disciples into two rival groups, whose rivalry harden with time, and the concepts of Buddhism held by the monks began developing into different channels. The Theravadas, the Elders, claimed they maintained the Buddha's own tradition with exactness. This group eventually emerged into the Hinayanists, or the Lesser Vehicle, while their opponents became the Mahayanists, or Greater Vehicle. Each group has different subsects, divided not only by differing interpretations of the Buddha's Dhamma, but also by accretions of local customs, rites, folkways, and earlier religions, for much of what had been a pristine Buddhism is now hopelessly entangled with the gods of the many forms of animism, of primordial religions such as Tibetan Bon, Tao, Shintoism, and so on.
Buddhism might have remained an insignificant Indian sect, live so many of it rivals, until it shattered itself apart, but in the third century BC Emperor Ashoka, distraught over the carnage of his latest war, rejected violence as a means of ruling and turned to Buddhism. In Ashoka's lands were major Buddhist centers teaching the principles of the sect including the Middle Way, the eschewing of violence, and its positive emphasis on the self-sufficient individual, all of which were great attractions to the emperor. It was under Ashoka's patronage that Buddhism suddenly became a world power. The Emperor called a third Council to settle doctrinal disputes and to try to establish some kind of orthodoxy; he also sent Buddhist missionaries to most of the known world, reaching from Southeast Asia and Ceylon on one side to the Middle East and possibly Greece on the other. The Emperor was so impressed with the doctrines of Buddhism, especially its emphasis on nonviolence, that he founded monasteries, schools, hospitals, and other institutions to further its influence. Accompanying such developments was a new highway system promoting trade and travel. Indian Buddhism survived another thousand years until it began declining when meeting its Hindu rival, especially the bhakti movements among the peasants; the coming of Islam also affected Buddhism. Meanwhile Buddhism became firmly established abroad, Buddhism was to grow vigorously in other soils, in a prolixity of philosophies, forms of mysticism, creative arts, literature, and doctrinal schools, some of which had great purity while others were heavily burdened with folklore, superstition, and magic. Over time, refinements and changes in direction continue to occur within Buddhism. Counting the number of Buddhists existing in both Asia and Southeast Asia becomes difficult and confusing when one considers other religious beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism are often entangled in the individual's belief. A.G.H.
Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia
of Religions of the Orient, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978,
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 171-173