Buddhism for beginners
- including agnostic and secular Buddhism -

Introduction

There is a good deal of misunderstanding about Buddhism, particularly in Western countries. This site explains what it is and what is not, how to become a Buddhist and how to practise Buddhism. Buddhism is described in both its traditional aspect and in modern terms, with application to modern lifestyles.

Chiang Saen Buddha

If you are looking for a book that covers the whole subject, try The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom, by Gill Farrer-Halls (more of a guide than an encyclopedia), The Buddhist Handbook: A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teaching, Practice, and History, by John Snelling, or check out this collection of recommended books.

The Origin of Buddhism

The Buddha-to-be was born Siddhattha Gotama about 2,600 years ago as a prince of the Sakya clan near what is now the Indian-Nepalese border. To preserve the monastic order, the Buddha set down 227 rules for a bhikkhu (monk) to observe and 311 for a bhikkhuni (nun). Before his death (known as parinirvana) he said that some minor rules could be changed.

Within a short time of his passing away there was disagreement over what could be changed and different sects emerged. The more reformist sects later called themselves Mahayana (greater vehicle) and referred to the conservative sects as Hinayana (lesser vehicle). The only conservative sect remaining today is Theravada, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Theravada recognises the Pali Canon as its scriptures and a variety of ancient Theravadin commentaries.

Whereas Theravada spread to the south and east, Mahayana moved to the northwest through what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan and then across Central Asia to China, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. For historical reasons, the language of Mahayana scriptures was Sanskrit and that of Theravada was Pali. Hence the difference in spelling of some common Buddhist terms: Nirvana/Nibbana, Sutra/Sutta, Karma/Kamma, Dharma/Damma, etc. Westerners are more familiar with Mahayana Sanskrit terms.

Mahayana also has its own scriptures in addition to the Pali Canon, the most important of which is the Lotus Sutra. These sutras are purported to be the Buddha's secret "higher" teachings, which were handed down only to those who were ready for them - an idea emphasised at the beginning of the Lotus Sutra.

Apart from a modified monastic code which made monasticism possible in harsh environments such as Tibet, Mahayana emphasises the Bodhisattva Ideal, where a man vows not to achieve final enlightenment until all sentient beings have been saved. So anyone helping others to achieve enlightenment can be considered a bodhisattva. In Theravada, the term bodhisattva usually refers only to the historical Buddha in his previous lives. Historically, some Mahayanists consider Theravadins to be selfish for seeking enlightenment only for themselves, while some Theravadins consider Mahayanists to have deviated from what the Buddha taught.

For more than 2,500 years, the religion we know today as Buddhism has been the primary inspiration behind many successful civilizations, the source of great cultural achievements and a lasting and meaningful guide to the very purpose of life for millions of people. Today, large numbers of men and women from diverse backgrounds throughout our world are following the Teachings of the Buddha. So who was the Buddha and what are His Teachings?

The Buddha

The man who was to become the Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama around 2,600 years ago as a Prince of a small territory near what is now the Indian-Nepalese border. Though he was raised in splendid comfort, enjoying aristocratic status, no amount of material pleasure could satisify the enquiring and philosophic nature of the young man. At the age of 29 he left palace and family to search for a deeper meaning in the secluded forests and remote mountains of North-East India. He studied under the wisest religious teachers and philosophers of his time, learning all they had to offer, but he found it was not enough. He then struggled alone with the path of self- mortification, taking that practice to the extremes of asceticism, but still to no avail.

Then, at the age of 35, on the full moon night of May, he sat beneath the branches of what is now known as the Bodhi Tree, in a secluded grove by the banks of the river Neranjara, and developed his mind in deep but luminous, tranquil meditation. Using the extraordinary clarity of such a mind with its sharp penetrative power generated by states of deep inner stillness, he turned his attention to investigate upon the hidden meanings of mind, universe and life. Thus he gained the supreme Enlightenment experience and from that time on he was known as the Buddha. His Enlightenment consisted of the most profound and all-embracing insight into the nature of mind and all phenomena. This Enlightenment was not a revelation from some divine being, but a discovery made by Himself and based on the deepest level of meditation and the clearest experience of the mind. It meant that He was no longer subject to craving, ill-will and delusion but was free from their shackles, having attained the complete ending of all forms of inner suffering and acquired unshakeable peace.

The Teachings of the Buddha

Having realized the goal of Perfect Enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next 45 years teaching a Path which, when diligently followed, will take anyone regardless of race, class or gender to that same Perfect Enlightenment. The Teachings about this Path are called the Dhamma, literally meaning "the nature of all things" or "the truth underlying existence". It is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to present a thorough description of all of these Teachings but the following 7 topics will give you an overview of what the Buddha taught:

1. The way of Inquiry

The Buddha warned strongly against blind faith and encouraged the way of truthful inquiry. In one of His best known sermons, the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one's beliefs merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition, because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out of trust in one's teachers, elders, or priests. Instead one maintains an open mind and thoroughly investigates one's own experience of life. When one sees for oneself that a particular view agrees with both experience and reason, and leads to the happiness of one and all, then one should accept that view and live up to it!

This principle, of course, applies to the Buddha's own Teachings. They should be considered and inquired into using the clarity of mind born of meditation. Only when one sees these Teachings for oneself in the experience of insight, do these Teachings become one's Truth and give blissful liberation.

The traveller on the way of inquiry needs the practice of tolerance. Tolerance does not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means one doesn't get angry at what one can't accept.

Further along the journey, what one once disagreed with might later be seen to be true. So in the spirit of tolerant inquiry, here are some more of the basic Teachings as the Buddha gave them.

2. The Four Noble Truths

The main Teaching of the Buddha focuses not on philosophical speculations about a Creator God or the origin of the universe, or on a heaven world ever after. The Teaching, instead, is centred on the down-to-earth reality of human suffering and the urgent need to find lasting relief from all forms of discontent. The Buddha gave the simile of a man shot by a poison-tipped arrow who, before he would call a doctor to treat him, demanded to know first who shot the arrow and where the arrow was made and of what and by whom and when and where ... this foolish man would surely die before his questions could be well answered. In the same way, the Buddha said, the urgent need of our existence is to find lasting relief from recurrent suffering, which robs us of happiness and leaves us in strife.

Philosophical speculations are of secondary importance and, anyway, they are best left until after one has well trained the mind in meditation to the stage where one has the ability to examine the matter clearly and find the Truth for oneself.

Thus, the central Teaching of the Buddha, around which all other teachings revolve, is the Four Noble Truths:

  1. That all forms of being, human and otherwise, are afflicted with suffering.
  2. That the cause of this suffering is Craving, born of the illusion of a soul.
  3. That this suffering has a lasting end in the Experience of Enlightenment (Nibbana) which is the complete letting go of the illusion of soul and all consequent desire and aversion.
  4. That this peaceful and blissful Enlightenment is achieved through a gradual training, a Path that is called the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path.

It would be mistaken to label this Teaching as 'pessimistic' on the grounds that it begins by centring on suffering. Rather, Buddhism is 'realistic' in that it unflinchingly faces up to the truth of life's many sufferings and it is 'optimistic' in that it shows a final end of the problem of suffering - Nibbana, Enlightenment in this very life! Those who have achieved this ultimate peace are the inspiring examples who demonstrate once and for all that Buddhism is far from pessimistic, but it is a Path to true Happiness.

3. The Middle Way or Eightfold Path

The Way to end all suffering is called the Middle Way because it avoids the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Only when the body is in reasonable comfort but not over-indulged has the mind the clarity and strength to meditate deeply and discover the Truth. This Middle Way consists of the diligent cultivation of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, which is explained in more detail as the Noble Eightfold Path.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Right Speech, Action and Livelihood constitute the training in Virtue or Morality. For a practising Buddhist it consists of maintaining the five Buddhist Precepts, which are to refrain from:

  1. Deliberately causing the death of any living being;
  2. Intentionally taking for one's own the property of another;
  3. Sexual misconduct, in particular adultery;
  4. Lying and breaking promises;
  5. Drinking alcohol or taking stupefying drugs which lead to lack of mindfulness.

Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration refer to the practice of Meditation, which purifies the mind through the experience of blissful states of inner stillness and empowers the mind to penetrate the meaning of life through profound moments of insight.

Right Understanding and Thought are the manifestation of Buddha-Wisdom which ends all suffering, transforms the personality and produces unshakeable serenity and tireless compassion.

According to the Buddha, without perfecting the practice of Virtue it is impossible to perfect Meditation, and without perfecting Meditation it is impossible to arrive at Enlightenment Wisdom. Thus the Buddhist Path is a Gradual Path, a Middle Way consisting of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom as explained in the Noble Eightfold Path leading to happiness and liberation.

4. Kamma

Kamma means 'action'. The Law of Kamma means that there are inescapable results of our actions. There are deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' harm, one's own harm, or to the harm of both. Such deeds are called bad (or 'unwholesome') kamma. They are usually motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. Because they bring painful results, they should not be done.

There are also deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' well being, one's own well being, or to the well being of both. Such deeds are called good (or 'wholesome') kamma. They are usually motivated by generosity, compassion or wisdom. Because they bring happy results, they should be done as often as possible.

Thus much of what one experiences is the result of one's own previous kamma. When misfortune occurs, instead of blaming someone else, one can look for any fault in one's own past conduct. If a fault is found, the experience of its consequences will make one more careful in the future. When happiness occurs, instead of taking it for granted, one can look to see if it is the result of good kamma. If so, the experience of its pleasant results will encourage more good kamma in the future.

The Buddha pointed out that no being whatsoever, divine or otherwise, has any power to stop the consequences of good and bad kamma. The fact that one reaps just what one sows gives to the Buddhist a greater incentive to avoid all forms of bad kamma while doing as much good kamma as possible.

Though one cannot escape the results of bad kamma, one can lessen their effect. A spoon of salt mixed in a glass of pure water makes the whole very salty, whereas the same spoon of salt mixed in a freshwater lake hardly changes the taste of the water. Similarly, the result of a bad kamma in a person habitually doing only a small amount of good kamma is painful indeed, whereas the result of the same bad kamma in a person habitually doing a great deal of good kamma is only mildly felt.

This natural Law of Kamma becomes the force behind, and reason for, the practice of morality and compassion in our society.

5. Rebirth

The Buddha remembered clearly many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks, nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past life, Rebirth is an established fact which puts this life in a meaningful perspective.

The Law of Kamma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit. Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty; why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed whereas others enter deformed and diseased... The fruits of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how much better to learn about the need for generosity than to be reborn among the poor!

Rebirth takes place not only within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms, too, realms of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but we can come from any of these realms into our present life. This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues "How can there be Rebirth when there are ten times as many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?" The answer is that people alive today have come from many different realms.

Understanding that we can come and go between these different realms, gives us more respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them with us.

6. No Creator God

The Buddha pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind of being has the power to interfere in the working out of someone else's Kamma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches the individual to take full responsibility for themselves. For example, if you want to be wealthy then be trustworthy, diligent and frugal, or if you want to live in a heaven realm then always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours from, or to put it another way there is no corruption possible in the workings of Kamma.

Do Buddhists believe that a Supreme Being created the universe? Buddhists would first ask which universe do you mean? This present universe, from the moment of the 'big bang' up to now, is but one among countless millions in Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha gave an estimate of the age of a single universe-cycle of around 37,000 million years, which is quite plausible when compared to modern astrophysics. After one universe- cycle ends another begins, again and again, according to impersonal law. A Creator God is redundant in this scheme.

No being is a Supreme Saviour, according to the Buddha, because whether God, human, animal or whatever, all are subject to the Law of Kamma. Even the Buddha had no power to save. He could only point out the Truth so that the wise could see it for themselves. Everyone must take responsibility for their own future well-being, and it is dangerous to give that responsibility to another.

7. The Illusion of Soul

The Buddha taught that there is no soul, no essential and permanent core to a living being. Instead, that which we call a 'living being', human or other, can be seen to be but a temporary coming together of many activities and parts - when complete it is called a 'living being', but after the parts separate and the activities cease it is not called a 'living being' anymore. Like an advanced computer assembled of many parts and activities, only when it is complete and performs coherent tasks is it called a 'computer', but after the parts are disconnected and the activities cease it is no longer called a 'computer'. No essential permanent core can be found which we can truly call 'the computer', just so, no essential permanent core can be found which we can call 'the soul'.

Yet Rebirth still occurs without a soul. Consider this simile: on a Buddhist shrine one candle, burnt low, is about to expire. A monk takes a new candle and lights it from the old. The old candle dies, the new candle burns bright. What went across from the old candle to the new? There was a causal link but no thing went across! In the same way, there was a causal link between your previous life and your present life, but no soul has gone across.

Indeed, the illusion of a soul is said by the Buddha to be the root cause of all human suffering. The illusion of 'soul' manifests as the 'Ego'. The natural unstoppable function of the Ego is to control. Big Egos want to control the world, average Egos try to control their immediate surroundings of home, family and workplace, and almost all Egos strive to control what they take to be their own body and mind. Such control manifests as desire and aversion, it results in a lack of both inner peace and outer harmony. It is this Ego that seeks to acquire possessions, manipulate others and exploit the environment. Its aim is its own happiness but it invariably produces suffering. It craves for satisfaction but it experiences discontent. Such deep- rooted suffering cannot come to an end until one sees, through deep and powerful meditation, that the idea 'me and mine' is no more than a mirage.

Are rebirth and karma for real?

Is rebirth for real - either as a human or in one of the other realms? This is the question most Westerners ask as soon as they become interested in Buddhism. Karma (Pali: Kamma) - the law of cause and effect - operates across multiple lifetimes, but where's the proof that there is any life other than the current one?

It's a complex subject and each tradition has its own explanation. It isn't uncommon for different teachers in the same tradition to have a different take on rebirth. One thing's for sure, there is no scientific proof of rebirth (yet). There are rational explanations, but they all rest on unprovable assumptions.

One way to approach the question of rebirth is suggested by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who says, "You don't have to believe in rebirth, you just have to take it as a working hypothesis." Other teachers, such as Ajahn Summedho, have a similar view, that since we can never know what will happen after death, it makes sense to practise Dharma (Pali: Dhamma) and live this life in the best way possible.

Some well-known monks, Ajahn Brahm and P.A. Payutto among them, say that when meditators reach the third or fourth jhana (level of absorbtion) they are able to "read their past lives" as the Buddha did and experience the truth of rebirth. But this ability is by no means universal, even among meditation masters.

Another explanation championed by Buddhadasa, Thailand's most revered monk, is that rebirth in a series of physical bodies is "conventional talk" to make the subject understandable for the masses, but in "Dharma talk" what the Buddha really meant was that each life was the arising of the ego in the mind. So we experience "death" and "rebirth" (of the ego) many times each day.

Similarly, the six realms of existence all correspond to states of mind. In the same way, the cause and effect of karma can be observed in our own mental states - when we do good deeds it results in a wholesome mental state, when we do bad deeds, we experience unwholesome mental states.

This rational explanation of rebirth and karma doesn't necessarily exclude the traditional view. It augments it. What works for me is to take both of them as working hypotheses and practise accordingly. Recalling the Buddha's story about the man shot with a poisoned arrow, if we need to have every detail of the teaching proved to us at the outset, we'll be dead before we start practising.

What is our purpose in life?

The traditional answer to this is that our purpose is to attain nirvana and stop the endless cycle of rebirths and suffering. But the idea of a general purpose for mankind suggests that someone or something created that purpose, which in turn suggests an omnipotent deity.

The way I think of it is that we have no pre-ordained purpose. We evolved, and here we are. Because we also evolved language and conceptual thinking, we got stuck with this concept of a self, an ego that makes us feel separate from everything else. The ego needs constant reassurance of its importance, which is why we cling to our views and defend them fanatically, and why we are constantly criticizing others. Our ego rules our lives. It is terrified of being snuffed out.

We handle this in different ways. Some of us have lots of kids so we can feel that a part of us lives on forever through our descendants. Some of us perform heroic deeds so that our names will live on in history forever. Some of us get onto Ripley's Believe It Or Not with the world's longest moustache or beating the world record for smashing melons with our head, or some such nonsense, so that we'll achieve digital immortality. Some of us cling to the idea that a god will give us eternal life in some form after death.

For those of us who don't find this pseudo-immortality or unguaranteed immortality satisfying, there's a need to create our own purpose in life. This is where Buddhism fits the bill nicely. Instead of being ruled by the ego and its fears, get rid of it! Being rid of the ego and the suffering it brings is what Ajahn Jagaro called "True Freedom" - a very appealing idea for all of us.

If we don't achieve true freedom in this life, we should get another chance in a future life. But simply diminishing the ego and increasing freedom in this life seems like a worthwhile purpose to me.

How to become a Buddhist

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism has no conversion ceremony, and it is not necessary to renounce any other beliefs. There is the ceremony of taking the Three Refuges (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), often performed along with a ceremony agreeing to keep the 5 precepts, but these are both optional. In fact, many Westerners prefer not to call themselves Buddhists at all.

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