Saturday, April 02, 2011
Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 26 centuries ago in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. He came to be called "the Buddha," which means "awakened one," after he experienced a profound realization of the nature of life, death and existence. In English, the Buddha was said to be enlightened, although in Sanskrit it is bodhi, "awakened."
In the remaining years of his life, the Buddha traveled and taught. However, he didn't teach people what he had realized when he became enlightened. Instead, he taught people how to realize enlightenment for themselves. He taught that awakening comes through one's own direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas.
In the centuries following the Buddha's life, Buddhism spread throughout Asia to become one of the dominant religions of the continent. Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world today vary widely, in part because many Asians observe more than one religion, and in part because it is hard to know how many people are practicing Buddhism in Communist nations like China. The most common estimate is 350 million, which makes Buddhism the fourth largest of the world's religions.
ginners to Buddhism are handed lists of doctrines -- the Four Noble Truths, the Five Skandhas, the Eightfold Path. One is told to understand the teachings and practice them. However, “believing in” doctrines about Buddhism are not the point of Buddhism.
What the historical Buddha taught was a method for understanding oneself and the world in a different way. The many lists of doctrines are not meant to be accepted on blind faith. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, says "Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."
The absolute truth of which Thich Nhat Hanh speaks cannot be contained in words and concepts. Thus, merely believing in words and concepts is not the Buddhist path. There is no point in believing in reincarnation/rebirth, for example. Rather, one practices Buddhism in order to realize a self not subject to birth and death.
Many Boats, One River
To say that doctrines and teachings shouldn't be accepted on blind faith doesn't mean they aren't important. The myriad teachings of Buddhism are like maps to follow on a spiritual journey, or a boat to carry you across a river. Daily meditation or chanting may seem pointless, but when practiced with sincerity they have a real impact on your life and outlook.
And to say that Buddhism is not about believing things doesn't mean there are no Buddhist beliefs. Over the centuries Buddhism has developed diverse schools with distinctive, and sometimes contradictory, doctrines. Often you might read that "Buddhists believe" such and such a thing, when in fact that doctrine belongs only to one school and not to all of Buddhism.
To compound confusion further, throughout Asia one can find a kind of folk Buddhism in which the Buddha and other iconic characters from Buddhist literature are believed to be divine beings who can hear prayers and grant wishes. Clearly, there are Buddhists with beliefs. Focusing on those beliefs will teach you little about Buddhism, however.
And remember the Zen saying -- The hand pointing to the moon is not the moon.
Enrique Sanz Bascuñana
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