Buddhism encompasses a series of beliefs based on the teachings of Buddha, who was born in the sixth century BC. Buddha taught that humans are in a state of suffering produced by their attachment to temporal things. Only by releasing our desires can we avoid suffering and, in doing so, reach a more enlightened state. Reaching nirvana—the ultimate state of enlightenment—is the highest goal.
Buddhism originated in India but spread to Southeast Asia and China, eventually permeating most of East Asia. In many parts of East Asia, local animistic beliefs mix with Buddhism to create Folk Buddhism.
Buddhism was founded in the sixth century BC by Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One). He was born in former Northeast India (now Nepal) around 560 BC. At this time Hinduism had been in India for 1,000 years, introduced by Aryan tribes whose cultures had influenced the whole subcontinent.
The son of a rajah, Gautama had a wealthy upbringing. According to tradition, his father was given a prophecy: Gautama would either be a great ruler or a homeless wanderer. In order to prevent the second from happening, his father sheltered him from all influences outside the palace. He was educated and privileged, but he left the palace one day and saw four kinds of suffering. He became dissatisfied and left his home to discover the source of suffering and how to eliminate it.
He first tried to search for knowledge through traditional Hindu methods such as yoga. Then he travelled to northern India and for six years lived an extremely ascetic life. Realizing that asceticism did not bring freedom from suffering, he turned to meditation. At a city called Bodh Gaya, he sat under a fig tree resolving not to leave until he had attained enlightenment (the highest knowledge). After some time he reached enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Enlightenment had three stages: first, he saw his previous lives pass before him; second, he saw the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the law which governs the cycle (reincarnation); third, the four holy truths were revealed to him: knowledge of suffering, the source of suffering, the removal of suffering, and the way to the removal of suffering.
Despite doubts that people were ready for new teaching, Buddha began to preach and gather followers. He called his path to enlightenment the Middle Way, because it avoided the extremes of affluence and asceticism.
Buddhism grew out of the Hindu world, hence Buddhism inherited some Hindu ideas (for example reincarnation and karma) and rejected others. Many teachings and ideas were later absorbed that were not part of Buddha’s original teaching. Some are based on Hindu traditions. Buddhism spread into many parts of East, Southeast, and Central Asia, to be superseded by Islam in some areas.
The Four Noble Truths
- Suffering is the basic human condition; the mental, emotional, and physical suffering we endure is a result of past karma.
- The cause of our suffering is our desire for transient things. We value people and material things too highly, but ultimately cannot depend upon them.
- Suffering can be eliminated if we stop desiring the temporary.
- The way to eliminate our desire is to follow the eight-fold path.
The Eight-Fold Path
- Right knowledge/understanding.
- Right attitude/thought.
- Right speech.
- Right action.
- Right way of living.
- Right effort.
- Right awareness.
- Right composure/meditation.
Keeping to the eight-fold path is difficult. It requires commitment and determination.
Nirvana: The Goal
Nirvana is not a Buddhist “heaven,” nor self-annihilation. It is the end of suffering. The word “nirvana” is derived from a verb meaning “to waft away.” Buddha described nirvana as unlike the earth or anything of the earth, nor like consciousness, nothingness, the sun, or the moon. It is sometimes called a transformed consciousness, but is not like the Christian idea of the soul, as Buddha did not believe that the inner person existed. Nirvana can be partially experienced before death, through meditation.
Personality and the Soul
In Western thought, personality is a consistent unit determining the behaviour and choices of a human being. Buddhism views the human as part of the universe, an arrangement of ever-changing elements. The soul, self, or individual does not exist as such.
As the universe constantly changes and decays, humans also change, decay, and reform.
Karma is the moral law of cause and effect. We reap what we sow, in the present life and afterwards. We are bound by the consequences of karma.
- Buddhists generally believe that there are many paths to Nirvana.
- Buddhism denies that we have a soul or personality, so a personal understanding of God is an alien idea.
- Buddhists in East Asia will largely follow a mixture of one or more dominant Buddhist traditions, animism, and ancestor worship.
- Jesus is understood to be a spiritual master similar to Buddha.
- Most Buddhists have either not heard the gospel or have not understood it.
“Teaching of the Ancients”
A division within Buddhism occurred at the beginning of the third century BC, primarily over the issue of enlightenment. Followers split into two traditions: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravadins believe that enlightenment is accessible to only a few true believers. The individual moves toward it alone, with no help from rituals or even statues of Buddha, since Buddha and others who have died are believed to have entered nirvana. Theravada is the tradition which most closely follows Buddha’s teaching.
“The Greater Vehicle”
Mahayana is the “greater vehicle” because there is room within it for all; salvation or enlightenment is for all people. Followers of Mahayana refer to the earliest Buddhist writings used by Theravadins, but also use many other writings.
“The Diamond Vehicle”
Vajrayana is similar to Mahayana, but also includes mystical and occultic elements from Tantrism, an ancient Indian tradition. The name derives from vajra, meaning something bright, transparent, and indestructible, like a diamond, and referring to the purity of tantric spiritual power. Vajrayana uses mantra (chant), mudra (physical gesture), and mandala (meditation circle). It began in India in the first century AD, then spread to Nepal, Tibet, China, and Japan.
Lamaism is the form of Buddhism widely followed in Tibet. Lama was originally a word applied to a high spiritual leader but later came to mean a monk. Lamaistic Buddhism developed at the end of the seventh century AD, as a blend of Vajrayana and the ancient Tibetan Bon religion. The Dalai Lama (“lama great as the ocean”) is the figurehead, while the Panchen Lama (“jewel of the scholars”) is the spiritual leader.
Zen Buddhism is popular and influential in Japan. Originally based on Mahayana, it was known as Ch’an and was introduced to China in the sixth century AD, from where it spread into Japan in the 12th century. Little importance is placed on concern with teaching, and greater importance on meditation, through which one is believed to reach enlightenment. Zen has left its mark on Japanese society, culture, and customs.
This is the dominant form of Buddhism in many parts of East Asia, particularly rural areas. Elements of Buddhism are mixed with local religions, usually animistic. This produces a spirit-based worldview and lifestyle based on rituals and superstition. In some areas there are beliefs in other deity figures such as Buddha’s mother, with temples dedicated to them. Folk Buddhists are often not aware of the difference between their beliefs and the dominant Buddhist traditions.
- Ask God to strengthen Christian witness in countries with limited religious freedom.
- Pray for strength, perseverance, and growth for Christians in Buddhist regions.
- Lift up Tibetan Christians outside Tibet, unable to return and share the gospel because of political instability.
- Intercede for Buddhists who may be questioning their beliefs or feeling disillusioned. Stories are told of dreams, visions, and prophecies which have occurred in isolated or “closed” areas, preparing people for Christian witness.
- Ask God to reveal the lordship of Jesus Christ to Buddhists who only see Him as a spiritual master.