Buddhism in Asia: A Cultural and Historical Perspective

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The story of the life of Gautama Buddha

According to the legend the person now commonly known as the Buddha was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. His father, Suddhodana Gautama, was the ruler of the Shakya clan. Siddhartha’s birth was attended by many unusual events. Shortly prior to the birth, his mother, Queen Mahamaya, dreamed that a white elephant entered her womb, a sign that she was about to give birth to a Buddha. While resting on a trip, the child’s birth took place painlessly in a grove of blooming trees at Lumbini, at which point, as soon as he had exited the womb, he stood up and proclaimed his exaltation. When they arrived back at the palace, a great prophecy concerning this child was pronounced, first by an itinerant sage and then by the court astrologers. They predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great religious monk. Queen Mahamaya died when Siddhartha was only seven days old, and he was raised by her younger sister, Mahapajapati. King Suddhodana wanted Siddhartha to become a great king, so he took every precaution to ensure that his son would not be influenced in the direction of religion. He ensured that the boy would not see any examples of old age, disease, death or religious renunciation. Despite growing up in this very protected environment, Siddhartha showed early signs of spiritual proclivity, for instance, by being unbeatable in martial skills and by falling into a deep meditation that resulted in levitation. Eventually, Siddhartha married, and his wife, Yasodhara, gave birth to a boy, Rahula. Still, according to the story, he continued in isolation behind the palace walls. Siddhartha grew increasingly curious about the outside world and persuaded his father to allow him to take a chariot ride through the countryside. Suddhodana agreed to the outing but purged the area of any evidence of the four elements that could induce Siddhartha to consider religion. All old and sick people were hidden away, funeral processions were prohibited and all religious mendicants were removed. However, at this point, the gods got involved in the situation. The devas of Hindu mythology took an interest in Siddhartha’s becoming a religious leader. They assumed the forms of the four banished influences, and Siddhartha saw successively an old man on the verge of death, a man with a disfiguring disease, a funeral procession for a decomposing corpse, and a holy monk displaying the serenity of a life of renunciation. These four sights left Gautama extremely troubled. He began to see that the life of luxury he was leading would only end in death and decay. He found it difficult to look at young strong men or beautiful women without immediately picturing them as old, feeble, disabled, or even as decaying corpses. The life that he had led so far now nauseated him because he realized that everything was impermanent and that whatever and whomever he was treasuring now would end up as refuse including himself. For several months he indulged himself in these Dostoyevskian thoughts, struggling with the question of whether he should continue with this life of luxury, which had now become repugnant to him, or whether he ought to pursue the life of a monk. In the latter case, he hoped that he might come to a realization of how to find permanence in this world of constant change, where suffering was the inevitable outcome. Finally, he made the decision to leave. Yasodhara had already retired to bed. It was a night of a lot of company and entertainment at the palace, and all the guests were enjoying themselves, while Sakyamuni was feeling disgusted with it all. Now almost thirty years old, he abandoned his life of comfort and ease. Revolted by the futility of carnal pleasures, he silently bade his sleeping wife and infant son goodbye, mounted his horse, and, together with his servant, escaped from the palace walls. After traveling for a while, he sent his servant back with the horse. Then, in a symbolic gesture of renunciation, he cut off his beautiful long hair and embarked on the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment through a life of austerity. Needless to say, when Yasodhara, his wife, realized that her husband had left her, she was furious. King Suddhodana sent out messengers to find him, but their mission proved unsuccessful. After a while Yasodhara and Suddhodana got word about Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment and the spiritual exercises he was undertaking. Slowly Yasodhara came around to view his undertakings with approval, and eventually, whenever she heard about what her husband was doing, she quietly emulated his actions as much as she could within the confines of the palace. Shakyamuni soon became highly adept at the ascetic and meditative practices of a wandering monk. In essence, this life was the equivalent of the sannyasin in the Vedantic tradition and of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism (see chap. 11). Gautama would deprive himself of all human comforts, sometimes living on only one grain of rice a day or—according to some accounts—maybe even his own excrement. He would inflict any conceivable torture on himself. A group of five monks viewed his proficiency with such admiration and respect that they became his disciples. Still, Siddhartha did not find enlightenment. Finally, after seven years of self-mortification, Gautama decided to let his entire pursuit end in success or death. He accepted a meal of rice (according to some versions, the gleam of the golden bowl triggered his thoughts toward the truth) and sat under a fig tree to meditate until he either found enlightenment or died of starvation. The gods, knowing that Gautama was close to the critical moment, rejoiced. But Mara, the destructive god, started to tempt Gautama in various ways, trying to ruin his concentration. However, Gautama persisted, and by morning he had attained enlightenment. Now Mara tried to convince him that he had not achieved his goal, but Wasunthara, the earth goddess, testified to his enlightenment. Mara had sent a torrential downpour as a part of his distraction tactics. When Wasunthara got tired of Mara’s wiles, she squeezed out all of the water that had collected in her long hair, which caused a flood that washed away Mara and his minions. Siddhartha had now become a Buddha, literally an “awakened one.” This fig tree would forever be known as the “bodhi tree,” the “tree of enlightenment.” A question now presented itself: should the Buddha keep to himself what he had just learned or should he embark on a life of teaching? Once more Mara tried to distract him, but this time the god Brahma prevailed on the Buddha to start teaching others the way to enlightenment. Thus, the new Buddha arose, accepted food, and started to make disciples. His first converts were his five previous companions, whom he located in the deer park of nearby Benares. When they saw him coming, at first they despised him because they realized that he was now fed and clothed, and they thought that he had given up on his quest for enlightenment. But they also took notice of his newly found serenity and composure, and so they listened to Buddha’s sermon (his first public preaching) and immediately became his disciples. Gautama continued teaching for many decades. Sooner or later Shakyamuni could not avoid returning home. Ananda, one of his half-brothers, had become his attendant, and he played the role of intermediary between the Buddha and Yasodhara, his abandoned wife. The outcome of these negotiations was that Shakyamuni and Yasodhara met on good terms, and the Buddha ordained her as the first female member of his order. Thus, despite some local exceptions, on the whole, Buddhism has accommodated nuns as well as monks. Rahula and Suddhodana also converted and became the Buddha’s followers. According to some traditions, Ananda was too occupied with intellectual questions to come to enlightenment until after Shakyamuni’s death. However, it is said that he had an unsurpassed auditory memory and that he was responsible for recording the Buddha’s teachings verbatim. Gautama Buddha died after eating a spoiled piece of pork that someone had inadvertently presented to him as an offering. His place of departure from the world was the same grove of trees in which he was born. He reclined in sublime serenity before a crowd of disciples who watched him give one last visual sermon, the topic being “how to die.” His physical body remained on earth, but his true spiritual body, the “dharma body” entered nirvana.

The main teachings of the Buddha

What Shakyamuni discovered under the bodhi tree was that the secret to enlightenment lay neither in a life of luxury nor in self-deprivation, but in a middle way that steers clear of all extremes. The problem with existence, he decided, lay in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of all attachments. The problem with life, according to Gautama, is twofold: First, the world that we experience is utterly impermanent. Everything is constantly changing from instant to instant. In fact, what we know of the world is only our consciousness of it, and thus it is our consciousness that is forever changing. One moment of consciousness causes the next, and nothing is firm or steady. This is the doctrine of “dependent origination,” the ultimate case of “bootstrapping.” There is neither a beginning to the world nor the absence of a beginning; it just is what it is, with each event being caused by another prior event and causing a subsequent event. Consequently, to try to cling to anything is to invite disaster. Any foothold is only an illusion; it changes on us and leaves us hanging on to nothing. The second part of the problem is that there is no one who could hold on to anything, even if there were something permanent. Salvation consists of release from the cycle of reincarnation by realizing that there is no cycle of reincarnation. Buddha taught that there is only anatman, the nonself. The thing that we call a “self” is merely a bundle of perceptions with nothing to tie the bundle together and no one beyond the bundle who perceives the perceptions.

The four noble truths: First, to live is to suffer (dukha). Second, suffering is caused by attachment (tanha in Pali, trisha in Sanskrit). Third, an individual can eliminate suffering by eliminating attachment. Fourth, this attachment is eliminated by means of the noble eightfold path.

The eightfold path: According to the Buddha, the goal of ridding oneself of attachment can be attained only through a rigorous life of concentrated effort. This undertaking is summarized as the “noble eightfold path,” which consists of (1) the right view—understanding the truths of existence, (2) the right intention—being willing to achieve enlightenment, (3) the right speech—saying all that is, and only what is, required, (4) the right action—doing all that is, and only what is, required, (5) the right livelihood—being a monk, (6) the right effort directing one’s energy properly, (7) the right mindfulness—meditating properly, and (8) the right concentration—maintaining continuous focus.

The ten precepts: 1) not to take any life (the principle of ahimsa), 2) not to steal, 3) not to commit sexual immorality, 4) not to lie, 5) not to take intoxicating drinks, 6) not to eat in excess or afternoon, 7) not to attend any entertainments, such as dancing, singing or drama, 8) not to decorate oneself or use cosmetics, 9) not to sleep in high or wide beds, 10) not to touch any gold or silver.

The main characteristics of Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is a religion of and for monks. The monks, bikhus, are the only ones who can attain nirvana; they are the focal point of religious practice. The laity’s primary job is to support the monks. Monks have to follow the ten precepts. A bikhu spends most of his day in meditation. Enlightenment is through meditation. Lay people must keep the first five precepts. In Theravada, a Buddha is considered to be a human being, but a very special one because he must have been perfect in all of his incarnations once he decided to seek Buddhahood. The goal for laypeople in Theravada Buddhism is to lead a good life in order to store up sufficient merit for a better incarnation.

The important ways in which Theravada and Mahayana are distinct from each other and state the main distinctive of Mahayana

In Theravada Buddhism, the self was considered to be nonexistent and the rest of the world was momentary and impermanent. Mahayana's philosophy extended this worldview to its logical conclusion: the world really does not exist either. Ultimately nothing exists; it is all sunyata, the Void. Mahayana also made another innovation. At the same time as the notion of universal sunyata took hold, it also developed the parallel connotation that sunyata is warm, benevolent, and compassionate. The second innovation of Mahayana is the multiplication of divine beings.

There are six schools in Mahayana. They have their own distinctive and so they can be called as the distinctive of Mahayana. They are

  1. Tendai (rational) – Universality,
  2. Pure Land Jodo (compassion) – Amida, Nembutsu, Western Paradise,
  3. Zen (intuitive) – Satori, nondual, 'third eye,' koan, mondo,
  4. Nichiren Shoshu, Soka Gakkai (chanting) – Daimoku, Gohonzen, Namu-myohorengekyo,
  5. Tibetan, Vajrayana (Lamaist) – Dalai Lama, om mani padme hum, meditation, prayer wheel,
  6. Shingon Chen-yen (magical) – Vairocana, Ryobu fusion with Shinto.

The contribution of the Tendai school

The three major components of Tiandai teaching include the superiority of the Lotus Sutra, the unity of reality and universal salvation. It is no exaggeration to say that for Tendai Buddhism the Lotus Sutra is the inspired scripture. Since this sutra attempts to pull all of Buddhism together under one umbrella, it works as a foundation for showing that all other Buddhist ways were ultimately inferior paths to Buddha hood. Chih-i taught that all reality is equally a part of Buddha’s nature. He claimed, in contrast to the Theravada doctrine that only the self is nonexistent, that all of reality is both empty (and thereby nonexistent) and caused (and thereby existing in time); thus it is sunyata and Maya (in the sense of a “real illusion”) at the same time. Since all beings are intrinsically a part of the same Buddha nature, eventually all beings will attain Buddhahood. The Tendai School emphasized the practice of meditation for achieving insight into true reality. Compared to the many other developments in Mahayana, Tendai represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Buddhism.

The claims of Jodo Shinshu and why it appeals to so many people

Jodo Shinshu has received the greatest amount of attention because of its emphasis on the grace of Amida, but this is a late and unique development. Jodo Shinshu which is a Pure Land Buddhism focuses on Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who governs the western quadrant of the universe. Let me emphasize that the area called “the west” here is not “the West” in the sense of European-derived cultures, but the entire Western area of the cosmos. Buddha Amitabha’s powers and wisdom greatly exceeded those of, say, Shakyamuni or any other Manushi Buddha. Thus, he had acquired sufficient mental resources to create his Pure Land, also called the “Western Paradise.”

Appeal: Other Pure Lands are only perfect in some areas, whereas the one that Amitabha made is perfect in all areas of potential perfection. What makes the Pure Land so desirable is that, given the surroundings, it makes it easier for people to find their way to nirvana.

The essence of Zen, its teachings and techniques

Zen holds that the ultimate transmission of Buddhist truths can only occur apart from words and writings. All schools of Zen believe that the most important preparation for enlightenment is to clear one’s mind of all the conceptual clutter that impedes true insight. What stands in the way of enlightenment, according to Zen, is our habit of “dualistic thinking.” Zen wants to take people beyond the habit of dualistic thinking and get them to accept what is, plain and simple. Zen maintains naive people continue to occupy themselves with words and rational categories instead of accepting reality for what it is. Satori is the moment when a person comes to terms with simply taking reality as reality.

Thus Zen recognizes five levels of understanding:

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  1. Common people, who take it as common sense that particular things are a genuine reality and who thereby use a naive, dualistic form of thinking.
  2. Theravada Buddhists, for whom particular things become nothing more than moments of consciousness succeeding each other in a never-ending chain.
  3. The Yogacara schools of Buddhism, who contend that whatever reality there may be is merely a projection of people’s minds.
  4. The bulk of the Mahayana schools, for which everything is ultimately sunyata, which is emptiness or nothingness.
  5. Zen, in which a person is freed from all of the aforementioned complications and simply, without any further analysis, takes reality just as it presents itself. Zen talks about developing a “third eye” to see reality in this way, but this expression is one of the paradoxes of Zen because such a “third eye” would not actually provide a special lens to see reality with a new tool, but it would be the removal of all lenses and the vision of reality without any distortion.

Techniques: There is zazen meditation. Used particularly in the Soto school of gradual awareness, zazen meditation constitutes a highly demanding process of physical and mental discipline.

The second method is mondos, stories involving conversations of great Zen masters of the past or accounts of how they received enlightenment.

The third method, the koan, is a Zen riddle. Koans seem to be conundrums—riddles without genuine answers.

The fourth method Zen uses is cultural activities. Various Zen forms of art and culture, particularly as they have become at home in Japan, are used as an aid in attaining satori and to express an enlightened view of reality.

The contribution of Nichiren Shoshu and the teachings and practice associated with its contemporary version, Soka Gakkai

Nichiren formed his own school, which would return to Shakyamuni’s own teachings, as recorded in the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren Shoshu holds that Buddhahood is available to all human beings, regardless of their previous incarnations or their present state, just as long as they follow the Lotus Sutra. Some of the previous schools of Buddhism described the universe as consisting of ten levels. Nichiren Daishonin interpreted them as ten states of life or ten states of consciousness. The key to happiness lies in traversing them from the lowest to the highest. A person’s state at death determines his or her karma and thereby the next incarnation. Those who attain Buddhahood are finished with any further incarnations, but that does not mean that they abscond to nirvana. They remain accessible in order to facilitate everyone else’s road to Buddhahood. A Buddha, in contrast to the Theravada arhats, is filled with benevolence toward all other beings and would not think of leaving the world until all beings have found enlightenment.

The ten states are hell, anger, animality, hunger, tranquillity, rapture, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and Buddha. This progression begins with the worst forms of human experience and then moves from the physical through the mental, culminating in the pure consciousness of enlightenment. Nichiren Shoshu claims that any human being can attain Buddhahood after only a few years of effort. The key to spiritual advancement in Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai is chanting.

Soka Gakkai has a strict policy against photographing or reproducing the Gohonzon in any way other than in an authorized manner. The original Gohonzons, drawn by Nichiren himself, are kept in Japan under the guardianship of the priesthood. Each temple has a copy, which is a wood print on rice paper that is stored in a cabinet (the butsudan—“Buddhist altar”) in its main sanctuary, called the “Hall of Eternal Happiness.” Early each evening, the butsudan is opened for a two-hour period of chanting by all adherents present. The individual practitioner puts in another hour or so of chanting each morning. When people become full members, they receive their own copies of a Gohonzon, which has been copied with a traditional technique of printing under the supervision of the NST priests. Members store their Gohonzons in a butsudan at home and do their own chanting there as well. Soka Gakkai has a strict requirement that a home that houses a Gohonzon may not contain any objects or symbols related to any other religion. The Daimoku in Japanese is namu myohorengekyo, “I bow down to [worship] the beautiful teaching of the Lotus Sutra.” The chanters assume a straight-backed kneeling position facing the Gohonzon and rapidly repeat this mantra. The words are often said so fast that an observer would have a hard time discerning individual syllables. The practitioners keep track of their progress by means of a small set of beads. Soka Gakkai adherents also regularly read chapters of the Lotus Sutra in unison. The practice of chanting is intended to propel the believer to the level of Buddhahood.

The fundamental teaching is the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. To acknowledge the Lotus Sutra and to live by its central teaching is to be on the path to Buddhahood; to disparage the central teaching of the Lotus Sutra is to commit ultimate evil. The sutra never actually states the central way of salvation. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the notion of upaya, variously translated as “skilful means,” “expedient means” or “skillfulness.”

The distinctive of Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism, including its constituent parts, nature and aids of meditations, and the role of the Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhism exists on two levels. Scholars point to its sublime philosophy and meditative practice, some of which have been likened to modern Western psychoanalysis. Like Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism focuses on monks. The role of the laypeople is to support the monks. Though theoretically, the laity can attain enlightenment (since this is, after all Mahayana), the lamas have the greatest chances. The word lama itself means “a superior person.” This difference between the religion of the elite and the common people is stark, yet the two coexist peacefully in one multilayered culture. Tibetan Buddhism is the product of three convergent streams of religious influences: Bön, Tantrism, and Mahayana Buddhism. Bön is the pre-Buddhist animistic religion of Tibet. Tantrism is an Indian philosophy of male-female complementarity.

Gautama Buddha (Shakyamuni) and the other Manushi Buddhas play a relatively minor role in Tibetan Buddhism. Primary attention is focused on the Dhyani Buddhas or transcendental Buddhas. All of these spiritual beings have female counterparts, many of them called Tara. There are twenty-one Taras in Tibetan Buddhism, and we may consider them to be either twenty-one distinct personas or twenty-one manifestations of the one Tara.

Tibetan meditation has two aspects. The first is based on the conviction arising out of Tantrism that it is impossible for human beings to escape from their physical passions, and as long we are subject to them, they will interfere with our spiritual purification. The second aspect of meditation in the Tibetan tradition is a gradual merging with a deity. The practitioner attains enlightenment when he or she recognizes that all realities—including his or her own life, the deities and the evil spirits are mere projections of the self and thus are subject to the person’s own control.

The most famous Tibetan order, the Yellow Hats (Gelugpa), is headed by the Dalai Lama. This order believes in purity of practice and celibacy for lamas.

The Origin and subsequent fate of the Shingon School

Tibetan Buddhism spread eastward and made itself, particularly at home in Mongolia, thanks to the conversion of Kublai Khan to this form of Buddhism. Removed from its Tibetan soil, it lost some of the most flamboyant aspects of lamaism. Under the influence of some of the same factors that eventually gave rise to Tendai, it was streamlined by the addition of more conventional forms of Buddhism. The person who systematized this philosophy in China was Mizu. He in turn inspired the Japanese Kobo Daishi (Kukai), who is credited with being the founder of the Shingon school. The Japanese word Shingon is the equivalent of the Sanskrit mantra. Thus, Shingon is the “school of the powerful word.” In the Chinese context, it is known as Chenyen.

Shingon has had many followers who were attracted by the mysteriousness of the rituals. In Japan, Shingon combined with the indigenous Shinto.

The importance of ordination as a rite of passage in Theravada and name three important Buddhist holidays

The Buddhist stamp impresses itself on ordination as a rite of passage. At some point in his young life, preferably during the summer, each boy is expected to become a monk. The ceremony reenacts the story of Prince Siddhartha, with the boy initially dressing in a white robe and then reenacting the renunciation of Gautama by having his head shaved and donning a yellow robe. In the Thai version of this rite (which is similar throughout Theravada) before the ordination, the boy undergoes the ceremony of sukhwan, in which he is tied with a string to a pyramid of offerings that harnesses the life forces as a channel to the energy of Buddha. The life force (khwan) appears to be a variation on the mana, but again even if it is an impersonal force; it is derived from personal beings, such as the Buddha. At the ordination, which is valid if five bikhus are present, the parents—and possibly a girlfriend send him off to the temporary life of a monk with the requisite equipment: two yellow robes, an umbrella (against the sun burning his shaved head), a begging bowl for food, sandals, a lamp, a razor, a spitting bowl and a pillow (from the girl). Young men may commit themselves to a permanent monkhood in the same ceremony, but subsequent higher stages of ordination await them.

Buddhist holidays:

  1. New Year in the month of April.
  2. Buddha’s birthday – In Southeast Asia this day is observed during the last full moon of May; in Japan and China, on April 8. Most Buddhist cultures observe a day of the dead.
  3. The rain retreat is an important time for Theravada monks during the monsoon season.
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