Buddhism Term Essay, Research Paper
Religions have been an ever-growing, ever-changing part of peoples lives throughout the history of the world. One of the most dynamic of these religions is the practice of Buddhism. Today nearly 450 million people are influenced by its traditions worldwide. It is this massive influence that makes understanding Buddhism so crucial in today’s world. This paper aims to express its relatively simple history and also how it has evolved today as an influential religion not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Also included will be a comparison and contrast of Buddhism’s past and present, where a deeper insight will be given into the problem of how diluted by other influences Buddhism has become in its great expansion. The conclusion will consist of an insight as to why Buddhism is so difficult to practice in this day and age.
In the years between 800 BCE and 200 BCE some of the greatest people in the history of the world lived their lives. One of these people was a young prince named Siddhartha Guatama. The night before the birth of the prince his mother, “queen Mahamaya, had a dream in which an elephant carrying a lotus flower in its trunk entered her womb through the right side of her body. Brahmins, upon hearing of the dream predicted that the child would become either a great monarch or a Buddha.”# Later, at a name-giving ceremony, seven Brahmins predicted that if Siddhartha did not leave his home, he would some day become a great ruler. His father, King Suddhodana, was ecstatic to here this news and began to lavish upon his young monarch every wish that he desired. This spoiling was done in order to persuade his son that life within the kingdom would give him all he ever needed and to show that their was no need to venture outside of the city walls. Apparently growing tired of his wealth-ridden, hedonistic life style, Siddhartha one day commanded his chariot driver to take him outside the city walls where he would be exposed for the first time to the lower caste. In a series of visits outside of the walls, Siddhartha “saw four thought-provoking sights: an aged man, a man suffering in agony from a hideous disease, a corpse, and finally an old wandering monk who appeared content.”# These were later to become known as the Four Passing Sights. These spectacles sparked a revelation, in the now twenty-nine year old, which made him want to cast aside all he had and live the rest of his life as a monk. After leaving his town behind, he fell under the tutelage of several different teachers, each of whom taught him a different way to reach enlightenment. Growing tired of these men and their rigorous sacrifices, an emaciated Siddhartha came to the conclusion that their had to be another way. The method he devised was known as the middle path. It consisted of a life in which you tried not to experience either extreme pleasure of pain, instead you would revel in the happy medium. Upon discovering this, the soon to be Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and vowed that he would remain their meditating until he reached enlightenment. During his meditation, which lasted for forty-nine days, a god named Mara is believed to have come with his three daughters to try to distract Siddhartha from reaching his goal. Mara’s daughters were named for things in this world that cause suffering ; Discontent, Delight, and Desire. Refusing to let the god get the better of him, Siddhartha remained strong and eventually Mara gave up. In the early part of that night Siddhartha learned all about his former existences, in the second part he gained the ability to be able to see the death and rebirth of beings. Finally, toward the end of that night he realized what is known as the Four Noble truths. With his new enlightenment, the Buddha set forth on his quest to preach what he had become aware of. His first sermon was given in the Deer park to five ascetics. It is commonly known as the “Sermon on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth”. It was hear that the Buddha delivered the Four Noble Truths : “All life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; there can be an end to desire; the way is the Eightfold Path.”# These four teachings became the central idea to Buddhism. They are in a way like stepping stones on the road to enlightenment, you must step on each stone and when you reach the fourth, you realize that there are eight more stones to go. These eight steps are what anyone who seeks enlightenment should live their life by. “Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood constitute the training in Virtue or Morality.”# This means following the basic ten rules which forbid: “taking life; taking what is not given; sexual misconduct; lying; taking intoxicants; eating after noon; watching or participating in dancing, singing, and shows; adorning oneself with garlands, perfumes, and ointments; sleeping in a soft bed; handling money.”# “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.”# The final two of the eight, Right Understanding and Thought, are what puts an end to all of that persons suffering and causes them to have infinite compassion. The teachings listed above are what the Buddha saw as the right way to achieve enlightenment, and he continued to preach these words for forty-five more years. Tragically he fell ill after accidentally receiving some tainted pork in his begging-bowl and according to Western tradition died in the year 483 BCE. “As the Buddhist tradition spread across Asia,”# new members took refuge in the Three Jewels and the religion continued to flourish. During this time of growth small sects arose within the religion, but none of them were significant enough to cause major change in the religion, that is until the idea of Mahayana arose. It first arrived on the scene approximately a century after the death of the Buddha. It first emerged in a school named Mahasamghika, meaning the “Great Monastic Order.” They still accepted the Tipitaka as the central book of their religion, but they also adopted sutras which had been written in Sanskrit. These sutras shifted the focus of the story of the Buddha’s final life to his previous lives as a bodhisattva. This led people to believe that a bodhisattva was what a good Buddhist should strive to become. The new Mahayana belief “was a marriage of two virtues, Wisdom and Compassion. It combined the reflective virtues of the monastic life with the active virtues of a layperson.”# The idea was very appealing to the common man due to the fact that it meant that you no longer had to be a monk to become a bodhisattva. This belief along with a new acceptance of god-like bodhisattvas, who helped the layperson when they were in danger, shifted the religion from being transcendental, to more of a polytheistic and cosmological religion. Although this new found belief quickly became the more popular practice, the more traditional Theravada still remained. Buddhism continued to grow throughout the centuries, spreading its beliefs to China, Japan and even America. Its impact on these cultures has not only changed the religion, but has also helped to redefine the society we live in today.
Buddhism today, has spread its influence all throughout the world. “ In some places, as in Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, Buddhism is clearly the dominant tradition; in others, such as China Korea and Japan Buddhism has not necessarily dominated the culture but has had deep impact on the way people think through religious questions and deal with the religious crises in their lives.”# Those countries primarily found in Southeast Asia typically still practice the Theravada tradition. The Mahayana belief, on the other hand, has made Buddhism easier to export by not calling for such a binding devotion to a monastery or nunnery , therefore it is found throughout the world. Its ability to travel far was as much a blessing as it was a burden. Although it helped to spread the basic Buddhist teachings, it became extremely tainted when faced with other cultures. For instance, when Buddhism first reached China at the beginning of the common era it was still in the form of Mahayana. Throughout the centuries though, it evolved into other forms such as Ch’an and Pureland. Buddhism of any form in China came under heavy persecution beginning in about 845 CE and thanks to the communist rule of the twentieth century, it has never been able to regain its dominance. Korea is another country that has adopted Buddhism as a part of its mainstream culture. It first arrived by way of China around the 4th century CE. It flourished in the small country until the introduction of Confucianism took place. With the end of Japanese rule in 1945, a resurgence struck, and Korean Buddhism once again became prominent.
Tibet has probably been one of the most recognizable faces of Buddhism, especially in this century. It has been severely repressed by the China’s communist rule forcing Tibetan exiles to remain aloof while maintaining their religion. Today, their religion is known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism and his headed by the country‘s ruler the Dalai Lama. This unique religion is a cross between shamanistic practices and the Buddhist structure. “From shamanism came the desire of the adept of power to undergo initiation, demonstrate courage and vision, explore infinite new worlds of the psychic plane, and manifest accomplishments through preternatural talents. From Buddhism came a sophisticated philosophical framework by which to explain these things.”#
Today, America is also feeling the effects of Buddhism. It has begun to appear in several movies like “Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet, and Kundun.”# Bookstores now offer a countless numbers of literature on how to meditate or be at one with nature. Even celebrities such as Phil Jackson, Courtney Love, Adam Yauch, and Tina Turner admit they practice Buddhism regularly. In an extreme case Steven Segal claims he is “recognized by the head of the venerable Nyingma Tibetan lineage as the reincarnation of a 15th century lama.”# But will all this become a mainstream part of America? A Japanese monk once commented about Buddhism in America saying “ introducing Buddhism to America would be like holding a lotus to a rock and waiting for it to take root.”# Many people would concur that America does not have the type of society necessary to sustain a religion like Buddhism. The fact is though that Buddhism is becoming more and more popular. Some speculate that people are now seeking a sanctuary from the every day madness that is the American lifestyle, others see Buddhism as merely a fad made popular by an abundance of well-known celebrities. Esteemed actor, and notable Buddhist Richard Gere hypothesizes that “there has been not enough time to ferment and intoxicate the culture in America, but our approach, because were so new at it, has a certain eagerness and excitement that you sometimes don’t see in Tibetans. Westerners ask questions. They take notes.”# Whether Buddhism will catch on in America, only time will tell, but until it does a good number of people will continue to explore the realms of Zen and seek inner peace.
Buddhism has changed dramatically throughout its lifetime. From its humble beginning as the teachings of one man to its development as a multinational religion, Buddhism can be seen evolving into a religious solute that has mixed with the cultures of many countries. As Siddhartha Guatama began to preach his new found enlightenment in the early Axial Age, his exposure was very limited. The word of Buddhism really did not spread until nearly a century after his death when monks of the samgha began to carry the words of Buddha far beyond the borders of India. Although this spread was crucial to the existence of Buddhism today, it also has proven to be its Achilles heel. As the religion spread to different cultures, different interpretations began to arise that were drastically different from those that were traditionally recognized as true. These eventually caused minor schisms within the religion resulting in several variations of traditional Buddhism. These variations proved to be much more exportable than religion of old, thus inhibiting further diffusion. As these new traditions strayed further and further away from their religious base, they began to pick up pieces of new cultures. This in turn would create new forms of the religion, further watering down its already diluted history. As the twenty-first century roles around it is hard, if not impossible to find a pure form of Buddhism. The tradition that has resisted change the best and is considered the closest to original Buddhism is Theravada, but even it as it expands and travels to America and other countries will confront the same cultural influences that have changed its counterparts. Another impact that the diffusion of Buddhism has had on the culture, is the way it is practiced today, compared to how it used to be practiced in history. Today, those who can be classified as mainstream Buddhist, this of course is excluding the few monastics that exist today, will allow a set number of minutes for their practice, or practice whenever they have a fleeting moment. These people have succumb to the everyday rigors of modern society. In the past, monks and other followers would devote days on end to meditation and search of enlightenment. The concept that can be held liable for the difference in the way Buddhism is practiced today, compared to how it used to be practiced is the plague of all religions, secularization. This idea has removed Buddhism from the priority list of many of its followers, making it easier and easier for someone to say “Meditate? Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” No blame can be placed on any one person for the way people approach Buddhist practice today, and not to sound entirely pessimistic, there are still some very traditional Buddhist out there who make its worship their life. These people should be lauded for their dedication to a belief that is extremely hard to worship in this day and age, and for preserving Buddhism in its purist form.
In this day and age Buddhism and just about any other religion is becoming harder and harder to practice for many people. It is tragic to see a society give up on a faith or incorporate other aspects of a religion into it, to make it more convenient Religion is not about convenience, it is about sacrifice. For instance, in order to be a good Buddhist one must give up many aspects of life, and unfortunately today many people do not want to make such a sacrifice. People have grown content and lazy, no longer willing to work for something that might be better. As the old saying goes “ignorance is bliss”, and today’s society is reveling in it. Many people blame their lack of practice on a lack of time. This excuse is perfectly legit in today’s secular world, but one must consider the consequences of using this excuse. If religion can be cast aside as easily as saying the words “no time” , then what have hundreds of wars been fought for? What have people been devoting their life to? Were all these sacrifices made so someone two thousand years later can sit down and watch a football game instead of devoting a little time a faith? I for one sincerely hope not.