Introduction: Siddhartha Gautama
Buddhism is a religion or a way of life to about 300 million people all over the world. Buddhism was founded 2500 years in India when Siddhartha Gautama also known as Budha was enlightened. Buddhism is sometimes difficult to put into the box of religion or philosophy, because it lacks a central deity. The Buddha was not the creator of the universe; instead he achieved the highest personal actualization that a person can and was therefore “Enlightened.” That, rather than a creation story, is the central tenet of Buddhism. Buddhism then as a philosophy is not necessarily a religion, but in practice it services the needs of religion. Buddhism stands out as a uniquely constructed set of religious components worth the contemplation of believers and none believers. By looking at the religious origins and then trying to understand the deep meaning expressed within its interior, a person can become enriched spiritually and intellectually regardless of his belief or belonging to the religion. In this essay, we explore the facets of Buddhism while making a case why it is difficult to categorize the religion as either way of life or religion.
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around (563 B.C.E 483 B.C.E). He was born at a region that is at the boundary between Nepal and India. Unlike many western religions, Buddhism puts less importance on the lives of significant persons of the religions past and much more on the truths that its legendary figures supposedly imparted. Tradition holds that Siddhartha Guatama, born in 563 B.C. into the Hindu warrior caste, as the founder of Buddhism. As the legend tells, at his birth he took seven steps out of his mother’s side and then declared, “I shall never be born again.” This proclamation meant that he was to escape Samsara, the realm of rebirths, which the Hindu religion of the time held.
During his early life as a prince, Siddhartha’s father wanted his son to be protected from the pains and sorrows of the world. This undertaking succeeded until Siddhartha reached the age of twenty-eight. At this time he left the confines of his palace and witnessed the now famous four passing sights: age, disease, death, and a life a religious aestheticism. After a life of painless luxury, the four passing sights had a profound impact on Siddhartha. It caused him to leave everything of his previous life and live a life of meditation and aestheticism. The sights went on to become the means that led to the end of Buddhism philosophy. Before a solution can be reached a problem must be defined. The first three passing sights causes Siddhartha much inner strife, it was more dramatic for him than for others who had lived in a world where pain and suffering were a fact of life. For him, such things were new and shocking.
While the first three passing sights clearly presented a problem that deeply troubled Siddhartha, the third passing sight presented him with a solution to these problems. Seeing this religious aesthetic causes the young prince, privileged in all luxuries he could possible desire, to leave it all in search of a greater meaning, in search of a reason that suffering existed in the world and then after discovering that the search for the nepenthe that could bring an end to it. After leaving his palace, he joined a group of five religious mendicants and began to fast and meditate constantly in order to find out the truths of life. The Vedas, Buddhist scriptures, recounts his transition from royal life into that of an aesthetic: “The Bodhisatta (Siddhartha) went in search of a better system and came to a settlement of five bhikkhus in the jungle of Uruvela; when he saw them keeping their senses in check, subduing their passions, and practicing austere self-discipline, he admired their earnestness and joined there company.”
After spending six years with this group patiently torturing his body and suppressing his natural wants, he nearly starved to death during a fasting session in which he consumed only a single grain of rice each day for nourishment. The others in his religious company nourishing make to health saved his life. Following this incident, Siddhartha realized that he had fasted to the point of death but still did night find truth in that. He also knew from his past that a life of pleasures and following the hearts internal desires did not lead to a life of truth or happiness. It was after meditating on these things that a revelation came to him. He found that the path to enlightenment lay not in extreme fasting and self-mortification or in the pleasures of worldly comforts, but in the middle of all extremes. Once this was realized he became confident that while walking this middle road the truth lay close within his reached. He then devoted his whole being to the search for enlightenment.
Not long after this he reached enlightenment while meditating under a bohdi tree. Enlightenment for Siddhartha took the form of “The Three Watches.” The first watched enabled him to perceive all of his previous lifetimes. The second allowed him to perceive all people past lives, deaths, and rebirths. The first two watches led him to a third watch that removed the fog or ignorance and brought about a discovery of pure and unrefined truth. In the third watch he discovered the path of enlightenment; the four noble truths. After his enlightenment Siddhartha ceased to be his former self and became The Buddha, or the awakened one. Although at this point he could have broken free from endless cycle of rebirth with the realm of Samsara, he chose to remain on earth in order to teach the truths he came to understand to the world.
Teachings of Buddhism
The teachings of the Buddha, or his Dharma, all systematically lead into one another. This does not make certain elements more important than others. The question of which belief is most important or fundamental to the religion is not the sort of question that the religion or the religious within it could answer. Buddhism is not about the beliefs it holds to be true, but that state of being that makes these truths apparent. Instead of offering specific beliefs that explain reality, it focuses on offering the path towards reaching a state of enlightenment whereby the truth of life becomes evident. Rather than present a system of beliefs it becomes more useful to offer the steps that lead one to enlightenment. The first step towards enlightenment lies in a clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths. These truths relate self-evident concepts that coincide with human existence. The first truth is to live is to suffer. He looked around and realized that within earthly life suffering was an inevitable reality that is impossible to escape. During the first two watches he was able to see a one certain thing in all of his previous lifetimes and in all lifetimes; suffering. The watches also led him to clearly seeing the cause of every being suffering; human desire. The second noble truth exerts that the cause of human suffering stems from human desire. The third offers a pathway leading outside human suffering. It puts forth that the way to end suffering is to extinguish the flame of desire. If suffering is the cause of desire, then it logically follows that in order to end all suffering one would first have to end all desire. This led him to the fourth noble truth; the ending of all desire is achieved by following the eightfold path and middle road.
After one has separated himself from the desires of the world, he must gain an understanding of the three marks accompanying his existence. The first mark of existence one must gain is the realization that the self, or Anatta, does not exist; there is no self. Though a notion such as this seems paradoxical, a closer examination elucidates it. In the Vedas or Scriptures of Buddhism, the teacher Alara comments on the matter saying, “What is that self which perceives the actions of the fives roots of mind (senses)your soul is not your body; it is not your eye, not your ear, not your nose, not your tongue, nor is it your mind.”
The Concept of Wrong
Wrong; it is a wrong start and it will lead you in a false direction.” (Carus 28)
Although all of the previous concepts are classically referred to as the “teachings of The Buddha,” it would be more correct to refer to them as the “realizations of the Buddha.” They are not teachings to be imitated, but guidelines given so that a person can individually grasp the realities that The Buddha discovered. This is one of the primary reasons that as a religion Buddhism is so open to the opinions of other religions. Most other religions focus on the means to their salvation concepts while Buddhism focuses on the end of salvation and offers means that are helpful in its attainment. Nowhere does it exert that the methods or means it teaches are the only way to reach its end. Siddhartha Guatama was not thought to be the only or even the first Buddha. He was merely one he discovered a way to salvation (Nirvana) and remained on earth to share his discovery with others.
All religion exists as a means to some sort of ends often referred to as a salvation concept. In Buddhism the salvation is a deliverance from the world of existence and involves an entrance into the world of none existence. For Buddhism it would be more correct to refer to the end that the religion is a means to as their release concept. The release concept for a Buddhist is Nirvana. The Buddha defined it as: “Nirvana comes to you when you understand thoroughly and when you live according to your understanding, that all things are of one essence and that there is but one law.” In one sense Nirvana can be thought of as a realm of the unchangeable, it has been documented that there is no self because of constant change; Nirvana merely becomes a constancy of non-existence rather than an existing continuation. As nothing cannot be changed into something, Nirvana in one sense can be thought of as nothingness.
Buddhism contains nothing too complex or out of the grasp of comprehension. Problems in beliefs are more likely to arise from understanding them in their literal phraseology than in a lack of understanding in the expression of their meaning. Buddhism in its simplest definition is a road leading to enlightenment of the soul. It does not claim to be the only road but one of many leading to the destination of universal understanding.
When comparing Plato’s three parts of the soul and Buddhism’s three marks of existence, it is the third aspects of both that can be compared with the most striking similarity. In Buddhism, the third mark is responsible for suffering; which is the ultimate goal of a Buddhist to extinguish. It desires to attach itself to things of the world and restricts the soul from gaining enlightenment. In Buddhism it is through understanding and following the four noble truths that the third mark of existence is tamed. Just as Plato’s three parts of the soul must act in accordance to their tasks to reach harmony, the three parts of the Buddhist soul must submit to the greater authority of the universe and become a component of the universe’s harmony.
Offering a comparison with the Western Though
Western ideals place emphasis on an individual creating his own reality, whereas, Eastern philosophy tends more towards and individual as a essential part of a larger whole. In both Plato and Buddhism an individual needs help from the outside to reach the ultimate goals. Of course the Gold’s have the perspicacity to be able to realize the truth of the universe on their own according be searching themselves and using their reason and wisdom, but contemplation and discovery of reality is not the function of Gold’s and happiness is achieved through fulfilling ones function. Since the Gold’s function is to rule for the common good, they still rely on Silvers and Bronzes to be able to fulfill their task and reach a harmony.
It was Siddhartha Gautama’s three watches that led to his enlightenment entailed an understanding of all previous lifetimes of all individuals. Through the understanding he gained through the life of others his own life achieved enlightenment. In Plato all one class cannot fulfill its role without the other two classes doing likewise. The social philosophy of Plato and the central philosophy of Buddhism both require one finding and fulfilling his role amongst respectively the rest of society or the rest of the universe.
Buddhism, like all of the other major religions, has different sects that take these underlying philosophical principles and construct what can be certainly termed a religion, such as “Tibetan Buddhism,” which in addition to being a sovereign people all followed a sect of Buddhism with a definitive human figure head and a dogmatic means of selecting his successor. So, the answer to the question of whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is that it is both. This is unique in a sense, since you would not ask that question of the major Western religions which are generally distinguished from philosophy.
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