Japan: Early Buddhism


Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

Buddhism began as a reform of Hinduism conceptualized by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha ("enlightened one") or Sakyamuni Buddha (Buddha of the Sakya clan) to his followers. He was born near the border of present-day India and Nepal, lived sometime during the 625-480 b.c. period (his followers disagree on the dates), and is said to have received enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. The wisdom he plucked from India's tree of knowledge he summarized as the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering; suffering is caused by our attachments to the world and people around us; we can end suffering by developing nonattachment; and we can advance our consciousness by following an eightfold path.

In essence, the Buddha developed a positivist faith that we can turn ourselves into wise beings without needing a God who probably does not exist. Hinduism was filled with sacrifices and ritual; early Buddhism stripped away glitz and emphasized mind-control through meditation. Such a faith has appealed to hundreds of millions, including in the U.S. members of "the beat generation" during the 1950s. In recent years Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, as well as Bible-haters like Oliver Stone, haved signed up; Mr. Stone complained that "Christ was all about pain and suffering," and said Buddhism helped him "get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father."

It's hard, though, to know what in Buddhist teaching authentically came from the Buddha. He had many disciples and a large following by the time of his death in his early 80s, but his words were not written down until about 250 years after his death. Then, priests wrote down more and more: The scriptures of one of the two main divisions of Buddhism, Theravada, are 11 times longer than the Bible. The scriptures of the other main division, Mahayana, are more numerous still, encompassing over 5,000 volumes. (A third, Tibetan division, Vajrayana, has many scriptures as well.)

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This means that no one can carry all of Buddhist scripture to temple worship as many Christians carry the Bible. Sects typically emphasize favorite sutras (writings) and forget about others. Moreover, various Buddhist leaders quarrel about even the core teachings of their faith. Individual teachers have great latitude to shape their particular kind of Buddhism. Disciples tend to cluster around particular teachers, and Buddhist leaders sometimes become heated in criticizing other Buddhists.

Many Buddhists do not believe in any kind of God or gods. Some Buddhists hold that there is a spirit world with gods in the heavens, but gods are not supreme: Their hero is the Buddha, the man who became fully enlightened, and told his followers to go and do likewise. Buddhists are not supposed to spend their time contemplating creation, since all matter is illusion or manifestation of the Ultimate Reality. Their standard goal is to concentrate on individual enlightenment and to break out of the cycle of transmigration that Buddhists call samsara, or "endless wandering."

Buddhism, born and developed in a culture of great poverty and suffering, emphasizes the greed, hatred, and ignorance that naturally envelopes us. It then loads that realistic sense of human nature onto a Hindu truck that runs on karmic transmigration, the doctrine that after death the essence of a person is reborn in another body. People can be reborn into five or six realms: The top three are gods, titans, and humans, and the bottom three are ghosts, animals, and hell. Rebirth depends on actions in this life and past ones: Negative emotions lead to negative actions which lead to negative karma which can result in rebirth as a fish, dog, or cockroach.

The cycle can continue for eternity and ends only when a person attains nirvana, the extinction of individuality and entrance into the cosmic all. (Buddhism denies the existence of self as an object that is distinct from other selves.) The cycle takes at least seven lives but might take millions. In the classic Buddhist understanding, individuals progress by dropping all worldly attachments and emphasizing extensive meditation, strenuous physical exercises, and other means of turning off our egos. Buddhism wins support on those grounds from people tired of being consumed by consumerism, but it's important to note that it's not only attachments to houses and cars that Buddhism condemns: We also have foolish attachment to our own lives and to others. The Buddha himself named his son Rahula, which means "obstacle," and then abandoned his wife and son to seek enlightenment.

Two Buddhist parables illustrate the sweeping nature of the nonattachment principle. One concerns a man, fleeing a tiger, who comes to the edge of a cliff, finds a vine, and climbs down it. When almost down he discovers that a second tiger awaits him at the bottom, while mice chew the vine above him. Instead of trying to concoct a means of escape, he notices a wild strawberry growing on the face of the cliff and eats it. Then the vine breaks, and the tiger gobbles up the man. End of story. Non-Buddhists might see this tale as one of horror, or might wonder why the man didn't desperately try to distract the tiger by tossing the strawberry to him. But the primary point is that as strawberry is to man, so man is to tiger; we should not be attached to our own lives. Furthermore, we are all part of the Whole, and if we have the right understanding we will not fear death because we cannot die.


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