Buddhism for Beginners: Insights from a Non-Buddhist

Bodh Gaya, India. Sitting here in the media tent of His Holiness The Dalai Lama 14th in Bodh Gaya, the town where Prince Siddhartha, the Gautama Buddha – following his period of asceticism roaming the Indian countryside – sat under the Bodhi Tree and found Enlightenment, I realize I am seeing Buddhist monks from all over the world.  Most here for this Kalachakra are followers of the Dalai Lama and are not representative of all Buddhists, so I believe a pan-Buddhist survey will help me clarify my own mind.

Painting in Bodh Gaya, India – birth place of Buddhism. Photo by the author.
Buddhism is both a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Buddha, which in Sanskrit means roughly “The Awakened One.”  The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of this Indian subcontinent, where I am now on pilgrimage, sometime about 500 years B.C.
Like Christianity that followed it, Buddhism was rife with division for thousands of years.  Somewhat similar to Catholicism and Protestantism, the two major branches of Buddhism recognized are Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) and Theravada (“The School of the Elders”).
Mahayana is found throughout East Asia and includes the traditions of Pure LandZenNichiren Buddhism – and Tibetan Buddhism.  This is more orthodox or, to my mind, Catholic.  I came to know many of the Japanese sects during my college years in Tokyo.  Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and is more reform, more Protestant, almost ‘Buddhism Light.’  The monks that I came to know after the Tsunami in Sri Lanka belonged to this Sect.   There are so many pilgrims here from Japan in Bodh Gaya this week yet relatively few from Sri Lanka.
Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura Hillyer at Vultures’ Peak, Rajgir, India. Site of The Buddha’s second sermon. Photo: author.
While Buddhism remains most popular within Asia, both branches are now found throughout the entire world.  Estimates of Buddhists globally vary significantly depending on the way Buddhist adherence is defined.  Lower estimates are more than every American and Canadian citizen combined – between 350–500 million adherents.
Practices often include following ethical precepts, support of the monastic community, renouncing conventional living and becoming a monk, the development of mindfulness and practice of meditation, cultivation of higher wisdom and discernment, study of scriptures, devotional practices, and ceremonies.  In the Mahayana tradition – including Tibetan and Japanese traditions – invocation of buddhas and bodhisattvas is also common.  Chanting, orthodox, catholic.
Buddhism_for_Beginners_CNear the sacred fig tree growing at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.Photo: Paul Goldsmith.
Although scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha’s life, most accept that he lived, taught, and founded a monastic order five centuries before Christ  and ten centuries before the Prophet Mohammed.  He was a contemporary of Confucius.
Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama in a kingdom that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent where I am now.  Shortly after the birth of the young prince, an astrologer visited the young prince’s father King Śuddhodana and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls.
Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds.  But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Siddhartha ventured beyond the palace several times.  In a series of encounters – known in Buddhist literature as the four sights – he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and, finally, an ascetic holy man who was apparently content and at peace with the world.  These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life – including his wife and newborn son – and take up his spiritual quest.
The Buddha is pictured everywhere in Bodh Gaya, where he sat under the Bodhi Tree.
Photo: author.
Gautama first went to study with famous religious teachers of the day and mastered the meditation that they taught.  But he found that their teachings did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest.  He next attempted an extreme asceticism, through which he almost starved.  Many Buddhist works of art show the ascetic Buddha from this period with his rib cage badly emaciated.
Gautama underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and extreme exposure to pain.  He realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering at all.  So in a pivotal moment he caved in, accepting milk and rice from a village girl named Sujata, after which he altered his approach.  He thus devoted himself to Anapanasati meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way: a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-punishment.  This occurred on the far bank of the river outside in the town of Bodh Gaya, India, where I am now.  Our foundation may become involved with supporting an orphanage here, a hundred feet from the stupa marking Buddha’s acceptance of subsistence.
Buddhism_for_Beginners_EA young Tibetan monk from Dharamsala shops for clothes in Bodh Gaya. Photo: author.
Gautama was now determined to complete his spiritual quest.  At the age of 35 he famously sat in meditation under a sacred fig tree – known as the Bodhi tree – in Bodh Gaya.  Here he vowed not to get up before achieving enlightenment.  After many days, he finally ‘destroyed the bonds of his own mind, thereby liberating himself from the cycle of endless suffering and rebirth.’  He arose, they say, as a fully enlightened being.  A tree is actually still here, although it is a cutting from a tree in Sri Lanka that was itself a cutting from the original tree.
Soon thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order.  Now, as the Buddha, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, traveling throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent including Rajgir where he taught upon Vultures’ Peak, as well as other sites I am visiting on this pilgrimage: Nalanda, Varanasi, and Sarnath.  He died at the age of 80 in 483 B.C.  The Prophet Mohammed, by comparison, lived a millennium later for only 62 years.
I visited the Big Buddha – The Daibutsu – in Kamakura when I studied in Japan.
The Buddha was as revolutionary to the Veda and the authority of the Brahmans as Christ was to Judaism.  Like Christ said of Judaism, Buddha criticized those who claimed to be in possession of revealed truths not knowable by any ordinary human means.  Buddha’s adherents declared that the entire Brahmanical system was fraudulent: a conspiracy of the Brahmans to enrich themselves by charging exorbitant fees for the performance of bogus rites and the giving of futile advice.  It appears to have been so.
A particular criticism of the Buddha’s was Vedic animal sacrifice.  Buddha began his preaching in an era where many of these new movements shared the same conceptual vocabulary - Atman (“Self”), buddhas(“awakened one”), Dhamma (“rule” or “law”), Karma (“action”), Nirvana (“extinguishing”), samsara (“eternal recurrence”), and Yoga (“spiritual practice”).
It is important to note that Buddha was as radical as Jesus and declared that priests reciting the Vedas were like the blind leading the blind.  According to Buddha, those priests who had memorized the Vedas really knew nothing.  He declared that the primary goal of Upanishadic thought, the Atman (“Self”) was in fact non-existent, and, having explained that Brahminical attempts to achieve liberation at death were futile, proposed his new idea of liberation in life.
The Disciple’s Cave on Vulture Mount where Buddha gave his second sermon. Photo: author.
To go a little deeper, karma (from Sanskrit: “action, work”) in Buddhism is the force that drives the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being.  Good, skillful deeds (“kusala”) and bad, unskillful (“akusala”) actions produce ‘seeds’ in the mind which come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth.  The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the cultivation of positive actions are called śīla (from Sanskrit: “ethical conduct”).  In Buddhism, karma specifically refers to those actions – of body, speech, and mind) that spring from mental intent (“cetana”), and which bring about consequences known as fruit (“phala“).
Many of Buddha’s teachings were simplified and re-packaged Hindu concepts.  One of Buddha’s most successful re-branding efforts concern the Hindu concept of four types of people: Dharma (ethics/duties),Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction),Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).
The Bodhi tree under which The Buddha obtained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India.Photo: author.
In Theravada (Sri Lanka/S.E. Asia) Buddhism can be no divine salvation or forgiveness for one’s karma, since it is a purely impersonal process that is a part of the makeup of the universe.  Some Mahayana traditions hold different views, however.  For example, the texts of certain Mahayana sutras (such as the Lotus Sutra, theAngulimaliya Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra) claim that reciting or merely hearing their texts can wipe out great swathes of negative karma.  This is similar to buying indulgences or saying Hail Mary’s in the Roman Catholic tradition.
In my mind, one can accumulate bad karma, but I don’t think you can chant your way out of it.  Nor do I think, honestly, that good or bad karma determines much – as much as I often wish it did.  Many good people get destroyed (Woodrow Wilson), and far too often than not, nasty people thrive (Adolf Hitler).  Gandhi once said, “Good will always triumph.”  I guess it will, but never permanently.
Born-again Christianity is difficult enough for me, so rebirth in Buddhism – the process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of thoughtful life, each running from conception to death – is harder still.  But Buddhists love the concept as they reject the idea of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity.  According to Buddhism there ultimately is no such thing as a ‘self’ independent of the rest of the universe.
Buddha appears everywhere throughout Asia, including here on the streets of Bodh Gaya.Photo: Paul Goldsmith.
In my experience, the eternal soul seems to be the memories of those who pass in the minds of those who live on.  Rebirth, in my mind, is not possible – when you die you are dead.  No rebirth, no Life Eternal, no Heaven, no Hell.  To my way of thinking, you have this moment, this life, to make a difference.  One chance.  And if you succeed incredibly or fail miserably, it does not really matter because you will be dead and it will all be forgotten.  But to each his own.
According to East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, there is an intermediate, Purgatory-like state (Tibetan “Bardo”) between one life and the next.
Buddhism_for_Beginners_JHis Holiness arrives at Maha Bodhi Temple for Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya, India.Photo courtesy of Norbu Wangyal (www.phayul.com).
The Four Noble Truths is the catalogue Buddha created to explain the average life: we want to find pleasure and avoid to pain from birth to death.  In being controlled by these desires, Buddhists believe we perpetuate the cycle of conditioned existence and suffering (saṃsāra), and produce the causes and conditions of the next rebirth after death.  Rebirth repeats this process in an involuntary cycle, which Buddhists strive to end by eradicating these causes and conditions, applying the methods laid out by the Buddha and subsequent Buddhists.
Buddhism_for_Beginners_KThe Buddha covered in garlands at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.Photo: Paul Goldsmith.
The Four Noble Truths were the first teaching of Gautama Buddha after attaining Nirvana.  They are sometimes considered to contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings:
Suffering Exists. Life as we know it ultimately is or leads to suffering or uneasiness (dukkha) in one way or another.

Caused by Cravings. This is often expressed as a deluded clinging to a certain sense of existence – to selfhood – or to the things that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness.  Craving also has its negative aspect, i.e., one craves that a certain state of affairs not exist.

Ending Craving Ends Suffering. Suffering ends when craving ends.  This is achieved by eliminating delusion, thereby reaching a liberated state of Enlightenment (bodhi).

Nirvana. Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the path laid out by the Buddha.
This method is described by early Western scholars, and taught as an introduction to Buddhism by some contemporary Mahayana teachers such as the Dalai Lama.  As I attend this Kalachakra here in Bodh Gaya, where The Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment over 2,500 years ago, I am hearing The Dalai Lama patiently explaining it day after day to now almost 500,000 followers and pilgrims sitting on the ground before him.  Once a Buddhist masters the Four Noble Truths, he is encouraged to take on The Noble Eightfold Path.
Almost 500,000 pilgrims attended the 2012 Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya, India with the Dalai Lama. Photo: author.
The Five Precepts are specific training rules in order to live a better life in which one is happy, without worries, and can meditate well, that I have paraphrased below to the Ten Commandments and Pop Culture:
Thou Shall Not Kill (Non-Violence). To refrain from taking life or non-violence towards sentient life forms.

Thou Shalt Not Steal. To refrain from taking that which is not given.

Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct. The Dalai Lama has excluded consensual gay sex from this category.

No Trash Talking. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always).

No Getting Wasted. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol).
There are many types of Buddhism, including one of my favorites, Zen (Chán in Chinese, Seon in Korean andZen in Japanese – each derived from the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meaning “meditation”).  Zen is a form of Buddhism that lays special emphasis on meditation, including connections to the Tea Ceremony that I studied as a student in Tokyo in the 1980s.  Zen places less emphasis on scriptures than some other forms of Buddhism and prefers to focus on direct spiritual breakthroughs to truth.  It is divided into two main schools:Rinzai and Sōtō, the former greatly favoring the use in meditation on the koan – a meditative riddle or puzzle – as a device for spiritual break-through, and the latter focusing more on shikantaza or “just sitting.”
Cultural celebration at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India.Photo courtesy of Norbu Wangyal (www.phayul.com).
The world of Buddhism is as complex, if not more so, than the world of Christianity.  Like adherents to any faith or philosophy, some Buddhists are good and others not so good.  Some are truly compassionate and others talk – or pray – about compassion.  Some hope to chant their way to success, happiness, or enlightenment while others meditate and still others embrace action.  Buddhism is a way of life much more than a go-to-church-on-Sunday kind of thing, but as anywhere it can also be merely cultural and used for life events such as marriages and funerals.
Although I am not Buddhist, I believe that if the world was more Buddhist it would be more peaceful.
Edited by Ferdi Kayhan.
Pilgrimage to Buddha’s Holy Sites
Main Sites:
 Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar

Additional Sites: Sravasti, Rajgir, Sankissa, Vaishali, Nalanda, Varanasi
Other Sites: Patna, Gaya, Kosambi, Kapilavastu, Devadaha, Kesariya, Pava

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