The Many Faces of Buddhism (with video)

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With an estimated 1 to 1.6 billion followers world-wide today, Buddhism is the second largest religion--second only to Christianity. Though initially founded on the religious and philosophical teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, “the Buddha,?

With an estimated 1 to 1.6 billion followers world-wide today,Buddhism is the second largest religion--second only to Christianity. Though initially founded on the religious and philosophical teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, “the Buddha,” it now encompasses a wide variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices adaptive to many cultural settings around the world. Although there is no documented verification of the origin of Buddhism, it is believed to have arisen in the sixth century BCE.

The Buddha, Sanskrit for "the awakened one,” lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.  Recognized by Buddhists as an "enlightened" teacher, Gautama is said to have shared his transcendent insights to help fellow beings end suffering (dukkha), achieve nirvana, and escape what he saw as a self-perpetuating but unnecessary cycle of suffering and rebirth.

According to tradition, when Siddhartha, a prince of the Shakya clan of Nepal, was twenty-nine years old, he left the comforts of his home after seeing for the first time the traumatic reality of death, disease, and old age  that he came to believe characterizes human life, to seek the meaning of such suffering.  After six years of arduous yogic  training during which his quest took several dramatic turns, he abandoned the way of self-mortification (virtually starving himself to death) and instead sat in mindful meditation beneath a bodhi tree. The discovering of this “middle path” ultimately led him to his enlightenment; an experience through which he ultimately escaped desire and became “awakened.”

Although the Buddha imparted this wisdom to his people, followers of Buddhism do not worship the Buddha himself. In fact, this religion does not worship a personal god at all.  Instead, Buddhism is a religion that fundamentally seeks to adhere to the teachings of the Buddha; the wisdom, enlightenment, and compassion embodied by Siddhartha Gautama.

The Principles

Perhaps the best summary of the teachings of Buddhism come from the Buddha himself immediately after he was “awakened,” during a sermon often referred to as the sermon of the “Four Noble Truths.”

The first noble truth Buddha preached is that all life is suffering. Even those events that seem good and pure do not last; they are impermanent. Thus the desire to maintain the purity and the goodness will, in the end, be frustrated, and there will be suffering.

The second noble truth is that this suffering is caused by selfish desire. And as long as the fire of desire burns, there will be suffering.

The third noble truth is that suffering can be eliminated if desire is removed. This experience, called “nirvana,” is the cessation of suffering.

The four and final noble truth prescribes a path to eliminate this suffering, a path known as the “Eightfold Path.”

The “Eightfold Path” includes right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, mindfulness, and right meditation.

After the Buddha

In the centuries following the death of the Buddha, many different approaches or “schools” of Buddhism arose. This complex pluralism of belief systems now includes Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Zen Buddhism; all closely attuned to the Buddha’s teachings, yet each distinctively different and with unique focus.

Theravada Buddhism, for instance, is conservative in that it honors the monastic life  of renunciation, and is practiced primarily in southeast Asia.

Symbol of Theravada Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism, which means “greater vehicle,” places less emphasis on the distinction between the monastics and the common people, and takes a more “liberal” approach designed to encompass the idea that enlightenment is open to everyone.  This is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan.

Mahayana Buddhist Sculpture

Tibetan Buddhism (sometimes called Lamaism) is the form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan region beginning in the 7th century CE. Tibetan Buddhism incorporates Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy, Tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadin monastic discipline, and the shamanistic features of the indigenous religion, Bön.  Among its most unique characteristics are its system of reincarnating lamas and the vast number of deities in its pantheon. Tibetan Buddhism is most well-known to the world through the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantray?na, Mantray?na, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism, and the Diamond Vehicle), is a complex and multifaceted system of Buddhist thought and practice which evolved over several centuries, encompassing seeming inconsistency and a variety of perspectives.  Its main scriptures are called Tantras.  A distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is its ritual practices which are used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations developed in Tibet (but is increasingly practiced in the United States as exiles from central Asia find asylum and assimilate into American culture) and said to use the vital energies of the body to transform the mind.

Motif of Vajrayana Buddhism

Zen Buddhism, perhaps the most popular and often perceived as the most “enlightened” form of Buddhism, is the Japanese name for a form of Buddhism greatly influenced by Chinese Taoism  and known for its nontraditional techniques to bring the adept to enlightenment.  For example, the Zen koan, the nonsensical, non-rational mind puzzle posed to a student is one such technique, as is zazen—known as “seated meditation” (a posture requiring the legs to be folded under the body while in contemplation.)

Depiction of Zen Monk

Other forms of Buddhism include Pure Land, Soka Gakkai, as well as a contemporary form of “socially engaged” Buddhism.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Buddha did not advise people to permanently leave society for enlightenment. Today, in the struggle against desire and suffering, some contemporary Buddhists have chosen to become nonviolent social activists, engaged in protesting war, nuclear testing, and environmental degradation. These so-called “engaged” Buddhists try to live simply, generously, and humanely with each other.

In modern times, Buddhism’s recognition of the suffering of life, as well as the recognition of the possibility of the elimination of suffering, remain this world religion’s greatest strength and lasting legacy. This perspective is attracting many new adherents and converts who perceive it as having the influence to balance the current over-emphasis on technology and scientism, and as such, is gaining an increasing foothold in cultures of the West including the United States which according to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report 2004, numbered American Buddhists at of 2,957, 341.

Interview with a Zen Buddhist Priest


Many Peoples, Many Faiths, R. Ellwood and B. McGraw

Images via

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