Basic Buddhist Beliefs
All major religions have ideas on authority, ritual, metaphysics, tradition, ‘grace’ and mystery. But when Buddha began his religion, he felt that the first step was to dispel these common ideas, especially the Hindu concepts of them.
He denied the authority of the Hindu Brahmins and their exclusivity, teaching instead that enlightenment could be reached regardless of caste or gender. He did not speak in the traditional style and jargon of the educated philosophers, but in such a way as the common people could understand. He never tried to explain metaphysics or any such “fruitless speculation” (95), and he denied the validity of ritualized “mechanical means for obtaining miraculous results” (93). In fact, he was against the supernatural altogether. Going against grace, or the “belief – often difficult to sustain in the face of facts – that Reality is ultimately on our side” (93), he taught instead that every individual is to work out their own religious truth without worrying about the supernatural outside help.
“Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural. He condemned all forms of divination . . . though he concluded from his own experience that the human mind was capable of powers now referred to as paranormal, he refused to allow his monks to play around with those powers. ‘By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple – that he tries to work a miracle.’ For all appeal to the supernatural and reliance on it amounted, he felt, to looking for shortcuts, easy answers, and simple solutions that could divert attention from the hard, practical task of self-advance.” (97)
His religion begins and ends with man instead of God, if He exists at all. An individual, he taught, was to save himself.
“No god or gods could be counted on, not even the Buddha himself. When I am gone, he told his followers in effect, do not bother to pray to me; for when I am gone I will really be gone.” (97)
In this way all religious knowledge is to be gained experientially and empirically so that religion, knowledge and salvation (from reincarnation) would come only from the self. In starting with the individual, he saw all the world’s problems as something that could be fixed by it.
Buddha taught that the first step towards healing the world was acknowledging the Four Noble Truths. The first of these is dukkha – suffering. Instead of adhering to a blind faith on grace (as the idea that the universe has a certain goodwill toward men), Buddha recognized the acute pain of the world and the suffering mankind can experience. Everyone suffers through birth, illness, and the fear of death and aging. We have all been troubled by being unable to escape circumstances we couldn’t control, or unable to do what we really love with our lives. With a firm belief that reality is actually perfect, Buddha concluded that “Somehow life has been estranged from reality, and this estrangement precludes real happiness until it is overcome” (102). Here, in recognizing that something has gone wrong with the world (and not just that something is wrong with it), Buddha comes close to recognizing the Fall of Biblical history – that though the world was made perfect, it has been marred by sin.
“Life (in the condition it has gotten itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint. As its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts.” (101)
But after this Buddha continues his autonomous empiricism. For the reason of all this suffering is tanha, the second Noble Truth. Meaning ‘desire,’ particularly the desire for one’s own fulfillment, it is the cause of all our suffering. In curing this, one could cure all of the dukkha in one’s life. This is what the next two truths do. The Third Noble Truth says that the cure is in overcoming selfishness, and the Fourth says how this is accomplished. Tanha may be overcome by the Fourth Noble Truth’s Eightfold Path, for humanity cannot be cured
“by pills, or rituals, or grace. Instead, it is treatment by training . . . the Eightfold Path intends nothing less than to pick one up where one is and set one down as a different human being, one who has been cured of crippling disabilities. ‘Happiness he who seeks may win,’ the Buddha said, ‘if he practice.’” (104)
Before embarking on this journey to enlightenment, we first must develop healthy relationships with fellow Buddhists farther along the path than us, for it is by associating with such people that we “imbibe by osmosis their spirit of love and compassion” (105). Only then can we hope to succeed on this Eightfold Path, our self-salvation road to the Buddha’s own awareness.
The first step conditions the mind to think like a Buddhist. It is only logical that
“Suffering abounds, it is occasioned by the drive for private fulfillment, that drive can be tempered, and the way to temper it is by travelling the Eightfold Path.” (106)
Once this rational mindset has been developed, step two weeds out any false followers. Only the seekers with good intent and absolute persistence will be able to achieve enlightenment.
Then the speech must be controlled, beginning first by controlling emotions that lead us to say unkind things, and then by directing the speech towards kindness and honesty (for the Buddha saw deceit as being worse than evil).
The fourth step directs conduct away from the sins of murder (inducing most Buddhists to become vegetarian), thievery, deceit, unchaste behavior and alcoholism. This leads to the fifth step’s ban on certain types of trades that no serious Buddhist could make a living by. Serious Buddhists became monks; casual Buddhists simply abstained from any profession Buddha had condemned, from slave traders to brewers.
Step six reinforces the exertion required to accomplish. One must be so totally focused on the good of others that no attention is heeded to anyone who distracts – even those who harm or hate you.
“Reaching the goal requires immense exertion; there are virtues to be developed, passions to be curbed, and destructive mind states to be expunged so compassion and detachment can have a chance. ‘”He robbed me, he beat me, he abused me” – in the minds of those who think like this, hatred will never cease.’” (108)
Now that actions and lifestyles have been modified and motive and attitude refined, step seven reforms the thoughts. Constant introspection will lead to the self-awareness necessary for enlightenment. Furthermore, plumbing the inner depths of the psyche reveal just who an individual really is.
“If we could really understand life, if we could really understand ourselves, we would find neither a problem. Humanistic psychology proceeds on the same assumption. When ‘awareness of the experience is fully operating,’ Carl Rogers writes, ‘human behavior is to be trusted, for in these moments the human organism becomes aware of its delicacy and tenderness towards others.’ The Buddha saw ignorance, not sin, as the offender. More precisely, insofar as sin is our fault, it is prompted by a more fundamental ignorance – most specifically, the ignorance of our true nature.” (109-110)
As a result of such musings, the person becomes self-aware to the point of extremity; not a single sensation or thought goes by without notice. This brings a person to realize the faulty thought processes one is prone to and thus enables one to break them. Rather than medit
|ating on one thing as the raja yogi of Hinduism does, they allow thoughts to flow and fluctuate freely.
“The meditator realizes how little control we have over our minds and our physical sensations, and how little awareness we normally have in our reactions . . . [then he realizes] that there is nobody behind the mental/physical events orchestrating them . . . With those insights, the belief in a separate self-existent self begins to dissolve.” (111)
So much for Descartes’ cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” (Then again, his reasoning was circular to begin with – to say I think presupposes that I am - it might as well be said ‘I am, therefore I think’). Here, and this is especially accentuated in Zen Buddhism, the mind’s thoughts are used to prove the lack of self-existence. There is only one, unending, infinite cosmos to which we are all connected and a part of.
Finally, the last step is concentration with principles echoing raja yoga, and “The mind reposes in its true position” (112).
Such is the plan Buddha set forth for his followers, but after his death, his religion split and spread throughout the Eastern world. When it reached Tibet it morphed into a style all its own, but the foundational two Buddhist divisions were founded in its mother country and tended to remain somewhat intact as they spread. These two are Mahayana and Hinayana, the foremost being Buddhism for the common folk (as Buddha intended his religion to be) and the latter being for those scholars who could stay more faithful to his original teachings.
The road to salvation and enlightenment is considered, at least by the Indians, as crossing a river to the other shore, hence the translations of Mahayana, ‘big raft,’ and Hinayana, ‘little raft.’ The sizes only denoted the majority of the population and minority of the elite few, but soon Hinayana preferred to refer to itself as Theravada, the Way of the Elders.
While Buddha himself did not bother with metaphysics, the major factors dividing these two are metaphysical. Are humans autonomous, or are we “social animals” that need close relationships to succeed? The grace of the universe returned to the spotlight, as did whether it was better to show reason and wisdom or compassion and virtue.
As already mentioned Theravada stuck closer to the original teachings of Buddha, believing in his teaching to “Be lamps unto yourselves” rather than the more interpersonal focus of Mahayana teaching, that we are “more social than individual, and love is the greatest thing in the world” (121).
Theravadans profess faith in no God, like Buddha himself, but even the God of the Mahayanists is impersonal and pantheistic. Mahayana teaches that “We can be at peace because a boundless power draws . . . everything to its appointed goal” (123).
The Theravadans view enlightenment’s greatest gift as wisdom, but they do not neglect virtue, as good things flow naturally from the wise. To the Mahayanist, however, the Four Noble Virtues are the best part of being enlightened: love, calmness, joy in other’s success, and compassion. From these two models of individualistic, wisdom-seeking enlightenment and compassionate, interpersonal-focused enlightenment come two important role models that each sect strives to emulate. Arhat is the model character for Theravada, as he is one who seeks enlightenment as Buddha taught, and Mahayana focuses on the bodhisattva, who gave up personal enlightenment to help others reach it like Buddha actually did. In one Buddhist legend, the bodhisattva is “one who vows not to desert this world ‘until the grass itself be enlightened” (124).
Mahayana has certainly become the more popular sect of Buddhism and has divided into many others. It became Ti’en Tai in China and Tendai in Japan when influenced by Confucianism, while Taoism’s effect became Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen (a rather interesting class of all its own).
These two rafts – along with other sects and ‘rafts,’ like the Vajrayana (Diamond Raft) of Tibet and Pure Land Sect of Mahayana – are, like Hinduism’s various yogas, different ways to the same shore.
“Buddhism is a voyage across life’s river, a transport from the commonsense shore of ignorance, grasping and death to the further bank of wisdom and enlightenment.” (144)