What is Buddhism
The name Buddhism comes from the word 'budhi' which means 'to wake up' and
thus Buddhism is the philosophy of awakening. This philosophy has its origins
in the experience of the man Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha, who was
himself awakened at the age of 35. Buddhism is now 2,500 years old and has
about 300 million followers worldwide. Until a hundred years ago Buddhism
was mainly an Asian philosophy but increasingly it is gaining adherents in
Europe, Australia and America.
2. So Buddhism is just a philosophy
The word philosophy comes from two words 'philo' which means 'love' and 'sophia'
which means 'wisdom'. So philosophy is the love of wisdom or love and wisdom,
both meanings describe Buddhism perfectly. Buddhism teaches that we should
try to develop our intellectual capacity to the fullest so that we can understand
clearly. It also teaches us to develop love and kindness so that we can be
like a true friend to all beings. So Buddhism is a philosophy but not just
a philosophy. It is the supreme philosophy.
3. Who was the Buddha
In the year 563 B.C. a baby was born into a royal family in northern India.
He grew up in wealth and luxury but eventually found that worldly comforts
and security do not guarantee happiness. He was deeply moved by the suffering
he saw all around and resolved to find the key to human happiness. When he
was 29 he left his wife and child and set off to sit at the feet of the great
religious teachers of the day to learn from them. They taught him much but
none really knew the cause of human suffering and how it could be overcome.
Eventually, after six years study and meditation he had an experience in which
all ignorance fell away and he suddenly understood.
From that day onwards, he was called the Buddha, the Awakened One. He lived
for another 45 years in which time he travelled all over the northern India
teaching others what he had discovered. His compassion and patience were legendary
and he had thousands of followers. In his eightieth year, old and sick, but
still happy and at peace, he finally died.
4. The Buddha is dead so how can he help us
Faraday, who discovered electricity, is dead, but what he discovered still
helps us. Luis Pasteur who discovered the cures for so many diseases is dead,
but his medical discoveries still save lives. Leonardo da Vinci who created
masterpieces of art is dead, but what he created can still uplift and give
joy. Noble men and heroes may have been dead for centuries but when we read
of their deeds and achievements, we can still be inspired to act as they did.
Yes, the Buddha is dead but 2500 years later his teachings still help people,
his example still inspires people, his words still change lives. Only a Buddha
could have such power centuries after his death.
5. Was the Buddha a god
No, he was not. He did not claim that he was a god, the child of a god or
even the messenger from a god. He was a man who perfected himself and taught
that if we follow his example, we could perfect ourselves also.
6. If he is not a god, then why do people worship him
There are different types of worship. When someone worships a god, they praise
him or her, making offerings and ask for favours, believing that the god will
hear their praise, receive their offerings and answer their prayers. Buddhists
do not indulge in this kind of worship. The other kind of worship is when
we show respect to someone or something we admire. When a teacher walks into
a room we stand up, when we meet a dignitary we shake hands,when the national
anthem is played we salute. These are all gestures of respect and worship
and indicate our admiration for persons and things. This is the type of worship
Buddhist practise. A statue of the Buddha with its hands rested gently in
its lap and its compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace
and love within ourselves. The perfume of incense reminds us of the pervading
influence of virtue, the lamp reminds us of light of knowledge and the flowers
which soon fade and die, reminds us of impermanence. When we bow, we express
our gratitude to the Buddha for what his teachings have given us. This is
the nature of Buddhist worship.
7. But I have heard people say that Buddhist worship idols
Such statements only reflect the misunderstanding of the persons who make
them. The dictionary defines an idol as "an image or statue worshipped as
a god". As we have seen, Buddhist do not believe that the Buddha was a god,
so how could they possibly believe that a piece of wood or metal is a god?
All religions use symbols to express various concepts. In Taoism, the ying-yang
is used to symbolise the harmony between opposites. In Sikhism, the sword
is used to symbolise spiritual struggle. In Christianity, the fish is used
to symbolise his sacrifice. And in Buddhism, the statue of the Buddha also
reminds us of the human dimension in Buddhist teaching, the fact that Buddhism
is man-centred, not god-centred, that we must look within not without to find
perfection and understanding. So to say that Buddhist worship idols is not
8. Why do people do all kinds of strange things in Buddhist temples
Many things seem strange to us when we don't understand them. Rather than
dismiss such things as strange, we should strive to find their meaning. However,
it is true that Buddhist practice sometimes has its origin in popular superstition
and misunderstanding rather than the teaching of the Buddha. And such misunderstandings
are not found in Buddhism alone, but arise in all religions from time to time.
The Buddha taught with clarity and in detail and if some fail to understand
fully, the Buddha cannot be blamed.
There is a saying:
If a man suffering from a disease does not seek treatment
even when there is a physician at hand, it is not the fault of the physician.
In the same way, if a man is oppressed and tormented by the disease of defilements
but does not seek the help of the Buddha, that is not the Buddha's fault.
JN 28-9 Nor should Buddhism or any religion be judged by those
who don't practise it properly. If you wish to know the true teachings of
Buddhism, read the Buddha's words or speak to those who understand them properly.
9. If Buddhism is so good why are some Buddhist countries
If by poor you mean economically poor, then it is true that some Buddhist
countries are poor. But if by poor you mean a poor quality of life, then perhaps
some Buddhist countries are quite rich. America, for example, is an economically
rich and powerful country but the crime rate is one of the highest in the
world, millions of old people are neglected by their children and die of loneliness
in old people's homes, domestic violence and child abuse are major problems.
One in three marriages end in divorce, pornography is easily available. Rich
in terms of money but perhaps poor in terms of the quality of life. Now if
you look at some traditional Buddhist countries you find a very different
situation. Parents are honoured and respected by their children, the crime
rates are relatively low, divorce and suicide are rare and traditional values
like gentleness, generosity, hospitality to strangers, tolerance and respect
for others are still strong. Economically backward, but perhaps a higher quality
of life than a country like America. But even if we judge Buddhist countries
in terms of economics alone, one of the wealthiest and most economically dynamic
countries in the world today is Japan where 93% of the population call themselves
10. Why is it that you don't hear of Buddhist doing charitable work
Perhaps it is because Buddhists don't feel the need to boast about the good
they do. Several years ago the Japanese Buddhist leader Nikkho Nirwano received
the Templeton Prize for his work in promoting inter-religious harmony. Likewise
a Thai Buddhist monk was recently awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Prize
for his excellent work among drug addicts. In 1987 another Thai monk, Ven.Kantayapiwat
was awarded the Norwegian Children's Peace Prize for his many years work helping
homeless children in rural areas. And what about the large scale social work
being done among the poor in India by the Western Buddhist Order? They have
built schools, child minding-centres, dispensaries and small scale industries
for self-sufficiency. Buddhist see help given to others as an expression of
their religious practice just as other religions do but they believe that
it should be done quietly and without self-promotion. Thus you don't hear
so much about their charitable work.
11. Why are there so many different types of Buddhism
There are many different types of sugar: brown sugar, white sugar, rock sugar,
syrup and icing sugar but it is all sugar and it all tastes sweet. It is produced
in different forms so that it can be used in different ways. Buddhism is the
same: there is Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Yogacara
Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism but it is all Buddhism and it all has the
same taste - the taste of freedom. Buddhism has evolved into different forms
so that it can be relevant to the different cultures in which it exists. It
has been reinterpreted over the centuries so that it can remain relevant to
each new generation. Outwardly, the types of Buddhism may seem very different
but at the centre of all of them is the Four Noble Truths
and the Eightfold Path. All major religions, Buddhism
included, have split into schools and sects. But the different sects of Buddhism
have never gone to war with each other and to this day, they go to each
other's temples and worship together. Such tolerance and understanding is
I suppose you think Buddhism is right and all others are wrong
No Buddhist who understands the Buddha's teaching thinks that other religions
are wrong. No-one who has made a genuine effort to examine other religions
with an open mind could think like that either. The first thing you notice
when you study the different religions is just how much they have in common.
All religions acknowledge that man's present state is unsatisfactory. All
believe that a change of attitude and behaviour is needed if man's situation
is to improve. All teach an ethics that includes love, kindness, patience,
generosity and social responsibility and all accept the existence of some
form of Absolute.
They use different languages, different names and different symbols to describe
and explain these things; and it is only when they narrow- mindedly cling
to their one way of seeing things that religious tolerance, pride and self-righteousness
Imagine an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Chinese and an Indonesian
all looking at a cup. The Englishman says, "That is a cup." The Frenchman
answers, "No it's not. It's a tasse." The Chinese comments, "You are both
wrong. It's a pei." And the Indonesian laughs at the others and says "What
a fool you are. It's a cawan." The Englishman get a dictionary and shows it
to the others saying, "I can prove that it is a cup. My dictionary says so."
"Then your dictionary is wrong," says the Frenchman "because my dictionary
clearly says it is a tasse." The Chinese scoffs at them. "My dictionary is
thousands of years older than yours, so my dictionary must be right. And besides,
more people speak Chinese than any other language, so it must be pei." While
they are squabbling and arguing with each other, a Buddhist comes up and drinks
from the cup. After he has drunk, he says to the others, "Whether you call
it a cup, a tasse, a pei or a cawan, the purpose of the cup is to be used.
Stop arguing and drink, stop squabbling and refresh your thirst". This is
the Buddhist attitude to other religions.
13. Is Buddhism scientific
Before we answer that question it would be best to define the word 'science'.
Science, according to the dictionary is: "knowledge which can be made into
a system, which depends upon seeing and testing facts and stating general
natural laws, a branch of such knowledge, anything that can be studied exactly".
There are aspects of Buddhism that would not fit into this definition but
the central teachings of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, most certainly would.
Suffering, the First Noble Truth, is an experience that can be defined, experienced
and measured. The Second Noble Truth states that suffering has a natural cause,
craving,which likewise can be defined, experienced and measured. No attempted
is made to explain suffering in terms of a metaphysical concept or myths.
Suffering is ended, according to the Third Noble Truth, not by relying on
upon a supreme being, by faith or by prayers but simply by removing its cause.
This is axiomatic.
The Fourth Noble Truth, the
way to end suffering, once again, has nothing to do with metaphysics but depends
on behaving in specific ways. And once again behaviour is open to testing.
Buddhism dispenses with the concept of a supreme being, as does science, and
explains the origins and workings of the universe in terms of natural law.
All of this certainly exhibits a scientific spirit. Once again, the Buddha's
constant advice that we should not blindly believe but rather question, examine,
inquire and rely on our own experience, has a definite scientific ring to
it. He says:
"Do not go by revelation or tradition,do not go by rumour, or the sacred scriptures,
do not go by hearsay or mere logic, do not go by bias towards a notion or
by another person's seeming ability and do not go by the idea 'He is our teacher'.
But when you yourself know that a thing is good, that it is not blameble,
that it is praised by the wise and when practised and observed that it leads
to happiness, then follow that thing."
So we could say that although Buddhism in not entirely scientific,
it certainly has a strong overtone and is certainly more scientific than any
other religion. It is significant that Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist
of the twentieth century said of Buddhism:
"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It
should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both
natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from
the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity.
Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope
with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."
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The Four Truths
The Eightfold Path