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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 Siddhata 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 world-wide. Until a hundred years ago, Buddhism was mainly an Asian philosophy but increasingly it is gaining adherents in Europe and America.
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 describing 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. Thus Buddhism is a philosophy but not just a philosophy. It is the supreme philosophy.
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 comfort 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 or 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 traveled all over northern India teaching others what he had discovered. His compassion and patience were legendary and he made thousands of followers. In his eightieth year, old and sick, but still happy and at peace, he finally died.
Wasn't it irresponsible for the Buddha to walk out on his wife and child?
It couldn't have been an easy thing for the Buddha to leave his family. He must have worried and hesitated for a long time before finally leaving. But he had a choice, dedicating himself to his family or dedicating himself to the whole world. In the end, his great compassion made him give himself to the whole world. And the whole world still benefits from his sacrifice. This was not irresponsible. It was perhaps the most significant sacrifice ever made.
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. The great artist Leonardo da Vinci 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.
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 human being who perfected himself and taught that if we followed his example, we could perfect ourselves also.
If the Buddha is not a god, then why do people worship him?
There are different types of worship. When someone worships a god, they praise and honor him or her, make offerings and ask for favors, 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 the room we stand up, when we meet a dignitary we shake their hand, when the national anthem is played we salute. These are all gestures of respect and worship and indicate our admiration for certain persons or things. This is the type of worship Buddhists practice. 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 the light of knowledge and the flowers which soon fade and die, remind us of impermanence. When we bow, we express outwardly what we feel inwardly; our gratitude to the Buddha for what his teachings have given us. This is the nature of Buddhist worship.
But I have heard people say that Buddhists 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, Buddhists 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 symbolize the harmony between opposites. In Sikhism, the sword is used to symbolize spiritual struggle. In Christianity, the fish is used to symbolize Christ's presence while the cross is used to symbolize his sacrifice. And in Buddhism, the statue of the Buddha is used to symbolize human perfection. The statue of the Buddha also reminds us of the human dimension in Buddhist teaching, the fact that Buddhism is human-centered, rather than god-centered, that we must look within not without to find perfection and understanding. So to say that Buddhists worship idols is not correct.
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 try to find out what they mean. However, it is true that Buddhist practices sometimes have their origins in popular superstition and misunderstanding rather than the teachings 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 person suffering from a disease does not seek treatment even when there is a physician at hand, it is not the fault of that physician. In the same way, if a person is oppressed and tormented by the disease of the defilements but does not seek the help of the Buddha, that is not the Buddha's fault.
Nor should Buddhism or any religion be judged by those who don't practice 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.
If Buddhism is so good why are some Buddhist countries poor?
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 and pornography is a major industry. Rich in terms of money but perhaps poor in terms of the quality of life. Now take traditional Buddhist countries. Some are economically backward but parents are honored and respected by their children, their crime rates are relatively low, divorce and suicide are almost unheard of, domestic violence and child abuse, pornography and sexual license are not common. Economically backward but perhaps a higher quality of life than in 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 a large percentage of the population call themselves Buddhists.
Why is it that you don't often hear of charitable work being done by Buddhists?
Perhaps it is because Buddhists don't feel the need to advertise about the good they do. Several years ago the Japanese Buddhist leader Nikkho Niwano 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 of 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 selfsufficiency. Buddhists 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.
Why are there so many different types of Buddhism?
There are many different types of sugar: brown sugar, white sugar, granulated 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 but they are all Buddhism and they all has the same taste - the state 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 center 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, they have never been towards each other and to this day, they go to each other's temples and worship together. Such tolerance and understanding are certainly rare
Buddhism started in India but it eventually died out there. Why?
The Buddha's teachings grew to become one of India's major religions but gradually it went into decline and finally disappeared just as Christianity started in Palestine but eventually died out there. No one really knows why this happened. Perhaps a combination of political and social changes combined with wars and invasions made it difficult such a gentle and peaceful religion to survive. However long before it disappeared in India is spread from there to the furthermost corner of Asia.
You certainly think highly of Buddhism. I suppose you think your religion is right and all the 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 mankind's present state is unsatisfactory. All believe that a change of attitude and behavior is needed if the human 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 intolerance, pride and self-righteousness arise. Imagine an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Chinese and an Indonesian all looking at a cup. The Englishman says, "That's a cup." The Frenchman answers, "No it's not. It's a tasse." The Chinese comments, "You're both wrong. It's a pet." And the Indonesian laughs at the others and says "What fools you are. It's a cawan." The Englishman gets 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 French- man "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 a pet." 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 pet or a cawan, a cup is meant to be used. Stop arguing and drink, stop squabbling and refresh your thirst." This is the Buddhist attitude to other religions.
I have read that Buddhism is just a type of reformed Hinduism.
One sometimes hears uninformed people saying this. But we read in the Buddhist scriptures that the Hindu priests, the Brahmins, were strongly opposed to the Buddha. This is because he criticized the Hindu caste system and the practice animal sacrifice, he denied the existence of a supreme god and he rejected the authority of the Hindu scriptures. Buddhism and Hinduism have things in commons but they also have enough important differences to make them two distinct religions.
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 attempt 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 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 behavior 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 laws. 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 rumor, 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 blamable, that it is praised by the wise and when practiced and observed that it leads to happiness, then follow that thing."
So we could say that although Buddhism is not entirely scientific, it certainly has a strong scientific overtone and is certainly more scientific then 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 the natural and the 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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