Quick, let’s play a game. I’ll say a word, and you notice what first pops into your mind.
I thought of prayer flags. How about you?
When our communications team decided to highlight SEND’s desire to journey with Buddhists down the Path to Peace, I realized just how much I didn’t know about the world’s fourth-largest religion. (Those beautiful prayer flags, for instance, are used by a small minority of Buddhists.)
I did some Googling, but found a lot of terminology that I just didn’t understand. So I turned to Richard Nakamura, SEND missionary, former Buddhist and all-around helpful guy, and peppered him with questions.
Perhaps some of you are in the same boat as me, knowing little more about Buddhism than the basics. So, to help us all, here are Richard’s patient answers to my many queries — so many, in fact, that we’ll break this up into three parts. Here’s part 1, an overview of Buddhism:
Buddhism seems really complicated! Can you briefly explain some tenants of Buddhist faith?
The basics are not too complicated. Buddha, the Enlightened One, discovered four Noble Truths.
- Truth of Suffering: There is suffering in the world.
- Truth of Cause: Suffering is due to ignorance and desire.
- Truth of Extinction: When cause is extinguished, suffering ends and you enter Nirvana.
- Truth of Path: The proper way to achieve this is to follow the Eightfold Path.
- Right Vision:understanding that life always involves change and suffering
- Right Emotion: committing oneself to followingthe path
- Right Speech: speaking truthfully in a positive and helpful way
- Right Action: practicing theprecepts
- Right Livelihood: doing work that doesn’t harm others
- Right Effort: thinking in a kindly and positive way
- Right Mindfulness: being fully aware of oneself, other people, and the world
- Right Meditation: training the mind to be calm and positive
There are the Five Precepts, which is the foundation of Buddhist training and practice (Right Action):
- Do not harm any living being.
- Do not lie.
- Do not engage in immoral sex.
- Do not steal.
- Do not partake of alcohol/intoxicants.
There are an additional five precepts for those who want to pursue more.
- Do not decorate yourself.
- Do not participate in amusements.
- Eat moderately, but only before noon.
- Do not sleep in luxurious beds.
- Do not touch gold, silver, or money.
The Sutras (sacred writings), which come from Buddha’s teachings, help the person understand these truths. There are both Theraveda Sutras (Pali Canon) and Mahayana Sutras. The Tibetans are Vajrayana and use the Kanyur.
Theraveda? Mahayana? Vajrayana? What are those?
Different branches of Buddhism. SEND works with all three of them. About 56 percent of Buddhists are Mahayana, and they live mostly in China and East Asia. Theravada Buddhism is found mostly in Southeast Asia and represents 38 percent of the Buddhist population. The remaining 6 percent are Vajrayana Buddhists who live in Tibet, Mongolia and Russia.
Is Buddha considered a god?
No, Buddha is not a god. Buddhism started in 500 BC. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was a prince whose father forbade him from going outside the palace. The prince snuck out and was bothered by the sight of an old man, a dead person, a sick person, and a monk. He left the palace to seek truth and was enlightened with the Four Noble Truths. He began to teach these concepts to those around him. Siddhartha Gautama never claimed to be a god; indeed, he denied any claim to divinity. He was a human being who said he had been enlightened and desired to show the way/path to others.
What are some high values in Buddhism?
Some will answer the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path or the Precepts. Others may say the values can be summed up in the Six Perfections — generosity, morality, perseverance, effort, meditation, and wisdom. Some might focus on the Three Jewels: Buddha, teachings, and community. Still others may say peace, selflessness or kindness. All of these can be high values in Buddhism.
What’s the Buddhist view of the afterlife?
There is reincarnation (some prefer the word rebirth). This teaching says that to achieve Buddhahood, one must go through the process of rebirths due to karma (cause and effect teaching). These rebirths may mean staying human, but reborn to a different societal rank, or it may even mean turning into an animal or insect, depending on your karma. Following the Buddha’s teachings breaks the cycle of rebirths and allows one to be free to attain enlightenment. As one slowly works their way upward, they can eventually enter nirvana. Nirvana is a state of no desire, the elimination of the ego (self), and peace through being “one with the universe.”
How do Buddhists worship?
Many Buddhists have a mantra that they chant, a word, phrase or sound repeated to aid in meditation. These mantras help them to concentrate, but chanting also is a means to build merit. The more one chants, the easier it will be for that person to attain Buddhahood. They might not even understand what is being said or read, but it is the doing that counts. After a while, the practitioner will chant the mantra in any and all situations (usually quietly, under their breath or in their mind), which actually helps to calm the spirit. Worship is also expressed in the reading of the Sutras (Buddha’s teachings) and visiting temples and graves of ancestors to offer incense and prayers.
- We’ve gathered resources about interacting with Buddhists and engaging them in spiritual conversation on our Path to Peace page.
- He tried hard to be a good Buddhist, but found no peace there: Though he excelled at following the precepts, he still felt exhausted, worried, and insecure. Now he’s discovered true peace — and he can’t stop telling others about it.
- Intro to Buddhism, part 2: Symbols and traditions: Learn about the rich meaning behind some of the images associated with the world’s fourth-largest religion.
- Intro to Buddhism, part 3: Meaningful conversations: Show genuine care, choose your words carefully, keep calm, and understand that the path may be long.
- She became a Buddhist nun to find freedom. 20 years later, she still felt trapped: Desperate to escape the pain of her childhood, she joined the temple. Now she shares how that life also brought bondage.
- ‘It doesn’t work.’ And yet, she still calls herself Buddhist: With nothing to believe in, many young Chinese are turning to Buddhism — and finding it doesn’t bring peace to their frantic, high-pressure lives.
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