The Buddha wrote nothing, but taught that a person gains enlightenment by following the “Middle Path” between self-indulgence and self-mortification.

Worldwide: 357,000,000
United States: 780,000

Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.) was born in what is now Nepal. He was the son of an Indian chieftain, a member of the warrior caste of Hinduism. It is almost impossible to distinguish fact from legend concerning Gautama’s life.

He was raised in luxury and comfort in his father’s house. A turning point came at age 29, which caused a religious crisis in his life. He saw for the first time an old man walking with a cane; a sick man in pain; a human corpse; and a calm, ascetic monk wearing a yellow robe. From these sights, Gautama concluded all humans are subject to suffering. For six years, he searched for the answer to human suffering.

One day, as he sat under a tree (now known as a bodhi tree, or tree of knowledge), the tempter Mara attempted to frustrate Gautama’s search with three temptations: family, sex and fear. Gautama resisted Mara, meditated deeply, experienced visions, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, or the enlightened one.

He found his first disciples in Benares (modern Varanasi) and sent them out to spread his message of peace, truth and compassion.

Buddhist Teachings
The Buddha wrote nothing, but taught that a person gains enlightenment by following the “Middle Path” between self-indulgence and self-mortification.
The Buddha summed up his teachings in the Four Noble Truths.

  1. Life consists of suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction, frustration, pain and misery, which he called dukkha. All of life is subject to change and decay.
  2. Dukkha is caused by a desire or craving for material possessions or intellectual gratification, which do not last and are ultimately unsatisfactory.
  3. Escape from desire or craving is essential for inner peace and tranquility. By eliminating desire and suffering, a person eliminates dukkha (suffering, etc.)
  4. The path to escape from desire or craving is the Noble Eight-fold Path.

The Noble Eight-fold Path consists of the following eight points. All eight points are followed simultaneously.

  1. Right understanding: believing the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right intention: renouncing worldly life.
  3. Right speech: abstaining from lies, slander, abuse and idle talk.
  4. Right conduct: abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, committing adultery and using intoxicants.
  5. Right occupation: avoiding questionable occupations.
  6. Right endeavor: striving for good and avoiding all that is evil or wicked.
  7. Right contemplation: controlling one’s mind so that emotions, including joy and sorrow, do not disturb one’s calmness.
  8. Right concentration: developing the mind to heights beyond reason.

The goal of the Noble Eight-fold path is nirvana, a term that is difficult, if not impossible, to define. The term literally means “extinction,” as the flame of a candle is extinguished. However, nirvana is not a state of total annihilation, except as an annihilation of desire and craving. Neither can the Buddhist idea of nirvana be compared to the Christian idea of heaven.
Nirvana is a state of enlightenment, an awareness beyond that which can be reached with the mind, senses and reason. It is the final, peaceful bliss in Buddhist teachings.

Buddhists reject the Hindu teaching that the individual self or soul is a spark of Brahman that has become trapped in a human body. Rather, a person is made up of a “bundle” of five parts or “waves,” which temporarily come together to form a “body.” Since change is constant, these “waves” eventually move apart and the individual disappears. Buddhists speak of reincarnation, meaning these “waves” join together again to form a new body.

Buddhism does not require a systematic theology as found in Christianity.
Buddhists reject belief in a personal God, although Buddhists may borrow Hindu deities. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is deified and seen as a savior.

There is no closed canon of sacred writings in Buddhism. Various works have attained the status of scripture, and different groups emphasize one or more of these hundreds of works.

The most basic and important Buddhist scripture is the Tripitaka (the Three Baskets). They include the rules of the Buddhist order, the Buddha’s teachings and other instructions.

Buddhists are divided into three main groups: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism. PureLand and Zen are sects of Mahayana Buddhism. Many American Buddhists do not put themselves in any of these groups.

Buddhists observe many festivals. Wesak (or Vesak) celebrates the birthday of the Buddha. Nirvana Day commemorates the Buddha’s death and entry into nirvana. The lunar new year (Tet) is celebrated by Asians, including Buddhists.

Buddhists arrived in California in the 1840s. American Buddhism is adapting to its American setting, as is seen in the Buddhist Churches of America’s recognition as “an endorsing agency” for military chaplains in 1987.

The Buddhist Churches of America has adopted many Christian practices, including Sunday worship services, robed priests who deliver sermons, and Sunday schools patterned after Protestant Sunday schools.

While second-generation Asians often drop their Buddhist faith, a growing number of Anglo-Americans are adopting Buddhism as their chosen faith.

Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.

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