Religion can be described as a set of beliefs about the origin, purpose and the nature of the universe more especially when it is considered to have been created by supernatural agencies or agency. The believers have a set of rituals they observe and a moral code that governs how human beings conduct their affairs. It therefore guides personal practices of people in the faith and the group activities and rituals (Vecsey 1). Today many religions have been developed all over the world with many followers mostly over three million. Some of these religions include; Buddhism, Islamic, Judaism, Hinduism, Roman Catholic, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy among others. They can be generally classified as Christian or non-Christian religions. Christian religions believe in Christ and try to live according to his teachings while non Christians do no believe in Christ. Buddhism is one of the widespread non-Christian religions in the world today. This paper discusses the history, beliefs, ethics, people and subdivisions of Buddhism.
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This is a (spiritual) religion that concentrates on an individual’s advancement (spiritual) as well as attaining the imminent into life’s nature. Today Buddhism is about 2500 years old with about three hundred and seventy six followers from all over the world. From the 2001 census, there are about 151,816 Buddhist followers in Britain. The religion is characterized by many festivals all year long and the followers can worship from the temple and at home as well (Harvey 2).
The teachings on Buddha focuses on four noble truths that are taught to the followers, they comprise of; the truth on suffering (DUkkha), origin of suffering truth (Samudaya), cessation of suffering truth (Nirodha), and Magga which is the truth about the path to cessation of the suffering. Buddha is usually compared to a physician who diagnoses the problem in the first two noble truths and identifies the cause and realizes that there is a cure in the third truth and in the forth a prescription on how to redeem one from the suffering is offered. Suffering is believed to come from three main sources, sickness, death and old age. However, Buddha describes suffering to be beyond the physical pain but maybe from inner dissatisfaction and being unfulfilled. According to Bhuddhism, the second truth is the cause of suffering which can be due to greed, ignorance or hatred. The third truth is about one deliberating him or her from the cause of suffering then finally the fourth truth is about one understanding and accepting the first three then taking the necessary steps towards achieving wisdom to overcome the suffering (Harvey, 125).
Before the coming of the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, the religion established its root in India. Its development can be divided into fiver phases, the presectarian, Nikaya, early Buddhist schools, early Mahayana and the esoteric Buddhism. Its earliest phase, the pre-sectarian Buddhism with its scripture, the Vinaya Pitaka being the main scripture and other four principles known as the Agamas or Nikayas. Marks of existence formed the basis of teachings by then.
The early Buddhist schools, were orally conducted with recitations in the first meeting, Buddha’s cousin Ananda recited the discourses. Later, disputes came up within the group that led to the formation of many schools. In the 3rd century, between one hundred to two hundred years from the death of Buddha texts were written representing the words of the disciples of Buddha and Buddha himself. Mahayan Bhuddhism in the early ages was developed by the marginalized or sidelined groups in the 5th century. Madhyamaka, Buddhist logic, tathagatagarbha, and the yogacara were the four major forms of philosophies composed during the Mahayana era. The main philosophies in India were madhyamaka and yogacara which formed the stem for early bhuddhism.
During the Vajrayana stage, scholary research on Buddhism was common though it was influenced by Hinduism, the scriptures did have an order and ritual had to be studied as well and not just the doctrine aspect. The early developments in Buddhism saw its spread to other countries besides India which included China and Sri Lanka which led to emergence of a Greek speaking society of Buddhists a century later. In around the 3rd century, Buddhism spread to Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Korea, and Japan.
Buddhism in the middle ages was almost extinct in India although it still existed in the neighboring countries. It is however gaining momentum today with almost five hundred million followers. Buddhist texts are being translated into many exotic languages especially in the west where it is however viewed as exotic but also progressive. In Asia, the religion is well organized and recognized. Through translation and spread of scriptures during the 19th century, Buddhism was founded in Britain. In 1898, Allan Bennett a Briton went to Sri Lanka and came back as Ananda Metteyya, a bhuddhist monk. In 1907, a group of people got together to form the bhuddhist society of Britain. In 1924 it became the London Buddhist society, the only difference between the bhuddhism in Britain and that in the east is culture but everything else including the temples is exactly the same (Skilton, 12).
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About capital punishment, the Buddhist community does not agree with death penalty, they instead emphasize on a non-violent form of life, they encourage people from injuring or killing living creatures. Buddhist teachings about punishment included; punishing someone who has done you wrong does not affect his mind only but that of the one punishing him as well, if the crime committed is very serious then the offender should be banished from society. Excessive injury to an offender or someone who has committed a crime does not solve their crimes or misdeeds instead a reformatory approach should be used. However, with all these teachings, countries with Buddhist populations still use capital punishment and death penalties for some crimes, these countries include Thailand.
About war, Buddhist thinking has non-violence at heart; essentially Buddhists have a peaceful tradition. In their teaching and scriptures they discourage the use of violence in conflict resolution; instead they are taught to be good even when their enemies treat them with cruelty. Their teachings tell them to whatever extent they can; they should protect life and are not allowed to kill even for self defense. Many Buddhist countries are faced with a dilemma on how to protect their citizens without violence. Buddhist martial arts have very strict rules on how they can be used. However, from history this has not always been the case as we have Buddhists engaging in war like in the 14th century where Buddhists in China played a major role in the war that led to the eviction of Mongols. Buddhists place so much pressure against ending life of oneself or of another person, however when it comes to euthanasia they are not in agreement as some are for whereas others are against the euthanasia. According to their teachings, death is a form of transition into a new life that Karma dictates and one cannot predict what the next life is going to be like (Harvey, 151).
About organ donation, Buddhists are for or against it, it’s said to be ones own decision but it should be based on relieving and not adding pain. The process of dying is viewed as very respectable and should be given respect but there are no limitations if one decides to donate organs. On contraception, Buddhist have no problem with those contraceptives that prevent fertilization though they argue that those contraceptives preventing a fertilized egg from developing are a violation as they end or kill a life that has already been formed. According to the religion, life begins at conception and though they do not condemn non-productive sexual activities they do not encourage the use of contraception. It should be noted that Buddhist do not regard having children as a Christian activity.
On abortion, Buddhists argue it is wrong if it is done deliberately or by negligence. Modern day Buddhists however do not have a unified agreement on abortion as some say it should be a personal decision whose consequences the bearer should face. In some cases however, like in medical conditions that may interfere with the life of the mother or that of the child then the option can be considered but the bearer should be able to handle the consequences of her decision. Buddhism is an animal friendly religion although some parts of its teachings are very unfriendly to animals. They are taught to love animals, do no harm to them, avoid work that would involve animals’ killing; they are supposed to treat animals and human beings with equal dignity. However, they view animals with as harsh attitude when in their teaching they argue that sometimes when one committed sins in their pat lifetime, they might be reborn as animals and this is considered as a serious setback. The religion is also not against the use of animals for experimentation that are meant to be for the health of human beings yet in their teachings they argue that animals need to be treated with the same dignity as human beings are. They are not specifically against meat consumption but initially they were discouraged from consumption of meat especially if an animal was killed for the sole intention of feeding them (Harvey, 181).
Buddhists can worship at home or in the temple and it is considered a requirement to join the rest in the temple to worship as one can worship from their homes. In their homes, they set a side shrine which is part of a room with Buddha’s statue, an incense burner, and candles. Their temples are in different shapes but the most common are pagodas of Japan and China. Their temples symbolize five main elements, Air, Earth, water, fire, and wisdom. They always have Buddha’s statue. When it comes to worship, they are taught in the many schools of Buddhism, mostly they sit on the floor with bare feet and chant facing the image of Buddha. Monks sometimes chant from religious texts accompanied by instruments as the rest listen and participate in prayers.
Their prayers comprise a phrase, a syllable or a word, Mantra that is spoken once and repeated severally either in a person’s head or loud. During prayers, physical aids like beads are used to guide during mantra repetitions, sometimes the mantra is displayed on a wheel that is spanned as the followers repeat the prayer (Dhammananda 5).
Buddhists believe in the power of meditation and according to their teachings, everything we do is as a result of what we allow our minds to think. Therefore, they encourage positive thinking and their followers should avoid such thoughts that would lead them into sinning or doing something that will cause them to suffer the consequences. They have several methods of meditating which include, controlled breathing, chanting or concentrating on something like a candle light or a flower.
Buddhists use mandalas, which is a symbol of the earth made from sand and is used to represent wisdom. Followers often give gifts to their leaders or the monks as a sign of helping the less privileged as they are assumed to be extended to the needy members of society. Over time, pilgrimage centers have emerged with different customs and practices on spiritual discipline (Harvey 3).
The start of Buddha’s teachings is marked on Dharma day which is celebrated as the rainy season starts. It is accompanied with teaching of Buddha from the scripture in the temple. Losar is one of the most important days celebrating Tibetan’s New Year in February for every year. The celebration extends for three days where the first is within family members and the last two is characterized by exchanging of gifts with relatives and friends. In this period, the followers also make offerings at the temple. The second most important day after Losar is Sangha day which is celebrated to honor the Buddha community where the Buddha followers reaffirm commitment to their religions traditions and customs. Celebrations of this day involve meditation, chanting, oil lamp lighting, and the reaffirmation of commitment to the religion by its followers.
Almost 2500 years ago, kathina festival originated amongst the Buddha followers. This day is celebrated at the end of Vassa, usually in October or November. The day is marked with the offering of gifts and especially clothing to the lay people in community through the monks. To mark the death of Buddha, Parnirvana is celebrated, on this day the last days of Buddha are described as the followers reflect on the dead, their future deaths and on their relations with those who have passed away recently. This day is not marked with grief however but with acceptance. It is celebrated in the temple most of the time to support the deceased wherever they might be by that time.
Wesak is celebrated in May when there is a full moon to mark Buddha’s birthday. It is aimed at leading the followers toward attaining enlightenment as Buddha did. The day is marked with so much color where homes are decorated and mostly followers of the religion visit the temple for scripture teachings and they give offerings of flowers, candles, and food. The most important part of this day is however praying and chanting and gifts to the altar are given to the statues of Buddha (Hopfe 302).
The important people in Buddha
The head monk, traditionally known as Dalai Lama governs the Tibet. He is chosen by identifying a baby born around the same time as the head monk died, this is done through; a dream by one of the head monks, the direction of the smoke from the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. By around the age of five, the boy is enrolled in a local monastery and taught by some of monks.
Thich Nhat Hahn is a Zen master, scholar, poet, writer and peace maker. Besides the Dalai Lama he is the most renowned Buddha teacher today. In his teachings, he emphasizes joy, minding others among others as the most important practices in our daily lives (Skilton 16).
Korea has about eleven million Buddha followers today with 9,231 temples and about twenty six sects. In Japan, the most widespread form of Buddhism is Nichiren which has the belief that individual empowerment and the transformation of ones inner self is the most necessary contributor to a peaceful world. These followers believe in ten principles that are basic to making up a human being. They are; hell which describes a condition of despair, hunger which is a condition of desire for something or to be someone else, tranquility which defines a calm state, anger which entails competitiveness, arrogance or selfishness, animality which causes someone treat others in an unfriendly manner, rapture which describes ones fulfillment among others.
In Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia the most widespread form of Buddhism is Theravada where concentration and meditation are important forms of enlightenment that lead to attainment of self liberation of the followers. Other subdivisions include Zen Buddhism in China, India, Japan, and Korea which emphasizes on the need for one to understand the meaning of life directly and avoid logical thought from misleading them. Mahayana is a collection of many Buddhist sects including Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan. Other subdivisions are pure land and Tibetan (Skilton 7).
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Buddhism is a widespread religion with many traditions, practices, and beliefs based on the teachings of Buddha and his disciples. Theravada and Mahayana are the two Buddhism divisions. Buddha is most widespread in the Asian countries like India where it originated then China, Korea, Japan, Thailand among others but from the 19th century Buddhism has spread fast to other parts of the world including the west to countries like Britain. The Buddha society has many festivals all year round that are marked with colorful celebrations. The most important people in the Buddha society are the Dalai Lama who is the head Monk and Thich Nhat Hahn who is the most recognized teacher after Dalai Lama, he is also a write and a poet. Buddhists believe in protecting all forms of life and that after death people reappear in other forms and ones sins determine the form one assumes after his or her death.
Dhammananda, Sri. What Buddhists believe. Buddhist missionary society, 1973
Harvey Peter Brian. Buddhism world religions themes and issues. New York: Continuum international publishing group, 2001
Hopfe, Lewis, and Woodward Mark. Religions of the world. New York: Prentice Hall, 2008
Skilton, Andrew. A concise History of Buddhism. 2nd edition, New York: Windrose, 1997
Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa religion and its historical changes. American philosophical society, 1983.