BY GRAEME LYALL AM
Buddhism is one of
Buddhism may have been the first non-indigenous religion to arrive in
It was not until 1953, however, that Buddhism became firmly established on our shores with the establishment of the Buddhist Society of New South Wales. Other States, including
Until the abandonment of the White Australia Policy and the arrival of refugees from
Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gotama was born on the border of modern day
1. Existence is unsatisfying and frustrating (Dukkha),
1. The causes of this Dukkha are greed or attachment, anger or aversion and a deluded mind.
2. By removing these causes, Dukkha may be overcome.
3. By following a method, known as the Noble Eightfold Path, the causes of Dukkha will dissipate.
Through applying the Noble Eightfold Path, which can be summarised as good conduct (Sila), mental cultivation or mindfulness (Samadhi) and its resulting wisdom (Prajna), Enlightenment (Nirvana) may be attained. Siddhartha overcame Dukkha and attained the freedom of Nirvana.
Buddhism does not believe in a creator. Buddhists do believe that there is a higher transcendental state which some people from other faiths may refer to as “God” however, Buddhists are reluctant to use that term. The Buddha teaches:
By oneself, indeed, is evil done; By oneself is one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone; By oneself indeed is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.
His teaching can be summarised as:
Not to do any evil,
To cultivate good,
To purify one's mind,
This is the Teaching of the Buddhas.
Buddhism does not have a central hierarchy or controlling body. Each temple and organisation is autonomous, although some organizations have affiliation with other similar bodies in
The Buddhist clergy or monastics are known as the Sangha. In the Theravadin or Southern Tradition, generally followed in
In the Theravada Tradition, it is common for young men to undergo a short period of ordination as Buddhist monks. Many young Buddhists will ordain for a short period during school vacations and train in the monastic discipline. It is common for the family’s eldest son to ordain, even for one day, following the death of a family member.
Short term ordinations are not common in the Mahayana Tradition, however, some temples in
Becoming a Buddhist
Buddhism is non-proselytising and so does not actively seek converts. However, those wishing to formally affirm their wish to become a Buddhist, recite, in the presence of a member of the Buddhist clergy (Sangha), the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts. The Three Refuges state: “I go to the Buddha (the teacher) as my refuge (protection), I go to the Dharma (the teaching) as my refuge (protection) and I go to the Sangha (those strictly following the teaching) as my refuge”. The Five Precepts are not like the commandments in the Religions of the Book. They are training rules to abstain from destroying life, from taking what is not freely given, from improper or harmful sexual activity, from lying, deceiving or slander and, finally, from alcohol and drugs which tend to distort the mind.
In the Mahayana tradition (
In the Theravada Tradition, there are no dietary restrictions other than not eating the flesh of any animal that has been specifically killed for the person eating the meal. There is a growing trend for Theravadin Buddhists to be vegetarian. This is due to observance of the first precept of not destroying or harming living beings.
In the Mahayana Tradition, all Sangha and some laity are strictly vegetarian. It is not usual for monks of the Vajrayana (Tibetan) branch of the Mahayana to observe vegetarianism.
Marriage is not a sacrament in Buddhism so it is unusual for wedding ceremonies to be performed in Buddhist temples. Marriage is considered a secular matter, however, it is common for the couple, following the marriage ceremony to visit the temple and request a blessing on the union by the clergy. In
As marriage is considered a secular matter, Buddhism does not hold any views on such matters as divorce, however, the Sangha, if requested, will counsel the couple to try to avoid a possible break up of the marriage commitment.
In all Buddhist traditions the period leading up to the passing away is more important than after the death has taken place. It is important that the dying person is guided to have positive thoughts, recalling the favorable aspects of their life so that their consciousness energy can be directed to them having a favorable rebirth. This can take the form of counseling by members of the Buddhist clergy. It is common for members of the clergy to be invited to give blessing chanting in the presence of the dying person. Following death, funeral practices will differ according to the Buddhist Tradition. In the Theravada Tradition, where it is believed that rebirth takes place immediately the person dies, the monks will be invited to the funeral chapel to chant blessings mainly for the benefit and comfort of the bereaved family. In the Mahayana Tradition, it is believed that a period of up to 49 days may pass before the dead person may take rebirth. It is considered undesirable to touch or move the body for at least 24 hours after the person passes away. It is usual for blessing ceremonies to be held every seven days for this forty-nine day period. Both traditions will hold memorial ceremonies after one hundred days have passed since the person died.
Form of Ceremonies
A Buddhist ceremony will usually start with the offerings of lights, incense and flowers on the shrine. Occasionally, fruit, cakes and drinks will also be offered but the lights, incense and flowers have very special significance.. The lighting of a candle symbolises the teaching (Dharma) which lights up the darkness of ignorance. The incense symbolises the good conduct (Sila) which permeates the atmosphere with pleasantness, whilst the flowers remind us of impermanence. What is beautiful today, fades with time and eventually becomes ugly.
Other important devotional practices are the chanting of sutras (sermons of the Buddha or other great teachers), prostrations before a Buddha image, and, most importantly, practicing meditation. The chanting of sutras is often, mistakenly, referred to as Buddhist prayers. Buddhists do not pray to a god, however, Buddhists from the Mahayana tradition will sometimes pray to Bodhisattvas (future Buddhas and celestial beings) for assistance and blessings. Prostrations are considered a means of paying respect to the teacher in a similar way to people respecting those who have passed away by placing flowers on a grave. Prostrations also are a means of cultivating humility.
Meditation (Bhavana) is a central part of Buddhist practice. In the Theravadin tradition, two forms of meditation, calm (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana) are recognised as essential practice in achieving spiritual progress. Calming the mind is achieved by concentration on a specific object and excluding all extraneous thoughts. Often, the breath or the movement of the diaphragm is used as a suitable object for concentration. Once the mind has been trained in concentration, the meditator can then reflect on the feelings and sensations of the body, noting them as they arise and pass away. This practice is known as Vipassana and is the means of cultivating insight or mindfulness.
In the Cha’n (Zen, Japanese) tradition, two techniques are employed. One method is to concentrate on the breath and then try to clear the mind of all thoughts whatsoever. This method eliminates the constant chatter of the mind and results in an awakening (satori). Another Cha’an technique is to ponder a question (Kung-an, Chinese; Koan, Japanese), which has no rational answer. Typical koans are, “what was your face before you were born?” “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What am I?” or the word “Mu”. These techniques are aimed at pushing the mind beyond rational thought in order to experience the ultimate awakening.
A technique used by the Pure Land Sect of the Mahayana is to constantly recite the name (nien-fo, Chinese; nembutsu, Japanese) of the Buddha of infinite light, Amitabha Buddha (Omi t’o-Fo, Chinese; Amida Butsu, Japanese). This, again, is a means of fixing the mind on one object and not dissimilar to the repetitions of prayers used by many Christians. The result is a calmed mind, and, according to Pure Land Buddhism, rebirth in the Pure Land where enlightenment may be attained by listening to the teaching of Buddha Amitabha.
Unlike the Religions of the Book, Buddhists do not place special emphasis on the scriptures, known as the Tripitaka, comprising more than sixty volumes. These scriptures, also known as the Three Baskets, contain three main sections – the Vinaya Pitaka or books of monastic discipline, the Sutra Pitaka or books of sermons of the Buddha and the Abhidharma Pitaka or books of higher psychology. The Theravada Tradition accepts as scriptural only those teachings that can be attributed to the Buddha himself and assembled by his disciples soon after his death. The Mahayana Tradition accepts additional scriptures which can be traced to the beginning of the current era and later. Important Mahayana Sutras are the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Brahma Net Sutra, Sutra of Hui Neng, and the Heart Sutra.
Buddhist holy days, with the exception of the Japanese who use the Gregorian calendar, are determined by the Lunar calendar and vary according to the Buddhist Tradition.
Various traditions of Buddhism observe festivals which may be unique to them. The Buddhist New Year depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people. Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate New Year in late January or early February according to the lunar calendar, whilst the Tibetans usually celebrate about one month later. People from
The first Theravada ceremony of the year is Magha Puja which is also known as Dhamma Day. It recalls the time when the Buddha preached to an assembly of thousands of monks
The birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha is celebrated on the one day, the 15th day of the 4th Lunar Month. This celebration is called Vesak (also Wesak or Vaisakha), being the name of that month in the Indian calendar. The Full Moon of the seventh lunar month marks the Festival of Asalha Puja and marks the start of the three month long retreat (Vassa), also known as Buddhist Lent, when the Sangha (clergy) remain in their temple and intensify their practice. If they need to stay out of the temple during this period, it can be for no longer than three days. This Vassa Retreat corresponds to the monsoon season in
The Kathina Ceremony is held on any convenient date within one month of the conclusion of the Vassa Retreat. It is the time of the year when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks.
The most important celebrations in the Mahayana Tradition are Bodhisattva Maitreya’s Birthday which coincides with the Lunar New Year (1st day of the 1st Lunar Month), Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) Buddha’s Enlightenment Day (15th day of the second Lunar Month), Avalokitesvara ( Kwan Yin – Compassion) Bodhisattva’s Birthday (19th of the 2nd Lunar Month), Samanthabhadra Bodhisattva’s Birthday (21st day of the 2nd Lunar Month), Manjusri Bodhsattva’s Birthday (4th day of the 4th Lunar Month), (Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday (8th day of the 4th Lunar Month), Avalokitesvara (Kwan Yin) Bodhisattva’s Enlightenment Day ( 19th of the 6th Lunar Month), Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva’s Birthday (13thday of the 7th Lunar Month), Ullambana (Feast of the Hungry Ghosts) (15th day of the 7th Lunar Month), Ksitigarbha (the Earth Store Bodhisattva) Bodhisattva’s Birthday ( 30th day of the 7th Lunar Month), Bhaisajyaguru (Medicine Buddha) Buddha’s Birthday (30th of the 9th Lunar Month), Amitabha Buddha’s Birthday (17th of the 11th Lunar Month) and Sakyamuni Buddha’s Final Nirvana Day ( 8th day of the 12th Lunar Month). Other celebrations specific to particular sects are the Dalai Lama’s Birthday (Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism) (6th of July), Padmasambhava’s Birthday (6th day of the 6th Lunar Month) and Bodhidharma Patriarch of Zen’s Birthday (Cha’an and Zen sects) ( 5th day of the 10th Lunar Month). Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhists, like the Theravadins, celebrate Vesak Day, the Birth, Enlightenment and Final Nirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha on the 15th day of the 4th Lunar Month.
Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday (Hanamatsuri) on the 8th of April, whilst Ullambana (Obon) is celebrated on the 13th to the 15th of July each year.
Buddhism is essentially the practice of the Buddha’s teachings rather than a belief system. The Buddha exhorted his followers:
Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason
and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.