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Buddhism – An Overview

28/04/201007:26(Xem: 2278)
Buddhism – An Overview


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Buddhism – An Overview

BY GRAEME LYALL AM

 

Buddhism is one of Australia’s fastest growing religions, having increased by 79% in the years 1996 to 2001, then numbering some 357,814 people, being 1.9% of the population. According to the 2001 Commonwealth Census, the majority of Buddhist live in New South Wales and Victoria. The largest concentration of Buddhists in Australia is in the Fairfield Local Government Area where 21.2% of the population registered as Buddhists.

 

Buddhism may have been the first non-indigenous religion to arrive in Australia. Chinese sources report that the armada of Cheng Ho in the 15th century is known to have been in the vicinity of Arnhem Land around the early 1400's. Due to the gold rush in the 1850’s, Chinese miners, many of whom were Buddhists, arrived in Australia.

 

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 VictoriaQueensland and Tasmania, soon followed with the establishment of their own Buddhist Societies. Such was the political mood at the time that, soon after the formation o the Buddhist Society of New South Wales, the Special Squad of the N.S.W. Police visited the Society inquiring whether Buddhism was connected with Communism.

Until the abandonment of the White Australia Policy and the arrival of  refugees from South East Asia in the 1970’s, Buddhism made little progress. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Buddhism became firmly established with the arrival of refugees from South East Asia. Since then, there has been considerable growth among Australians from all ethnic backgrounds making Buddhism the largest religious grouping second only to Christianity.

 

Essential Beliefs

 

Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gotama was born on the border of modern day Nepal in 563 BCE. He was the son of a clan chief and left his home to seek a solution for the vicissitudes of life at the age of 29. After five years of study and meditation practice, he attained enlightenment at the age of 35. On the night of his enlightenment, he realised what is known as Paticcasamuppada, the important doctrine of Dependent Origination (that all things arise due to causes and pass away due to the removal of those causes). This profound realisation came to be summarised in the Four Noble Truthsthe central and most important  teaching of Buddhism. He taught for the next 45 years, passing away at the age of 80. These Four Noble Truths state that:

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.

General Structure

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 Australia and overseas. A common misconception is that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is the Head of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, although respected by many Buddhists, is the head o the Gelupa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and has no jurisdiction over other Buddhist traditions.

The Sangha

The Buddhist clergy or monastics are known as the Sangha. In the Theravadin or Southern Tradition, generally followed in BurmaCambodiaLaosSri Lanka and Thailand, the monks wear orange coloured robes and take a vow of poverty. They observe 273 monastic rules, including not handling money and not eating after midday. Since the fifth century, there have been no females recognised by the Theravada as members of the Sangha. In the Mahayana or Northern Tradition, followed in ChinaJapanKoreaTaiwan and Vietnam, the Sangha, both male and female, wear grey or brown robes. They observe the same monastic rules as the Theravada but interpret them slightly differently. They will handle money but are not supposed to acquire wealth and they often eat an evening meal. The Sangha, both male and female, perform the same function.

Short Ordination

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 Australia are instituting this practice.

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 (Northern School), these refuges and precepts are taken once only, whereas in the Theravada tradition (Southern School), they are usually taken at all ceremonies.

Dietary Practices

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

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 Australia, where marriage in a church is common and preferred by many couples, many monks have registered as civil celebrants and perform a ‘Buddhist’ wedding ceremony. Only Mahayana monks perform such ceremonies as Theravada monks are forbidden, by their rules of conduct, to perform such ceremonies.

Divorce

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.

Funerals

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

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.

Buddhist Scriptures

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.

Principal Festivals

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 Sri LankaBurmaThailandLaos and Cambodia celebrate the New Year for three days in the middle of April. 

Theravada

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 Asia and usually concludes in October. The ceremony marking the conclusion of the Rains Retreat is known as Pavarana Day.

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.

Mahayana

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.

In Conclusion

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.

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