Friday, June 3, 2011

Religion Friday: Buddhism


Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, practiced by approximately 370 million people. It splintered from Hinduism and focuses on the teachings of the “Buddha” or the Enlightened One. It was founded by an Indian prince named Siddhartha around 520 B.C. Siddhartha left his life of privilege to seek an end to the suffering in the world. He sat beneath a tree and vowed not to move until he reached enlightenment. After a few days, he arose enlightened (the Buddha).

Buddhists believe each individual must seek his/her own enlightenment. Enlightenment releases the person from the cycle of suffering and reincarnation (similar to Hinduism). Some people view Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion because it does not focus on any particular deity. Rather, reflection and meditation are key to the Buddhist faith. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.

Four Noble Truths:
1. All of life is marked by suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire and attachment.
3. Suffering can be eliminated.
4. Suffering is eliminated by following the Eight-fold Path.

Noble Eight-fold Path:
1. Right beliefs
2. Right aspirations
3. Right speech
4. Right conduct
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right meditational attainment


Meditation is a key ritual of Buddhism, as adherents work to eliminate desires. Buddhism (or parts of it) has gained many followers in the Western world. I think this is because of its belief that the individual creates his/her own enlightenment (instead of relying on a deity). To me, the self-help approach to religion doesn’t sit right—but I can see the attraction. People like the calm meditation and peaceful attitude toward nature and the body. Mindfulness and meditation is important to faiths across the board. But I think many people in the West that are attracted to this Eastern tradition just pick and choose the parts they like while avoiding the actual work Buddhism takes. There’s something “hip” about Buddhism in the West that makes enlightenment look like the plastic trophy at the end of a self-help seminar. Its coolness diminishes it in my eyes. This is nothing against sincere followers of the faith; I just think there are many that claim it because it sounds deep and cool to do so at the moment. The Eight-fold Path, if done correctly, is no easy feat. I don’t believe suffering can ever be eliminated, though the goal to try to eliminate it is noble enough.

I guess some people like the lack of structure that comes with Buddhism. It is a very individual faith as I understand it. I think any faith has a level of individualism of course. To be faithful is an individual choice. But a community of rituals and structure is important to me too. And the Noble Truths and meditation are very good for the here and now, but I also think of out there, before and after.

There is some hierarchy in the Buddhist faith. Its most famous leader is the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Gelug branch of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of a great teacher of enlightenment going as far back as the 15th century. The current Dalai Lama has been living in exile due to the tensions between Tibet and China.

[This prayer wheel is in a Tibet exhibit, part of a larger cultural exhibit I saw in Kunming, China in 2008. Prayer wheels are hollow metal cylinders with mantras or prayers written on them. It is believed that spinning the wheel is the same as verbally reciting the prayer.]

Next Friday: Shintoism

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