The textbook discusses Buddhism in chapter 7. Despite the many obstructions that Buddhism has faced, it is currently being revived in many countries around the world. Buddhism, the fourth-largest religion, is divided into two different sectors, Mahayana and Theravada. Buddhists view suffering as a tragedy, but unavoidable and overcoming it, requires deep compassion for one another. The shramanas believe in rebirth, which is strongly tied to one’s karma. An individual’s karma diminishes through each rebirth and eventually, they will be led to nirvana.
Siddhartha Gautama was the man who eventually became Buddha. Prior to his journey, he was born a prince who was very indulgent in the pleasures of life. Upon witnessing suffering beyond his palace, he abandoned his comfortable lifestyle and headed towards the ascetic path. Soon, he realized the difficulties of asceticism and searched for a middle way between indulgence and asceticism. Through meditations, he experienced an awakening as he relinquished his desires and was referred to as Buddha. His former ascetic companions joined the sangha and traveled to spread Buddha’s teachings to all. Buddha devoted the rest of his life to teaching the Dharma and building religious institutions for monks and nuns.
The path towards nirvana is not an easy journey. It consists of the Four Noble Truths, which include ourselves and the occurrences that revolve around our lives. This leads to the Eightfold Path and is the basis of meditation. The Eightfold Path is the compass that guides one to enlightenment. Not everyone was welcomed into the sangha. There were very specific rules within the householder community and Buddha’s instructions surpassed him after his death.
The spread of Buddhism in Asia was thanks to Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty. It was through this expansion that led to the development of institutions, such as monasteries and shrines, and provided opportunities for citizens. Monks and nuns would take on many tasks, from meditating to becoming vihara builders and they were always moving to different areas to assist others while spreading their teachings. They were funded through donations. Although the expansion of Buddhism was successful in creating institutions and programs, it was susceptible to corruption.
Buddhist monks and nuns were guided by doctrines; some were shared and some were exclusive within a certain school. Acquiring nirvana required prajna. The Three Marks of Existence are the traits of exploring reality. One of the doctrines included “nonself,” which denies the notion that the soul is eternal. The next doctrine is dependent origination. This doctrine explains the meaning behind an individual’s rebirth. Next is morality and ethics, also known as merit, which is guided by karma. Good karma is earned through contributing to good deeds, while bad karma is earned through engaging in bad actions. Distributing one’s wealth can earn merit as stated under the doctrine of the ‘Four Good Deeds.’ A good Buddhist is described to follow the ‘Three Refuges.’
The Madhyamaka was devoted to detachment in order to reach enlightenment. This school of thought led to the development of the Cittamatra, which focused on consciousness and encouraged meditation. The Buddha-Nature school follows the Mahayana, arguing that all beings can achieve nirvana. The Lotus Sutra is a well-known scripture and included the celestial bodhisattvas, who expressed compassion to its devotees. Next, is the school of Pure Land, in which some bodhisattvas had developed a paradise to reach enlightenment through rebirth. Lastly, the Ch’an was devoted to meditation as a means to achieve enlightenment.
Premodern Buddhism spread to South Asia, China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and the Himalayan regions. Today, meditation, rituals, and festivals are important in Buddhism and many meditation practices have evolved. The impact of colonialism contributed to Buddhism’s decline, however, during the twentieth century, the religion started thriving in many countries. Although Buddhism was founded in South Asia, it has faced a decline within that region. There has been conflict between Buddhists and other religions and political ideologies. However, Buddhism played a crucial role in Southeast Asia’s post-colonialism and was revived in several countries after WW2. Currently, the religion has spread to Western societies but unfortunately, some aspects of the religion have been exploited, such as Zen Buddhism.
Many monks and nuns have faced numerous challenges, however, they are working on adapting to modernity to keep the religion alive. In countries where Buddhism is prevalent, monks and nuns are strongly involved in the political sphere. Unfortunately, many problems surrounding the countries are considered a direct conflict with Buddhist beliefs. Their involvement in politics opens doors to several ethical issues.
Discussion Questions (Please select 2):
1. Buddhism states that suffering is inevitable. Do you agree with this statement? Explain.
2. Assuming that ‘karma’ exists, how do you think ‘karma’ is governed? For example, what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions? Would engaging in deviance lead to ‘bad karma’?
3. Is a pure Buddhist state attainable? Why or why not?
This chapter begins with a brief overview of the two groups that make up Buddhism in Asia, where over 98% of Buddhists live. The majority of adherents follow the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” which is dominant in Nepal, Tibet, and East Asia. The rest of the adherents follow the Theravada or “Teachings of the Elders” which is dominant in South and Southeast Asia. Though both groups have slightly different beliefs and practices, they both follow the Buddha’s basic teachings about life, mortality, and spiritual development amidst the many changes that have occurred over the last few centuries (pg. 340).
The Buddha, who was born as Siddartha Gautama, was the son of warrior-caste parents and lived quite a luxurious lifestyle within the walls of his family’s palace; where he was destined to become a ruler (pg. 343). This all changed, however, when Siddartha followed his chariot driver outside the walls of his palace. Here, he saw a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a shramana which changed his perception of life and led him to abandon his family and lifestyle (pg. 343). After receiving guidance from a number of shramana gurus and meditating, the Buddha was able to achieve enlightenment under a bodhi tree and remained there for seven weeks as he enjoyed this state of nirvana (pg. 346).
The Buddha became the ultimate model of the engaged Buddhist and his journey continued with teaching his disciples, or arhats, the Four Noble Truths, which “described human life as marked by suffering, distorted by desire, and a path to its extinction,” as well as the Eightfold Path which outlined the necessary means for achieving the state of nirvana (pg. 350). He also started the sangha and called for his arhats to “admit qualified seekers into the sangha, guide those who wished to meditate, and teach the Dharma to any who would hear it” (pg. 346).
As Buddhist monasticism spread across Asia after the Buddha’s death, a variety of different types of monasteries emerged, such as forest and village monasteries, which survived on donations made by laypeople in society. As a reward, laypeople earned merit as a means of improving their karma and receiving blessings for themselves, their families, and their communities (pg. 354).
During the premodern period of Buddhism, all Buddhists shared a number of core doctrines associated with the Dharma that relate to achieving nirvana, viewing a person as a collection of the skandhas, the cycle of rebirth, and the ideology of good (punya) and bad (pap) merit and how they relate to karmic destiny (pg. 356-361). However, there were a number of teachings that differed in various monastic schools that contributed to the divide between the Mahayana and the Theravada. For example in the Madhyamaka school, opposition to the Theravadins’ focus on an individual’s pursuit of nirvana was perceived as “selfish” and ignorant of the Buddha’s highest teaching (pg. 364). Other schools of thought include the conscious only school, Buddha-nature school, pure land schools, and the Ch’an/Zen schools.
From about 400-1500 CE, Buddhism expanded across Asia, and depending on the cultural region in which it was introduced, nuns and arhats adapted Buddhist traditions to the local cultural conditions. However, this did not always work for them since other factors, such as the arrival of Islam in South Asia or the great persecution of 841-45 in China, prevented Buddhism from flourishing (pg. 369-371). In places where Buddhism did thrive, traditions such as meditation practices, punya and dana, rituals, festivals, veneration of a caitya, and death rituals were all followed in hopes to ultimately achieve the blissful state of nirvana.
Although colonialism and communism did introduce certain challenges to Buddhism in Asia after the 1800s, it was not long before the religion gained strength and revived itself. As industrialization and globalization took over the world in recent decades, some Buddhist leaders rejected modernity and preferred to return to traditional practices while others wanted to adapt Buddhism to the global realities of the postcolonial world. The latter often turned to reform movements, such as Protestant Buddhism, to revitalize and modernize traditional Buddhist practices and beliefs.
Buddhism’s expansion to the West has resulted in newly affluent Buddhists following some Buddhist traditions, such as making valuable donations to monasteries to earn good merit. However, many pick and choose which traditions are followed. The Zen and Tibetan schools in North America, for example, “eschewed celibate monasticism, featured meditation, and minimized ritualism” (pg. 399).
Discussion Questions (please choose 2):
1. Engaged Buddhists seek to relate their teachings to contemporary suffering and one monk has even gone as far as engulfing himself in flames to protest the Vietnamese government’s failure to respect Buddhism (pg. 342). Even though compassion is heavily emphasized in Buddhism, do you think there should be a limit on how far this compassion is taken?
2. What type of actions may a modern Buddhist (not living in a monastery) take towards achieving nirvana?
3. What are your thoughts on the Zen and Tibetan schools in North America taking a different approach to Buddhist practices? Do you think they take away from the traditional principle of Buddhism or are they simply a result of modernization and reformation?