The religion or philosophy created by Buddha. The goal is the freedom from suffering and clear sight and perfect understanding. It originated in India, and is slightly related to Hinduism and Taoism and Zen.
Buddhist practice involves Meditation.

The teachings of Buddhism include a belief in

reincarnation, though not in the sense of transmigration, as in Hinduism.

Transmigration is the belief that, after death, one's soul or self is passed on to another

living creature and one begins life again in a different body. Buddhism, by contrast,

does not believe in the existence of the self, but rather sees the self as a collection of

things that comprise our momentary consciousness. Also, in the Buddhist tradition

all things are seen as having no real permanence. Each moment brings a completely

new existence, which in turn is succeeded by yet another existence, the only

connection being that one thing causes the next. Permanence is achieved only

through causation of continuance.

pi, I would not say it was created by the Buddha. As Joseph Campbell put it nicely, when people asked the Buddha to teach them the truth, he said he would not teach them the truth but would show them how to discover it by themselves. That sums up Buddhism very well.

Also, it is not perfect understanding, but right understanding. Not a goal either, but one "eighth" of the eightfold path that leads to the end of suffering.

Last but not least, Buddhism is not slightly related to Zen. Zen is a school of Buddhism, within the Mahayana branch.

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? I guess that varies from Buddhist to Buddhist. Personally, I do not like to think of it as either, but that is my choice. The Latin word religio literally means binding, and there is none of that in Buddhism. Philosophy, perhaps in its literal sense as "love for wisdom." Then again, Buddhism is not about wisdom (though wisdom, prajna, is certainly a part of it), but about freedom from suffering.

To me, Buddhism is a way of looking at reality which defies any definition. When asked what Buddhism is, I generally just shrug my shoulders and say, Buddhism is Buddhism. I know that does not help much, but it expresses my own understanding of Buddhism as being so unique that no words can describe it.

I am not the only one who can simply define it: Witness the use of koans in Zen Buddhism.

The Early Life of Siddhartha Gautama

Siddhartha Gautama, or as he later became known, the Buddha, had an exceedingly strange birth into a very wealthy and powerful, and Hindu of course family. He was born in 563 BC in Lumbini, in what today would be the country of Nepal. His father, Shuddhodana, was a very powerful man, but not known is whether he was a noble or just high-class citizen of the Shakyas. Siddhartha's birth is shrouded in legend, and perhaps we will never know the exact truth about it. It is said that the Boddhisattva entered his mother Mahamaya's womb as a white elephant, from Tushita Heaven. The pregnancy lasted for 10 months, and when Siddhartha was finally born, he was born from his mother's side, standing! In fact, in his perfect birth he was born entirely clean but water still poured from the heavens to clean him and his mother. It is also said that upon being born, Siddhartha stands and walks perfectly with long steps 7 paces to the north, under a parasol from the gods, and affirms, "I am the chief in the world, I am the best in the world, I am the first in the world. This is my last birth. There is now no existence again." He was a very special child, and this was of course not his first birth. He had been able to reach his last through many cycles of death and rebirth, slowly reaching the highest, luckiest, most wondrous existence of all: to become a buddha.

Indeed, his birth was not the only thing special about this man. It is worth remembering that he lost his mother as a week-old infant, and his sister Mahapajapati would take care of him as his mother. Shortly, Asita, a sage, would come to Kapilavastu. When he saw Siddhartha, he was awe-struck at what he saw: no less than thirty-two special signs on this infant! He began to cry thereafter, and was asked why. To Shuddhodana's dismay, the reply was that there was nothing wrong with Siddhartha, but he (Asita) would not live to be able to learn from the wisdom that Siddhartha would eventually gain and teach. He would not be able to be enlightened by the Enlightened One, Buddha. Now of course, Shuddhodana decided to do the only thing that would make sense for him: shelter his son. Shuddhodana had his own plans for Siddhartha, and they did most certainly not involve him becoming a religious leader!

Shuddhodana was able to realize that to become such a great teacher, his son would have to see the negative aspects of life. He decided Siddhartha would have none of this: this child would be kept inside or very close, given his every desire, want, and whim. He would not experience real life, and not become a buddha, without having contact with reality. As he grew, and began to become independant, he would need to be guarded much more closely than the mere chaperones of his early childhood. And so he was built three marble palaces, each for one season. He was kept inside these buildings, spoiled with clothes, food, musicians, girls, and entertainers. He turned out to be amazingly well-rounded, and a great sportsman. He was able to beat the other suitors and marry his cousin Yashodhara at the age of sixteen. Eventually, at about twenty-nine, they did have a single child: a son named Rahula (but when that time came, he would be leaving).

The Path to Enlightenment

One day, after tiring of being held back and inside for so long and hearing of the real world but not experiencing it, Siddhartha decides to secretly (most likely) leave. He takes four journeys. On his first journey with his groom, Channa, they encounter an old man. On the second, they encounter a sick man. On the third, they see a dead man. However, the biggest effect is encountered the fourth time they leave: they will meet a sadhu. He was a wandering holy person, of the alternative shramana ways, rather than the popular brahmana. He was underwhelming, seeming very poor, but yet there was something special about him: he seemed to have a tranquillity and a lack of worry that others had.

Siddhartha now felt inner conflict: he was learning of a way to be free of suffering, but he would have to give up those that he loved! He had a strong force which he could not ignore, and he didn't. On the night when his son Rahula was born. He and Channa left silently on horse, and at a riverbank, parted. Siddhartha chopped off his hair and donned the robe of a wandering holy man, and left walking alone. He seeked the shramana teachers, Kalama and Ramaputra. He was the studious disciple of both of them, and he learned everything possible that they could teach him. Alas, though becoming much more knowledgeable, he left with the great spiritual problem still unsolved.

Siddhartha then went through many forms of asceticism in the jungle, because he thought that by forcing his physical self to suffer more and more, he could eventually overcome suffering. He caused physical suffering upon himself in many ways. He lived without clothing, he suffered both extreme heat and cold. He endured sharp pain of sharp things, and even at times held his breath till he passed out. He even starved himself for many a day, till he was really nothing more than skin and bones. The only thing he gained was the admiration of five other ascetics, who wished to join him. He was very weak, and very unhealthy, but not spiritually any better because of all of his suffering. He ate some, losing the respect of his followers, but of course enabling him to continue living. Siddhartha had gone from being pampered and sheltered to starving and abusing himself, and realized that neither life could fulfill him, instead, he thought that there could be a good compromise. Remember sitting under a tree as a child, and meditating, he pondered if this could be a way to Enlightenment. So this is what he tried: at present-day Bodh Gaya, India, he sat beneath the famous bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), and this would be his final attempt at Enlightenment. He would sit under this tree until either death or Enlightenment came to him. As he did this, Mara, the evil force, did his best to stop him, for he did not want anyone to learn the secrets of life and how to be safe from suffering. He tried to tantalize Siddhartha with demons, warriors, seductresses, and even attempting to lead him to the wrong path of thought. But of course, Siddhartha dejected Mara's ways and was victorious over evil as time passed. This can be analyzed to mean that he had inner struggles under the bodhi tree, that he had come close to giving in to his desires, to giving up, and to revert to being fearful. Another possibility of his stay under the tree, probably more believable, would be that he sat in vipassana, a state of meditation in which one could gain insight. For forty days he sat under the tree. At last, he awoke, and he was greater: he was no longer just Siddhartha Gautama, a son of a wealthy family whom he had given up, but Buddha, The Enlightened One.

His Enlightenment

The Buddha, as he now would be known, had learned many things under the bodhi tree. He had gained understanding of dharma and karma, reincarnation, and the world. He had knowledge of the asavas: sexual desire, desire for life, and ignorance. He saw the universe as a whole now: there are no individuals, but only an entire universe, a unity. Once attaining this Enlightenment, Buddha continued to meditate under the tree for yet longer, to live in the wonder and awe this awakening brought him. He didn't think it would be worth trying to share his knowledge since people are of course not willing to accept it. Eventually, though, he was "snapped out of it": the god Brahma Sahampati interrupted him, and gave him hope. This god told Buddha that there were those of us who are not too deluded, that can learn and benefit from the Buddha's deep universal knowledge.

He had a problem, at this point. He was told that indeed he would have followers and those who were ready to accept his teachings, but he did not have anyone he could think of that would want to accept his teachings... except his five ascetic followers who had shunned him earlier, when he had eaten so that he may continue living. He was able to find them, and they could tell he was a different man. They succumbed to their desire that they should follow him, so they did. While teaching his five first disciples, one of them, Kaundinya, understood immediately about the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way, and the evils. He was pronounced the first bhikshu (Buddhist monk) to follow the way of Buddha. He wanted to share his enlightenment to more, so he wandered with his followers, to various places. He was not only the founder of a religion (or more accurately, the current re-founder of his time), but also quite a missionary and teacher to many. He converted an ascetic group Kshyapa, all of about 500 persons, to his Buddhism. He gained lay-persons, who did not wish to become monks or nuns, as well, for he did not disallow anyone, and he treated all equally. To his community, the sangha, he gained yet more followers from other disciples, he led both rich and poor. There was controversy, however, relating to one of his earlier misgivings: he was breaking up family bonds and teacher-student bonds. It was now that he also defined the religion more clearly. For instance, the ceremony in which one was accepted into the sangha required shaving one's hair, wearing the now-customary yellow robe, and repeating the Refuge. The Refuge was a simple enunciation of what could be defined as faith or trust, but is better described as acceptance of values, "I go for refuge to the Buddha; I go for refuge to the dharma; I go for refuge to the sangha." The sangha was also rather well-received, compared to ascetics of the time. These Buddhists were close-knit, and were always good and content, with remarkable personalities. In Rajagrha, where Buddha was well-received by King Bimbisara (a now-follower), a sign of good-will was given to the sangha. The king generously donated a large grove to them, and it was to become the first monastery.

More monasteries would come after this: one paid for, by a faithful man named Anathapindika, by covering the area with gold (Jetavana). Another would be in a neighboring area, and called Purvarama. The sangha found its place in these early areas, with a wonderful coexistence as per the lay-persons. Buddha and his bhikshus would help out in any ways necessary with the citizens, including to teach them the ways of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truth. The people returned the generosity they were shown to the sangha, with various necessities of life (food, clothing, and shelter). There have of course been some opposition, but definitely not very much. After some five years of Buddha's teaching, his father Shuddhodana died. Mahapajapati, his sister and his father's wife, wished to become a nun in the sangha, but he refused three times. Yet she still persisted: she cut her hair, wore the yellow robe, and became a follower without having his consent. When Mahapajapati and the other females, like eventually his ex-wife, were noticed by Ananda, he finally convinced the Buddha to ordain them, respecting them for their persistence and dedication. Yet they were lower than the bhikshus, the bhikshunis. No matter how experienced, the woman would always be lower than the man (for this time period). He was worried that women would weaken his dharma, but they did have the same abilities as men, including religious ones. Buddha had spent time in these years doing many great things. He kept people on the right path when their values were deluded. He solved many disputes, and recruited many people, giving them hope. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was definitely not just some random wandering monk.

The Teachings of Buddha

Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths:
Duhkha is existant.
Duhkha has a specific cause.
The cause of duhkha can be removed, gaining nirvana.
The marga (paths) must be followed to remove the cause of suffering.
There are certain ways to remove the cause. Duhkha is a concept which is simplified to mean "suffering". Yet, beyond that, duhkha refers to any dark part of life, including diseases, pain, and loss. Of course, there is also the sukha, which is the light part of life. And so this is where Buddhism begins: recognition of duhkha. Once duhkha has been identified, it will be possible to eventually escape it, but more importantly, to start to fully understand life. Duhkha's cause is identifiable to be trishna: basically "desire". Trishna can take the form of lust, greed, or many other various, subtle yet recognizable forms, not all necessarily being very bad. Freedom of trishna, and hence duhkha, is nibbana, or nirvana. Nirvana can take multiple forms, such as pure bliss of realization during meditation, or the peace of passing away after having become a buddha and reaching spiritual perfection. Nirvana, though, can not be truly defined, except by vague allusions. Nirvana is a concept that is not easy to grasp: while not actual nothingness, as nirvana is not a lack of something, and not heaven, as many would probably tend to conclude, it is something yet still in-between. While not being defined, it is described, as pure bliss. And of course, more basically, to reach perfection. In order to terminate duhkha, it is necessary to follow the Eightfold Path, which defines standards to live by and is a guide to spiritual success. The Eightfold Path is as follows:
  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Even though enumerated, there is no specific sequence in which to achieve all of these various goals. All of these are ultimately miniature goals in and of themselves, and should be attempted singularly. Though they are counted as eight, there are truly only three different goals: right wisdom, morality, and meditation. Right understanding means a lot: you have listened to the Buddha's teaching. Moreover, you have accepted, understood, and applied those teachings to your own life. Right thought is detachment from the ego. Right thought is learning, and becoming one with the universe, in harmony.

Ethics

Buddhism has a very strong code of ethics, coming straight from the Eightfold Path. Karma plays heavily in this: the old parable "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" applies well. Karma is the idea that since the universe is connected in every way, hurting another will hurt you. Being "good" will bring you closer to nirvana. Right action is a definition of behavior, the Five Precepts. The first of these states to refrain from taking life. This defines as morally wrong not only the killing of humans, but also to hunt animals for food is unacceptable. The second precept is to refrain from taking what is not given to you. This of course refers mainly to stealing, but could also refer to the appropriation of less visible things. The third precept is to refrain from misusing the senses. It is wrong to overuse taste, for gluttony is both unhealthy, and is eating what the needy should be. It is wrong to use the mind to indulge only oneself. And of course, sexual actions would have been considered morally wrong, for not only is it indulgence of the senses, but it also leads to feelings which directly work against the ideals which would lead to nirvana. The fourth is to refrain from telling lies. Buddhism is built on truth and honesty, and lying would only bring about bad karmic fate. Fifth is to refrain from intoxication. You should not use either alcohol or drugs, perhaps because anything that would alter your perception would be considered bad.

Right livelihood mainly refers to work. The principle member of the total livelihood concept is harmlessness. Your work should not harm or interfere with others. Your livelihood should be productive and not destructive. Once again, you should have a right mind, for you will delude no one but yourself. Right effort is not what would be thought to most at first. Right effort does not mean to strain yourself and spend too much energy trying to do as much good as possible. You should instead find a middle ground between laziness and overexertion.

The last paths are right mindfulness and right concentration. The path to these is meditation. Meditation is a complex concept. Though it may look like it, meditation is not rest, for meditation is the awakening of the mind. When you meditate, you can explore your inner self and the universe. You can understand things more clearly. The traditional form of meditation is cross-legged, single or double lotus. There are other subtleties: hands together, eyes closed, mouth shut (not tightly), back straight, which would suggest sitting as being a primary position. This does not mean that meditation cannot occur laying down, or even standing fully upright. When meditating, the first step is to focus on a single thing, or nothingness, and to clear your mind. You should not be thinking of anything thought-provoking. Do not let your mind wander, as it most likely will try; you should bring it back to that single point of concentration. Eventually, you should have a completely clear and calm mind. When this has been attained, you can now open your mind. Slowly, you should be able to concentrate more clearly than any other time on whatever should happen to enter your consciousness. The five hindrances to this are sensual desire, ill will, sloth, worry, and doubt. These are the major obstructions to having a sound dharmatic existence.

The concept of the self, the ego, is a false concept. To define something is to make it constant. But surely, how would you define yourself? Well first of all, you have a name. You could define yourself as having a certain physical appearance, of course. And you could define yourself as a person who has certain opinions, and certain mental aspects. But look closer, through these things. Your name is letters, but only sounds, and holds no real meaning. How do you look? You won't look like that in 10 years, nor did you 10 years before. If you were to wear different clothes, shave or not shave, get a new haircut, you would look different. You would look different, not constant. And of course your mentality has always been the same, right? You think exactly as you did at any other point in time, didn't you? Of course you don't. There is no "self", for any way to define yourself would not be constant, and therefore be an illusion. But when you expand your view beyond this ego, you realize there is an entire world, and all is part of this single world.

The Perfections

There are perfections, or more accurately virtues. These are the ideal values and the goals to strive for as a Buddhist. You should have generosity. Be selfless, and be caring to others. One should have morality, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Morality should dictate proper actions. One must discover renunciation, for one must abandon things which only lead to emptiness. One should have wisdom, a true understanding. Wisdom does not much come from learning, but from meditative exploration. Energy is of course important to have. Sloth helps no one. As they always say, patience is a virtue! Be kind and understanding to others, and don't rush things. A Buddhist should have truthfulness. A true Buddhist would not lie, not for fear of karmic retribution, but instead out of deeply understanding why it's wrong. A follower should have determination. A follower should not give up in the face of diversity, and strive! Loving-kindness is important as well. Compassion for others makes the world worth living in. Perhaps most important is equanimity. Equanimity is not to detach yourself from the world, nor should you ignore it. Equanimity is to take things in stride, realize that things are not "good" or "bad", but rather even out. It is only those who desire to not have peace with the world that must separate an event into either being positive or negative.

Buddhism in Today's Societies

Today, Buddhism is not the most widespread religion in the world. However, its practitioners number in the many millions in much of Asia, for instance. Although not a major religion in the United States, the effects of Buddhism are definitely here. A prime example from the past few years is the Tibetan Freedom Concert, an event that brings the Tibetan Buddhist culture to the forefront of our society, and highlights the perfections present in everyone. The Tibetan Freedom Concert is the work of the Milarepa Fund, existing out of the goodness of people today. While raising awareness to help to free Tibet, the Milarepa Fund (founded in part by Buddhist Beastie Boy Adam Yauch) emphasizes many Buddhist ideals, especially non-violence. All the previous buddhas would be very proud of what is happening today.
If you want to know the basics about Buddhism, such as terms and the beliefs associated with the religion, here is some stuff to read:

Definitions and Explanations

Aryan – ("noble") The word identifies those who have reached a level of high spiritual attainment. In direct translation, the four noble truths are actually translated to mean the four truths for noble people. They are the "noble" ones who understand the four truths to be true.

Samsara – (sam "together" + sarati "it flows") in Buddhism, it signifies a person’s rebirth. To achieve nirvana one must understand how Samsara works and then see how to break the rebirth cycle. During the Buddha’s third watch, he identified the causes of Samsara and destroyed it by destroying his karma.

Karma – (karman "fate, action") Buddhist philosophy that says a person’s current and future life is dependent on her/his behavior in this and previous lives. It also refers to one’s actions (sinful or good), which can bring about suffering or pleasure. Karma changes every moment reminding followers of the impermanence of the world. A common Buddhist practice is finding a way to get around one’s karma. It is also said that one should look at the body to see the past, the mind to see the future.

Jataka – ("birth") stories about the past life. There are about 547 Jataka Buddhist stories. In Buddhism, Jatakas play an important role because they tell about the Buddha’s past lifetime and remind the world that what he is teaching is an eternal truth that has existed throughout the ages, it isn’t anything new. It also legitimates the dharma and the Buddha, as well as devotes places of pilgrimage.

Nirvana – (nirva "to be extinguished," from nis "out" + va "to blow") the attainment of enlightenment and the freeing of the spiritual self from attachment to worldly things, ending the cycle of birth and rebirth. This is the ultimate goal for every Buddhist.

Gautama Buddha – born Siddharta Gautama, also known as Sakyamuni. Nepalese-born Indian philosopher who renounced his life as a prince to explore abstract concepts such as human suffering. He attained enlightenment about 528 b.c. (age 35) and taught the doctrine until he reached nirvana at the age of 80.

Bodhisattva – (bodhi "perfect knowledge" + sattva "being, reality") a being that has attained enlightenment worthy of nirvana but remains in the human world to help others. One who passes up the opportunity to become an arhat so that he may dedicate his lifetimes to building good merit to achieve the perfection necessary to re-discover the Buddhist teachings and spread the word once again.

Buddha – (budh "to wake up, be enlightened") somebody who has achieved a state of perfect enlightenment, in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. Represents one of the three jewels because the Buddha taught the Dharma which provides refuge from everyday suffering. A Buddha will only come when the world is in need of enlightenment because the previous teachings have faded from everybody’s memory. Similar to an arhat, but his path is different. A Buddha discovers teachings and truths on his own.

Dharma – ("something established, decree, custom") the truth about the way things are, and will always be, in the universe or in nature, especially when contained in scripture. One of the three jewels. The chance to know the Dharma is a rare opportunity which is a product of one’s past karma.

Sangha – community of Buddhist followers (i.e. monks and nuns) who keep a set of rules in the order of the Buddha and whom have taken vows. To enter, a person is either a novice or a fully ordained monk. One of the three jewels.

Stupa – Buddhist shrine, temple, or pagoda that houses a relic or marks the location of an auspicious event of the Buddha. Serve as reminders to the public of the Buddhist beliefs.

Dharmakaya – the Buddha’s quality body, it is formed from a collection of all good qualities.

Vinaya – rules of monastic discipline. Listed the various punishments for breaking a vow. Helps scholars today learn more about the Buddha and Buddhism.

Anatman – the idea of no self. A key principle in the Buddhist philosophy to understand that everything a person does or experiences is due to various causes and that everything he does not only effects him but his surroundings and those around him as well.

Arhat – ("deserving, meritorious" or "worth one") a Buddhist who has reached the highest state of peace and enlightenment. Somebody worthy of great respect and offering. Relies on Buddhist teachings for nirvana.

theravada - you get yourself to Nirvana. For instance people who are not monks/nuns cannot reach Nirvana. The road to extinction is a long one, you have to be reincarnated several times to reach the status of arhat as a munk.

mahayana - you can get help to get to Nirvana. Even ordinary people can achieve "bliss"/extinction. Buddha did not enter Nirvana at once when he achieved it, from that the mahayana has learnt that when you do reach the goal, you stay and lead others, become a bodhisattva! They also have a place somewhat like heaven! Often called the Western Paradise, which was created by the one buddha; Amithaba Buddha. Actually all other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are revelations of this ONE Buddha.

The name mahayana means the Greater Vehicle. The mahayana school often refer to the Theravada as hinayana, the Small Vehicle; this because they think the hinayana followers are selfish and only mind their own "bliss".

How to become a Buddhist

There are as many ways of becoming Buddhist as there are Buddhisms. Which is to say, nearly infinite. Every Buddhist sect and regional division may have its own private wrinkles on the process of formally becoming a follower of the teachings of the Buddha. To clear up the issue a bit, let us, for convenience, define a few general catagories:
  • Ordained clergy: A follower who has taken the full vows of a monk or a nun, and is considered by both the local established Sangha and by the civil laws of his or her area to be a member of the clergy.
  • Unordained clergy: A follower who has taken on vows, responsibilities, and authority in excess of those imposed upon the laity. This may include the Ten Precepts of ordained life, but generally does not include the full monastic code. Under civil law, this person may or may not be considered part of the clergy.
  • Lay follower: A non-ordained person who has satisfied the general qualifications for admittance as a lay follower- accepting the Three Refuges (tiratana), and following the Five Precepts. They may or may not have formally converted through a particular ceremony, and may or may not be involved in any public form of religious observance. They consider themselves Buddhist, though they may not regard this designation as exclusive (they may continue to engage in observances and practices of other faith traditions, and may consider themselves part of those communities).
  • Supporter: An unordained person having never formally or informally taken the Three Refuges. May follow elements of the Buddhist teaching, but may not follow all of the Five precepts. Most interested but uncommited persons would fall into this category.

There are, of course, complications of these relationships. Lay meditation teachers, for instance, may fulfil the role of unordained clergy, while living a lifestyle closer to that of a lay follower. Nonetheless, these divisions do in some way reflect the differing levels of commitment and formality available in the Buddhist tradition. They also reflect certain traditional distinctions that originate as far back as the Pali Canon.

All of these roles have a few things in common. Among them are an interest in the teachings of the Buddha, a willingness to learn from others, and a desire to live a moral life. Buddhist traditions from every side of the globe have taught for years that morality is the true foundation of all other Buddhist practices and teachings. While the strictness of the observation of the Five Precepts may vary, the ultimate responsability to live a moral life does not. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha voiced the opinion that moral failings 'dug up' ones 'roots', making greater spiritual growth impossible. Different schools and sects over the years have held various opinions about the place of book learning, experience, meditaiton, ritual, asceticism, ordination, and even the ability to write poetry, but every tradition today agrees on the importance of moral conduct for those who seek to learn.

I'll address movement into each category in the reverse of the order I presented them.

Supporter

There are little or no requirements for being a lay supporter of the Buddhist teachings. All that is required is that one have an interest and enthusiasm for the Dharma. No particular vows, learning, or level of participation in ceremonial aspects of life are required. Some would question whether this constitutes any sort of adoption of Buddhism at all; and while it may be no more than an idle interest, it can encompass more profound categories of belief and support. In the time of the Buddha, for instance, an incident is recorded where a brahmin heard the Buddha speak and was quite compelled by his teachings. However, because of his position in society and the views of his kin, he was unable to formally undertake the role of a lay follower, and was forced to disguise the degree of his regard. Similarly, this category may encompass devotees of other religious traditions who feel that undertaking the teachings of the Buddha in any more than an advisory capacity would undermine or conflict with their exisiting religious obligations and faith- practitioners of Buddhist meditation techniques who are members of Christian or other monotheistic religious orders, for example.

Lay Follower

This is a category of Buddhist believer that has existed since the earliest days of institutional Buddhism; along with male and female ordained followers, groups of male and female lay followers constitue what has traditionally been called the Sangha, though this term has a number of other meanings as well. The qualifications for being called a lay follower are generally seen as two-fold; adoption of the Five Precepts as a moral guideline, and seeking the Three Refuges (tiratana).

The Five Precepts are the basic guidelines of Buddhist morality; they include abstaining from the taking of life, stealing, telling lies and gossiping, taking intoxicants, and commiting adultery, or other sexual misconducts defined variously in the canonical texts and local traditions. They correspond to the elements of the Eightfold Path of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, which are collectively called the sila or morality division. These five precepts are incumbent upon all Buddhists, but some lay followers make a point of formally undertaking them from a monk at some point in their lives. And of course, adoption of these teachings formally or informally does not mean that the lay follower perfectly observes these teachings at all times. Interpretation of the precepts may vary from location to location - particularly as regards local standards of sexual conduct and attitudes towards alcohol and other intoxicants.

The Three Refuges, or tiratana, are the basis of Buddhist life around the world; they are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These three are the traditional refuges of a Buddhist, lay or ordained. Indeed, the simplest definition of membership in the Buddhist faith extends it to all those who have even once gone for refuge to the so-called Triple Gem or Three Treasures.

What does it mean to have gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha? The simplest explanation is that it means that one has publicly or privately recited three times the refuge formula:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge
Pali, Sanskrit, and vernacular versions are also commonly employed.

The meaning of this 'seeking refuge' is complex, and is discussed at some length in commentaries and popular works on Buddhism. In general, it means that one acknowledges the place of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha in providing direction in their life - the Buddha as the originator of the teaching, the Dhamma as the teaching itself, and the Sangha as the repository of the teaching and as (ideally) a source of visible inspiration that recalls the Buddha himself. Furthermore, going for refuge indicates a willingness to look to these three facets of the Buddhist teaching for ordering principles for ones life. The compassion and wisdom of the Buddha are the ultimate goal; the Dhamma, the path to the achievement of that goal, and the Sangha a source of support, and a place to find teaching and further direction. The Sangha also serve the laity by preserving the Dhamma and providing lay follower with the opportunity to make merit to earn better birth in a future life- even the chance to be born into the presence of a Buddha.

There are no conditions put on a lay follower's participation in ritual life, nor on their learning and achievement in the area of Buddhist philosophy, scripture, or meditation. Individual Buddhists decide for themselves what their role will be, or what their life circumstances demand of them. Some lay Buddhists limit themselves to activities aimed at making merit; others become quite advanced in techniques of meditation, or take the time and effort necesary to arrive at an understanding of the more complex teachings of Buddhism that were once the sole preserve of the ordained clergy. In the modern era, with the expansion of leisure time for members of the growing middle, the trend among educated and devout lay Buddhists has been towards a more active and involved lay community; however, an intense interest in the area of making merit persists in most traditional Buddhist communities, particularly among those too overworked or uneducated to attempt more complex studies or activities.

Furthermore, as with the lay supporter category, Buddhist lay membership need not be exclusive. Most traditional Buddhist countries have embraced a number of imported and local belief systems- from complex foreign philosophies to folk medicine- at the same time as various Buddhist transmissions. This trend has continued with Buddhisms spread to the West, where lay Buddhists with an eye towards preserving their own cultural heritage have freely combined Buddhism with the teachings and traditions of both Christianity and Judaism.

Though becoming a lay Buddhist follower can be no more than a quiet resolve made within ones own heart, there are more public rituals that are observed by some. The most common is the public taking of the three Refuges, through recitation of the formula above, in the presence of a group of previously recognized lay or ordained Buddhists. These ceremonies take place at many temples, and even some more non-traditional Buddhist centers. They may be geared towards adults, or may be undertaken by young people upon reaching an age of majority- similar to the Jewish bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah tradition. Likewise, a lay Buddhist may formally ask to receive the Five Precepts from a monk, a ceremony more likely to be found at a Theravada temple than in a less traditional surrounding. Some teachers place great emphasis on the actual undertaking of the precepts in the presence of a monk; others feel that as one is bound by their teachings whether or not one formally undertakes them only a symbolic role is played.

Non-ordained Clergy

This category is typically felt to have arisen after the time of the Buddha, and encompasses a wide variety of special practitioners. What all non-ordained clergy have in common is a dedication and learning that is in advance of that held by the typical lay follower. They may also have other trappings of a life closer to that of an ordained monk. This category may include lay followers who have elected to spend a period of their life in service to a temple or monastery as a helper (but who cannot fully ordain because this would make them a less useful assistant- lay assistants can handle money and finances for a temple for instance, but in the Theravada tradition, monks cannot). It may include lay followers who have undertaken the full Ten Precepts of a monk or a nun in an effort to live a more religious life. It includes female Theravada nuns (bhikkhuni) who can not fully ordain because of the failing of the Theravada female lineage in 15th Century Burma. It may include lay meditation teachers, or lay teachers of other monastic skills, such as the Pali language. Whether it should include those ordained clergy who do not follow the full set of traditional monastic rules (such as Japanese clergy who have married since World War II, and Pure Land clerics) is a debate of limited utility, since these categories are meant only to demonstrate differing levels of devotive and religious activity. Likewise, married Tibetan ascetics like Marpa may or may not fall into this category.

Needless to say, this is perhaps the most confusing and complex category of Buddhist life, and is generally not intended for those with little or no experience in Buddhist teachings. How one of these roles is adopted varies from country to country and institution to institution. In some areas, and for some roles, one may be required to go through a complete ordination ceremony similar to that of an ordained clergy. It may require apprenticeship of some sort to an ordained or un-ordained teacher. Or it may arise through less official channels, as a result of expanding interest and devotion to Buddhist teachings and lifestyle.

In all cases, such roles generally involve expanded responsibilities, similar to those of an ordained clergy member. They may include teaching, public service, upholding of special training rules or precepts, obedience to a guru or senior teacher. Generally, these roles are only entered into after a sincere and earnest practice has been established- be it meditational, devotional, or otherwise. The best way to enter one of these orders is to speak with and study with an existing teacher in one of these lines.

Ordained Clergy

The ordained clergy have traditionally been the heart of the Buddhist institution in every land through which it has passed. The presence of ordained teachers is traditionally seen as a necesity for Buddhism to grow and thrive. Though Buddhism in the West has attempted to change this equation in many ways, with a greater reliance on unordained clergy, the ordained clergy remains a highly respected embodiment of Buddhist faith.

While regulations and standards vary from nation to nation, and from school to school, most ordained monastics have a great deal in common. They are subject to monastic discipline that may include requirements of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as other requirements. They generally live among other ordained monastics (again, I'll not split hairs about the position of Pure Land priests and similar categories), and live a disciplined life ordered around study, meditation, ritual duties, and possibly some public or civil duties (conducting funerals, teaching to the laity or in a school, etc.).

Ordination is generally a long term commitment. While not all Buddhist traditions ordain for life, some do. In other traditions, it may be acceptable to ordain for a fixed period (such as a single vassa), or for an open-ended period- Thailand is particularly well known for temporary ordination). Ordained life may involve a period of unordained or semi-ordained training as a novice. This period may be a year or more, depending on the local tradition and the applicants level of knowledge.

As with the non-ordained clergy, this lifestyle carries with it a significant commitment. The ordained clergy are supported by the laity so that they might study and preserve the Dharma and provide the laity with teaching, moral exemplars, and opportunities to make merit through their support. It sounds like a pretty weighty responsibility, and if taken seriously, it is. Entering the ordained Sangha involves entering into a lineage that stretches back to the Buddha himself. It also involves entering into a sacred trust between the ordained and their lay supporters. The ordained cleric is expected to conduct him or herself in a way that justifies the considerable effort and expense that the lay community exerts in order to feed, clothe, and shelter them. Monks who show themselves to be more interested in a free lunch than in taking advantage of their opportunity to learn and progress may be kicked out by their superiors, or may simply not be fed by their lay supporters, in areas where such direct interactions are still the norm.

Also as with the non-ordained clergy, the best way to become an ordained clergy member is to talk and learn from an existing one in the tradition to which you aspire. You may be able to undertake an extended retreat, where you will get a taste of the monastic life without the long term expectations and obligations of full ordination. See how to become a Buddhist monk for information on the particular ordination ceremonies of the Theravada tradition, for an example of the final product of the intent to embark on such a life.

The Bottom Line

The core of all Buddhist teachings is pretty simple. As the Dhammapada reads:

The avoidance of evil;
the performance of what is right;
the purifying of the mind;
this is the teaching of the awakened.
All Buddhist paths share an interest in the living of a moral life, and the guidance of the human mind. It may come through study, meditation, or ritual but the shaping of the mind in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha is always aimed at turning it towards compassion, wisdom, and peace. The three refuges- Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha- along with the human conscience are the instruments and guides of this development, all, ultimately with the aim of liberation.

Buddhism




This node was derived from the Everything Religion node. It's creation and maintenence is a collaboration of the e2religion group. Please /msg Spasemunki with additions or questions, or contact another member of e2religion.

Bud"dhism (?), n.

The religion based upon the doctrine originally taught by the Hindoo sage Gautama Siddartha, surnamed Buddha, "the awakened or enlightened," in the sixth century b.c., and adopted as a religion by the greater part of the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Asia and the Indian Islands. Buddha's teaching is believed to have been atheistic; yet it was characterized by elevated humanity and morality. It presents release from existence (a beatific enfranchisement, Nirvana) as the greatest good. Buddhists believe in transmigration of souls through all phases and forms of life. Their number was estimated in 1881 at 470,000,000.

 

© Webster 1913.

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