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BUDDHISM: A PORTRAIT

by Dr. Geshe Sopa and Ven. Elvin W. Jones
Ven. Geshe Sopa, born in Tsang Province, Tibet, is Professor in the
Department of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Elvin W. Jones is co-founder and associate director of Deer Buddhist Center,
near Madison, Wisconsin

Buddhism as we know it commenced in Northeast India about 500 BC through the teaching of Prince Siddartha Gautama, often known subsequent to his experience of "enlightenment" as Sakyamuni. Sakyamuni traveled around and taught in the Ganges basin until his death at the age of 84. From there Buddhism spread through much of India until its total disappearance from the land of its origin by the end of the 13th century. This disappearance occurred as a consequence of several centuries of foreign invasions leading ultimately to the conquest of India by successive waves of conquerors who had been unified under Islam.

By the time of its disappearance in India, Buddhism had spread through much of Asia where it has been a dominant faith in Southeast Asia in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos; in Central and East Asia in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia; and in numerous Himalayan areas such as Nepal, Sikkim, Butan and Ladak. It is estimated that today there are a little over 250 million Buddhists in the world. In the USA alone there are about five million, the majority of whom are Asian immigrants or their descendents. However, in recent years, numerous Americans of English and European descent have also adopted Buddhism.

From the start, the teaching of the Buddha was a middle way. In ethics it taught a middle way avoiding the two extremities of asceticism and hedonism. In philosophy it taught a middle way avoiding the two extremities of eternalism and of annihilation. The single most important and fundamental notion underpinning Buddhist thought was the idea of "contingent genesis" or "dependent origination" (pratitya-amutpada). Here the thought is that every birth or origination occurs in dependence on necessary causes and conditions; however, not everything so asserted can function as a cause -- in particular, any kind of eternal or permanent whole. Consequently, the Buddhist idea of "contingent genesis" came to be characterized by three salient features, i.e., unpropelledness, impermanence and consistency. "Unpropelledness" signifies that origination or genesis is not propelled by an universal design such as the thought or will of a creator. "Impermanence" means that the cause of an effect is always something impermanent and never permanent. Finally, "consistency" requires that the genesis or effect will be consistent with and not exceed the creative power of the cause. For example, it is on the basis of the quality of consistency that the Buddhist denies that any kind of material body can provide a sufficient material cause for the production of a mind.

Thus, on account of this primary philosophical underpinning of contingent genesis, Buddhism has produced a quite large etiological rather than theological literature. Taking as his basis the idea of contingent genesis in general, Sakyamuni taught a specific theory of a twelvefold dependent genesis accounting for the particularized birth of a person or personality which naturally occurs in some kind of existence which is not free of various forms of suffering or ill. The spectrum of naturally occurring births which are characterized by ill is called the "round of transmigration" (samsara), and the force impelling this transmigration and unsatisfactory condition of attendant births was taught by Sakyamuni to be action under the sway of afflictors or afflicting elements such as nescience, attraction, aversion and so forth. In the language of Buddhism, this action is called karma; the afflictors are called klesa; and the resultant ills are called dukha. The Buddha called the reality of suffering (dukha) the truth of suffering, and called this action -- conjoined with afflicting elements (karma and klesa) -- the truth of the cause of suffering. These two truths constitute the first of the Four Noble Truths which were the principal teaching of Sakyamuni and the principle object of understanding of the Buddhist saint. Sakyamuni also taught the possibility of freedom or emancipation from suffering or ill through its cessation.

Likewise, he taught a path leading to this cessation. These two, cessation and path, constitute the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths. Thus, we have suffering and its causes and the cessation of suffering and its causes; these are the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its causes, cessation and path. Through the cessation of suffering and its causes one obtains nirvana which is simply peace or quiescence, and the cause of the attainment of this peace is the path of purification eliminating action under the sway of the afflictors. The Buddha taught that of all the afflictors contaminating action, the chief is a perverse kind of nescience which apprehends a real or independent self existing in or outside of the various identifiable corporeal and mental elements which constitute a person or personality. Thus, the cultivation of the path of purification hinges on the reversal of this mistaken apprehension of a real soul or ego or selfhood. This Buddhist view that there is no real or enduring substratum to the personality is called anatma. Sakyamuni's most precise and important articulation of the Four Noble Truths was his formulation of a twelvefold causal linkage generating each and every particular instance of birth of a person. This twelvefold causal nexus begins with nescience and ends with old age and death. This nescience is in particular the perverse ignorance which grasps a real selfhood. Conditioned by this kind of nescience, actions are performed which deposit inclinations and proclivities upon the unconscious mind. These proclivities are later ripened by other factors such as grasping and misappropriation and thereby bring about unsatisfactory results through birth and death. With, however, the correct seeing of the reality of no-self, this nescience may be stopped, and thereby the whole chain of causation leading to unsatisfactory birth is brought to an end. In this way the twelvefold causal linkage is not only a theory of the genesis of a personality but also a theory of its potential for deliverance from every kind of ill.

Thus it is said in Buddhist scripture:

"Gather up and cast away.
Enter to the Buddha's teaching.
Like a great elephant in a house of mud,
conquer the lord of death's battalions.
Whoever with great circumspection,
practices this discipline of the Law,
abandoning the wheel of births,
will make an end to suffering."

"Gather up and cast away" refers to the gathering together of virtuous or wholesome qualities and the abandonment of non-virtuous or unwholesome qualities in the personality. Thus the same scripture says:

"Not to do evil, to bring about the excellence of virtue, completely
to subdue the mind, this is the teaching of the Buddha."

On his deathbed, the Buddha had exhorted his disciples to work on their own salvation with diligence; hence these teachings are sometimes characterized as a doctrine of individual emancipation.

About five to six hundred years after the passing away of the teacher Sakyamuni, another formulation of the Buddhist doctrine and practice gained a wide circulation in India. This later propagation is associated with the great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna. Taking his stand on the fundamental Buddhist idea of contingent genesis, Nagarjuna argued that if every instance of genesis is a contingent genesis, then continued analysis will show that every kind of permanent and even impermanent cause proposed either by Buddhists or others will be non-absolute and non-ultimate; consequently, causality itself is in some sense illusory. In this sense even true phenomena like causality are just empty of any kind of ultimate nature. Nagarjuna carried his analysis to cover permanent non-originating phenomena like space as well. The nonexistence of all phenomena as ultimates or absolutes is the Buddhist idea of emptiness (sunyata), which provided a great impetus to another kind of religious aspiration aiming at the emancipation not only of one's own individual life-stream but that of all sentient life from the round of unsatisfactory birth and rebirth. He especially demonstrated the absence of any final or absolute difference between samsara and nirvana, even though phenomenally they are and will always remain opposites. Thereby, Nagarjuna opened wide the way for the pursuit of the non-attached nirvana taught to be achieved by the Buddhas along with numerous other sublime qualities of knowledge belonging to perfect enlightenment. From earliest times the Buddhist had already distinguished between the path of purification trodden by Sakyamuni himself, already known as the Bodhisattva path, and that taught and followed by numerous of his disciples. Now the Buddha's own path was encouraged for all. By its followers this later path was called Mahayana, or greater vehicle, whereas the former came to be called the Hinayana, or smaller vehicle. The Mahayana was synonymous with the path of a Bodhisattva or one who, moved by great compassion, developed the aspiration to perfect enlightenment for the sake of others. This aspiration was called Bodhicitta, or the mind to enlightenment, and provided the motivation for the cultivation of the Mahayana path. This Mahayana path was also taught extensively in the Prajnaparamita-sutras or Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures which also gained wide circulation in India through the efforts of Nagarjuna.

About 500 years later still another very important development occurred in Indian Buddhism. This development is associated with the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. This led to a great systematization of the Mahayana and in particular to another less radical interpretation of the meaning of the Prajnaparamita- sutras than that associated with Nagarjuna, whose school continued on and is generally called the Madhyamika or Middleist School; Asanga's is called the Cittamatra or Mind-only School. Also around this time, a special kind of Buddhist esoteric scripture and practice gained wide currency. They constituted four classes or levels which moved from outer ritual action through inner meditative action to a full fledged esoteric path of spiritual attainment. These scriptures were known as the tantras, and their practice was called the diamond vehicle or the secret mantra vehicle. Espousing the practice of the Mahayana, they added many ritual methods together with numerous profound and difficult yoga or meditation practices and techniques. The tantras saw themselves as fulfilling the practice of the Mahayana as well as providing an accelerated path to its realization. The vehicle of the tantras is often called the vehicle of the effect because straightaway it envisages the final result of the path and imaginatively dwells upon and rehearses that until it becomes not an imagined but an accomplished result. The Mahayana being wisdom and method, the tantras add to the general wisdom and method of the Mahayana their own very special varieties.

Thus in India along with four classes of tantras, four main philosophical schools developed, each with a number of subschools, i.e. the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Madhyamika and the Yogacara. The former two are schools of the Hinayana, and the latter two are schools of the Mahayana. The Vaibhasika early developed 18 subschools, two of which are of particular importance -- the Sthaviravada, which is the immediate ancestor of the Theravada, the principal Buddhism of Southeast Asia, and the Sarvastivada, which is the basis of monasticism in Tibet and the Tibetan community today. The Madhyamika provides the chief viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism today, and the Yogacara has had profound and far reaching influences on the Buddhism of China, and through China on Korea and Japan. Some secret mantra practices were transmitted into China and from there to Japan where they survive today, and the practices of all four levels of tantra are still alive in the Tibetan community. From India by way of Central Asia, Buddhism began its penetration into China around the first century CE. There it encountered the already developed systems of Confucianism and Taoism. The latter in particular provided the terminology and numerous seemingly analogous concepts for subsequent centuries of effort devoted to the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and the establishment of Buddhist practice in China.

By the eighth century, Chinese Buddhism reached its mature form with its two main theoretical schools of Tien-tai and Hua-yen, together with its two popular schools of Pure Land and Ch'an (Japanese: Zen). These sinicized forms of Buddhism began their spread to Korea mainly from the fourth century on and commenced spreading from Korea to Japan from the middle of the sixth century. Although some important Buddhist development occurred a century earlier, Buddhism began to be strongly cultivated in Tibet in the eighth century. In this century Indian and various Sinitic Buddhist developments collided in a debate held by the Tibetan king at Samyas, the first Buddhist monastery founded in Tibet. Tibetan history records that the Indian faction won this debate, and it is clear that afterwards Tibet looked to India throughout its prolonged subsequent period of importation of Buddhism. As a consequence, Tibet remains a great repository of a vast body of important literature which later perished in India itself. From Tibet, Buddhism was afterward spread into Mongolia and throughout the Himalayan region.

Now, in the aftermath of World War II and the collapse of Western colonial establishments in Asia, the modern efforts of numerous Asian countries to make a transition from agrarian to industrial societies has led and still leads often to the establishment of military dictatorships or to socialist totalitarian regimes. Buddhism has generally fallen upon difficult times particularly at the hands of Marxist-Leninist regimes, for whereas Buddhism does not see any natural conflict between itself and modern science, its middle way philosophy is staunchly opposed to dialectical materialism. In fact, two of the worst atrocities of nearly genocidal proportions to be perpetrated in modern times have taken place in two such countries, Cambodia and Tibet, the latter continuing -- and this is hard to believe -- for over 30 years.

Buddhist leadership nonetheless has continued to press for freedom and democracy, for peace and non-violence, as these will be the best safeguard for the natural human wish to avoid suffering. Here, it is particularly indicative to note that two recent Nobel Peace Prize winners have been Buddhists -- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of Burma.

Taken from A SourceBook for Earth's Community of Religions


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