This world is home to many different religions and philosophic practices. And in our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, understanding our neighbor’s religion, even on a very basic level, is becoming more and more important to live peaceably with them.
Buddhism is one of the major religions of Asia. Though its estimated number of followers can vary dramatically depending on the source, it is often considered one of the most widely practiced religions in the world.
“Most religions, if not all, can be approached by looking at what they say about salvation,” said George Wrisley, a professor at the University of North Georgia where he has taught a class on Buddhism and enlightenment. “In Christianity, the goal is to somehow be with God in the end.
“I think the goal of Buddhism is to realize an end to suffering.”
Wrisley explained the basis of Buddhism is life is characterized by suffering. Not that everything is always misery, but living beings cannot avoid old age, sickness and death.
“The kind of suffering the Buddha was interested in was the deeper existential type of suffering,” Wrisley said. “Everyone gets old, everyone gets sick and everyone dies. Those are serious existential issues that human beings have to confront and deal with.
“The question is, is there a way out of that suffering? The Buddha claims to have to discovered that path.”
To understand the teachings of Buddha, the generally accepted history of the religion must be explored.
The Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies in Ithaca, N.Y., serves as the North American seat of the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama, one of the most prominent Buddhist figures in the world.
According to the monastery’s website, www.namgyal.org, the historical Buddha was born about 2,500 years ago with the name Siddhartha Gautama in what is now part of Nepal.
Gautama was born into a royal clan, but later he abandoned his wealth and station to search for meaning and enlightenment. He obtained this state after extensive meditation, and, according to Namgyal, he spent the next 40 years traveling and teaching his newfound beliefs to other.
Gautama became known as the Buddha, or enlightened one, and taught what are considered the “four noble truths.”
The first truth is the normal condition of life is suffering.
The second truth is true suffering stems from an attachment to this world, which is in essence impermanent.
“People often talk about the source of suffering is just desire,” Wrisley said. “I think that is overly simplistic.
“Intense desire is characterized by attachment — it is a level of craving.”
Much of that desire stems from the belief that humans exist as separate beings, which Buddhists believe to be untrue, Wrisley said.
“The reason that we end up having all those attachments that cause all the suffering is because we think of ourselves as these separately existing beings that drift through time,” he said. “According to Buddhism, once we analyze the situation, we see that there are no separately existing and persisting things through time.
“Once you are able to see that there is no independently existing anything, the idea is you stop having these sort of attachments that give arise to suffering.”
The third truth is the end of suffering can be obtained by quelling worldly attachments.
Wrisley uses a bad hangover after a night of drinking as an example of suffering.
“You have certain sensations like nausea, perhaps, or a headache, but those sensations by themselves, on the Buddhist picture, don’t equal suffering,” he said. “They only equal suffering when you develop a certain attitude toward them.
“You think ‘How long am I going to be nauseous, am I going to feel better before tomorrow, is it going to get worse before it gets better, am I going to throw up in 20 minutes?’
“One of the key insights of Buddhism is that while pain is necessary and unavoidable, suffering is optional.”
According to the Namgyal Monastery, the Buddha laid out a path to enlightenment for the fourth truth.
Called the “eightfold path,” it says right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration will lead to enlightenment.
Since Buddhism arose from Hinduism, it uses the concept of reincarnation, and after a person dies; they are reborn as another entity. One’s life decisions dictate at what station they are reborn as, including animals, deities and humans.
Enlightenment leads to nirvana, which is both the end of suffering and the end of the cycle of rebirth, and only human beings can achieve this state. Thus, to a Buddhist, being born a human being is a great gift that should not be squandered.
“The ultimate (salvational) goal is not just to end suffering, but to stop that cycle of rebirth from happening,” Wrisley said. “Those are accomplished at the same time by the Buddhist path.”
Like other religions, Buddhism has evolved over the years into multiple traditions and multiple cultural identities. The Namgyal Monastery splits Buddhism into three main categories: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayna.
In Theravada, the ultimate goal is to reach enlightenment yourself for your own benefits, Wrisley said. This tradition thrives in modern day Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Southwest China.
Mahayana Buddhism is more focused on communal salvation and stresses the concept of Boddhisattvas, or enlightened ones who have delayed their own nirvana in order to help the rest of humanity attain a state of enlightenment, Wrisley said. This tradition is mostly present in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal and parts of Central Asia.