Buddhism is a religion comprising of a set of beliefs on the cause, nature and purpose of life and the universe as well as philosophies based on fundamental problems such as reason, knowledge and existence, basing them on attributed to Buddha. Buddha, meaning the awakened or enlightened one, was a spiritual teacher who was originally from ancient India and was the founding father of Buddhism. Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, was born in Lumbini, which is today known as Nepal, and though the precise time of his birth and death is not certain, historians date his lifetime to be between the 6th and 4th century BCE. Buddha died in Kushinagar, which is today known as India, at the age of 80 years.
Buddha is the principal figure in the religion of Buddhism, and accounts of his life, discourses and simple rules, which involve the renouncing of earthly pursuits in order to wholly devote one’s self to spiritual work, are believed to have been summarized after his demise and are memorized by his followers. Collections of the teachings attributed to him were originally passed down to generations by oral tradition, and were first committed to writing about 400 years after his death. In other religions such as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and Hinduism, Buddha is regarded as a prophet and in others, a god.
Followers of this religion recognize Buddha as an enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help beings that are not enlightened and are therefore confined to death, rebirth and suffering to achieve nirvana. Nirvana refers to a supreme state which allows one to be free of suffering and selfish or individual existence. Nirvana allows an individual to blow out the fires of hatred, greed and delusion and therefore end the cycle of suffering in the individual’s life.
The two major branches of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada, which is the oldest surviving branch, refers to the school of elders, and is widespread in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Mahayana is widely practiced in East Asia and Vajrayana, a subcategory of Mahayana, is recognized as a third branch and is practiced in Tibet and Mongolia. Though Buddhism remains most popular within Asia, both branches are now seen to spread throughout the world with estimates of around 350-500 million followers worldwide (Gombrich, 1988).
The core foundation of Buddhist belief and practice are the three treasures or jewels i.e. the three things that Buddhists look toward for guidance and take refuge in, are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha refers to the historical founder of Buddhism or can be interpreted to mean the highest spiritual potential that exists within nature. The Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha while the Sangha refers to the community of those individuals who have attained enlightenment, and who may help a practicing Buddhist attain the same. Taking refuge in the triple jewels distinguishes a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist and traditionally, it has been a declaration and commitment to following the Buddhist path. Other practices in Buddhism may include renouncing conventional living, becoming part of and supporting the monastic community as well as practice of meditation.
Even though less than 1% of Americas are Buddhists, it is difficult to overlook the prominence of Buddhism today in American culture (Baumann, 1990). This can mainly be attributed to the media focus on celebrity converts, popular films and the increasing popularity of the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist leader of spiritual officials of the Gelug people, who practice Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism has expanded through a broad spectrum of American culture, including film, art, literature, and psychology.
The history of Buddhism in the United States can be traced back to the Chinese laborers who came to the United States in 1820, to work on the railroads. Henry David Thoreau, an American poet, also played an important role in the popularization of Buddhism with his translation of the Lotus Sutra, a 3rd century Buddhist text. By 1993, there were over 1000 Buddhist temples and monasteries in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
As recent public opinion surveys illustrate, Americans typically seek for new religious expression. Additionally, Americans demonstrated the desire to be different from the living styles offered by conventional religions. According to this same survey, more than 44% of Americans had left their original religions to seek for other religions they thought to be more fulfilling; Buddhism being one of them (Wuthnow, 2004).
Though ambiguous, Buddhism’s appeal to the contemporary American society can sometimes be contradictory, with a thin line being between the end of practicing Buddhism as a fashionable and trendy practice, and the beginning of devotional focus on this ancient religion. Buddhism has predictably invaded the American culture with vegetarian restaurants, health food stores and even some movies attributing part of their success to this religion. To many Americans, Buddhism has become an all-encompassing, primary gateway to meaningful life (Seager, 2001).
Buddhist concepts on life and the world are continuously being adopted into the American culture. A good example is Karma which according to the Buddhist teachings, is the force that drives the cycle of actions that produce seeds in an individual’s mind that are sure to come true either in this current life or in a subsequent rebirth. The avoidance of unpleasant actions and the nurturing of positive actions is called sila, which can be translated to ethical conduct. According to Buddhist teachings, karma is used to refer to the actions of the mind, body, as well as speech, that originate spring from the psychological intent and which bring a result or consequence.
In Theravada Buddhism, since karma is a purely impersonal process that is part of the structure of the universe, there can be no divine deliverance or forgiveness for one’s action. However, other forms of Buddhism, such as the Vajrayana, regard the recitation of mantras, a sound, syllable, utterance or a group of words, as a way of cutting off previous negative karma. This concept helps an individual understand that everything that happens to him or her is as a result of their actions and we should therefore struggle to do good deeds.
Buddhism rejects the concept of an unchanging or permanent self with an eternal soul as in other religions like Hinduism and Christianity. Instead, Buddhist teachings emphasize on rebirth, the process whereby beings go through a series of lifetimes as one of several possible forms of sentient life, with each running from conception. Rebirth can be understood as the continuation of an ever-changing process which is determined by the laws of reason and karma, or effect, as opposed to that of one life form incarnating from one life to the next. This concept of Buddhism emphasizes on the need for a being to do good while in the current life in order to attract good karma in their subsequent lives.
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Sentient beings desire pleasure and are averse to pain from their birth to death. In being controlled by these desires, they bring about the cycle of habituated suffering and existence, and produce the causes and conditions of the subsequent rebirth after death. Every rebirth repeats this process in an uncontrolled cycle, which Buddhists try to end by applying the teachings of the Buddha and subsequent Buddhists, as a way of eradicating these causes and conditions.
Buddhist teachings accentuate that all the sufferings that any sentient being goes through has causes and solutions. This is especially revealed in the four noble truths which were the first teachings of Buddha after he attained Nirvana. They contain the essence of Buddha’s teachings which maintain that life ultimately leads to suffering, which in turn is cause by desire. This is frequently expressed as a deluded clinging to selfhood or a certain sense of existence which we consider to cause happiness or unhappiness. Suffering only ends when desire ends, which can only be achieved by eliminating delusion, thus reaching a liberated state of enlightenment i.e. Nirvana. The only way to reach this state is by following the path and teachings laid out by the Buddha. This concept emphasizes on the renouncing of one’s self in order to free his or herself from worldly sufferings.
The Middle Way, which is said to have been discovered by the Buddha before his enlightenment, is one of the most important guiding principles of Buddhist practice. It can be defined as a path of moderation, away from the limits of self indulgence and can explain Nirvana, a state in which it becomes clear that al dualities in the world result to nothingness. In order o be liberated from suffering, one develops dispassion for worldly objects which can be achieved by viewing things as characterized by the three marks of existence which are suffering, impermanence and not-self.
Impermanence expresses the Buddhist notion that everything is in constant flux and nothing lasts. Therefore, we should not fix our nature to any object or experience. The notion asserts that everything is impermanent, and attachment to anything is futile and only leads to suffering. Suffering, on the other hand, can be equated to misery and according to the Buddhist teachings; it is often as a result of the individual’s actions. Not-self, the third mark of existence is an approach for gaining release from suffering. The phenomenon of ‘’I” or “mine”, are constructed by the mind and are metaphysical assertions that bind an individual to suffering. By carefully analyzing the continually changing physical and mental constituents of a person or object, one comes to the conclusion that neither a person, nor any individual parts as a whole comprise a self.
Nirvana, which can be translated to extinction, allows a being to be freed from suffering and the cycle of involuntary rebirths. In some Buddhist categories, it refers only to the elimination of greed and hate, implying that delusion was still present in an individual who attained nirvana and that one needed to attain bodhi, the awakening of arahants (those who have achieved awakening). This is the only way that an individual attains complete nirvana at the moment of death, the time when the physical body expires.
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In the Theravada doctrine of Buddhism, a person may arise from the “sleep of ignorance” and directly realize the true nature of reality. Such people are referred to as arahants and occasionally as buddhas. After numerous lifetimes of religious strivings, arahants reach the end of the cycle of rebirth, and no longer reincarnate as human, animal, ghost, or any other being. In Mahayana, the Buddha is viewed as merely human but as an earthly projection of an endless, omnipresent being beyond range or reach of thought. Moreover, the Buddha, Sangha and Dharma are seen as the eternal Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras. Celestial Buddhas though they no longer exist on the material plane of existence, still aid in the enlightenment of all beings.
Devotion and practice are an important part of the Buddhist way of life. Devotional practices include offerings, bowing and chanting. It incorporates states of meditative absorption with liberating cognition. According to Buddha’s teachings, meditative states alone are not an end to liberation. Instead, some mental activity must take place, based on the practice of mindful awareness in order to attain complete liberation. In the centuries preceding the Buddha, meditation was a feature of the practice of the yogis. Later on, the Buddha built upon the yogis concern and developed their meditative techniques, though he rejected their theories of liberation. In Buddhism, clear and mindful awareness was to be observed at al times, which was not the case in pre-Buddhist yogic practices. According to the Buddha, religious knowledge or vision was as a result of perfect meditation coupled with the perfection of discipline. The contemporary American culture has heavily borrowed this section of the Buddhist doctrine by the practice of yoga as a means of liberation.
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Buddhist ethics, Sila, which is translated to virtuous behavior or morality, is an action involving intentional effort, and is committed through the body, speech or mind. It refers to maintaining the moral purity of word, thought or deed. It involves four conditions; chastity, quiet, calmness, and extinguishment. It is the foundation of meditative or mind cultivation. Observance of these precepts not only promotes the peace of mind for the individual observing them, but also peace in the community, which is external. According to the law of karma, observing these precepts is estimable and it promotes causes which bring about happy and peaceful effects.
Buddha’s monastic rules are designed to assure a satisfying life and constantly remind his followers that it is the spirit that counts. Buddhist meditation is concerned with transformation of the mind, and using it to explore other phenomena. Zen Buddhism became popular in Japan, Korea and China, and lays special emphasis on meditation and prefers to focus on direct spiritual breakthroughs to truth, unlike other forms of Buddhism which lay emphasis on scriptures. According to the Zen Buddhist teachings, thinking and thought must not be permitted to confine and bind an individual in order to penetrate the realm of the Formless Self (Michael, 1991).
Many Americans have borrowed liberally from the wide variety of Buddhist traditions in an effort to seek a calmer and more satisfying way of life. Though there is tension between the Buddhists’s vision of reality which emphasizes on the renouncing of one’s self with the American culture which emphasizes on individualism, Buddhism has continued to thrive in America. This could be attributed to the American Buddhists who have developed reciprocity with this faith: as the faith changes them, they have changed the faith also. Historically, wherever Buddhism has spread, it has responded as a dynamic improvement to the emotional needs and customs of the locals.
Buddhism has a wide range of spiritual practices and the adoption of its spiritual techniques is especially appealing to some Americans who find activities like meditation and chanting useful in helping to find a path to increasing compassion and wisdom. This is because Buddhism has no devotion to a god or a firm belief in deity, but emphasizes the introspection of one’s true nature and kindness to all sentient beings. It is this Buddhism flexibility that allows it to be copied by other religions without significant conflict with the beliefs.
Majority of Americans seem to appreciate the fact that Buddhism has managed to escape the depressing history of sectarian violence that has been seen to characterize majority of the Western religions. Instead, Buddhism continues to focus on the affirmation of an individual’s potential and teaches that enlightenment is not only achievable but also unavoidable. American culture has also had a positive effect on Buddhism tradition too (Coleman, 2001). The American commitment to feminism can be seen to balance the prejudiced aspects of Asian culture that have permitted the existence of Buddhism over the centuries.
With more Americans discovering the value of Buddhist religious practices and the Buddhist way of life, Buddhism is now becoming an accepted path within many religions in the country. Buddhism is being modified to meet the American people’s needs for a socially engaged and democratic form of religious practice. In the American culture, the concept of God has been seen to evolve from that of an omnipresent, omnipotent presence to define various concepts like love, energy or spirit. Despite the continuing evolutions of the Americans’ conception of God, other religions, such as Buddhism, have not changed significantly. By contrast, Buddhism has changed its major emphasis from theism to spiritual humanism.
Core beliefs in Buddhism include finding immortality in the examples that individuals set and the work they do as well as showing love to all other beings. As in does not emphasize on deities, Buddhism helps individuals gain insight on from other religions and cultures and recognize the power within one’s self. Through Karma, which though, originally from India is inscribed in Buddhists teachings, individuals learn and understand that they are responsible for what they do and become, both as individuals and as members of a community.
By meditation, individuals deeply connect personally with themselves and through prayers and reverence; they acquire purification, or cleansing of their emotional, physical, spiritual and mental parts. Physical cleansing is acquired as the sweat carries out the toxins out from the individual’s body while the mental cleansing is achieved from the individual releasing their worries and troubled thoughts to the surrounding. The spiritual cleansing offers a connection to the spirit while emotional cleansing is a combination of al the above. The process of these cleansings brings an individual to a calmer and more grounded state, leaving them more peaceful with themselves and their lives.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala is seen as an aid to meditation and it expresses the intuition of the mysticism in humanity as a diagram of the spiritual life. In Buddhism, it is an image constructed through powerful meditation, discipline, and concentration. It is aimed at finding a balance between the inward and outward conflicting opposites of life in order for individuals to coexist in harmony with nature. The mandala philosophy is based on the fact that one-sidedness, of any nature, can lead to illness, depression, loss of energy flow or stagnation.
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Many Americans have borrowed mandala, meaning magic circle, from the Buddhist tradition in order to reconcile and harmonize various aspects of their lives. Mandala cannot be brought about by force or will but is a natural, unending process of development which expresses itself in symbols of cosmic and spiritual completeness. In American culture, mandalas occur in dances and artwork, where like snowflakes, mandalas occur in countless forms, with the most common being the cross, flower or star and they have a tendency toward fourfold structures. This fourfold unity reflects the natural division of the universe into four directions, four seasons, four elements as well as the fourfold structure of the soul.
Buddhism does not emphasize on the idea of a higher deity, but rather on the improvement and enlightenment of the individual. The basic teachings of Buddhism are straightforward and practical, and it transcends to all people irrespective of gender, nationality or race. It is for these reasons that many Americans are adopting this doctrine; to develop qualities of wisdom and seek more fulfillments in their lives.