The study of Buddhism and Meditation is a huge field, so we are going to break it down into more usable ‘chunks’.
Buddhism itself is – for me at least – one of the most interesting ‘religions.’
Especially as actually it is not really a religion at all !
The definition of a religion is that of a belief system that revolves around devotion to one or more ‘Gods’ (from the Latin Religere, meaning ‘to bind to, or bind again’).
History of Buddhism
It was founded around 500 B.C. by the most recent Buddha – called Siddhartha Gautama or Gautama Buddha or Sakyamuni Buddha.
(According to Buddhist belief, he was the most recent of a long line of more than 20 previous ‘Buddhas’, and the next Buddha reincarnation will be called Maitreya.)
It is not absolutely clear when he was born and died, but the most accepted dates are that he was born in 563 B.C. and died in 483 B.C.
His early life was full of luxury – as he was a prince – his father was the king of the Shakya nation, in what is now modern day Nepal, in the area of a town called Lumbini.
He married, and then at the age of 29 he left his palaces, (he had three, one for each season !) – and decided that he wanted to meet his subjects.
This was brought about because he had led such a sheltered life that he had never encountered any suffering before, until his charioteer took him on trips out from the palace and he encountered the sufferings of his peoples in different forms.
Deeply affected by the sight of this suffering, he left all his luxury behind and became a wandering ascetic, practicing severe fasting and bodily mortification. For a while, restricting his food intake to one leaf or nut per day.
He finally became so weak that he very nearly drowned after collapsing when bathing in a river.
Wisely, he decided to re-consider how he should proceed. He therefore decided that he would seek wisdom and answers by meditating.
He meditated underneath a kind of tropical tree called a Pipul (but now called a Bodhi tree in remembrance), in a small town in India near Varanasi – or Benares – called Bodh Gaya.
He meditated continuously for 49 days, and on the last day, reached Enlightenment – in his 35th year of age.
Part of this Enlightenment involved him realizing that this awakening had given him complete insight into the nature and cause of human suffering – which basically was caused by ignorance – and what steps were needed to eliminate it.
He summarized this knowledge into two important Buddhist philosophies – The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path.
These are the cornerstones of all the branches of Buddhism, wherever they may be, and represent the most important truths given to the world by Gautama Buddha himself.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, Buddha traveled around Northern India and Nepal, teaching these truths to anyone who would listen – from kings to street sweepers – with equal attention and love to each.
Finally, at age 80, the Buddha revealed that he would soon die.
He gathered all his students or Bhikshus around him, and asked them if they had any final questions that he had not previously made clear.
They didn’t have any, so soon after he allowed himself to die.
Just before he died, his last words, according to tradition, were;-
“All composite things pass away. Strive for your own salvation with diligence.”
The Buddhist Truths
The teachings embodied in the Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path, and together known as The Buddhist Truths, are as follows;-
The Four Noble Truths –
1. Suffering is an inherent part of existence.
2. The origin of suffering is ignorance.
3 The main symptoms of that ignorance are attachment and craving.
4 That attachment and craving can by stopped, and therefore suffering also will be stopped – by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path emphasizes that in everything that you do, or say, or think, or feel, or experience in any way, you should always follow these eight ideals;-
I think that basically, these are all self-explanatory – with a bit of careful thought – so I will not go into them further here.
Buddha also emphasized other ‘truths,’ which to me at least, make a lot of sense.
Among these are –
“Do not believe any teachings unless you have verified them by personal experience.”
“Everything is ruled by ’cause and effect’ – any phenomenon ‘exists’ only because of the ‘existence’ of other phenomena in a complex web of cause and effect covering time, past, present and future, and therefore, because all things are thus governed and conditioned and transient, they have no real independent identity.”
“That all things are impermanent.”
“That the perception of a constant ‘self’ is an illusion.”
“That all beings suffer from all things because of an unclear mind.”
All forms of Buddhism also believe in the concept of reincarnation, or of being born again into frequent lifetimes until one reaches ‘Enlightenment.’
If you leads a good life, and follow The Noble Eightfold path, then you will be born again into a better life than your present one –
… but if you have been bad in your present life, then your next life will bring even more suffering.
Both the Buddha teachings, and this cycle of birth and rebirth and rebirth, on and on – are known as Dharma.
Dharma is often represented as a – as in this example above,
… the eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path,
… the overall circular shape represents the overall perfection of the Buddha’s teachings,
… the rim represents the ‘going round and round’ of the birth and rebirth cycle,
… and the hub stands for discipline, which is the core or ‘hub’ of Buddhist meditation.
I know that some of these teachings are put into words that can be hard to make clear sense of, but if you wish to clarify these then you will need to study some books explaining simple Buddhism, which are freely available anywhere.
If I get into all of that in this website we will be here all day !
The spread – and different types – of Buddhism
From India, Buddhism spread fairly rapidly throughout the whole of Asia, including China, Japan, Sri Lanka and South East Asia, and to the Middle East, including the area around Afghanistan, and even to Eastern Europe.
It was traditionally spread by the passing on of Buddha’s teachings by monks, who are known collectively as the Sangha.
Through the years there were a few slight changes or modifications, that led to the 3 main branches of Buddhism that are seen today;-
Therevada Buddhism as found mainly in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism found mainly in Tibet.
Mahayana Buddhism which also includes Zen and Chan Buddhism is found mainly in the Far East, including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, most of Vietnam, and parts of Russia. There is also a form of Mahayana that is called Nichiren, that is peculiar to Japan.
The basic teachings are the same in all of these three sub branches, and they only differ in less important details.
We will be looking at Zen more closely in the next section, and Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism in the sections devoted to Mandalas, Yantras and Tankas.
Buddhist Meditation forms
There are dozens of different kinds of Buddhist meditation types – but they can all be divided into two basic forms –
Vipassana Meditation that focuses on ‘Insight Meditation,’
and Samatha Meditation that focuses on ‘Tranquility Meditation.’
Vipassana Meditation –
This is a powerful form of meditation that has deep cleansing effects.
However;- although the instructions are not esoteric or difficult, but basically involve retraining the mind so that it avoids its previous ‘conditioned response’ to most outside stimuli – the actual instructions are not usually published in clear terms for general use, such as in this website.
This is partly to avoid confusion, and prevent incorrect use.
In order to get maximum benefit from Vipassana, it is recommended that it is learned from a legitimate teacher, usually a Buddhist monk, usually in a retreat type setting and over a period of at least several days.
Its basic purpose is to bring full awareness of the mind, body, and all sensations and to be “fully present in the here and now.”
Another reason why it should only be learned from a qualified teacher is that it often brings deep seated complexes and tensions to the surface, which can be traumatic and frightening unless there is a qualified teacher present to explain and reassure.
For these reasons I will not be giving an online example. Although I have studied and experienced Vipassana Meditation, I am certainly NOT a qualified teacher for this kind of meditation.
Throughout the West there are many schools that teach Vipassana if you are interested in this form – but make sure that the teachers are well qualified to do this – and preferably are Buddhist monks.
Samatha Meditation –
This form of meditation is designed to improve long term voluntary concentration, and can end up with the user being able to focus full attention for long periods of time.
It usually involves concentration on a particular object or idea, and because this is a method that is used in many other philosophies and religions as well, it is therefore not uniquely Buddhist – in the way that Vipassana is.
Within this broad description, it includes breathing meditations like the one that we covered before in the Yoga section.
It also covers forms of meditations that I have details and online classes about, in the relevant sections, such as Mantra, Mandalas, Yantras,Tantra and also religious pictures of various kinds, so you will be able to experience them in their own sub-sections.
(Also – this page is already plenty big enough !!)
In the next page we will be looking at an important, and interesting, branch of Buddhism – Zen, that always seems to have a special fascination for Westerners.
If you have a huge interest in Buddhism – then you will probably be interested in looking at the many photos of Buddhist Monks, Temples (or Wats), and other items of interest in a website that has been put together by a photographer friend of mine….. just click on this word – PHOTOS