Buddhism In A Nutshell - Introduction
There is no such thing as a good religion or a bad religion. There are good people and there are bad people everywhere in the world, no matter their religious persuasion. Unfortunately religion has been used as a device to control, manipulate and cheat people over the ages.
People need religion and spirituality in their lives for different reasons. The faith we follow, if we decide to follow one, is often determined as a result of the location and circumstances into which we were born. For many people this is perfectly satisfactory but for others they need to look elsewhere.
Buddhism is a huge subject. I have spent a couple of years trying to understand more about it and I am only just beginning to scratch the surface. There are many texts available, many for free distribution. To find out more, visit your library or nearest Buddhist temple. In the meantime, here is the briefest guide I can manage.
What is Buddhism? When you think of Buddhism do you think of the shaven-headed Hari Krishna guys in orange robes chanting and bashing tambourines in Leicester Square? I'm sure that is what many people think. I like to think of it as a study of the human condition that offers guidelines on how to deal with the problems that we all face in life. Technology changes but basically humans don't; we still suffer from the same things we suffered from thousands of years ago - jealousy, envy, greed, selfishness, anger, fear, etc.
Buddhism is not really a religion, it is an education, and the Buddha was not a god or a prophet, he was a teacher and a mortal man. Buddhism completely respects other religions and no religious wars have been fought because of Buddhism. At all times it promotes peacefulness and loving compassion towards others. Followers are not expected to believe anything they cannot accept, or do not understand, but are told to question everything until they have satisfactory answers.
Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, was born into a very privileged life as a prince but knew that having wealth wasn't the way to achieve happiness. He observed suffering in life and, like many of us, wanted to make more sense of what life is about. He left his privileged existence and for six years led a life of austerity as an ascetic. However, he realised that wasn't the way to achieve happiness either. His body became weak, as did his spirit. He realised that something in between, the Middle Way, was the way to lead ones life.
Many people are unhappy because they have unrealistic expectations in life. It is hardly surprising. We are bombarded every day with messages telling us how to lead our lives, what we need to buy and what we need to do in order to be happy. We are fed a never ending diet of lies as we are manipulated in order to make someone else money.
Highly advanced psychological methods are used to sell us products and services, tapping into our subconscious and deep fears. The movie industry sells us dreams that are unattainable as a form of entertainment. Everywhere we look we are subject to lifestyle advertising telling us how we can have a better life. Some might call it the American Dream but in the advertisers' world happiness is always based solely around material things and consumerism.
Buddhism can hardly be accused of raising people's expectations. It starts off by stating the Four Noble Truths.
- Life is suffering. From the time we are born we start aging, we get sick, we become unhappy and then we die.
- The suffering is caused by grasping (or craving).
- By stopping this grasping it will end the suffering.
- The grasping can be stopped by following the Noble Eightfold Path
Everyone suffers in life and to test the theory of it being caused by grasping, think about your suffering. Most suffering is caused by wanting something (or somebody) but not being able to have it (or them).
The movies tell us that there is a perfect partner waiting out there at the top of the Empire State Building on a starlit night but that's a movie. Some Americans will tell you that anyone can become President but that's not true either. Manufacturers and advertisers tell us non-stop that we need something they are selling and that we won't find happiness until we have whatever it is they are selling. (And then after we buy it they release something new that we then need in order to be happy. It's a never-ending cycle).
There is always something we want, something we crave, and no matter what we actually get there will always be something new. It never ends. While we don't have what we want we are unhappy. When we get it we find temporary happiness until there is something new that we want. Is this a way to live our lives?
Non-attachment and impermanence are important concepts within Buddhism. Nothing of a worldly nature is permanent and getting attached to something, or somebody, which won't be there forever makes no sense. This may sound cruel but actually it isn't, it is realistic. One approach is to view life as if you are staying in a very nice hotel room for a few days. We can enjoy being there but we understand that it doesn't belong to us and will have to be given up at some point. We know it isn't ours forever so we don't get attached.
Even states of mind are impermanent so don't get attached to them either. Have you ever had a great vacation somewhere and then gone back to the same place the following year and had a lousy vacation? The people and circumstances are different and it just isn't the same. Nothing stays the same.
Lotus flowers are an important part of Buddhist ceremonies because they illustrate impermanence. When they are cut fresh they look beautiful but within a few days they wither and die. Our health and our lives are impermanent, as is everyone around us. The acceptance of non-attachment and impermanence start to make a lot more sense about life, and death also.
Understanding the reality of life and dealing with it is exactly what Buddhism sets out to do and that's why I like it as a guide to living life. Having a fairly logical and analytical mind I like things that make sense to me.
Five precepts encapsulate the moral and ethical code of Buddhism, which are not dissimilar to those contained in other religions, for example the Ten Commandments in Christianity. In summary:
- Not to destroy life.
- Not to steal.
- Not to indulge in sexual misconduct.
- Not to lie.
- Not to use intoxicants.
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right bodily conduct
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right attentiveness
- Right concentration
Buddhism regards the body and the mind as being separate entities. At death the body dies but the mind lives on in another body. This ties in with the scientific fact that matter is neither created or destroyed. The mental energy of the mind doesn't just cease, it continues to exist in another form.
Rebirths can be fortunate or unfortunate depending on how a person has lived their life. Karma, the law of cause and effect, is the force that determines this. Rebirths occur in different realms of existence, some good and some not. The realms of humans and animals are familiar to us but other realms exist such as that of gods, hell and hungry ghosts.
Karmic retribution can affect us both in our present life and our next rebirth.
Meditation is an important part of Buddhism. All of our problems in life have to do with our mind as it gets cluttered with worldly thoughts and prevents us from seeing the truth. Meditation is used as a way to free the clutter and use our minds in a more constructive way. Again, it is a complicated subject which requires education and practice.
Buddhism In A Nutshell
On a trip to Thailand in 2002 I was wandering around Hat Yai and found a large Chinese Buddhist temple in a back street. Inside it was quiet and peaceful and I took a few moments to take off my shoes, sit down and relax. It felt quite spiritual and I began to think more about Buddhism and what it meant to followers of Buddhism in everyday life. A monk approached me and gave me a copy of Buddhism in a Nutshell. There was no payment involved but I made a contribution to the temple. This book was my first introduction to Buddhism.
Buddhism in a Nutshell
It was first published in 1933 and writing styles have changed enormously since then. Some of it is a bit stuffy and not very readable. It uses a lot of the Ancient Indian (Pali) terms which would be relevant to someone studying the subject at an advanced level but makes an introduction quite heavy going. Despite this, the basic messages are all there and if you extract the salient points it is a worthwhile read.
Buddhism In Everyday Life
On a later trip to Thailand I came across another book on Buddhism while browsing in a bookshop. It is called 'Dhamma Moments', by an author named Danai Chanchaochai. The ISBN is 974-91347-4-5. This book was only published in 2003 and subsequently is very relevant to the world today.
It gives examples of everyday situations at work and home and describes how Buddhism can play a part in everyday life. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. It is easy to get hold of in Thailand but I'm not sure how available it is elsewhere.
Books On Buddhism For Free Distribution
I was lucky to find a place in Singapore that gave away free books on Buddhism. It was in a food centre called Foodmore, which is quite near Little India. The books are small, most are very easy to read, and they are aimed at people new to Buddhism. I'm not sure whether it is still there.
Quite a few are published by the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. That's the good news if you are in Singapore. Unfortunately I don't know where in other countries you can get free books about Buddhism like these but your nearest Buddhist temple should be a good start.
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand