It is difficult to distinguish between history and legend as to the life of Buddha, Siddharta Gautama (Gautama being his family name). Scholars cannot even agree on the dates for his life but it is probable that he was born around 560 BC and died at approximately 80 years old.
Siddharta was born into the Hindu religion and was raised as a Prince. At 29, he is supposed to have left his then princely life behind to seek peace and to discover the cause of suffering. First he started to practice yoga and then extreme asceticism (severe abstinence for spiritual gain). On his 35th birthday he received the enlightenment he sought and discovered the answer.
What developed was a type of reformation movement within Hinduism although some similarities have emerged.
Mahayana Buddhism (1st Century) made some accommodation to Hindu thought and there was interaction with it. The Buddha was thought of as the incarnation of the ultimate Buddha for this age (i.e. an historical manifestation) and the Dharma (natural law) came to be virtually identified with Brahman (the concept of the unchanging, infinite reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe) in the sense of an absolute and eternal law within the universe.- Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions, p. 179
The major difference between the two can be seen as follows,
Where they differ significantly is in the idea of an individual soul (atman) which must be united with the source of the world (brahman). This Buddha absolutely rejects. – Ibid., p. 226
Before he turned his back on his princely life for good Siddharta had made three journeys to discover life as it really was.
He saw the suffering of the world in three forms; a frail old man, an invalid racked with pain, and a funeral procession with weeping mourners. When he asked in amazement what this all meant, the answer was given that this merely was the common fate of all mankind. Deeply troubled he returned to his palace. – Ibid., p. 223
It was on his fourth journey that he met a contented monk, begging but joyful, and this convinced him that all of life’s pleasures were worthless; he therefore left home, wife and child for good.
After passing through his strict lifestyle he was sitting under a fig-tree, now called the ‘tree of enlightenment’ (bodhi-tree), and he received enlightenment and became the Buddha. We are told,
During the next night, he sat in a lotus posture with legs crossed and fought an inner battle – described in the scriptures as temptation by Mara, the personification of change, death and evil. Gautama is often pictured touching the earth with his hand, asking it to bear witness to the fact that he was worthy of enlightenment because he had practised virtues such as patience and generosity in previous lives. Mara was defeated, and Gautama gained enlightenment, usually described as a state of the truth about the way things are. – The World Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths, Dr. Peter B. Clarke, p. 153
Buddhism spread in India and beyond, both in Buddha’s lifetime, and by his disciples after his death. However, it was unable to hold its ground in India and the majority of Buddhists, of one kind or another, are found in Sri Lanka and the countries beyond India such as Burma and Thailand. It is estimated that the total number of Buddhists world-wide could be as many as 5-600 million.
In 245 BC a council of five hundred Buddhist monks gathered together the oral traditions of over three centuries and assembled them into the written form in the Pali language. These writings are called TRIPITAKA. – Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, p.45.
Probably the biggest influence of Buddhism in the West was Madame Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Her ideas were drawn partly from Buddhism. This was enhanced by the western scholars who encountered it first hand under the British dominance of the Indian subcontinent.
The Buddhist Society was formed in Great Britain in 1907 and was helped along greatly by Christmas Humphreys who wrote several influential books in the 1920’s.
The first Buddhist temple in America was built in 1898 in San Francisco. In 1942 the Buddhist Churches of America with one hundred thousand members was incorporated. [In 1990] There are an estimated 270,000 Buddhists in America . . . – Ibid.
Although we still refer to Buddhism as a whole religion there are several different branches that have developed over the years.
First there was a major division between THERAVADA BUDDHISM and MAHAYANA BUDDHISM.
Theravada means ‘teaching of the ancients’ and its adherents pride themselves in keeping to Buddha’s original teaching. The group is very conservative and strict.
Theravada Buddhism emphasises the individual’s efforts towards salvation and recognises no divine help in this. It rejects all rituals and images, even frowning on statues of the Buddha; it is, of course, pointless to pray to Buddha since he has been swallowed up in nirvana. – Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions, p.235.
This is more liberal and open, giving the potential to become a Buddhist to everyone and not just the monks, as in Theravada. Other areas of difference can be seen in the clear description of nirvana and the scope for special rituals in Mahayana.
A number of other varieties have developed over the years that Mahayana can embrace, but not Theravada include.
This appears to be a version of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in India in the first century. It includes a number of occult, magical and mystical elements. It includes a mantra – a magical saying, a mundra – a physical gesture and a mandala – a meditation circle.
This is the Tibetan form of Buddhism practised by Tibetan monks wherever they are living.
This originated in China but is today practised in Japan. It has been described as ‘concentration with an empty mind’. Participants seek satori, becoming one with the universe. Much hard meditation is required to reach here. They believe that there is only one essence and that we are all part of it. No distinction is made between creature and creator.
Other smaller offshoots in Japan include, Tendal, Shingon, Jodo, Jodo Shonshu and Nichiren. There are also new religious movements that have come to the West such as, Rissho Kosei Kai and Soka Gakkai.
It is difficult to put the belief of Buddhism into a nice little box and compare it with Christianity but we will look at it under some specific headings.
Depending on the branch of Buddhism, it may only be possible for the monk to live out this life not a lay person. In some areas therefore we would see a distinct difference with Christianity in that ‘salvation’ was not available for all.
In Buddhism there are three fundamental aspects – known as the three jewels (triratna) because of their preciousness – which form a basis for belief and practice. The first jewel is the Buddha, who, after years of searching, found the path to enlightenment and subsequently taught it to others. The second is the dharma, the teaching or truth about the way things are. The last one is the sangha, the community of monks, nuns, and laypeople who practise and help others to practise the teaching. – The World Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths, Dr. Peter B. Clarke, p.151.
We can say that Buddha’s teaching centred around Karma and Reincarnation. Albeit Buddha’s understanding was not that there was a soul to be reborn but rather a rearrangement of the elements of a person’s identity, which can be called ‘self.’ He also experienced Four Noble Truths that led to the Noble Eightfold Path.
FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
First, experience of suffering. It is the effect of past Karma.
Second, the desire for wrong things causes the suffering.
Third, ridding ourselves of all desires will end the suffering.
Fourth, the solution is through the Eightfold Path.
THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
Buddha laid down this Eightfold Path to arrive at Nirvana, a condition of infinite bliss. Below we simplify these eight steps but they are actually a complicated set of rules and regulations that can take a lifetime to learn and understand. Friendship with this Eightfold Path is called dharma, the way to the goal of nirvana.
1. Right knowledge
2. Right attitude
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right occupation
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right composure
Those who follow and attain this path will first get rid of the four basic evils,
* Desire to perpetrate one’s own existence
* Wrong belief
Having achieved this, the way is open to enter the state of enlightenment and entertain only pure thoughts, and be indifferent to wealth, pain and pleasure.
The statements made under the three headings below may differ slightly in some branches of Buddhism.
The teachings of Buddhism are found in collections of scriptures called the ‘three baskets’ or the Tripitaka and also the scriptures of the different schools of Buddhism. The Tripitaka – The Vinaya Pitaka deals with monastic discipline. The Sutra (or Dharma) Pitaka deals with doctrine, for example the Buddha story, theories of the self and rebirth, the Three Jewels and the Precepts. The Abhidharma Pitaka deals with advanced doctrine and philosophy. The Dhammapada or ‘path of Nature’. This is the oldest Buddhist text. It is quite short but of great importance and contains the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and many teachings on practical morality and self-discipline.- A Book of Beliefs, p.23.
There is no personal God in Buddhism but rather a search for God. Buddha did not claim to be God or even that his teachings were divinely inspired.
Sin for a Buddhist is a result of ignorance (avidya). Salvation, the release from the constant cycle of reincarnations is in their own hands. They must follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. There is no loving God to administer grace and no forgiveness to overcome guilt.
The Challenge To Christianity
Buddhism appears to be tolerant, certainly more so than Christianity. But tolerance is not the hallmark of any faith. Truth will always divide not encompass all. A true faith must have a solid and immovable foundation.
Buddhism is very moral and has a high quality of ethics, but in the end it is man seeking to pull himself up by his own boot laces. Evangelical Christians believe that we can never make it without the grace and mercy of a loving God.
Buddhism gives a clear pattern of how we can be ‘saved’. But without God, who will forgive, and One who became our sacrifice for sin, we can never come to the place of salvation.