Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Buddha Rising

The following article, Buddha Rising by Perry Garfinkel was extracted from the December 2005 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Siddhartha Gautama, who later came to be known as the Buddha, was born around 500 B.C. near the foothills of the Himalayan, the son of a local king. In the centuries after his death, as his reputation grew, fact intertwined with myth, and a legendary Buddha was born as well. 

Most versions agree, however, that at age 29, the married prince, disillusioned with his opulence, ventured out of his palace and for the first time encountered old age, sickness, and death. So moved was he by this brush with the painful realities of life that he left his comfortable home to search for an end to human suffering. For six years he withstood all the deprivations of his fellow seekers – he fasted, he observed silence, he lived alone in a cave – until he realized he had not found what he sought.

There must be another way, he thought, a “middle way” between indulgence and asceticism. He decided to sit in mediation under one of the broad papal trees that dotted the plain of the Ganges River until he found his answer. He examined his thoughts to discover how and why human beings often create their own mental suffering. He emerged from under the shade of the tree as the Buddha, which simply means “enlightened one.” (The tree, Ficus religiosa, is now known as the bodhi tree.) Until his death at 80, the Buddha travelled the corridor of what are now India’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states, sharing his insights with all who would listen.

His ideas were based not on faith, as in other religions, but on empirical observation, starting with his own outside the palace. He arrived at Four Noble Truths:
1. There is suffering in the world, whether mental or physical. 
2. Suffering occurs because of too great an attachment to one’s desires. 
3. By eliminating the cause – attachment – you can eliminate suffering. 
4. There is a method to eliminating the cause, called the Eightfold Path, a guide to ‘right’ behaviour and thoughts. The Eightfold Path is a moral compass leading to a life of wisdom, virtue, and mental discipline.

One of the key practices of the Eightfold Path is meditation. Though the technique may differ from sect to sect – alone or in groups, facing a wall or fellow meditators, eyes closed or slightly open, in silence or chanting phrases – many types begin by paying close attention to your own breathing. There is nothing mystical or otherworldly about it, no levitation, no out-of-body experience. With each in and out breath, your awareness becomes more refined, more focused.

The Buddha did not intend his ideas to become a religion; in fact, he discouraged following any path or advice without testing it personally. His dying words, as it’s told, were: “You must each be a lamp unto yourselves.” Nonetheless, within several hundred years of his death, the Buddha’s teachings had taken strong hold. Today, Buddhism is the world’s fifth largest religion, behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and traditional Chinese religion.

Some people argue that the Buddha was right, that Buddhism should not be categorized as a religion but as a philosophy or form of psychology. After all, unlike other religions, there is no supreme being, and it encourages you to question – even challenge authority. 

There are those who were attracted to these traits of Buddhism. It was non-dogmatic; it relied on evidence you could test with your own senses; it suggested that you, not some external force, hold the answers to your own happiness; it saw your mind as both the obstacle and the key to truly understanding yourself. 

While many Europeans and Americans are drawn to the ornate and complex rituals of Tibetan and Japanese Zen Buddhism, others seem to prefer the simplicity of Southeast Asia’s Theravada Buddhism.

As Buddhism migrated out of India, it took three routes. To the south, monks brought it by land and sea to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. To the north, they spread the word across Central Asia and along the Silk Road into China, from where it eventually made its way to Korea and Japan. A later wave took Buddhism over the Himalayas to Tibet. In all the countries, local customs and cosmologies were integrated with the Buddhist basics: the magic and masks of demon-fighting lamas in Tibet, the austerity of a Zen monk sitting still as a rock in a perfectly raked Japanese garden. Over centuries Buddhism developed an inclusive style, one reason it has endured so long and in such different cultures. People sometimes compare Buddhism to water: it is still, clear, transparent, and it takes the form and colour of the vase into which it’s poured.

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