Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Review of Buddhism

The teachings of Buddhism are supposedly based on a man called Shakyamuni. Here is a quick introduction to Shakyamuni: He was a very privileged prince, in India, about 2500 years ago, who had everything he could ever dream of. All of his needs were met and he was accomplished in many things in his life. His father, who worried that he would become a religious man, hid him away from the suffering of life. However Siddartha felt a nagging suspicion that things weren’t as rosy as they seemed. He managed to escape the molly coddling of his father and go out and about into his city. Upon seeing the suffering, old age, sickness and death of the people in the city he was shocked to the core of his being. The illusion of society was destroyed in his mind and he saw the futility of the human condition, he became aware of existential despair and couldn’t see the point in existence anymore. Determined to find an answer to life, to find a point and an escape from the terror and suffering of death he left his wife, child and palace and dedicated his life to the spiritual path. After following different teachers and enduring various hardships for many years he ultimately rejected other Gurus and through practicing his own simple balanced meditation technique became enlightened.

Go here: Buddhism For a better, simpler explanation of the fundamentals of Buddhism.

Buddhism is an evolving religion, this is because each new generation has its masters and each new master is ‘allowed’ to be respected and worshipped. This is why I love Buddhism so much, it’s achievable. There are so many masters or Buddhas to study, it wasn’t just Shakyamuni, and nearly all of them have their own commentaries which makes Buddhism an in-exhaustive treasure house of wisdom.

India and the Hindu

Indian culture has worked its way, through Buddhism into Japan, China and the Far East, however Indian culture and Hinduism antedates’ Buddhism. The cosmology of Buddhism then is the cosmology of Hinduism and the Hindu. Buddhism adopted the Hindu cosmology in the same way that if we wanted to start a new religion today we would probably adopt the cosmology of modern astronomy.

So how does the Hindu see the world? The Hindu view of the world is to see it as a big drama or as a big play. The Hindu feels that everything is the self (atman) and that the self is everything, always and forever. According to the Hindu view this self plays hide and seek with itself for all eternity. So therefore in Hinduism everybody and everything is a manifestation of the oneself getting lost in itself for the sheer distraction and fun of it.

The Wheel Of Becoming

An element of Hindu mythology that is very central to Buddhism is the idea of the wheel of becoming. This idea is that there are 6 realms to existence. The top realm on the wheel of becoming is the realm of the Deva. Devas are like celestial angels who live in bliss and happiness and who are very spiritually successful. Opposite to them on the wheel is the hell realm inhabited with hell beings or Naraka who are absolute spiritual failures, degenerates living in misery and torment. Next to the hell beings are the Pretas or tormented spirits who have tiny mouths and huge bellies and who cannot satisfy their thirst and hunger; they are destined to continuously be trying to satisfy their hunger and thirst. Next to the Pretas come the Human beings who hold a balanced position but who are controlled by desire. On the other side of the wheel coming down from the Devas are the Demigods or powerful war like beings, a little bit like the Greek Titans but these beings suffer with intense jealousy for the Devas. Finally below the Demigods is the animal realm where the animals live in absolute ignorance and stupidity.

All of these realms needn’t be taken literally; they in fact represent the six main modalities of mind. The hell beings represent anger and hatred, the Pretas greed and attachment, the Humans desire, the Devas pride, the wrathful beings jealousy and the Animals ignorance. This diagram figures heavily in Buddhism and creates the main practices of the 6 perfections in Mahayana Buddhism. Also it points to the subtle suffering of existence.

If you are good and improve yourself you go up the wheel to be with the Devas and if you are bad and lose discipline you end up with the hell beings. However the nature of this diagram is that of a wheel. If you go up you must come down. You cannot improve yourself indefinitely; if you become too good you will inevitably become bad. Take the example of an alcoholic. Let’s say that there is an alcoholic who has stayed sober for years and worked hard at being a good citizen. When he was a drunk he lived on the street in absolute hell. Now he has a job and a house and respectability he feels like he is in heaven. After a little while he forgets completely that he was an alcoholic and also starts to get bored with the boring lifestyle of being a goody two shoes. He allows himself a drink of wine to help him relax one evening. Then on another day he has a beer with his lunch. Soon he is drinking every day. Then he starts struggling to get up in the morning and soon he loses his job. People reject him because he starts forgetting about his personal hygiene and before long he is back in the hell of alcoholism and living on the street. This is one example of how we move from hell to heaven to hell again. This endless pendulum effect is the main suffering that Buddhism tries to cure.

Wisdom instead of Goodness 

By being a goody two shoes you tie yourself to the wheel with gold chains and by being a deviant rascal you tie yourself to the wheel with barbed wire. But the Buddha is the one who gets rid of the chains altogether. This explains why Buddhism is more concerned with being wise as opposed to being good.

The main reason one is stuck on the wheel is that one has forgotten that they are the ultimate self, they are delusional and stuck into thinking that they are separate from others. They then get lost in a game of good and bad, success and failure, praise and blame, infamy and fame and pleasure and pain. A Buddha recognizes that he is the divine self. He recognizes that everybody around him is also that same divine being. The Buddha although not preaching to do good, like Christianity, nonetheless has great compassion for those who are trapped in the game. A Buddha wants to help those who do not recognize who they and everybody else is, in the same way you might want to help a man who is tricked into believing his reflection in the mirror is another person. Or the way a dog chases it's tail, to watch someone trapped in a cycle like this is maddening. Buddha has a love and compassion that transcends the notion of doing good. Buddha also teaches ways to get off the wheel in a comfortable way. His teachings show how to use good deeds to accumulate merit and ascend the wheel. And then, in a comfortable position, one may accept the truth and finally leave the wheel.


Another element that reoccurs in varying degrees throughout Buddhism is the Hindu idea of the Jivatman. The idea is that before the divine self manifests itself as all living beings it first becomes a Jivatmin or a soul. This soul or mind stream reincarnates lifetime after lifetime. This soul or individual mind is propelled by its Karma. Karma literally means action or doing. The Jivatman’s circumstances and life course are created by previous actions. Actions behave with cause and effect each action being connected like a chain one creating the next; a chain that links one's lives together. In Buddhism the game of being stuck on the wheel goes on lifetime after lifetime.

However some Zen schools of Buddhism do not believe in this reincarnating soul. They believe more in the eternal present, there not being a past or a future. If you believe you are the same person you were yesterday then you are reincarnated but if you really realize who you are you can see through this idea of reincarnation. To believe you are your past is to create the chain linking moments together. They believe it is better to go straight to the truth of the matter. The only real you is the being experiencing the eternal now. The ego is living in thoughts, memories and ideas of the future. The ego is creating the delusion of a chain of karma. The real you transcends life and death, good and bad and therefore transcends karma.

A lot of schools teach rebirth as opposed to reincarnation. They say that rebirth is different because there isn't a soul or a permenant 'thing' about the individual that is getting reborn. They say rebirth is happening all of the time. The ten year old you has gone forever, every part of the ten year old you has died and been reborn. Even the memories you have of being ten years old are continuously changing. So although you are in a causal chain with the ten year old boy or girl you used to be, there really is no part of that person left in existence. It is true that every seven years every single cell in your body has been replaced. So with rebirth this causal chain continues, they call it a 'mind stream'. Your old life will affect where you are reborn but in time every trace of the old life will be gone.

No God

Also the same as Hinduism, Buddhism believes that the universe is beginning-less and endless. That also means that an individual being's stream of consciousness is beginning-less and endless. Buddhism does not believe in the idea of an initial cause, or a prime mover. There is no omnipotent God who created the Universe.

However the Buddha didn’t say that there aren’t any Gods at all. He taught that if there were Gods they were simply beings inhabiting the universe. In Buddhism Gods or higher evolved beings might be in a better position than humans but they are still subject to suffering and impermanence

 Spread of the Teachings



Because of its spread throughout the world there are many schools of Buddhism, there are also different levels referred to as Yanas in Sanskrit which means vehicles, a vehicle being something that takes you somewhere, in this case the vehicle is supposedly taking us to enlightenment. In this blog I want to look at Theravada, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Theravada means ‘the way of the elders’ you find Theravada Buddhism in Burma, Silom, Thailand, Cambodia and generally South Asia. It is a very strict religion and is a way for monks rather than laymen. The Theravadan monks are trying to live completely without desire. To adhere absolutely to the codes of conduct, to never kill, to be vegetarian, to be celibate, to never speak out of term, to eat only to sustain the body etc, etc. They also meditate in a very strict way with the idea that one day they will attain Nirvana and disappear from manifest reality altogether.

People who practice the Mahayana or ‘great vehicle’ school of Buddhism refer to Theravadan Buddhism as the Hinayana or ‘small vehicle’. From a Mahayana perspective the Theravada or Hinayana is holding a dualistic view point. They believe that one doesn’t necessarily have to get away from the world to experience Nirvana and that the ordinary world and Nirvana are inseparable, it is only delusion and ignorance that creates the divide. Nirvana is here and now.

Mahayana Buddhism developed in northern India and Nepal and spread predominantly to Tibet, China and Japan. Central to Mahayana Buddhism is the idea of the Bodhisattva, this can mean somebody who is on the way to becoming a Buddha or it can also mean somebody who has already become a Buddha and has gone back through great compassion into the world to help other beings become Buddhas. The Theravadan Buddhists tend to see this as nonsensical because they believe that when one becomes a Buddha everything and everyone becomes one and there is nobody and no world to go back to.

From the Mahayana view the Bodhisattva has an endless task of trying to help an infinite amount of sentient beings. This may seem somewhat strange because there will never be a time when infinite sentient beings are liberated. However the Mahayanas also say that from the point of view of someone who is awakened or a Buddha everybody is already liberated: the Buddha sees everybody as being exactly perfect as they are now.

Unlike the Hinayana the Mahayana expands its scope of concern from oneself to that of freeing all beings from suffering. It is the practice of learning how to see the world as it truly is and then living in accord with that truth. It is also doing it in a way that inspires and helps others to free themselves from the suffering of ignorance. The aspiration to want to help other beings is called Bodhicitta which means the heart of the enlightened mind. Bodhicitta has two aspects.


The first aspect of Bodhicitta is called absolute Bodhicitta. Here the Bodhisattva must develop wisdom through practicing in meditation. This is training oneself to see the world as it truly is, to see first hand the Shunyata or great emptiness. When one experiences this state in meditation free from conceptualization the Bodhisattva is said to obtain the Dharmakaya or the truth body of the Buddha. This is like realizing that the infinite sky like expanse of Shunyata is actually the root of mind and the Bodhisattva experiences it as a breathtaking feeling of expansion. The Dharmakaya is the sky from which everything arises, pure pristine, empty and radiant it is recognized as the deepest and subtlest ‘body’ of the mind. In this mind we are all one.

One develops the ability to remain in meditation free from conceptualization by realizing through study that it is concepts themselves that are blocking one from seeing the true nature of reality directly. Ones mind also develops the strength to let go of everything and expand into the infinite Dharmakaya through compassion for others. Love and the burning desire to help others is the only state of mind that gives one the courage to surrender everything including oneself to emptiness.

The second aspect of Bodhicitta, relative Bodhicitta, feeds into the realization of the first. One practices contemplating the four immeasurable qualities of love,compassion, joy and equanimity. One defeats the relative deluded aspects of the ego: ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, greed and pride by practicing the six perfections. The six perfections are antidotes to these deluded aspects of mind. When the mind is cleared of the thoughts and feelings associated with these states the pure nature of the mind is revealed. The six perfections are generosity, ethics, patience, effort, meditation and discriminative awareness. Practicing these things takes a long time because one is brainwashing oneself to change ones habits from being delusional to being based on wisdom.  

These practices help one to see clearly the true nature of reality and in so doing the Bodhisattva gains the ability to experience the Sambhogakaya which is the enjoyment body of the Buddha and the Nirmanikaya which is the manifested body in this world. The Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanikaya are the three levels of reality. The Sambhogakaya arises from the Dharmakaya and the Nirmanikaya manifests from the Sambhogakaya. This is happening all of the time anyway, the only difference is that a Buddha through the strength of his practice is no longer ignorant of the three realms and the three bodies.

As an aside the Dharmakaya I believe is what Christian Mystics refer to as God, the Sambhogakaya the Holy Spirit and the Nirmanikaya the son. These three are inherent at the foundation of all great spiritual teachings. They have their analogies is Sufism and Hinduism as well as many other schools of thought. The scientific analogy could be the three interactions of quantum particles, non-locality, implicit meaning and explicit order. These kaya states are also analogues to brain wave states. Scientists call the four brain wave states, Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta.

We all experience the three bodies of a Buddha every night when we fall asleep. In deepest sleep we are in the state of Dharmakaya but we just don’t recognize it. If we were to recognize it we would apprehend the Dharmakaya directly. Until we first apprehend and then realize that the Dharmakaya is the true nature of our mind we simply experience an elusive void at the core of our being and at the core of reality. Also when we die our body and mind dissolve into the Dharmakaya passing through the Sambhogakaya but again we don’t recognize it, we interpret them as being separate from ourselves. We experience the vastness of the Dharmakaya and the emerging energy of the Sambhogakaya and are terrified by them, thus we flee from them only to be reborn again in ignorance.

The teachings contained within the Hinayana such as the teachings on the four nobletruths supposedly come from Buddha Shakyamuni’s first main discourse at Sarnath. The Mahayana teachings are said to derive from the Buddha’s second and third main teachings at Vulture Peak.

In India based on different philosophical standpoints Buddhism developed into four major schools. They were the Vaibhashika, Sauntrantika, Yogachara and Madhyamaka. It was the Madhyamaka School of teachings that traveled to Tibet and became Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism.

The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is the name given to those earliest translations of the teachings in Tibet. Later translations would form the other main schools in Tibet such as the Kagyu, Sakya and Kadampa; Kadampa Buddhism would eventually become the Gelug tradition of which the Dalai Lama is a follower.

There is also Bon Buddhism, which has it's own amazing history, supposedly predating Buddhism and Hinduism. But that is another story.

Mahayana is made up of Sutrayana and Tantrayana. Sutrayana encompasses both Hinayana and Mahayana and is known as the causal vehicle because it creates a path which is to be followed in order to attain enlightenment. In Sutrayana the six perfections and various other intellectual and physical disciplines are employed in an ordered way so that the individual can achieve enlightenment.


Sutrayana and Tantrayana both hold the view of Bodhicitta and the absolute view of Shunyata or great emptiness. Tantrayana is different because it employs techniques for the advanced person to realize Shunyata without so much hardship. To cut a long story short Tantrayana is a quicker way than Sutrayana.

The teachings of Tantrayana and Sutrayana traveled in different branches through various masters both living and none in a very dubious and mystical lineage from India to Tibet. Some of the teachings are said to be mind only transmissions where various masters had teachings transmitted to them mystically from other Buddhas who resided in other realms.

Tantrayana is known as the fruition vehicle. This is because it is said that the practioner can experience enlightenment without following a path. There are many complex practices in Tantrayana such as being empowered into the mandala or environment of a deity and taking commitment vows to special types of being within the Mandala. Eventually the practioner, after elaborate visualization rituals, transfers his consciousness into that of the deity. The practioner thus becomes the deity and the whole world becomes his mandala. Sort of like pretending to be enlightened and in so doing one can actually taste enlightenment. There are many subtle elements to the practices and I cannot go into them in detail here. The end result however is a quick and easy realization of emptiness.

From the Nyingma standpoint Tantrayana is further divided into outer tantra and inner tantra. The outer tantras are Kriyayoga, Upayoga, and yogatantra. The inner tantras are Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga or Dzogchen. An in-depth discussion of these different teachings is beyond the scope of this essay.

I remember a story from somewhere that illustrates how amazing the Dzogchen teachings are. It is a story about a poisonous plant. The plant represents the delusional states of mind that keep one from seeing clearly the truth of reality. I have re-written it here from memory I hope I haven’t misinterpreted it or got it wrong.

A family discovers a poisonous plant in their garden. In fear they cut the plant down. This is like the Theravada teachings which teach that one must renounce or cut away all desire and pleasure to destroy the ego.

The neighbors come over and see that the plant will soon grow back so they throw boiling water over the roots of the plant to stop it from growing. This is like the Mahayana teachings which attack the root of the delusional states of mind: the ego with the concept of Shunyata.

A friend calls round who is a doctor, he see’s the plant and is delighted. He knows that scientists value this plant because they can turn the plant into medicine. This is like the Tantra teachings that do not try to get rid of the delusional states of mind but instead turn them into energy to be used to realize Shunyata.

Then all of a sudden a peacock swoops into the garden and starts to dance with joy when it sees the plant. It eagerly eats the poisonous plant. The bright colours in the peacock’s feathers owe their brightness to this poisonous plant, thus the peacock turns the poison into beauty. This is like the Dzogchen teachings that show one how to see directly the truth.

This brief introduction into Buddhism and explanation of the different Yanas is in fact a shameful review and I hope that you will be encouraged to study this in further detail elsewhere, where far more qualified teachers have explained things in greater detail. I have written it however so that you might get an inkling into how vast a subject Buddhism is.

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