Meditation as a method of alleviating suffering
2,500 years ago, Buddhism was born in India, founded by a person known historically as Siddhartha Gautama. Born into a noble family in the kingdom of Kapilavastu, close to what is now known as the India-Nepal border, he spent his early years in luxury and comfort. And if he had remained a prince, Siddhartha might well have become king. But when he was still a young man, his eyes were opened to the sufferings of human existence. This realization prompted him to abandon his princely status and comfortable, well-to-do lifestyle, and venture out into the forest alone to lead a religious life as an ascetic.
What prompted him to leave this comfortable environment to live a life of uncertainty and discomfort?
During adolescence, Siddharta had come to realize that there were happy and unhappy people in society. Although each other’s circumstances are unique, we have one thing in common: we are all inevitably affected by old age, illness, and death. So we are all equally unhappy. The fact of living implies in itself having to suffer, and this pain cannot be appeased or healed by wealth or social rank. For someone who understood this truth, the privilege of being born a prince no longer had any meaning. The only path left for Siddhartha was to dedicate his life to finding a way to escape this inherent suffering of life in order to achieve a state of tranquility and peace.
In the forest, far from civilization, the young man studied with monks who had also set themselves apart from society to practice meditation and asceticism. He tested his body by inflicting physical torment on himself and submitting to hunger, hoping to overcome the pain in order to gain superhuman powers that would allow him to escape suffering. But after six years of self-flagellation and self-sacrifice, he still hadn’t reached his goal. So he decided to change his approach by abandoning his extreme asceticism to focus only on meditation. Thanks to this method, he finally succeeded in attaining enlightenment under the famous Bodhi tree. After this accomplishment, he came to be known as Buddha, which means “the enlightened one”. He is also known as Shakyamuni, referring to his origins in the Shakya tribe of ancient India.
A manual for overcoming destructive emotions
What is the nature of Buddha’s enlightenment? It is impossible for anyone to fully understand the upheavals that may be taking place in another person’s heart. For this reason, the exact account of the experience the Buddha had upon attaining enlightenment remains a mystery. We can, however, get a rough understanding of what happened by reading the sutras and the many other Buddhist scriptures, which are drawn from the Buddha’s teachings based on his experience.
The Buddha teaches that one can only be free from suffering through his own efforts. There is no superhuman being who can come and deliver someone from their ills. This is why the Buddha used the benefits of meditation to examine his own heart and mind until he discovered the roots of suffering. He then understood that the root cause of unhappiness is clinging to the illusion of a sense of self.
We allow ourselves to be ruled by an ego that doesn’t really exist. Self-centered, we see the world in a way that serves the interests of this imaginary ego. This “self-centered” consciousness is something that develops in us by instinct, but this worldview is wrong. And this misunderstanding causes confusion and the destructive states of mind that Buddhism calls “kleshas”. These include emotions such as anxiety, desire, jealousy and fear, mental states that cloud the mind and lead to harmful actions that fuel the cycle of suffering.
Understanding the origins of unhappiness through self-observation, the Buddha developed practical guidelines for ending these unhealthy states of mind and freeing oneself from the ocean of suffering. This approach to spiritual training is unique to Buddhism.
Buddhist practice consists of two main elements. The first is the study of sutras and other writings in order to attain a good understanding of Buddha’s teachings. The sutras serve as manuals for the practice of Buddhism. The second is to carry out the practice of the spiritual lessons learned in the writings under the guidance of more experienced disciples.
As a brand new teaching method, Buddhism has had a strong appeal to people. The Buddha quickly attracted many disciples, and without distinguishing between them, taught them the methods he had learned from his own experience. After his death at the age of 80, his followers kept his methods and teachings alive. Even today, Buddhists around the world continue to follow them. Under the Buddha’s command, his followers appropriated the spiritual meditation practices he had established for them. This community soon became one of the central pillars in the development of Buddhism as a religion over the following centuries.
Maintain the Sangha
The Buddha created this religion so that the community evolved according to strict rules, which is perhaps one of the main reasons why its teachings have survived uninterruptedly for 25 centuries. He gathered his disciples into a single community under his leadership, called “Sangha”. This group was led by strict rules called Vinaya Pitaka (which are among the three most important sets of Buddhist scriptures). After his death, his followers continued to uphold these regulations and maintain the Sangha as a self-governing community of individuals governed by Buddha Law. From the beginning, the Sangha formed the foundation of Buddhism. This has many advantages.
1/ Preserve the relationship between master and disciple
The Vinaya Pitaka establishes clear relationships between teachers and disciples in the Sangha. This makes it possible to transmit the teachings of Buddha, in the form of sutras and other writings, with fidelity through the ages, but also to facilitate the transmission of meditation techniques and other Buddhist practices, which can be learned face to face. from master to student from generation to generation. This contributed to making the Sangha an extremely rational educational organism.
2/ Mutual assistance as a form of social security
The foundation of a system of mutual assistance within the Sangha made it possible to transform the classic relations between a teacher and his disciples into a system of mutual assistance in everyday life. Thus, the religious who have decided to move away from the life of the secular world to devote themselves to Buddhist practices benefit from protection but also from a kind of insurance against illness, injury, and the effects of aging. The Sangha thus became a system of mutual support and assistance that its members could trust.
3/ Maintain the community through alms
The Sangha of Buddhist monks is a community governed by the Law of Buddha, whose members follow a humble and blameless life, guided by a strict code of conduct. This example of integrity earned him the respect of the centuries-old outside world. People saw the Buddha’s disciples as individuals living under strict discipline, and so many were eager to support them by offering alms. These donations from the people have helped maintain the Sangha to this day.
4/ Be independent of external authorities
By operating as an organization with its own laws and rules, the Sangha has managed to achieve a degree of autonomy. This has been an important factor in minimizing the risk of interference from outside powers, and maintaining an environment suitable for meditation and reflection. The Sangha has functioned throughout history as an autonomous community, independent of secular authorities.
Of course, these four characteristics have not been perfectly maintained without interruption for 2,500 years. Throughout history, many events have come to prevent the proper maintenance of these basic principles. But the fact that these four elements have been present since the origin of Buddhism as the founding principles of the religion is very significant. Even if the Sangha sometimes failed to stay on course, it was relatively easy to put the community back on the right track, since it had its essential bases to come back to.
Japanese Buddhism, radically different from that of the beginnings
The characteristics of early Buddhism can be summarized in two essential points. First, the purpose of religious life is meditation. Buddhism does not rely on an outside saviour. Disciples use their own power of observation to introspect, analyze their inner being, and improve themselves. Daily meditation training is their main method to achieve this goal.
Second, the existence of the Sangha as a community provides an environment for disciples to focus on the path to enlightenment. The Sangha was established with the objective of enabling followers to devote themselves to religious practice while remaining dependent on the surrounding secular society for their daily needs. The community is run rationally according to a code of discipline written in the Vinaya Pitaka.
These two characteristics differentiate Buddhism from other religions, but in its Japanese form they have truly atrophied. We can even say without exaggerating that they have disappeared. This is a crucial point in understanding the Japanese form of this religion. If it has lost these typical elements of early Buddhism, what other characteristics has it developed instead? In this series of articles, we will observe how this religion was received in Japan after arriving from China.
The place of Buddhism in the Archipelago has changed a lot over the centuries. At certain periods, this religion maintained close ties with the rulers and powers of the day. At other times, she suffered terrible repressions, even banishment. Let’s take a look together at the long and turbulent history of Buddhism and examine the unique path of the religion founded by Shakyamuni in Japan over the past fifteen centuries.
(Caption photo: A mural depicting the life of the Buddha at Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple, Sarnath, near Varanasi, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Aflo)
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Early Buddhism: The Life of the “Awakened”
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