Thursday, 22 September 2011


Buddhism at a Glance

 Buddhism Topics

  • Buddhism at a Glance

  • The Four Noble Truths

  • The Life of the Buddha

  • Buddhism's Sacred Texts

  • The Three Vehicles

  • Tibetan Buddhism

  • Reincarnation, Tibetan Style

  • Zen Buddhism

  • Bodhidharma

  • Living Zen Masters

  • Pure Land Buddhism

  • Nichiren Buddhism
     World Religions Home
    Buddhism originated in the 6th century B.C.E. in India, spread south to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Java, and Sumatra, and north to the Himalayan region, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Beginning in the 19th century, Buddhist teachings were carried to Europe and the Americas as well as parts of Africa and Australia. Unlike most of the world's other great traditions, Buddhism is not based on any conception of a Supreme Being or Godhead. Rather than depending on God's help to deliver us from evil and suffering (which is one view of theistic, or God-based, religions) Buddhism teaches reliance on human effort to relieve suffering. The Buddha is considered to be a historical figure, a human being who achieved great enlightenment, but not divine.
    Although the Buddha taught no reliance on a Supreme Being, he nonetheless accepted much of the existing worldview of ancient India, with its panoply of gods and demons. In Buddhist artwork and scriptures, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as preaching to or interacting with various deities. And many Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha almost like a god, while revering other earthly and celestial beings who have reached enlightenment in a manner similar to the way Westerners or Hindus worship God. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?
    Perhaps we can begin by noting that modern Buddhists practice their faith in different ways, as do Jews and Christians. For example, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who believes in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, and a Unitarian Universalist, who takes the scripture as largely metaphorical, are both Christians. For many Asian Buddhists, elements of the supernatural surround and suffuse their religion, partly the result of Buddhism's having for so many centuries existed alongside the folk religions of India and China, which are resplendent with gods and goddesses, demons and ghosts and all manner of supernatural happenings. Other Buddhists, particularly Western converts to Zen, choose to follow teachers who stress the nontheistic core of Buddhism, with its reliance on personal effort to achieve self-realization. Still others interpret the teachings regarding celestial beings, demons, paradises and hells, especially as taught by Tibetan Buddhists, as metaphors for various psychological and spiritual states, images that help them in their practice but that they do not need to take literally.
    The Buddha also seemed to accept the prevailing Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma found in the Upanishads, although he altered the concepts as he incorporated them into his own philosophy. And so he didn't essentially question the Hindu vision of samsara, the Wheel of Existences with its continuous cycle of rebirth over thousands of lifetimes. In fact, according to some scholars, the Buddha held a view of the gods similar to that of the Greeks, feeling that the gods suffered from the same frailties and failings as humanity, and that their state was actually inferior to that of humans because only in a human lifetime can one achieve enlightenment.
    Karma and Reincarnation
    On the other hand, the Buddha rejected the Upanishadic concept of the Atman, or individual soul, that seeks to realize its oneness with Brahman, the Hindu name for the Godhead. The Buddha conceived of individuals as dynamic aggregates of various states, or skandas -- the constituents of personality including the body-mind, feelings, ideas, subconscious predispositions, and conscious awareness -- which dissolve and are reconfigured constantly (much the way medical science now tells us that every cell of our body dies and is recreated over a span of several years). He believed that one has no permanent, identifiable soul, a doctrine known as anatta or anatman. For the Buddha the mistaken identification of humanity with an individual, unchanging identity fixed in time is the root cause of all suffering and, ultimately, of death. This teaching along with its corollary, compassion for all sentient beings, make up the core of Buddhist Dharma, or collective teachings. Its numerous texts -- perhaps more than any other religious tradition -- and extremely complex spiritual practices and psychological analyses are all predicated on this basic insight.
    The Buddha accepted the notion of karmic transfer from one form of existence to the next, but he saw each of these successive forms of existence as a continuity of moral development toward completeness rather than as an individual "personality" or soul -- today we might call this conditioning. Different philosophical schools offer various explanations of how the law of karma functions while still maintaining the cardinal Buddhist position of no permanent, intrinsic identity. One way of stating Buddhist teaching might be to say that certain tendencies are created in the subtle structure of our being by all of our past actions, and those tendencies -- as constantly changing and impermanent as the cells of our physical body -- are what are transferred across limitless lifetimes.
    But the Buddha found no useful purpose in such speculation since it would not lead to release from suffering. As one scholar put it, Buddha never taught that there is no "self," only that such a self cannot be understood. Since he didn't find theological disputation helpful in achieving liberation, the Buddha maintained a "noble silence" about metaphysical questions as to whether the universe is eternal or infinite, whether an enlightened being continues to exist in some form after death, and whether there is a Supreme Being on the order of the Hindu Brahman. The Buddha was preoccupied with much more tangible problems, chief among them the suffering caused by the illusion of the separate ego, and the rampant violence of the age into which he was born, violence that he believed to be a direct outgrowth of the separation between the individual and the rest of society. His solution to the problem of human suffering is contained in what he called the Four Noble Truths.

    The Four Noble Truths

    When the Buddha preached his first sermon, following his enlightenment, in the Deer Park at Sarnath, usually titled "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma," he put forth the Four Noble Truths that he had experienced in the course of his awakening:

    1. all existence involves suffering.
    2. the cause of suffering is craving.
    3. release from suffering (nirvana) comes through eradicating passionate craving for material or sensual satisfaction.
    4. the way to achieve that release is the Noble Eightfold Path. These eight ways of right being encompass right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
    One Buddhist scholar has suggested that the Four Noble Truths may be based on an ancient Indian medical formula of diagnosis, cause, prognosis, and treatment. Yet because of the way these four truths are formulated, Westerners often mistake Buddhism for a largely negating, pessimistic, and moralistic religion. Yet, in keeping with his Middle Way, the Buddha spoke of different kinds of happiness -- the happiness of sensory pleasures as well as of renunciation, of the family and of the monk. Scholars point out that his word "duhkha," usually translated as "suffering," also has overtones of "impermanence," "insubstantiality," and "discontent," giving it less the sense of pain than of the fleeting and illusory nature of existence: nothing lasts forever.
    Furthermore, two of the Buddha's basic teachings are to do no violence to any sentient being and to strive for the liberation of all others. Perhaps for this reason, as much as for Buddha's teaching of the irrelevance of worldly striving, Buddhism has proven to be the least warlike of the major religions.

    The Life of the Buddha

    According to tradition, the historical personage known as Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family in Northern India, in the foothills of what is now Nepal around 563 B.C.E. (The dates of his birth and death are reckoned as 563-483 BC by Western scholars, 624-544 according to Sri Lankan tradition). Siddhartha led a sheltered existence in the court of his father Suddhodana, the king of the Shakya clan. According to the legends, Siddhartha bore the traditional 32 marks of an Enlightened One, and soon after his birth a soothsayer predicted that he would become, in the words of one commentator, "either a king whose chariot wheels would roll everywhere, or a preeminent sage who would set rolling the wheel of the good law throughout the world." Suddhodana, a member of the warrior-ruler caste, preferred the royal vocation, and shielded his son from any encounter with aging, sickness, death, or the ascetical Hindu monks of the time. He provided Siddhartha with three palaces and ten thousand dancing girls to keep his mind firmly rooted in the "real" world. But, as so often happens when manipulative fathers groom their sons to take over the family business, Siddhartha rebelled.
    Legend states that at 16 he married a beautiful young princess named Yasodhara, by whom he fathered a son, Rahula. Esoteric or Tantric accounts insist that the dancing girls were actually well-trained sexual partners who sometimes combined their talents to perform the so-called yogini chakra with Gautama, during which he made love simultaneously with as many as nine women.

    But by the age of 29, Gautama had come across aging, sick, and dying men outside the palace. These encounters with mortality blew down his father's carefully constructed house of cards, horrifying the young Siddhartha with the realization he later verbalized as "every living thing must decay." How could he enjoy his life of pleasure once he knew it all must end eventually? Hedonism having lost its appeal, Gautama was struck by the self-possessed and tranquil figure of a passing ascetic, who seemed to have found an answer to the dilemma of human pain and mortality, and he determined to become a monk himself. Leaving behind his wife and child, Siddhartha renounced the riches and pleasures of the palace and went in search of deliverance from suffering.

    For a while the future Buddha practiced two yoga meditation tradtions until he realized that they would not permanently release him from suffering. Then he practiced the asceticism of the yogis of that time and place, nearly starving himself to death in the process. Finally he came to the conclusion that asceticism in and of itself was not the answer. The logical conclusion of denying the physical body is death, but the principles of reincarnation dictated that he would return in another body and be forced to repeat the process ad infinitum. During his life-threatening fast, he realized that enlightenment could be reached only through the vessel of the body, and there was a limit to how much deprivation his body could safely endure. And so Gautama abandoned the extreme asceticism he had been practicing in favor of a Middle Way between devotion to pleasures of the senses and complete denial of them.
    Accepting a bowl of rice and milk that was offered him, he ate and his strength began to return. He then went and sat at evening under a nearby fig tree (now known as the Bodhi, or Bo, tree, the "Tree of Wisdom"), refusing to move until he had discovered the secret of release from suffering. In the early morning hours he realized the nature and cause of suffering and the way of release from these causes that constituted his enlightenment. He came to understand that one could be freed from suffering in this life by moderating its real causes: passionate craving, hatred, and ignorance. After sitting in meditation, the Buddha looked up at the morning star and said, "How wonderful. How wonderful. All things are enlightened exactly as they are!" He continued meditating for another 49 days.
    All agree that he experienced nirvana, a Sanskrit word meaning "blown out," like a candle, representing the extinguishing of all desire. He chose to live and teach, however, wandering the land for the next 45 years, begging food and shelter and teaching in the vernacular to men and women of all castes.
    After 45 years of preaching, at the age of 80, the Buddha died. His last words are said to be, "All composite things are decaying. Work out your salvation with diligence." ("Composite" refers to the belief that all objects and people are composed of changing and changeable factors, both psychological and physical.)
    The Buddha left no writings. All Buddhist scriptures are based on accounts of his life and teachings passed down orally by his disciples from generation to generation. Traditionally, the accounts were committed to writing (in Sanskrit and in Pali, a Sanskrit-derived Indian dialect that may have been close to that spoken by the Buddha) within 100 years of the Buddha's death, but modern scholarship places the dates closer to the 2nd or 1st century B.C.E. The written records of his sermons and dialogues are known as sutras, similar in format to Hindu sutras, but closer in spirit to the Christian gospels.

    Buddhism's Sacred Texts

    Shortly after the Buddha's death, or Parinirvana, his closest disciples gathered to recall and recite all of the master's spoken teachings, by way of approving and codifying those sutras which they determined to be authentic. The sutras were not written down at first but were passed along in oral form for several hundred years, and so in the written form each sutra typically begins with the phrase, "Thus have I heard," followed by a description of where and to whom the Buddha was speaking. The original transmissions were reportedly in as many as five early tongues including Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and Magadhi, which the Buddha spoke. When the texts crystallized, they were in two main bodies, the Pali Canon of the southern Theravada tradition and the Sanskrit of the northern Mahayana tradition (written c.125-150).
    The original sutras were divided into five collections known as nikayas, from the Pali word for "corpus." These five nikayas make up the pitaka or "basket" called the Sutra-pitaka. The fifth, Khuddaka nikaya, for instance, contains the famous Dhammapada ("Virtue-path"), 426 pithy verses of the Buddha's basic teachings, especially popular today in Theravadin countries. The same nikaya also houses the Theri-gatha, or songs of the female elders, some of the earliest enlightened women in Buddhism. The Buddha's most celebrated utterances are scattered throughout the sutras, such as his "Fire Sermon," which T. S. Eliot used as a major source for Part III of "The Waste Land."
    The Sutra-pitaka, together with the Vinaya-pitaka (accounts of the origins of the first Buddhist community and the rules for monks and nuns) and the Abhidharma-pitaka (Buddhist psychology and philosophy), make up the Tripitaka, or "Three Baskets." This is the Pali canon of Southern Buddhist scriptures, and is paralleled by the even more extensive Northern Buddhist canon, which was probably written down later than the Pali canon but originated at about the same time.
    Most of the scriptures have never been fully translated into English, which is understandable when we consider that no other tradition on earth has created a larger body of sacred texts. To take one example, the 40 sutras known collectively as the Prajnaparamita Sutra take up, in their Tibetan block print editions, 100 volumes of about 1,000 pages each. Set down in writing somewhat later than the Tripitaka, this sutra is believed by Western scholars to reflect elaborations on the words of the Buddha by Indian Buddhists beginning about 100 B.C.E., and as late as Nagarjuna. Mahayana Buddhist scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Sutra records the actual words of the Buddha, but that the texts were removed from the human realm by gods and dragons for 400 years to allow time for the renunciative, monastic life to purify and prepare people for the messianic nature of its teachings. Over the centuries, abridged versions of this great sutra have appeared, from the extremely short One Letter Sutra (its text is the letter A) to versions of 8,000, 18,000, 20,000, and 25,000 lines. In its original form, called the "Great Mother," it purports to be a complete record of Shakyamuni's audience on Vulture Peak Mountain, in which the Buddha states that he is only the latest of a line of avataric predecessors, and constantly asserts that Prajnaparamita -- the female embodiment of the Sutra -- produced all the Buddhas and is their mother and instructor. It also gives us the classic Buddhist mantra, Om mani padme hum, and predicts the coming of Maitreya (Skt. "Loving One"), the Buddha-to-be who waits to emanate at some time in the future to help any who have not yet realized enlightenment. Besides the sutras, the Mahayana canon contains many shastras, treatises that interpret and comment on the philosophical statements contained in the sutras.
    Most Buddhist sects are based on one or another sutra. For example, followers of the Japanese sect of Nichiren Buddhism chant their faith in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or Lotus Sutra, a key sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese school of T'ien-t'ai ("School of the Celestial Platform") also bases its doctrine on the Lotus Sutra.
    One of the most often quoted scriptures is a small section of the Prajnaparamita known popularly as the Diamond Sutra, a name that implies the penetration of the most impenetrable wisdom. Translated into Chinese in the year 401, the Diamond Sutra later became the first book ever printed (in 868), more than five centuries before the Gutenberg Bible.
    Of all the Buddhist texts, the most popular in Europe and America, where it has sold millions of copies, does not directly present the teachings of the Buddha. Known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title coined by the American scholar who first translated it into English in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, the book's Tibetan name is the Bardo Thodol Chenmo ("the Great Liberation through Hearing in the Between"). It was originally committed to writing in the time of the 8th century Buddhist master Padmasambhava, probably either written or collated by him. Subsequently hidden in caves, it was revealed in the 14th century by the Tibetan Rigzin Karma Lingpa, himself believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava. The word "bardo" means, roughly, "suspended between," and refers to various states of consciousness experienced between death and rebirth. The Bardo Thodol, then, is nothing less than a guidebook to help dying and just-departed souls find their way through the potentially tortuous and confusing stages of the afterlife -- or, more properly, between-lives. Reportedly based on the accounts of lamas who had total recall of their own between-life experiences, the text is designed to be studied during one's life and to be read over the dying or newly dead. (Alongside Catholicism, with its last rites and funeral masses, Buddhism is the only other contemporary religion that features services explicitly designed to help the souls of the dead make the transition from the bodily state.)
    The Bardo Thodol gives very specific, detailed accounts of the journey from death to rebirth, dividing it into three distinct stages: The Chikhai, Chonyid, and Sidpa Bardos. Remarkable correlations between the first stage described in the text and modern accounts of near-death experiences have been catalogued in Raymond Moody's popular book, Life After Life.

    The Three Vehicles

    Buddhism grew slowly until the third emperor of India, Ashoka (c. 273-237 B.C.E.), who ruled all but the southernmost part of the Indian subcontinent, became a convert. According to tradition, Ashoka was horrified at the human toll taken by his conquests in pursuit of a unified Indian Empire, and he embraced the Buddha's teachings of nonviolence. Ashoka's edicts in support of the Buddhist precepts against harming humans and animals and in favor of religious tolerance were engraved on large rocks and stone pillars for all the people to read. Under Ashoka, vegetarianism became state policy and Buddhism spread across most of India.
    Over the next 400 years, Buddhism gradually divided into a number of schools and sub-schools. The pejorative overall term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") was later applied to these early schools by members of the second major branch, who called their school Mahayana ("Great Vehicle"). The only surviving Hinayana school is the Theravada ("Teachings of the Elders"), which spread south and east from India into what is now Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Bangladesh.
    The Mahayana began developing around the 1st century B.C.E., mainly in Northwestern and Southern India, where Buddhism came into contact with foreign cultures. Certain teachers, believing that the religion had grown stale and had come to rely too much on the repetition of the sutras, set out to create a new body of work that would make the teachings more relevant and vibrant. These new teachings were presented as having been given by the Buddha but concealed for hundreds of years until they were needed. Some Buddhists reject the notion of any decline in the efficacy of existing teachings or practices, insisting that the Buddha had taught on several different levels, fully intending the more advanced levels to be presented only after the initial groundwork had been laid. According to this interpretation, the faithful first had to purify themselves by following the moral and ethical precepts of the Buddha before they would be ready to receive the more profound teachings of the Mahayana, and later of the Vajrayana. Mahayana traveled north in the 1st century to the Himalayan region, Central Asia, and China, later to Korea and Japan, and in the 7th century to Tibet.
    Both Hinayana and Mahayana accept the basic tenets of Buddhism, but Hinayana stressed the liberation of the individual from the cycle of existence. The Hinayana ideal is the arhat, or fully liberated being who experiences nirvana for himself. But enlightenment was limited to male monks under this system; women had to be first reborn as men. Mahayana developed the ideal of everyone becoming a bodhisattva -- a fully enlightened being who, rather than experiencing complete nirvana, returns to help bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. This belief is predicated on limitless lifetimes to develop limitless abilities with which to help others achieve enlightenment. A bodhisattva ("enlightenment hero") is a being who, out of compassion, has made a vow to reach enlightenment for the sake of others, and who by definition is on the path to buddhahood. Bodhisattvas exist at various levels of development over many lifetimes; in the Mahayana tradition there are earthly and transcendent bodhisattvas. The former are still ordinary beings, male or female, who are developing their skills at helping others; the latter, who could also be called celestial or angelic bodhisattvas, are possessed of perfect wisdom and are no longer subject to samsara. Transcendent bodhisattvas can also be female, and few celestial beings are more highly revered by Tibetan Buddhists than Tara ("Savior"), the embodiment of the feminine aspect of compassion.
    The understanding of nirvana itself in these two schools also differs substantially. For Theravadins, nirvana is the cut-and-dried extinction of craving, a one-shot deal that follows complete liberation from the bonds of craving. Mahayanists, on the other hand, believe that by the bodhisattva's very postponement of the bliss of nirvana, he or she has realized true nirvana -- that is, a condition of total detachment from any selfish craving, including the craving for eternal bliss. They refuse to make any ultimate separation of nirvana from the world of sense experience, as indicated by the phrase: "nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana." This leads to many questions about the Buddha's relationship to nirvana, put succinctly by the 2nd century patriarch Nagarjuna: "What is the Buddha after his Nirvana? Does he exist or not exist, or both, or neither? We never will conceive it!"

    Tibetan Buddhism

    The form of Buddhism that developed in Tibet in the 8th century is sometimes referred to as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, because it grew in part out of Indian Tantric practicies. However, it's more commonly known today as Tibetan Buddhism, and it differs considerably from Zen and other forms of Buddhism. During the 7th century, the first king of a united Tibet introduced Buddhism into his country through marriages to Buddhist princesses from Nepal and China. He made Buddhism the state religion after converting from Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet that combined shamanism, ritual divination, exorcism, and burial rites with belief in the doctrine of rebirth. Yet Buddhism failed to catch on in Tibet until 747, when another king invited the Indian Buddhist sage Padmasambhava to oversee the completion of a royal monastery there. Padma (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche, or "Precious Guru") also began the first community of Tibetan lamas, or spiritual teachers.
    To help popularize Buddhism with the Tibetan people, Padmasambhava incorporated certain superficial aspects of the Bon religion, adopting some local Tibetan deities and transforming some of the Bon deities and demons into lokapalas, or protective deities that embody the extreme forces of nature. Padmasambhava's system became known as the Nyingma, or "Ancient" school, and is the oldest of Tibet's four principal schools of Buddhism. The most advanced form of the Nyingma teaching is known as Dzogchen, or "Great perfection," which holds that the pure and perfect nature of mind already exists within each of us, and needs only to be recognized. The other major orders of Tibetan Buddhism today ar the Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk.
    The esoteric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism derive from Padmasambhava's origins as a professor of Tantric Yoga at the Buddhist University in Nalanda, India, and his reputed skills in occultism. The story goes that Padma Sambhava was originally invited to exorcise demons that were causing earthquakes and preventing the Tibetan king from building a Buddhist monastery there. Padma expelled the demons, the earthquakes quit, the locals were suitably impressed, and he was given control over the monastery. He is also traditionally credited with having originated the Bardo Thodol Chenmo, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a guidebook for passing through the afterlife experience, viewed as a series of varying states of consciousness between death and rebirth.
    By the 17th century, as the secularization of society was well under way in Europe, China, and Japan, Tibet was combining its secular government with a powerful and highly developed chain of Buddhist monastic orders. As all three major teachings of Buddhism -- Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana -- were being expounded pretty much simultaneously by the various Tibetan schools, Tibet developed an extraordinarily rich array of spiritual teachings and practices, from the broadly devotional to the deeply esoteric. Most of these teachings are available today in the West, offering advanced yogic techniques and meditation practices, visualizations, chanting, brightly colored mandalas and thangkas (iconographic scroll paintings), devotional prayer and services. The increasing appeal of these teachings in America has been highlighted by the surprising best seller status of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by a Cambridge-educated Tibetan lama named Sogyal Rinpoche, who had previously been little known outside of Buddhist circles.
    Having been established for a longer time in the West, Zen has produced more American dharma-successors with authentic ties to Asian Buddhist lineages. However, the Tibetan tradition has also begun to produce American dharma-successors, notably Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and one of the foremost students of Chogyam Trungpa, who was instrumental in bringing Tibetan teachings to the West. In 1986, she was named director of Gampo Abbey, a monastery for Western men and women in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
    The apparent tragedy of the devastation of Tibet's people, monasteries, and sacred art treasures by the communist invaders is seen by many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, as serving a necessary, if painful, function. At the very least, it has brought about the departure of many highly realized lamas to the West, where they are spreading their teachings to a new and receptive audience.

    Reincarnation, Tibetan Style

    The Tibetan schools placed a great deal of emphasis on teachings about reincarnation, and the identification of certain individuals as the reincarnation of previous lamas. Known as tulkus, these reincarnated individuals are important in maintaining the lines of succession in the four major orders as well as a number of other, unrelated lineages. The best known tulku is the Dalai Lama. Mongolia was converted from shamanism to Buddhism in the late 16th century by Sonam Gyatso (1543-88), who was given the title Dalai Lama ("Oceanic Wisdom Master") by the Mongol Altan Khan. The title was then applied retroactively to his two previous incarnations, back to Gendun Drub (1391-1475), now called the first Dalai Lama. (The fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian, as is the word "Dalai.") Each Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the previous one, right up to the 14th and current lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935). Since the fifth Dalai Lama, each has also been considered the direct emanation in human form of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Losang also bestowed the honorific title of Panchen Lama (Skt.-Tib. "Great Scholarly Master") on his master. Until the 20th century, the Panchen Lama played a solely spiritual role in Tibetan Buddhism, and the identity of the current Panchen Lama is a subject of contention between the Buddhist government in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government.

    The reincarnational relationship holds true for the tulkus of the Karma Kagyu, the oldest such lineage, who are known as karmapas. The first karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, died in 1193, and the 16th, Rigpe Dorje, in 1982. His successor, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1986 and, after escaping dramatically from his Chinese captors around the turn of the year 2000, he has been living in India as part of the Tibetan government in exile. Mongolian Buddhism follows a similar scheme to Tibet's. Their spiritual leader or God-king is called the Bogd Gedeen. As with the Tibetans, the Mongolian monks were scattered or killed during the Communist Chinese invasion. The ninth and current Bogd Gedeen is a Tibetan living in India.

    Zen Buddhism

    One of the things that made the Buddha's teachings so radical is that he emphasized personal experience. Since he did not teach belief in a Supreme Deity, he urged his followers to rely on themselves for their salvation -- in his words, to "be your own refuge."
    Building on the meditation practices that he learned from the yogis and ascetics with whom he had come in contact, the Buddha developed techniques that anyone with sufficient desire and commitment could learn. Without the intercession of priests, average men and women could achieve enlightenment by seeing through to the reality of their "true nature." Monks might assist the seeker, but priestly ritual was insignificant compared to the radical process of self-observation and ethical living.
    Yet as time progressed, layers of commentary on his teachings and increasingly complex rituals were perceived by some as obscuring the power of the Buddha's original message. And so, from time to time, certain followers set out to clarify the religion and recover its essential energy and purity. (Others, meanwhile, particularly in northern India, proceeded with the development of sophisticated practices for generating compassion and wisdom; the two lines of development are not necessarily incompatible.)
    About a millennium after the Buddha's death, in the 6th century C.E., Bodhidharma carried his teaching of Buddhism from India to China, where it became known as Ch'an -- a shortened transliteration of the Sanskrit word for meditation. This teaching is now known by its Japanese name of Zen. Over a century after Bodhidharma, the Chinese master Hui-neng gave this new teaching a distinctly Chinese flavor, assimilating aspects of Taoism, and he is considered by some to be the real founder of Zen. Buddhist monks had been infiltrating China along a trade route known as the Silk Road for hundreds of years before Bodhidharma or Hui-neng, subtly interacting with the philosophy of Taoism. Perhaps the fact that the Chinese mind was in many ways more practical and earth-centered than the Indian mind set the stage for the development and acceptance of Ch'an Buddhism. In any case, Zen is traditionally described in the classic saying of Bodhidharma: "A special transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and letters. Direct pointing to the mind of humanity lets one see one's own true nature." It is an attempt to return to the essence of the Buddha's approach: sitting meditation leading to enlightenment.


    The 28th Indian Patriarch in line of descent from the Buddha, and often referred to as the First Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma (c. 470-543) was an extreme character. Possibly disgusted with the corruption of Buddhism in India, he left for China without naming a successor, effectively ending the Indian lineage. But after his new teachings met with a cool reception in the south of China, he set up shop at Shaolin Monastery in Northern China. (In the same monastery, according to tradition, Buddhist monks developed kung fu, a form of Chinese qigong exercises aimed at regulating body, mind, and breath. Although kung fu began as a system of spiritual exercises, it is now widely practiced as a martial art form. On the television series Kung Fu, David "Little Grasshopper" Carradine did his internship at Shaolin Temple.)

    Once again, myth and legend are inextricably mingled with historical and spiritual truth. At Shaolin, Bodhidharma began an extended period of sitting meditation. For nine years, according to legend, he sat facing a wall and refused to move, waiting for someone to take his new teachings to heart. (His austerity actually seems mild compared to the Christian saint Symeon Stylites, who in the previous century in Syria sat atop a pillar 60 feet high and six feet wide for 37 years.) Bodhidharma was sitting zazen, a form of meditation done with the eyes half-closed and the attention focused on the breath, emptying the mind of all thoughts -- or rather letting them pass harmlessly by, like clouds passing before a mirror.

    After nine years of this sitting, Bodhidharma was approached by a would-be disciple named Hui-K`e, who pestered him with a nagging problem. Hui-K`e had no peace of mind and desperately sought a way to achieve it. The Master kept putting him off, telling him that to get peace of mind required arduous discipline and work, probably more than the upstart was willing to do, and to go away. After standing in the snow and pleading for hours without getting a real answer, Hui-K`e in desperation hacked off his own hand and tossed it in front of Bodhidharma. This got his attention. "You're the one I've been waiting for," he said, and agreed to take Hui-K`e as a disciple.
    By 1100, Buddhism was virtually extinct in India proper. But meanwhile, Zen spread through China to Korea and Japan. Beginning near the turn of this century, it was brought to America by Japanese Zen masters and has taken root here alongside other forms of Buddhism, including several schools of Tibetan and Pure Land Buddhism. Apart from daily sitting meditation, Zen emphasizes living in the present moment, without fear of the future or regret for the past. This attitude, which in practice requires moment-to-moment awareness, has been oversimplified and distorted in popular culture. The real flavor of Zen lives in classic stories like those attributed to the Buddha himself.
    One of the favorite teaching tools of Zen masters is the koan, a question or riddle that can't be solved by reason but which points to a deeper truth. Perhaps the most familiar example, thanks to J. D. Salinger's use of it, asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Koans originated in China as questions between monks, often working side by side in the rice fields, and were later perfected as a teaching art by Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163). Their purpose is not so much to produce the right answer as to force the student to abandon the process of rational thought altogether, much like the goal of zazen. A variation on the koan is the mondo ("question and answer"), in which the student and master engage in a dialogue to the same end of eliciting the intuitive aspect of the student's mind. Here's a great example of a mondo quoted by Thomas Merton:
    A Zen Master said to his disciple: "Go get my rhinoceros-horn fan."
    Disciple: "Sorry, Master, it is broken."
    Master: "Okay, then get me the rhinoceros."1
    1. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions, 1968.
    The Zen that survives in Japan today is divided into two major schools, Soto and Rinzai, which developed between the 9th and 11th centuries in China as the Ts'ao-tung and Lin-chi schools, respectively. Lin-chi emphasized a rapid or short path to enlightenment that made use of koans, shouts, and compassionate whacks with a stick called a kyosaku ("wake-up stick") to startle the student into sudden awareness. Its founder was Lin-chi I Hsuan (d. 867), also known as Rinzai, and with him, the school of Ch'an that was to become Zen in Japan coalesced around the basic elements of training that would conclusively distinguish Zen from the other schools of Buddhism. Known for his straightforward language, Lin-chi derogated the practices that had developed of worshiping the Buddha and striving to become a bodhisattva. Speaking of the Buddha as just another bald-headed monk, he is reputed to have said, "If you meet Gautama, kill him," a classic restatement of the Buddha's teaching to work out one's own salvation. The Lin-chi school was introduced to Japan by Eisai (1141-1215).
    Tsao-tung or Soto was founded by Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-69) and his disciple Ts'ao-shan Pen-chi, and was transplanted to Japan by the great Zen master Dogen Zenji (1200-33) in the 13th century. Soto stresses silent practice (mokusho), the highest form of which Dogen called shikantaza -- a state in which no aids to zazen, such as counting the breath or meditating on koans, are used, reverting to the way it was presumably practiced by the Buddha and his immediate disciples. Soto practitioners, paradoxically, are likely to use images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas in a worshipful way (as do Rinzai, for that matter, in the temple practices common among the Japanese masses). However, today koans also play a role in Soto, just as silent meditation does in Rinzai; the difference is one of emphasis.
    In Japan, Zen spread among the Samurai, where it eventually led to the cult of Bushido, or the "Way of the Warrior." Zen was applied to the martial arts, especially archery (kempo) and swordsmanship (kendo), as well as to the more domestic arts of calligraphy, flower arrangement (ikebana), and the tea ceremony (cha no ya). The goal of these practices is the same as that of zazen or koan study: an opening of the mind's eye, known as kensho ("seeing into one's own nature") or satori.
    Technically, kensho and satori both mean enlightenment, but because satori is the word traditionally used to describe the enlightenment of the Buddha and the early patriarchs, according to Buddhist scholars it implies a deeper experience of enlightenment. Does that mean there can be different levels of enlightenment? Why, yes, there can -- just as there are four stages in the development of nirvana.
    The term samadhi, for instance, which in Hindu parlance means a blissful state of meditative union with the Absolute, in Zen refers to a state of intensely effortless concentration, but not necessarily of enlightenment, unless the person experiencing samadhi is already enlightened. And neither state should be confused with nirvana, the ultimate release from all striving and desire realized by the Buddha.

    Living Zen Masters

    The great Rinzai master Soyen Shaku (1859-1919) introduced Zen Buddhism to America in 1893 at the same World Parliament of Religions in Chicago at which Swami Vivekananda presented Vedanta. Through the books of Shaku's student, the eminent Zen author D. T. Suzuki, Zen was the first form of Buddhism to become popular with American spiritual seekers. Besides Suzuki, Zen was spread by American authors like Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Matthiessen. Today a dozen or more American-born Zen masters who are authentic lineage holders run Zen centers or teach. Among them are:
    Philip Kapleau Roshi, founder of the Zen Center in Rochester, New York, and author of the extremely influential book The Three Pillars of Zen, now an independent teacher.
    Bernard Glassman Roshi, a former aeronautical engineer who worked for McDonnell Douglas plotting space trips to Mars. While he was the abbot of the Zen Center New York in Yonkers, his unorthodox mingling of Zen with a profitable bakery and an ambitious housing project for the homeless added further dimensions to the way Zen is practiced in the West.
    Jiyu Kennett Roshi, born in 1924 to Buddhist parents, in 1970 she became the founder of the Zen Mission Society near the foot of Mount Shasta in northern California. Jiyu studied at Soto headquarters in Japan.
    Charlotte Joko Beck, a former student of the Japanese master Maezumi Roshi, has become well-known through her books Everyday Zen and Nothing Special.
    Toni Packer, a former student of Philip Kapleu who was influenced by Krishnamurti.
    Chozen Bays, a student of Maezumi Roshi, who lives and teaches in the Portland, Oregon, area.
    Jakusho Bill Kwong, a Chinese-American Soto priest and abbot of the Santa Rosa, California, community's Soto Zen Buddhist temple, Genjoji, or the Way of Everyday Life Temple. Kwong's teacher was the eminent Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of the classic guide to meditation, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

    Pure Land Buddhism

    The most popular school of Buddhism in China and Japan today is commonly known as Pure Land. Based in part on the Sukhavati-vyuha, or Sutra of the Land of Bliss, which describes paradise in exquisite detail, was essentially founded in 402 by a Chinese monk named Hui-yuan (336-416), and carried to Japan in the 9th-10th centuries. More exclusively devotional than most previous forms of Buddhism, Pure Land emphasizes deep faith in the power and compassion of Amitabha (Skt. "Infinite Light"), a Mahayana figure unknown in earlier Buddhism. He is imagined as 90 million miles tall, overseeing a vast land flooded by his incomparable radiance, located countless universes to the West. Amitabha achieved buddhahood conditioned on his vow to cause everyone who places trust and devotion in him to be reborn in his paradise, where there will be no painful or inferior modes of existence. There will also be no women, since all women are reborn there as men; hence, the pleasures of love will be absent. The doctrine of Pure Land is somewhat similar to the Protestant notion of justification by faith (as opposed to works), and Hui-yuan's aim was much the same as that of the Protestant Reformers: to simplify devotion in an age of religious decadence and complexity. Pure Land devotion consists mainly in what the Japanese call nembutsu, reciting the name of Amida (the Japanese form of Amitabha) and visualizing his paradisaical land, which is enough to guarantee rebirth there."

    The Indian cosmology amid which Buddhism grew already included many images of pleasant heavenly resting places between reincarnations on the endless cycle of rebirths. As Mahayana Buddhism developed during the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.E., related visions of buddha-fields or buddha-paradises were conceived, each ruled over by a particular buddha believed to provide individuals with the fulfillment of their needs. These include the Tushita Heaven, where buddhas dwell who have only one more rebirth to go through -- the most prominent being Maitreya, the last of the five earthly buddhas, expected to appear in about 30,000 years. But Tushita was later supplanted in China by Sukhavati (Skt. "Blissful"), also known as the Western Paradise, a kind of halfway house on the Road to Nirvana. The faithful who are fortunate enough to be reborn in this realm of fragrant flowers and gem-bearing trees may each sit on an individual jewel lotus and study the Dharma, or teachings of Buddhism, with Amitabha himself, free from all sadness, misfortune, or pain, progressing toward their inevitable buddhahood and nirvana.

    Other forms of Pure Land practice add devotion to Kuan-yin or Avalokiteshvara, and Ta-shih Chih or Mahasthama, bodhisattvas representing the compassion and wisdom, respectively, of Amitabha; statues of all three show up in Chinese Buddhist temples. Pure Land Buddhism was part of the teachings brought over to Japan in the 9th century by Saicho and his disciple Ennin (Jikaku Daishi, 793-864), but it didn't take hold of the popular imagination until the 12th century, when its simplicity and undemanding practice made it a natural for the masses. The first Japanese sect, Yuzu Nembutsu, was supplanted by the Jodo ("Pure Land") sect founded in 1175 by Honen (1133-1212), the first to institutionalize the practice of nembutsu as an independent school of Buddhism. Hoping to convey an "easy path" as an alternative to the time-consuming practices of asceticism, meditation, and sutra study that the common people had no time for, Honen required only recitation of the phrase Namu Amida Butsu, or "Veneration to Amida Buddha." Perhaps for the first time in Buddhism, a school placed more significance on the intervention of an outside force than on personal effort or the effects of karma, something that would appear to go against the Buddha's admonition to "be your own refuge." But Honen believed that traditional Buddhist disciplines were no longer effective in the decadent era in which he lived. In such a time, he held, one's own efforts -- whether good works or religious exercises -- are of no avail. One must rely on a higher power, in this case, Amitabha Buddha. However, Honen admonished his followers to observe the monastic regulations and to respect the sutras.
    Honen was followed by a disciple named Shinran (1173-1262), whose Jodo Shin ("True Pure Land") eschews monasticism, although its leadership is hereditary. He believed it unnecessary to call on Amida constantly; even once was enough to insure rebirth in the Western Paradise. Jodo Shin is the leading school of Buddhism in Japan today, with no religious rules whatever that might distinguish its members from ordinary folk.

    Nichiren Buddhism

    The distinguishing practice of Nichiren and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, two similar sects based on the teachings of the fiery Japanese reformer Nichiren (1222-82), is the chanting of the phrase Namu Myoho Renge Kyo: "I trust in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law" (or Lotus Sutra). A fisherman's son who became a monk of the Tendai sect at 15, Nichiren came to the conclusion that the only true Buddhism was that of the Lotus Sutra, which contained the words of the Buddha himself, as opposed to other schools based on the writings of Buddhist adepts or commentators. But Nichiren went further, attacking the traditional doctrines of Buddhism, and teaching that anyone who chanted Namu Myoho Renge Kyo would achieve paradise on earth, for which he was ostracized and persecuted. Nichiren's beliefs were strongly nationalistic; he felt that Japan could prosper only through teaching the Lotus Sutra, and that he was not only the nation's savior but also an incarnation of two bodhisattvas. Followers of Nichiren today imagine Japan as the center of a Buddha-world that will in time encompass the globe -- a truly universal religion.
    The Nichiren chant is often accompanied by drumming, something which may have helped attract a number of prominent American musicians to its practice, most notably jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and pop singer Tina Turner. Nichiren Shoshu developed in the 20th century based on the teachings of a Nichiren disciple named Nikko. A modern lay organization of the Nichiren sect, called the Soka Gakkai ("Value Creation Society"), was founded in 1930 by Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871-1944), who died in prison because of his refusal to participate in state-sponsored Shinto rituals during World War II. Its theology has been described as fundamentalist and intolerant Buddhism.
    Under the shepherding of his principal disciple, Josei Toda (1900-57), Soka Gakkai grew exponentially and became involved in Japanese politics, in the process reviving what had been marginal interest in Nichiren. Today it claims over 10 million adherents in Japan and about another 2 million worldwide, mostly from the lower and lower-middle classes, to whom it appeals with the simple provision that they may chant for money, a new car, or anything else they want. Initially leftist, anti-corruption, and pro-welfare, Soka Gakkai accumulated vast wealth, and was ultimately criticized for corrupt financial practices of its own. In 1991, the main temple of Nichiren Shoshu in Japan excommunicated the entire membership of Soka Gakkai, forcing members to choose between orthodox Nichiren and their disenfranchised sect. The overwhelming majority remained with the parent group, which is known as Soka Gakkai International, or S.G.I., and has about 300,000 members in the United States.END=NAM MO SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA.( 3 TIMES ).

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