Is Buddhism a religion or more a philosophy of life? Was Buddha a god? What about women in Buddhism? To sum up : what is Buddhism really about? In this article, you shall find some proper answers to those questions. So have a seat, make yourself comfortable and let’s explore together this fascinating thing that is dharma.
A quick reminder of what Buddhism is :
Buddhism was born in India 2.500 years ago, in a small area called Lumbini, nowadays located in Nepal. Buddhism is a philosophy of life AND a religion of great flexibility, manifesting itself in Asia through its millions of believers (being the world’s fourth largest religion). Basically, it aims to ensure that everyone achieves the same awakening as the Buddha (we’ll come back to this guy later). Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on the Buddha’s teachings (called dharma). At the birth of Buddhism, the predominant religion in India was Brahmanism, which later became Hinduism (later Buddhism will stand against the caste system established by Hinduism as a social system). That being said, as philosophy stands for « love of wisdom », Buddhism can also be considered as a philosophy of life : wisdom is a great part of the Buddhist path, which could be summed up in the following way : « in order to live a moral life, we shall be attentive and aware of thoughts and actions, while we develop wisdom and understanding ».
Moral code, Samsara, and karma
The moral code of Buddhism is called the Precept, whose five main factors are : to not take the life of something alive ; to not take something that is not freely given ; to refrain from sexual misconduct ; to refrain from false speech ; to avoid intoxication (= losing consciousness).
Samsara is known to be a round of endless birth and death. It is the life in which we are caught until we reach enlightenment. Basically, this is the main goal of Buddhists : to reach enlightenment to be delivered from the Samsara. To do so, one must reach what is called « Nirvana ». The attainment of the latter will put an end to all the sources of misfortune for the human being. Until then, life is a step during which everything is an experience.
Karma is the law according to which every act of our body, mind, or word accompanied by the corresponding intention generates a consequence that is proportional to it. We are responsible for our life and therefore we have the power to influence the future. Fundamentally, Buddhism explains the purpose of life, the injustice and inequality in this world, and proposes a certain way of life that leads to true happiness and inner peace.
Is Buddha a deity?
He neither claimed himself as such, nor as a prophet. He was born in 563 BC under the name of Siddhartha Gautama, from a royal family of the Shakya clan. He always claimed to merely be but a mortal who taught a path to enlightenment, on the principles of his very own experience. Originally a prince, destined to be the future leader of his clan, he grew up in luxury and wealth: soon he realized the existence of suffering, which he had always been shielded from. He left his kingdom and went exploring different religions and philosophies of his time to find the key to human happiness. After six years of studying and meditation, at last, he found what was called the « middle way » and received enlightenment. He spent the rest of his life teaching Buddhism principles (dharma) until his death. Buddhists respect the image of Buddha of course, but not in a religious worship sort of way as Gods are worshiped in other religions. There is only infinite gratitude for the teaching inherited from the Buddha.
What are the main teachings of Buddha?
The very foundation of Buddhism, and probably some of the most foundational teachings of Buddha, are the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths (his first sermon). The first talks of the Buddha were not about love, light, peace and how we can all find our own « happily ever after », but merely about our predicament.
The Four Noble Truths: The Four Noble Truths contain the idea that life is only suffering caused by the desire for ephemeral things. They describe the nature of human suffering (named « dukkha ») and the steps we can take to liberate ourselves from it :
- The truth of Dukkha
- The truth of the origin and cause of Dukkha
- The truth of the overcoming of Dukkha
- The truth of the path leading to the cessation of Dukkha.
In one of her conferences, Tenzin Palmo talks about dukkha : she recalls that the Buddha was called the Supreme Physician, and that the Four Noble Truths are set out like a medical treatise :
- The disease
- The cause of the disease
- The cure
- How to apply the remedy.
However, even though dukkha is commonly translated as suffering, it’s a bit more complicated. The Buddha never said life was suffering. Many of us could reply: « my life is not only suffering ». Well, in a way, you’re right. Dukkha, a Sanskrit and Nepali word, stands for something else, hardly translatable. Tenzin Palmo gave a compelling example of what Dukkha is : it is this « underlying sense that things should be okay but somehow they’re not ». You know, the underlying tension which makes us say « everything would be alright, if only ». There’s always a if only : things are never really quite right (« or if they are, they could so easily be going wrong again, right? » ). The very nature of Samsara is Dukkha: it doesn’t always go where we want it to go. Tendzin Palmo reminds us that outwardly, there is a problem, but inwardly, there doesn’t have to be a problem : we make it a problem by resenting things when they don’t go the way WE want them to go. If we just accept it, there’s no problem. The suffering is not out there, it’s inside : our own resistance to things not being the way we want them to be. « The suffering depends on our response to what is out there ». So basically, Dukkha is this sense of unease, and us not getting what we want.
The Noble Eightfold Path : It focuses on being fully aware of one’s thought and action, and on the importance of developing one’s wisdom through understanding the Four Noble Truths and compassion for others. In order to put into practice the Four Noble Truths, Buddhists seek through eight concepts the attitudes and behaviors to adopt: right vision; right thinking; right word; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right attention and right concentration. The eight concepts can be classified into three main categories: wisdom, conduct and concentration. They must be followed at the same time to reach Nirvana.
Does Buddhism have different movements ?
There are many types of Buddhism, as the emphasis is carried differently from country to country and through different cultures. What doesn’t vary though is the essence of the teaching : the dharma, or the truth. All Buddhist meditations are aimed at the development of « awakened consciousness ». Nonetheless, Buddhism includes many different paths, which could be sum up to three main branches :
– Theravada Buddhism (mainly present in Southeast Asia)
– Mahayana Buddhism (located in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan)
– Vajrayana Buddhism (called Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism) – it is the most religious form and its practice is focused on meditation, rituals and devotion to one’s master. It is one of most famous branches in the West, as the Dalaï-Llama belongs to this one.
Buddhism is a belief system which tolerates all other religions. It is very tolerant and doesn’t really pay heed about labels such as « Muslim », « Hindu », « Christian » or even « Buddhist ». This is the reason why there has never really been a war led in the name of Buddhism: Buddhists do not preach, attempt to convert, they merely shall explain if one explanation is requested.
The place of Women in Buddhism
Portrait 1: Tenzin Palmo, second western nun of Tibetan Buddhism
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is one of the greatest figures of contemporary Buddhism. She fought to break the patriarchal scheme present in monasteries, and for women to be recognized as nuns in the same way as men. She is best known for being one of the few Western women trained in the East, having lived 12 years in a cave at 4000m altitude in the Himalayas, including 3 years in strict retreat.
« Why is a penis so essential to achieve enlightenment? »5
Tenzin Palmo once asked a monk. He remained unanswered.
The role of women in Buddhism is subjected to many debates . Some allege that Buddhism would be gender biased : indeed, the path of enlightenment has been considered to be, through the centuries, a man’s privilege. Given the strictly patriarchal way of life of the Buddha’s times, women were not spared from societal sexism. In the patriarchal society and caste system that dominated North India in the VI-V BC, they had relatively few rights. However, according to Buddha’s teaching, both men and women can reach enlightenment and follow the same path to enlightenment. As a fully awakened being, the Buddha considered women as equal, with an important part and dignified role to play in the society. In fact, Buddhist doctrines cannot differentiate men and women that much since all suffer from sickness, age, and death. Buddha was categorical : both men and women can find supreme enlightenment through following his teachings. Those ideas were simply revolutionary for his time, and Buddha definitely challenged the misogynistic pattern of his own era. Women’s possible enlightenment regardless of their caste, their equal worth, was remarkable, regarding the period he lived, which was more than 2500 years ago.
Portrait 2 : Alexandra David-Néel, first Western woman to enter Lhasa7
Alexandra David-Néel was a French writer, woman explorer, Buddhist, and anarchist. At 25 (1924), she entered the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa, at the time where Tibet’s borders were closed to foreigners. She published more than 30 books about Easter philosophy, religions, and her travels.
Unfortunately, through time, many male scholars have used the Buddha’s teachings to arouse the disgust of women and reproduce patriarchal schemes. Monasteries and even convents have been male dominated for ages. « The idea of the dangerous woman whose seduction and latent sexuality turns the man away from holiness and salvation is as old as 8
Adam and Eve’s story », underlines Tendzin Palmo . She stresses that if men felt neither desire nor passion, every seduction of a woman wouldn’t be enough to disturb his mind. In fact, during the 1970s, Tenzin Palmo was the only nun among 100 monks, in a place called Dalhousie (India). While monasteries were vast institutions rustling with the dedication of thousands of monks engaged in the quest of spiritual enlightenment, she was forbidden to live with the rest of the community. She was denied access to esoteric teachings and sacred rituals, making it impossible to attain Enlightenment. The monks pretended women never had access to those sacred truths. She was facing a « spiritual wall, the very one against which the aspirations of all the nuns stumbled ». In some Buddhism branches, notably the Theravada one, men are considered higher than women. Before a woman can find enlightenment, she must be reborn as a man.
What must be underlined is that women have played a crucial and active role in Buddhism. Day by day, women’s position in Buddhism is strengthened, thanks to the revolutionary steps made by determined women such as Tenzin Palmo, Alexandra David-Neel, and many others who changed the course of events, for a long time predetermined to be left aside.
Buddhism implantation in Western countries
First of all, the word « Buddhism » is actually a European invention : the original term stands up for « dharma », a Sanskrit word to qualify Buddha’s teachings and doctrine. In 1817,
the word « Buddhism » was brought up by the historian Michel-Jean François Ozeray. That being said, Buddhism is growing more and more popular in Western countries for it addresses several problems in our modern and materialistic societies. It has a deep understanding of the human mind that psychologists all over the world consider « advanced and effective. » Nevertheless, the implantation of Buddhism started a long time before the 21st century. First, Asiatic migrations to the West have been a leading factor of its promulgation. Second, during the 20th century, a true Buddhist awakening occurred in the West (called the « Zen boom » ), especially in the 1960s, leading to the popularization of Zen and Tibetan traditions. Three main and major events could be quoted: first, the German writer Hermann Hesses wrote in 1922 « Siddhartha », which became in the 1960s a worldwide success. Then, in 1924, the lawyer Christmas Humphreys created the famous « London Buddhist Society », the first organization to have a real impact on the spread of different traditions of Buddhism in Great Britain . Last but not least, Alexandra David-Neel, a feminist anarchist and explorer who will soon be a Buddhist Tibetologist, succeeded to enter Lhasa, capital of Tibet, forbidden city at the time. She tells of her journey in her well-known book « Voyage d’une Parisienne à Lhassa » in 1927, which was a great success in all Europe . According to Frédéric Lenoir, « more than any other, Alexandra David-Neel plays in the West this role of communicator and catalyst of the Tibetan religion ». Since the early 90s, television shows and press articles tackled what could be named as the « Buddhist wave« , and many books related to Buddhism have become bestsellers. In addition, several Western films have focused on Tibetan Buddhism: Little Buddha (Bernardo Bertolucci) in 1993 or Seven Years in Tibet (Jean-Jacques Annaud) in 1997. Many other major events could be brought up, such as the 14th Dalai Lama, who, due to his media coverage, has become in the Western popular mind the representative of Buddhism in general, the emblematic figure of non-violence.
« Neo-Buddhism » according to historian Bernard Faure
To end, the implantation of Buddhism in the West has known adaptations, with the introduction of « secularized » meditative exercises. In Western Buddhism, rituals and doctrinal or sacred texts can be left aside or simplified, with an emphasis on meditation, to 14
become a kind of « secular spirituality » or even a technique of personal development to increase well-being and reduce stress. In a way, the West has appropriated certain aspects of Buddhism. As early as the nineteenth century, a quest for « secular spirituality » appeared. Eager to break with the Christian heritage, many European intellectuals wanted to give a new moral and religious foundation to the societies in which they lived, especially in France. They then understood and reshaped the Asian traditions claiming to be the Buddha, so that they responded to their concern for the moment: in this case, as far as France is concerned, the desire to promote a « wisdom » or a « secular » morality… Historian Bernard Faure distinguishes this form of Westernized Buddhism: « It may be that the attraction of Buddhism in the eyes of
Westerners are more an impulse towards spirituality than a return to religion, and this Buddhist spirituality offers a credible response to the anxieties produced by the modern world. It is this idealized, purely « spiritual » Buddhism that could be called « neo-Buddhism » to distinguish it from the various forms of Buddhism whose tradition has been maintained, as best it can, in Asia ».
TO WATCH : BOUDDHISME, LA LOI DU SILENCE (ARTE)
I can only but recommend to the person who’d look for some documentaries to watch this crucial film. It tackles the sexual assaults and abuses which occurred in Buddhist communities, notably in the West. We often idealize Buddhism as pure and free from any misconducts. This documentary explores the way Western people see Buddhism; how this religion isn’t stripped of the famous Law of silence; and how Buddhist famous influences (including the Dalai Lama) remained quiet regarding the victims, whose complaints mostly remained unanswered.
Note : I’m not an asserted expert about Buddhism, thus all supplementary comments or remarks from someone who wishes to make his contribution or do its bit have its legitimacy !