Siddhartha Gautama – The Buddha “the Enlightened”
Siddhartha was born into the Shakya clan of a wealthy family, who ruled in Kapilavastu in the foothills of the Himalayas on what is now the India-Nepal border. He lived from about 563 BC to 483 BC. Siddhartha was destined to a luxurious life as a prince and had three palaces (for seasonal occupation) built especially for him. His father, King S’uddhodana, wished for Siddhartha to be a great king and shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering. As the boy reached the age of 16 years, his father arranged his marriage to Yas’odhara, a cousin of the same age. They soon had a son, Rahula.
For the first 29 years of his life, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury as a prince. His father ensured Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need, but Siddhartha felt that material wealth was not the ultimate goal of life. At the age of 29, while sneaking out of the compound and roaming the streets, he was confronted with the realities, seeing an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic, or holy man. Upon returning to the palace he realized the narrow focus of his existence so far. With this new insight he renounced his life, left the luxuries of the court, a beautiful wife, a son, and all earthly ambitions, and became a holy man. Seeing the old man, a sick man, and a corpse created in him a view that life was governed by suffering.
He began his ascetic life by begging for alms in the street. After six years of experiencing a life of intense spiritual searching and extreme physical disciplines, and while seated under a Banyan tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, he vowed never to rise until he had found the Truth. After 49 days meditating, and at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment. From then on, Siddhartha was known as the Buddha or the “Awakened One.” Buddha can also be translated as “The Enlightened One.” Often, he is referred to in Buddhism as Shakyamuni Buddha or “The Awakened One of the Shakya Clan.”
After reaching enlightenment, with no more desires or passions, Buddha felt free to make his exit into Nirvana, the state of peaceful bliss achieved by the extinction of individual existence and by the absorption of the soul into the supreme spirit. But instead, he postponed this move, in order to show the way to all beings of consciousness. Buddha was a charismatic and masterful public speaker and founded the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the Sangha) to continue the dispensation after his Parinirva-na or “complete nirvana”. They made thousands of converts. Of his disciples, Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Anuruddha comprised the five chief disciples.
The masses of the time believed that the ultimate spiritual reality was the human soul, while Buddha held that there was no such thing as a human soul but that the psychic aspect of human nature was merely a flow of broken and interrupted mental states. The Buddhist cosmos was defined as an outer visible world. With forces that operate within it. These forces were represented by all the gods, great or small, and mapped out in concentric diagrams upon sacred art called a Mandala, a spiritual teaching tool to assist in the pursuit of an enlightened state. Every element, force or divinity in the universe corresponded to an aspect of the human personality and physiology and that an awareness of these links between the inner and outer worlds brought special insight to a prophet. Buddha thought that the perfect way in life was through contemplation and the route to avoidance of suffering lay through rejection of selfish desires. He believed all beings possess enlightenment. With some blinded to this fact. His belief, which became known as Buddhism, was not a new religion, but a radical development of Hinduism. It emphasised liberation from delusion and distorted human perceptions, such as desire, anger, and ignorance. He was against the cast system of Hinduism, which determined one’s social standing from birth, dividing everyone into four main classes. Those of the upper casts included the Brahmins, or priests; then Kshatriyas – warriors and rulers; Viasyas – traders and minor officials; and Sudras, the unskilled workers. The lowest cast, the Pariahs, were referred to as the “untouchables”.
During the last 45 years of his life, Buddha travelled the Gangetic Plain, which is now known as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and southern Nepal. He taught his doctrine and discipline to a diverse range of people, everyone from nobles to outcasts including street sweepers, criminals and even many adherents of rival philosophies and religions.
The Buddha responded to criticism of his beliefs with calm and clear explanations of his doctrines and, where necessary, corrected misunderstandings which gave rise to the criticism. His demeanour was calm, unflustered and polite. Often smiling in the face of criticism and urging his disciples to be the same. Though Buddha craved solitude to reflect and meditate he made himself available for anyone who needed him ‑ for comfort, inspiration or guidance in walking their path. Indeed, the most attractive and noticeable thing aspect of the Buddha’s personality was the love and compassion he showered on everyone, regardless of who they were. It seemed these qualities were the motive of everything he did.
His teachings became known as the “Four Noble Truths”, which stated that life is suffering and disappointing; that suffering results from selfish desire for pleasure and profit; that to escape suffering one needed to turn from selfish desire; and in following an “Eightfold Path”, one needed to seek the right understanding, purpose, speech and conduct and to follow the right way of livelihood, effort, awareness, and concentration. A daily prayer of Buddhism issued at the end of each day reads, “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to wake up, wake up. Take heed. Do not squander your lives.”
Buddha taught the importance of meditation as well as the moral precepts, seen as expressions of one’s own actual nature, not standards derived from any external divine authority. Buddhists are not to kill, steal or act in an unchaste manner. They do not speak falsely or take intoxicants.
Buddha also taught that nothing is permanent, that no form endures forever, and no single, perceived manifestation fully expresses the supreme reality. A blade of grass is not simply a blade of grass, but a combination of many small components. He believed in “dependent origination”; that any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in a complex web of cause and effect covering time past, present and future. Because all things are thus conditioned and transient, they have no real independent identity. He called this, the “rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture” and that teachings need not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experience and praised by the wise. They included the Anicca – all things are irrelevant. Anatta – the perception of “self” is an illusion. And Dukkha – all beings suffer from all situations due to an unclear mind. He believed that a human being does not make his appearance in this world once only, but forever to be reincarnated, until Nirvana is reached.
Buddha taught the “middle way”, between the life of a householder doomed to countless rebirths and the celibate life of extreme asceticism, which seeks the right goal, but by the wrong means. The goal is Nirvana – indescribable peace. One who attains this is enlightened and no longer reborn or subject to karma. At death they enter Nirvana. In Buddhism, Karma is the quality of intention in one’s mind every time a person acts. This quality, rather than outward appearance, of the action determines the effect. Moral actions result in happiness and worthiness, while immoral actions generate unhappiness and unworthiness.
The key to Buddhism is that existence is necessarily miserable and the only path to Nirvana is through diligent devotion to Buddhistic rules. Developing the right kind of self-discipline offers a pathway out of delusion and towards true awareness. “ Neither abstinence from fish and flesh, nor going naked, nor shaving the head, nor wearing matted hair, nor dressing in a rough garment, nor covering oneself with dirt, nor sacrificing to a god, will cleanse a man who is not free from delusions.” Holding on to what does not actually exist will only lead to suffering.
Buddhists reject the idea of a separate god that is somehow set apart from everyday experience. Buddha taught that some Hindu gods do exist, but they do not have any control over daily human life, but instead they are subject to the same universal laws that humans must observe. The path of Buddhism is the singe-minded pursuit of an individual’s spiritual goals, not the establishment of new concepts of a god. He stressed the virtues of truthfulness, loyalty, learning, moderation in food and drink and believed in a modest, regular life. Too much of anything creates imbalance. He considered war to be the greatest evil and urged negotiation and compromise rather than violence. Buddha considered a prophet’s work on earth as helping the people master the important, yet mundane tasks of life such as remaining human in a world fast becoming increasingly hostile to human values and not simply all about creating miracles.
Before dying at the age of 80 in Kusinagara in Oudh, the Buddha announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, the final deathless state abandoning the earthly body. He then ate his last meal and asked all his attendant disciples to clarify any doubts or questions they might have. They had none. Only then did he finally enter Parinirvana. The Buddha’s final words were, “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” His body was then cremated.
Buddhism’s main writings are contained in a number of sacred books called the Pali Canon, as well in vast collections of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese sacred texts. By 200 BC Buddhism had spread throughout India and the Himalayas, but by the 7th and 8th centuries Buddhism began to decline and was relentlessly persecuted by the growing belief of Brahmanism, until finally, with invading Islam, Buddhism was stamped out of continental India, except for Nepal. However by this time Buddhism had spread to Tibet, Ceylon, Burma, Siam, China, and Japan, where it is still powerful today. In many places where Buddhism began as a missionary religion, it often took on aspects of the culture it became a part of, which is very different from other religions when at their missionary stage. Buddhism is not forced onto anyone by guilt or sword.
K’ung Fu-Tzu. Confucius (Latin)
Confucius lived from 551 BC to 479 BC and was a Chinese philosopher and social reformer, born to an aristocratic, but poor family in the state of Lu, in the present day province of Shantung, during the Zhow dynasty. At 19 he married and took employment as a government official. His job was to prepare young men of families of wealth and influence for government service and to offer instructions on how to refine and stabilize the government of the day according to the principles of peace and equity. He endorsed the idea that government officials needed to be highly talented young men and so created the world’s first system of civil service exams, where would-be bureaucrats were required to compose essays demonstrating their knowledge of Confucian texts.
Confucius was eventually promoted to the rank of Justice Minister and enjoyed a successful and highly popular career. He had gained many followers, though he shared his wisdom only with a privileged few, mainly males of noble birth. Unfortunately his position also attracted jealousy and hostility and after a disagreement over the behaviour of the Duke of Lu, he left his position. For the next twelve years he became an itinerant sage and wandered northeast and central China. From court to court he went, seeking a sympathetic patron and eventually formed a group of disciples who followed wherever he went.
In 485 BC he returned to Lu where he spent his remaining years in reflection, teaching and writing his political and social beliefs, with a great emphasis on the importance of study. He felt people should think deeply for themselves and study as much as they can of the outside world.
After his death, his followers compiled a record of their master’s sayings and doings into a volume of memorabilia called the Analects. Other works that were attributed to Confucius were compiled later, and like the philosophy of Confucianism itself, are based loosely on his own teachings. He was a great moral teacher, who tried to replace the old religious observances with moral values as the basis of social and political order.
Confucius identified five ethical, binding relationships; parent-child, ruler-government official, husband-wife, older sibling-younger sibling and friend-friend. If these relationships are founded upon and made possible by what he emphasized as being the practical virtues of compassion and humanity, arising from genuine love (jen), with respect and personal effort, given according to individual circumstances including practical conduct, character and proper etiquette-based behaviour between both sides (Li), then one becomes chun-tzu or a noble individual. One should also develop the virtue of the concept of ren (“humaneness”), to strive to be emotionally centered (zhong) and to get along with others (shu).
His beliefs regarding human behaviour included; being kind to strangers and keeping the able ones near; feeding the hungry; thinking of the profit of all as being the real profit, and the mind of the whole country as being the real mind; being considerate of officials and acting as a father to one’s people; protecting the state before danger comes, by governing well; being diligent and careful, and maintaining the balance between leniency and strictness, between principle and expediency; behaving with generosity toward your fellow man; cultivating peace in your neighbourhood; prizing moderation and economy to prevent the lavish waste of your means; removing anger, hatred and ill will; showing the importance due a person and life. Basically, if people pursue courtesy, correct form and etiquette, reverence, and human benevolence within human relationships, harmony will exist at every level of society. As a couple of Confucianism tenets state, “What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others,” and, “The gentleman calls attention to the good points in others, he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of this.” He felt man had three ways of acting wisely, the noblest being after meditation or reflection. The second way is the easiest path, imitation and the third way of acting wisely is on experience, which is the bitterest.
Confucius studied five texts that were written years before his time and became known as the Five Classics. They are, the Book of Changes (I Ching), the Book of History (Shuh Ching), the Book of Poetry (Shih Ching), the Book of Rights (Li Chi) and the Spring and Autumn Annuals (Ch’un Chi), which chronicled major historical events. The I Ching (Book of Changes) became the most popular of all Confucian classics, and though not written by him, it was a manual of divination for those seeking guidance and based on the polar aspects of the primal energy – Yin and Yang. The interactions of these were seen as the basic, observable elements of cosmic development and evolution. I Ching was a symbol system used to identify order in random events and its text described a system of cosmology and philosophy, centering on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process and the acceptance of the inevitability of change. It was written in abstract line arrangements of 64 hexagrams. What is interesting is that comparatively, a human’s genetic code is formed by four amino acids, combined into triplets that make up our 64 part binary code.
The Four Books incorporated the works of Confucius, and along with the Five Classics, made up the fundamental teachings and text of Confucianism. The Four Books included the Analects (Lun Yu), the Great Learning (Ta Hsueh), the Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung) and the Book of Mencius (Meng Tzu). Confucius and his followers oversaw the development and formalization of many of these important writings. Although Confucius’ focus was on moral behaviour and social interaction within a society beneath lay a deep, abiding spiritual foundation. Confucius died in 479 BC at the age of 72 years, in his home state of Lu.
In the centuries following his death, the spread of Confucianism was promoted by various rulers and became the official Chinese state ideology by 200 BC. In 140 BC, persuaded by an essay written by Chinese scholar and promoter of Confucianism, Dong Zhong shu, in a literary competition, one of China’s greatest emperors, Emperor Wu, the 7th emperor of the Han Dynasty, adopts Confucianism at court and for the next two thousand years would become the dominant thought in Chinese government. It was eventually decreed that sacrifices and prayer should be made to Confucius in public schools. As Confucianism evolved and developed, encouragement of respectful relations between human beings remained the central and abiding element.
Lao Tzi (Laozi)
Laozi was a philosopher of ancient China from the 6th century BC and considered to be the founder of Taoism (pronounced Daoism). He had a profound impact on Chinese literature, culture and spirituality, to the point where over four hundred years after his death he received Chinese Imperial recognition as a divine entity and referred to as Taishang Laojun, “One of the Three Pure Ones”. Many Chinese, both noble and common folk, claim Laozi is in their lineage. Some forms of Taoism can be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China which later morphed into a Taoist tradition.
There are three different stories within Chinese historical records where Laozi is an important character. These stories are combined and included in the texts of the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by Chinese historian Sima Qian (ca.145–86 BC) and in Laozi’s biographies, written by Chuang Tzu (369-286 BC), who was considered to be the intellectual and spiritual successor of Laozi.
Traditional accounts of these stories state that Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius, and the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou, until one day he departed for the West, dejected about the moral decay of city life and the decline of the kingdom. He was also known as Lao Laizi or Old Master, a contemporary of Confucius, and finally he was known as the Grand Historian and astrologer Lao Dan, who lived during the reign of Duke Xian of Qin (384 BC- 362 BC).
Laozi is regarded as the author of the book, Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) or “Way of Power.” Although only five thousand words long, the book explains the nature of Tao by addressing such matters as culture, emotion, nature, right action, language, and mysticism through reflection. Though there are questions pertaining to whether the principles of Tao were perhaps written by more than one individual, the Tao Te Ching is classed as being one of the most moving achievements of Chinese culture over the past two thousand years.
Tao (Dao) is all about accomplishing great things through small means, intertwining the beliefs of Tao, or the “way”, with the flow of the universe and the influence that keeps the universe balanced and ordered. The active expression of living the “way” is Te (De), which is virtue, personal character, inner strength and integrity.
The Tao Te Ching describes Tao as the mystical source and ideal of all existence, a substance which is unseen but does not hide, immensely powerful, yet supremely humble and is the root of all things. Tao is infinite and without limitation, indistinct and without form and cannot be named or categorized. According to the Tao Te Ching, humans have no special place within the Tao, for they are just one of many manifestations contained within it. People have desires and free will which allows them to be able to alter their own nature; however, those who act unnaturally are the ones who upset the natural balance of the Tao. The book teaches that people need to return to their natural state and be in harmony with the other manifestations of the Tao. Language and conventional wisdom are taught to be critically assessed, for they are inherently biased, artificial, and limited. The basics that Tao teaches are self-sufficiency, simplicity and detachment, while the “feminine” qualities such as promoting longevity, equanimity and unity with nature are respected and revered.
Taoism’s emphasis on spontaneity and self-reliance is similar to Buddhism, as well as many other religious traditions. Taoism was influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, while Zen Buddhism would develop from Taoism. And like Confucianism; Taoism regards the book, I Ching as an inspired work worth studying. Laozi had much respect for the underlying principles of I Ching and of the Yin and Yang aspects of the universe. These concepts became particularly associated with the Taoists and are; simplicity ‑ the root of the substance that makes up the universe and the fundamental law that everything in the universe is utterly plain and simple, no matter how subtle or profound some things may appear to be; variability – by comprehending that everything in the universe is continually changing, one may realize the importance of flexibility in life and thus cultivate the proper attitude for dealing with a multiplicity of diverse situations, and finally; persistency ‑ the essence of the substance of the universe. While everything in the universe seems to be changing, among the changing tides there is a persistent principle – a central rule, which does not vary with space and time. This central concept of the Tao Te Ching is the state of Wu Wei, a state of calm and “free from desires.”
The concept of Wu Wei is very complex and defined as “effortless action”, “non-action” and “not acting”. The metaphor for the state of Wu Wei is Pu, “uncarved block of wood”, represents a passive state of receptiveness. Pu is a symbol for a state of pure potential and perception without prejudice. In this state, Taoists believe everything is seen as it is, without preconceptions or illusion. Pu is seen as keeping oneself in the primordial state of Tao. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or experiences. In the state of Pu, there is no right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. What is artificial, strained and unnatural are put aside and what is sought is the natural and spontaneous impulses of one’s true self. But at the same time, though it teaches inaction, the idea of Wu Wei should not be misunderstood.
True inaction in Taoism is, “the most efficient possible action, the most spontaneous and most creative possible action, allowing activity to spring forth spontaneously and without conscious effort.” A Taoist who acts in accordance with this principle does not pursue a life of sloth or laziness, but one in which the least possible effort creates the most effective and productive outcome. In ancient Taoist texts, Wu Wei is associated with flowing water through its yielding nature. Water is soft and weak, but it can move earth and carve stone.
Laozi also believed that technology may bring about a false sense of progress. He did not reject technology, but believed that people should try to achieve the state of Wu Wei instead. To understand how the nature of the universe works before one goes off and tries to reinvent the wheel.
Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously in accordance to its own ways. When someone exerts his will against the world, he disrupts that harmony. Taoism does not say that human will is the problem, but rather it asserts that humans must place their will in harmony with the natural universe. It is a concept used to explain Ziran, “harmony with the Tao”. It explains that our values are ideological with ambitions of all sorts, originating from the same source. Laozi used the term broadly with simplicity and humility as key virtues, often in contrast to selfish action. On a political level, it means avoiding such circumstances as war, harsh laws and heavy taxes. Some Taoists see a connection between Wu Wei and esoteric practices, such as meditation and the emptying of the mind of bodily awareness and thought.
The Tao Te Ching contains specific instructions for Taoists relating to qigong, meditation using breathing techniques to bring energy through the body, and preaches the way to revert to the primordial state. This interpretation supports the view that Taoism is a religion addressing the quest of immortality. Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortality are also common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, and Feng shui (utility of the laws of heaven-astronomy and earth-geometry to help improve one’s life by surrounding oneself with positive energy or qi, which is the essential energy of action and existence) have all been intertwined with Taoism throughout history. While Western theology is more about the negative, using fear as both the weapon and the tool, Taoism has come to represent the positive forces of the universe and uses peace.
Under Taoism, the ideal personal situation is attainable through prolonged observation and meditation and is one of utter simplicity with profound faith in natural processes and being above short-sighted, petty cravings and grasping at material things.
The Taoist view of sexuality is considerably different than the beliefs and attitudes known in the West, and is considerably more at ease. The body is not viewed as a dangerous source of evil temptation, but rather as a positive asset. Taoism rejects Western mind‑body dualism. Mind and body are not set in contrast or opposition with each other. Sex is treated as a vital component to romantic love; however Taoism emphasizes the need for self-control and moderation. Complete abstinence from sex is oftentimes treated as equally dangerous as excessive sexual indulgence in unnatural ways. The sexual vitality of men is portrayed as limited, while the sexual energy of women is viewed as boundless. Men are encouraged to control ejaculation to preserve this vital energy, but women are encouraged to reach orgasm without restriction. Taoists believe that a man may increase and nourish his own vitality by bringing a woman to orgasm, thereby “activating” her energy and attuning it with himself. This is considered to be of benefit to both.
Some of the many tenets of Taoism are the concepts that “- force begets force – one whose needs are simple can fulfil them easily – material wealth does not enrich the spirit – self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive – victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned – the harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself – the more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things), the more one will achieve, with less effort – the truly wise make little of their own wisdom for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know – when we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values – glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame – the qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength; – everything is in its own time and place – duality of nature complements each other, instead of competing with each other, like the two faces of one coin as one cannot exist without the other – the differences between male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, help us to understand and appreciate the universe – humility is the highest virtue – knowing oneself is a virtue – envy is our calamity, overindulgence is our plight – the more you go in search of an answer, the less you will understand – know when it is time to stop and if you do not know, then stop when you are done.”
Taoism has served for centuries as a platform for personal growth and as an “escape” from important but ultimately irresolvable questions about social structures. By its very nature of emphasising integrity, authenticity, and relaxed, attentive engagement with the world, Taoism generally refrains from trying to influence political or social institutions. The political side of Taoism holds that the best model for government includes a ruler who rules according to few restrictions and directions as possible, and simply guides the populace away from want and turmoil. Chinese political theorists influenced by Laozi, have advocated humility in leadership with a restrained approach to statecraft, either for ethical and pacifist reasons, or for tactical purposes. In a different context, various anti‑authoritarian movements have embraced the Laozi teachings on the power of the weak. For instance, “As to dwelling, live near the ground. As to thinking, hold to that which is simple. As to conflict, pursue fairness and generosity. As to governance, do not attempt to control. As to work, do that which you like doing. As to family life, be fully present”. When Laozi spoke about, “As to governance, do not attempt to control”, he did not mean that Tao holds social forms to be meaningless or without merit, but simply believes that conscious efforts to control people and events are counterproductive.
Overall, Taoism refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions and concepts, which have influenced East Asia for over two thousand years, some of which have spread to the west and whether Laozi was the founder or not, today, Taoism is one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Taoism has never been a unified religion and is rarely an object of worship, but rather consists of numerous teachings based on various revelations. Therefore, different branches of Taoism have very distinct beliefs, but there are still certain core beliefs that all the schools share. These are called the Three Jewels of the Tao, compassion, moderation, and humility, which emphasizes that a human being may gain knowledge of the universe by understanding them self. The Three Jewels are also translated as kindness, simplicity (or the absence of excess), and modesty.