One of the Buddha’s most significant teachings is that everyone is different, and hence each individual’s path to enlightenment is unique. For this reason, Buddhists acknowledge that they must take inspiration from a variety of sources to complete their individual journey to Nirvana. Belief in the concept of enlightenment is therefore important within Buddhism with different branches and schools giving varying emphasis to the many teachings of Buddha and his close followers, while some believe in Bodhisattvas, from whom they take motivation, all believe in shaping their individual effort to achieve enlightenment. Throughout this essay, the Buddha’s teachings on belief and enlightenment, how the four Noble Truths and Buddhist practices relate to belief and enlightenment, and the positions of the two major branches of Buddhism – Theravada and Mahayana – will all be analysed to determine the role of belief in Buddhism, and hence prove or disprove the above comments on enlightenment and belief for Buddhists.
Enlightenment or _Nirvana_ is a supreme state; free from suffering, individual existence and all worldly concerns; such as greed, hate and ignorance. It is the ultimate goal of all Buddhists, breaking the otherwise endless cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. Theravada Buddhism (“Doctrine of the Elders”) teaches that by refraining from all kinds of evil, purifying the mind and having a deep thirst for knowledge, “… a Theravada Buddhist can reach the state of perfection and enter Nirvana.” (Oracle ThinkQuest, 2012) This knowledge comes almost entirely from the Tipitaka, meaning “three baskets”. This collection of scriptures contains slightly different versions between the two schools, but is considered to comprise of the most accurate accounts of the Buddha and his close disciples.
It is important to note that Theravada Buddhists believe that due to the requirements for enlightenment, monks and nuns are significantly more likely to achieve Nirvana than lay people who should therefore focus on gaining good karma enabling them to be a monk or nun in their next rebirth. Mahayana Buddhism has a variety of scriptures, many of which have been written by high ranking monks since the time of the Buddha, in order to keep the teachings up to date with the culture of the period. Notably, they also believe that all people have the capability to become enlightened.
Apart from the different scripture emphasis, Mahayana Buddism is significantly diverse to Theravada due to the belief in multiple Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. Boddhisattvas are people of deep compassion who are said to delay entering Nirvana in order to help guide others to enlightenment. As such, Mahayana Buddhism adds to the Theravadan definition of Nirvana being the absence of self-centeredness (and therefore the absence of suffering) and the state of spiritual perfection, displayed by total compassion and concern for others. Two well-known Buddhist quotes which summarise the Buddha’s position on beliefs and enlightenment are:
“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.”
“Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good.”
The above quotes help explain why Buddhists dislike teachings being referred to as beliefs. The first quote highlights the need for scepticism when reading the teachings. The second quote goes further by explaining the individuality of Nirvana, and the idea that not all teachings apply to everyone. Because followers of Buddhism are encouraged to challenge ideas presented and ascertain their own understanding of the major teachings, it is offensive to refer to this knowledge as belief, since `belief’ often refers to faith or trust in an idea(s) which has not been personally experienced. Hence Buddhists only believe in Nirvana, and the basic principles to reach their goal.
Theravada and Mahayana both agree with the Buddha’s view that anyone can attain Nirvana, and one can do it within one’s present life if the Buddha’s instructions are followed carefully and applied sincerely. The two main branches of Buddhism have the same Four Noble Truths and interpret these teachings in a similar manner. The only relevant difference is that Mahayana Buddhists have Bodhisattvas to aid in follower’s quests for Nirvana, whereas Theravada Buddhists believe that since this path is unique, it is the individual’s task to determine how to incorporate the Buddha’s teachings in their own lives. As stated on BuddhaNet, _”Theravada Buddhism places great emphasis on the clergy (Sangha) as the only ones capable of attaining Nirvana__.”_ (Lyall, 2008).
As such, the role of the laity (lay people: normal householders) in Theravada Buddhism is to support the clergy and lead a good life according to the Buddha, in the hope of a better rebirth. Whilst it is not taught that a lay person cannot reach enlightenment, as this would be going against a popular teaching of the Buddha, it is perceived as highly unlikely. In return for the lay people’s support, it is common for the monks to teach the laity, provide advice and conduct ceremonies such as marriages. In contrast, the Mahayana Teachings encourage both the laity and the clergy to become Boddhisattvas and attain enlightenment in their current life. Especially in the case of the laity, belief in the possibility of enlightenment at some stage in the many rebirths a person can undergo, is vitally important and an integral part of not only the religion, but the various cultures the religion exists within.
The Four Noble Truths are the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. Similar to a doctor’s method for analysing a health issue, the Buddha has diagnosed the problem (suffering) and identified the cause (of the suffering) within the first and second Noble Truths. The third Noble Truth is the description of a cure, while the fourth is the prescription and instructions to recover. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths in the hope of getting closer to enlightenment and find these teachings realistic and hopeful, rather than pessimistic. The first Noble Truth, suffering (Dukkha), describes suffering as presenting itself in many forms of which some are obvious, such as old age, sickness and death (which Buddha encountered immediately after leaving his palace), and others more subliminal. Buddha explained the problem in a more profound way, teaching that all human beings are subject to desires and cravings but acquiring satisfaction from these desires and pleasure is temporary and will not last without becoming monotonous.
The origin of suffering (Samudaya) is the second Noble Truth, and consists of Buddha’s claims to have found the cause of all suffering – desire (tanha) – which comes in three forms (which have had various names including the Three Roots of Evil, the Three Fires and the Three Poisons). These forms are the ultimate source of suffering, and are; greed and desire, ignorance or delusion, and hatred and destructive urges. The way to extinguish desire is to liberate oneself from attachment, as is explained in the third Noble Truth – Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha). This truth states that attaining enlightenment involves extinguishing the three fires of greed, delusion and hatred and could be considered as a `definition’ for Nirvana. The path to the cessation of suffering (Magga) is the fourth Noble Truth and is often referred to as the Eightfold Path because Buddha outlined a set of eight principles to follow. These are the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
Theravada Buddhism, being the more traditionalist branch, follows the practices that have been passed down by senior monks since the Buddha’s time. These traditions or practices include living in forests and performing both sitting and walking meditation. As part of their early training, Theravadan monks and nuns generally live in huts called `kutis’ situated in forests. These huts are built on stilts to keep animals and insects out and have a path for walking meditation.
Older monks and nuns are not required to live in the forest, often residing in monasteries. Early each morning and evening, the monks and nuns from a particular school meet together for meditation and recitation. After these ceremonies, which are called _pujas_, they are required to study the Dharma. An important ritual carried out by people entering the temples is to wash their feet with water which has been carried up to the monastery from a stream, generally found below in the forest. The goal of the monks and nuns is to become an _Arhat_, a person free of suffering, through the meditation. Once free of suffering they can continue on their path to Nirvana.
Different forms of Mahayana Buddhism have different religious practices. These practices are often heavily influenced by the culture of the society the Buddhist school(s) resides in. Tibetan Buddhist temples are heavily “…decorated with many kinds of Buddha images and wall hangings called _thankas_.” Big prayer wheels, containing mantras written on strips of rice paper, are set into the walls of the temple while smaller, handheld versions are also common. Tibetan monks generally live in these temples and in between turning the prayer wheels and studying the various teachings, they hold various festivals.
These festivals incorporate an array of prayer flags and other colourful decorations to celebrate significant periods. Japanese and Chinese monasteries are very similar to the Tibetan’s, but often with less vibrant, colourful decorations and less festivals. The monks and nuns recite Sutras and sit in meditation together regularly, akin to their Tibetan counterparts. The idea of studying, reciting and meditation in Mahayana Buddhism is to endeavour to accelerate the monks and nuns journey’s to enlightenment, in order that they can become Bodhisattvas and assist others as they near their journey’s end.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are very similar with regard to the fundamental teachings. They both accept Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) as the Teacher, have identical Four Noble Truths (and therefore Eightfold Path), share ideas on the origins of the world, practice their faith similarly and accept many comparable Buddhist concepts. The only outright difference is the scriptures they most value and consider authoritative, which affect the general path members of each branch follow to attain Nirvana. Belief in the concept of enlightenment is therefore important within Buddhism with different branches and schools giving varying emphasis to the many teachings of Buddha and his close followers, while some believe in Bodhisattvas, from whom they take motivation, all believe in shaping their individual effort to achieve enlightenment.
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