Buddhism has become trendy among the American intelligentsia over the past few years, and Tricycle is one of the main reasons. It is a lively and sophisticated publication that is nonetheless strongly dedicated to exploring the teachings of the Buddha. Tricycle has featured well-known Buddhists such as Richard Gere, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and John Cage as well as some of the most distinguished traditional teachers of the Dharma. One of Tricycle's greatest strengths is that isn't afraid to explore touchy and difficult issues as they relate to Buddhism. In this selection, Tricycle's editors explain what Buddhist teachings are all about.
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The ABC's of Buddhism
What is Buddhism? Perhaps this question can be considered the ultimate koan in that Buddhism emphasizes transcendence of the constraining definitions that limit the mind and encourage dualistic thought. At the same time, however, Buddhism recognizes that we must live our lives in the practical reality of this world rather than the ultimate reality of interdependence in which things cannot be defined as discrete entities. And in order to do so, we need definitions.
Buddhism has alternately been called a religion, a philosophy, and an ideology. There is much misunderstanding concerning who or what the Buddha was. Buddha literally means "awakened one," one who has awakened to his or her own true inner nature and therefore the true nature of reality.
While Eastern traditions recognize that there have been many buddhas in the past and will be many buddhas in the future, there was a historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who has become known as the Buddha of this age. The Buddha himself was an ordinary man with no claims to divine origin. Belief in a creator God has no part in Buddhism. Instead, Buddhism emphasizes experiencing the truth for oneself. Therefore, it ultimately does not matter whether or not a historical Buddha ever existed. The Buddha's life is simply an example that encapsulates the teachings of Buddhism in allegorical form.
Therefore Buddhists have a history of trusting their own wisdom rather than trying to interpret what might have been meant in old texts. The early stories and teachings of the Buddha were not written down until several centuries after his death at a meeting called the First Council. For this reason, they are not considered to be inerrant teachings directly from the mouth of the Buddha. The Buddha strongly encouraged his followers to "be a lamp unto themselves" and put his teachings to the test.
Buddhism, like most other world religions, has split into innumerable sects. These can largely be divided into three major groups or "vehicles." The Hinayana school is pejoratively termed the "Lesser Vehicle" due to its emphasis on personal rather than collective liberation. It is also called the Theravada school, or "School of the Elders," and is widely practiced in the countries of Southeast Asia. Its teachings focus on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Mahayana school, or "Great Vehicle," developed in India during the first century A.D. It is called the "Great Vehicle" because of its all-inclusive approach to liberation as embodied in the bodhisattva ideal and the desire to liberate all beings. Mahayanists strongly emphasize compassion as the ultimate form of practice; in conjunction with wisdom, it is believed to be the formula for enlightenment. In China, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and took on many forms. In particular, the devotional Pure Land schools advocated surrender to a bodhisattva as a means to be reborn in his Pure Land (a realm free from suffering) from which it is easier to attain liberation. Mahayana Buddhism entered Japan around the sixth century A.D. with the rapid assimilation of Chinese culture in general. Zen Buddhism, which had rapidly grown in China where it was known as "Chan," became the most popular of these newly transplanted forms of Mahayana Buddhism.
Vajrayana Buddhism, also commonly called Tantric Buddhism, is the "Diamond Vehicle." It developed out of the Mahayana teachings in northwest India around 500 A.D. and spread to Tibet, China and Japan. Today it is practiced mainly in the Himalayan regions and involves esoteric visualizations, rituals, and mantras which can only be learned by study with a master. In the Vajrayana path, all situations can be used as a spiritual path. It teaches not to suppress energy, but rather to transform it. There is no external "good" reference point. For this reason, the role of the teacher is especially important in the Vajrayana. Without a clear motive to help others and a strong grounding in meditation, practicing tantra is dangerous and ultimately self-destructive. This necessary practice of complete devotion to the teacher is known as "guru yoga."
It is not known whether or not the Buddha taught all three vehicles. All three, however, share a common foundation that is true to the spirit of the Buddha's message. This is encapsulated in his first teaching, called the Discourse on the Four Noble Truths, delivered at the Deer Park in Sarnath. In it, he outlined the central idea that suffering is inevitable in this world of samsara; liberation is possible, however, by eliminating the cause of suffering, which is the craving that results from attempting to satisfy the ego's desires. In order to be free, one must realize that the notion of a fixed self is an illusion. Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are impermanent and interdependent; the world is continually in flux, coming into existence and passing away, conditioned from one moment to the next by interrelated phenomena. This emphasis on suffering and the nonexistence of a self has led many to wrongly confuse Buddhism with nihilism and pessimism.
But Buddhism focuses on suffering because only by addressing the problem can a solution be found. The more we cling to a belief in a self, the more pain and alienation we feel. All of the Buddha's teachings are a means to experiencing liberation from a self-centered existence in which suffering is inevitable.
The foundation of Buddhist practice is meditation. In meditation, one learns to simply be in the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or fantasizing about the future. Most of us are always engaged in some activity, and if we are not active then we are talking to ourselves. This constant mental activity is not only draining but also maintains the illusion of a self.
To study the way of the Buddha is to study oneself.
To study oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to be enlightened by everything.
For further reading on Buddhism, Tricycle recommends the following titles.
Entering the Stream. Compiled and edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1993.
Introducing Buddha by Jane Hope and Borin Van Loon. New York: Totem Books, 1994.
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Buddhism in the West
How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America by Rick Fields. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1992.
An Introduction to Tantra by Lama Yeshe. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987.
From the Web site of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Used by arrangement with Tricycle.