'Buddha is a human being just like you and I. However, having sacrificed his life for the pursuit of the knowledge of the truth of things, you could say he has special powers’.. and so begins my interview with a Buddhist Monk and two Buddhist scholars.
The first thing that struck me about the monk I was greeted by, was the warmth and kindness with which he did so. I was invited to join for lunch and the generosity and friendliness with which my lunch was served was remarkable. These monks seemed to operate on a different level of social interaction than that of my every day norm. Openness, care, love, warmth and a congenial spirit seemed to emanate from each of them.
The oldest living practice of Buddhism still takes place to this day. The Sri Lankan Royal court was converted to Buddhism over 2,000 years ago. Today 70% of the population are Buddhist and the principles and beliefs underly the country's own unique spirit underlined with kindness, non-judgement and a dedication to the belief that all things change in the end anyway so why worry or rush? This concept of transience is something key to the Buddhist philosophy.
It was explained to me that the founder of Buddhism, Lord Buddha, was actually born a Royal Prince. Prince Shakyamuni was born in 624BC in Lumbini, now Nepal. As was the custom at the time, shortly after his birth Sages were called to predict his future.
The Sages predicted that if this baby boy was to remain a within the Royal family, he would become a universal Monarch and reign over all of India and beyond. On the other hand if the baby boy was to become a monk, he would attain the highest point of enlightenment within his lifetime. It was said that the Prince would be moved to become a monk once he had witnessed in sequence, an old person, a sick person, a dead person and finally, a monk. The King took great steps to ensure that these things would never happen, which was perhaps counterproductive as by the time the Prince, by then in his 20’s, encountered an old person, a sick person, a dead person and finally a monk, he was greatly moved, as up until that time he has been protected from the realisations that such sufferings existed by his privileged life within the Royal Court.
The Prince was so moved by these new truths that he immediately began thinking of life from a far more realistic perspective. He finally understood that this life is not permanent, it is in a state of continual flux and change. He saw the suffering of the people he at once set about thinking how he could alleviate this suffering in mankind. He focused on how to construct the mind properly. When the Prince finally saw a monk, he learned that these people had renounced the lay life and all their possessions. He learnt that they did this so that they had nothing to lose and therefore nothing to crave for, they had detached from all of their attachments to concrete only the search from salvation from suffering.
The Prince, now 29, so moved by these realisations slipped out of the Royal Palace in the dead of the night, leaving behind his wife and young son. He began a personal quest to find out the answer to the questions that now burnt within him. He went to the leading minds of the time but he was not satisfied and finally decided he should find out the truth from himself.
This is a itself a great teaching of Buddhism, that we shouldn’t rely soley on the opinion of others, or even simply on the written records of the Buddha’s teachings or that of the monks. When it comes to seeking our own personal path to the enlightenment we should use these aids simply as guides but we should always find the truth for ourselves through practice.
The Prince, now budding Buddha, spent 6 years alone in examination of what are now known as ‘the four noble truths’:
- What is suffering?
- What is the cause of suffering?
- How can we cease suffering?
- What is the path leading to the cessation of suffering?
It was explained to me that the word ‘suffering’ in English does not really adequately reflect the meaning of the word in Pali (the language in which Buddhism was first received). In Pali, the word means a general anxiety and craving, giving rise to jealousy and comparison between one man and another. It was the contemplation of these four noble truths that led to the Buddha’s teaching of the what is known at the ‘8 fold path’ and which is based on non-violence.
The 8 Fold Path
- Right View
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right bodily action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration.
Each of these right ways of conducting oneself have been expanded upon by Buddha and discussed for centuries, although they are presented in their simplest form here. For example the concept of right speech centres around the truth that your words can either hurt people or make them happy. It is such a simple truth and one that if everyone gave due care to would surely play a part in ending all violence in the world. That is not to say that you should ever err from the speaking the truth. Indeed speaking the truth is one of the 5 precepts as taught by Lord Buddha:
- reverence for life and abstinence from killing
- abstinence from stealing
- abstinence from adverse sexual conduct and behaviour (Buddhism teaches the sanctity of marriage and staying sexually loyal to one partner for life)
- abstinence from telling lies and to only speak the truth
- abstinence from any kind of liquor or drugs, because under the influence of these things it becomes so much easier to break all the other precepts!
It is taught that if these precepts are followed then both the individual and all of society will be protected from all harm and society as a whole may live in peace and happiness. Indeed Buddha taught us to treat everyone with loving kindness and as though a brother or a sister.
These simple but poignant instructions underpin the Sri Lankan culture and when visiting this wonderfully spiritual island you can witness the effect of the teachings of Lord Buddha within the Sri Lankan people themselves, as a welcoming nature, kindness and a rare and simple honesty so lost in today’s modern world.
Buddha believed that by correcting our internal terrain to one of ‘Ahimsa’ roughly translated as a peaceful and loving inner state, we can achieve the outer manifestation in the form of non-violent action. In other words, it all starts with the individual giving due care to his own thoughts and deeds. Buddha believed that the violence we inflict on each other is only the outward manifestation of a violence within.
Although correcting our internal thoughts (the starting point for words and then deeds) is not easy, the Buddhist philosophy teaches that concentration and effort at all times towards this goal, is the best way to achieve peace on earth. Indeed if everyone followed these simple rules, war, starvation and the pillaging of the planet would be impossible.
The cultivation and practice of the way of life prescribed by the Buddha makes one aware of the true feeling of love and leads to the attainment of happiness. And so it is taught that Buddhism is not a religion, it is a philosophy and a way of life.