Buddhism is a vibrant, living tradition, passed unbroken, from generation to generation between teacher and student. The essence of Buddhism is not found in books.
Buddhism was founded in India by a man called Siddartha Gauttama over 2500 years ago. He became known as the Shakyamuni Buddha – or simply “The Buddha”. Buddha is a title, it means “he who is awake” – a human being who can see the truth of things around them, directly and without any delusion or bias.
The teachings of the Buddha (called the Dharma) quickly spread and he gathered a spiritual community (called a Sangha). The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels are what defines someone who considers themselves to be a Buddhist.
Buddhism was transmitted from its home country throughout neighbouring Asia. This includes countries such as Burma, Thailand and Sri-Lanka. Eastwards it spread into Japan and Korea. Northwards Buddhism moved into the high Himalayan kingdoms including Bhutan, China and Tibet.
During the last 150 years Buddhism has finally spread to the rest of the world, making it a truly universal path. Buddhism is now beginning the process of transformation necessary for its adoption deep into our western cultures.
Wherever Buddhism has spread in the world, it has taken on a local flavour, adapting to new cultures. At the same time, despite taking on diverse regional forms, at heart it always maintains the core teachings, insights and practices transmitted by the Buddha himself.
Buddhism has always emphasised the importance of personal experience over religious dogma. The teachings of the Buddha are described as being like a “finger pointing at the moon”. We are encouraged to see the moon for ourselves and not become attached to the finger. While the teachings are an indispensable pointer, they should not be seen as an end in themselves.
Buddhism is sometimes described as a non-theistic religion, a religion without a creator. Perhaps it is best described as a spiritual path – a journey for individuals, leading us into a deeper experience of what it means to be a truly human being. The Buddhist path is often describes as being in three stages: ethics, meditation and wisdom.
Ethical practice is not about trying to be merely “good”. It is not an end in itself. Buddhists often undertake training principles (called precepts). These are method to help us prevent causing harm to ourselves and others. Ethical awareness helps us to develop a stable lifestyle, a foundation on which an effective meditation practice can be built.
Meditation practice helps us to calm our busy minds, allowing us to reflect deeply on the nature of our experience. We can reflect on many things: the rarity and preciousness of human life, the impermanence of conditioned things and the deep nature of our heart/mind.
Wisdom is the fruit of the Buddhist path. Seeing things directly, as they really are. Through the practice of meditation and reflection we begin to notice insights arising. Slowly, we gain confidence in our insights and learn to trust them. With the help of a qualified teacher we can begin to stabilise these insights, bringing them into our daily lives. In this way we can transform ourselves and our world.