An Introduction to Buddhism
by His Holiness Somdet Phra
Supreme Patriarch of Thailand
Buddhism is not something alien to people born in Thailand because they are all familiar with Buddhist monasteries (Wats), monks, novices and religious activities from their childhood. However, the familiar pictures that they have seen so far are only the superficial form of Buddhism. Sometimes other cults and beliefs have been syncretised into Buddhism, becoming part of the tradition. Traditions are observed on the basis that they have been observed by previous generations without any investigation of the essences and reasons behind them.
When foreigners witness Buddhism in Thailand they might feel it to be quite strange. Accordingly, they reach various opinions on Buddhism. But what they see may be mostly the superficialities of Buddhism with the syncretism of local beliefs and traditions. Thinking this to be Buddhism, they may end up speaking and writing about Buddhism in different ways, each having their own understanding and interpretations of Buddhism which are not homogeneous. Accordingly, this may cause others to understand Buddhism wrongly.
Buddhism has been established for a long time, more than 2,544 years as it is counted in Thailand, and it has developed into various schisms. However, there are two main schisms in Buddhism:
- Theravada or Hinayana
as is popular in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and so on
- Acariyavada or Mahayana
as in Japan, China, Tibet and so on
According to the Acariyavada, some believe that the original Buddha exists permanently in one of the heavens. This type of Buddhist belief may be easily understood when delivered to Westerners or to people who believe in monotheism.
Theravada Buddhism, on the contrary, does not believe in such an exposition, in terms of persons, that the Buddha as a person exists permanently. It also does not express an opinion on the origin of the world. However, it explains the Noble Truths of Suffering, The Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering and the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. In addition, it deals with the principle of Karma which, briefly, describes people as each having their own Karma: do good, reap good; do evil, reap evil. So Theravada Buddhism expresses more significance towards the principle of current cause and effect. Also, it aims to teach and train individuals to abandon evil and to cultivate wholesome activities in the present, as in the Three Teachings of the Buddha:
- avoid all evil
- cultivate that which is truly good
- purify one's mind or heart
Some people understand Buddhism as an ethical system or philosophy, but not according to the popular understanding of the term religion. However, Buddhism does not describe only ethical principles: there are also explanations about psychology, philosophy, wisdom and so on. Moreover, it explains vimutti or liberation. Therefore, to define Buddhism as an ethical system is not a perfect definition. Similarly, it is not accurate to define it as a philosophy either because a philosophy may still be endowed with guesswork and speculation. Clever people love to think and express certain ideologies as a result of speculation or guesswork. They might be called philosophers. On the other hand, the Buddha practised and proved things by himself for a long time, and therefore his enlightenment was not based on any speculation or guesswork, so he was not a philosopher. Nevertheless, when he was yet to be enlightened and was still searching for absolute knowledge, he was known as a Bodhisattva which means one who adheres to knowledge or one who loves and is attached to knowledge. He saw that the world is endowed with suffering, that is, to be born, to be old, to be sick and to die and son on. He wished to find freedom from those suffering. He saw that everything in this world occurs in pairs, for example dark versus light, hot versus cold, and when there is suffering there must be a way out of suffering. Thus he renounced conventional life and searched for the Dhamma that leads to the liberation from all sufferings of this world. At this stage he might be called a philosopher, as he was still speculating or guessing and not fully enlightened.
The term religion may accord with Acariyavada Buddhism, still tied to the concept of Adibuddha, which is similar to a God. This characteristic does not exist in Theravada Buddhism because it is a religion of the present. There is no reference needed to any god. In this way, Theravada Buddhism is not a religion but is pure teaching. However, for general understanding we have to use the term religion in its general sense.
Now let us look at the point as to how Buddhism suits the needs of the present world. This is a significant and essential point that should be understood because any religion or anything that is not suitable for modern needs is useless. Sometimes it may suit current needs but a person may not know how to choose aptly. Then he or she does not see its benefits and accordingly may not pay any attention to it. Some say that Buddhism was suitable for an ancient society or is suitable for old people. Some even say that it is suitable only after death and not suitable for the modern world or people of the present world.
At present, it is said that we are in a scientific age: things are developed through scientific research. There are new things all the time everywhere on earth, in water and in air. There is speedy transportation to connect the world quickly. We might ask these questions: What do we need? What stops people from achieving their wishes? How are obstacles to be overcome? When will people be contented? And so on. Answers can be found in Buddhism. Here, I present a few in brief:
Everyone wants to acquire physical and mental happiness. In other words, everyone needs something that will get rid of physical and mental suffering. One looks for such happiness conducive to benefits in the present and in the future and also requires such happiness for oneself and for others related to oneself.
To succeed in one's requirement of physical happiness relative to one's daily life in the present, he or she should be endowed with the following virtues:
- Utthananasampada: endowed with energy and industry in earning one's living properly.
- Arkkhasampada: endowed with watchfulness of the wealth one has earned righteously.
- Kalyanamittata: associated with good company.
- Samajivita: living one's life in a balanced way according to one's earning.
Whereas to succeed in one's requirement of mental happiness as well as to guard one's good results of the present for the longer period of the future, and to share such happiness with others, he or she should be endowed with the following virtues:
- Saddha-sampada: endowed with faith in right beliefs.
- Sila-sampada: endowed with morality and free of unwholesome deeds.
- Caga-sampada: endowed with generosity.
- Panna-sampada: endowed with wisdom in knowing the things that are beneficial and destructive, useful and useless etc.
Greed, anger, delusion or craving which exist in one's mind are the hindrances to success in one's good intentions. These defilements can be counteracted by the Eightfold Noble Path of:
- Sammaditthi: Right View
- Sammasankappa: Right Thought
- Sammavaca: Right Speech
- Sammakammanta: Right Action
- Samma-ajiva: Right Livelihood
- Sammavayama: Right Effort
- Sammasati: Right Mindfulness
- Sammasamadhi: Right Concentration
The result of the Eightfold Noble Path is Paramattha, or the highest gain, which will refine one's mind or rectify the false mind.
When it will be enough depends on the necessity for and the level of abstaining one's mind from unwholesomeness. For instance, food is essential for the body but when one consumes it fully one will know that enough has been eaten. However, if the body has had enough but the mind still wants to eat more because the taste felt so good, in certain cases it is not right to follow the mind. One has to stop the craving of mind. This is the principle of contentment, of mental satisfaction. Most criminals, corrupt people and war-makers lack mental contentment. When people follow the Eightfold Noble Path, they can abstain their minds and will develop mentally or live within proper limitations.
Despite individual needs, there are wider problems of social and political needs too. These answers can also be found within Buddhism. Society must be endowed with right behaviour between parents and children etc. as described in the Singalovada sutta or the discourse on the six directions. The State must support and promote such activities as agriculture and trading because when people have better lives and are happy, many crimes such as theft and robbery will be reduced as described in the Kutadanta suttau.
We are human beings, in Pali Manussa, which means possessing a higher mind. Accordingly, we know how to reason, how to use our ideas and how to develop. We have already left the status of animals or wildness a long time ago; some would say that one difference between human beings and animals is that human beings have a mind which is able to reason, and that accordingly they can develop, whereas animals do not have such a mind and reason and cannot develop. However, if the civilisation of human beings develops only superficially, it can be called only superficial development. So one should not necessarily be proud of being a developed being. There are some who say that human beings are still animals; we still have to eat, to defend ourselves and to reproduce, and we have important physical structures such as breathing, digesting and circulation of blood as do animals. The differences are that human beings have civilisation, such as language, religion, arts and many other features that reflect the minds and reasoning of human beings. So human beings are still a type of worldly animal, and the civilisation they claim to own may be a material one.
Therefore, if human beings let their minds be slaves to defilements and craving, they may use civilisation to destroy other civilisations, just like building a beautiful town and destroying it later. This can be rectified through stopping the current of defilements in the mind and by keeping up development through the Eightfold Noble Path in Buddhism, also described as the path to liberation.
The decline of religion or the destruction of civilisation may not necessarily be caused by religion or civilisation being not good in themselves. They might be caused by people not recognising their value and not protecting it. For example, everybody wishes and loves to live, but if they do not look after themselves well and behave appropriately, they might be prone to illness or shorten their lives. The sovereignty of a country if not guarded well may become endangered too. Global issues such as human rights and freedom are preferred by everybody and every country, but if they are not well-protected and endowed with Dhamma they can be similarly endangered. So we should balance and properly promote both Buddhism and civilisation at the same time.