This article is intended for you if you have come to this website as someone who is curious about Buddhism but as yet knows little about it. Here we offer an overview of Buddhism for the beginner. We also explain the special place that Buddhism occupies as a radical alternative to other, more familiar, ways of understanding the world.
Buddhism – the Alternative to Theism and Materialism
In much of the world today, people are presented with a restricted choice in trying to understand the nature of existence. This choice can be described as ‘God, or nothing but matter’. The first choice is theism: belief in God, who created the universe, and rules over it. The second choice is the belief that all that exists is the world in its brute physicality, nothing more. The first choice typically includes belief in an immortal soul, created by God, and rewarded or punished by him in an eternal afterlife. The second choice entails the belief that there is no soul, and that human consciousness, or ‘the mind’, is just the workings of the nervous system, and completely disappears at death.
Each of these choices can leave those who believe in it with a serious feeling of unease. Theists can have such a feeling because, on the one hand, they strongly sense a transcendent aspect to existence, with which love and morality are associated. This transcendent aspect is understood as God. On the other hand, they perceive the suffering that pervades life. If God created the universe, which contains so much suffering, how can he be good? In particular, how can he be good if he sends people into everlasting suffering for disobeying his rules, even just for not believing in his existence?
The unease associated with this contradiction can be psychologically defended against in various ways to keep it at the back of the mind. One defence is to cling to ‘belief’ and the conviction that one will be ‘saved’ if one believes correctly. Another is to blame human beings’ choices, made with ‘free will’, as justifications for their eternal punishment.
The materialist – the person who believes in the existence of nothing but matter – can have a different feeling of unease. This involves a sense of something important being missing from life, or that life seems meaningless. Depression can at times come from this. Materialists may defend themselves against such feelings by pursuing a life of pleasure or a career, or by becoming political activists.
There is, however, an alternative to this restricted choice – Buddhism.
The Transcendent Dimension of Existence
At the heart of Buddhism is the recognition that there is a transcendent dimension of existence. To explain this in everyday language is not easy, but at bottom it means that there is much more to existence than we are usually conscious of, and that we humans tend to misunderstand even those aspects of existence of which we are conscious – including ourselves! The transcendent dimension of existence is therefore inseparable from the development of the profound potential of consciousness – of the mind. It is also intimately associated with love and morality, as many theists can intuitively recognise. But it has nothing to do with a creator god.
Living a Buddhist life means cultivating psychologically and ethically positive qualities so that one increasingly gets in touch with that profound dimension of consciousness, and manifests it through one’s actions, in relationships with others and with the world in general.
Buddhism also recognises the truth that consciousness is not reducible to, or explainable as, the workings of the brain. Consciousness does not stop when we die, or when the brain stops working. People who have had ‘near death’ experiences strongly testify to this. There is also clear evidence that consciousness can continue from one life to another. We know this from extensive research into young children’s accounts of remembering previous lives. Buddhism has always accepted ‘rebirth’ – the continuity of consciousness through many lives. Indeed, Buddhism recognises that people are caught up in an endless cycle of rebirth, repeatedly seeking security in lives that end in old age, sickness and death.
The Three Jewels
Traditionally, being a Buddhist means leading one’s life upon the basis of commitment to the three central ideals of Buddhism – the ‘Three Jewels’ – and working to help actualise them, as effectively as possible, in oneself and others. This is known as ‘going for refuge’ to the Three Jewels.
The Three Jewels are ‘Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’. The Buddha was the man who began Buddhism – Siddhārtha Gautama. The word ‘Buddha’ means the ‘Enlightened One’, which indicates that he was the first human to actualise fully that profound aspect of consciousness, the Enlightened Mind, and to lead others to the same realisation. The Buddha Jewel therefore symbolises the ‘Enlightened Mind’.
The Dharma Jewel symbolises the true nature of reality, which is directly perceived by the Enlightened Mind. The term ‘Dharma’ also refers to the collection of teachings and practices, originating with the Buddha, which help people to progressively cultivate in themselves the Enlightened Mind.
The Sangha Jewel is, on its highest level, the many people who have developed a deep and lasting connection with that profound dimension of consciousness. It can also be understood as the community of serious Buddhist practitioners, or the network of positive relationships existing between them. The word ‘Sangha’ means ‘community’.
The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is the attainment of Enlightenment – the fullest possible development of the profound aspect of consciousness. The Enlightened Mind is completely without hatred, craving or delusion. It is imbued with profound love and compassion, and experiences the universe as it really is, without selfish attachment to anything. Someone who has attained Enlightenment is no longer subject to compulsive involvement with the process of rebirth.
Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, lived in northern India around two and a half thousand years ago. While still a young man, he gave up a privileged lifestyle and became a religious wanderer – a practice which had already become common in northern India. He studied under some of the leading religious teachers of his time, but their teaching left him dissatisfied. After a period of practising extreme asceticism, but subsequently recognising its faults, he practised on his own, meditating ever more successfully. Eventually, he attained Enlightenment. He then wandered around much of northern India, teaching and helping other people attain what he had attained.
The Dharma and Spiritual Practice
Buddhist spiritual practice is whatever helps us along the path towards Enlightenment. But what are the basic elements of such practice? They can be analysed in a variety of ways, but the simplest formulation is the ‘threefold path’ of ethics, integration and wisdom – śīla, samādhi and prajñā
Śīla – ethics
Śīla means behaving ethically, which for Buddhists means behaving ‘skilfully’ – that is, with intelligent awareness of the likely consequences of one’s actions. Alongside such awareness, one cultivates a benevolent attitude to all living beings – not forgetting to include oneself! In human relations, this benevolence expresses itself as friendliness, which will naturally ripen into friendship whenever time and circumstance permit. This is why we sometimes speak of the sangha as a network of friendships.
As a guide to skilful behaviour, the Buddha taught several sets of ethical precepts. The simplest and most widely known of these is a set of five fundamental principles that remain the timeless framework for a truly human life. In their positive forms, these may be summarised as the principles of non-violence (or love), generosity, moderation in desires, truthful speech, and the forgoing of anything that dulls or intoxicates the mind.
Samādhi – psychological integration
Samādhi involves cultivating emotionally and ethically positive, integrated mental states. This cultivation leads to the emergence of an integrated and healthy personality. The practice of śīla is the indispensable basis for the development of samādhi; thus ethical integrity and psychological integration necessarily go hand in hand.
Meditation and ritual are important practices for helping the development of such positive integration of personality and mental states.
Prajñā – wisdom
The Buddhist path involves the cultivation of wisdom, which arises on the foundation of ethical integrity and psychological integration. Wisdom has several aspects. It involves clarity of thinking, without attachment. It includes a capacity not only for logical, conceptual thought, but also for an imaginative ability to respond to symbols. Most importantly, wisdom goes beyond the limitations of conceptual thought to a more profound and direct apprehension of reality.
Wisdom can be developed through various means. These include ritual and study, but above all there is ‘contemplation’, a type of meditation practice. This involves deliberately pondering important aspects of existence. Such aspects include, for example, the impermanence of things in the world of our ordinary experience, and the resulting impossibility of finding lasting happiness in attachment to those things.
Wisdom is inseparable from love and compassion. At its most developed, the wise mind seeks to relieve the suffering of all living beings.
Thus, effective spiritual development involves the actual development of ethics, psychological integration, and wisdom. Śīla, samādhi and prajñā develop alongside each other, and the cultivation of each one fosters the emergence of the other two.
Buddhist meditation is a set of practices for working directly with one’s mental states, in order to develop and intensify the skilful ones. Thus, meditation is using the mind to develop its positive qualities. This involves developing a clear, practical understanding of its nature, and of how mental states can be affected by what we do and by what happens to us.
There are many different types of meditation within Buddhism, but at the heart of Buddhist meditation is the quality of mindfulness. On the one hand, mindfulness is the ability to keep one’s attention focused upon one thing, without distraction. On the other, mindfulness also means maintaining an awareness of all aspects of one’s conscious experience – of one’s bodily sensations and posture, for example – from moment to moment. The successful practice of mindfulness meditation strengthens the natural quality of mindfulness, with this strengthened mindfulness then manifesting outside of meditation as well as within it. The development of mindfulness has various benefits, including becoming less distracted and less prone to anxiety and low mood.
Then there are meditations that cultivate positive emotions. Buddhism recognises that we can consciously strengthen our experience of healthy emotions, and also that such emotions are vital aspects of spiritual development. Especially important here are the four ‘immeasurables’. These are love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. For example, there is the mettā bhāvanā practice, in which we cultivate loving kindness towards all living beings. There are visualisation practices, which involve the imaginative evocation of aspects of the Enlightened Mind. There are ‘insight’ practices, which involve contemplating specific aspects of the nature of reality. As we have seen (in the above section on ‘wisdom’), such aspects include the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of things in the world of ordinary experience.
Meditation practice also involves the development of very stable, integrated and focused mental states, known as dhyāna. At times it also focuses upon the development and transformation of what one could term ‘subtle energies’.
Ritual is an important aspect of Buddhist practice. In theistic religions, the purpose of ritual may be understood as the appeasement of God or gods. In Buddhism, however, ritual is like meditation: its purpose is the development of śīla, samādhi and prajñā. Buddhist ritual may involve a variety of elements, such as the recitation of verses, chanting, and the making of symbolic offerings – flowers, incense and candles, for example – to the Three Jewels. Such practices can be very helpful as ways of calming and integrating the mind, and leading it ever closer to the goal of Enlightenment. Many people find ritual particularly effective when practised in the company of others. Through the use of symbolism in beautiful sounds, images and words, ritual helps us to invoke aspects of the Enlightenment – to awaken them within our own minds.
Sangha as a Community of Real Individuals
A sangha is a fellowship or community of those who are committed to the Buddhist spiritual path. It is much more than a loose collection of people just ‘doing their own thing’. On the other hand, it is not a cult-like group in which people have to ‘fit in’. It is a voluntary network of people who are developing real individuality and taking responsibility for themselves, but doing this in free and friendly association with others who share their goals. What is more, the sangha exists within the context of the wider network of relationships that its members have with people of all kinds. It is not an exclusive group in which relationships with ‘outsiders’ are discouraged. Real individuality, which is a result of increasingly successful spiritual practice, is very much associated with genuine, caring, ethical involvement with other people.
What Hinders Spiritual Development?
The process of spiritual development involves the cultivation of ethical integrity, psychological integration, and wisdom. In actual practice, are there any factors which hinder this process?
Firstly, spiritual development is dependent upon the existence of cultural and political factors that allow it to happen. People need circumstances in which they have the freedom to practise the Dharma. Put simply, if you live under a state that enforces adherence to another religion or to a political ideology, you may find it impossible even to learn about Buddhism.
Next, persistent unethical behaviour hinders or blocks progress. This is why śīla is a vital part of the spiritual path, as we saw earlier.
Psychological factors can also hinder progress. For example, people may have been harmed by emotional abuse or neglect in childhood, with psychological effects which persist into adulthood. These may include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and lack of psychological integration. Such problems need to be recognised and worked with.
In general, practising Buddhist ethics and meditation under the guidance of experienced practitioners is likely to alleviate such problems, but therapeutic help of the right kind can speed up the process of healing, and may be crucial in some cases. Nowadays, there is a growing number of psychologists and psychotherapists who are Buddhists, able to combine skills derived from both Buddhist tradition and modern psychology.
Another important inhibitor of spiritual development is attachment to strong beliefs, such as may arise from prior religious conditioning or from long exposure to a political ideology. Where a belief conflicts with reality, emotional attachment to that belief prevents the growth of a penetrating understanding of the world as it really is. Such beliefs may be religious, philosophical, or political.
It is important to recognise that we may be emotionally attached to such a belief. Having recognised that, we can start to distinguish the truth about a topic from our belief-driven opinions about it (which may have been leading us, for example, to a selective use of evidence).
Finally, people may be hindered by misunderstanding aspects of the Dharma, and may even go seriously astray as a result. For example, there is the Buddhist concept of anattā, or ‘not self’. This means that we do not have an unchanging self that persists separately from the flow of sense experience. Some serious practitioners, interpreting this idea too literally, take it to mean that we do not exist at all. This can lead to the development of mental states marked by psychological dissociation, not integration.
We should guard against such misunderstandings, as far as we can, by taking care in choosing the teachers we follow and the groups we associate with. How well do they embody what they teach? Are they kindly, without any attempt to manipulate us with their kindness? To some extent, however, misunderstandings may be inevitable in the early stages of Dharma practice. We only learn the correct way to interpret the Dharma through sustained practice, association with mature spiritual friends, and through mindfulness of the effects of practice upon the way we act, speak, feel and think.
Being a serious Buddhist practitioner is essentially about cultivating a deeply ethical, caring approach to the world, as well as developing a psychologically healthy personality, and also a profound wisdom. A genuine Buddhist spiritual community is a network of such practitioners in which strong friendships develop – friendships that both nurture and express such healthy individual development.
In future articles I will explore these aspects of Buddhist spiritual life in more detail.
Anandajoti Bhikkhu from Sadao, Thailand, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons