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Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. There are 376 million followers worldwide. Buddhists seek to reach a state of nirvana, following the path of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who went on a quest for Enlightenment around the sixth century BC. There is no belief in a personal god. Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent and that change is always possible. The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists believe that life is both endless and subject to impermanence, suffering and uncertainty. These states are called the tilakhana, or the three signs of existence. Existence is endless because individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering throughout many lives. It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering. The history of Buddhism is the story of one man’s spiritual journey to enlightenment, and of the teachings and ways of living that developed from it.

The Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal over 2500 years ago. He lived a life of privilege and luxury with a wife and son, until one day he left the royal enclosure and encountered for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Disturbed by this he became a monk before adopting the harsh poverty of Indian asceticism. Neither path satisfied him and he decided to pursue the ‘Middle Way’ – a life without luxury but also without poverty. Buddhists believe that one day, seated beneath the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening), Siddhartha became deeply absorbed in meditation and reflected on his experience of life until he became enlightened. By finding the path to enlightenment, Siddhartha was led from the pain of suffering and rebirth towards the path of enlightenment and became known as the Buddha or ‘awakened one’.

Schools of Buddhism

There are numerous different schools or sects of Buddhism. The two largest are Theravada Buddhism, the main religion in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), and Mahayana Buddhism, which is the main religion in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.

The majority of Buddhist sects do not seek to proselytise (preach and convert), with the notable exception of Nichiren Buddhism. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order are a western-orientated Buddhist group founded in 1967 by the British Buddhist Sangharakshita, who became a monk in 1950 after working for nearly 20 years in India much of the time among Ambedkar Buddhists. The group is in principle non-sectarian but tends to emphasize Mahāyāna teachings. A form of ordination is provided which bestows the title ‘follower of the Dharma’ (Dharmacari) on those admitted to it. This does not correspond to the conventional monastic ordination, and straddles the traditional distinction between laity and monks. Within the group emphasis is placed on meditation. study, and observance of traditional moral teachings. The FWBO runs co-operatives in urban centres where members live and work in communities and it has branches throughout the West and in India.

Sangha, meaning ‘company’ or ‘community’, refers to the monastic communities of monks and nuns across the Buddhist world. The Sangha has kept Buddhist texts safe over the centuries and has interpreted and taught Buddhist philosophy. The Sangha has also provided inspiration and guidance on how to live a good Buddhist life. Buddhism is not just for monks and nuns but for the whole community. The lay Sangha describes the non-ordained members of the Buddhist community. All schools of Buddhism seek to aid followers on a path of enlightenment.

The ideals at the heart of Buddhism are collectively known as the ‘Three Jewels’, or the ‘Three Treasures’. These are the Buddha (the yellow jewel), the Dharma (the blue jewel), and the Sangha (the red jewel). It is by making these the central principles of your life that you become a Buddhist.

  • There are over 150,000 Buddhists in Britain
  • There is no belief in a personal God. It is not centred on the relationship between humanity and God
  • Buddhists can worship both at home or at a temple • The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.

(David Griffith January 2021)

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