Like many questions, answering what is Buddhism is more complex than it first appears. Buddhism started 2500 years ago in India when a former prince named Siddhartha Gautama sat under a Bodhi tree and decided to stay there until it he attained supreme understanding.
Having sampled all the spiritual paths available in those days after renouncing his princehood, Gautama found himself dissatisfied with the life of an ascetic or holy man. He set aside all the techniques he learned and simply observed his sense experience.
Some time later he had the realization separating his life up to that point and his life afterwards. The inner peace his awakening brought him lead to the life of teaching other how to come to the same realization.
The technique The Buddha shared with his followers was called Vipassana which means, “Insight Meditation.” It’s a simple, powerful method of observing the world as it is and unraveling the emotional knots which keep us bound in delusion.
The basic theory is straightforward: learn how to focus the mind on small area, focusing on subtle sensations of the body. Then use that sharpened mind to systematically feel what the body is doing in this moment. No visualization, no imagination, no focusing on a mantra, or picturing any gods or saints.
A cultivated practice helps cultivate a pause between understanding and reaction, allowing a practitioner to choose to react as their reflexes demand or a different way. More emotional intelligence means better relationships.
The principle of Vipassana applies to more than merely formal meditations. Mindfulness and mindful action are a valuable foundation of a happier, more emotionally stable life.
By feeling what your body is doing in any given moment and applying directed conscious intent to do each action, you prevent awkward muscle habits and stress build up. It also helps practitioners stay attuned to direct experience rather than focused on abstract thoughts.
In a sense, to practice mindful action is to meditate during otherwise normal activities. Relaxing the body keeps it stronger and healthier. As well as reducing stress.’
One of the most popular branches of Buddhism comes out of Japan. Zen Buddhism is a strongly formalized system of teaching the techniques of liberation. Taught through unbroken lineages of Master to student stretching back more than a thousand years, Zen has a reputation for clarity of teaching.
The artistic expression of Zen Buddhism, all graceful simplicity, has found much usage in the west.
Zen practice is largely focused on Zazen which is a ritualized sitting meditation where one sits in a specific posture for certain time periods. Where Vipassana places emphasis on bodily sensations, Zen places the focus on holding the proper posture to meditate.
Both systems force greater bodily awareness on their practitioners, and in doing so cultivate wisdom by forcing them to deal with how unfocused and easily distracted the mind is.
What Is Buddhism
This barely scratches the surface of Buddhism’s many traditions. Perhaps no discussion of the subject would be complete without mentioning the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Noble Path.
The Four Noble Truths are:
The Truth of Suffering
The truth of the origin of Suffering
The truth of the cessation of Suffering
The Truth of the path to the cessation of suffering.
In short, Life is suffering. When life is painful, we want the pain to go away. When life is enjoyable, we want it to stay that way. These are both attachments. Because life is also constantly changing, becoming emotionally attached to anything inevitably leads to suffering.
Suffering is caused by Ignorance, of the nature of reality and of the basic facts of existence. However, one need not be ignorant. It is possible to learn what one presently does not know.
The Third Noble Truth simply states Suffering doesn’t have to occur. One can be free of it. And the Fourth Noble Truth is the path to reach liberation from suffering. It is called the Eightfold Noble Path:
The Eightfold Noble Path is built on properly understand and applying each of its aspects. Each supports the others, with the earlier steps supporting the later ones especially.
Right View, Intent, Speech, Action, and Livelihood are about recognizing Truth and avoiding impurities which will dull the mind. Right Effort, Mindfulness, and concentration are to refine the sensitivity of the mind so it can awaken from delusion.
Buddhism is a practical, focused path. While some critics have called it pessimistic, Buddhism’s focus on the hard, unpleasant fundamental facts of human nature has helped it develop some of the strongest techniques to improve a person’s life.Images by chaojikazu and Kashirin Nickolai.