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Spencer J. Palmer, gBuddhism,h Ensign, Jun 1972, 67-Part 1

Buddhism begins with a man named Gotama, whose life, stripped of poetic legend, is a simple biography. He was born in a grove of trees at the foot of the Nepal hills near Lumbini, about 563 b.c. The son of an aristocratic Hindu chieftain of the warrior caste, he was brought up in princely splendor and luxury.

At age twenty-nine, after a carefully sheltered life within the confines of his fatherfs palace, Gotama was confronted with the spectacle of human suffering. He was profoundly shocked at his first sight of old age, sickness, and death. Fleeing secretly at night from his fatherfs palace, where his wife and young son lay sleeping, he renounced the world and became a wandering ascetic in search of an answer to the problem of human suffering.

After six years of fruitless striving, marked by many austerities, he sat down one day in a cross-legged position beneath a bodhi tree at Gaya and made a vow: gskin, sinew, and bone may dry up as it will, my flesh and blood may dry in my body, but without attaining complete enlightenment I will not leave this seat.h Thereupon he was attacked by Mara, the evil lord of the world of passion, who tempted him to abandon his quest. But Gotama withstood.

He meditated on karma, the cosmic law of justice (remembering his former lives); he discovered the gpath of deliveranceh; he reached Nirvana. From that vantage point, and until he died under a tree at Kusinara at eighty years of age, Gotama was teacher and exemplar for a community of brother monks.

After his experience at Gaya, Gotama expounded the way by which others might also reach enlightenment and thus escape the round of rebirths or reincarnations and gain Nirvana, the ultimate goal for Buddhists. Assurance that one has achieved supreme enlightenment, he said, is based upon a clear understanding of Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Middle Path. Here are the four basic teachings of Buddhism—the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is suffering. Birth, disease, old age, and death are suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, and grief are suffering. Not to get what one wants is suffering.

2. Desire is the origin of suffering. Craving, bound up with pleasure and lust, is the origin of suffering. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind are delightful and pleasurable, but from these, selfish desire has its root. Visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily impressions, and mind objects are also delightful and pleasurable; yet from these, selfish desire has its root. Suffering comes from attachment, from manfs foolish craving to possess things of mortality, which are always transitory and elusive.

3. Craving, the origin of suffering, can be extinguished. Whoever regards the things of this life, its delights and its pleasures, as non-permanent and miserable, as a disease and a cancer, can overcome craving. The extinction of attachment, the extinction of love, the extinction of anger, the extinction of the delusion of enduring health or enduring life or enduring death—this is indeed Nirvana.

He who has considered all the contrasts of the world and freed himself from the painful frustrations that derive from wanting to cling permanently to the transient human condition, he it is that will reach enlightenment.

4. The Eightfold Middle Path leads to the extinction of suffering. The Buddha declared that the path of freedom lies between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. This middle path is based upon (1) right views, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.

Right views means understanding the four truths. Right thought is thought that is free from ill will and cruelty. Right speech is abstaining from lying, talebearing, harsh language, and vain talk. Right action is abstaining from killing, stealing, and unlawful sexual relations.

The man who follows the middle path does not kill any living beings. He has no stick or weapon, and he is conscientious, full of sympathy, and anxious for the welfare of all living beings. (This doctrine of noninjury is known as ahimsa. It has a long history in Hinduism, from which Gotama took his teachings, and is today a particularly emphasized feature of Jainism, where holy men are concerned even about damage to rocks or about microscopic life that might exist in drinking water.) (Picture: Buddhist temple and lotus plants)

Right livelihood is the way of earning a living that causes no harm to any living thing. It affects especially the butcher or the fisherman but goes further than that. Selling alcohol is not right because the seller lives on the proceeds of a commodity that harms other people.

Right effort includes four great efforts: to avoid, to overcome, to develop, and to maintain. Right mindfulness is contemplation on the four fundamentals of mindfulness—contemplation of the body, feeling, mind, and mind objects. In other words, one must be conscious of his movements and acts so that nothing of what goes on in him escapes his attention.

Right concentration is concentration on a single object, which is associated with wholesome consciousness.

The first five steps of the Eightfold Middle Path are attainable by common men. Thus far it is a down-to-earth path: right views, right aims, right speech, right action, and right living.

But the final three steps approach the more intellectual and mystical techniques of the Hindu yogins: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In these, which include successive gtrancesh and reaching a state of gperfect purity of balance and equanimity,h the Buddha has clearly gone beyond what is possible for laymen; he is advocating that which is appropriate only to a special order of monks. He calls those on the first five steps of the path disciples; those on the last three are called brothers. Only those who forsake the common life, to give themselves up wholly to the pursuit of liberation, really approach the ideal proclaimed by the historical Buddha.

Gotama Siddhartha was not a supernatural being, a mysterious personage, or a god. At no time did he make such a claim. In the earliest Buddhist scriptures, especially in the so-called gatha or poem sections, Gotama was in every respect regarded merely as an outstanding man. In later times Buddhists called him Sakyamuni, the sage (or prince) of the Sakya clan, but in the earliest days his disciples addressed him only as Sakya without using any honorific title. In these older poems also, Brahmin youths addressed him as if talking to an intimate friend, not a divine person.

According to Buddhist legend, the very first image of the Buddha was a sandalwood statue carved in the teacherfs lifetime for a king known as Udayana. This Udayana legend is probably a pious fabrication attached to the first images of the Buddha carved in Gandhara (located in what is today Afghanistan and part of Pakistan) as early as the first century a.d. It is certain that the first representations of Sakyamuni in human form were created centuries after his death when a special need was felt for anthropomorphic (human) representations of him.

In early Buddhism, it was believed that the Buddha had passed with his Nirvana into a realm of invisibility; and in early Buddhist art his presence in narratives of his early career was symbolized by such emblems as the empty throne for his enlightenment, the wheel for his first preaching, and the stupa or relic mound for his Nirvana. In the famous Kalingabodhi Jataka text, Buddha states that he can be properly shown as a bodhi tree.

With the passage of centuries, Buddhism was transformed from a rather limited and exclusive monastic religious system, in which the way to salvation was open only to those who could renounce the world for a monastic existence (i.e., Theravada, the way of the elders), to a religion offering the promise of salvation to all men who followed the eightfold path. This new approach or school became known as Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle.

Gradually the demand arose for a reassurance and comfort of devotion to the person and founder himself rather than to his doctrine. The cult of relics fostered by Buddhismfs greatest Indian monarch, Emperor Asoka of the third century b.c., is an early indication of this growing deification of the Buddha himself and of idolatry.

Homage to the Buddhafs person and preservation of reputed relics of his physical body became symbols of the Buddhist faith. The shrines and pagodas erected to house these relics became religious centers to which the faithful flocked to make circumambulations and to leave offerings of food and flowers.

It is generally accepted that the steps leading to the first Buddha image included anthropomorphic and theistic traditions from the Hellenic or Greek worlds, which, since the conquest of Alexander, had been in close contact with India.

Gotama was a historical figure who sought neither veneration nor worship. But with the passage of time, the rise of the cult of relics and of the Mahayana movement outside India, he was gradually deified.

Mythical Buddhist gods have abounded freely in northern Asia, where some have quite clearly emerged from the depths of popular folklore, as in the case of the potbellied Maitreya. Sakyamuni is the only historical Buddha, and his deification stems from religious developments within the subcontinent of India. But historically speaking, he—like the great mythical Buddhas Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, Maitreya, and other major Buddhas—owes much of his godhood to the intrusive religions of Persia and Greece. Also, Buddhists were undeniably influenced by Christianity.

Of the principal Buddhas of the Mahayana school, Amitabha (Amida), or the Buddha of Boundless Light, has had the strongest appeal to the common man. He is particularly well known in China, Korea, and Japan; and surprisingly, the best-known Buddha among foreign tourists is an image of Amida, at Kamakura, Japan.

In Amidism, believers seek enlightenment through rebirth in his pure realm known as the Western Paradise. Followers believe in Amida Buddha only; however, other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) may be the objects of their respect and adoration, because they are thought of as essentially one with Amida. We are told that where Amidafs name exists, there Amida lives. Therefore, the more frequently his name is recited, the greater the spiritual benefit. No rituals are required, no austerities, no esoteric teachings, little more than a simple confession of faith.

The origins of the Amida Buddha are difficult to trace. He is known only in the northern lands of Buddhism, and his name does not appear in any of the Theravadan canons. His worship is unknown in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand. It was not until the second century a.d. that texts dealing with Amitabha and his western paradise begin to appear.

Salient features of Amidism certainly suggest Persian and Zoroastrian influences, and Christian and Greek elements are likewise present. That a relationship existed between the Western Buddha and the Christian idea of a Heavenly Father is suggested in the fact that one of the essential features of the gParadiseh Buddhafs personality is that he presides over a trinity. The Amida trinity is a perfect example of a unified divine power acting through two agents or representatives, which is analogous to the Divine Father acting through his regent Son and the Holy Ghost. (Shinran in Tokyo taken by WWF)

Descriptions of Amidafs heavenly realm, consisting of three stages of glory (only in the topmost of which can the faithful enjoy his presence), are probably of special interest to Latter-day Saints. That which follows comes from the earliest three Chinese versions of the western realm, as translated and summarized by Alexander Soper:

gThe Lord who reigns in paradise and who preached to untold millions is more glorious than any other Buddha. c He will annihilate for them the last terrors of the death-bed. To those who have lived steadfast in purity, He will come in welcome with His host of Bodhisattvas and Arhats, to fill their eyes at the end with His ineffable glory. To others who have led devout lives as laymen He will grant a dying vision of the welcome, identical in appearance with the real one. Even those whose good impulses have been offset by backsliding or unbelief, He will permit to dream of Him at last. All these three grades of glory will share equally in the bliss of the Western Land, in the end; only the last group will have to pass through a purgatorial period of five hundred years. The souls on probation will be isolated, unable to see the Buddha or hear Him preach until their term has run out.h (Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art [Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1959], pp. 141–42.)

The mythical Buddha Maitreya and Jesus Christ are both regarded by their followers as saviors who will return to earth. Thus, the prophecies of the end of the world (in Buddhist parlance, mappo, or the age of degeneration) and of the miraculous appearance of the Lord have had an enormous impact in Buddhist and Christian lands. (Buddhist Temple at Hanzan on Shikoku by WWF)