Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to Insight into the true nature of life. Buddhist practices such as meditation are means of changing oneself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom. The experience developed within the Buddhist tradition over thousands of years has created an incomparable resource for all those who wish to follow a path — a path which ultimately culminates in Enlightenment or Buddhahood.
Because Buddhism does not include the idea of worshipping a creator god, some people do not see it as a religion in the normal, Western sense. The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent; actions have consequences; change is possible. Thus Buddhism addresses itself to all people irrespective of race, nationality, or gender. It teaches practical methods (such as meditation) which enable people to realize and utilise its teachings in order to transform their experience, to be fully responsible for their lives and to develop the qualities of Wisdom and Compassion.
There are around 350 million Buddhists and a growing number of them are Westerners. They follow many different forms of Buddhism, but all traditions are characterized by non-violence, lack of dogma, tolerance of differences, and, usually, by the practice of meditation.
The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya tribe of Nepal, in approximately 566 BC. When he was twenty-nine years old, he left the comforts of his home to seek the meaning of the suffering he saw around him. After six years of arduous yogic training, he abandoned the way of self-mortification and instead sat in mindful meditation beneath a bodhi tree.
On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened one.
He was subsequently requested to teach . 'As a result of this request, Buddha rose from meditation and taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism. Later, Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism. In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are also beginning to flourish in the West.'
In all Buddha Shakyamuni gave eighty-four thousand teachings. His intention in founding Buddhism was to lead living beings to permanent liberation from suffering. He realized temporary liberation from suffering and difficulties is not enough. Motivated by love and compassion his aim was to help living beings find lasting peace or nirvana.
The Buddha wandered the plains of northeastern India for 45 years more, teaching the path or Dharma he had realized in that moment. Around him developed a community or Sangha of monks and, later, nuns, drawn from every tribe and caste, devoted to practicing this path. In approximately 486 BC, at the age of 80, the Buddha died. His last words are said to be...
"Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness."
Since some background knowledge of rebirth and karma is useful for understanding Buddhism, there now follows a brief introduction to these topics taken from Geshe Kelsang's book, Eight Steps to Happiness:
The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, call 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end, and it is this mind which, when completely purified, transforms into the omniscient mind of a Buddha.
Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Positive or virtuous actions sow the seeds of future happiness, and negative or non-virtuous actions sow the seeds of future suffering. This definite relationship between actions and their effects - virtue causing happiness and non-virtue causing suffering - is know as the 'law of karma'. An understanding of the law of karma is the basis of Buddhist morality.
After we die our very subtle mind leaves our body and enters the intermediate state, or 'bardo' in Tibetan. In this subtle dream-like state we experience many different visions that arise from the karmic potentials that were activated at the time of our death. These visions may be pleasant or terrifying depending on the karma that ripens. Once these karmic seeds have fully ripened they impel us to take rebirth without choice.
It is important to understand that as ordinary samsaric beings we do not choose our rebirth but are reborn solely in accordance with our karma. If good karma ripens we are reborn in a fortunate state, either as a human or a god, but if negative karma ripens we are reborn in a lower state, as an animal, a hungry ghost, or a hell being. It is as if we are blown to our future lives by the winds of our karma, sometimes ending up in higher rebirths, sometimes in lower rebirths.
This uninterrupted cycle of death and rebirth without choice is called 'cyclic existence', or 'samsara' in Sanskrit. Samsara is like a Ferris wheel, sometimes taking us up into the three fortunate realms, sometimes down into the three lower realms. The driving force of the wheel of samsara is our contaminated actions motivated by delusions, and the hub of the wheel is self-grasping ignorance. For as long as we remain on this wheel we shall experience an unceasing cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, and we shall have no opportunity to experience pure, lasting happiness. By practising the Buddhist path to liberation and enlightenment, however, we can destroy self-grasping, thereby liberating ourself from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth and attaining a state of perfect peace and freedom. We shall then be in a position to help others to do the same. A more detailed explanation of rebirth and karma can be found in the books Introduction to Buddhism and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
With the fast pace and high stress of modern life many people are becoming interested in the peaceful philosophy of Buddhism. In particular there is a very deep interest in learning how to meditate, both to overcome stress and anxiety, and to deepen one's spiritual experience. In response to this growing interest Kadampa Buddhism offers many different ways of learning about Buddhism and practicing meditation.
Kadampa Buddhism was first introduced to the West in 1976 by the renowned Kadampa Buddhist Master, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Since then he has worked tirelessly to provide all the conditions necessary to support contemporary practitioners. He has written nineteen authentic books on Buddhism that are now being translated into many different languages.
A worldwide network
Geshe Kelsang has also established over 500 Kadampa Buddhist centers and study groups in 36 countries around the world where people of all cultures can train in meditation and other Buddhist practices.
Every year Kadampa Buddhists from around the world gather for meditation festivals in the USA and Europe, including two in England, where they receive special teachings and empowerment and enjoy a spiritual holiday.
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