Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices

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9780671041885: Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices
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Four hundred million people call themselves Buddhists today. Yet most Westerners know little about this powerful, Eastern-spawned faith. How did it begin? What do its adherents believe? Why are so many Westerners drawn to it?
Essential Buddhism responds to these questions and many more, offering an accessible, global perspective on the religion's past, present, and future. It identifies how the principal concepts and practices originated and evolved through diverse cultural adaptations into three basic formats:
* Theraveda (including Vipassana, brought from Vietnam in the 1960s and including such practitioners as Jack Kornfield and Jon Kapat-Zinn)
* Mahayana (including Zen Buddhism, originally brought to America by Japanese teachers after World War II and popularized by Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton)
* Vajrayana (including Tibetan Buddhism, from the teachers who fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s as well as the Dalai Lama, and embraced by Allen Ginsberg, Richard Gere, and countless others)
Essential Buddhism is the single best resource for the novice and the expert alike, exploring the depths of Buddhism's popularity and illuminating its tenets and sensible approach to living. Written in the lucid prose of a longtime professional storyteller, and full of Buddhist tales, scriptural quotes, ancient stories, and contemporary insights, Essential Buddhism is the first complete guide to the faith and the phenomenon.

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About the Author:

Jack Hosho Maguire took his Buddhist vows in 1996 at the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Mountain Monastery, one of America's leading Buddhist institutions. He has been a professional storyteller, specializing in Buddhist tales, for the past fifteen years. He has written many books, including The Power of Personal Storytelling, and he is a frequent contributor to the Buddhist journal Mountain Record, among others.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Great Awakening: The Buddha and His Legacy

You are your only master.

Who else?

Subdue yourself,

And discover your master.

?the Buddha

One evening, soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, a man named Dona was walking down a rural road in northern India when he saw the Buddha walking toward him. Dona knew nothing about the Buddha but was nevertheless struck by the radiance surrounding this individual. I've never seen a mortal being look so joyful and serene, he thought, so when the Buddha came close enough to converse, Dona couldn't resist asking, "Are you, by chance, a spirit?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Then are you an angel?" asked Dona.

"No," said the Buddha.

"Are you, perhaps, a god?" asked Dona.

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, what are you?" asked Dona.

The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

A fundamental part of Buddhism's appeal to billions of people over the past two and half millennia is the fact that its central figure, commonly referred to by the title "Buddha," was not a god, or a special kind of spiritual being, or even a prophet or an emissary of one. On the contrary, he was a human being like the rest of us who quite simply woke up to full aliveness.

The Sanskrit word buddha means "the awakened one" and derives etymologically from the same Indo-European root that gives us the English word bud. In a sense, the Buddha was a sentient being who managed to bud and then bloom into total consciousness of his nature, or, to use a more traditional expression, into enlightenment. The amazing truth of the matter is that we are all potential buddhas, perfect and complete right at this moment, but very few of us realize it.

The historical Buddha's awakening may have been a simple accomplishment,
but it wasn't an easy one. It took him many years -- and, according to strict Buddhist belief, countless lifetimes -- of single-minded endeavor before he finally achieved it. Nevertheless, once he did, he claimed that any individual could do the same thing: that is, realize his or her own "buddha nature," as it came to be called in the Mahayana tradition. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching the way.

Buddhism is therefore a religion centered around a teacher instead of a divine being. As such, it can be said to feature lessons rather than creeds, precepts rather than commandments, and reverence rather than worship. These distinctions are examined and clarified later in the book. First, let's take a closer look at the historical Buddha's existence, for it continues to explain many features of the Buddhist religion and to serve as an inspiring prototype for the Buddhist way of life.

Throughout the twenty-four centuries since the Buddha's death, the basic design of his biography has been embroidered over and over again to suit different purposes. As a result, we now have many versions to consider, and woven into any one of them are likely to be various ideological biases, liturgical details, cultural references, mythical touches, and psychological shadings -- all embellished with a certain amount of plain old yarn-spinning.

The following account of the Buddha's eighty-four years on Earth synthesizes the most prevalent versions into three separate sections describing his early years, enlightenment, and teaching career. The commentary in each section discusses major points relating to Buddhism in general and alludes to especially significant or intriguing story variations.

THE EARLY YEARS OF THE BUDDHA

In 566 B.C.E., the Buddha was born into the childless royal family of the Shakya kingdom, located in the Himalayan foothills of what we now call southern Nepal. His clan name was Guatama. Prior to his conception, his mother, Queen Maya, wife of King Suddhodhana, had taken a spiritual vow of celibacy. However, one night, as she slept in her chaste bed in the rose marble palace in Kapilavastu, she had a wondrous dream: Into her bedroom strode a magnificent white elephant with six dazzling white tusks. His trunk arched gracefully above his head, holding aloft a perfect golden lotus flower. He knelt beside her bed and caressed her right side with the flower. At that very moment, she felt
charged with new life and woke up.

Queen Maya roused her husband and told him about the dream, and he immediately summoned his chief counselor to interpret it. "You will give birth to a son destined for greatness," the counselor told them. "If he remains at the palace and follows a secular path, he will enjoy many triumphs and become a mighty ruler, emperor of the world. But if he leaves the palace, seeking something more spiritual, he will endure many hardships and eventually become a buddha, a great teacher to gods, beasts, and humankind."

Months later, on a fine spring day around the time of year we now call April, Queen Maya and her attendants set out for her parents' home, the customary place for a mother-to-be to give birth. On the way, they came to a beautiful park near the town of Lumbini.They lingered there in a grove of sala trees. Queen Maya was standing beneath the most ancient and luxurious tree, gazing upward into its crown, when a transcendent sensation all over her body told her the birth was beginning.The tree bent down a branch to her, and she grasped it and smiled.

Suddenly, a host of wonders occurred all at once. From the sky fell white and golden lotus petals. From the now-trembling earth rose the fragrant scents of jasmine and sandalwood. From the air resounded the lilting music of bells, lutes, and ethereal voices. And from the right side of Queen Maya, without causing any pain, emerged the baby.

Gods appeared and bathed the infant in heavenly dew, then set him down on his feet. Fully conscious, he took seven steps forward. In advance of each step, a lotus blossom sprang up to support his foot.Then, pointing one hand up toward the sky and the other down toward the ground, he announced in a loud, clear voice: "Behold, I am all between heaven and Earth! In this lifetime I shall awaken!"

The miraculous baby then assumed the normal state of a newborn and was named Siddhartha, which means "every wish fulfilled." The phrase referred to his parents' long-standing desire for a child, but his daily existence as a young prince seemed to reflect it as well. His father Suddhodhana, himself a monarch, was determined that his only son would pursue a grand career as an emperor rather than a grueling one as a buddha, so he treated him accordingly. Confining Siddhartha to the palace, he lavished every worldly luxury upon him, made sure he was surrounded only with beautiful, happy people, and prevented him from witnessing or even hearing about any of life's adversities.

Although Siddhartha's mother died shortly after he was born, he was lovingly raised by her sister, Prajapati. Under her astute care, he grew up to be remarkably wise, kind, good-looking, and strong.At age sixteen, he won the hand in marriage of the loveliest woman at court, his cousin Yasodhara, by piercing seven trees with one arrow, and his subsequent displays of charm, intelligence, and athleticism earned him popularity and respect throughout the kingdom. His future as a valiant, uniquely successful military leader seemed assured.

Then, at age twenty-nine, came a crucial turning point in Siddhartha's life. His wife, pregnant with their first child, was indisposed and urged him to seek some diversion on his own. As it happens, he had overheard someone talking earlier in the day about the splendors of spring just unfolding in the forest beyond the palace. Eager to see them, he pleaded with his father so ardently and persuasively for permission to travel there that he couldn't refuse. Instead, the king secretly commanded servants to remove or conceal all disturbing sights along the route from the village adjoining the palace walls to the forest some miles away. The gods, however, decided to intervene and send the pampered prince a sign that would spur him on to his greater, spiritual destiny.

As Siddhartha rode on horseback through the village streets, that sign suddenly appeared in front of him -- a man with white hair, wrinkled skin, and frail limbs.The mystified prince asked his driver, "What is this creature?"

The driver, his tongue loosened by the gods, explained, "He is an old man. He, too, was once young like you. And you, too, will age as he did, losing your strength and beauty. It is the lot of every human being."

Siddhartha was shocked and then deeply saddened. Later, as he sat in the palace gardens thinking about the encounter, he asked himself, "Knowing what I do about old age, what pleasures can these gardens now afford me?"

Future excursions to learn more about the outside world brought him two other signs of mortal afflictions: a sick person and a corpse. Finally he confronted the fourth sign sent by the gods, a bald man wearing a ragged robe and carrying a begging bowl but nevertheless projecting uncommon tranquillity. When he asked his driver to explain this man, the driver replied, "He is a monk. He has put worldly matters behind him and is seeking a higher good."

That very night, as Siddhartha rode back into the palace grounds, he heard everyone celebrating the birth of his son. Instead of welcoming the news, he despaired, thinking of the cycle of birth and death beginning yet again; the generational dynasty that bound him to his present, now frivolous-seeming lifestyle; and the restrictive, authoritarian role he'd need to assume as a father.

Despite Siddhartha's great personal love for his family, he decided that it was best for him and for others if he renounced the life of a materialistic warrior-prince to lead the life of a spiritually questing monk. Perhaps then he could find out for himself and all humankind how to escape life's grave troubles, or at least how to understand and tolerate them better.

Siddhartha wasted no time. That same night, he secretly rode away from Kapilavastu, the gods themselves silencing the hooves of his horse. At sunrise, after crossing a distant riverbank in the kingdom of Magadha, he changed from his aristocratic garments into a humble robe, shaved his head, and sent his chariot and driver back to the palace.

So began six years of homeless wandering in search of the truth about life and death. Siddhartha studied with the most renowned meditation masters of his time and, in keeping with one of that era's primary spiritual disciplines, starved himself until his body turned skeletal. Gaining more and more fame as the Great Ascetic, he gradually acquired five disciples -- called the Band of Five -- who followed him everywhere.

Still, Siddhartha believed that his quest so far had accomplished nothing. He later described this period as being "like time spent trying to tie the air into knots."

One day, walking along the Nairanjana River, a tributary of the Ganges River, near the village of Uruvela, Siddhartha chanced to hear a boatman tuning a three-stringed instrument. When the boatman plucked the first string, it made a gratingly high-pitched ping! because it was wound too tight. The second string, wound too loose, emitted an unpleasantly twangy sound. Only the third string, not wound either too tight or too loose, produced a beautiful, perfectly pitched tone. Extrapolating from this incident, Siddhartha suddenly realized that the "middle way" of life was the best: neither so austere that existence itself was threatened, nor so sybaritic that one lived selfishly just for pleasure and power.

Meanwhile, a farmer's daughter was passing by on her way to make an offering of curds to a sacred fig (or pipal) tree nearby. Moved by the sight of the emaciated Siddhartha, she offered him the curds instead. He accepted them as a first gesture in taking the Middle Way, thus breaking his austere dietary habits and causing the Band of Five to desert him in disgust. He then bathed in the river and, just before sunset, sat beneath that same sacred fig tree with his eyes facing east. Vowing not to rise again until he achieved enlightenment, he crossed his legs, lowered his eyes, and began to meditate.

Commentary. Unlike other major religions, Buddhism has no world creation story. Instead, the Buddha's life functions as a kind of substitute: the creation of a fully enlightened being. As Buddhism evolved, borrowing heavily from its parent religion Hinduism, the Buddha's personal history was given more cosmic and mythological resonance by being linked more significantly with his prior existences, each succeeding life representing another step up the spiritual ladder. For more on his rebirths, see "The Jataka Tales" on page 8. For more on the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, see page 25-30.

The Buddha's previous lifetimes originated in the beginningless past and occurred intermittently over kalpas (huge periods of time) extending up to the birth of Siddhartha. Buddhist literature is replete with mind-boggling metaphors that attempt to convey how indescribably long a kalpa is and, therefore, how inconceivably impressive the Buddha's journey was -- part of a consistent message in Buddhism that many things cannot be grasped by the rational mind. For example, suppose an eagle's wing brushes against the top of a high mountain once a century. A kalpa is how long it would take for that action to wear the mountain entirely away. Imagine a wooden yoke with one hole,
thrown into the ocean to float. If a one-eyed turtle rises to the surface of the ocean once a century, a kalpa is how long it would take before the turtle just happened to rise through the hole of the yoke.

The individual we know as the Buddha -- also called Siddhartha Guatama or, alternatively, Shakyamuni (in Sanskrit, "Sage of the Shakya Clan") -- is not even the first or the last buddha. Depending on which particular tradition you consult, anywhere from seven to countless numbers of buddhas lived, one after the other, each many kalpas apart, before Shakyamuni was born. Many kalpas from now, the next buddha, called Maitreya (in Sanskrit, "friend"), is destined to appear and revive the spiritual teachings long after they've been forgotten. Thus, Shakyamuni is the buddha of our age, and our age is fortunate to have one, because many do not.

Some Buddhist traditions pay more attention than others to the previous
lives of the Buddha -- and, indeed, to the entire concept of rebirth,
as other sections of this book make clear. One of the virtues of Shakyamuni
Buddha's life story all by itself is that it symbolizes so beautifully the core spiritual struggle that human beings in general go through.

In our childhood, we begin life with a pervasive joy, innocence, and
security that give us a sense of royal entitlement, of belonging to the
universe. Then, sooner or later, comes a personal knowledge of life's
adversities that forever separates us from that childhood realm.We leave
the land of our birth and wander out into the cold, cruel world, seeking
greater meaning and purpose in life.

The same paradigm appears in Genesis. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden, where everything is provided for them. Only one thing is prohibited: the knowledge of good and evil. When they feel driven to gain this knowledge nevertheless, they are expelled from the garden. For Shakyamuni, that expulsion took the overt form of a renunciation, but deep inside, he truly felt he had no choice. Indeed, the gods of his universe worked to make his renunciation inevitable, as it was destined to be, despite the overwhelming incentives to linger.

To many non-Buddhists, Siddhartha's re...

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