For many Westerners, Buddhism brings to mind someone kneeling before a large idol in an exotic land.

For others, it represents complex philosophical thought emerging from the words of an itinerant preacher who lived in India 2,500 years ago.

Across Asia from Sri Lanka to Japan, more than 760 million men, women, and children try to follow Buddhism’s “middle way” of thinking and living. In addition, another 1.3 million Buddhists live in North America and an estimated 750,000 are in Europe. While most of these outside of Asia are Asian immigrants, some are disillusioned Westerners, seeking enlightenment and escape from dead-end materialism.

Enlightenment and escape from suffering are at the heart of Buddhist thought

In fact, seeking an escape from suffering is what drove Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 560-480 B.C.) to the search that led him to become known as the Buddha.

The Buddha

The son of a feudal king, Gautama left home to begin his search for truth at age 29. After 6 years of visiting several Hindu holy men and trying various means of asceticism, he had an experience known as the “enlightenment” while meditating beneath a large tree.

At that point, say his followers, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, or “the Enlightened One.”

Rejecting severe asceticism on the one hand and self-indulgence on the other, the Buddha proposed a “middle way” of mental and intellectual discipline and meditation.

Four Noble Truths

He explained his Enlightenment in what he called the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Existence is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by ignorant desire
  3. Suffering can be overcome by eliminating desire
  4. Desire can be eliminated only by meditation on the Eightfold Path

Today’s Buddhists share Gautama’s goal of escaping from desire and the suffering that they believe is part of the endless cycle of reincarnation. The reward — achieving Nirvana — is ultimately an escape into the infinite, where self is lost into a oneness with pure Being.

Buddhism is — through meditation, discipline, and ritual — a religion of works.

In fact, as the Buddha lay dying at age 80, his final words to his monks were, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

In Buddhism, there is no God of grace, nor did the Buddha believe in a creator-god or even in the human soul.

Divisions in the Faith

There are major divisions in Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that Buddha is a god who appeared on earth as Gautama Buddha and that his infinite good karma will save all of his followers. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches there are no gods.

Zen Buddhism, which originated in Japan, claims meditation is the way to salvation and poses such questions as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Tantric Buddhism of Tibet teaches that individuals can gain enlightenment by repeating a mantra.

Salvation?

How do Christians speak of salvation to Buddhists? For most Buddhists, “salvation” means not an eternal fellowship with their Lord or with those who have gone before, but an eternal oblivion and nothingness. The Bible, however, proclaims the good news that through Christ, God offers an eternity — not of oblivion and nothingness but the ultimate richness of fellowship with Him forever.

The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment

To achieve this goal of enlightenment, Buddhists follow the Eightfold Path. It is composed of:

Right speech
avoiding unkind words.

Right action
avoiding violence or vanity.

Right livelihood
seeking employment that causes no harm to others.

Right effort
using time wisely.

Right mindfulness
being compassionate.

Right concentration
meditating.

Right views
understanding the Four Noble Truths.

Right intentions

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Syncretism