Despite the widespread popularity of Buddhist practices (like meditation), there is little understanding of the complex philosophy behind Buddhism. The historical Buddha, Gautama, was a real person--a radical--who challenged the religious leaders of his day. Buddha For Beginners introduces the reader to the historical Buddha, to the ideas that made him change his life, and to the fascinating philosophical debates that engaged him and formed the core of Buddhism.
Buddha For Beginners compares Buddha's philosophy with those of his contemporaries, the later Buddhist schools, and Western Philosophy. The book includes a survey, distinguishing the philosophical differences among later schools of Buddhism, such as Theravada, Madhyamaika, Tantric, Zen, and others.
Buddha For Beginners is not a book you read, it is a book you experience. It makes you stop and close your eyes. Through some magical combination of words, drawings, and intuitive wisdom, Buddha For Beginners conveys not only the facts of Buddhism, but the peace, the silence...the feel of it. It is historically accurate, spiritually challenging, and the white spaces mean as much as the words.
About the Author
Stephen T. Asma, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago, where he currently holds the titles of Distinguished Scholar and Fellow of the LAS Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. In 2003, Dr. Asma was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. He is the author of several books including Why I Am a Buddhist (Hampton Roads, 2010), On Monsters, and The Gods Drink Whiskey. He frequently writes on topics that bridge the humanities and sciences, including articles for the Chicago Tribune, In These Times magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer, the Chronicle Review, Skepticmagazine, and Chicago Public Radio's news-magazine show "Eight-Forty-Eight".
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By Stephen T. Asma
For Beginners LLCCopyright © 2008 Stephen T. Asma
All rights reserved.
The Quest of the Young Prince
Just as there are many forms of Christianity in the West, so too there are many different manifestations of Buddhism in the East. And just as there was supposedly one Jesus who lived and taught in Galilee almost two thousand years ago, so again was there one historically real man who walked the northern Indian landscape and became the "Buddha" (Enlightened One). His name was Siddhartha Gautama and this book is primarily concerned with introducing him and his teachings rather than the whole spectrum of later Buddhist developments.
The West becomes enchante with Buddhism in what seem like cycles of searching spiritualism. In the nineteenth century, American and Continental Transcendentalists recognized the wisdom of Buddhism and sought to deal with it in some fashion. In the "Beat" era of the twentieth century, every bongo-playing poet had a copy of Buddhist scriptures in his pocket.
And lamentably, in this day of the "New Age," every occult thing from "crystal healing" to psychic spoon-bending isspuriously linked with Buddhism or "Eastern spirituality." Thankfully, the historical Buddha was not as silly as the recent superstitions that illegitimately intone his name.
Gautama was born in the Ganges Valley near Gorakhpur between Nepal to the north and the Indian city of Varanasi (Benares) to the south. Many scholars maintain that Lumbini, just inside the modern Nepalese border, is his true birthplace.
He was born in 563 BCE to king Suddhodana and his wife Maya (both from the tribe of Shakyas), and legend has it that when he was born, a "seer" foretold that he would one day leave his family to wander as an ascetic holy man. Suddhodana feared that the prophesy might come to pass and, after Maya's early death, he and Gautama's Aunt Prajapati sought to shelter the boy from the world outside the palace. Lest Gautama be lured away, the overprotective father and aunt surrounded the young prince with every kind of luxury and sought to insulate him from any images of suffering.
Being a prince and enjoying the benefits of such a station, Gautama undoubtedly received a fine education and, of course, a share of Brahmanic spiritual tutoring in the Upanishads and Vedic Hindu scriptures — but perhaps not too much spiritual tutoring since Suddhodana hoped for the kind of pragmatic and commonsensical heir that might one day succeed his rule.
Eventually, Gautama married his cousin Yosodhara and they had a son named Rahula.
The family lived peacefully and pleasurably, but in a state of happy ignorance about the world at large.
In time, however, the prince glimpsed the suffering and death of human beings beyond the palace walls, and this new awareness awakened a compassion for his fellow human beings and a distaste for his current sheltered privilege. Gautama's increasing concern with the suffering of human beings is crystallized in a legendary episode wherein he experiences for the first time an elderly and decrepit man, then a maimed individual ...
Though sources regarding Gautama's family life are scant, we have every reason to believe that he was a loving husband and father. Somewhere in the back of his mind, however, was a restless sense of incompleteness and an increasingly overpowering empathy for less fortunate people. How could he remain in his artificial bliss, he thought, when the world around him was suffering? And how could he continue to ignore the brute fact that his beloved wife and son would one day wither into suffering infirmity and death?
With the goal of discovering the truth about life and death, Gautama resolved to leave behind his home and family and to return only after he had procured the antidote. Late one night, when he was twenty-nine years old, Gautama gazed long upon his sleeping wife and child and then quietly departed from the palace. Thus did he relinquish everything he had known and loved up to that point in his life.
It is an interesting paradox that in order for Gautama to become enlightened and cure the puzzle of human suffering, he had to cause more of it by leaving his family.
The Vedic literature develops the basic pantheon of Hinduism. A trinity of gods — Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva — forms the hub of Hindu beliefs.
In the time of Gautama, the Vedic traditions had grown increasingly ritualistic, and a class of priests, known as Brahmins, had developed into the established peddlers of religious truth.
The Vedic tradition embraced an "anatomical" metaphor for a sanctified social order or caste system. The Brahmin or priest class represented the "head" of an organism; the warrior and the class of nobility represented the "arms"; the merchant and craft class represented the "thighs"; and the peasant class represented the "feet." It was imperative, according to Hindu thought, that individuals of each caste resign themselves to their respective stations in the cosmic order.
We know that Gautama became rather hostile towards the priest class and eventually preached against the common practices of ritual animal sacrifice and hollow ceremony. Gautama's social status cannot be entirely irrelevant to this issue as well, for there was a strong emphasis in the Upanishad literature, written in the centuries before and during Gautama's life, upon the warrior and princely class (Ksatriya) to which Gautama belonged. This emphasis indicates the general devaluation of the Brahmin class from their previous privilege, and it may give insight into the Buddha's eventual healthy distrust of authority.
The impact of the Upanishads upon Hinduism was to revitalize the pre-Aryan dimensions of the culture. The Aryan culture was more worldly than ascetic; their religious ceremonies, for example, exalted the use of intoxicants (soma) and stressed the power of sacrifice and prayer to manipulate the gods. But the idea that the gods could be bribed for gifts and intoned as curses upon enemies came to be challenged by the rationalism of some of the Upanishad writings, and the Buddha's eventual claim that human beings "save" themselves ultimately completed this rejection of prayerful groveling and sacrificial bargaining.
In addition to the distrust of priestly authority, the Upanishads reintroduced (probably from pre-Aryan times) an important non-Vedic doctrine into Hinduism: reincarnation or transmigration. Transmigration (samsara) is the idea that after death, one is reborn into a new physical body and life continues on. The laws that dictate what kind of rebirth one might expect are summarized as "karma" (consequences of actions).
Samsara and karma are basic principles of Hinduism, and as such the historical Buddha was more than familiar with them.
When Gautama left his home and family, he first sought spiritual guidance from a famous Brahmin named Arada Kalama. Arada taught that the self or "atman" was an eternal soul that one could eventually release, over many lifetimes, from the bondage of material existence. Apparently, the Buddha was unimpressed with the teachings of Arada and sought further instruction under the guru Udraka Ramaputra.
Udraka also taught that belief in an underlying spiritual "self" or soul was crucial to a healthy moral pathway. It was this underlying immaterial self that transmigrated after death, and if karma determined one's future life, then one would act morally upright now in order to protect one's self down the road. But again Gautama was unimpressed with this doctrine of a transmigrating substantial soul and left the Brahmins to search elsewhere.
The Jains were an offshoot of mainstream Hinduism, distinctly heterodox in the sense that they basically ignored the Vedas and the Brahmins who interpreted them. They embraced the doctrine of karma and the dualistic metaphysics of matter and spirit, but they moved away from ritual and scholarly religion in favor of moral action. Actually, for the Jain, the highest moral action is no action at all. This is because all life is a relation between souls and matter, and it is matter that is ruled by chains of karmic causality. To act at all, say you cook up a steak for dinner, is to set in motion some chain of events that will come back at you and thereby keep you in the game of material life. According to the Jain, the killing and eating of this animal has created a causal chain of pain that will inexorably lead back to its originator. In this way, one's spiritual self cannot get free of one's material (karma-determined) self. The solution to this predicament, according to Jainism, is to act as little as possible; only in this way will one be released from the cycles of causality and pain. The lifestyle of the Jain is monastic and incredibly austere. Only through austere non-action can one annihilate karmic matter and thereby allow the soul to rise to its natural state of tranquil bliss.
Gautama adopted this ascetic lifestyle and through self-denial and non-action he sought to learn the truth about the human condition. Like other extreme ascetics, he probably filtered his drinking water to avoid accidentally ingesting and killing small life forms; he may have worn a breathing mask to stop the inadvertent breathing of insects; he walked carefully to avoid stepping on a life; and he starved himself as a negation of the bodily drives that lead to karmic imprisonment. The ultimate goal of this life is to have the self-control and discipline to simply fast oneself to death.
For six years Gautama practiced ascetic self-denial and withered to a walking corpse. One day, while bathing in the river, his strength failed him and he collapsed into the water. If not for an overhanging branch, Gautama would have drowned from his inability to overcome the gentle current.
After regaining the shore, he collapsed and lay suffering until a young woman named Sujata discovered him and returned with nourishment.
On that day Gautama realized that his life of austerity had revealed no deep truths to his searching mind; in fact, the starvation and dehydration had only distracted and diverted him from spiritual understanding. He vowed to lay down the life of extreme asceticism and henceforth to nourish the body as a part of the true path. The life of self-negation was as extreme and unproductive as his previous life of incessant luxury.
Finally, Gautama came to a tree and resolved to sit beneath it and meditate his way to perfect truth. Using his own meditation technique of mindfulness (sati), Gautama fell into a deep trance state. After many hours he was able to detach from his senses, his emotions, and his desires. Next he entered a state of pure inner consciousness and awareness, and ultimately a nonconscious ecstasy. In that ecstasy he grasped the elusive cause of suffering, the pathway around suffering, and the nature of supreme peace (nirvana). That day Gautama became the Buddha (the enlightened one).
The Buddha went on to share his insights, gathering large numbers of disciples throughout the Varanasi area. He taught them the dharma, the path or system of correct living that would free them from suffering (dukkha). He argued that enlightenment was available to everyone. Neither a priest class nor a transcendent God bestowed truth upon the searcher. Attaining nirvana is ultimately within the power of all human beings; human beings save themselves through the highly disciplined path that Gautama first discovered. Subsequently, it is not the Buddha himself that is of paramount importance; rather, it is the path itself.CHAPTER 2
The Wheel of Becoming
The relationship between the Buddha's philosophy and Hinduism is complex. When the traditional mythology of the Vedas was examined and developed in the Upanishads, Indian philosophy became focused upon the nature of Brahman (God as "first cause"). And more important, Hindu thinkers attempted to articulate the relationship between Brahman and each individual person's soul or self — in Sanskrit, "atman." Are we, as individual persons, related to the Godhead in some way?
The symbol for "Om," the Hindu mantra representing the imperishable sound of the universe
God, in the Upanishads, is the creative originating principle for the entire cosmos. All of nature is in a relentless state of flux or becoming. Animals grow old and perish, seasons come and go, political empires pass away, solar systems arise and collapse ...
... and bell-bottoms go in and out of fashion. All these things make up the ever-changing world of "Becoming," but these are really only manifestations of the all-encompassing reality. The all-encompassing foundation is Being itself or Brahman, which is the source of all created things. Underlying all the changes of the natural world lies the changeless essential reality of God.
The relationship between Brahman and Nature is different from the Western conception. Most Western theologians (with some few exceptions, such as Spinoza) picture God as "outside" the cosmos, transcending above and beyond His created object (the universe). Like a skilled watchmaker who stands apart from her created timepiece, God stands apart from the created cosmos. In the West, God might occasionally step into the mundane realm to wind His clock — perhaps making a statue or two weep miraculously — but generally speaking, the Deity is unsullied by the material world.
In the Hindu tradition, however, God is not only the antecedent and transcendent world-maker, Brahman is also the world itself. The natural world around us that we encounter on a daily basis is not simply God's created artifact — it is Brahman itself. The natural world is just a manifestation of God and the two cannot really be separated.
More important for understanding the Buddha's philosophical revolution is the related Hindu concept of atman or "soul." Just as there is this permanent essential reality underlying Nature called Being or Brahman, there is also an unchanging permanent dimension of human beings — namely, atman. The principal lesson of the Upanishads is that both the fluctuating cosmos and the ever-changing material human body are only distracting veils (maya) over the important spiritual reality. In the case of human beings, there is a changeless soul or "ego" that provides the continuity beneath the fleeting material person.
Atman, though unseen and unheard, is the "ruling" part of the individual creature. It is this subtle essence — this immutable core self — that makes up the true self. And in a famous phrase from the Upanishads, the sage Aruni repeatedly explains the atman to Svetaketu and proclaims "That art thou" (tat tvam asi).
A person is not their color, or their blood, or their flesh, or even their brain. These are all ephemeral compared with atman.
In other words, according to Hindu philosophy, one shouldn't get hung up on the trivial trials and tribulations of one's daily life, for all of it will pass. But the core self will always remain through this life and the next and the next.
It is the self or ego that migrates from one body and lifetime to another. Karma is both produced (kartr) and received (bhoktr) throughout different life spans by this eternal self — it is the "agent" and "patient" of karma. Much like the Western concept of an afterlife, there is something psychologically soothing about the idea that one's essential self will live beyond this lifetime.
The transcendent unmanifested Brahman does not need to achieve liberation from ignorance, because it is already completely perfected and free. But the eternally Divine God seeks to express itself through many conscious selves because in this way it is able to rise above ignorance. As the cosmic play unfolds, human egos continue to conquer the challenges of living and realize self-knowledge. With this conquering of ignorance, we are reunited with the Universal Consciousness and this saga is one of the infinite expressions that flow from Brahman.
The aim of the Cosmic Dance is to celebrate itself.
Having explored the basic metaphysics of Hindu philosophy, we can better understand both the similarities with and the radical differences from Buddha's teachings. The most shocking break from previous thinking is the Buddha's rejection of the concept of "self."
Excerpted from Buddha by Stephen T. Asma. Copyright © 2008 Stephen T. Asma. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
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Table of Contents
A New Introduction,
Chapter I The Quest of the Young Prince,
Chapter II The Wheel of Becoming,
Chapter III Nirvana and the Noble Truths,
Chapter IV The Evolution of Buddhism,
Some Further Reading,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Don't be fooled by either the title or the illustrations. This book does a superior job of putting Buddhism in the context of history and other religous thought. It provides some of the finest explanations of some hard-to-understand concepts.