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An Introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince of the Shakya kingdom (northern India), who lived over 2,500 years ago. At age 29, he renounced his royal life and left his family in search of the Truth of the Universe. After six years of hard practice, at age 35, he attained Enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. Having a complete understanding of the Truth of the Universe, Siddhartha became a "Buddha", a Sanskrit term meaning "Enlightened One", and has since been known as Shakyamuni Buddha. For forty-five years until entering Nirvana at age 80, Shakyamuni Buddha taught others the means by which they could attain Enlightenment and they themselves become Buddhas.
Buddha's teaching are great and varied, but central to all teachings are the concepts of karma, rebirth, compassion and wisdom. Some of Buddhism's most important teachings are embodied in the Four Noble Truths, the first sermon preached by Buddha. The Four Noble Truths reveal the truth about suffering, its source, its cessation and the road to Enlightenment. Simply stated, these Truths are as follows:
I. In life there will be suffering;
II. Suffering is caused by greed, hatred and ignorance;
III. Suffering can be ended by annihilating its causes and attaining Nirvana (meaning extinction of greed, hatred and ignorance and freedom from rebirth; Enlightenment;
IV. The Way leading to the cessation of suffering is known as the Middle Way, also known as the Eight-fold Path. This consists of:
1) Right Understanding;
2) Right Thought;
3) Right Speech;
4) Right Action;
5) Right Livelihood;
6) Right Effort;
7) Right Mindfulness;
8) Right Concentration.
The Buddha taught that the entire Universe operates under definite cosmic laws. These laws work the same for everyone. There are no exceptions. The law of karma states that every thought and action is a cause, which produces its corresponding effect. Our current condition is the result of our past deeds and thoughts and our future existence will be the result of our current actions and thoughts. If we are no satisfied with our conditions in life, we can improve them by improving our thoughts and actions.
Because of karmic forces, there is a cycle of rebirths. Depending on the karmic deeds from a past life, one can be born into different realms of existence - hellish, animal, human or heavenly realms. Obviously, to be born into a human or heavenly is preferable to a hellish or animal realm, but so long as one is in the cycle of life and death (rebirths), there will be suffering. Suffering will be eliminated when one terminates the cycle of rebirths by following the Eight-fold Path. Through this method of self-development, one can cultivate and perfect compassion and wisdom that will lead to Enlightenment (Nirvana), freedom from rebirth and everlasting peace and happiness.
While Shakyamuni Buddha has been the only living Buddha in this world, he taught that there are other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in other worlds. For example, Amida Buddha presides over the Western Paradise of Eternal Bliss and the Medicine Buddha presides over the Eastern Paradise of Azure Gems. In Chinese temples, one will often see these three Buddhas together. Amida and Medicine Buddhas will honored to the right and left of Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha also spoke of many Bodhisattvas (beings, who have attained Enlightenment, but differed Nirvana in order to help all others reach Enlightenment).
Great Bodhisattvas include Kwan Yin (representing great mercy), Mansjuri (great wisdom), Samantabhadra (great resolve), and Ksitigarbha (great vows). Because of their great compassion, these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have vowed to help all those who call upon them. Thus, they are often honored in many temples.
Wisdom and Compassion:
Two of the most important goals in Buddhism are the cultivation and perfection of Wisdom and Compassion. Only from a foundation of great Compassion, an altruistic love and respect for all living beings, can one begin to develop Wisdom, a transcendent understanding of what is really important in life and the Universal Truth. Wisdom once perfected is the attainment of Enlightenment, Buddhahood (Nirvana).
Because of Compassion, many Buddhists are vegetarians in order to respect and now kill living beings. The laws of karma and rebirth tell us that we too maybe reborn into other forms of life, including the chicken that is on the dinner table. Whereas we want to have a life free from harm, we should aspire to show the same respect to other living beings as we seek in our life and future lives. For this reason, at temple celebrations, vegetarian meals are often served to promote compassion and to celebrate life.