YOUR ESSENTIAL GUIDE
A laughing Dalai Lama. A lotus flower. Peaceful-looking people sitting on cushions. This is what often comes to mind when we think about Buddhism. But it’s a lot more than that.
Buddhism is one of the world’s five major religions, along with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. It’s practiced all over the world, with five hundred million people calling themselves Buddhists, including an estimated three to four million in North America.
Buddhism has been around a long time. It was founded in the 5th century BCE by the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama, who would become known as the Buddha (“the Awakened One”). Siddhartha wasn’t a god. He was simply an ordinary person who found profound wisdom. Because there is no godhead or permanent soul in Buddhism, it is unique among the major religions. Because of that, some people say that Buddhism isn’t a religion at all, arguing that it’s more of a philosophy, way of life, or even a “science of mind.”
Buddhism has no “central church” or leadership — it is made up of different traditions and schools around the world, each with its own philosophies, practices, and organizations. All, however, are based on the central teachings the Buddha delivered 2,600 years ago, most notably the Buddha’s first teaching, which came to be known as the Four Noble Truths.
Over the centuries, Buddhism spread throughout Asia, adapting to different cultures and developing new schools. Today there are Buddhists throughout the world. The most prominent traditions of Buddhism in the West include Theravada, Zen, Vajrayana, Nichiren, and Pure Land. Leading Buddhist teachers today include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, and Insight Meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.
The tale of the Buddha’s awakening is a fascinating story. The Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha, living in a palace in northern India full of all the pleasures a human could ever crave. He did not know what it was to suffer. Yet one day, on an outing in the marketplace, he saw people on the street experiencing old age, disease, and death. He also saw a spiritual master who did not appear to suffer because of these.
Thus began the young prince’s quest to solve the problem of suffering. Against his father’s wishes, Siddhartha left the palace and journeyed far and wide to find answers to life’s greatest question. He tried to find insight through difficult practices, such as denying himself all pleasure and undergoing austerities. But none of these practices answered his central question: What is the cause of suffering and its solution?
Finally, when he was offered a bowl of rice, after so much fasting, Siddhartha realized there was a path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial, which came to be called “The Middle Way.” He sat down to meditate under a tree in present-day Bodhgaya, India and vowed not to get up until all the truths he sought came to him.
According to myth, he faced an evil demon called Mara, which some people think of as a representation of our “inner demons.” Mara tried to tempt Siddhartha and to attack him, but Siddhartha was unmoved. Finally, Mara mocked Siddhartha, asking “Who are you to claim the throne of enlightenment?” In response, it is said that Siddhartha touched the ground, and the Earth itself roared, “I am his witness.”
At that moment, Siddhartha stopped all struggle, both worldly and spiritual, and saw that everything is perfect as it is. With his realization, Siddhartha earned the title “Buddha” — meaning “awakened one” — when he awoke from the ignorance that causes suffering and realized that all beings suffer only because they struggle to be something different from what they really are — buddhas. This was the moment of his enlightenment.
Because the Buddha was not a god or deity, Buddhism teaches that everyone can become enlightened. If he could do it, so can we!
After reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha taught about the cessation of suffering for the rest of his life. He explained that the cause and solution to suffering are within us. This teaching came to be known as the Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha taught his followers his insights, called dharma; established the Buddhist monastic community; challenged many of the societal norms of his time; and left behind a large body of teachings. Perhaps the Buddha’s most important teaching was that all beings have the capacity to awaken to their true nature.
After his death, the Buddha’s students passed down his teachings orally. After five hundred years, many of the teachings were finally recorded in the Pali Canon. Eventually, the dharma spread around the world. The Buddha’s teachings still inspire us today to recognize the truth of suffering, understand the cause of suffering, and follow the path of wisdom, mindfulness, and right living that brings suffering to an end.
It’s jokingly said that “no one comes to Buddhism because they’re perfectly happy,” because Buddhism addresses the fundamental human problem—suffering and how to end it.
People come to Buddhism for a variety of reasons—seeking relief from suffering, of course, but also loving-kindness, compassion, and new ways of experiencing life. One big reason people are attracted to Buddhism is that it encourages questioning and independent thought. You don’t have to accept Buddhist teachings on faith—you should test them against your own experience.
Buddhist teachings can be applied to all the challenges of life today. Whether it’s stress, racing thoughts, agonizing loss, or physical pain, Buddhist meditation techniques offer us relief from our suffering. They are about working with our emotions, not denying or suppressing them. Over time, Buddhist practice can help us let go of our habitual patterns and the pain they cause. When we are freed from old thoughts, emotions, and projections, our mind becomes open and clear and our heart becomes warm and loving.
If you’re interested in spirituality but leery of the problems associated with conventional religion, Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod has summarized ten reasons why Buddhism might be of benefit:
Buddhist meditation gives us time to slow down and wake up. Whether you’re trying meditation for the first time or just want a refresher, you can’t go wrong with this easy-to-follow meditation.
Basic breath meditation represents the very foundation of all of Buddhist meditation’s varied forms. Try different forms of meditation and learn about why we meditate with the Lion’s Roar Complete Guide to Meditation.
If you’re interested in Buddhism — whether as a beginner or a long-time practitioner — you probably have a lot of queries. Here, you’ll find answers to frequently-asked Buddhist questions.
BUDDHISM BY THE NUMBERS
Buddhism is famous for its use of numbered lists that help us understand it. Here, you’ll find explanations of some of the most important of these, how they connect, and why they’re important.
Did you know that Buddhism first took root in North America more than 150 years ago? When Chinese immigrants arrived in the mid-1800s, they brought their belief systems with them, including Buddhism. American tourists also played a role, occasionally bringing Buddhist texts and relics back from their travels. Then, in 1893, the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago officially established Buddhism in North America when several prominent Buddhist teachers joined spiritual leaders from around the globe.
Since then, Buddhism has flourished in North America. Today, there are between four and six million Buddhists practicing various forms of Buddhism. While all Buddhist traditions address the universal problem of human suffering, each one has its own history, teachings, and practices. Here’s a brief introduction to the most popular schools of Buddhism in the West.
The word Zen is the Japanese version of the Chinese word Ch’an, which means “meditation.” For centuries, Zen has been passed down from master to student through strenuous, intimate training. Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen in China, famously described it as:
The contemporary teacher Norman Fischer describes Zen as a “stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase Buddhism.” Zen first appeared in North America in 1893 when Soyen Shaku attended the World Parliament of Religions, but it didn’t gain popularity until the 1950s, when prominent figures in the Beat movement began to practice Zen. In the decades that followed, a number of Japanese teachers arrived in America and established flourishing centers.
Today, the two main sub-schools of Japanese Zen — Soto and Rinzai — are both popular in North America. Especially outside of Japan, the two borrow from each other, but generally it’s said that, while both prize zazen, or Zen meditation, Soto Zen emphasizes the formless meditation approach of shikantaza, while Rinzai also includes the contemplative inquiry of koan practice.
Notable Zen communities in North America include the San Francisco Zen Center community, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi; the White Plum Asanga, founded by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and the Kwan Um School of Zen, founded by the Korean master Seung Sahn.
THERAVADA & INSIGHT MEDITATION
Theravada is the Buddhist tradition predominant in Southeast Asia, where it is practiced by both monastics and laypeople. Theravada draws primarily on the Pali Canon, the largest collection of teachings attributed to the Buddha. Of all the Buddhist schools, its teachings and practices are considered the closest to what the Buddha himself taught.
The most popular Theravada practice in America is vipassana, which is often called Insight Meditation. This involves calming the mind and then focusing our attention on what we experience moment by moment in order to develop insight into the true nature of reality. What the meditator discovers is that all things are defined by suffering, impermanence, and non-self, which are known as the three marks of existence.
Theravada places a strong emphasis on ethical living, and many practitioners choose to strictly follow Buddhism’s five precepts. Another popular Theravada practice is loving-kindness, or metta in Pali, which is an offering of goodwill to ourselves and all beings. This is the first of the positive mind-states practiced in Theravada known as the four immeasurables (brahmaviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
In 1975, the well-known American teachers Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein — who studied with Sayadaw U Pandita, S. N. Goenka, and other influential Theravadin masters — founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Today, Insight Meditation is among the most accessible and popular forms of meditation in North America. The basic mindfulness technique practiced in secular mindfulness movements is largely based on Insight Meditation. There are Insight Meditation centers and communities across North America, including Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
There are also many Asian American Theravada communities, such as the Sri Lankan community Mahamevnawa and the Cambodian community Wat Kiryvongsa Bopharam. The Thai Forest Tradition is a revived monastic form of Theravada Buddhism from Thailand that has communities in North America and elsewhere. Monks and nuns strictly follow the Vinaya, an ancient code of conduct for monastics, and live in kutis (meditation huts) that surround a central monastery where they gather to chant, eat, and participate in group rituals.
Vajrayana Buddhism is the school that is predominant in the Himalayan region. Also known as tantric Buddhism, Vajrayana developed in northern India, where it incorporated a number of Hindu and yogic practices. While most schools outside of the Himalayas have been extinguished, Shingon remains a living Vajrayana lineage in Japan.
Although Vajrayana is best-known for its elaborate rituals and esoteric practices, it is actually a complete, three-stage path to enlightenment. In the first stage, practitioners achieve personal liberation through the practices of mindfulness and awareness. In the second stage, they become bodhisattvas through practices that develop wisdom and compassion. Finally, in the tantric stage, they undertake yogic and visualization practices that can lead to full enlightenment in one lifetime.
Today, Vajrayana is most commonly associated with Tibet. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are four major lineages.
There is significant crossover among the four schools, and many teachers have roles in multiple lineages. In recent centuries there has been a movement of inter-sectarian dialogue and collaboration, known as Rimé.
Today, the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism are well-represented in North America, and some of the best-known teachers come from the Tibetan tradition, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the American nun Pema Chödrön. Among the prominent communities are Shambhala, founded by the late Kagyu–Nyingma teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche; the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, founded by the Gelug teachers Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche; and Nalandabodhi, founded by the Kagyu master Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.
THICH NHAT HANH’S PLUM VILLAGE TRADITION
The Plum Village tradition was established by Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the most celebrated Buddhist teachers of our time, Thich Nhat Hanh trained in the Thiền (Vietnamese Zen) tradition and was greatly influenced by Theravada and Pure Land Buddhism.
In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh established the Order of Interbeing. This order is a thriving community committed to practicing at least sixty days of mindfulness per year and adhering to the fourteen mindfulness trainings, which Thich Nhat Hanh composed as the modern version of the traditional rules Buddhist monastics have lived by for millennia.
Soon after establishing the Order of Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam for what he thought would be a few short weeks, but which turned into forty long years. Neither Communist nor anti-Communist, he was exiled by the Vietnamese government because, in advocating for peace, he refused to take sides in the war. Thich Nhat Hanh sought asylum in France, where he established Plum Village, now the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe. Plum Village aims to be a community where people can learn to live in harmony with one another and with the earth. Visitors are encouraged to be mindful throughout the day, no matter if they’re eating, walking, working, or simply enjoying a cup of tea.
Plum Village has practice centers and communities around the world, including Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, Deer Park Monastery in California, and Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi.
Pure Land is one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the world. Diverse in practice and organization, the Pure Land schools of Buddhism are all grounded in the story of Amitabha Buddha. This buddha was once a bodhisattva named Dharmakara who refused enlightenment until he could liberate all beings. He did this by creating a realm of peace and happiness beyond the ignorant suffering world. According to myth, anyone can join him in this “Pure Land” and attain enlightenment by calling upon his name.
The main forms of practice in Pure Land Buddhism are chanting Amitabha’s name or visualizing his form. For some schools of Pure Land Buddhism, these are meditations that cleanse the mind and reveal its inherent buddhanature. For others, this practice draws the attention of Amitabha and enables them to be taken to his Pure Land. Still others chant Amitabha’s name as a form of thanksgiving, which arises when they become aware of all that they receive as they walk the path of awakening.
The largest school of Buddhism in Japan is Jodo Shinshu, also known as Shin Buddhism, which was founded by the thirteenth-century Japanese monk Shinran Shonin. A well-known branch of Shin is the Buddhist Churches of America, which has existed for more than a century, making it the oldest Buddhist tradition in North America. Pure Land traditions from Vietnam, Korea, and China are also popular in North America, and Pure Land beliefs and practices are also common in Tibetan Buddhism.
“Read more on LionsRoar.com: “The History of Pure Land”; “This Land Is Pure Land: The Buddhist Churches of America””
The Japanese Buddhist tradition of Nichiren includes all schools that trace their origins back to the letters of Nichiren Shonin, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist priest. All of these schools believe the Lotus Sutra was the Buddha’s most important teaching, and chanting its Japanese title, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, is considered a sacred practice.
There are two basic divisions within the Nichiren tradition: the Shoretsu and Itchi lineages. While the Shoretsu lineage only chants and studies the Lotus Sutra’s second and sixteenth chapters, the Itchi lineage reads, studies, and chants the entire text.
Within the Shoretsu lineage are the schools of Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai International (SGI). SGI is very active in social causes, including a collaboration with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
Within the Itchi lineage is the school of Nichiren Shu. Practitioners of Nichiren Shu vow to the Buddha and to Nichiren Shonin that they will cultivate peace within themselves and in the world by spreading the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. There are currently fifteen active temples in the Order of North America, not including Hawaii.
Founded in 1916, Won Buddhism was started by the Korean teacher known as Sotaesan. The word “won” is Korean for “circle.” Above every altar in Won Buddhist temples, there is a simple circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth of reality. It also represents the buddhanature within all of us that is perfect, complete, and selfless. In order to manifest this true nature, Won Buddhists train the mind with meditation and mindfulness to realize the infinite grace they can receive and give. This is considered the key to a happy and successful life.
Gender equality was important to Sotaesan, as was respecting the perspectives of both monastics and everyday practitioners. He believed that anyone can attain enlightenment, regardless of background or education. He resolved to make the dharma applicable to everyday life, simplifying Buddhist scriptures and practices by removing anything considered outdated or too complicated. Won Buddhism also incorporates elements of Taoism and Confucianism. It is said that Sotaesan predicted the coming of modern materialism, which is why striking a balance between material and spiritual power is considered a founding concept of Won Buddhism.