Introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gotama, who lived in and around the Ganges Plain during the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Heir to the throne of the Sakyan kingdom, at the age of 29, Siddhartha renounced his royal heritage to search for a means of ending the sense of dissatisfaction and futility of which he had become acutely aware.
Having tried and discarded all the approaches to spiritual practice then available, he discovered a radically different path, a middle way between the extremes of indulgence and asceticism. This brought him the enlightenment he sought; he was known thereafter as 'the Buddha', the enlightened one.
The Buddha summarised his teaching in four statements known as the noble truths: Life in the relative world is fundamentally unsatisfactory and although happiness can be found in the world, all things that give rise to it - possessions, people, wealth, desirable mental states - inevitably age, decay and die. Our sense of dissatisfaction is not something that falls upon us out of the blue - we become dissatisfied whenever we want life to be different from the way it is right now. There is an ending of all dissatisfaction, all suffering, and all distress - Nirvana or Enlightenment. This goal is attained by following the Buddhist path, which comprises the perfection of ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom.
Having established itself in northern India during the 5th century BC, Buddhism was contained within the subcontinent for about a hundred years. The teaching spread to Nepal by the 4th century BC, and reached Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Central Asia by the 2nd century BC. The later spread of the religion occurred partly through trade and partly through the work of missionaries. By the time of the birth of Christ, Buddhism was established in China, reaching Korea by the end of the 3rd century. The increased trade in the East Asia at this time gave greater impetus to the spread of the religion, and by the 7th century Buddhists were to be found in Java, Sumatra, Japan, Tibet, Thailand and Myanmar. Further westward expansion was halted by Islamic conquests but conversion still persisted; Bhutan, for instance, was not reached until the 9th century but today is one of the most strongly Buddhist countries in the world.
The spread of Buddhism over a period of over 1500 years led to the development of three different strands:
Buddhism is not a centralised religion with centralised institutions, although it does have a hierarchical form of organisation within each of the three main groups (see above). In countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, where the Government and a large part of the population are Buddhist, the state is very closely associated with the religion and its organisation and institutions tend to be more formalised. In other countries, such as Japan, the religion exists within a looser framework.
Visitors are welcome to attend the many festivals, which are an integral part of Buddhist life. The major obstacle can be finding out the date, as these are scheduled by the lunar calendar, often take place on the full moon, and therefore change annually.
Wesak (Buddha Day) - Commemorating the Buddha's Enlightenment (as well as his Birthday and Death). It is celebrated in the Theravada countries around the full moon in May. Houses and streets are decorated and roads are packed with processions. Long lines of monks and worshippers throng the temples either meditating or listening to religious discourses.
Tooth Ceremony - takes place annually in Kandy, Sri Lanka, lasting for about a week in July or August. Up to 100 elephants take part.
Songkran - Celebrated in Thailand during April, this 3-day festival involves water-splashing, the freeing of fish, fighting kites, dancing, etc.
Hana Matsuri - (the flower festival in April),
Jodo-e (December) and Nehan-e (February) are celebrated in Japan to commemorate respectively the Birth, Enlightenment and Death of the Buddha.
Chinese New Year - The main festival celebrated in China, the Vajrayana countries and by the Chinese populations in Malaysia, Taiwan (China), Hong Kong and Hawaii. This is actually a pre-Buddhist festival to mark the beginning of spring. It usually falls in February or late January and lasts for up to a week.
The third day is the Feast of Lanterns when the long painted dragons dance in the streets. Vajrayana countries also have very colourful festivals and ceremonies, with demon dancing and the blowing of enormous long horns by brightly-hatted monks. The dates for these festivals are variable, so it is best to enquire nearer the time when more information will be available.
London Buddhist Centre
51 Roman Road
London E2 OHU
Tel: (020) 8981 1225. Fax: (020) 8980 1960.
Losang Dragpa Centre
(Buddhist College and Meditation Centre)
Todmorden, OL14 7JJ
Telephone Number: 01706 812247
Leeds Buddhist Group Information Service
Information on Buddhist Organisations in Calderdale and the North of England