The term Buddha literally means “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” Buddhism refers to a practice that seeks a path to become awakened. The focus of Buddhism is Oneself, not in a self-centered manner, but to reflect within oneself, instead of looking critically at others and to realize that the source of suffering and unhappiness is our ego self. Seeing and recognizing the ego self as the cause of our suffering is the beginning of the journey beyond the ego self, to the world of oneness and awakening.
Buddhism began in India nearly 2,600 years ago with a man, Siddhartha Gautama, who looked deeply into himself. Through such deep introspection, he came to realize a profound truth. He came to see the world around him beyond the ego-centered viewpoint. This insight allowed him to see the great Oneness of life, the interconnectedness of all beings, animate and inanimate. It was the insight of great wisdom and compassion, the contents of enlightenment.
He is known as Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha (“Sage of the Shakya”). Gautama is his family name, and the Shakya are the clan of people he belonged to in ancient India. Through his enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha, the “Sage of the Shakya.” After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha shared his insight and teachings with the people of India for the next 45 years.
The teachings of the historical Buddha spread throughout India, and then across the Asian continent over the course of these past 2,600 years. Buddhism flowed into China, Korea, and Japan. It flowed into Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam. Over the history of Buddhism, various streams or traditions have emerged. These traditions may share common Buddhist practices, and may also differ in how they practice or interpret the teachings. Now the flow of the Dharma is reaching and permeating the thought and lives of people in the West.
Buddhism has been carried and transmitted over the many centuries because of its timeless and enduring message to the spiritual needs of human beings. The Buddha’s teachings seek to help all beings find true peace, happiness, and well-being. It does not require that we follow doctrines, beliefs, or creeds, but simply encourages us to listen to the Dharma. And if we find them to be true through our own life experiences, then to follow them.
All beings seek happiness, but we don’t always know where to find it. Buddhism teaches us that we look for it in all the wrong places. True happiness is not something we can find outside of ourselves, but it is something that we can discover within ourselves. The way of life of Buddhism is this unfolding of the real meaning of happiness, the real meaning of our lives and our existence. It enables us to live a dynamic and fulfilling life, a life of deep gratitude, reverence, and humility.
Buddhism challenges us to reflect on our life and look at how we are pursuing happiness, and how we deal with our problems in life. The Buddhist approach is not to run away or escape from our problems but to embrace the totality of our life experiences.
By facing and accepting the challenges of life, we learn how to see life from beyond our self-centered perspective. This change in perspective frees us from many self-created problems, allowing us to live a truly happy and meaningful life.
NON-SELF. When the Buddha awakened to enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he saw beyond his ego self, which melted in oneness with all of life, with all beings, with the entire world around him.
IMPERMANENCE. The Buddha taught that all things are constantly changing. This is a simple truth to understand intellectually, but it’s much harder to understand emotionally or spiritually. Impermanence means that we have to let our children grow up and be themselves. Impermanence means we have to accept the loss of a loved one. Impermanence also means that our state of suffering won’t last forever. When we find ourselves in darkness, there are brighter days ahead.
NIRVANA. The Buddha’s awakening experience opened his heart and mind to a state of true peace and tranquility, referred to as nirvana. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition sees ultimate oneness between nirvana and this world of samsara, or cycle of life in this world. Samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara. Nirvana is not a geographic state somewhere “out there,” but it is the world around us, if we have the awakened eyes to see it or the heart and mind to sense it.
Fundamental to all schools of Buddhism is to take refuge in the Three Treasures.
Buddha. Our teacher.
Dharma. The Buddha’s teachings.
Sangha. The community of Buddhists.
The wonderful Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that these three treasures are interdependent and cannot exist without each other. The Buddha needs the Sangha to be the Buddha. Without the Dharma to transmit, there is no Buddha or Sangha. Without the Buddha as a teacher and guide, a Sangha cannot truly exist and practice. Without the Buddha to expound the teachings and a Sangha to hear and receive them, there is no Dharma.
The first and most profound teaching of the Buddha is the Four Noble Truths.