History of religion

On the paths of the enlightened one

(Published in Grail World 13/1999)

Buddhism is currently something of a "fashion religion" in our latitudes. Many Europeans are drawn to the ancient teachings of this world religion; disappointed they turn away from Christianity and seek enlightenment in the wisdom of Asia, in immortal teachings from ancient times. East Asia is inconceivable without Buddhism in its quiet, often inconspicuous and mostly peaceful work. There, as in many other countries beyond Asia, the teachings of the Buddha have left an indelible mark. But hardly anything really reliable is known about the life of the "enlightened one". There are many legends about him - like all the greats of antiquity - so that fama and historical truth can hardly be separated. Here, according to various sources, the life of the Buddha is described, which can be considered historically probable.

“That Jesus died upright on the cross while Buddha passed away lying down - doesn't that symbolize the fundamental difference in more than one way between Buddhism and Christianity? 'Upright' means activity, disputability, exclusivity, while 'horizontal' means peace, tolerance and generosity. "
The Japanese Buddhist scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966).

According to ancient traditions, it was around 566 BC. A son was born to the country nobleman Suddhodana and his wife, Princess Maya, in Kapilavastu in today's Terai (Nepal). He was given the name Siddharta ("He who has achieved the goal"), but he was mostly called Gautama or Sakyamuni, because he belonged to the Sakya clan from the Gautama family.

This prince's son grew up in luxury. He had a carefree youth and married Princess Yosodara at the age of 16, who gave him a son named Rahula. But this luxury life did not satisfy Siddharta. Against the express orders of his father, he leaves the palace for the first time at the age of 29 and gets on a car to see more of the world. Here he encounters human suffering that was previously alien to him: an old man, a sick person and a dead person. Finally he meets a mendicant monk who is looking for immortality.

Siddharta does return to his father's palace, but the misery of the world has shaken him so much that soon afterwards he leaves his wife and child forever at night. According to Indian tradition, he shaves his head, puts on a saffron-colored toga and becomes a mendicant monk.

For six years he sought answers to his questions through meditation and asceticism. First he studied with yoga teachers in the Kingdom of Maghda, of which King Bimbisara later became one of his patrons. Then he wants to kill his flesh in company with five other ascetics and starves to the brink of starvation. In vain. To the horror of his companions, he ended in 532 BC The strict asceticism, strengthens his body through good food and baths. Finally, he meditates under a fig tree (the famous Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment) and vows to remain there in meditation until knowledge is given to him. In a vision the armies of the evil Mara harass him with storms and thunderstorms and threaten him with rocks and flaming swords. Mara himself ("He who kills", ie the devil) appears and offers him all the riches of the world. But Siddharta remains unmoved and continues to deepen until it illuminates on the 49th day and thus becomes a Buddha.

The sermon of Benares
According to tradition, the Buddha's work began with an address to five ascetics in the Isipatana zoo (today Sarnath) near Benares. This “sermon from Benares” is referred to in the Buddhist tradition as “setting the wheel of the law in motion”. It contains the basic ideas of the Buddha's teaching.
“There are two ends, you monks, those who have renounced world life must stay away. Which are they?
Here life in lust, lust and indulgence: that is low, mean, unspiritual, ignoble, does not lead to the goal.
There exercise of self-torture: it is suffering, ignoble, does not lead to the goal.
Keeping away from these two ends, you monks, the perfected one has discovered the path that lies in the middle, that creates gaze and creates knowledge, which leads to peace, to cognition, to enlightenment, to nirvana ...
This, monks, is the noble truth of suffering. Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, illness is suffering, to be united with what is unloved is suffering, to be separated from love is suffering, not attaining what one desires is suffering, in short: the five kinds of objects of being grasped are suffering.
This, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is thirst that leads to rebirth, along with joy and desire, finding joy here and there: the thirst for lust, the thirst for becoming, the thirst for transience.
This, you monks, is the noble truth of the abolition of suffering: the abolition of this thirst through the utter annihilation of desire, letting it go, ridding yourself of it, breaking away from it, granting no place.
This, monks, is the noble truth of the way to the abolition of suffering: this is the noble eightfold path which is called: right faith, right decision, right word, right deed, right life, right striving, right remembrance, right Immerse yourself ...
And as long as I, you monks, did not have true knowledge and vision of these four noble truths in full clarity, as long as, you monks, I also did not have the consciousness that I had gained the highest enlightenment in the world of Brahma.
But since I, you monks, had true knowledge and vision in full clarity of these four noble truths, from then on, you monks, I was aware that I had gained the highest enlightenment in the world of gods and men.
And knowledge dawned on me, and sight dawned on me: the inalienable redemption of the spirit is mine; this is the last birth; there is no longer rebirth. "
From Hermann Oldenburg: "Reden des Buddha", Kurt Wolff, Munich, 1922

Enlightenment brings him three realizations:
* Memories of previous existences.
* The knowledge of birth and death.
* The certainty that he has finally overcome ignorance and passion, which until then bound him to the world of growth and decay and which forced him to be reborn again and again.

Having come to this knowledge and full of compassion, the Buddha now develops his teaching in weeks of meditation (4 or 7 weeks depending on the source), which should open the gates to immortality, put an end to suffering and bring calm.

Then he goes back to Benares and gives his first sermon in the Gazelle Park to the five monks who were his companions as ascetics. This “Sermon of Benares” is considered to be the beginning of a 45-year teaching activity (from 531 to 486 BC). He traveled through large parts of northern India, founded monastic orders and nunneries and found support from wealthy patrons. Finally the Buddha died at the age of 80, exhausted and emaciated with age, in the Upavasta forest near Kusinagari in the land of the Mallas. -

The teachings of the Buddha

The Buddha presented his most important insights in the “Sermon of Benares” (see box), which also shows the eight-part path that leads to salvation.

Buddha lived in the belief in rebirth and karma, convinced that if his life is not fulfilled, every person must return to earth after his death, and that in an environment (in India probably also the caste) that corresponds to his type of mind. Buddha rejected the casts as rigid barriers, but he was also not the combative social reformer that India would have needed to overcome the constricting castes. Because for Buddha the best way to enlightenment was to enter an order that removed the caste boundaries.

Buddhism is thus an unworldly doctrine in which monasticism plays an important role. A Buddhist monk should be poor, he must not harm anyone and he must remain unmarried (there are, however, some groups that allow monks and nuns to marry). Originally, the monks were supposed to live on donations, which could not be maintained always and everywhere. As a rule, they were and are pacifists, but there were exceptions in medieval Japan, with the Chinese monk heroes of the Ming period (1368 - 1644), with the legendary kung fu fighters of the Shao-lin monastery and others.

The Holy Scriptures
The canon recognized by all Buddhists consists of "three baskets (filled with texts)", the tripitaka. The canon claims to pass on “the words of the Buddha”, but was compiled by monks based on oral tradition, probably not until centuries after the Buddha's death.
As a whole, the canon was first used in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC. Put down in writing; this is the Pali version that Theravada monks kept. In Theravada Buddhism, Pali is the ritual language, as is Sanskrit for Indian Buddhists or Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.
A Sanskrit version was created under the auspices of King Kaniska during a council in Kashmir, probably in the 2nd century AD.
In the second century AD, some Mahayana texts were also translated into Chinese, and translations into Tibetan followed from the 7th or 8th centuries. These Tibetan translations are of particular importance today because many older originals have been lost. Especially during the Muslim invasion of India between the 8th and 13th centuries, Buddhist monks were expelled and their libraries burned. In order to reconstruct Sanskrit originals, Tibetan translations are therefore particularly popular.

Not always immediately apparent, Buddhism is a teaching of the strictest demands that are made of a person. Any one-sidedness that could provide external support is rejected, a morality is imposed on people that only a few can live up to. There are no idols that sacrifice can reconcile. No priest is allowed to forgive sins for money and good words or to facilitate the soul's path in the hereafter. Each individual stands for himself, only supported by his weak strength and surrounded by innumerable earthly and spiritual dangers. For Buddha demanded salvation through his own efforts and taught a path that perhaps few except himself were able to follow.

It almost goes without saying that Christian churches reject this “self-redemption” and instead offer the easy way of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ and the sacraments of the church. But no person will be spared to break away from guilty entanglements in order to be able to ascend into the eternal kingdom, in which alone the will of the creator reigns. One would hardly go wrong if one equates this paradise of Christians with the nirvana of Buddhists and assumes that Buddha pointed his listeners the same goal as Jesus did. -

Small glossary of Buddhism

BODHISATTWA: A being whose goal is enlightenment. In some groups the Bodhisattva has to take a vow not to enter nirvana until all beings have been redeemed. Buddha was also a Bodhisattva before his enlightenment.

BUDDHA: A Buddha is an enlightened one who has recognized the path to salvation (nirvana) and does not need to be born again.

BUDDHISM: Buddhism, Buddhist are occidental terms that Buddha would probably have rejected. He spoke of his disciples as practitioners. Anyone who takes refuge in the “three jewels” (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) for their salvation can be considered a Buddhist.

DHARMA: A complex term that can be translated as “doctrine” or “truth”.

HINAJANA: "Small vehicle", "less career". Used disparagingly as a term for the early forms of Buddhism, of which only Theravada still exists today.

LAMA: "Handlebars", "Teachers". A fully consecrated clergyman in Tibetan Buddhism.

LAMAISM: Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, a special form of Mahajana emerged from a late form of Indian Buddhism, which also took up elements of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. Until the Chinese invasion (1950), Tibet was a theocratic-Lamaist state under the leadership of the Dalai Lama (= ocean of knowledge). Cf. “Brief, terse, curious” on page 473 “On the trail of the secrets of the Orient”.

MAHAJANA: Also “bodhisattwajana”, “great vehicle”, “great career”. A form of Buddhism that emerged around the beginning of the Christian era, according to which everyone, regardless of whether they live in a cave, a monastery or in a house, can achieve enlightenment. It does not require the strict discipline of Theravada, but that one believes in the Buddha and has compassion towards all living beings. Mahajana Buddhism worships numerous bodhisatwas who have attained enlightenment, but for the time being renounce Buddhahood until salvation has come to all who turn to them. The ideal of the Buddha, who leads his fellow human beings to salvation, is an obligatory model in Mahajana for every believer. Mahajana includes many groups such as Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. The distribution area is East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet).

NIRVANA: "The extinction". In Buddhism the extinction of the ego-madness and the greed for life; not necessarily the nothing. Nirvana is the end of suffering and the detachment from the cycle of birth (samsara). In Mahajana, nirvana is the state of the holy, who is forever freed from all drives and karma, and who works with goodness and wisdom for the benefit of all beings.

SAMSARA ("constant wandering"): The cycle of birth - death - rebirth, which is seen as painful. The goal of the Buddhist is to get out of this cycle and enter nirvana.

SANGHA: As much as "community". In a broader sense, everyone who lives according to the teachings of the Buddha (the Dharma) (monks, nuns, male and female lay followers). In the narrower sense only the members of the order.

THERAVADA: “Doctrine of the Elders”. The Theravada represents a strict Buddhism that wants to lean on the original teachings of the Buddha. This uncompromising attitude leaves little room for the idea developed by other schools of Buddhism that lay people can also find enlightenment, or that enlightenment can be achieved without observing the rules of religious discipline. The highest ideal is a monk who attains enlightenment for himself by meticulously following the path laid down by Buddha. Widespread in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam.

ZEN (chlan): A meditation Buddhism, according to which enlightenment is experienced suddenly, so to speak, all of a sudden. Originally from India, was further developed in China and came to Japan from the 7th century.