Buddhism is often associated with China, though its inception actually began in India, where Hinduism has always been the primary religion. From the beginning, Buddhism differentiated itself from Hinduism by refusing to accept the authority of the Vedas, a collection of early Hindu religious scriptures, and the caste system, a social system that determined marriage and ranking. Both religions did share many of the same beliefs, particularly those of reincarnation, karma and Nirvana. But, how did Buddhism make its way to China and other Asian countries? And, who was the man who would eventually become known only as the Buddha?
He was born Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a powerful ruler of a small kingdom in India. At his birth, there were two prophecies foretold by a sage. Siddhartha would either grow up to be a great monarch or he would grow up to be an ascetic, someone who would choose self-denial for personal or religious discipline. To ensure that the latter prophecy would not come true, his father isolated Siddhartha in the kingdom so that he would live a life of luxury and not desire any life other than that of a monarch. By age 29, Siddhartha was married and a father, and when he did finally leave the kingdom, he saw the reality of illness, old age and death for the first time. It was a sight that forever changed his life, and he vowed to become a holy man and give up the luxurious lifestyle he believed to be empty and useless.
Seeking the spiritual enlightenment that eluded him, he sat on a straw mat underneath a Bodhi tree one day and pledged not to move until he achieved true release from his former life. It was on the morning of the seventh day that Siddhartha finally accomplished the spiritual enlightenment he sought. His achievement earned him names such as Buddha Tathagata (“he who has gone through completely”), Bhagavat (Lord), Dharma (sublime religious truth) and eventually, the Buddha (a fully enlightened being). Having finally achieved his ultimate awakening, Siddhartha spent the rest of his life traveling, organizing a sangha (a community of monks) and preaching The Four Noble Truths. These truths, according to Buddha, were the realization that:
Life is suffering. Human existence is painful, and because death and rebirth are part of nature' cycle, death does not guarantee an end to suffering.
Suffering has a cause: craving and attachment. We suffer because we selfishly crave and cling, which in turn shows how ignorant we really are of reality.
Craving and attachment can be overcome. When we completely rise above our selfish craving, we enter Nirvana and our suffering stops.
The path toward the cessation of craving and attachment is an Eightfold Path:
right understanding, to have clear thinking, free from emotion common sense; right purpose, to have goals worthy of an intelligent and honest person; right speech, to think before we speak, following the saying, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; right conduct, to perform the right actions and have honest ethics; right livelihood, to keep your motives pure and not kill or harm any form of life if you can avoid it; right effort, to persevere; right alertness, to have a watchful and attentive mind not easily distracted by society' distractions; right concentration, which allows you to stop and think about what you’re doing and the best way to do it.
As with Hinduism, the Buddha believed in the principle of reincarnation and the law of karma. Living beings are trapped within the cycle of birth and death under the law of karma until they right all the wrongs they have committed while alive.
While Siddhartha is the historical Buddha, Buddhists do not consider him to be the only one. The honor can be given to anyone who has achieved the same spiritual enlightenment. Every country has their divisions of the Buddhist faith, each with its different approach to spiritual life and variation of Buddhist traditions. The Theravada school focuses on detachment and a life of seclusion in order to reach enlightenment, while the Mahayana school' beliefs for enlightenment include compassion and service to others. Other schools include Zen, which asks for complete involvement in the present moment without distraction, and Pure Land Buddhism, a branch of the Mahayana school which believes devotion to Amitabha, a celestial Buddha, will result in being reborn in the Pure Land where enlightenment is guaranteed.
Despite these difference, the three most important holidays observed in Buddhist tradition are Nirvana Day (February 15), the date on which Buddha passed, Buddha Day (April 8), the date on which Buddha' birth is celebrated, and Bodhi Day (December 8), the day on which Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree and waited for enlightenment.
There are many statues paying homage to Siddhartha, most of them depicting him in a serene and meditative state. Other statues depict different Buddhas, the most familiar being that of a fat, bald, smiling man sometimes surrounded by happy children. Chinese folklore suggests he was a monk who lived in China during the 10th century A.D., while the Indians believe he was an Indian man who caught snakes and became one of the original arhats of Buddhism. Arhats are individuals who have achieved Nirvana and will never be reborn. Regardless of his origin, the Laughing Buddha has become a modern day symbol of happiness and wealth, and many believe you can invite good luck and prosperity by rubbing his belly each day.
You don’t have to be Buddhist to seek your own spiritual balance and well-being. Buddhism began as a philosophy and many people have embraced its teachings without even knowing it. To embark on your own path to personal enlightenment, Mrs. Lin' Kitchen offers Buddha teapots and Daruma dolls that can be effortlessly incorporated into your spiritual journey. And who knows? What you end up finding just might surprise you.
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