Buddhism is a neologism, created in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century CE, from the Sanskrit word buddha, literally the awakened one. It is derived from an epithet attributed to Siddharta Gautama, born in Northern India – one of the dates accepted by scholars for his life being 563–483 – once gained the bodhi, or awakening. Far from designating a man or preexisting godhead, the term buddha defines all those beings who, starting from the same conditions of common beings, succeed through their own spiritual merits in being released from worldly pains to gain eternal bliss and omniscience.
During its history, which spans at least 25 centuries, Buddhadharma – the spiritual law of the Buddha, a term which is certainly to be preferred to the western term Buddhism – has differentiated into schools which western scholars used to call the Southern school, because of its enduring presence today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and the Northern school, more widespread in the Himalayan regions, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, and in other parts of Asia. More appropriate denotations of these two traditions, to use Northern school terminology, are mahayana and hinayana, i.e., the great vehicle and the lesser vehicle. The word vehicle is very apt in expressing the idea of a method – religion – which becomes unnecessary once the goal of awakening is attained, but which until that moment is an indispensa ble tool in transcending samsara, the world of rebirths. The school which mahayana defines, in derogatory fashion, as hinayana uses other terms to describe itself, such as theravada, the followers of the elders. For the mahayana school, the ideal of holiness is embodied in the figure of the bodhisattva – the hero of awakening motivated by the ideal of bodhicitta, the altruistic thought of awakening – who con tinues to be reincarnated until all other beings have been saved. The theravada school urges its followers to emulate and devote themselves to the ideal of the arhat – the venerable destroyer of the enemy – who strives to attain awakening by progressively annulling the dissonant emotions (klesha) which force beings to be reborn without any possibility of choice.
Even though this is not the place to undertake an in depth analysis of the difficult issue of the relationship between western and eastern philosophical terminologies, it should be at least pointed out that, while Buddhist philosophy in the East and Christian philosophy in the West both place the doctrine that seeks to define causes as the main foundation of their gnoseological methods, the outcomes of these pursuits differ. Christian philosophy requires an uncaused cause – a concept which originated with Greek philosophers and was given a final formalization by Aristotelian Thomism. Buddhist thought does not attempt to define a beginning in the endless chain of causes. Causes are thus considered as being generated in turn by other causes since a time with no beginning. The effects generated by any cause subsequently become causes of further effects. If it were admissible to slot Buddhist thought into the categories of the history of western philosophy, it would be classified as one of the immanentistic solutions to the gnoseological problem. In its cosmological outlook this all feeds into the consideration that no one phenomenon or event in the existential order is absolutum, independent, or self generated, and that all are composed and produced, and thus depend on causes, parts, and conditions; in a word, they are interdependent. Furthermore, in most cases – with few exceptions, such as space – they are subject to becoming and are thus impermanent. When applied to the ought to be of human beings, this vision means that every behavior matters greatly: every act and every thought is destined to last forever because of the law of cause and effect (karma) and will be reproduced on an exponential scale. Karma is increased by the frequency and the regularity with which a given action is performed. Once a karmic imprint is fixed within the mental continuum (santana) of an individual, it is difficult to mitigate its results. The Buddhist goal, nirvana, is the ceasing of the uncontrolled and compelled embodiment of the mental principles. A life, this life, is just a link in the chain of samsara. Far from being a sweet hope of eternal life, samsara is the context which needs to be transcended since it holds no place for freedom, simply because of the compulsion it involves to continue to take on new forms of life as a result of the karma produced on the basis of disturbing mental factors. The reason given to explain the need to avoid rebirth is extremely straightforward and well reflects the eminently pragmatic method of Buddhadharma: even the higher types of rebirth – including humans and worldly divinities – involve discomfort. The Buddhist spiritual path has never developed a justification of a moral type for pain: it is only an alarming symptom of the perils of relying on limited concepts and realities.
In presenting himself as a model, the Buddha provides the disciple with all the indications needed to emulate him completely. This is something which occurs more through the seduction of conviction than through a process of persuasion based solely on his inscrutableuperiority. The community of the emulator disciples is called sangha, and together with the Buddha and his dharma forms, the so called triple gem (triratna) are the foremost elements of this tradition.
Anyone who seriously undertakes to travel the path leading to nirvana realizes from the very first steps that no one else can travel this demanding path in his or her stead. All of the Buddha’s teaching hinges on this premise and, as a result, the emphasis returns time and time again to the central position of individual responsibility; for the Buddha is first and foremost the master (guru) who expounds the theoretical and practical means that can be used to achieve liberation. He does not assert he is able to take upon himself the burden of the negative actions of beings, he does not take upon himself the weight of the imperfections of the world. The Buddha only points the way to be traveled by those individuals who are capable of fathoming the depths of such an acceptance of responsibility. Buddhist salvation – to be understood, it should be recalled, as emancipation from samsara – is mainly expressed and achieved through the teaching and the application of the Buddhadharma. The substance of the Buddha’s sermon, deliv ered at the Deer Park in Sarnath near Varanasi in Northern India to his first five disciples, concerned the four noble truths (chatvari arya satya) which mark the real beginning of his formal preaching. These truths are defined as noble (arya) both because they were taught by the Buddha, who is noble and superior to common beings, and because they are capable of making those beings who are currently subjected to the contingencies of a conditioned existence noble and superior themselves.
The first of these truths is that of true sufferings, which are the physical and mental aggregates which arise as the result of actions defiled by disturbing mental afflictions. True suffering also includes all the activities of the mind, the speech, and the body of each ordinary being, except for the actions generated through pure spiritual aspiration and meditations. They can also be considered in positive terms as the effective understanding of the fact that all physical and mental phenomena are subject to change, birth, old age, and death and that all conditions of worldly life are unstable and devoid of the causes of lasting bliss.
The second truth is that of true origin. Origin stands for the source of suffering located in mental afflictions and the compulsive actions they cause. This truth expresses the understanding that suffering is first and foremost a condition of the mind, which unceasingly creates expectations and cravings that are regularly disappointed by the actual reality of the world. In addition, physical discomfort and pain do not correspond to the full dimension of suffering for our suffering minds, which produce all the unstable existential conditions – which as such are incapable of quenching the boundless thirst for bliss inside all beings – and which cause future opportunities for experiencing pain.
The third truth is that of true ceasing, which teaches that two previous truths – suffering and, especially, the cause of suffering – can be eliminated. This is achieved essentially by understanding that suffering begins in the mind and then returns to the mind.
The fourth truth is that of true path or the means whereby the truth of ceasing can be attained. These means are the practice of virtue by conducting one’s life intelligently and bravely, taking great care not to damage other beings, and being able to have insight into how the importance of each present moment can be usefully seized.
It is worth here considering the first of the practical effects of the Buddhist philosophical construction on human morality. The first path comprises right understanding, which translates into a realistic assessment of suffering, its origin, and the path leading to its elimination; the understanding of what is to be pursued and what is to be abandoned; the understanding of the lack of a permanent self in the person; the understanding of the mechanisms leading to rebirth, and so on. This is followed by right intentions: being able to turn the mind to positive content, such as benevolence and kindness, and to draw it away from grasping, preconceived, and mistaken opinions. Right speech: shunning lies, slander, and harsh or meaningless speech. Right conduct: refraining from taking lives, stealing, and improper sexual behavior. Right livelihood: ensuring the right standard of living for oneself and one’s loved ones, without damaging others directly or indirectly. Right effort: committing oneself to being aware and detached in all circumstances. Right mindfulness: remembering to be mindful of everything done in thought, speech, and act. Right concentration: freeing oneself from all the conditions which interfere with the naturally clear state of the mind, attaining the various levels of meditational absorption, and thus achieving higher levels of knowledge such as clairvoyance.
Not only is the analysis of the link existing between form and mind the first step toward every gnoseological definition of reality as an ontological unity, but also the possibility of this analysis in itself indicates that when human beings produce works of art they are substantially shaping the subtle matter forming the plane sustaining the universal field of interaction, hence the opportunity here for some thoughts on Buddhist art. Buddhist sacred art, through whatever physical medium it is expressed, refers back to a main deter mining reason. The paintings, sculptures, illuminations, and many specific elements of the architecture – mainly the stupa, an impenetrable monument around which the devotee practices a circumambulating clockwise interaction – are conceived in order to be utilized as perceptible supports for a practice informed, in relation with the body–mind compound, by a non dualistic spiritual attitude, whose complex symbolic codes, in the absence of a specific initiation to those liturgies, remain difficult to access and understand. The specific function of a Buddhist painting or sculpture is thus the one favoring concentration of mind of a contemplator on the image of a divinity, at least during the initial stages of meditation. Gradually the devotee progresses toward various levels of awareness at the end of which the necessity of considerable material support is surpassed. Buddhist sacred art thus expresses the attempt to impress in the image a vigorous mystical valency, evoked by a practitioner for effective transmission – with minimum possible variants – to another practitioner, using complex symbologies, iconogrammetric structures, and iconological codes, giving ground to the representation of extremely complex concepts. For example, the bhavachakra, the cosmological chart illustrating the six worlds of rebirth (hell, famished spirits, animals, men, titans, worldly divinities), and the mandala, the psychocosmogram – to use the, by now, classic definition formulated by Tucci – that illustrates the subtle relations between the individual microcosmos and the universal macrocosmos.
Some fundamental ideas regarding, in different cultural environments, the transformation of something – a food, a metal – into something else draw their symbolic meaning from the process of transmutation of a human into a divinity (theosis). It would be useful in using terms like theosis to understand the description of some inner processes made by the vajrayana (the diamond vehicle, i.e., the esoteric aspect of Buddhadharma) schools, but only when it is made clear that these terms are rooted in traditions formally, historically, and theoretically external to the esoteric aspect of Buddhad harma, a lore in which the ontological gap between a god creator and the creatures simply does not exist. In the Buddhist Indo Tibetan tradition, the mahayana–vajrayana lineages pre serve till today some systems – called tantra – promising shortcuts toward awakening with an altruistic aim. In some rites related to those systems, the performers, in order to assure the correct execution of the rite itself, are requested to divinize themselves from the beginning of the liturgy. The human body in this context is considered akin to the chrysalis from which one day the angelic butterfly will be released. This is certainly not a marginal idea within the cul ture it has occurred in over the course of time, but rather an instrumental notion, a thirst for improvement to be made use of on the path of transformation which humans travel over time in order to attain the full achievement of their natural potential. This can be done by actualizing the so called divine pride (deva mana), in the periodic training of remembering the divinity (devanusmrtianupurvaprayoga) admitted by the formal practice (sadhana) of the esoteric resultant vehicle (phalayana), or tantrayana, opposed to the exoteric causal vehicle (hetuyana), also called vehicle of perfections (paramitayana) or sutrayana. In the Indo Tibe tan vajrayana the various psychic essences constitute indeed a sort of synapsis between the physiological and visible part of the person and the intellectual, invisible one. These essences are described according to different functional valences. Also the fluids and the tissues, like blood, are not only simple objects to be men tally analyzed but sacramental substances. The concept of the transformation of blood into the nectar of immortality (Sanskrit: amrta; Greek: ambrotos) draws its symbolic validity from the process of transmutation of a human into a divinity. Eventually, this process will lead to the actual divinization of the practitioner (sadhaka) himself. The transformation of the ordinary human being into a blissful and omniscent divinity is an idea not condivisible by the Semitic theological frame shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Also if some particular details inside the Abrahamic revela tions seem to point toward the divinization of creatures – diisestis (you’ll be gods) in the Old Testament – these aspects remain nevertheless mainly marginal by referring to the most orthodox connotation. The ritual transformation of the time and space context is widely used in Indo Tibetan vajrayana, the structure of which thought hinges both on sympathetic compassion (karuna) and on intuitive understanding (prajna) of the ultimate mode of existing (shunyata). Karuna and prajna enable the adept to make full use of the workings of the liberated mind, so as to be able to overcome the cycle of unconscious rebirths and become an awakened one, a buddha released from any conditioning, free from failing to identify himself with the unmeasurable order of consciousness, and thus finally able to effectively do the welfare of all transmigrating beings. It is always useful to interpret these psycho experimental systems in light of the dual focus of sympathetic com passion and vision of the truth, in considering the effect of tantric systems both on metaphysics and on morality.
Since its historical beginning, the Buddhad harma has been a doctrine that assumes a life style characterized by challenging social renunciations. But the need to spread the practice of virtue to everyone led to the definition of a lay path, which does not require the integral renunciation of social activities. Furthermore, in the vajrayana some daily ceremonies are recommended or compulsory for everyone, not only for monks. These ceremonies or rites are today taught also in western countries. On one hand, the greed for tangible goods pushed modern contemporary western humanity to strive hard for the satisfaction of material needs. On the other hand, the reminiscence of a blissful homeland, set in some afterlife, persists as a background sound in urbanized reality. The novelty is that the Christian churches, even in the areas where they are deep rooted, are not considered any longer as holders of all paths to wisdom. The adaptation and rooting of Buddhist esoteric lore in the western cultural milieu are still in progress, thus their practical results are still unforeseeable.
- Davidson, R. (2002) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Hopkins, (1983) Meditation on Emptiness. Wisdom Publications, London.
- Huntington, L. (1985) The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. Weather-Hill, New York and Tokyo.
- Phra Prayuth, Paytto (1995) Buddhadharma: Natural Laws and Values for Life. SUNY Press, Albany,
- Polichetti, A. (1993) The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Tibet Journal 18(3): 65 7.
- Schumann, W. (1982) Der historische Buddha. Diederichs, Cologne.
- Tenzin, Gyatso (XIV Dalai, Lama) (1995) The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of its Philosophy and Wisdom Publications, Boston.
- Williams, (1998) Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. Routledge, London.
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