Buddhism and the West

Buddhism and the West April 21, 2015 · 21 min. readDisclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links.

I don't often hesitate to write blog posts. I just grab a pen, jot down some ideas and whittle away until I have something semi-coherent. But I was hesitant to write this entry. I wanted to write it, but I was worried about backlash. My blog has been, for the most part, very neutral on sensitive topics. I wanted to approach this in the same way but because I am Buddhist, I didn't want to preach the religion; I only wanted to explain it. If this entry offends anybody, I am sorry; that is, and never was, my intention.

Buddhist Garden

What Is Buddhism?

Of the 6 major religions of the world, Buddhism sits in about the middle with roughly 376 million followers world-wide -- or about the population of the United States and Canada combined. There are about 3 times as many Hindus, 4 times as many Islamic and 7 times as many Christians as there are Buddhists. Being a very small religion, Buddhism is often very foreign to the West.

The largest difference between Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions is that Buddhism doesn't have a god. However, Buddhists have no problem with their followers being both Buddhist and Christian. The two religions have many similarities, and Buddhists feel they can coexist together in harmony. The same goes for Islamics, Hindus and Sikhs mixing their religion with Buddhism. Often times, however, these religions have trouble accepting their followers to be duel-religious because Buddhism is non-theistic. To Buddhists, God may or may not exist, and offers no advantage or disadvantage in being so. Buddhists strive to achieve "enlightenment", which is an over-all understanding of the workings of the universe. If God can help somebody achieve this, than great; but God is not needed. This is because they believe all the answers are inside themselves, waiting to be unlocked.

Buddhist Monks and Fire

Buddhism was formed around the year 500 BCE, and is based off the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, or Gautama Buddha as is he later called in life. Siddharta is not a god, nor was he a reincarnation of god, nor was he a prophet, nor was he a king. Siddharta was a philosopher who gained knowledge of the world around him, obtained followers and spread his message throughout India and Nepal. When talking about the founding of Buddhism, it's best to focus on Siddharta, although he was not the first Buddha.

Who is Siddharta Gautama?

Siddharta Gautama was the child of Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya. On the night of Siddharta's conception, Queen Maya had a dream of a white elephant with six tusks entering her right side. 10 months later, Siddharta was born on Queen Maya's way home to visit her father, in the village of Lumbini. A week after giving birth, Queen Maya passed away, and the king was unsure how to raise the child. Within a few days several seers approached the king and said his newborn son had a duel-destiny: he will either be a great king, or a religious leader. Suddhodana wanted nothing more than for his son to follow in his footsteps, and decided his son's fate: Siddharta would be king.

For the first 29 years of his life, Siddharta lived stricly inside his palace, unable to go outside and experience the world. His life was lavish, full of wealth and power. At the age of 16 he was married to his cousin, and they produced a young son.

At the age of 29, Siddharta finally left the palace with his charioteer Channa. He left the palace a total of four times, and each time experienced a new stage of human existence. The first was that of an old man. Due to his sheltered life, this old man shocked Siddharta. Channa explained to him that all people get older with time, and there's no escaping this.

The next two times Siddharta left the palace he experienced two other stages of humanity: sickness and death. All people, Channa explained again, get sick. And all people, regardless of wealth, power or health, will die.

The fourth Siddharta left the palace he met an ascetic, or a holy-man. This man inspired Siddharta and he began to believe that a life of self-discipline and deprivation could prevent age, sickness and death; the fate we are all doomed to face. That night, with the help of Channa, Siddharta took a horse and left his wife, son, and family behind.

Siddharta began his ascetic life as a beggar on the streets of Rajagaha. After being recognized by royal guards, he left and began to study yoga under two different masters. He quickly surpassed both of them, and was offered twice to succeed them and become their teacher. Both times he declined; he didn't feel yoga fulfilled his desires. During this time, talk of Siddharta had begun to spread and he had started to get a small following.

Having not yet found what he left home to discover, Siddharta began to starve himself, eating only a leaf or nut per day. He believed that through this self-deprivation, he would find an answer to his calling. Instead, he nearly died. His collapsed body was found on a riverbed by a young village girl named Sujata. Once regaining his strength, Siddharta began to reconsider his path to enlightenment. So far, having too much food and wealth, and not having any food or wealth, have both left him feeling empty. It was at this time he began to consider a "Middle Way", which is a way of life where you have enough to be live comfortable, but not too much where you are gluttonous and take comfort away from other people.

With this in mind, Siddharta sat below a pipal tree - now known as the Bodhi tree - and vowed not to get up until enlightenment was discovered. Believing their master had given up his search, his followers left him to sit under the tree and die. For 49 days Siddharta sat under that tree and wrestled with himself and his inner demon. This demon was named Mara, and assaulted Siddharta much like Jesus was tempted by Satan when he fasted in the desert for 40 days. It is disputed by Buddhists what Mara actually was: some believe her to be a physical demon, while others believe her to be his mental demon. All sects believe however, that the details of this have little importance; what matters is what happened afterwards: it is from this battle that Siddharta was able pass beyond his human desires and achieve enlightenment, ultimately becoming a Buddha.

So who is Buddha?

Buddha in Hong Kong

It may seem a bit confusing, but Buddha is not Siddharta Gautama, however Siddharta Gautama is Buddha.

A "Buddha" is any enlightened being. This is someone who understands what causes suffering and how one can live a life without it. Some claim there have been thousands of Buddhas before Siddharta, and there will be thousands afterwards, while others claim there have only been 28. Some claim Jesus may have even been a Buddha due to his time in Egypt and India.

Buddha, and Buddhahood, is a state of knowledge and understanding, and is something all people have the potential of reaching. A common comparison is that people similar to acorns and that all acorns have the potential to become oak trees. However, an acorn can be used for other things, like decoration or as a weapon. These are not the original purpose of the acorn, but it may end up being its destiny. All people have the potential of becoming a Buddha, but not all of them will.

When Gautama Buddha discovered the Middle Way, he was hesitant to teach the lessons - called the Dharma - outside of his followers. He didn't think the people of world could accept his teachings, or they would bastardize them into something they were not meant to be. His followers told him that while this is true, some people might understand, and he had to help them find the way. He agreed to this, and Buddhism began.

For 45 years Buddha taught through India and Nepal. He attempted to visit his old yoga instructors and teach them what he had learned, but by then they had both passed on. He visited his father, and his followers began to swell. He taught men and women, sinners and saints, murderers and cannibals. At a time, he had over a 1,000 followers.

During this time, Buddha performed various miracles. When asked about them, Buddha said he "dislike, reject and despise them". To him, they were caused by him being a sentient being and should not be used a reason to follow in his path.

Before entering Parinirvana, or the final deathless state, Buddha said another Buddha would come after him, Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya will come at a time when Buddhism has been forgotten, and it will come to rejuvenate the terrestrial realm. Over the past 2,500 years, many different variations of Buddhism have been created, and while they disagree on many things, they all agree on the prophecy of Maitreya Buddha.

Buddhist Grave in Koyasan

What Does Buddhism Teach?

Buddhism believes reality is a projection of our own minds. Reality is absolute; no good, no evil, it just is. The human mind has trouble accepting this, and we often label things as good or bad. When a wolf hunts down and catches a deer, for example, this is neither good nor bad; it is just the way of life. Buddhism teaches not to put an emotion onto things like this, for suffering is caused by joy, and all things that we enjoy will in turn hurt us. Suffering is part of life, much like sickness and death, and it is something we can never avoid. However, it is our job to minimize our own suffering, and the suffering of others. If Buddhism can be put plainly, it teaches to promote co-existence and understanding of our world through the removal of human suffering and ignorance.

Buddhist Temple Hong Kong Buddhist Temple Tokyo

The guide to Buddhism is called the "Noble Eightfold Path". Buddha "rediscovered" this Path while under the Bodhi tree. They are as follows:

1. Right view - which is viewing things as what they are, not what they perceive to be.

2. Right intention - which is to live without causing harm to others; to unify a broken world.

3. Right speech - which is to not speak lies, or speak down upon others.

4. Right action - which is to act not corrupt or bring harm to others.

5. Right livelihood - which is to make a living through just means, and not through exploitation of others.

6. Right effort - which is to make an effort not to harm others through thoughts, words or actions.

7. Right mindfulness - which is to be attentive of the world around us, and of the consequences of our actions.

8. Right concentration - which is to concentrate on the things that matter in life, such as your own well-being and that other others, and let the chaos of the world around you pass you by. Often, meditation helps with this, through focusing on something like your breath or heartbeat, something involuntary.

Like others religions, there are many teachings. This entry isn't meant to break-down the very specifics of Buddhism, but mostly to educate people on what the religion is. I welcome you to do research into Buddhism; it's one of the world religions that welcome science into its teachings, and proudly says that if science can prove it wrong, it will change.

Buddhism and the West

Buddhism isn't too different from other religions so far, and is pretty easy to follow along with. So why hasn't Buddhism come to the West? There have been several deterrents over the past two and a half millenniums, but it has made several attempts at it.

After Buddha's death, Buddhism spread throughout India and into the Middle East, spreading as far West as Egypt and Greece. We know this because Buddhist symbolism can be seen on some later Egyptian and Greek hieroglyphics and engravings. Buddhism was in the area of Israel at the time of Jesus's birth. Some believe the Wise Men that came to Jesus were Buddhists, or that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to escape the Slaughter of the Innocents because it was a Buddhist country. Others say Jesus went to India between the ages of 14 and 30 and was taught as Buddhist.

Five hundred years after Christ, Muhammad founded Islam. Islam spread through the Middle East, and often came into conflict with Buddhist religions. This can even be seen today with the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban in 2001. This blockade of Islam in the Middle East, the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the later cultural cleaning of the Crusades made spreading Buddhism problematic in the West. While there are records of European and Buddhist intermingling, it mostly grew in the East, taking root in Vietnam, Korea, China and Japan.

It wouldn't be formally introduced to the West for another several hundred years, when colonization became a past-time of the richer European countries. With parts of South East Asia being colonized, Christianity finally met Buddhism. The two religions appeared so similar that it had caused confusion among the missionaries as they had thought somebody had been there before them, and had successfully spread Christianity throughout the region.

World War II brought two separate blows to Buddhism. The first being in Germany, with Adolf Hitler choosing the swastika, a symbol which to the Buddhist means "luck" and "eternity", and turning it into a symbol of genocidal hatred and ultra-violence. In the Pacific Theater, many Buddhist monks also fought against the Americans. This is a direct disobedience against their pacifistic teachings, and they have made a formal apology to the United States and the Buddhist religion for their actions. It is believed these monks were forced to enter the war by the government as a form of spiritual propaganda that would convince people to join and fight for the country.

Buddhist Swastika

After World War II, Buddhist ideas came across the Pacific and were welcomed by the Flower Children of the 1960s. Their ideas of a world created by the power of the mind molded easily with those along the West Coast of California. Many soldiers who fought during the Korean and Vietnam wars also experienced Buddhism, and sought to understand it and its mythology, with several becoming mediation teachers in the United States after the war. The Dali Lama, the current "Living Buddha" of our time, also spread Buddhism to the West through his various trips and tours throughout the Americas and Europe.

Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions in Oceania, and after being around for over two thousand years, it is finally coming to Europe and North America through immigration and the search for alternative religion. Mixes of separate Buddhist ideologies coexist in the West now, with different sections being accepted from different branches of the religion. Although still a very small religion, Buddhism and Buddhist ideologies are becoming more and more popular, with more and more people wondering what this religion of peace has to offer.

I hope this post helped you understand Buddhism, and what it teaches. As countries like South Korea and China become more influential, it's best to understand their cultures and teachings. As you travel the world, always try to remember to respect the religion of the country you're visiting. It will not only show respect, but it might also open doors to the culture and you can have a more fulfilling time on your travels.

Buddhist Smoke

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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