Buddhism Today

Buddhism Today

In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries that practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.

In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries that practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.

‘Socially Engaged Buddhism,’ which originated in 1963 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a term coined by Tchich Nhat Hanh, the international peace activist, is a contemporary movement concerned with developing Buddhist solutions to social, political and ecological global problems. This movement is not divided between monastic and lay members and includes Buddhists from Buddhist countries, as well as western converts. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka are the major Buddhist countries (over 70% of population practicing) while Japan, Laos, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have smaller but strong minority status.

New movements continue to develop to accommodate the modern world. Perhaps the most notable are the Dalit Buddhist Movement (Dalits are a group of Indians known as the ‘untouchables’ because they fall outside the rigid caste system but who are now gaining respect and status supported by UN); New Kadampa Tradition, led by Tibetan monk Gyatso Kelsang, which claims to be Modern Buddhism focused on lay practitioners; and the Vipassana Movement, consisting of a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism which have moved outside the monasteries, focusing on insight meditation.(22)

Buddhist Theology

The Buddha was not concerned with satisfying human curiosity related to metaphysical speculations. The Buddha ignored topics, such as the existence of god, the afterlife, and creation stories. During the centuries, Buddhism has evolved into different branches, and many of them have incorporated a number of diverse metaphysical systems, deities, astrology and other elements that the Buddha did not consider. In spite of this diversity, Buddhism has a relative unity and stability in its moral code. (20)

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Truths, also commonly known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ explain the basic orientation of Buddhism. They are the truths understood by the ‘worthy ones,’ those who have attained enlightenment or nirvana.

The four truths are dukkha (the truth of suffering); the arising of dukkha (the causes of suffering); the stopping of dukkha (the end of suffering), and the path leading to the stopping of dukkha (the path to freedom from suffering). (23)

Analogy of Understanding the Four Noble Truths

The Four Truths are often best understood using a medical framework:

  • Truth 1 is the diagnosis of an illness or condition
  • Truth 2 is identifying the underlying causes of it
  • Truth 3 is its prognosis or outcome
  • Truth 4 is its treatment

Truth 1: The Truth of Suffering

All humans experience surprises, frustrations, betrayals, etc., which lead to unhappiness and suffering. Acknowledging or accepting that we will encounter difficulties in daily life as an inevitable and universal part of life as a human being is the first truth. Within this, there are two types of suffering :

  • Natural suffering: Disasters, wars, infections, etc.
  • Self-inflicted suffering: Habitual reacting and unnecessary anxiety and regret

Truth 2: The Causes of Suffering

All suffering lies not in external events or circumstances but in the way we react to and deal with them, our perceptions and interpretations. Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is, which derives from the 3 poisons :

  • Ignorance (Delusion) of the fact that everything, including the self, is impermanent and interdependent.
  • Desire (Greed) of objects and people who will help us to avoid suffering.
  • Aversion (Anger) to the things we do not want, thinking we can avoid suffering. We can learn to look at each experience as it happens and be prepared for the next. (23)

Truth 3: The End of Suffering

We hold limiting ideas about ourselves, others, and the world, of which we need to let go. We can unlearn everything from our social conditioning and so bring down all barriers or separations. (23)

Truth 4: The Path that Frees us from Suffering

The mind leads us to live in a dualistic way, but if we are aware of and embrace our habits and illusions, we can abandon our expectations about the ways things should be and instead accept the way they are. We can use mindfulness and meditation to examine our views and gain an accurate perspective.

This Truth contains the Eightfold Path leading out of samsara to nirvana. It consists of:

  1. Right View: Accepting the fundamental Buddhist teachings
  2. Right Resolve: Adopting a positive outlook and a mind free from lust, ill-will, and cruelty
  3. Right Speech: Using positive and productive speech as opposed to lying, frivolous or harsh speech
  4. Right Action: Keeping the five precepts — refraining from killing, stealing, misconduct, false speech, and taking intoxicants
  5. Right Livelihood: Avoiding professions which harm others such as slavery of prostitution
  6. Right Effort: Directing the mind towards wholesome goals
  7. Right Mindfulness: Being aware of what one is thinking, doing, and feeling at all times
  8. Right Meditation: Focusing attention in order to enter meditational states

These eight aspects of the path are often divided into 3 groups: Insight (Right View, Right Resolve), morality (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood), and meditation (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation).

This eightfold path is not linear, passing from one stage to the next, but cumulative so that ideally all eight factors are practiced simultaneously. (23)

Described in text.

Figure 3-2 Dharma Wheel by Ibolya Horvath is licensed under CC-BY 3.0 . The Dharmachakra (Wheel of the law with eight spokes) represents the Eightfold Path.

Karma and Samsara

In Buddhism, essentially there is no soul. The unresolved karmas manifest into a new form composed of five skandhas (constituent elements of a being) in one of the six realms of samsara. The eventual nirvana (salvation) comes through the annihilation of residual karma, which means the ceasing of the alleged existence of being. The actions with intention (cetana) carried out by the mind, body, and speech and which are driven by ignorance, desire, and hatred lead to implications that tie one down in samsara. Following the eightfold path — the set of eight righteous ways of thinking and acting suggested by Buddha — one can attain nirvana.

Dukkha (Suffering)

Dukkha is defined in more detail as the human tendency to cling to or crave impermanent states or objects, which keep us caught in samsara, the endless cycle of repeated birth, suffering and dying. It is thought that the Buddha taught the Four Truths in the very first teaching after he had attained enlightenment as recorded long after his physical death in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutra (‘The Discourse that Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth’), but this is still in dispute. They were recognized as perhaps the most important teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni only at the time the commentaries were written, c. 5th century CE. (23)