Buddhism: Then, Now, How, And Why

By Katie Stone

As the sun rises over the small southeast Asian city of Luang Prabang, a silent procession of saffron moves down the street. Heads bowed, feet bare, wooden bowls clasped at their hips, these reverent figures walk calmly in long lines. Each pauses - briefly - to collect a small serving of rice from the villagers, who are perched on stools on the side of the street. Then they move on. It is the collecting of alms: a sacred Buddhist tradition that dates back to the 14th century. The monks make their slow, orderly amble through the streets every morning at dawn to receive gifts of food from local villagers.

Tourists, of course, are intrigued. Although the local marketing bureaus of these areas try to advise foreigners of observation etiquette, snap-happy voyeurists crowd the street, eager to catch a prize shot. Some even walk alongside the monks and push cameras into their faces.

 

By Katie Stone

As the sun rises over the small southeast Asian city of Luang Prabang, a silent procession of saffron moves down the street. Heads bowed, feet bare, wooden bowls clasped at their hips, these reverent figures walk calmly in long lines. Each pauses – briefly – to collect a small serving of rice from the villagers, who are perched on stools on the side of the street. Then they move on. It is the collecting of alms: a sacred Buddhist tradition that dates back to the 14th century. The monks make their slow, orderly amble through the streets every morning at dawn to receive gifts of food from local villagers.

Tourists, of course, are intrigued. Although the local marketing bureaus of these areas try to advise foreigners of observation etiquette, snap-happy voyeurists crowd the street, eager to catch a prize shot. Some even walk alongside the monks and push cameras into their faces.

The monks, for the most part, simply keep moving. After all, this is just a normal part of their routine.

Monks alms-giving in Vietnam

In countries practising Theravada Buddhism – Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Laos – the monks rely on these daily offerings of food. And in return, the almsgivers receive spiritual merit: providing sustenance to the monks generates ‘good’ in their lives. The practice is similar to tithes and other offerings recognised in Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.

To our Western minds, these spiritual traditions seem archaic, antiquated. And yet research suggests that we are deeply fascinated by Buddhism: many to the point of incorporating Buddhist practices and beliefs into our own lives. Or even becoming Buddhists ourselves.

So what is it about Buddhism – which is described not as a religion but a ‘way of life’ – that we respond to so easily? Perhaps it’s the fact that, in a world that is becoming progressively non-religious, this ancient set of beliefs offers the mindfulness we crave, the inner peace we lack, and the flexibility to use it how we choose.

A short history of Buddhism

Around 9-10% of the world’s population identify as Buddhists. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who achieved enlightenment under a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India between 600-400 BCE. Upon becoming the Buddha (meaning “the awakened one”), he spent the rest of his life teaching how to end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance and craving (taṇhā) and thereby attaining the highest form of happiness, nirvāņa.

To understand the complex movement of Buddhist belief and practice, it’s important to first understand its foundations.

Core beliefs of Buddhism

The central tenet of Buddhism is to avoid suffering and be released from the cycle of rebirth. Buddha discovered Three Universal Truths and Four Noble Truths, which he then taught to his followers for the remaining 45 years of his life.

The Three Universal Truths 

  1. Everything in life is impermanent and always changing.
  2. Because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or persons doesn’t make you happy.
  3. There is no eternal, unchanging soul. The concept of ‘self’ is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.

The Four Noble Truths

  1. All existence is dukkha (suffering).
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha (The Noble Eightfold Path).

The Noble Eightfold Path (also called the Middle Way, or the Threefold Way) is the path which Buddhists can follow to end suffering. This is a progressive path based on ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

The movement of Buddhism

As Buddhism swept throughout Asia, monuments were built to honour the life and words of the Buddha. Some of the most famous Buddhist temples include Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. Sri Lanka and Thailand are both home to dozens of Buddhist structures, while Burma is famous for its stunning Buddhist pagodas.

Bronze statue of Buddha Lantou Island Hong Kong

Over the centuries, Buddhism underwent profound change. As the teachings spread through different civilisations, Buddha’s ideas were gently adapted to meet local customs, shaping the practices in different ways.

A broader and more accessible doctrine emerged, followed by an explosion of sacred texts, commentaries, sculptures, and art, based not only on the Buddha but also on many figures representing various aspects of the Buddha’s nature.

By the 5th century, Buddhism reached Japan, culminating in a number of different sects that included Zen.

Buddhism is now a minority in its birthplace of India, but it reigns throughout much of the rest of Asia.

In Tibet, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the revered Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara). Tibetan Buddhism emphasises meditation (taking the form of repetitive chanting, the use of prayer wheels, and circumambulations) and has produced fertile art forms and elaborate rituals.

The schools of Buddhism

Today, the two main branches of Buddhism include Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). Theravada and Mahayana both share the common basic Buddhist teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, and follow devotion to the life of Buddha.

Around half of Buddhists live in China, practising Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana is also the main religion of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Theravada is practised mainly in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Tibetan Buddhism is practised in India and also in many Western countries.

Each school differs somewhat in their means of achieving enlightenment or liberation from samsara: defined as “the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma”.

Theravada

Theravada is thought to be the most traditional form of Buddhism and closest to Buddha’s original teachings. It is the only one of the three schools that have kept up the alms-gathering tradition.

Theravada encourages the use of meditation for awakening (or enlightenment). It emphasises attaining personal liberation through one’s own efforts. Meditation and self-reflection are key elements of this journey to enlightenment. The ideal road is to dedicate oneself to full-time monastic life. The follower is expected to “abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind”. By meditating daily, students are expected to develop insight into the workings of the mind, how suffering is created, and how to let go of the habits that perpetuate it.

Chanting from the Paritta texts is also central to Theravada practice as a means of reinforcing the Buddha’s teaching.

Mahayana

Mahayana is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. Rather than a single group, Mahayana represents a collection of Buddhist traditions including Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana, a form of Tantric Buddhism practised mainly in Tibet and Mongolia is sometimes recognized as part of Mahayana. The spread of Mahayana through Tibet and China has allowed it to take on more local customs.

Mahayana differs from Theraveda in that its scriptures are somewhat more open and dynamic. While Theraveda adheres strictly to the Tripiṭaka (the earliest surviving Buddhist scriptures), Mahayana also accepts the Tripiṭaka alongside new doctrines and revelations attributed to the Buddha. Mahayanans say that they try to look beyond the Buddha’s literal teachings as they appear in the original scriptures and instead try to find deeper fundamental truths within the Buddha’s words.

The concept of the Bodhisattva

All schools of Buddhism recognise the Bodhisattva: “the one whose goal is awakening”. Or, in other words, someone who is on the path to becoming a buddha. Bodhisattvas are common figures in Buddhist literature and art.

The concept of the Bodhisattva is most prominent in Mahayana Buddhism, which encourages followers to stay in samsara and help other struggling humans. Mahayana Buddhists also believe that the bodhisattva path is universal: that anyone can undertake the journey to becoming a buddha. This journey is described as a way of life, of selflessness; a deep wish for all beings – no matter who they are – to be liberated from suffering.

Theravada, on the other hand, encourages followers to attain enlightenment first so they are better able to help others trapped in samsara. Theravada also holds that becoming a bodhisattva is “reserved for and appropriated by certain exceptional people” – in other words, not just anyone can become a Boddhisattva, and nor is it practical to insist on this.

The future of Buddhism

Unlike most other major religions of the world, and despite dominating much of north and southeast Asia, the global Buddhist population is expected to decline to 5% over the next few decades.

This is partly due to the global trend towards non-religion, and also partly due to the low fertility rate of Buddhist women. At present, Buddhist women produce only 1-2 children, which is fewer than most other religions. Demographics suggest that this may be because Buddhists tend to be older than followers of most other major religious groups around the world: the median age of Buddhists is 36. The median age of Muslims, on the other hand, is 24, and the Muslim population is expected to increase by 70% over the next three decades.

The small global decline of Buddhists will not reflect the prominence of Buddhism in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, the Buddhist population in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to grow by up to 137% by 2050. Buddhism is also growing rapidly in Europe and North America, with the number of people identifying as Buddhists expected to increase by 85% and 58% respectively.

And we should be glad. This non-theistic religion – with its encouragement of mindfulness and self-cultivation – is about us, our minds, and our suffering. It’s been referred to as “spiritualty for the non-religious” – and we are free to take from it what we wish.

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