Buddhism, Brief Introduction

One of the things I like most about Thailand is its Buddhist culture. Before I arrived, I was only vaguely knowledgeable about Buddhism. I learned some things about Buddhism, but I started to focus a lot more on Buddhism after 2008 when I started practicing its way of life to a far greater extent. Buddhism is my favorite and primary religion.

The following includes mostly Buddhist teachings, but includes things which may be just some of my own viewpoints mixed in, or I might have a right understanding but I'm not completely sure. I'm not a spokesperson for Buddhism, nor a high expert, though I have thought a lot about the mind and our nature as advanced primate mammals, artificial intelligence, objectivity, meanings, and purpose. Some of these things are not included in Buddhism, but the foundation of Buddhism can help us much better understand and manage our lives and modern things such as artificial intelligence and purpose.

Buddhism doesn't have a "god", nor a big set of dogmatic beliefs, nor metaphysical claims, and the person who founded the religion had no divine birth but was just a man living a normal life until he start his journey as an adult towards becoming enlightened. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, often referred to as just Gautama. He came from a wealthy and high status family, and was enjoying a life of privilege, when long into his adulthood he decided to exit that life and wander into the outside world to observe and learn about life, regardless of the hardships he knew that he was entering. He learned from teachers about philosophy and meditation, and experimented in various ways, including as an ascetic, but was not completely satisfied, and once neared death from fasting.

After all that, at one point, he was unsatisfied and decided to try to find a better way alone. He spent a long time meditating under a fig tree, at which time he had insights and became "Awakened", or "Bodhi". Then he set out to teach others what he had learned. Followers became disciples and the Buddhist monkhood was started. Gautama is referred to as "The Buddha", "The Awakened One". Those who become "Awakened" and understand and exercise the fundamental tenants which The Buddha taught are "Buddhists".

Here is my mix of Buddhist and maybe my own viewpoints: We must accept the impermanence of many things. Suffering is part of life but it is possible to transcend it. Some of suffering comes from cravings, defilements, and clinging to primitive desires and things. We must let go of things such as ego (status instinct), greed, lust, sensuality, aversion, hate, ignorance, and delusion. We must accept the impermanence of many states and things. We must try to understand the true nature of things, objectively and correctly. We must also let go of the concept of a permanent self, and that we are something separate from everything else.

When you study Buddhism, you get into many ancient words with ancient roots, which may be open to different interpretations, and may be using similes and analogies anyway in trying to convey a concept. (It is fascinating to me the range of words, or symbols, that humans can understand. It's also interesting how people from different cultural origins process new words and concepts. With that in mind, try imagine going back 2500 years to the vocabulary which existed at that time, and creating new words and concepts from roots.) So, I will try to keep things simple with only modern English words.

The Buddha taught to follow a Middle Path between extreme ascetism and sensual indulgence.

The Buddha taught the Noble 8 Steps:

Right View -- a correct understanding of the nature of things
Right Intentions
Right Speech
Right Conduct or Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Meditation

This leads to the development of two more steps of wisdom:

Right Knowledge and Insight
Right Liberation and Release

Buddhism also teaches about karma, that actions of behavior, speech, and thought propagates into karmic results.

This is a very brief summary. I try to follow the above. There is a whole lot more to Buddhism, and various ways of understanding and interpreting a lot of it. Like with other religions, there are various sects and branches within Buddhism, and you may choose the parts which you agree with, while also questioning other parts. In some places, local animist beliefs have been mixed in with local practices.

There's not much of a "holier than thou" attitude in Buddhism, as The Buddha taught people to question things, and find their own way, apparently understanding that this would be an evolving religion.

I want to emphasize that I disagree with escapism, such as people who try to reach Nirvana or Heaven as a goal, selfishly and self-centeredly, withdraw from the world, or just observe and accept the world and not do much. Instead, I think it is important to go out into the world to try to help the world, as best you can. However, it is best to do so in as peaceful a way as you can, and set a good example.

Buddhism has been mostly a peaceful religion, not engaging in crusades, nor harsh punishments of heretics, nor warfare, and passively enduring of incoming invasions. (An exception is in Myanmar where there is some religious conflict.) Buddhism generally relies on its teachings and monks for attracting adherents and its expansion.

Buddhism has actually shrunk in coverage vastly over the centuries, partly due to invasions of other religions of intolerance, with much destruction. Buddhism doesn't suppress other religions, but many other religions suppress Buddhism.

Buddhism started in India and was widely popular in ancient times, but now less than 1% of Indians are Buddhist. Buddhism peaked in India around the 3rd century BCE, when Ashoka The Great unified the continent, adopted Buddhism, and sent missionaries abroad around Asia. Now Cambodia tops the list at 97.9% Buddhist, followed by Thailand as #2 with 93.2%, then Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and then a long list of only Asian countries until you get to 10.6% for the Northern Marianna Islands (due to migrant Asians) and 3.1% for Qatar. The USA is down at 1-2% depending upon survey, which is surprisingly low, and a little less than the Jewish population. (I'm guessing the Buddhists might be Asian migrants far more than converted people, but I don't know.)

Thailand has been spared the kinds of extremely harsh and destructive conquests of many other parts of the world. (Khmers of Hinduism in the time of Angkor Wat conquered much of Thailand, but the Khmer kingdom collapsed out of revolt from within, over taxes used to pay for huge Hindu temples made for the gods, whereby frugal Buddhism had wide appeal with the masses, and eventually spread into what's now Cambodia, replacing Hinduism, not by military force but by simple adoption by the Khmer population in voluntarily replacing Hinduism.)

A big appeal of Buddhism is that it is flexible and adaptable to the modern scientific world, and future oriented.

There is no history of punishing people who believe the Earth goes around the Sun, that stars are suns, and so on. It was illegal in my state of Arkansas to teach evolution until 1968, when I turned age 9, due to the beliefs of many people of another religion. The Buddha never taught that the world was created by any god. There are no Buddhists holding guns to expand the range of their religion, or destroying others' religious artifacts. Buddhism is a very peaceful religion, and relies on persuasion.

Einstein:

“Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.“

"Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that human knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind. What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living."

"If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man—with his conscience—and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind."




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