Buddhism in its beginnings: the life of the enlightened

Born in India around 2,500 years ago, Buddhism arrived in Japan via China in the 6th century. But the version of Buddhism that took root in Japan differed in important ways from the original teachings of the historical Buddha. How and why has religion changed over the centuries? This first installment in a series of articles tracing the development of Buddhism in Japan presents the basic principles of the religion as taught in India long ago.

Meditation as a way to free yourself from suffering

Buddhism began around 2,500 years ago. Its founder was a person known to history as Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was born into a noble family in the kingdom of Kapilavastu, near what is now the border between India and Nepal. He spent his early years surrounded by luxury and comfort, and as a prince might well have grown up to be king. But as a young man, his eyes were opened to the inherent suffering of human existence. This discovery made him decide to abandon his princely status and renounce his life of material ease and comfort. He went to the forests alone and began a life as a religious ascetic.

What prompted him to uproot himself from his comfortable environment and embark on a solitary life of uncertainty and discomfort? As a teenager, he realized that there were happy people and unhappy people in society. Although each person’s circumstances may be unique, all people have one thing in common. We are all inevitably linked to old age, illness and death. In this sense, all people are equally unhappy. Life itself involves suffering. And this suffering cannot be appeased or cured by wealth or rank. For someone who understood this truth, the social privileges of being a prince meant nothing. The only path left for Siddhartha was to devote his life to finding a way to escape the inherent suffering of life and achieve a state of tranquility and peace.

In the forests far from the cities, Gautama studied with religious renunciates, experts in the arts of asceticism and meditation, and began a solitary life of asceticism. He mortified his flesh, inflicting physical hardship and hunger on himself in the hope that by overcoming the pain he might gain superhuman powers that would allow him to escape suffering. But after six years of severe self-mortification and self-denial, he still hadn’t achieved his goal. He decided to change his approach. He abandoned his extreme asceticism and decided to focus solely on meditation. Thanks to this method, he was finally able to achieve enlightenment under the famous Bodhi tree. After his enlightenment, he became known as the Buddha, or “enlightened”. He is also known as Shakyamuni, an allusion to his origins in the Shakya tribe of ancient India.

A manual for overcoming destructive emotions

What was the nature of the Buddha’s enlightenment? It is impossible for one person to fully understand the dramatic changes taking place in another person’s heart. For this reason, a full account of the experience the Buddha had when he attained enlightenment must remain a mystery. But we can roughly understand what happened from the sutras and many other Buddhist scriptures, which communicate the content of the Buddha’s teachings based on his experience.

The Buddha taught that liberation from suffering is only possible through one’s own efforts. There is no superhuman being who will come to free a person from suffering. He used the powers of meditation to examine his own heart and mind, until he discovered the root of suffering. He understood that the root cause of our suffering comes from our attachment to an illusory sense of self. We let ourselves be ruled by an ego that doesn’t really exist. We see the world in an egocentric way that suits the interests of this imaginary ego. This self-centered awareness is something that develops in us by instinct, but it is an erroneous view of the world. And from this misunderstanding of the world flow the confused and destructive states of mind that Buddhism calls “kleshas”. These include emotions such as anxiety, desire, jealousy and fear – mental states that cloud the mind and lead to unhealthy actions, continuing the cycle of suffering.

Having understood the origin of suffering through self-observation, the Buddha offered a set of practical guidelines for ending these unhealthy states of mind and freeing oneself from the ocean of suffering. This approach to spiritual training is unique to Buddhism. Buddhist practice consists of two main elements. The first is to study the sutras and other scriptures and come to a correct understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. The sutras also serve as practical manuals for Buddhist practice. The second is to put into practice the spiritual lessons learned from the scriptures, under the guidance of more experienced practitioners.

As a completely new type of teaching, Buddhism exerted a powerful attraction on people, and the Buddha quickly attracted many disciples. The Buddha taught the methods he had learned from his own experience, without making any distinction between his disciples. After his death at the age of 80, his followers kept his methods and teachings alive, and they continue to be followed by Buddhists in many countries around the world today. Under the guidance of the Buddha, his disciples followed the path of meditative spiritual practices he had laid out for them. This community was to become one of the central pillars that sustained the development of Buddhism as a religion in the centuries that followed.

Nurture the Sangha

Perhaps the most important reason why Buddha’s teachings have survived uninterrupted through 25 centuries is that the Buddha conceived his religion as a community led by strict rules. He organized his followers into a single organization under his leadership called the “sangha”. The community was run under a strict set of rules called Vinaya Pitaka, one of the three central sets of Buddhist scriptures. After his death, his followers continued to abide by these regulations and maintained the sangha as an autonomous community of individuals ruled by the rule of law. From the beginning, the sangha formed the foundation of Buddhism. This brought many benefits.

1. Maintaining teacher-disciple relationships

The Vinaya Pitaka establishes clear relationships between teachers and disciples within the sangha. This allows the Buddha’s teachings, in the form of sutras and other scriptures, to be passed down accurately through the generations. It also facilitates communication of the practical side of meditation and other Buddhist practices, which can be taught face-to-face from master to student across generations. This helped make the sangha an extremely rational educational organization.

2. Mutual assistance as social security

The establishment of a system of mutual aid within the sangha transformed the relationship between a teacher and his disciples into mutual support in daily life. This meant that renunciates who had separated themselves from the secular world to devote themselves to Buddhist practices enjoyed protection and a kind of insurance against sickness, injury and old age. The sangha became a system of mutual support and assistance that its members could trust.

3. Maintaining community through almsgiving

The sangha of Buddhist monks was a community ruled by the rule of law, whose members lived humble and blameless lives according to their own strict code of conduct. This example of righteous conduct earned the community the respect of the outside secular world. People saw that the disciples of the Buddha were people who lived under strict discipline, and many were moved to give alms to support the community. These donations from ordinary people have helped sustain the sangha to the present day.

4. Independence from external authorities

By operating as an organization with its own laws and regulations, the sangha was able to achieve some autonomy. This has been an important factor in minimizing the risk of interference from outside powers and maintaining a suitable environment for meditation and reflection. The sangha has functioned throughout its history as an autonomous community independent of outside authorities.

Of course, these four characteristics have not been perfectly maintained without interruption for 2,500 years. Throughout history, many things have happened that violated these basic principles. But the fact that these four elements were present from the start as founding principles of the religion was highly significant. Even if the sangha sometimes strayed, it was relatively easy to put the community back on the right path as long as it still had its founding principles to find.

Japanese Buddhism: radically different from primitive Buddhism

The characteristics of early Buddhism can be summarized in two main points. First, the purpose of a religious life is meditation. Buddhism does not postulate any external savior. Instead, practitioners use their own powers of observation to look within, to analyze the self, and to make improvements. Daily training through meditation is the main method used to achieve this.

The second is the existence of the sangha as a community that provides a place where practitioners can focus on the path to enlightenment. The sangha was created with the aim of allowing practitioners to devote themselves to their practices while remaining dependent on the surrounding secular society for their daily needs. The community is managed rationally according to the disciplinary code established in the Vinaya Pitaka.

These two characteristics differentiate Buddhism from other religions. But in Japanese Buddhism, these two characteristics have atrophied. In fact, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that they have completely disappeared. This is a crucial point in understanding Japanese Buddhism. If the Japanese form of religion has lost these typical elements of early Buddhism, what other characteristics has it developed instead? In this series, I want to see how Buddhism was received by the Japanese people after they came to this country via China. The position of Buddhism in Japan has fluctuated considerably over the centuries. In certain periods, the religion cultivated close ties with the temporal rulers and powers of the time. At other times, he suffered persecution and repression. I want to look back on this long and turbulent history and examine the unique path that religion has followed in Japan over the past millennium and a half.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: A mural of the life of the Buddha at Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple in Sarnath near Varanasi, India. © Aflo.)