Introduction to Buddhism Teacher Resource Guide By Kat Harrington Georgetown University East Asia National Resource Center
An Introduction to Buddhism Buddhism
is the practice of following the Buddha’s teachings with the goal of achieving ‘enlightenment’ and reaching nirvana. The core precept of Buddhism is that life is suffering brought on by humans’ attachments and desire, and that one must shed his or her attachments and be without desire in order to transcend life’s suffering. Buddhism originated nearly 2,500 years ago and is now practiced by over 400 million people worldwide.
Who is the Buddha?
The Buddha was born in the 5th Century BCE as an Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama. He enjoyed a lavish royal lifestyle until one day he encountered a decrepit elderly man, a diseased man, a corpse, and a hermit outside of his palace. These experiences, known as The Four Sights, opened his eyes to the suffering in the world, and he embarked on a journey, forsaking his wealth and title, to uncover life’s truths and find the path out of suffering. Siddhartha sought out the best teachers in meditation, but after learning everything he could from them, he realized that he would have to rely on himself to discover the truth about life. He turned to extreme forms of self-deprivation and endured physical hardships, such as sleeping on a bed of thorns and starvation, in the hopes that these experiences of severe suffering would lead him to the truth. After several years of practicing this extreme form of meditation, Siddhartha, who had wasted away to skin and bones, heard a group of musicians pass by playing lutes. He thought about the dynamics of the instrument and realized that if the strings of the lute were too loose, the music would be too low and quiet, but if the stings were too taught, they would snap. He applied this imagery to himself and understood that he was straining himself too far. He abandoned this practice and began to eat regularly again, knowing that he would need his strength to continue on his quest for life’s truths. He resumed his meditations under a tree, where he remained for forty-nine days. There,
Gautama Buddha imparts first teaching
Mara, the evil one, tried to tempt Siddhartha to abandon his search for the truth, but Siddhartha was not swayed and finally was able to pinpoint the truth about suffering. He came to understand that suffering is caused by people’s greed, selfishness, and ignorance. He concluded that the only path to end suffering then was to eliminate desire and seek wisdom and truth throughout one’s life. It was through this realization that Siddhartha became enlightened at the age of thirty-five. From this moment on, he was a buddha, or enlightened one. The tree under which he had sat became known as the Bodhi tree, or tree of enlightenment.
Definition: Buddhahood The term buddha generally refers to anyone who has attained enlightenment, and buddhahood is the state of being enlightened. Siddhartha Gautama is not the only person to have achieved buddhahood, though he is considered by Buddhists to be the Supreme Buddha. Many Buddhists believe that any person can achieve buddhahood eventually.
Did you know? The Buddha’s ear lobes are so long thanks to the heavy gold earrings he wore as a prince, which stretched them out. In Buddhist iconography, his elongated ear lobes symbolize the weight and burden of materialism.
The Buddha’s Teachings Dharma has many definitions, but for the purpose of Buddhism, it means ‘truth.’ The Buddha’s teachings, known as the Buddha Dharma, reveal the truth that life is suffering but that suffering can be ended by letting go of one’s desires and ignorance. After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha’s first teaching was of The Four Noble Truths: 1. Life is suffering. 2. Suffering is brought about by attachments and desires. 3. Suffering ends when one no longer has attachments or desires. 4. Freedom from suffering is attainable by following The Eightfold Path. The steps the Buddha prescribed to eliminate desire and obtain enlightenment are known as The Eightfold Path: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
The Eightfold Path
Right View: to see things for what they really are, without being blinded by emotions, attachments, desires, biases, ignorance, etc. Right Intention: to always resist desire and anger and to practice compassion Right Speech: to always speak the truth, to never use your words to hurt others, and to avoid unnecessary chatter Right Action: to never hurt or kill any living beings (including one’s self), lie, or partake in sexual abuse Right Livelihood: to earn one’s living by ethical means- avoiding weapons and drug dealing, prostitution, slavery, and meat production/ butchery Right Effort: to utilize one’s mental energy to cultivate what is good in one’s self and to suppress what is bad and harmful Right Mindfulness: to be cognizant of one’s body, feelings, state of mind, and of phenomena to assist in taking the Right View Right Concentration: to focus one’s mind on a single subject to come to the Right View through meditation
Right View Right Intention Right Speech Right Action Right Livelihood Right Effort Right Mindfulness Right Concentration
The Five Moral Precepts: 1. Avoid Killing 2. Avoid Stealing 3. Avoid Misusing Sex 4. Avoid Lying 5. Avoid Using Intoxicants
Buddhist monk meditating
Reincarnation in Buddhism Buddhists believe that all cognizant beings will be trapped in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, known in Buddhism as samsara, until they attain enlightenment and reach nirvana.
Definition: Nirvana Nirvana is the state of mind of total nonattachment. An enlightened individual who has reached nirvana no longer experiences desires and, therefore, no longer suffers. There exist six realms into which a being may be reborn. One’s karma, good or bad actions, dictates the realm of rebirth as well as the conditions of life in that particular cycle of samsara. Of all the realms of existence, the most desirable realm for rebirth is that of the humans. Buddhists believe that humans are given the best chances to follow the Buddha’s path to enlightenment and, therefore, end their cycle of rebirth and suffering. The elements of desire and attachments, pride, jealousy, anger, and ignorance are thought to be too strong in the other five realms for beings to overcome. In fact, the realms of the demigods and gods are considered by some to be the most challenging realms in which to be reborn. The comforts and happiness in these realms intensify one’s desires and pride, making it very difficult for one to follow the Buddha’s path of non-attachment.
Bhavacakra, the wheel of life, depicts samsara
Six Realms of Existence 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
Realm of Hell Beings (Niraya) Realm of Ghosts (Pretas) Realm of Animals (Tiryak) Realm of Humans (Manushya) Realm of the Demigods (Asuras) Realm of the Gods (Devas)
The Three Jewels or Triple Gem Buddhists take refuge from their suffering in:
Symbol of the Triple Gem or Triratna
The Buddha- the enlightened one
The Dharma- the teachings of the Buddha
The Sangha- the community of monks, nuns, and lay men and women who support and learn from one another in the Buddhist tradition
The Eight Auspicious Symbols Lotus (Padma): Purity As the beautiful lotus blooms out of muddy water, so too does one’s mind and spirit with the Buddha’s teachings. Wheel (Dharmachakra): Wheel of Law The wheel is the most important symbol as it represents the teachings of the Buddha and the cycle of rebirth. Its eight spokes symbolize the Eightfold Path. Parasol (Chattra): Royalty and Protection Like an umbrella protects one from rain or the harsh sun, so too does the Buddha’s teachings protect one’s spirit from harmful influences. Golden Fish (Suvamamatsya): Happiness and Prosperity Fish in most Asian cultures generally symbolize freedom, fertility, and fidelity.
Conch Shell (Sankha): Proclamation of the Buddha’s Teachings Historically, the conch shell has appeared across cultures as a horn or medium of announcement. Endless Knot (Shrivasta): Buddha’s Infinite Wisdom The knot represents the continuity of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion as well as balance and harmony in the universe. Victory Banner (Dhvaja): Triumph Over Ignorance The banner represents the Buddha’s victory over Mara, the evil one, who tempted him to abandon his quest for the truth. Treasure Vase (Kalasha): Buddha’s Spiritual Abundance The treasure vase represents the Buddha’s perpetual repository of spiritual strength and blessings.
Major Schools of Buddhism Theravada Buddhism Theravada roughly translates to the ‘teachings of the elders’ and as such, is considered to most closely resemble the early forms of Buddhism. It is also the more conservative of the two schools. Predominantly practiced in South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, and Thailand), followers of Theravada Buddhism believe that only monks can achieve nirvana and that the laity as well as nuns must strive for good karma in order to be reborn as monks. The ultimate goal of Theravada monks is to become an arhat, or saint who reaches nirvana and ends his cycle of rebirth. Theravada Buddhists venerate Gautama Buddha above all others and focus their studies on the collection of his teachings known as the Tipitaka.
Mahayana Buddhism Mahayana means the ‘greater vehicle,’ which refers to the path all persons can follow to reach buddhahood and nirvana. Since Mahayana Buddhists believe anyone can achieve enlightenment (not just monks), the Mahayana tradition is generally considered to be more liberal than Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana also differs from Theravada Buddhism in that its practitioners strive to become a bodhisattva instead of an arhat. A bodhisattva is a saint who remains on Earth after attaining buddhahood to teach others the path to enlightenment, like Gautama Buddha. Mahayana is the largest school of Buddhism, incorporating such sects as Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan. It is predominately practiced in Northern Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia) but is also widely followed in Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Did you know?
The plump, bald man depicted on the right is often mistakenly thought to be the Buddha by Westerners. He is actually an eccentric Chinese Buddhist monk from the 10th Century named Budai (Hotei in Japan). Budai is known for being jovial, content, and loved by children. Though not the same as Gautama Buddha, Budai is considered by many Buddhists to be a buddha (enlightened one).
The Spread of Buddhism
Buddhism was first disseminated on a large scale with the conversion of the Indian Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BCE. Emperor Ashoka built over 80,000 stupas, or domes containing relics of the Buddha, temples, monasteries, and shrines across South and Central Asia. He deployed prominent Buddhist monks as far west as Italy and as far east as China. Over his lifetime, Ashoka dedicated much of his wealth and resources to the development of Buddhism. From the 2nd Century BCE onward, Buddhism continued to flourish and spread along the Silk Road, land and sea trade routes connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still today, crumbling ruins of Buddhist statues and faded cave art can be seen along the routes of what was once the Silk Road.
Statue of Budai, 10th Century Buddhist Monk
Student Activity Review the Eightfold Path with your students. After a thorough discussion with your students about what each fold entails, have them choose one of the folds for this activity. Each student will devise a practical plan any person could follow day-to-day to achieve the desired state of their selected fold. Plans should include possible pitfalls or temptations, what to avoid as well as proactive steps towards the selected foldâ€™s goal. Example: Right View Plan 1) Practice self-reflection at least 10 minutes a day. 2) Always try to put yourself in another personâ€™s shoes and see things from another perspective. 3) Count to 10, breathing deeply, to calm your temper.
Recommended Resources Websites Buddhanet: http://buddhanet.net/ Highly recommended- comprehensive website with e-library and primary and secondary student lessons Buddhism for KIDS: http://www.gakkaionline.net/kids/stories.html Simple stories from Buddhist texts Clear Vision: http://www.clear-vision.org/Schools/Teachers.aspx Highly recommended- audio/video media on Buddhism Dharmanet: http://www.dharmanet.org/learning.htm Highly recommended- comprehensive website with extensive introductory information D-Kidz: http://www.d-kidz.com/about_dkidz.html Buddhist songs and chants for young children An Introduction to Buddhism: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro.html Simple, straightforward information for high school and university level students The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism: http://www.sgilibrary.org/dict.html Searchable online dictionary of over 2,700 Buddhism terms
Childrenâ€™s Books Landaw, Jonathan. Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha. Wisdom Publications: 2003. Myers, Tim. Basho and the Fox. Marshall Cavendish, 2000. Shepard, Aaron. The Monkey King: A Superhero Tale of China, Retold from the Journey to the West. Skyhook: 2005.
Books for Young Adults Blue Jean Buddha. Sumi Loundon ed. Wisdom Publications: 2001. Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. Wisdom Publications, 2005. Chopra, Deepak. Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment. HarperCollins: 2007. Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Hilda Rosner trans. New Directions: 1951. Warner, Brad. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality. Wisdom Publications: 2003.
This teacher resource guide is made available by the East Asia National Resource Center at Georgetown University for free, academic use only and is not to be reproduced in any way for profit. All images were taken from the public domain. The Georgetown University East Asia National Resource Center is funded by a Title VI grant from the Department of Education.