Here are some often asked questions about Buddhism that I have written answers for. My background is from Zen Buddhism but I also read and respect Theravada Buddhism as a based to all types of Buddhism.
- What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is one religion among thousands of other similar religions in the world. It was founded by the Buddha.
- Who was the Buddha?
Buddha was a person. He was a prince who left behind his noble status to become an ascetic, common in his time and place. He studied in under various teachers (at least two) and became “enlightened” after seven years of arduous practice. From his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five he proceeded to teach for the next forty-fives until his death how to reach reach the enlightenment he himself had achieved.
- When did Buddhism start?
The Buddha had lived around 2,500 year ago in the 5th century BCE. Buddhism as a religion stems from his time.
- Where did Buddhism originate from?
Buddha was born in a kingdom that once existed near the present-day border of Nepal and India. But he was active as a teacher throughout the north and north-eastern region part of India until his death.
- What is enlightenment?
Enlightenment is the realisation that overcomes the unsatisfactoriness of one’s life. It is a personal experience.
- What are the main tenets of Buddhism?
Buddha realised that all real things are impermanent. To think otherwise is unsatisfactory. The biggest culprit for this sort of unsatisfactoriness is belief in the soul and gods. For this reason Buddha rejected the soul (the tenet of non-self) and gods.
He also taught the way to enlightenment (understanding impermanence, removing unsatisfactoriness and coming to a clarity of the falsehood of self). He said, first one must realise that everything worldly is unsatisfying. This unsatisfactoriness is found in placing our trust in material things. To overcome this we must remove this misplace trust. How we can remove is by having correct 1) understanding, 2) thought, 3) speech, 4) actions, 5) livelihood, 6) effort, 7) mindfulness and 8) concentration (meditation).
Buddha also taught to see how this comes about in a causal chain including one that goes beyond one lifespan (karma and rebirth).
- What is meditation?
Meditation is the training of the mind. Just as your body needs to train to be optimal, so does your mind.
- Do all schools of Buddhism practice meditation?
No. While meditation is considered important since it was the practice that helped Buddha to his enlightenment, and is the list of the eightfold path it, is seldom emphasised in Buddhist schools except for Zen Buddhism literally meaning the School of Meditation.
- What are the sutras?
The sutras are the recollections of Buddha. Buddha left no writings preferring for what he taught to be passed on orally as evidence of the impermanence of all things. The oldest sutras are Pali Canon upheld by the Theravada School. There is also the a Sanskrit collection upheld by the Mahayana schools. As an analogy, you can think of the Pali Canon as the Old Testament and the Mahayana texts (written later) as the New Testament in the Judeo-Christian traditions.
- Was Buddha a god?
No, Buddha was not a god. He was a human being. In this sense Buddhism is strictly not a religion. However, there are gods in Buddhism. More than likely they were included to accommodate local beliefs. Gods in Buddhism are lower in rank to the Buddha. Gods are also not eternal beings, that is, they will also eventually disappear (follow the law of impermanence) as did Buddha and as will Buddhism.
- Does one worship Buddha?
No. Since Buddha is not a god it would be strange to worship him. While certain future Buddhas have become the focus of worship it is not what was traditionally taught (mostly found in Mahayana texts).
- Why are there Buddhist temples?
Temples and monasteries were traditionally gathering places for monks as a place to practice and live (not as a place of worship). Later they became places that housed relics of Buddha as a reminder and inspiration for practice (hence worship). Today, in Japan, for example, local temples do serve as a focus but mainly they perform a funerary function and promote ancestral remembrance. Larger temples are tourist destinations and a reminder of the Japan’s Buddhist history.
- What is Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?
Theravada (The Way of the Elders) Buddhism is the oldest school of Buddhism. Mahayana (The Greater Vehicle) Buddhism is a later development. Mahayana Buddhism not one but many schools based off later writings.
- What is the difference between Hinayana and Theravada Buddhism?
Hinayana literally means The Lesser Vehicle. It is the name given by Mahayana Buddhists to Theravada Buddhism the only surviving school from the original branch. It is a derogatory term to elevate its own position. This is why Theravada Buddhists do not refer to themselves as Hinayana Buddhists.
- Are there different schools of Buddhism?
There are many schools but mostly this variety is found today in Japan. The main Buddhist schools still surviving today are Theravada, Jodo, Jodo Shin, Nichiren, Tendai, Shingon, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
- Who are some important figures in Buddhism throughout its history?
There is, of course, Buddha. King Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire helped establish Buddhism as a belief at state level. Nargajuna and Vasubandhu established some important ideas for Mahayana Buddhism. Dignaga and Dharmakurti did so similarly for Tibetan Buddhism as well. Kukai, Saicho, Honen, Shiran, Nichiren, Dogen and Hakuin are some of the other names important to later Buddhism. D T Suzuki helped establish Zen in the West.
- Where has Buddhism spread to?
Today, Buddhism is still mainly in Asia. It is now mainly in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Tibet, Burma, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. But it also had spread through Afghanistan and China as well. Today, various schools of Buddhism are popular in the West. These included Zen, Jodo Shin, Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism.
- What is Zen?
Zen literally means meditation. It is a Mahayana school of Buddhism which emphasises enlightenment through meditation. Practice is therefore important.
- Who started Zen Buddhism?
While it is said that Zen came from Buddha all the way in an unbroken lineage to today, the earliest name traced to is Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch of China. Zen is the Japanese name for Ch’an, the Chinese name for this branch. Fully establishing Ch’an was Hui-neng, the Sixth Patiarch. In Japan Zen was introduced by Dogen of the Soto school and Eisai and then later revitalised by Hakuin of the Rinzai school.
- Where did it originate?
China is the most likely source but early writings came from Gandhara (the Afghan region) via Mongolia and Central Asia.
- When did Zen start?
Ch’an was established around the 6th century CE in China. Zen entered Japan in the 13th century.