Gaining a better understanding of Buddhism


By Ellen Westenhaver

Education Week presenter Jared W. Ludlow offered a crash course on the world’s fourth largest religion in his Wednesday class “Gaining a Better Understanding of Buddhism.”

Buddhism is an ancient religion that started in India and moved into Asia. Today, it is predominantly in Southeast Asia, Japan, China, Tibet and Mongolia. It has been said that Buddhism was the most important civilizing influence in the eastern world.

There are three sects of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Mahayana is the largest of the three and it has a focus on bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, helping others achieve enlightenment. Theravada, second largest, concentrates on a path of self-salvation. The smallest branch, Vajrayana, focuses on visualizing yourself as a Buddha to help achieve enlightenment. The current Dalai Lama practices Vajrayana Buddhism.

The crash course examined seven dimensions of the religion. The first dimension was mythical stories. The use of the word “mythical” does not mean the stories were false, but they had spiritual significance. These stories are of Buddha.

A Buddha is one who has achieved enlightenment and escaped the cycle of reincarnation. Contrary to popular belief, there has been more than one Buddha. The fat little statues that the Western world is familiar with represent Siddhartha Gautama, whose teachings laid the foundation for Buddhism.

The next dimension is doctrine. Buddhists believe in four noble truths: life is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to end suffering you must eliminate desire and to eliminate desire you must follow the eight-fold path. The eight-fold path encompasses wisdom, morality and withdrawal from the world. Buddhists focus on a middle way, not of the world but not renouncing the world.

Buddhists believe that there is a constant process of reincarnation. To escape this, one must achieve nirvana, or enlightenment. There are two senses of nirvana: immediate, also known as living, and final, which occurs at death. Nirvana literally means to blow out. Ludlow used candles as an example; reincarnation is like passing a flame from candle to candle, but nirvana is extinguishing it forever.

Third is experiential. Nirvana is the ultimate experience for Buddhists. One must practice meditation with the help of Samadhi, exercises and gardens, which help with focus. This ties into the fourth dimension, which is ritual. Rituals include mantras (sacred sounds), mudras (hand gestures), prayer recitation, veneration of Buddha and pilgrimages.

The fifth dimension is ethics. Buddhists are against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and the use of mind-altering substances such as alcohol.

Sixth is social, which describes the idea that the self is a collection of five elements, which include the physical body, senses, perceptions, responses and consciousness.

The last dimension is material. This denotes the intricate artwork shown in Buddhist statues and temples.

To outsiders, Buddhism might seem like a strange religion. Brother Ludlow helped bridge the gap by pointing out a number of similarities between the two. Both have a lay clergy and practice compassionate service. Meditation, reverence, inspiration and moderation are all principles that Buddhists and Mormons appreciate. Their moral codes are almost identical.

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