Buddhism began as a missionary religion. A few days after the first sermon, the Buddha sent his chosen converts into the world with the exhortation, “Go ye forth, O Bhikkus, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world. Proclaim the Doctrine gloriously, preach ye a life of holiness, perfect and pure.” The Buddha felt it necessary to make available to all men the Universal principles of truth. It was to be a message for the entire mankind. It became the duty of every Buddhist to provide the knowledge of the path which was proclaimed by the Buddha as a way to happiness and enlightenment. It was to be a living stream of spiritual experience and it was different from any religious teachings preceding it. The path shown by the Buddha was unique and unlike the earlier religious cults, based on dogmas.
Gradually, over the years the Doctrine of Dhamma and the associated teachings were codified. Initially, nothing was written down. The principles were discussed and memorized and formed the basis of further discussion. Each individual was expected to work out his own salvation with diligence. However, the memorized canon was later on put into writing and honour was paid to the written word.
Buddhism travelled to many countries. First, it was Sri Lanka, which received the faith. King Ashoka sent his son Mahendra for this mission, which proved to be a great success because King Tessa of Sri Lanka got converted to this faith. Ashoka also sent his missions to Burma, then called Suvarnabhumi. In Burma, the worship of 37 Nats or deities is combined with Buddhism. The Burmese, they say, love Buddha and fear Nats. So they worship both. In Thailand, the King of the day in 1400 A.D. was so inspired by this faith that he sent for Bhikkus from Sri Lanka. In China, Buddhism reached around the first Century A.D., when that country was ruled by the Han dynasty. It is stated that Emperor Ming-ti, following a dream, became an enthusiastic follower of Buddhism and sent for Bhikkus from India. But in China, already two highly enlightened faiths – Confucian and Taoist – were popular. So in China, Buddhism flourished along with the existing faiths and formed the famous tripod of the Chinese religion. From China, Buddhism reached Korea. Afterwards, it travelled to Japan around 552 A.D. The famous regent Shotoku Taishi (593-622) became a patron of Buddhism and he is considered a great man that Japan produced. His influence was profound and he built a monastic settlement which became a prototype of Japanese architecture.
While Buddhism travelled in various directions, the faith gained local colour and became divergent from the teachings of the Enlightened One. In 1945, the Buddhist Society, in London felt the need to evolve a summary of the basic principles of Buddhism. Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983), the founder of the Society, went around to various countries where Buddhism flourished in order to evolve a composite consensus of the doctrines of Buddhism. These twelve basic principles formulated by him are as follows:
Self-Salvation is for any man the immediate task. If a man lay wounded by a poisoned arrow he would not delay extraction by demanding details of the man who shot it, or the length and make of the arrow. There will be time for ever-increasing understanding of the teachings during the treading of the way. Meanwhile, begin now by facing life, as it is, learning always by direct and personal experience.
The Law of Change
The first fact of existence is the law of change or impermanence. All that exists, from a mole to a mountain, from a thought to an empire, passes through the same cycle of existence, i.e., birth, growth, decay and finally death. Life alone is a continuous, ever-seeking self-expression in new forms. ‘Life is a bridge; therefore build no house on it.’ Life is a process of flow, and he who clings to any form, however splendid, will suffer by resisting the flow.
No part of the individual is immortal
The law of change applies as much to the ‘soul’ as to the physical body. There is no principle in an individual, which is immortal and unchanging. Only the ‘Namelessness’, the ultimate Reality, is beyond change and all forms of life, including man, are manifestations of this Reality. No one owns the life which flows in him any more than the electric light bulb owns the current which gives it light.
Man is the creator of his destiny
The Universe is the expression of law. All effects have causes, and man’s soul or character is the sum total of his previous thoughts and acts. Karma, meaning action-reaction, governs all existence, and man is the sole creator of his circumstances and his reaction to them, his future condition and his final destiny. By right thought and action, he can gradually purify his inner nature and so by self-realization attain, in time, liberation from rebirth. The process covers great periods of time, involving life after life on earth, but ultimately every form of life will reach Enlightenment.
Compassion is the Law of Laws – Eternal Harmony
Life is one and indivisible, though its ever-changing forms are innumerable and perishable. There is, in truth, no death, though every form dies. From an understanding of life’s unity, arises compassion, a sense of identity with life in other forms. Compassion is described as ‘the Law of laws – eternal harmony’, and he, who breaks this harmony of life will suffer accordingly and simply delay his own Enlightenment.
Four Noble Truths
Life being One, the interests of the part should be those of the whole. In his ignorance man thinks he can successfully strive for his own interests and this wrongly-directed energy of selfishness produces suffering. He learns from his suffering to reduce and finally eliminate its cause. The Buddha taught four noble Truths: (a) The omnipresence of suffering; (b) its cause, wrongly directed desire; (c) its cure, the removal of the cause; and (d) the Noble eightfold path of self-development which leads to the end of suffering.
The Eight-fold Path
It consists in Right (or perfect) Views or preliminary understanding, Right Aims or Motive, Right Speech, Right Acts, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration or mind-development and finally, Right Samadhi, leading to full Enlightenment. As Buddhism is a way of living, not merely a theory of life, the treading of this Path is essential to self-deliverance. ‘Cease to do evil, learn to be good, cleanse your own heart’: this is the teaching of the Buddha.
Everyone can attain Nirvana
Reality is indescribable and a God with attributes is not the final Reality. But the Buddha, a human being, became the All-Enlightened One and the purpose of life is the attainment of Enlightenment. This state of Consciousness, Nirvana, the extinction of the limitations of self-hood, is attainable on earth. All men and all other forms of life contain the potentiality of Enlightenment and the process, therefore, consists in becoming what you are, ‘Look within thou art Buddha.’
The Middle Way
From potential to actual Enlightenment there lies the Middle Way, the Eightfold Path ‘from a desire to peace’, a process of self-development between the ‘opposites’, avoiding all extremes. The Buddha trod this way to the end and the only faith required in Buddhism is a reasonable belief that where a guide has trodden it is worth our while to tread. The way must be trodden by the whole man, not merely the best of him but heart and mind must be developed equally. The Buddha was the- Compassionate as well as the All-Enlightened One.
Buddhism lays great stress on the need of inward concentration and meditation, which leads in time to the development of the inner spiritual faculties. The subjective life is as important as the daily round and periods of quietude for inner activity are essential for a balanced life. The Buddhist should at all times be ‘mindful and self-possessed’, refraining from mental and emotional attachment to ‘the passing show’. This increasingly watchful attitude to circumstances, which he knows to be his own creation, helps him to keep his reaction to it always under control.
Work out your own salvation with diligence
The Buddha said: ‘Work out your own salvation with diligence’. Buddhism knows no authority for truth save the intuition of the individual and that is authority for himself alone. Each man suffers the consequences of his own acts and learns thereby while helping his fellow men to the same deliverance; nor will prayer to the Buddha or to any God prevent an effect from following its cause. Buddhist monks are teachers and exemplars, and in no sense intermediate between Reality and the individual. The utmost tolerance is practised towards all other religions and philosophies, for no man has the right to interfere in his neighbour’s journey to the goal.
Buddhism is a way of life
Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor ‘escapist’, nor does it deny the existence of God or soul, though it places its own meaning on these terms. It is a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life, which is reasonable, practical and all-embracing. To conclude, we can say that Buddhism is a pragmatic approach to life. For over two thousand years it has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one-third of mankind. It appeals to the West because it is free from dogmas, satisfies the reason and the heart alike, insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for others’ points of view, embraces science, religion, philosophy, psychology, ethics and art; and points to man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny.