Buddhism: A Primer

Buddhism: A Primer

Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world. It is also one of the most ancient. Buddhism has it origins in the person of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who seemed to have everything – a loving wife, an adorable infant son, and a kingdom he would someday inherit.

However, Siddhartha was not happy, because he had come into contact with all manner of human suffering, and saw how fickle fortune can be, and how even the wealthy and powerful still endure sickness, old age, and death. The Vedic Brahmanism of the time was not providing the answers he was seeking, so he left his wife, child, and kingdom, and turned to increasingly rigorous forms of asceticism – the practice of renouncing material possessions, physical pleasures, and most forms (even all forms) of food and drink. During this time he also studied with two masters of yogic meditation. After six years of this, Siddhartha realized that extreme deprivationBuddha-Weekly-Shakyamuni-under-bodhi-tree-Buddhism wasn’t going to help him reach enlightenment any better than the posh life he had before.

At that point, he decided to get a bath, have a meal, and meditate in a comfortable spot under a sacred fig tree – now known as a Bodhi tree – vowing not to get up until he had attained enlightenment. Forty-nine days later (or after one night full of demons and temptations, depending on which early Buddhist text you read), he finally reached Nirvana (“blowing out,” “quenching,” release from the cycle of rebirth). He then became known as Gautama Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and simply Buddha.

What came to Buddha under the Bodhi tree was what would become the basic foundation of Buddhism – ending attachment to that which is impermanent, which produces karma (action driven by intention which leads to future consequences), which in turn keeps us caught in the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. This ending is accomplished by embracing The Four Noble Truths and The Eight-fold Path.

The Four Noble Truths

1. The Truth of Suffering: Life is full of that which upsets us, from natural disasters, to illness, to aggravating mothers-in-law.

2. The Cause of Suffering: Our reaction to events or circumstances, our interpretations and perceptions, and how we deal with it all. Our attachment to things or outcomes, our desire for life to be other than what it is

3. The End of Suffering: Letting it all go, relinquishing the attachment.

4. The Path that Frees us from Suffering (or how to actually manage to let it all go):Becoming aware of our illusions, our ways of thinking, the ruts we’re in, and our Eightfold-Path-final-webunrealistic expectations, which is made possible by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eight-fold Path

1. Right View: Acceptance of the fundamental teachings.

2. Right Resolve: Having a positive, constructive outlook. Freeing your mind from ill will, cruelty, and lust.

3. Right Speech: Constructive, productive, honest, sincere speech. Avoiding abusive, idle, or divisive speech.

4. Right Action: No intentional killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.

5. Right Livelihood: Avoiding professions that harm or cheat others, like slavery, trafficking, weapons dealing, shady business dealings, etc.

6. Right Effort: Avoiding distractions, overcoming laziness, lack of sleep (or avoiding being sleepy in the first place), checking your attitude at the door, etc.

7. Right Mindfulness: Being aware of what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing at all times.

8. Right Concentration: Cultivating clarity and heightened alertness of mind.

Buddha would spend the next forty-five years teaching others what he had learned. He formed a monastic community that eventually included women in his lifetime. He and his monks and nuns traveled all over Nepal and rest of the Indian subcontinent. Buddha died at age 80, sometime between 486 and 368 BCE, depending on whether you are using the corrected long chronology, modern scholar consensus, or the short (Indian)elorabuddha chronology.

After Gautama Buddha died, his monastic community chugged along quietly, writing things down and going about the business of establishing a religion. Historical evidence suggests that Buddhism was a minor but accepted religion, until the 3rd century BCE, when Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Emperor, took an interest. The Mauryan Empire at that time encompassed what are now the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and part of Iran.

When Emperor Ashoka saw the devastation caused by his annexation of Kalinga, he began to feel remorse, and became a follower of Buddhism. His royal patronage enabled Buddhism to spread more quickly all over the empire, down to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and even all the way to what is now Libya. This is due to the fact that this was the Hellenistic Period, when the empire of the late Alexander the Great was still in Greek hands, allowing Ashoka to sponsor Buddhist emissaries all over the Hellenistic world.

Around this time (150-100 BCE), Buddhism, which had several little offshoots by now, developed a major branch. This branch was known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism and, unlike the original Theravada, emphasized the Bodhisattva path, which seeks to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, and holds that PeaceBuddhaenlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and can even be achieved by a layperson, not just a member of the monastic community.

By the 1st century CE, Buddhism had moved all the way up Central Asia and snaked over to China. Vajrayana Buddhism, also called Mantrayāna, Tantric, and Esoteric Buddhism, developed during the 4-6th century CE. It featured new practices such as the use of mantras, dharanis, mudras, and mandalas, as well as the visualization of deities and Buddhas, and developed a new class of literature, known as the Buddhist Tantras. Vajrayana is a variant that some consider to be a sub branch of Mahayana Buddhism, while others think it’s a completely separate branch. While Vietnam, Korea, and Southeast Asia had Buddhism several centuries earlier, it didn’t arrive in Japan until the 6th century CE. The 7th century saw Buddhism finally arrive in Tibet with a mixture of equal parts Mahayana and Vajrayana ending up as the dominant form. Tibet was a theocratic state, headed by its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Although India was the birthplace of Buddhism, Muslim incursions, and the growth of Hinduism – which had added the Buddha to their seemingly endless list of gods – cause it to all but disappear.

In the modern era, the colonization of Asian Buddhist countries by Western states weakened the traditional political structures that supported the Buddhist religion and subjected it to criticism and competition from the Christianity those states brought withIntelligentPeopleIgnore them. Other significant pressures have come from communism, the growth of capitalism, large-scale wars, and regional conflicts. In 1950, a Chinese communist invasion forced Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama to feel the country, and eventually establish a Tibetan exile community at Dharamsala in India.

The Tibetan diaspora is also helping to spread Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, helped along by the popularity of the still-exiled 14th Dalai Lama, who has mastered the art of throwing gentle, elegant shade. Other forms of Buddhism have been finding homes in English-speaking countries since the 19th century, powered by intellectuals from the Theosophical Society, as well as, well-known Hollywood performers. From its humble beginnings, Buddhism has truly become a worldwide religion.


“History of Buddhism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Buddhism

“Gautama Buddha.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha

“Buddhism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

Thorpe, Charley Linden. “Four Noble Truths.” 12, April 2017, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Four_Noble_Truths/

Violatti, Christian. “Siddhartha Gautama.” 9, December 2013, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Siddhartha_Gautama/

Violatti, Christian. “Buddhism.” 20, May 2014, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/buddhism/



On a recent post, some people were critical of the term “enlightenment” and its application toward the human race. Now, this term was being used in conjunction with the “Age of Enlightenment,” something altogether different from our modern American use of the term. Students of History understand, know, or at least have heard of the Western European “Age of Enlightenment,” so called because of the explosion of knowledge, science, and access to those tools that brought forward many of our modern inventions and way of thinking.

According to Websters, enlightenment is explained thus:



1. the action of enlightening or the state of being enlightened. “Robbie looked to me for enlightenment”; synonyms: insight, understanding, awareness, education, learning, knowledge.

2. a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

Someone very wise once told me that Freemasons fall into two general “modes,” if you will, with regards to their approach to Freemasonry: intellectual and devotional. This is a wide spectrum; and, we all have elements of both within our personalities while some people will fall more towards one side than the other. It’s difficult for someone who leans more toward an intellectual bent to understand a devotional way of being, and vise versa. An intellectually-bent person might look at Freemasonry as a tool to intellectual discovery, a place for concrete fraternal relationships, and a more inward view of life. Analysis. A devotional-bent person may want to explore the esoteric and occult side of Freemasonry, feel more reverential toward their deity through their Masonic work, and perhaps be more inclined toward personal, service-oriented relationships. Feeling. Each person has to some degree these modes of operation. Yet, as a Freemason, they are perhaps brought visible.


Why does this matter when discussing enlightenment? It seems that each of these people view enlightenment in very different ways. Is knowledge derived from a pure scientific approach? Analysis? Is knowledge derived from a pure empirical approach? Feeling? The interesting thing is the judgement that goes along with how each other views the opposite approach. There’s an intellectual snide comment here or there when the devotional Freemason approaches enlightenment with an emotional response. There’s harsh condemnation of science when the intellectual produces a theory based on their analytical approach and disregards the “human” element.  What is interesting is how each immediately judges the other’s approach to enlightenment, as if there is only one way. Even the non-religious discussion can evoke a dogmatic high-horse.

Is it so difficult to imagine that you can have both approaches, and both are valid?There’s also this “great quest” toward enlightenment, as if it’s something that can be achieved through one method, one voice, or one frame of mind. Some think that we can achieve enlightenment in a lifetime, like a Buddha or Christ. Some think that scientists could never achieve enlightenment, no matter how intelligent, because they have no “devotion.” Some think that only scientists could achieve enlightenment because they have “purer” processes. Some think that humans can achieve enlightenment one being at a time, and still others insist that it must be an all or nothing endeavor. I think enlightenment is far greater than the individual, and enlightenment isn’t something sparkly, pretty, easy, or fun. There’s no flash of sudden godhood nor individual ascension into the realms of all-knowing, having-no-use-of-bodies beings that will provide us some unknown fascinating wisdom. I don’t think that we get out of this corporeal manifestation anytime soon.

The idea of enlightenment, as in The Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th C., is really about letting go of the shackles of tradition. It’s about embracing change and using knowledge to propel us, individuals and humanity, forward. Enlightenment isn’t everyone achieving godhood. It’s about all of us realizing that we are already in control, and have the tools inside of us to solve those problems. Deepak Chopra said, “I was an atheist until I realized that god was inside of me.” When asked about his religious views, Einstein replied:

“Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”

Is finding “God” enlightenment? Born just prior to the Age of Enlightenment, Baruch aristotleSpinoza laid the groundwork for radical thought (in 17th C Europe) regarding the existence and definition of God. Much like Mozart as the pinnacle of Baroque music, Spinoza was the pinnacle of Latin academic writings in rationalist philosophy. According to Spinoza, God is Nature, and Nature is God.

The fascinating thing about Spinoza is that he worked, day to day, as a lens grinder. His passion was philosophy, ethics, religion, and the question of the divine. He did not content himself with or define himself as his day-to-day paying job. He did not accept honors or rewards based on his writings and thought. He died young, at the age of 44, but seems to have accomplished a great deal for the human race in that short of a time. One can read Ethics and Spinoza’s other works at Project Gutenberg.

One would like to think this is true enlightened human being. Spinoza was an everyday man who engaged in deep thought, the search for Truth, and produced that Truth in service to Humanity. He propelled the next generation, and several after, to continue to explore and discover knowledge. He was an individual who kept the greater species in mind, literally. He was not concerned with some idea of heavenly admittance, some monetary gain, or some brilliance that only he could attain. This is someone who is on the path to enlightenment and bringing others along with him by virtue of sharing what he thought. It’s not purely the result of his work that causes him to be enlightened; it is the fact that he is bringing the entire species up to a level of awareness not previously found. He’s enlightened because of his humility and selflessness. Perfecting the human to perfect humanity.

The Age of Enlightenment did that as well; it brought different cultures to new heights of thought, awareness, and knowledge. As a species, it was a leap forward. Each leap of knowledge is usually obvious but not always grand. One cannot leap from the valley floor to the top of a mountain in one go. It also is visible in hindsight, rarely in the present. Enlightenment seems, to me, to be gently incremental. There are no five easy steps to enlightenment, no matter what anyone says. There is no golden knowledge at the end of all the degrees. Enlightenment is work. Hard work by many, many people. And…we can only bring humanity up if we work toward its good, bringing it all up with the talents and gifts that we have, be it a lens grinder or a philosopher.


And why not both? What is stopping us from pushing away from the TVs and video games and doing what Spinoza did? Nothing, as far as I can tell, except our own laziness. We are tempted by many things which bring down our humanity, or at the very least, stagnate and stall our progress. We need to be self-discovering, exploring ourselves, our environment, nature, our own natures, the universe, looking at things we know and don’t know, with both our natures – intellectual and devotional. Science and nature. Analytical and feeling. We might not find “enlightenment” at the bottom of a test tube but we may find wonder, delight, and wisdom on the journey. The results, of the destination and the journey, are the seeds of Enlightenment.