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/

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

“It’s hard to have those conversations,” the palliative care doctor was saying. She was talking about telling a loved one that Stage 4 cancer is terminal, and all the discussions and decisions that surround such a prognosis. The patient, an 85-year-old man, had lived a good life and yet, because of his fear of death, of losing this life, he was in denial and angry. This caused him and his family pain and turmoil as he sought to find his way to some acceptance of his situation.

Conversations about death are hard because U.S. culture is steeped in the fear of death. One only needs to look at television or magazine ads to see this; a culture that prides itself on fitness, youthfulness, and acquiring things has little understanding of the true nature of death. Death is a skeleton to be feared, a lurker in the closet that should not be acknowledged. Many aged have lived a life of denial of death, waiting until perhaps the last possible moment to “find God” or think about “the other side.”

People fear dying, not death, in general. They fear the pain and suffering that comes with long illnesses. Who wouldn’t? Cancer is certainly not a pleasant state. We hope for a quick death or to die in our sleep. Death in this way removes the focus on the body, on the horrors of what happens to the flesh that decays. Westerners don’t spend a lot of time on what it means to transition in death; they mostly focus on the unpleasant physical effects of the dying process. What is fascinating is that if one steps outside of perhaps the standard Western religions, he sees a far greater world that is not only accepting of death, but embracing of death.

While the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day) is a book, or set of scrolls, that specifically addresses the stages of death and afterlife, it doesn’t speak to the reader in such a way as to make the stages of death clear. It is still, after all, a Western book, early (2670 B.C.E.) as it may be. The scrolls were lists of spells which were left in the tombs of the dead. Their purpose was to provide the deceased a way to navigate the afterlife successfully. A very good modern interpretation / translation of this book is titled “Awaking Osiris.”

The Bardo Thodol, or “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is a book which is written for the living to assist the dying and deceased to make the transition off the Wheel of Life to Nirvana. This book is also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although that is a fanciful 20th C. Western name.

Three bardos, or intermediate states between activities, are to be navigated, and success in these provides pathways toward different ends. A bardo may be any intermediate state, such as between birth and death, death and rebirth, even between something like sleeping and awakening. The guru or teacher sits with the person that is about to die and speaks to him of his journey, reminding him of his true being. He is prompted to enter the Clear Light, and thus, remove himself from the path of Earthly physical life. If he transitions to the second bardo, further instructions are given, and so on, until the soul either returns to Nirvana or back into a physical body, depending on the spiritual acumen of the deceased person. That all sounds a little complicated; in essence, it is assistance by the earthly person to the unearthly one, guiding him on his way to reincarnation or elevation.

“O Nobly Born, that which is death being called to thee now, resolve thus: “O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitless expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort to the Sole Perfection.”

This section, from the First Bardo, is an example of the cultural views of death; not only its acceptance but total embrace to do what is best for the good of the collective humanity. This section goes on to remind the deceased that his life is in service to the greater good. The bardos continue in a cycle, all the while being guided by a guru, a “man of Faith,” a brother, or other person. The person acts as a guide from this realm to the next, allowing the soul to find peace by whatever means it finds possible. The thought of reading these beside the dying person is somehow comforting, perhaps as much to the speaker as to the “hearer.”

I think much of this same type of symbolism and instruction is provided to the Craft Mason, who winds through these bardos in the the rituals of all Craft degrees. Freemasonry, being an initiatory rite, seeks to impress on its membership the repeated lessons of life and death, until these ritual words and actions become very familiar to him. At first he is the recipient and later the provider. The nature of Freemasonry, the Service to Humanity, maybe partly this: imparting the ability to have each human experience a peaceful transition from this life to the next, and thereby improve the overall state of all beings.

The three bardos of death to rebirth transition, as explained in the book, are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of Experiencing Reality, and the Bardo while seeking Rebirth. To me, these mirror perfectly with the Craft degrees, where the lessons are told in with a Western slant. In some Masonic traditions, a chamber is used to create a space for the candidate to experience a true bardo, an intermediate state between activities, where reflection and change can take place. Symbolic in this world, perhaps these ritual trappings are faint shadows of the reality of our earthly transition.

It was said to me, recently, that Freemasons seem to be less afraid of death than perhaps the average Western human. If we listen to what Freemasonry is imparting, the Mason can’t help but put away the denial of his physical, transitory nature. We will die from this world. Freemasons may be better able to embrace the transcendence of being that marks the animus, the soul, the spirit, or whatever you wish to call the immortal principle in each living thing. Fear is the mind killer and is that which brings pain to what may not need to be a painful experience.

Freemasons are repeatedly provided the tools, symbolic and ritualistic, to learn to guide themselves and others through all the bardos of the human existence. It seems to me that all humans could use a lot more peaceful transitions into whatever intermediate state we find ourselves.

“Thine own consciousness, shining, void and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light.” ~ Buddha Amitabha