There are as many ways of defining a Buddhist as there are ways of being a Buddhist. What they have in common is that they are inspired by the teachings and example of Buddha, the ‘Enlightened One’, the title given to Siddhartha Gautama (c560-483 BCE), the historical founder of Buddhism. Buddhism challenges some of the accepted western ideas of what makes a religion. While many people would prefer to describe it as a way of life or a practical philosophy, rather call it a “faith”, there are many others for whom it is a practical expression of the deepest kind of faith imaginable. Almost all those who live aws Buddhists would agree that they are following a path which leads to liberation from the otherwise endless suffering of existence. The Dharmacakra has long been recognised as a symbol for Buddhism. The wheel represents the cycle of life, death and rebirth; its spokes stand for the noble Eightfold Path, central to the teachings of the Buddha.
Siddhartha Gautama was born in what is today Nepal, where he was raised in the luxurious life of a prince. The story goes that when he managed to escape his palace and see the world as it really was, he saw, for the first time, a frail old man, a sick man, a funeral procession and a wandering holy man. These sights were shocking to him, revealing essential truths about suffering, ageing, death and renunciation, leading him to abandon his old way of life. Having tried a number of traditional paths to liberation without success, Siddhartha Gautama famously became enlightened while sitting in contemplation under the Bodhi Tree. From his own experience, the Buddha established a practical system for helping others achieve a similar awakening.
Buddhists believe in an ultimate reality, but not in ‘God’ as most other religions do. They do not see the Buddha as a prophet, messenger, incarnation or manifestation of any such God, in the way that some other religions view their founding figures. Indeed, the Buddha has been called the ‘teacher of gods’. Buddhists see being born human as offering a supreme opportunity for emancipation from samsara, the endless succession of life, death and rebirth. Buddhists believe in the effect of karma (that deliberate action brings appropriate reward), that action depends upon state of mind, and that mind can be cultivated. At the end of the Buddhist path is nirvana, an indescribable state beyond all normal human experience in which all suffering ends.
Texts used by Buddhists fall into two main groups: those which are believed to be the words of the Buddha himself; and those of later scholars, commentators and holy figures following in the Buddha’s way. The Buddha preached to his disciples using parables and analogies, which were collected and written down after his death. These are called Sutra Pitaka (from the Sanskrit term meaning, ‘basket of teachings’) and are the core of Buddhist wisdom. In addition, the Vinaya covers monastic discipline, Abhidharma addresses philosophy, and interpretation is found in a huge quantity of commentaries. Outside the Buddhist community itself, the best-known piece of Buddhist scripture is probably the Lotus Sutra, a powerful and inspiring presentation of the universal influence of the Buddha’s example and teachings.
Worship, prayer & meditation
The key act in a Buddhist’s life is described as ‘taking refuge’. Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels (or Triple Gem, as it is known in some traditions): the Buddha (the founder), the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the religious community). While they venerate the Buddha, Buddhists generally do not speak of ‘worshipping’ him. The Buddha’s statue and picture are often found in temples, shrines, centres and the homes of Buddhists as a focal point to help recall his example. Silent meditation, inner contemplation, the making of offerings, burning of incense and chanting are among common practices of Buddhists of diverse traditions. As with so much else in Buddhism, there is great variety expressed in these aspects of individual and community life.
In keeping with his practical approach to spiritual matters, the Buddha prescribed an Eightfold Path, encompassing wisdom, ethical conduct and mental development. This involves practising right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. These principles have proved adapatable throughout history and across cultures. Buddhist teaching also includes extensive description of ethics. In practice, the generalisation could be made that lay Asian Buddhists appear more ‘devotional’, whereas Western Buddhists have a less obviously ‘spiritual’ approach. An influential model for Buddhists is that of the Bodhisattva – an enlightened being who, out of compassion, delays personal entry into nirvana, in order to assist those still in this world.
Buddhists try to live peacefully, following the Buddha’s example and guidance, especially that found in the Five Precepts (Panchasila). These are moral guidelines that Buddhists try and adapt to their personal circumstances: they should avoid taking life or harming any living thing; avoid taking that which is not given to them; avoid sexual misconduct; avoid unworthy speech (lying, rumour-mongering, backbiting and gossip); avoid contact with drugs and alcohol (since these cloud the mind and judgement). But the Buddhist lifestyle does not merely restrain its followers from doing things that they consider wrongful in body, speech or thought. It positively encourages daily living in simplicity, in which the individual expresses peace, gratitude, wisdom and compassion in whatever circumstances present themselves.
There has always been great variety in how Buddhists see the Buddha’s station, life and teachings, and huge diversity in how they have put his guidance into practice. Consequently, there are many different kinds of Buddhist community, some concentrating on monastic orders, others operating around lay ministry. A ‘cyber sangha’ has begun to develop in recent years, exploiting the capacity of the internet to link those who are geographically separated. Buddhism is the dominant religion in many countries of the East, where it is common to see Buddhist temples, shrines, monks and statues almost everywhere. It is also continually gaining more influence and followers in the West, partly due to increasing numbers of people practising meditation and longing to find ways of more positive, less harmful living.
The Buddha discouraged placing any special significance on particular days. However, some festivals are celebrated by Buddhists, though they differ widely in form or date from one country to another. Most Buddhists will celebrate in some way the birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death of the Buddha. South Asians do all these at the same time on Wesak, the day of the full moon in May. East Asian Buddhists mark the enlightenment of the Buddha in December and his death in February. In addition, each local Buddhist community is likely to have a number of festivals commemorating seasonal events and the anniversaries of particular sages and saints. Such celebrations will show great diversity, according to who is celebrating them and where they are taking place.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists worldwide vary, with an average of around 350 million, making up 6% of the global population. Buddhism has evolved into a number of distinct forms in different parts of Asia: Theravada (124 million followers) in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma; Mahayana (185 million) in most of China, Japan (where the well-known Zen form is practised), Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam as well as in Chinese and Japanese communities within Indochina, Southeast Asia and the West; Vajrayana (20 million) in Tibet and surrounding areas in India, Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal and the Russian Federation. Most Buddhist groups in the West are at least nominally affiliated to one of the three main eastern traditions.
Buddhists in Britain
British interest in Buddhism started seriously with the establishment of the Pali Text Society (1881 CE) and the appearance of various scholarly works. A couple of years before this, Sir Edwin Arnold published his influential epic poem describing the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia. Early British converts helped establish Buddhist missions in Britain, the first in 1908. In recent years, Buddhist organisations have presented Buddhism in ways suited to British enquirers. Buddhism is the sixth largest religion in Britain. At the time of the 2001 census, there were 144,453 Buddhists in Britain, making up hardly a third of 1% of the national population. There are currently thought to be around 250 Buddhist groups and centres throughout the country.
Buddhists in Leicester
Leicester has a number of Buddhist centres and communites, each one representing different traditions. Theravada Vihara supports both Sri Lankan and Asian Buddhist families as well as a small but growing British congregation. The Amida Trust has had members locally since 1996, and its own centre since 2001. A Zen “serene reflection meditation” group also exists in Leicester, as well as smaller groups of Tibetan Buddhists. A Nagarjuna Buddhist Meditation Centre opened in the city centre in 2009. In the 2001 Census 638 people identified themselves as Buddhists in Leicester, though there can be little doubt that many more people sympathise with the Buddhist philosophy and way of life, without formally calling themselves Buddhists.