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Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation

A brief introduction to the basic teachings of Buddhism
A personal view of some of the essentials of Buddhism

Anthony Loukes
Is Buddhism a religion?

A lot of Buddhists in the west say that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophical system. The Oxford Reference Dictionary defines religion as:

1. The belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship

2. The expression of this in worship

3. A particular system of faith and worship and faith as

– Complete trust or confidence

– firm belief, especially without logical proof

– a system of religious belief

Using the first of these definitions Buddhism would not be a religion, as we do not believe in a God who created the world and who controls what goes on in it. However the third definition would allow Buddhism to be a religion and I certainly believe that it is a religion, both in its essential beliefs and its practices. Buddhists would certainly have complete trust and confidence in the Buddha. We do not worship him as a god, but we respect his teachings and find that they work for us. The saying of the Buddha that I like best is:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”.

The practice of Buddhism is very much like the practice of other religions – people go to a Buddhist centre or a monastery and join in ceremonies with other people. There are scriptures, teachings, monks and nuns, incense, altars, shrines, some people have malas like the rosaries of the Roman Catholics or the Greek Orthodox Church. There are religious leaders – The Dalai Lama is very much like the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. And like other religions, people also practice at home by themselves or with their family and, most importantly, they practice in their day-to-day lives in the way they relate to their family, their friends, their work colleagues and with strangers who they meet in shops or in the street.

The Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was born in about 500 BC into a royal Hindu family in what is now Lumbini in Nepal. He lived a life of luxury and was destined to become a king. His father sheltered him from religious teachings and kept him in the palace so that he would not see the suffering of the people. However when he grew up he got a servant to take him into the town, where he saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse. He returned to the palace completely disillusioned with his life of luxury. There were a group of wandering ascetics in the town at that time and he left the palace to join them.

He lived with the ascetics for a number of years, living in the open throughout all weathers and hardly eating at all. He got so weak that he nearly drowned when he was bathing in a river and was saved by a milkmaid who gave him some milk and nursed him back to good health. He left the ascetics and sat down to meditate under a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and resolved to sit there until he attained enlightenment. He did attain enlightenment and spent the rest of his life teaching others how to find it. His first teaching was to the group of ascetics who he had left and who he met again just outside Benares, now Varanasi.

The Middle Way
He told them that he had first led a life of luxury as a prince and this did not satisfy him. He then lived with them and lived a life of poverty and physical hardship. This did not lead to enlightenment either. Both of these two ways of life were completely unsatisfactory and so the first step on the path to enlightenment is to avoid extremes and always to follow the middle way. He then taught them the Four Noble Truths, which are the basis of Buddhism.

The First Noble Truth
The truth of suffering, dukkha
Suffering comes in many forms. Three obvious kinds of suffering correspond to the first three sights the Buddha saw on his first journey outside his palace: old age, sickness and death. But there are other more pervasive forms of suffering. People suffer because they think that they do not have enough money. They buy a new mobile phone, but it gets stolen or they get addicted to sending text messages all the time or they get a lot of abuse on Facebook. Or they seem to be contented, but suffer from a general feeling of dissatisfaction with their lives.

The Second Noble Truth
The truth of the origin of suffering
Our day-to-day troubles may seem to have an obvious cause: poverty, illness or sadness from the loss of a loved one. In the second of his Noble Truths, though, the Buddha claimed to have found the cause of all suffering – and it is much more deeply rooted than our immediate worries.

Origin of suffering:
1. Attachment or desire. We live in a consumer society and are constantly bombarded by advertising messages persuading us to buy goods that we don?t need. We are presented with images of celebrities with apparently perfect bodies which then makes us dissatisfied with our bodies and we go for cosmetic surgery.

2. Aversion or hatred. There are people we don’t like and can?t get on with. The tabloids stir up hatred and make scapegoats of groups such as immigrants or benefit scroungers

3. Ignorance or delusion. This is not ignorance in the sense of not knowing certain facts, such as the capital of Iceland or the names of the kings and queens of England, but being ignorant about the fundamental truths of life.

The Third Noble Truth
The truth of the cessation of suffering
By lessening and ultimately getting rid of attachment, aversion and ignorance we can cease our suffering. We need to notice when we desire something and ask ourselves whether we really need it and whether it is going to harm us. I’m sure that we all have our personal objects of desire like new clothes, chocolate or wine. There is nothing wrong with having things that give us pleasure as long as we don’t overdo it. We must follow the middle way. One glass or two of wine is fine, but four or five will give you a hangover, add an inch to your waistline and probably damage your liver.

The Fourth Noble Truth
The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering
This is the path which will enable us to cease suffering and attain enlightenment and is called –

The Noble Eightfold Path
There are three sections – wisdom, ethical conduct and mental development.


1. Right View
Right view is the beginning and the end of the path; it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truths. It means to see through things, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas and to understand the laws of cause and effect.

We tend to think of objects as being permanent, solid and independent for example a table. It certainly looks and feels solid but in fact it is a collection of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles and is mostly empty space. It is also empty in another sense, the emptiness of any inherent independent existence. It is dependent on the tree it came from, the carpenter who made it, the person who is looking at it, the lighting in the room, the use that is made of it and many other factors. It is impermanent and will eventually fall apart and be burned or rot away on a rubbish tip.

We do the same to people including ourselves. We think that we have a permanent self but in fact we are changing all the time, not only slowly getting older, but our bodies and our moods change from minute to minute. We think that objects and other people are independent and outside ourselves. If I am angry with somebody I blame them, but where is the anger? It is in me – somebody else present may not be angry with them at all. When I recognise that the anger is in me I can accept it and do something about my feeling and not hit out at the other person thereby escalating the situation.

2. Right Intention
Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions:

The intention to renounce desire.

The intention of good will meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion.

The intention of harmlessness meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently or aggressively and to develop compassion.

Ethical Conduct

3. Right Speech
Buddha explained right speech as follows:

To abstain from false speech especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully.

To abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others.

To abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others.

To abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warmly and gently and to talk only when necessary.

4. Right Action
Right action means:

To abstain from harming sentient beings especially to abstain from killing people (including oneself) and animals – a lot of Buddhists are vegetarians. It also means not to damage the environment as global warming and pollution kill lots of living beings and if we don’t do something about it will eventually threaten the survival of the human race.

To abstain from stealing, fraud, deceitfulness and dishonesty.

To abstain from sexual misconduct.

5. Right Livelihood

Right livelihood means that one should earn ones living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully and in the present climate we could also add fairly. This would prevent bankers, bosses of big companies and footballers being paid such astronomical salaries.

The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason:

Dealing in weapons

Dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution).

Working in meat production and butchery.

Selling intoxicants and poisons such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

Mental Development
6. Right Effort
Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort which is in itself an act of will nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence and kindness.

7. Right Mindfulness
It is the mental ability to see things as they are with clear consciousness. It means to always be completely aware of what you are doing like washing the dishes, driving a car or having a conversation and not having your mind elsewhere. There are people who talk on their mobile phones and even send text message while they are driving.

8. Right Concentration
The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object say the breath. You just notice your breathing in and out. If your mind wanders you just bring your attention back to your breath. You then become calmer and more peaceful. If a particular thought keeps on coming up – say something that somebody has said to you, you can then concentrate on it and find out why it has upset you.

Having decided that Buddhism is a religion and spoken a little about the Buddha, I have said that the fundamentals of Buddhism are:

The Middle Way

The Four Noble Truths

The Noble Eightfold Path

Further reading:

Dalai Lama (1998). The Four Noble Truths. Thorsons.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1998). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. Parallax Press

Meditation Advice
“Compared to a state of mind that is occupied by nervous, restless thoughts, it is much better to be in a focused, relaxed state of peaceful attention. The benefits of this can be seen immediately: the very moment mind is simply focused on one object, the waves of disturbing thoughts and emotions are absent. Spending a session meditating in this way is like taking a break. It becomes a time of peace and calm, of feeling comfortable with ourselves. When our attention begins to stray away, when we are unable to keep an object in mind, we get distracted, and the feeling of being at ease also disappears. Then we remember the object of attention and continue as before, and the feeling of being at peace reoccurs.” (Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche)

Seven Points of Physical Posture
1 Sit in the lotus posture (if possible), or in the half-lotus.

2 Keep the spine straight. If the back is straight, the channels will be straight. If the channels are straight, the winds will flow straight and the mind will remain stable.

3 Place the hands in the lap, four inches below the navel.

4 Draw the shoulders up, like ‘vulture’s wings’.

5 The neck should be bent forward a little like a hook.

6 Fix your eyes four inches in front of the tip of the nose.

7 The tongue should lightly touch the palate, to stop too much saliva from accumulating in the mouth.

Things to reflect on during Meditation
1 What is the settled mind? Does it have a shape or form? Where does it come from, remain, or go to?

2 The moving or thinking mind. Do the thoughts have a colour or shape? Where do they come from, remain or go to? Where is the thought located in the body?

3 The mind reflects appearances. Examine the senses. Is there any difference between pleasant and unpleasant appearances? Are appearances separate from the mind? Where do they come from?

4 Are the mind and body together? Are the mind and body the same or different? Is one permanent and the other not? Where is the mind located in the body?

5 Are the settled and moving minds together? Are they the same or different? Do they arise alternately? Does the moving mind arise out of the settled mind?

Objects of Concentration
If we can?t decide where the mind comes from, remains and goes to, then we can use various objects on which to fix the mind, such as a Buddha statue, a candle, a dot, stone, or the seed syllables OM AH HUM (which represent the Buddha?s body, speech and mind) on a piece of paper.

Faults in Meditation
If the mind is dull and sluggish, one can imagine a bright, white dot between the eyebrows.

If the mind is agitated and scattered, imagine a black dot just in front of you.