The Educational Theory of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BCE (Cousins, 1996) in Lumbini (i.e. in modern-day Nepal) and raised in the small principality of Kapilavastu. His father was King Suddhodana, the leader of the Shakya clan. His mother, Queen Maha Maya, was a Koliyan princess who died during his birth. The infant was given the name Siddhartha, meaning “he who achieves his aim” (Buddha Dharma Education Association, Inc. [BDEA] & BuddhaNet, 2008A, para. 1). After his mother’s death, Siddhartha was brought up by his aunt, his mother's younger sister (and another of his father’s wives), Maha Pajapati (Narada, 1992, p. 14). It is said that Suddhodana, wishing for his son to be a great and mighty king, shielded Siddhartha for many years from religious teachings as well as from the knowledge of human suffering (Thaper, 2002, p. 137).
It is the general opinion of scholars that Siddhartha spent approximately 29 years as a prince in Kapilavastu (Conze, 1959; Gayatso, 2007; Hirakawa & Groner, 2007; Thaper, 2002). Although his father ensured that he was provided with everything he could want or need, Buddhist scriptures say Siddhartha felt that material wealth was not and should not be life's ultimate goal (Narada, 1992, p.14). Therefore, he left the palace to meet his subjects, whereby he came across a person who puzzled him greatly – an elderly man. As told in this story, when his charioteer explained that all people grow old, the prince’s curiosity drove him to make subsequent trips well beyond the palace. On several of these, he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a wandering ascetic monk. It is said that upon witnessing these human frailties, Siddhartha became depressed and initially strove to overcome the suffering imposed by ageing, sickness, and death by choosing the lifestyle of an ascetic (Conze, 1959, pp. 39-40).
Siddhartha abandoned his crown for the life of a mendicant in an event known traditionally as the “Great Departure” (Narada, 1992, p. 16). He initially went to Rajagaha and began his ascetic existence by begging for alms in the street, but later left to study under two different hermit teachers. After mastering the teachings of Alara Kalama, Siddhartha was asked to succeed him. However, he felt dissatisfied and incomplete, and moved on to become a student of Udaka Ramaputta. Under his tutelage, it is said that Siddhartha achieved high levels of meditative consciousness. He was once again offered the succession of his teacher, but refused once more to continue on his search for knowledge (Narada, 1992, pp. 19-20).
It is reported that Siddhartha and a group of five companions set out to push the quest for knowledge even further. They supposed that the path to Enlightenment was through self-mortification; they therefore lived as extreme ascetics, denying themselves food and shelter. Buddhist scriptures state that after nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to a single bite per day, Siddhartha collapsed in a river while bathing and very nearly drowned. At this time, he began to reconsider his path, remembering a moment in childhood during which he had been watching his father begin the season's plowing. He attained a deeply concentrated, focused state both blissful and refreshing – the jhāna (Conze, 1959, pp. 47-51).
According to early Buddhist texts, after realizing that meditative jhāna was the true path to Awakening and that extreme asceticism did not work, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call the “Middle Way” (or the “Noble Eightfold Path”) – a course of moderation away from the extremes of both self-indulgence and self-mortification (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010C). Starved and weakened, he accepted milk and rice pudding from a village girl named Sujata. Afterwards, it has been stated that Siddhartha sat beneath a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya, India, where he vowed never to arise until he had discovered the Truth. Believing that Siddhartha had abandoned his search for knowledge and become undisciplined, his companions left. After a reputed 49 days of meditation and at the age of 35, Siddhartha is said to have attained Enlightenment. From that time forward, he was known to his followers as the Buddha or “Awakened One” (also the “Enlightened One”). He is often referred to in Buddhism as Shakyamuni Buddha, or “Awakened One of the Shakya Clan” (Gyatso, 2007, pp. 8-11).
According to a story in the Āyācana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya VI.1 – a scripture found in the Pāli and other canons – immediately after his Awakening, the Buddha debated whether or not he should teach the Dharma (or “life path”) to others. He was concerned that human beings were so overpowered by ignorance, greed, and hatred that they could never recognize the path, which is subtle, deep, and hard to grasp. However, in the story, Brahmā Sahampati argued that at least some will understand, which makes the attempt worthwhile in and of itself. The Buddha eventually relented and agreed to teach (Hirakawa & Groner, 2007, p. 119).
Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?
The Buddha taught his disciples – a group known as the sangha – that the skills and knowledge most worth learning would be those things that accomplish two goals: 1.) They would lead a person to Enlightenment; and 2.) they would end all suffering, bringing one into a state of eternal, unconditional peace or “Nirvana.” This is why he taught the Middle Way through the Dharma – neither extreme luxury nor severe deprivation lead him to spiritual freedom. Therefore, overdoing anything in life cannot guide one to happiness in the eyes of the Buddha, which is what he continuously expounded to his followers throughout his teachings.
The Middle Way is synonymous with the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the course that must be followed if Nirvana – perfect peace and the ultimate end of all suffering via a dimension of totally unconstructed awareness – is to be attainable. The Buddha gave his first sermon to the sangha in the Deer Park at Benares in northern India. He created a metaphor for the path one would have to travel in order to reach Nirvana. He likened the Middle Way to a wheel with eight spokes that eternally rotates; Nirvana is in the center as the only fixed point. Each of the eight spokes is essential to keep the wheel turning, just as each of the eight paths along the Middle Way are essential to reaching a state of eternal bliss. The Buddha had just set into motion the “Turning of the Dharma Wheel” (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010C, paras. 3 & 14).
According to the Instilling Goodness School (Undated), paragraphs 43 through 45, these are the eight precepts the Buddha taught that all beings must follow for their entire lives if they want to cultivate wisdom: 1.) Right View; 2.) Right Thought; 3.) Right Speech; 4.) Right Conduct; 5.) Right Livelihood; 6.) Right Effort; 7.) Right Mindfulness; and 8.) Right Concentration. Essentially, the correct way to think about all life is to view the world with compassion, wisdom, and love. Clear, kind thoughts build good character because a person is whatever he or she thinks about. A person will earn respect for oneself and amongst his or her community – building trust and good will – by speaking kindly and helpfully. Others will know a person from the way that he or she behaves no matter what attitude one’s words reflect. A person should never perform a job that causes harm to another being, nor seek happiness in the misfortunes of others – through karma, one will reap what he or she sows. A person should always apply oneself in all things that he or she sets out to accomplish, provided that these tasks do not hurt oneself or others because that is considered a waste of time and energy. One should always display good will towards others and be aware at all times of thoughts, deeds, and words. If true peace of mind, quiet, and stillness of self are to be achieved, one should focus on a single thought or objective at a time.
Proper meditation techniques are essential skills and paramount to the Buddha’s teachings. He stated that two vital qualities of the mind arise from meditative jhāna: 1.) samatha (i.e. “serenity” or “tranquility), which steadies, composes, unifies, and concentrates the mind; and 2.) vipassana (i.e. “insight”), which enables one to see, explore, and discern the elements that lead to suffering (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010D). The development of samatha is crucial because it leads one to the suppression of all things that hinder the path to Enlightenment. If one can learn to suppress these hindrances, vipassana will be more readily achieved. The development of this quality leads one to the wisdom that will liberate the mind into Awakening (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010E). The Buddha taught his disciples that these two mind qualities are essential if one is to attain Enlightenment. He referred to them metaphorically as a “swift pair of messengers” who deliver Nirvana by way of the Noble Eightfold Path (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1251-1253).
Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?
According to Buddhism, at the time of his Awakening, Siddhartha realized complete insight into the cause of suffering and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Three Universal Truths,” which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching (Gyatso, 2007, p. 9). Through the mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation, Nirvana, is believed to be possible for any being. The Buddha described Nirvana as the perfect peace of a mind free from ignorance, greed, hatred, and other afflictive states or defilements. Nirvana is also regarded as the “end of the world” in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain. In such a state, a being is said to possess the Ten Characteristics belonging to every buddha (Gombrich, 1988, pp. 97).
For the Buddha, knowledge and belief are one and the same; hence, the multitude of “Truths” that he discovered upon attaining Enlightenment. He stated that there can be no lie within the Truth he attained during meditative jhāna. In other words, once any being has been Awakened or Enlightened, he or she will come to understand what the Buddha himself already knows to be “true” – that there is no mistake within these Truths because of their very nature. On the contrary, the only way to reach Nirvana is to both understand and follow them to the letter. Thus, the Buddha taught that all seven Truths equated to powerful knowledge that would transform one into the most complete, perfect human being that he or she could be within the realm of possibility. The information forming the basis of the discussion that follows was obtained via the Instilling Goodness School (Undated), paragraphs 22 through 42.
The Buddha taught that within the first of the Three Universal Truths, nothing is lost in the universe. We are born of our parents and our children of us. All creatures die and disintegrate into soil. Soil nourishes seeds which grow into plants. These, in turn, nourish other beings. All are part of a densely woven, interconnected web of life and energy that never disappears, only transforms. Therefore, human beings are the same as plants, animals, rain, rocks, etc., and other people. If we harm any of these beings, we essentially harm ourselves. If we lie, cheat, and steal from our neighbors, we also are doing so to ourselves. Thus, the Buddha taught all of his followers to live peaceful existences as well as to refuse to kill any animal, great or small.
The second Universal Truth is that everything is continually changing. Rivers change landscapes, species reach extinction and other life flourishes, chaos ensues out of order and vice versa. Just when human beings feel that they have achieved control, something unexpected happens. Even knowledge constantly changes as we better learn to interpret the universe around us. Pioneers in science, spirituality, and philosophy alter the way that people think culturally, nationally, and globally. The Buddha taught the sangha to openly and tacitly accept these changes without fear or revulsion as an inescapable aspect of life.
The third Universal Truth is that of the law of cause and effect, or “karma.” This law states that – in absolute terms – nothing will ever happen to any being unless he or she deserves it, including events outside of the scope of human control such as accidents, or being born into poverty or with a debilitating illness (i.e. the reason for this will be discussed in further detail within the “Theory of Human Nature”). This mentality can be summed up by one maxim: One reaps what he or she sows. The Buddha taught that the things one does in the past create the present individual. Moreover, karma is affected not only by what one says or does, but also by what one thinks. Thoughts become actions, which have consequences whether positive or negative. Karma, therefore, becomes the friend of those who choose to live each moment for peace and the betterment of others, versus the enemy of those who wallow in negative actions and emotions. This is a major component of the Buddhist meditation ideology. The Buddha constantly reminded the sangha that because human beings are responsible for their own suffering, they are also responsible for supplying their own cure. In other words, since human beings create their own miserable situations, it is up to them as individuals to create the circumstances for their releases.
The Four Noble Truths are as follows: 1.) There is suffering; 2.) there is a cause to all suffering; 3.) there is an end to all suffering; and 4.) there is a path to follow to end all suffering. As a young man, Siddhartha was disturbed by the suffering he witnessed all around himself – Why is there aging, sickness, and death? Why do farmers beat their beasts of burden? Why do predators prey on the weak and defenseless? The Pāli cannon states that he continuously questioned the existence of suffering and, upon Awakening, discovered the answers as the Buddha. This is what he taught his disciples: Suffering is common to all beings through birth, sickness, old age, and death. Beings also suffer because problems and disappointments in life are unavoidable. The Buddha recognized that happiness exists in life, but pointed out – as per the second Universal Truth – that no amount of happiness can last forever. This is why Siddhartha himself abandoned the lifestyle of a prince to become an ascetic – there was a void in his existence that could not be filled by material wealth and luxury.
The Buddha stated that the cause of suffering is rooted in the ordinary nature (i.e. this will be discussed in further detail within the “Theory of Human Nature”) of all people. They do not understand karma and harm themselves and their peace of mind so that they can satisfy their vices. Many people seek the wrong kind of pleasure by indulging in such desires as lust and greed. Therefore, the things people desire most tend to be the very things that cause themselves and others the most suffering. In order to end this type of suffering (i.e. other types come from a lack of basic necessities), greed and ignorance must be completely cut off. This means that a person’s views must change, and one must actively choose to live a more natural, simple, peaceful life. Nirvana is the state reached when all suffering has been completely snuffed out.
Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?
From the Four Noble Truths and Three Universal Truths spring the principles of the Buddha’s teachings about human nature. The two main goals of Buddhism are 1.) to know oneself, and 2.) to learn the Buddha's teachings. In order to know oneself, a person needs to understand that every human being has two natures. One is called “ordinary nature,” which is made up of repulsive, distasteful feelings such as fear, lust, greed, vice, anger, and jealousy. The other is the “true” or “buddha nature;” the part of us that is pure, wise, full of truth, peaceful, and perfect. The only difference between any person and the Buddha is that that person has not awakened his or her “true nature” (Instilling Goodness School, Undated, para. 19).
As previously stated, when Siddhartha became Awakened, he drew around himself with his teachings an entourage of disciples called the sangha. The original five members consisted of the companions who had previously abandoned him in Bodh Gaya (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010C). These men (and eventually women) begged him to share with the world his enlightened discoveries through the Dharma. As discussed during the Introduction, the Pāli states that the Buddha was concerned human beings were so overpowered by their ordinary natures that they could never recognize the path to inner peace and tranquility. It has been said within the same texts that the Buddha eventually came to believe all beings have the potential to tap into their buddha natures. He also understood that, according to his own teachings, he was not the first – nor would he be the last – buddha to walk the Earth (i.e. recall that the word “buddha” simply means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”).
Recollect the first Universal Truth – it states that all beings are interconnected, so to do harm to any creature is to do harm to oneself. Therefore, according to the teachings of the Buddha, human beings as a species do not differ from any other creature in any significant way, inanimate or not. The Buddhist philosophy holds all life as equal and sacred, meaning that human beings are no better or worse than earthworms and flowers. This belief is what leads the dedicated Buddhist to deep respect for coexisting peacefully with all life forms. Moreover, the dominating hierarchical caste system of the period and region was shunned by the Buddha, who saw equal value in all beings throughout every walk of life (i.e. this will be further discussed in detail within “Theory of Society”).
Reification is the act of treating an idea or abstraction as if it was a concrete or living thing. The Buddha defined this term in a much more interesting fashion. According to Kovan (2011, para. 4), he actually claimed that the physical self is a reification. The Buddha stated that the body is an impermanent thing that is born, dies, and is forgotten. Even thoughts and other mental senses are reifications in this light because they constantly appear and disappear at random. He taught that because we fear our own nothingness, we give ourselves a sense of self, especially in the use of grammatical articles such as “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” The Buddha proposed that all beings develop the anatta, or “non-self” (also referred to as the “not-self”). Through the Dharma, he taught that the more fragile the sense of self is, the less ignorant a being will be and, thus, the closer to Enlightenment. The Buddha stated that even the soul is impermanent because it changes with our thoughts and deeds, and then is reborn into a new realm or station after death. At this point, karma and merit enter the scene.
The Buddha’s teachings about the limits of human potential are extremely abstract. Throughout many Eastern cultures and religions runs a common theme: Existence is cyclical, so death leads to rebirth, whether in this realm or another. As previously discussed, the ultimate goal of Buddhist teachings is to lead one to the perfect state of Nirvana. The Buddha taught that this state is the only thing in the universe that is both permanent and unchanging. Its attainment could take any being an infinite number of lifetimes to achieve because the Wheel of Dharma is difficult to escape. The two things emerging as most important while one toils towards achieving this aim are a buildup of good karma and good merit. The latter is the most essential.
First, it must be explained that there is a fundamental difference between good karma and good merit. According to van den Dungen (2011, para. 1), good karma leads one to a better rebirth in either a higher realm of being, or within one’s present realm (i.e. in many Eastern religions, reincarnation from the human realm can potentially lead backwards to the animal or further to the hell realm, or forwards to the heaven realm). Merit, on the other hand, is a type of karma that takes one beyond cyclic existence to Nirvana by liberating the soul from samsāra, or the “circle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.”
The law of good karma states that positive actions, words, and thoughts will be revisited upon a person positively, even from one lifetime to the next and across the realms. The vice versa is also true of negative karma, which is why this law states that nothing bad that happens in life is coincidental or by accident – every person will get exactly what he or she deserves, nothing more or less. The problem from the devoted Buddhist’s viewpoint arises when a person says or thinks, “Because I did something kind, something good will happen to me.” There is then no liberation or Enlightenment because one is cherishing the deed and expecting something pleasant in return. As already discussed, this was taught to be folly by the Buddha, who stated that the physical self and the indulgences one seeks for it are the reifications of existence because they each must end at some point. Thus, good karma lessens the suffering one experiences within samsāra, but does not free that person from all suffering.
On the flipside, merit builds up a kind of spiritual currency that never diminishes. It is attained via the Triple Jewel (i.e. the teachings of the Buddha, the sangha, and the Dharma, which will later be discussed in greater detail within “Theory of Transmission”) and by taking vows in three categories: 1.) to protect one’s own well-being; 2.) to protect the well-being of others; and 3.) to protect one’s relationship with his or her Tantric deity (i.e. the higher, spiritual self) (van den Dungen, 2011). The first set of vows might seem contradictory to the Buddha’s idea of anatta. However, he taught that a person who is just beginning down the path to Enlightenment should develop oneself in healthy and liberating ways, only letting go of the attempt to improve the self as it becomes unnecessary (Harvey, 1995, pp. 57-58)
Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?
For the Buddha, learning is the endless pursuit of knowledge. He constantly told his disciples that one should never be satisfied with the teachings of a single master, but to constantly be on a quest for ever greater knowledge. Recall Siddhartha’s early travels according to Narada (1992) before attaining Enlightenment. He studied under two hermit teachers, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, both considered great spiritual thinkers. Under the tutelage of each master, Siddhartha became more spiritually attuned, reaching ever-higher levels of meditative consciousness. He learned and achieved so much that each teacher asked Siddhartha to succeed as master of his school of thought. Siddhartha turned both down because he still felt a void, a further thirst for knowledge.
The Buddha taught that any being could overcome his or her ordinary nature to realize the buddha nature within. However, he constantly expounded that in order to develop this “true” nature and to end all suffering by attaining Nirvana, multiple teachers were essential to the task. It is considered in Buddhism abnormally rare for a person to achieve Enlightenment without the help of a spiritual guide and master. In the words of the revered Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, “Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher's help. If, though, by the conjunction of conditions, someone understands what the Buddha meant, that person does not need a teacher. Such a person has a natural awareness superior to anything taught. But unless you are so blessed, study hard, and by means of instruction you will understand.”
The Buddha taught the sangha what they must do to be Awakened by utilizing multiple sets of guidelines such as the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. It has been said that everything the Buddha taught was based on his own observations, and he invited others to explore within themselves to discover these same Truths about the way the universe and human nature work. Learning in Buddhism is measured by one’s ability to achieve Enlightenment. Because of this, meditation becomes an extremely important vehicle for transmission of the essential Truths. Moreover, one can only learn to meditate properly from a spiritual master, which further extols the idea of the constant search for more knowledge. Learning and practice, therefore, go hand-in-hand within the Buddhist philosophy. One cannot rely on faith without knowledge, nor can one develop intellectually without practice. In order for devotion to be sincere, it is vitally important to know the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings. The main emphasis in Buddhism is to transform the mind, which is dependent upon how skilled one is at meditation, which requires knowledge gained from a master.
According to Bloom (Undated, para. 4), the evidence that one is learning Buddhist philosophies is wrapped up in an individual’s motivation. The drive should be to become one with reality via deeper and deeper spiritual growth and fulfillment. Thus, the search for Enlightenment itself serves as the discernment that the ability to Awaken is already at work within a person. Bloom further states that one could not know Enlightenment even if he or she attained it. Rather, it is because of Enlightenment that a person strives to begin with, meaning that the goal being worked towards is in fact the motivating source of spiritual achievement. This is subsequently how learning tends to be perceived and measured within Buddhist culture. Bloom (Undated, para. 7) further quotes a story from a sacred text, authored and added to over many centuries by the Buddha’s disciples, called the “Flower Ornament Sutra” (also known as the “Garland Sutra” or “Wreath Sutra”) in order to shed more light on this topic. The parable is entitled “Sudhana’s Quest” and is a tool used to teach aspiring Buddhists about how they should be motivated to conduct their learning.
Sudhana seeks out Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (i.e. a “Bodhisattva” is a “wisdom being” who dedicates his or her entire life to achieving Buddhahood for the sake of others), and asks him how to both attain wisdom and enlighten others. Manjusri tells Sudhana to establish good friendships and to never tire in searching out new teachers. Just as the Buddha did, Sudhana should never stop seeking knowledge, even if he is satisfied with his present master’s instruction. He must also always put into good practice what every master has taught him. Sudhana impresses Manjusri by vowing never to stop seeking knowledge until he becomes both Enlightened and one capable of enlightening others, so Manjusri decides to send him to another master. Beginning in this way, Sudhana eventually comes under the tutelage of fifty-two different teachers.
The moral of this story is that the question of how best to achieve Enlightenment or any sort of fulfillment is personal – no other person can instruct one on precisely how to reach this internal goal. If Sudhana’s quest represents the path one follows in life, then only that person can decide which way will be traveled, what the destination will be, and the level of achievement or happiness one will experience upon arriving. The Buddhist learns in order to enrich the lives of others, or to make the lives of others more meaningful. Thus, they deliver the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha to all beings encountered. Bloom (Undated, para. 8) states that the point of the pilgrimage is not simply to gather information; it is the realization of the Truth that is transformative, enabling one “to see beyond the limitations and concerns of the moment.” This is why Buddhists believe that the quest for Enlightenment is direct evidence of the Truth already at work within a person.
Theory of Transmission
Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?
As has been discussed, the Buddha was at first very reluctant to teach the masses, believing that base human nature could not be overcome without extreme effort and dedication. Members of his sangha convinced him that even if he only reached a very small minority, there would always be someone whose life would be enriched by his enlightened discoveries. The Buddha eventually relented and thus became Buddhism’s first instructor. This was the beginning of a hierarchy of disciples, teachers, and scholars somewhat historically similar to that of Christianity, but solidly 500 to 600 years before the birth of Christ (i.e. one way in which Christian traditions depart from Buddhism is that the Buddha never named a successor as Jesus Christ did with St. Peter). Gautama Buddha was the primary teacher of enlightened philosophy until his death, whereupon the original disciples of his sangha continued the traditions he began. His original teachings and stories have been recorded, redefined, expanded, and added to over the course of more than two-and-a-half millennia and across vast geographical regions.
There is a non-competitive hierarchy that is strived towards in Buddhism. The term “non-competitive” is meant to imply that one’s intrinsic motivation is what propels that person through the ranks, with no one in the chain displaced along the way. Titles denote how close to being fully Awakened a person is. Those at the ladder’s peak are the most capable of assisting any lower-ranking being with achieving Enlightenment, and eventually Nirvana. Non-competition is further an apt term because of the fact that technically any being, sentient or otherwise, can teach one the lessons that lead to Enlightenment (i.e. this will be described more in detail below in the re-visitation of “Sudhana’s Quest”). Anecdotally, within the Buddhist community, great emphasis is placed on a master’s educational lineage. That is, one who teaches should be able to trace back through several generations of renowned masters as well as the instructional lineages of their masters’ masters.
One who has achieved Buddhahood is at the apex of the hierarchy. This being is perfectly and fully Enlightened and Awake, and will achieve Nirvana upon his or her death. An Arahant is the next highest position. Depending on the tradition, this person is either synonymous with one who has achieved Buddhahood (i.e. he or she will attain Nirvana upon death), or who has realized nearly all of the higher spiritual elements of Enlightenment. Just beneath this position is the unique Bodhisattva. The descriptor “unique” must be used, because the Bodhisattva is not yet ready to achieve the ultimate goal of Buddhism – the cessation of all suffering via the attainment of Nirvana. This person seeks Buddhahood out of the Buddha’s famed compassion for others, because the primary motivation for each of his or her activities is to bring happiness to all sentient beings and to relieve them of suffering by freeing them from samsāra through Enlightenment. Therefore, the Bodhisattva’s primary goal is to achieve Nirvana for others until that person is ultimately ready to embrace it him- or herself (i.e. compassion for others becomes a major curricular theme running throughout every aspect of Buddhist philosophy). The men and women of the sangha are those next in line – monks are referred to as Bhikkhu, and nuns are called Bhikkhuni. They too are qualified to disseminate the Buddha’s teachings, although they tend to spend much more time enacting them within the community. Finally, lay people are at the bottom of this hierarchy and are not qualified to act as formal teachers of Buddhism (Harvey, 1990, p. 28).
In order to become a lay person, one must take refuge in the Triple Jewel as witnessed by a member of the sangha, and taking refuge should become a daily activity thereafter. According to the Instilling Goodness School (Undated, para. 45), because the Buddha understood that conquering human nature is difficult, he developed the Three Refuges of the Triple Jewel. He is said to have stated that refuge is protection, so one is not running from life but embracing it in a more empowering way. The Pāli scripture records that the Buddha offered this metaphor to his followers: If a man travels to a distant city for the first time, he will need the refuge offered by a guide who knows how to navigate the terrain and who understands the culture. Traveling companions, too, could assist along the way. The Triple Jewel represents the Buddha (i.e. the guide), the Dharma (i.e. the path), and the sangha (i.e. the companions or teachers). For a Buddhist, becoming a lay person by taking refuge is the first step on the path to Enlightenment. It supplies one with a better chance to become Enlightened during a future life.
The next major steppingstone for a lay person who wants to immerse in the Buddhist philosophy are the Precepts. There are five basic Precepts (or virtues) that all lay people must pledge to keep before the sangha, or eight stricter Precepts for those who wish to be more dedicated. If a lay person wishes to become a monk- or nun-in-training (i.e. called an “upasaka” or “upasika,” respectively), he or she must adhere to a stringent set called the Ten Precepts. The Bodhi Monastery (2011) has quoted the Pāli as stating these Five Precepts, which should be recited daily: I undertake the training rule to 1.) abstain from taking life; 2.) to abstain from taking what is not given (i.e. this not only covers stealing, but making any kind of assumption that something is specifically meant for you when it might not be); 3.) to abstain from sexual misconduct; 4.) to abstain from false speech; and 5) to abstain from liquors, wines, and other intoxicants, which are the basis for heedlessness.
The Bodhi Monastery (2011) further states that the first five of the Eight Precepts are essentially the same, with the exception of the third. Avoiding sexual misconduct here requires abstinence from all sexual contact including hugging, kissing, and holding hands. The sixth through eighth Precepts are as follows: 6.) I accept the training rule to abstain from food at improper times (i.e. no solid food – including dairy products – should be consumed between noon and dawn, and meals should be very light or moderate); 7.) to abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and shows, and from the use of jewelry, cosmetics, and beauty lotions; and 8) to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats. Many of these precepts seem open to wide interpretation; however, the sacred Pāli scriptures give very detailed elaborations of each Precept, as well as the consequences for violating a particular one (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010B). If one is in training and following the Ten Precepts, the Seventh Precept is split into two parts. The Ninth Precept is then to abstain from luxurious seats and beds (i.e. which now includes anything soft or that elevates height), and the Tenth Precept is to abstain from touching gold, silver, or currency of any kind.
Each of the Precepts functions as the curriculum of training in the Buddhist code of ethics and moral discipline. If one practices them methodically, he or she should be motivated to express wholesome conduct or purity in thoughts, words, and actions (Bodhi Monastery, 2011). Therefore, like taking refuge in the Triple Jewel, one set of the Precepts should be pledged on a daily basis. Within the Pāli cannon, the Buddha also outlines to the sangha the great rewards that come with rigorously adhering to this moral code (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010A). He described the Precepts as gifts given both to oneself and others. For instance, the Buddha’s reward for the most important Precept – abstaining from the taking of life – has been translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Thanissaro (2010A) thusly: “There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones…abstains from taking life. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving [these freedoms], he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the first gift, the first great gift – original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated from the beginning – that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and priests.”
As previously stated, the learning required to become a spiritually attuned being does not rely solely on spiritual practices, but also on worldly knowledge. In this way, a student of Buddhism benefits masses of suffering people, materializing the Buddha’s compassion and making it accessible to all (Bloom, Undated, para. 1). Thus, the Buddha – and the sangha by modeling his example across many centuries – supplied clarity to Buddhist ideologies and philosophies via the authoring and compiling of many scholarly texts. Illumination was offered in the form of parables, stories, metaphors, similes, and a wide variety of poetic and prose literatures. These served as the “developed means for communicating [Buddhism’s] fundamental principles, values and ideals” (Bloom, Undated, para. 1). Century upon century of oral tradition was meticulously chronicled and, in many instances, adapted or expanded to fit with the social norms and/or practices of other cultures as Buddhist ideologies and teachings expanded outward across Asia and parts of the Southeast Pacific from India and Nepal.
The aforementioned “Flower Ornament Sutra” is a collection of spiritual principles and philosophies expressed by the Buddha as a result of his Enlightenment, reputedly recorded by members of the sangha after his death. Bloom (Undated, para. 3) states that upon introduction, these initially were too difficult for people to understand. Thus, the first stage of five in the Buddha’s teaching career instructed laymen in such principles as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Teaching was accomplished by beginning with simple stories and parables that increased in complexity as his audience became more skilled at comprehending the highly philosophical and abstract information. He gradually led the sangha to ever more profound teachings until the Buddha could finally reveal the circumstances behind his Enlightenment in the fifth stage. This instructional methodology is the basis for the Chinese and Japanese school of Buddhism called the Mahayana T’ian-t’ai. By using patience and compassion modeled after that of the Buddha, this educational theory offers gradual learning which provides teachings according to the spiritual capacity of the hearer, guiding him or her to ever deeper understanding (Bloom, Undated, para. 3).
The many scholarly texts of Buddhism serve as a physical basis for its curriculum. However, the Buddha consistently encouraged his students and disciples to think for themselves. Never were they to take the teachings of any master – including himself – completely to heart. It has been said that the Buddha drove this message home repeatedly and consistently (i.e. the Buddha could, in certain respects, be likened to Martin Luther, who insisted nearly two millennia later that the Protestant Reformers educate themselves with the tools of literacy and the Bible so that they could make their own informed decisions about how to live and practice the Christian faith). One may argue that the very practice of consistently seeking new instructors and never becoming complacent with the teachings of a single master is a tool for the development of independent thought. By constantly learning, experiencing, self-reflecting, and never settling, one can only add to and expand the breadth of his or her mental horizons. This is notwithstanding that no two teachers will ever agree on a topic wholeheartedly. Therefore, it is up to the person learning from one master to the next to decipher meaning from instruction.
Because learning becomes a life-long pursuit for the dedicated Buddhist, every last world view and experience becomes curriculum for the practice. Put simply, everything one comes into contact with transforms into an avenue leading to the realization of Enlightenment in one’s own life. According to Bloom (Undated, para.4), this is what inspired the Asian Buddhist school’s understanding that “the one is all and the all is one.” The Buddha has been quoted in the sacred Pāli cannon as having said, “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Once again, Sudhana’s quest can be used as a metaphor for this ideology. Remember that in the parable, he is taught by fifty-two separate teachers. Each “master” comes from a different walk of life. For example, Sudhana learns about the sea from a fisherman. From a doctor, he learns how to show compassion to the ill. A wealthy man teaches him frugality, while a monk shows him how to attain peace through meditation. A crippled man teaches him patience, and simple happiness comes from watching children at play. From nature he observes a plant growing from a decaying tree, revealing the uncertainty of life. He gains spiritual renewal from sunlight by day and the stars by night (Bloom, Undated, para. 7).
As Sudhana journeys to achieve the rank of a Bodhisattva, life experience is literally his classroom and his curriculum. Buddhism states that it is impossible to understand the meaning of one’s own life. Recall also that the Buddha teaches the self is a reification, making anything one does for the self a moot waste of time and energy. The true meaning in Buddhism is to discover how one can enrich the lives of others. Enlightenment, therefore, cannot be attained until is has been shared with others. The parable of Sudhana’s quest serves two very important metaphorical functions: First, it focuses the audience on the fact that true insight can come from anywhere, anyone, and anything. The sources of Sudhana’s masters are women, rich men, sick men, monks, and non-sentient beings such as flowers and stars. Thus, one should not allow personal biases or prejudices to obscure the instructor’s teachings. Second, it reiterates what the Buddha teaches about being one’s own master first and foremost – no one being ever embodies the “truth” in its entirety.
Theory of Society
What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?
The Buddha showed equal compassion towards all living beings. As previously discussed, the Buddhist ideology about worth and potential is that sentient beings are no more or less important than trees or microbes. This means that all members of society from kings to beggars are inherently the same. Recall some of the Buddha’s primary teachings: 1.) All beings, no matter their station, have the ability to be Awakened. 2.) The second Universal Truth states that nothing is permanent, so a prince today could be reborn a pauper tomorrow in the cycle of samsāra depending on his karma. 3.) Good merit is the equivalent of spiritual currency that never diminishes, and its buildup is the only way one can attain both Enlightenment and Nirvana. Compassion for all beings, no matter the form or station, over oneself to the point that a person would give good merit away in order to help another achieve Nirvana, serves as the ultimate road to Buddhahood. The compassion of the Buddha and his followers was renowned throughout the Indian subcontinent and Asia. Many writings from the period, as well as artistic depictions, portray the Buddha as a physician because of his approach to human suffering. He taught people how to alleviate their suffering everywhere he went almost as if prescribing a cure for human problems (Bloom, Undated, para. 1). In a sense, the Buddha was himself the institution.
In the parable of “Sudhana’s Quest,” Sudhana learned from fifty-two “masters.” The Buddha offered this parable to his followers about a student, who learned from teachers irregardless of class or status, because he gave value to the fact that no human being knows exactly what another does. A child can teach one about innocence and viewing the world with new eyes. A person with severe deformities or a debilitating illness can teach one compassion. Wars can teach one about peaceful resolution to conflict; nature teaches harmony, and so on. The Buddha also always encouraged people to reflect on what they saw and heard in order to decipher their own meanings and make their own judgments. He states that we must realize no one person embodies the whole Truth in its entirety. The Buddha taught that people must be open to insight from all sources, and not be guided by preferences or prejudices towards others.
Indian society of the Buddha’s day already subscribed to belief in the cyclical existence of samsāra, as well as the philosophy behind the law of karma. These ideologies governed the strict and rigidly structured caste system. The prevailing notion of society was that karma bound a person to his or her station in life, which could not be escaped until the next cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha, however, did not believe in the eternal soul, teaching instead about the not-self of the anatta. His second Universal Truth states that there is nothing permanent other than the supreme liberation from samsāra of Nirvana. Bechert (2009) makes the argument that this shaped early Buddhism as an elitist movement within the community in the sense that only those who could grasp a very abstract and philosophical way of thinking about spirituality and salvation through Nirvana would likely have been attracted to and joined the sangha. He further describes the sangha as “egalitarian” (p. 3) because it was the only group of that period and geographical locale that was both open to any person irrespective of caste, and all members within the group had equal rights and obligations. Bechert’s (2009) views could also be partially argued against for three primary reasons: 1.) Women were originally denied entry to the sangha; 2.) once they were accepted as members of the group, women were given additional rules called “vinaya” to follow; and 3.) nuns must defer to monks in all matters (i.e. these three issues will be discussed in further detail within “Theory of Opportunity”).
Because the Buddha had strong opinions about allowing people to make informed choices for themselves, he declined to appoint a successor. It is anecdotally said that he reminded his disciples to always regard the Dharma as a personal guide to Enlightenment instead of relying on another’s interpretation. Thus, there were originally no formal institutions involved in the educational process of Buddhism; merely the Buddha himself and the legacy of teachings and oral traditions that he left to the sangha. Over the centuries, several schools of Buddhism have sprung up worldwide, the bulk of which are centered on the Indian subcontinent and throughout Asia and the Southeast Pacific. Many of these schools exist presently, some following closely the original traditions laid down by the Buddha, while others are offshoots that interpret his teachings in their own ways.
The sangha was and has always remained a non-political group, because to be involved in worldly affairs defeats the purpose of obtaining the ultimate goal of Nirvana (Bechert, 2009, p. 3). The Buddha did, however, consistently remind kings that they should be righteous and peaceful, never making war or causing cruel circumstances for their subjects and neighbors. Bechert (2009) states that Buddhists and certain ascetic groups went to great lengths to make themselves politically neutral for other reasons as well – namely, Northern India was composed of dozens of ever-shifting principalities, which created a lack of continuous or unified political authority. Approximately two centuries after the death of the Buddha, Emperor Asoka unified much of India for the first time in the subcontinent’s history.
It is said that, as a Buddhist, Asoka felt great remorse for the strife he had caused his subjects during his military campaign to unite the country, and so tried to make amends by supporting and commanding religious tolerance. Buddhism leapt to the head of the pack and, for the first time in its history, transformed into a movement that was backed by the greater society (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2011, para. 12). Emperor Asoka eventually made Buddhism the state religion of India and sent missionaries to spread the Buddha’s teachings to neighboring lands. According to Bechert (2009, p. 4), the new goal of Asokan Buddhism was to build up a society modeled on the teachings of the Buddha. He therefore attempted to repay his debt to society with many acts and public works including (but not limited to) building hospitals for humans and animals, making his palace vegetarian, and encouraging generosity towards priests and monks (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2011, para. 13).
Theory of Opportunity
Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?
The Buddha taught a diverse range of people from nobles to outcasts, murderers and cannibals. From the outset, Buddhism was equally open to all races and classes, and had no caste structure. There was no formal schooling as the sangha traveled far and abroad, expounding the Dharma to all who cared to listen (Bhikkhu Thanissaro, 2010C). Any being longing for Enlightenment was and still is welcomed with open arms into the Buddhist culture. Recall that compassion for others and total selflessness create the conditions for the buildup of good merit, making the ultimate goal of Nirvana that much more attainable. Remember also that the Bodhisattva’s goal is to assist as many others as possible with achieving Awakening, so that their suffering will be ended through Nirvana. As discussed within “Theory of Transmission,” there is a distinct hierarchy within Buddhism as to who is at which stage of Awakening. For any person seeking a formal education in the teachings of the Buddha, a master should be solicited as high upon the ladder as possible, although any man or woman higher than a lay person would be capable of formally educating an aspiring Buddhist.
Although Siddhartha Gautama was born a man historically, the essence of Buddhahood is that of Awakening and Enlightenment. It therefore stands to reason that any being can become a buddha because the path can be followed by anyone. The Buddha himself is said to have stated this on multiple occasions when solicited about the issue of sex. This is notwithstanding the second Universal Truth that all things are impermanent. This means that a woman could be born a man in the next life cycle or vice versa (i.e. gender is a part of the self; it violates the principle of anatta, making it a reification according to the Buddha). The conclusion that can be drawn is that sexual identity is irrelevant to the release from samsāra; only a being’s stream of karma matters during this journey. Further, the Dharma is the “life path,” which means that it ignores gender by its very nature.
Buddhist texts record that the Buddha was reluctant to ordain women very early on after his Enlightenment. His stepmother and aunt, Maha Pajapati, approached him asking to join the sangha, but he thrice rejected her entry. However, she refused to abandon the path to Awakening and thus led a group of 500 Sakyan and Koliyan ladies, which followed the sangha day and night. In time, after his cousin Ananda championed their cause, the Buddha reconsidered. Five years after the original formation of the sangha, women began to be ordained as nuns, beginning with Maha Pajapati. The Buddha had finally come to the opinion that both males and females had an equal capacity for awakening and reaching Nirvana, but he gave women additional vinaya to follow (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2008B, paras. 3-7).
Depending on the school or tradition, Bhikkhus (i.e. monks) are governed by 227 to 253 rules, while Bhikkhunis (i.e. nuns) are governed by 290 to 354. Further, there are four vinaya called Parajika (translated “rules of defeat”), whose violation require immediate expulsion from the sangha for males, while there are eight for females. The four that apply to both monks and nuns are as follows: 1.) murder of another human being, 2.) sexual intercourse, 3.) extreme cases of stealing, and 4.) claiming to have any kind of supernatural power. The four additional Parajika for Bhikkhunis relate to various different types of physical contact with males as well as one that governs covering up the violation of a Parajika of another sangha member. While this last circumstance is frowned upon among monks, it will not serve as the cause for a Bhikkhu’s expulsion from the sangha (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2011, para. 7)
Theory of Consensus
Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?
There are several disagreements and controversies, both historic and current, surrounding Buddhism that involve various factions and interests. Feminists argue that Buddhism is a misogynist practice due to the fact that there are additional restrictions placed upon women in the sangha, some of which force subordinance to men. Buddhism as a spiritual practice has splintered into several distinct traditions and schools of thought. Consensus is not usually easily achieved, which the Buddha argued was due to the ordinary nature of all human beings. The sacred Pāli cannon records the Buddha as teaching that argument and malcontent spring from ignorance to the Truth as well as negative emotions such as greed and envy. During his life, it was the Buddha’s opinion that took precedence over all discrepancies within the practice.
The argument could be made that it was the Buddha’s very teachings about independent thought that lead to so much disagreement after his death. For example, the Buddha would not appoint a successor, instead urging the sangha always to follow the Dharma. Because no practitioner of Buddhism is ever supposed to take a teacher’s words as absolute truth, this leaves a wide avenue for different authoritative interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. Moreover, the Pāli states that before his passing, the Buddha gave one final instruction to the sangha – minor vinaya could be abandoned or adjusted should prevailing conditions demand such a change (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2011, para. 7). What counts as a “minor” rule is once again up to the authority figure interpreting the body of the vinaya.
As an example of the issues that arise out of interpretive authorities, the information within the discussion that follows is taken from the BDEA & BuddhaNet (2011), paragraphs 8 and 14. The interpretation of the rules differs between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Theravada Buddhists and their practices are descended directly from the original sangha of the Buddha in India. They claim to observe the vinaya to the letter, but it is more in theory than in physical practice. The Mahayana Sangha interprets the Precept not to take food at inappropriate times as refraining from eating between mealtimes, while the Theravada Sangha will fast from noon to sunrise. The Precept prohibiting the handling of gold and silver or currency is considered by Mahayana Buddhists a handicap in modern times. Therefore, they interpret this rule as avoiding the accumulation of riches. Theravadins tend to nitpick this rule – most will not touch coins, but many carry credit cards and check books. Extreme right-wing Buddhists do not always follow a non-violent path. For example, Phra Kittiwutthi, a Theravada monk from Thailand, has said that it is not a breech of the Precept to treat all life as sacred (nor is it a violation of a Parajika) if one kills Communists. He justified it as protecting Buddhism as well as the Thai monarchy and nation from enemies in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He later modified this stance to state that “to kill communism or communist ideology is not a sin” (BDEA & BuddhaNet, 2011, para. 14).
The issue of female subordinance and the Bhikkhunis’ place within the sangha has always been a very hotly debated topic. The Buddha did not disagree with his cousin, Ananda, about whether or not women were equally capable of achieving Enlightenment. However, he made this prediction: With the ordination of women into the sangha, his teachings would last only 500 years (de Silva, 1994). According to de Silva (1994, paras. 32-34), simply allowing women to become a truly active part of any religious institution was extremely revolutionary in that it was almost completely non-existent at the time in that locale. She argues that women may have been attracted to the sangha because of the rigid caste system of a society that largely ignored women and afforded them very little importance. She describes the decision as “a landmark in Buddhist and Indian history” (para. 33). However, when the Buddha finally relented to his stepmother’s wishes, he did so under one condition – Maha Pajapati would have to agree upon eight absolute rules: 1.) Bhikkhus are always to have precedence over Bhikkhunis in all matters, irrespective of any other consideration; 2.) Bhikkhunis cannot observe the annual retreat in a district where there are no Bhikkhus; 3.) Bhikkhus have to set the dates for Bhikkhuni ceremonies; 4.) confessing transgressions by Bhikkhnis has to be done before the assembly of both sanghas*; 5.) certain judicial processes in the case of Bhikkhunis have to be undertaken by both sanghas; 6.) initiation of Bhikkhunis should be given by the Bhikkhu sangha as well; 7.) a Bhikkhuni should never abuse a Bhikkhu; and 8.) Bhikkhus can officially admonish Bhikkhunis, but not vice versa.
While it could be argued that most of these rules were set into place in order to watch over a newly formed – and experimental for its day – group within Buddhism, the first and last rules are merely a flexion of male superiority. It is pointed out by de Silva (1994, para. 35) that because Indian society had very strict rules about public displays of salutation and other forms of respect to senior members of any community, the first rule was probably the most humiliating. Maha Pajapati tried – with Ananda’s support – to have this rule expelled from the list, but the Buddha would not relent, nor would he allow women to join the sangha until all eight vinaya had been unconditionally agreed to. Stated another way, the first rule means that a Bhikkhuni of 50 years with the Order would still have to bow to the whims of a Bhikkhu of one day. The opinions of any male in a similar position within the hierarchy take precedence over even the most senior female under this system.
*Please note that when two separate sanghas are referred to, it is implied that the order of monks and the order of nuns are capable of separately convening particular matters and rituals, especially because they are required to live in different monasteries in order to avoid the temptation to engage in sexual misconduct. The term “sangha” in all other instances refers to both males and females in tandem.
The Pāli translation by Sister Vajira and Story (2010) states that the Buddha gathered the sangha to the place in the jungles of Kuśināra (i.e. in present-day Kushinagar, India) of the Malla kingdom that he had chosen as the site where he would leave his body for Nirvana. He asked all in attendance to question him, clearing up any doubts or misconceptions they may have had. He told his disciples to follow no leader, only the Truth of the Dharma (however, the senior Bhikkhus of the sangha formed the First Buddhist Council and appointed Mahakasyapa its leader upon the Buddha’s death). The Pāli states that his body was cremated. The relics were allegedly placed into monuments called stupas. Some of these relics, particularly for believers in India, are thought to have survived until the present day. For instance, at Dalada Maligawa (translated the “Temple of the Tooth”), Buddhists believe that one of the Buddha’s teeth is currently housed.
According to the translation by Sister Vajira and Story (2010), this is how the Buddha passed away: The Buddha announced to his disciples at the age of 80 that he would soon abandon his earthly body for the attainment of Nirvana. His last meal, which made him violently ill, came from a blacksmith named Cunda. The Buddha instructed Ananda to convince Cunda that the meal he had offered was not the source of the Buddha’s death. He also stated that the donation would be a great source of merit for Cunda because it was the final nourishment for the earthly body of a buddha. The Buddha's final words before dying are reported to have been, “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” Some scholars have argued that the Buddha did not die from food poisoning; rather, they believe that he passed due to a mesenteric infarction, a symptom of old age (Bhikkhu Mettanando & von Hinueber, 2000). The Buddha is said to have passed in 483 BCE (Cousins, 1996); although, depending on which scholar or Buddhist tradition is referenced, this date has wide variance (as well as the official date of Siddhartha’s birth)
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