Buddhism generally traces back to a single person, Siddartha Gotama, an Indian Prince of the Shakya Clan. Gotama was raised in a life of privilege. He had a palace, dancing girls, a beautiful wife, all the food and drink he could ever think of. According to legend, one day he left his palace and saw a sick man, a dead man, and a wandering ascetic. This was the first time he had encountered sickness and death, and this question drove him to leave his Princely life to solve the great matter of birth and death.
Gotama went off and studied with the dhyana, or concentration, masters of his time. He practiced extreme ascetic practices, including fasting until his skeleton could be seen clearly through his skin. Eventually, he gave up these practices. He sat under a Bo tree and vowed not to get up until he turned to dust and bones, or he reached great enlightenment. He had a great awakening upon seeing the rising morning star. After this, he was known as the Buddha, or Awakened One. He taught for many years before dying of food poisoning.
To understand the Buddha, it is important to know a little about the religion of the day, Hinduism. The ascetic that the Buddha saw was probably a wandering sadhu, a begger-mystic of ancient India. These mystics would wander around, begging for food, and spend most of their time in the wilderness practicing various methods of yoga (physical and mental exercises). In Hinduism, people have an atman, or a soul that reincarnates life-after-life in different life forms. This true self was the same substance as the self of the universe, or Brahman.
The Buddha taught Four Truths that summarized his experience of truth:
1. There is suffering.
2. Suffering is rooted in craving and clinging.
3. Ending craving and clinging ends suffering.
4. You do this by Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Action, Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Meditation. A simpler formulation is by following sila, morality, Samadhi, meditation, and panna, wisdom. Morality includes Right Speech, Livelihood, and Effort. Meditation involves Right Effort, Concentration, Meditation. Wisdom is Right View and Right Intention.
The Buddha also taught the three marks of existence:
1. All things are impermanent, anicca.
2. All things are not satisfying, dukkha.
3. All things are are not the self, anatta.
The Buddha’s earliest teachings were written in Pali and located in the Pali Suttas. These suttas were written down after a few hundred years of oral transmission. Some believe that the suttas contain the original teachings of the Buddha for this reason. I think this is a dubious assumption. When I was a kid, we used to play a game called “telephone” in which one person would whisper a phrase into another person’s ear, and that person would whisper in the next person’s ear, and so on until the last person would state the phrase. “My silk pajamas” might turn out to be “My sore pie jams.”
The basic method in the Pali Suttas consist of developing a calm, concentrated mind, and then turning this mind on investigating reality. This is also known as the shamatha-vipassana method. After the suttas, a lot of commentary was written developing (in sometimes contradictory ways) Buddhist meditation. This commentary is known as the Vissudhamagga.
One of the most popular forms of developing a calm, concentrated mind is by focusing on the breath, or anapanasati. In this form, a person takes a comfortable, upright position, places the mind on the breath, and steadies it there. When the mind wanders, one simply returns to the breath. Eventually, the mind will grow calm and concentrated, and expands to become aware of all manner of bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Once a calm, concentrated mind is developed, it can be used to look at the nature of our experience. The idea is to see whether everything is, in fact, impermanent, unsatisfying, and not self. One way to do this is dividing our experience into the five coverings, or skandhas: form, feeling, perception, reactions, and consciousness. A meditator begins to realize that everything we think we are are simply arisings and passings and eventually begins to stop clinging and craving. As this realization grows and deepens, one attains a state of non-suffering, or nirvana.
Over the years, Buddhism developed and changed. Eventually, there arose Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana, Great Vehicle, Buddhism, arose in reaction to perceived Hinayana, Small Vehicle, Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhist felt that Hinayana Buddhists were out to save themselves. Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, vow never to enter into final nirvana until all sentient beings have been saved. The idea is that the Hinayana Vehicle only takes one person to the other shore, but the Mahayana Vehicle takes everyone. The ideal in the Pali Suttas was a arhat, some one who has realized nirvana. The ideal in Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva, some one who sets out to liberate all sentient beings.
The most popular forms of Mahayana Buddhism include Pure Land, Zen, and Esoteric Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana, Diamond Vehicle, Buddhism. The only surviving school of Pali Buddhism is the Theravada, or Elder Vehicle. Hinayana is usually considered to be a derogatory term.
The concept of a Buddha changes from the Pali Suttas to Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhsim, the focus is often less on the historical Buddha and more on different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In this respect, they resemble a pantheon of gods, or saints.
Pure Land Buddhism is practiced by chanting scriptures, especially the name of the Buddha of the Western Paradise, Amitabha. It is more of a faith based religion. It is said that chanting Amitabha’s name even once can be enough to earn rebirth in the Western Paradise, where meditation is easy and enlightenment comes quickly. There are also Pure Land visualization practices in which one mentally transports oneself to the Western Paradise.
Vajrayana Buddhism is most commonly associated with the Tibetan tradition, and the Dalai Lama. Vajrayana Buddhism contains a complex assortment of techniques including shamatha-vipassana, mantra repetition, energy yoga, ritual and magical ceremonies, dream yoga, and philosophical investigation and debate. A common practice is deity yoga in which a person visualizes themselves to be a Tibetan holy being in mind, body, and speech.
Zen Buddhism is a special transmission outside of scriptures, not relying on words, which point directly to one’s true nature. Zen originated in China, when the Indian monk Bodhidharma traveled to China to teach Buddhism.
Bodhidharma’s teaching can be summed up in his exchange with the Emperor of China at the time, Emperor Liang. The Emperor of China at the time was a devout Buddhist, who had built many temples, had many books copied, and who had spent a lot of money on monks and nuns. In China, good deeds were thought to earn one merit. Enough merit could earn one a pleasant rebirth in Buddhist heaven, or spiritual insight.
The emperor was very excited to hear of Bodhidharma’s coming from India. At last, here was a monk from the Buddha’s own country who the emperor could question. Bodhidharma arrived at court in his simple robes.
The first question the emperor asked was: “I have built many temples, supported many monks and nuns, and had many Buddhist scriptures copied. How much merit have I earned?”
To which Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever.”
The emperor was quite taken aback by this response. “Well then,” he said angrily, “What is the highest, greatest truth?”
Bodhidharma said, “Nothing, only Void.”
At this, the emperor was outraged. How dare this simple monk come into his court and talk to him this way? “Who do you think you are?” the Emperor shouted.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma, and left on his way. After this encounter, it is said he "faced the wall" for nine years.
Bodhidharma later passed on his robe and bowl to his disciple Huiko, who became the second Patriarch of Zen. The robe and bowl was passed down through the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng.
Hui Neng was an illiterate laborer in China who heard part of the Diamond Sutra about the mind abiding nowhere when he had an enlightenment experience. He asked the person who was reading the Diamond Sutra about where he could learn more, and the person sent him to Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, who had a monastery up in the mountains. Hui Neng stayed in the monastery until the famous poetry contest.
When Hongren was ready to pass on the robe and bowl, he wasn’t sure who to pass it onto, so he decided to have a contest. He gathered his monks together, and told them that they should each compose a gatha, or verse, showing their realization. Senxiu was Hongren’s top disciple at the time, and everyone thought he was going to win, so no one else decided to write a poem. Shenxiu wrote a poem, but he wrote it anonymously on a wall so he could see if the master approved. His poem stated:
身是菩提樹 This body is the Bodhi-tree,
心如明鏡台 The soul is like a mirror bright;
時時勤拂拭 Take heed to keep it always clean,
莫使惹塵埃 And let no dust collect on it.
Everyone thought this was a great gatha. Even Hongren praised it publicly, although privately he had his doubts. Once praised, Shenxiu admitted he had written the gatha.
Hui Neng, who was working the mill stone crushing grain into flour, knew nothing of this until he heard everyone talking about the gatha. He went to the wall himself, and because he couldn’t read, he asked a visiting official to translate it for him. Once he heard it, he said, “No, this isn’t right!” and asked the official to write down a gatha composed by Hui Neng. It stated:
菩提本無樹 The Bodhi is not like the tree,
明鏡亦非台 The mirror bright is nowhere shining;
本夾無一物 As there is nothing from the first,
何處惹塵埃 Where can the dust itself collect?
Hongren publicly denounced this gatha and wiped it away. Privately, he sought out Hui Neng and taught him Zen. Then, he gave Hui Neng his robe and bowl, telling him to escape under cover of darkness. Hongren feared that the other monks would be jealous and kill Hui Neng, an illiterate outsider, if they found out. Hui Neng escaped and remained silent for many years before emerging as the last Zen Patriarch.
Hui Neng and Shenxiu often represent the twin pillars of instant realization and gradual cultivation, which in modern Zen is seen in the difference between the Rinzai (Linchi) sect and Soto (Caodong) sect. However, in true Zen manner, these two approaches are often combined.