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Siddartha Gautama is thought to have lived around approximately 430 B.C. He was a prince of a ruling house in Nepal. The story begins when he leaves his wife and son, along with the life of luxury they shared, in order to be a wanderer and avoid all forms of self-indulgences. After years of wandering, Gautama realizes that a middle path between his former life of luxury and his current life of asceticism would be the best approach at achieving enlightenment. After meditating and becoming an enlightened one, Guatama gathers religious followers and he becomes known as Buddha or “enlightened one”. The main goal of Buddhism is to reach Nirvana, a blissful transcended state, either in life or after it. This can hopefully be obtained by achieving complete purity of thought. Upon reaching Nirvana one literally becomes Buddha – an “enlightened one”.



Guatama’s teachings are rather straight-forward. The Four Noble Truths are truths that upon understanding could allow one to reach enlightenment. They are:

1)  The idea that all of life is suffering. From child birth, to the loss of          loved ones, fear of death, etc.

2)  The notion that desire is what causes suffering.

3)  The third truth is that in order to avoid suffering one must remove         desire from their life.

4)  Lastly, the fourth truth is that in order to remove desire from one’s       life, they must follow the Eightfold path.



1) Do not kill


2) Do not steal.

3) Do not lie.

4) Chastity.

5) Do not do drugs.



Major Schism in Buddhist Thought

King Asoka who ruled much of India around 280 B.C. supported the Buddhists and endorsed the teachings of the Buddha. He is said to be a contributor of its spread to southern India where it made its way to the island of Sri Lanka, which is still a haven for the first form of Buddhism, Theravada. A great number of Theravada Buddhist still practice in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.


Theravada or “school of the elders” is a monastic religion, involving monks, nuns, or other people who follow their religious vows or the rules of the monastery that they live in. During Asoka’s reign the major schism in Buddhist thought was already developing. The counterpart to Theravada would later be named Mahayana Buddhism.


Mahayana means, “larger vehicle” and its followers refer to Theravada as Hinayana, which means “small vehicle”. Mahayana allows for humans to exist in a social way as opposed to living alone, devoted to spiritual work, which monasticism entails. The thought behind this is that Mahayana is better suited to cater to a larger part of humanity.


In Mahayana Buddhism, Gautama is the first Buddha in a long lineage of individuals who have transcended this world. There are also Bodhisattvas, who are literally “enlightened beings”, or people who have vowed to reach Buddhahood for the benefit of the human race. These figures are not seen as gods, but as supernatural beings. However, this misunderstanding causes people to commonly label Mahayana Buddhism as a polytheistic religion.


The Silk Road proliferated not only goods, but ideas between Europe and southeast Asia. This is largely how Buddhism appeared throughout the east. Mahayana Buddhism eventually declined in India as the older Hinduism took its place. However, the faith was established in China by the 2nd Century A.D. and reached Japan via Korea by the 6th Century. Here, throughout the centuries, more schisms took place in Mahayana Buddhism.



These steps can be broken into three categories:

#1-3 Wisdom

#4-5 Ethical Conduct

#6-8 Mental Discipline


1) Right Knowledge; basically involves having conviction in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. Understanding the problems that life offers in order to find out how to be happy is essential. Also, seeing things simply as they are instead of categorizing or labeling falls under this step of the path. 

2) Right Thinking or Right Aspiration; the idea that one must be set on the path towards enlightenment because they decide that is what they want. Thus, they can be passionate in their pursuit, which is what provides motivation in life and gives it significance.

3) Right Speech; the idea that one should not deviate from the truth when speaking. This is because our speech can affect who we are as people and how we think. Using harsh language and unjustly criticizing people will surely hurt oneself and their own pursuit of enlightenment as much as it will hurt the target of such speech.

4) Right Conduct or Right Behavior; following the Five Precepts, which resemble the Christian faith’s 10 commandments (see below). It also involves self- analysis or inspecting one’s own motives.

5) Right Livelihood; ones job should not interfere with the path to enlightenment. It should not negatively affect others or oneself. A good example of this is that one should not be an arms dealer, not only because of the impact that selling weapons would have on others, but also because of the impact that this would bring on the self. 

6) Right Effort; this involves having tremendous willpower to be used in order to expunge harmful thoughts and replace them with good thoughts. This notion also entails emitting effort at an appropriate pace- basically not to hurry. 

7) Right Mindfulness; truth is found through awareness. Awareness of one’s own emotions, body, mind, feelings, imagination, and how these things can skew one’s perceptions are essential for harmonious living. This step stresses self-examination.

8) Right Concentration or Right Contemplation; the higher state of consciousness, Nirvana (enlightenment) can only be reached through deep meditation. The ability to silence ones mind is essential. 



What we recognize today as Zen Buddhism originally started in China and was called, Chan. These titles came from the meaning of meditation and involved constant meditative practice. Although Zen is categorized as a form of Mahayana Buddhism, there is some controversy over whether it is a religion of its own.  


When considering Zen in the western world it is interesting to consider the fact that in Japan, Zen was the religion of the warrior class, the Samurai. Much of the meditation was implemented in order to provide visceral rightness or “belly wisdom”; the ability for a warrior to engage in combat and use his reactions and gut feelings to guide him, instead of his mind.


Tea is somewhat of an icon for Japan; it has been imported from China since the 12th century. However, a Zen master, Murata Juko, reinvented the tea ceremony in the 15th century. Here we see a link between tea and the meditative lifestyle.


To complicate things, Zen is only one of the many Buddhist sects in Japan. There are also Tendai and Shingon Buddhism, which are most heavily practiced by the upper classes. Nichiren and Jodo Buddhism, which are generally attributed to the lower classes.  

Vermont Zen Center

Center for Mindful Learning


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