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“Buddhism,” Ensign, June 1972, 67


Buddhism begins with a man named Gotama, whose life, stripped of poetic legend, is a simple biography. He was born in a grove of trees at the foot of the Nepal hills near Lumbini, about 563 B.C. The son of an aristocratic Hindu chieftain of the warrior caste, he was brought up in princely splendor and luxury.

At age twenty-nine, after a carefully sheltered life within the confines of his father’s palace, Gotama was confronted with the spectacle of human suffering. He was profoundly shocked at his first sight of old age, sickness, and death. Fleeing secretly at night from his father’s palace, where his wife and young son lay sleeping, he renounced the world and became a wandering ascetic in search of an answer to the problem of human suffering.

After six years of fruitless striving, marked by many austerities, he sat down one day in a cross-legged position beneath a bodhi tree at Gaya and made a vow: “skin, sinew, and bone may dry up as it will, my flesh and blood may dry in my body, but without attaining complete enlightenment I will not leave this seat.” Thereupon he was attacked by Mara, the evil lord of the world of passion, who tempted him to abandon his quest. But Gotama withstood.

He meditated on karma, the cosmic law of justice (remembering his former lives); he discovered the “path of deliverance”; he reached Nirvana. From that vantage point, and until he died under a tree at Kusinara at eighty years of age, Gotama was teacher and exemplar for a community of brother monks.

After his experience at Gaya, Gotama expounded the way by which others might also reach enlightenment and thus escape the round of rebirths or reincarnations and gain Nirvana, the ultimate goal for Buddhists. Assurance that one has achieved supreme enlightenment, he said, is based upon a clear understanding of Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Middle Path. Here are the four basic teachings of Buddhism—the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is suffering. Birth, disease, old age, and death are suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, and grief are suffering. Not to get what one wants is suffering.

2. Desire is the origin of suffering. Craving, bound up with pleasure and lust, is the origin of suffering. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind are delightful and pleasurable, but from these, selfish desire has its root. Visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily impressions, and mind objects are also delightful and pleasurable; yet from these, selfish desire has its root. Suffering comes from attachment, from man’s foolish craving to possess things of mortality, which are always transitory and elusive.

3. Craving, the origin of suffering, can be extinguished. Whoever regards the things of this life, its delights and its pleasures, as non-permanent and miserable, as a disease and a cancer, can overcome craving. The extinction of attachment, the extinction of love, the extinction of anger, the extinction of the delusion of enduring health or enduring life or enduring death—this is indeed Nirvana.

He who has considered all the contrasts of the world and freed himself from the painful frustrations that derive from wanting to cling permanently to the transient human condition, he it is that will reach enlightenment.

4. The Eightfold Middle Path leads to the extinction of suffering. The Buddha declared that the path of freedom lies between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. This middle path is based upon (1) right views, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.

Right views means understanding the four truths. Right thought is thought that is free from ill will and cruelty. Right speech is abstaining from lying, talebearing, harsh language, and vain talk. Right action is abstaining from killing, stealing, and unlawful sexual relations.

The man who follows the middle path does not kill any living beings. He has no stick or weapon, and he is conscientious, full of sympathy, and anxious for the welfare of all living beings. (This doctrine of noninjury is known as ahimsa. It has a long history in Hinduism, from which Gotama took his teachings, and is today a particularly emphasized feature of Jainism, where holy men are concerned even about damage to rocks or about microscopic life that might exist in drinking water.)

Right livelihood is the way of earning a living that causes no harm to any living thing. It affects especially the butcher or the fisherman but goes further than that. Selling alcohol is not right because the seller lives on the proceeds of a commodity that harms other people.

Right effort includes four great efforts: to avoid, to overcome, to develop, and to maintain. Right mindfulness is contemplation on the four fundamentals of mindfulness—contemplation of the body, feeling, mind, and mind objects. In other words, one must be conscious of his movements and acts so that nothing of what goes on in him escapes his attention.

Right concentration is concentration on a single object, which is associated with wholesome consciousness.

The first five steps of the Eightfold Middle Path are attainable by common men. Thus far it is a down-to-earth path: right views, right aims, right speech, right action, and right living.

But the final three steps approach the more intellectual and mystical techniques of the Hindu yogins: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In these, which include successive “trances” and reaching a state of “perfect purity of balance and equanimity,” the Buddha has clearly gone beyond what is possible for laymen; he is advocating that which is appropriate only to a special order of monks. He calls those on the first five steps of the path disciples; those on the last three are called brothers. Only those who forsake the common life, to give themselves up wholly to the pursuit of liberation, really approach the ideal proclaimed by the historical Buddha.

Gotama Siddhartha was not a supernatural being, a mysterious personage, or a god. At no time did he make such a claim. In the earliest Buddhist scriptures, especially in the so-called gatha or poem sections, Gotama was in every respect regarded merely as an outstanding man. In later times Buddhists called him Sakyamuni, the sage (or prince) of the Sakya clan, but in the earliest days his disciples addressed him only as Sakya without using any honorific title. In these older poems also, Brahmin youths addressed him as if talking to an intimate friend, not a divine person.

According to Buddhist legend, the very first image of the Buddha was a sandalwood statue carved in the teacher’s lifetime for a king known as Udayana. This Udayana legend is probably a pious fabrication attached to the first images of the Buddha carved in Gandhara (located in what is today Afghanistan and part of Pakistan) as early as the first century A.D. It is certain that the first representations of Sakyamuni in human form were created centuries after his death when a special need was felt for anthropomorphic (human) representations of him.

In early Buddhism, it was believed that the Buddha had passed with his Nirvana into a realm of invisibility; and in early Buddhist art his presence in narratives of his early career was symbolized by such emblems as the empty throne for his enlightenment, the wheel for his first preaching, and the stupa or relic mound for his Nirvana. In the famous Kalingabodhi Jataka text, Buddha states that he can be properly shown as a bodhi tree.

With the passage of centuries, Buddhism was transformed from a rather limited and exclusive monastic religious system, in which the way to salvation was open only to those who could renounce the world for a monastic existence (i.e., Theravada, the way of the elders), to a religion offering the promise of salvation to all men who followed the eightfold path. This new approach or school became known as Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle.

Gradually the demand arose for a reassurance and comfort of devotion to the person and founder himself rather than to his doctrine. The cult of relics fostered by Buddhism’s greatest Indian monarch, Emperor Asoka of the third century B.C., is an early indication of this growing deification of the Buddha himself and of idolatry.

Homage to the Buddha’s person and preservation of reputed relics of his physical body became symbols of the Buddhist faith. The shrines and pagodas erected to house these relics became religious centers to which the faithful flocked to make circumambulations and to leave offerings of food and flowers.

It is generally accepted that the steps leading to the first Buddha image included anthropomorphic and theistic traditions from the Hellenic or Greek worlds, which, since the conquest of Alexander, had been in close contact with India.

Gotama was a historical figure who sought neither veneration nor worship. But with the passage of time, the rise of the cult of relics and of the Mahayana movement outside India, he was gradually deified.

Mythical Buddhist gods have abounded freely in northern Asia, where some have quite clearly emerged from the depths of popular folklore, as in the case of the potbellied Maitreya. Sakyamuni is the only historical Buddha, and his deification stems from religious developments within the subcontinent of India. But historically speaking, he—like the great mythical Buddhas Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, Maitreya, and other major Buddhas—owes much of his godhood to the intrusive religions of Persia and Greece. Also, Buddhists were undeniably influenced by Christianity.

Of the principal Buddhas of the Mahayana school, Amitabha (Amida), or the Buddha of Boundless Light, has had the strongest appeal to the common man. He is particularly well known in China, Korea, and Japan; and surprisingly, the best-known Buddha among foreign tourists is an image of Amida, at Kamakura, Japan.

In Amidism, believers seek enlightenment through rebirth in his pure realm known as the Western Paradise. Followers believe in Amida Buddha only; however, other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) may be the objects of their respect and adoration, because they are thought of as essentially one with Amida. We are told that where Amida’s name exists, there Amida lives. Therefore, the more frequently his name is recited, the greater the spiritual benefit. No rituals are required, no austerities, no esoteric teachings, little more than a simple confession of faith.

The origins of the Amida Buddha are difficult to trace. He is known only in the northern lands of Buddhism, and his name does not appear in any of the Theravadan canons. His worship is unknown in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand. It was not until the second century A.D. that texts dealing with Amitabha and his western paradise begin to appear.

Salient features of Amidism certainly suggest Persian and Zoroastrian influences, and Christian and Greek elements are likewise present. That a relationship existed between the Western Buddha and the Christian idea of a Heavenly Father is suggested in the fact that one of the essential features of the “Paradise” Buddha’s personality is that he presides over a trinity. The Amida trinity is a perfect example of a unified divine power acting through two agents or representatives, which is analogous to the Divine Father acting through his regent Son and the Holy Ghost.

Descriptions of Amida’s heavenly realm, consisting of three stages of glory (only in the topmost of which can the faithful enjoy his presence), are probably of special interest to Latter-day Saints. That which follows comes from the earliest three Chinese versions of the western realm, as translated and summarized by Alexander Soper:

“The Lord who reigns in paradise and who preached to untold millions is more glorious than any other Buddha. … He will annihilate for them the last terrors of the death-bed. To those who have lived steadfast in purity, He will come in welcome with His host of Bodhisattvas and Arhats, to fill their eyes at the end with His ineffable glory. To others who have led devout lives as laymen He will grant a dying vision of the welcome, identical in appearance with the real one. Even those whose good impulses have been offset by backsliding or unbelief, He will permit to dream of Him at last. All these three grades of glory will share equally in the bliss of the Western Land, in the end; only the last group will have to pass through a purgatorial period of five hundred years. The souls on probation will be isolated, unable to see the Buddha or hear Him preach until their term has run out.” (Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art [Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1959], pp. 141–42.)

The mythical Buddha Maitreya and Jesus Christ are both regarded by their followers as saviors who will return to earth. Thus, the prophecies of the end of the world (in Buddhist parlance, mappo, or the age of degeneration) and of the miraculous appearance of the Lord have had an enormous impact in Buddhist and Christian lands.

Zen, perhaps the best-known “school” of Buddhism in the occidental world, has flourished particularly in Japan and has infused richness into almost every part of Japan’s cultural life. There it has provided inspiration and guidelines for the development of drama, painting, flower arranging, rock gardening, swordsmanship, and haiku poetry.

A thousand years after the historical Buddha, a monk from India named Bodhidharma came to China and established the Zen (Sanskrit Dhyana; Chinese Ch’an; Korean Son) tradition in that country, from where it was later transmitted to Japan.

Although Zen ideals have gained wide acceptance in north Asia and have become associated with its native culture, this way of thought might more properly be identified with the ancient meditation schools of Hinduism and Indian Buddhism.

Zen teachings are often summed up in four well-known lines:

“A special tradition outside the scriptures;

Not to depend on books or letters;

To point directly to the heart of man;

To see one’s own nature and become a Buddha.”

Zen neglects karma (the law of cause and effect), reincarnation, and Nirvana, but it still demands meditation, concentration, and physical discipline. Its unique teaching is that enlightenment (called satori in Japanese) may come to dedicated laymen and that this enlightenment may occur suddenly and instinctively, not necessarily requiring years of study.

Enlightenment in Zen is not a rational or methodical process. Zen training in the characteristic cross-legged position and the teaching of koans, or non-logical riddles, are designed to help the student to leap outside his customary paths of thought and to experience the universe of original, eternal, and absolute being. Knowing ourselves is a part of the absolute oneness; ego disappears and problems of ego—sin, pain, poverty, fear—are all expected to dissolve. Once a person has gained this state of satori, he is expected to be aware that all living things share equally in the eternal.

This Zen awareness is mystical and subjective. No one can explain what satori really is. At best it suggests an approach that harks back to the ancient ascetics’ concern for union (yoga) with the world soul.

The most basic teaching of the historical Buddha was that men should rely on inward universal power (the Buddha mind), not on a personal God. The concept we accept that God lives in heaven and is a personal being who should be worshiped and obeyed would not have been an acceptable concept to the founder of Buddhism, who taught introspection, who denied the idea of a first cause or Creator, and who decided that there was a Buddha nature within man—a “stream of consciousness” that was seeking escape from the rounds of physical rebirth. This fundamental approach was never lost sight of when Buddhism spread to the countries of northern Asia, although theistic touches were added.

Buddhists believe that a former existence is an important preliminary to man’s condition upon earth. Unlike the Latter-day Saints, Buddhists teach reincarnation: a sequel of rebirths that are an inexorable sign of bad karma in previous lives. Thus, Buddhism essentially regards mortality negatively and with pessimism and rebirth here as an estrangement from ultimate reality.

In Buddhist thought, all mortal satisfactions are ephemeral blossoms that suddenly flower and as suddenly disappear. Loving self and loving attachment to others alienate people from the ultimate blessing of Nirvana. Benevolence is greatly emphasized, but love is disparaged.

Buddhism teaches that men must subdue their selfish craving for the physical things of this world and seek the eternal through meditation and prayer, thereby awakening unseen spiritual forces within themselves. These are fundamental teachings.

The Buddha instructed his disciples to remove the dust from the mirror of their minds that light might shine forth. One cannot visualize Gotama apart from the bodhi tree or the act of quiet reflection. He pondered upon the woes of the flesh and the material cares of life.

Once when visiting Anathapindika, Gotama was approached by a young man of wealth who sought instruction on how to follow the right way. He asked if it would be necessary for him to give up his possessions in order to attain peace. The Buddha replied that it would be necessary to follow the eightfold path in order to obtain bliss, and that one must rid himself of wealth and the cares of the world before they overpowered him: “It is not life and wealth and power that enslaves men, but the cleaving to life and wealth and power.”

Buddhism teaches that in mortality men run the ever-present risk of neglecting the inner man, the higher spiritual forces of life. In his struggle for existence man seeks the satisfaction of his physical needs and his mind is engrossed in material things. He faces the hazard of spiritual atrophy, through involvement in the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of its riches. Buddhists believe that the only antidote is withdrawal, repairing to secret chambers and quiet places of worship where reverence for the eternal can be encouraged.

In Buddhism, all reality is one. The starting point is a belief in the ultimate nonexistence of separate personalities, and the ultimate goal is negation of ego. The Buddhist approach follows the assertion of Gotama, “all is without a self,” which is basic to the Buddhist explanation of man’s predicament.

According to Gotama, one of the causes of a person’s anxiety is his clinging to the notion of individuality. Man should eliminate the conception of a craving for a permanent, separate personality.

For Therevada Buddhism and Zen at least (and ultimately this applies in the Amida and Nichiren schools of Northern Asia as well), nothing exists outside the mind. Salvation is an experience of enlightenment that consists of discovering the Buddha mind within, or realizing an essential unity underlying the transient phenomenal world.

The restored gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that God and man are self-conscious, self-determining beings who know how to make plans and execute them. This means that God can create things other than himself and allow events and forces other than himself to occur that are out of harmony with his will. He distinguishes between good and evil, and he is able to act in favor of that which he approves and to persuasively oppose what he disapproves.

This leads to the question of ethics in Buddhism and particularly to the ethical implications of Buddhist “enlightenment.” Buddhism has probably been the most important civilizing force in all of Asia. It has exerted an especially profound influence upon culture, the arts, and literature.

In Buddhist doctrine, concern for morality certainly is not lacking. The first six steps in the eightfold path deal with the ethical aspects of life. Under the fourth step there are five precepts that have their counterpart in five of the ten commandments given by Jehovah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Such doctrines have established Buddhism also as one of the great humanitarian forces in the world.

Yet, Buddhism has no ultimate concern for ethics. The Buddhist goal transcends all opposites, including good and evil. Enlightenment is to apprehend underlying unity—that all things are of one essence.

Since the idea of objective reality is not taken seriously in the underlying Buddhist concept, and ethical concepts of right and wrong or truth and falsehood are almost irrelevant, so also is the idea of historical actuality.

Lehi persuasively reasoned that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. … all things must needs be a compound in one. …” (2 Ne. 2:11.) This is precisely the Buddhist position.

So long as the Buddhist believes that true reality is one Inclusive Mind, such gospel teachings as creation, sin, repentance, the atonement of Christ, and judgment are irrelevant.

Of course, the simple fact is that the basic premises of Christianity and Buddhism cannot both be true. If the universe is the offspring and creation of a living, personal God, it cannot merely be a complex of ideas in one all-inclusive mind. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, such things as individual personalities do exist and Buddhists, like other men, were created by God.

Buddhism has been the most imposing religious force in Asia for nearly two thousand years. No other religion has affected the thought, culture, and politics of so many people in that area of the world. But popular Buddhism, as practiced and known among the masses of the Asian people, has been marked traditionally by superstitions, the use of amulets and charms, magic, relic worship, divination, the belief in myriad ghosts and devils, and a jungle of traditions and myths.

Particularly since World War II, Buddhism has been seriously challenged by Christianity and by many other forms of western civilization, including government, science, and technology.

Finding itself in a state of disrepair and suffering from the added disability of a traditional emphasis upon other-worldliness (escapism), passivity, and unreasoned ambiguities, in a day when mankind is bent on shoring up the natural order and building satisfying and enduring social and economic conditions for man, contemporary Buddhism has been under pressure to reform and to re-evaluate its place in national histories and world civilization. Its traditional doctrines have often been criticized for being impractical, inapplicable, and ineffectual to the needs of modern man.

Thus, in selected areas of East Asia in recent years there have been signs of a new vitality in Buddhism. An excellent example of this dynamic movement in Japan is the Sokagakkai faith, one of a number in that country that has managed to infuse modern contents into an old Buddhist sect. This group has been able to relate Buddhist themes to the needs of a generation disillusioned by defeat, the breaking-up of families, and an incomplete revolution. Here is a faith born of crisis, taking shape out of discredited and disorganized traditions, with promises of better health and material well-being and with a strong insistence that it is the only true Buddhist faith. It claims to be the fastest growing religion in the world.

Sokagakkai was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944). It draws its religious inspiration from Nichiren Shoshu, a religious sect based on the reinterpretations of Buddhism by a man named Nichiren (1222–82). Adherents of Nichiren Shoshu consider Nichiren to be the true Buddha, replacing Gotama Sakyamuni.

Sokagakkai in Japan is only one of a number of new religions that have flourished there and in neighboring countries since the end of World War II. Several other religions, characterized by a mixture of the old and the new, an appeal to national consciousness and self-respect, and the ultimate aim of physical utopia, exert a vigorous influence in Korean social and religious life today. Pak T’ae-son’s Olive Tree Church and Mun Song-myong’s T’ong-il (unification) Church are leading examples of such movements. Similar hybrid religions now also flourish in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Sixth largest of the world’s religions, Buddhism today claims approximately 180 million followers.

  • Dr. Palmer is a professor of history and religion at Brigham Young University and chairman of the Department of Asian Studies. He served as Korea Mission president (1965–68) and currently teaches the priesthood genealogy class in Edgemont Eighth Ward, Edgemont Stake.

Buddhist displays Koreana Tripitaka, oldest and finest edition of Buddhist scriptures extant today

Maitreya, the “Buddha of the Future,” is depicted in contemplation in Tushita heaven