Some 2500 years ago, Sakyamuni Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India. This means that he totally purified his mind of all negative thoughts and emotions, and developed infinite good qualities. He then spent the remainder of his life teaching others all that he had come to understand, out of compassion and concern for their welfare.
The first major teaching he gave expressed the Four Noble Truths, which forms the foundation of all schools of Buddhist doctrine as we know them today. In this seminal teaching he showed the nature of suffering and its cause, as well as the possibility of its final cessation and the path of realisation leading to that cessation. This teaching is known as the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.
In the second turning of the wheel the Buddha expounded the profound aspects of the path concerning the ultimate nature of things. These teachings are most clearly expressed in the ‘Prajñaparamita Sutras’.
In the third turning of the wheel he taught on the ‘Buddha nature’, which is the potential we all have to become enlightened.
Today, the Buddha’s teachings are practiced in Tibet, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and other South-east Asian countries. There is a growing interest in many western countries.
Buddhism is a spiritual path firmly grounded in reason and in general the practice of Buddhism falls into two categories, method—practices of compassion, morality, generosity and so on—and wisdom, the understanding of reality. The main point is refraining from hurting others, and helping wherever possible. This is something we can all appreciate.
Wisdom or right view can mean the understanding of karma—how all things exist as results of prior causes and how positive actions create positive results and negative actions create negative ones—and the wisdom of emptiness, the understanding of how things ultimately exist. The Buddha was truly revolutionary in his teaching on ‘no-self’, stating that there is no substantial, independent identity, no ‘soul’ or ‘atman’ as the Hindu philosophies asserted at that time. Today that teaching is no less revolutionary. Understanding the principal of interdependence, how all phenomena, including happiness and suffering and those who experience them, do not come about without cause, we can start to control our life and choose wellbeing over suffering.
Ignorance, on the other hand, is seeing things as truly and independently existing, and is therefore the opposite of wisdom. It leads to attachment, aversion and the other afflictive emotions that bring us suffering. Therefore, while coming to understand wisdom, we must also work on the method side, countering aversion with love and jealousy and attachment with an open heart. For that we need to understand the mind, and so meditation is a vital part of the Buddhist practice.
About four hundred years after the Buddha’s time, great monastic universities developed in India. Supreme amongst these was Nalanda, north of Bodhgaya. Here, for over a thousand years, tens of thousands of scholars studied and debated, and trained their minds in accordance with the teachings. The most learned and highly realized scholars, such as Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, wrote texts on the mind and the nature of reality that are unparalleled even today.
During the latter half of the first millennium Buddhism gradually filtered into Tibet. Famous Indian scholar-saints were invited to establish monasteries where the Buddha’s teachings could be studied in depth. In the rarefied atmosphere of the country, with the support of enlightened kings, it quickly took root, and the best of the Indian tradition was propagated by great beings such as Shantarakshita, Kamalishila, Padmasambhava, and later Atisha.
Different philosophical approaches and styles of practice emerged following the various teachers. These gradually evolved into the four Tibetan traditions known today: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug. The latter arose following the 14th century master Lama Tsongkhapa. This is the tradition that Jamyang Bath, as part of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, follows.
Tibetan Buddhism emphasises compassion and wisdom, and is unique in that it alone has been able to retain the most esoteric tantric teachings of the Buddha. With a strong monastic tradition, and such great spiritual masters as the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa, the depth and richness of Tibetan Buddhism has survived the centuries.
The intensely rational approach to the mind and reality is ideally suited to the western scientific way of thinking and so when Tibetan Buddhism came to the west, with such teachers as the Dalai Lama and Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, it quickly became popular.
Today there are many Tibetan Buddhist centres throughout the western world, offering teachings from all four traditions, and likewise forms of Buddhism from other traditions and cultures. We have the great good fortune, even here in Bath, to be able to explore and find a way that suits our particular mind. There is no ‘best’ way – they all show the way out of suffering and to true happiness. It’s up to us to try them and see.