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Buddhist practices and religious beliefs

Beliefs and practices

In the West religion is often defined by what one BELIEVES, but many other religions are more easily defined by either community or what one DOES, aka practices and rituals.

Buddhism is perhaps most easily defined as a belief in a a path towards enlightenment, with the main teacher of this path being Gautama Buddha, aka Siddhartha.

This path towards relief from suffering is explained in the four noble truths:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. There is a cause for suffering (desire, attachment etc.)
  3. There is an end to suffering (Nirvana or Awakening)
  4. In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.

This eightfold path consists of:

  1. Right Understanding of the Four Noble Truths
  2. Right thinking; following the right path in life
  3. Right speech
  4. Right conduct
  5. Right livelihood: without harming others
  6. Right Effort to cleanse the mind of harmful thoughts and desires
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Two streams of Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism: the oldest tradition in Buddhism still alive today. It is sometimes derogatorily referred to as Hinayana Buddhism (the small vehicle).

Mahayana Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism are the best known examples of this path.

Buddhism books

Beliefs: karma and rebirth

Buddhists don’t have to believe in anything, because the Buddha told his disciples to only believe what they had personally seen to be true. They should use their own logic and reasoning as well as their senses to determine the truth on any topic.

However, most Buddhists believe in karma and rebirth, because those teachings play a central part in early Buddhist texts and tradition.

In a Buddhist context karma is the law of cause and effect: our thoughts, feelings and actions all have results. Those results are partly our own character, and partly in the outside world. Either way: they cannot be escaped and it can take several lives to clean up the mess one has made. Only once the mess has been cleansed can the cycle of rebirth be avoided and Nirvana attained.

However, there are traditions in Zen Buddhism which teach that all this is unnecessary, that one can attain Nirvana right now: simply by becoming aware that one is enlightened already.

Buddhist belief in reincarnation is complicated by the fact that Buddha was a bit contradictory on the subject. On the one hand he talked often about reincarnation. On the other he said that it’s neither the body, nor the emotions, nor the mind that would reincarnate. So if those things do NOT reincarnate, what does? Some Buddhists solve this enigma saying that it’s karma itself that is reborn.

Buddhist religious practices

There are uncounted practices Buddhists perform, because Buddhism is a very eclectic religion that has merged with local religious beliefs and practices wherever it went. However the following are essential to large groups of Buddhists worldwide:

Taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha.

Generally it’s taken for granted that only those who have taken refuge are really Buddhists. The Buddha is the teacher, the Dharma is the teachings and the Sangha is the community of Buddhists.

Taking the Five Precepts

More stringent vows taken by lay people (non monks or nuns) are the five precepts. These are as follows:

  1. Do not take life
  2. Do not take what is not given
  3. Do not distort facts
  4. Refrain from misuse of the senses
  5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs

The Bodhisattva Vow

In mahayana Buddhism the Bodhisattva vow is as important as the previous two practices: one vows to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

More about how Buddhists live.

Shown above – my first Tsa Tsa

In Tibetan Buddhism people make plaster casts of Buddha images as a purification ritual. The Tsa-Tsa above is a cast of a Buddha head I did myself. As you can perhaps see the eyes, mouth and ears are painted in digitally. As I write this the tsa-tsa is not yet finished. The finished product will have the eyes and so on painted in for real.

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

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