Belief itself does not define Buddhists, who generally focus on practicing ethical conduct (sila), wisdom (prajna), and meditation/concentration (samadhi). That being said, Buddhists view Shakymuni, the historical Buddha, as a fully “awakened” being with unsurpassed conduct. Buddhists recognize that suffering exists in all aspects of life, as does the potential to transform that suffering into true happiness. Buddhists view all things as impermanent and strive to fully appreciate each passing moment with full awareness, letting go of desire and attachment to the objects of desire. Buddhists do not generally believe in a supreme creator being but think of time as cyclical with no knowable beginning or end. Buddhists do not generally believe in a soul or essential self. Rather they teach that all things (including people) are made up of various components each of which arises from a relationship of interdependence with the outside environment. Buddhists are not prohibited from participating in the services of other religions and may have more than one religious affiliation. The Dharma Wheel (dharmachakra) is one common icon of Buddhism, representing the Buddha’s teaching and universal cycle of birth and death.
Buddhism began in North India/Nepal in about 500 BCE when the prince, Siddhartha Gautama (Siddhattha Gotama), left home to study the nature of life, attained Nirvana (the end of suffering), and began to teach. The Buddha taught the middle way between the extremes of self-deprivation and luxury—the path to awakening. Some of his students joined him as monastics (both women and men) while others remained as lay disciples. He lived for 80 years. Buddhism rose to prominence in India when the Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE), entered the Buddhist path, gave up militaristic aspirations, and established a tolerant rule. Subsequently, Buddhism spread throughout South and East Asia, influencing art and culture as far west as Afghanistan and as far east as Indonesia and Japan. In about 500 CE, in modern-day Bihar, India, the University of Nalanda was founded and was the center of Buddhist learning during the period. Later, as Islam established itself and as Hinduism rose to a new prominence, Buddhism declined in South Asia. Few Buddhists remained in India by about 1100 BCE. At this time, Buddhists across the world had less contact with each other, so traditions developed somewhat independently in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
Customs and People
Buddhists today maintain a wide variety of customs and traditions deriving from their diversity of backgrounds. In Central Ohio, Lao and Thai Buddhists often maintain a close connection to a local temple, visiting it regularly to offer food for the monastics in residence who only eat what is given to them by lay people. Most Buddhists in the United States practicing in a Tibetan tradition do not have a Tibetan background; however, others, such as the congregations of Soka Gakkai International, are made up of both those with family connections in Asia as well as those with roots elsewhere. Buddhist monastics wear distinctive orange, red, brown, gray, or black robes (depending on the tradition) and typically shave their heads (both men and women). Lay teachers also often wear robes when in a teaching role. There is no universal dress of ordinary lay Buddhists but some wear malas (strings of round beads) to signify their inclusion in the Buddhist community, as a reminder of their awakening, and as a tool for the recitation of mantra. Many Buddhists are vegetarian and don’t drink alcohol but these abstentions are not universally prohibited.
A community of Buddhists is known as a Sangha, although sometimes that term refers only to the monastic community. There is no central authority for all Buddhists. Lineages maintain their own diverse structure for the continuity of teachers and communities. Even international organizations are often coalitions of independent communities, although some traditions maintain a head. Locally, Sanghas are supported by lay people who often have the authority to invite monastics or lay teachers.
There is no universal holiday calendar for all Buddhists. Each lineage has adapted their calendar to their local needs. The original Buddhist calendar was lunar and many communities renew their practice on each full moon. Vesak is observed by some on the full moon of May to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment.
Strictly speaking Buddhists do not worship, but they do often keep images of the Buddha in their homes or practice centers. At these shrines, often incense and a candle is lit, flowers and sometimes food is offered, and mantras or other texts or phrases are chanted. Buddhists often bow to alters and to each other with hands palm-to-palm. Many, but not all, Buddhists practice quiet sitting meditation on a regular basis. Buddhists typically sit on cushions on the floor for their services.
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