Siddhattha Gotama was born as a prince in what is now Southern Nepal over 2500 years ago. Seeing that life’s pleasures fade quickly, he set out in search of lasting happiness. After six years of mainly solitary practice committed to cultivating and purifying the mind, he discovered the timeless truth of existence and realised enlightenment: the complete cessation of greed, hatred and delusion, which are at the root of all discontent deep within the mind. Henceforth known as the Buddha, he devoted the remaining 45 years of his life to teaching and helping others to attain the same sublime happiness of liberation that he had discovered.
Today, two main strands of Buddhism are recognised:
Theravada Buddhism, the main religion of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos but also prevalent in Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal.
Mahayana Buddhism, the main religion of Tibet, Mongolia, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Japan but also prevalent in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal.
The variations in practice among Buddhists from person to person and country to country are often shaped by cultural rather than religious factors.
The following are the key Buddhist beliefs:
All Buddhists believe in reincarnation. This belief shapes their attitude to life and death, making them more at ease with a premature or unexpected death of a loved one and more accepting of their own death when it is imminent. Carers should bear in mind that such stoicism in the face of tragedy comes from their religious beliefs and not from fear or denial. Buddhists also believe in the Law of Karma, which explains that one’s own happiness or suffering, success or failure, health or illness and so on, are caused by one’s own bodily, verbal or mental actions (karma means action). Karma is not fatalism, since Buddhists realise that karma is ‘work-in-progress’ so that even now they are generating the causes for future prosperity or failure. Thus, in times of distress, Buddhists will seek to do good karma to alleviate any unpleasantness.
Buddhism is not a God-centred faith. Thus Buddhists do not worship, nor surrender their fate to a divine being. However, the majority of Buddhists will have statues of the Buddha, Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), Maitreya (the future Buddha) and other icons in their temples and houses, and pray in front of them for favours. Though these images are meant to be merely images of reflection, to generate inspiration, they are regularly used as a focus for aspirations, that is, praying. Also, Buddhists accept the truths of science, such as evolution, the ‘Big Bang’, genetics and so forth.
Buddhists place strong emphasis on compassion. Since Buddhism holds that one can be reborn from
the animal, ghost, heaven or lower realms, and that one can also reincarnate back into those realms (as well as back to the human realm), Buddhists show compassion to animals and insects. In practice, compassion takes the form of not doing anything that harms another or oneself, but instead strives to bring happiness to all beings, including oneself. This leads on to the basic moral conduct for Buddhists, called the Five Precepts. Buddhists try to live by the Five Precepts of harmlessness. However, if they fail, they are still fully accepted within the Buddhist community.
The Five Precepts are strongly encouraged:
Refraining from intentionally killing any living being
Refraining from any form of stealing
Refraining from sexual misconduct, in particular from committing adultery
Refraining from any form of lying
Refraining from taking alcohol and non-medicinal drugs.