Sympathy for the Dalai Lama, zen practices, meditation retreats; the appeal of Buddhism in our society continues to grow. A religion without a god or gods, without dogmas, without hierarchies; just the values  of tolerance, compassion, and non-violence: is the 'Middle Path' of Buddhism the answer for Westerners in search of spirituality?  What do we really know about Buddhism?  Here are some pointers to help you gain enlightenment.

The term 'Buddhism' has no equivalent among Buddhists, who prefer to speak of Dharma (doctrine), referring to the teachings of Buddha, and Sangha (community), to refer to those who teach or receive these teachings.  Buddhism is not based on a sacred text or on revealed truth, but on the experience of Siddhartha Gautama. Born at the foot of the Himalayas in the 6th century BC, Siddhartha Gautama was neither a God nor a prophet. Son of a monarch, he led a sumptuous existence during his youth but decided to renounce his wealth to live as a wandering ascetic.


Through meditation, Gautama reached the state of Buddha, of the Awakened - freed from illusion, he reached nirvana. For 40 years, he travelled through India and shared the liberating path (dharma) with those who wanted to hear it. He delivered his first sermon in Benares before five ascetics who became his first disciples, thus founding his monastic community (sangha). According to Buddhists, the historical Buddha is not the only Buddha; other awakened beings have manifested themselves in the past, and others will guide us in the future. 


Buddha is an honorary title formed from the root 'budh' meaning 'to awaken', referring to one who has awakened to the 'Truth', liberated from illusions, passions, and the pain inherent in any form of existence.  Awakening is, through the liberation of desire and attachment to things, a state of being liberated from conflicting emotions, and rich in essential qualities: knowledge of the true nature of phenomena, unconditional love for all beings, and the ability to help them.  The practice of the four sublime states: Unconditional love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, helps to develop the state of awakening. The three jewels are, according to Buddha's teachings, in the heart of every being. Their nature corresponds to the three qualities of Awakening: openness, clarity, compassion.  The three jewels are also Buddha, dharma and sangha which are often described as refuges.


Dharma is the teaching of Buddha, which frees you from illusions. The community of Dharma apprentices constitutes Sangha, all those who transmit and practice teachings.  Karma is the driving force behind existence, which governs the manifestations of the world: existence is a series of disappearances and reappearances in a new form. Samsara is the cycle of rebirths, a source of suffering. It is represented in the form of a wheel to signify its finiteness: samsara is only a misunderstanding, the final destination is nirvana. Nirvana is, through the eradication of all attachments, the eradication of the causes of ill-being. Karuna, compassion, is the founding precept of Buddhism: 'the origin of all joy in this world is the quest for the happiness of others,  the origin of all suffering is the quest for my own happiness.'

The doctrine of Buddha is based on four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Sickness, old age, and death are common to humanity. Even the deepest joy is ephemeral. Every being must cultivate his 'Buddhist nature' to extinguish the sources of torment: desire, ignorance, illusion, and above all the belief in the permanence of being.


The three vehicles of Buddhism

The Theravada or Small Vehicle is the oldest Buddhist doctrine, the only one that emanates directly from Gautama's teachings. It is based on two fundamental principles: the temporary nature of life and the imperfection of human beings. Its followers carefully respect the message of Buddha. They seek to detach themselves from the world of passions to work towards their salvation. The goal of Theravada is, for its followers, the ending of suffering through the realisation of the four noble truths. Designated as Southern Buddhism, Theravada is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. 


The Mahayana or Great Vehicle is a major reform of the Buddhist tradition, dating back to the early Christian era. Mahayana does not deny the doctrine of the Ancients but places compassion at the centre of its practice. While the ancient texts offer only one Small Vehicle that each individual follows to achieve his/her own liberation, in Mahayana, the boddhisattva (future Buddhas), who have reached enlightenment, delay their entry into nirvana to help their human brothers and sisters. Followers of the Mahayana traditions consider all humans to be bearers of Buddha's nature - they extend meditative practices to awakened-mind training. Mahayana is widely open to the secular world: in Mahayana laypeople can reach nirvana, while in Theravada only monks and nuns can reach it. The Vietnamese, influenced by 1000 years of Chinese occupation, are followers, like the Japanese and Koreans, of Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in China.


The Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle, also called Tibetan Buddhism, is a later school dating back to the 7th century, and an offshoot of Mahayana. It is practised in Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh, Kashmir, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Siberia and is based on the principle of transmutations of passions into wisdom, through a rapid path of liberation, the diamond vehicle, which leads to the state of Buddha in one life. 


A living religion

Buddhism, which began 2,500 years ago in present-day Nepal, has spread throughout much of Asia and has become, along with Christianity and Islam, one of the three major world religions. Today, only 1% of Indonesians are Buddhists. Indonesia, however, has an  exceptional architectural heritage, including the temple of Borobudur in Java, one of the most important Buddhist monuments in the world, built in the 8th century AD in the name of Buddhism and its founder, a Bodhisattva king.  In Southeast Asia, where Buddhism is the main religion, the distribution of cultural areas is based on religious criteria: Southeast Asia is Theravadin, referred to as Indianised (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos) and is distinguished from Mayan Southeast Asia, termed sinicised (Vietnam). It is in Burma that the tradition of Theravada, practiced by 90% of the population, is the most alive, with a fervour and devotion that astounds visitors.


The daily life of the Burmese is shaped by practice: morning offerings to monks, pagoda prayers…  90% of Thais are Buddhists - it is perhaps Buddhist practice  that  makes them sensitive to the ephemeral aspect of existence and the inanity of material goods.  Buddhism became widespread in Cambodia in the 12th century: today all Khmers - 90% of the population - are Buddhists; minorities are animists, Christians or Muslims.  Buddhism settled in Luang Prabang at the end of the 13th century; the kingdom's first ruler made it a state religion, but it would take centuries for Buddhism to reach the plains, where today spirit worship remains widespread. 65% of Laotians are Buddhists. In  Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, the majority of men spend a period of their lives in a monastery: a Theravada monk can return to secular life at any time, and a layman can retire for a limited period. While 85% of Vietnamese regularly go to a pagoda, only 16% of them are Buddhists in the strict sense: in Vietnam, a country marked by 1000 years of Chinese occupation, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism come together. Confucianism has governed the country's social relations and moral organisation since its establishment in Vietnam over 2000 years ago. Taoism, more concerned with the individual, seeks harmony with nature and the universe, governed by yin (lunar energy, darkness and cold) and yang (solar energy, light and heat). 


Why not...

…meditate, go to Angkor, former Khmer capital - at Bayon, with the benevolent features and smile of Avalokitecvara.…meet a Buddhist monk, go to Ananda Temple, in Bagan, on the banks of the Irrawady.  ...make a wish, hang a piece of paper from a spiral of incense at Phuoc Lam Pagoda in Hoi An - as done by Korean and Chinese visitors. …see stupas, visit the monumental temple of Borobudur, sitting between volcanoes and ricefields. …experience an infectious atmosphere, attend a ceremony in Bangkok in the temple of What Suthat, refuge of tranquillity in the middle of the city. 



Incense is offered both in temples and in domestic altars. The small of incense burning is thought to promote a perception of consciousness, while the smoke represents life - ephemeral and fragile.  THE LOTUS the lotus is a symbol of purity and fertility, representing the nature of Buddha. The flower draws its strength from the sun, rising above from the swamps that stagnate beneath it. 



Saffron, the colour of Buddhist monks' clothing, is gold, a symbol of purity: gold is unalterable and does not tarnish. THE STUPA A Stupa is a reliquary monument that houses Buddha's ashes, and objects that belonged to him. It is also a memorial erected in places that were significant in the life of Buddha. A stupa's base represents  the virtues Buddhism is based on, while the dome symbolises nirvana and the top of the arrow refers to Buddha's compassion.


Learn more

About Buddha's life: read Siddharta, by Herman Hesse. A philosophical novel inspired by the spiritual path of Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. 


On Buddhism as a framework for reflection on the contemporary world: read The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trin Xuan Thuan. A conversation between a French biologist who became a Buddhist and a Vietnamese Buddhist who became an astrophysicist. Science and spirituality complement each other here to question experience.