With books like Eckhart Tolle's The Power Of Now, and ones like it, there has been a boom in all things mindfulness, meditation, breathwork and spirituality. Are these ideas unique and original to people like Tolle, or are they simply a rebranding of old wisdom, in a shiny new package?
The answer is, of course, the latter. So, where did these ideas come from? Although contemporary Yogic practices have become quite common, many of the popular ideas today actually come from Buddhism. Perhaps this is due to Yoga being a Hindu practice and Hinduism seeming much more exotic than its Buddhist counterpart.
What is Buddhism? Who was the Buddha? How are Buddhism and Yoga/Hinduism related? If you've ever been curious about these things, this is the blog for you.
Where Did Buddhism Come From?
Buddhism was originally an Indian religion, but over time, it made its way out of India; cross pollinating with other local world views, changing and evolving along the way. Its journey East, to places like China and Japan are probably best known, but lesser known, Buddhism also made its way to the Middle East and even as far away as places like Rome. Much later, it made its way to the West, getting some of its first Western audiences during the 1960s counterculture and civil right's movements.
Traditionally though, it was a Dharmic, Indian religion. The main Dharmic paths include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism; however, some consider all of these paths as sects of Hinduism (there are others who would strongly disagree and there is still much political and social strife around these topics even today).
The point is that they are all related, and much like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they all come from the same parent religion. This means that although they are all different, they all have a lot in common too. It is important to remember that when these schools of thought branched off of each other, it was not the globalized world we live in today that offers a smorgasbord of religions and spiritualities. Although they may seem more similar than different today, at the time they were splitting (and in some places still to this day), the differences were seen as incompatible and unsurmountable.
Who Was the Buddha?
Within Buddhism, there are many different Buddhas, but typically, when one refers to 'The Buddha,' they are referring to a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who I will call 'Sid.' Sid was said to have lived from about 563 BCE to 483 BCE and was an Indian Prince.
According to a prophecy given at his birth, Sid would grow up to either be a great holy man and spiritual leader, or a very powerful king. Sid's father, being a King himself, of course wanted Sid to follow in his foot steps and become a great and powerful leader. So, fearing Sid would follow the other path, that of a spiritual man, he locked Sid away in the royal palace and tried to hide him from the world, sheltering him from anything unpleasant... and this actually worked until Sid was 29 years old.
It is said that at 29, Sid finally managed to get some time outside of the protection of the palace and what he saw has come to be known as the 'four signs'. On this day, Sid witnessed an old man, a sick man, a dead man and a spiritual/ascetic man. Through these sights, he learned that he too would become old, he too would become sick, he too would die and he too would lose everything. From this, he learned the truth of Dukkha. Dukkha is a frequently misunderstood word that is most often translated as suffering. This is where many people got the idea that Buddha said "life is suffering". That is not exactly what he said or meant. A better explanation would be... If you live, you will experience suffering sometimes during your life.
As you might imagine, his cloistered, protected life was irrevocably and forever changed, all in an instant. So, Sid decided to leave his pampered, comfortable life, hidden behind palace walls and ran away under the shelter of night, in hopes of not being discovered. Just like Jesus was brought up as a Jew, Sid was brought up as a Hindu. So, he first set out to learn the holy Hindu ways.
He tried many different practices and learned everything he could, eventually becoming a wandering ascetic, refusing the luxuries of modern life and roaming the forests in search of understanding and Moksha (liberation). During this time, he vowed to sit under a tree and not move until he had reached such liberation; and as the story goes, he did just that, but it was not an easy task. He was tested by not only the elements and hunger (it is said that he meditated under this tree for 49 straight days without moving), but by an evil doer named Mara as well. Mara tried to tempt his will with all of the worldly pleasures- sex, food, drugs, etc.
Once he attained self-realization while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, he said that he had become 'awakened.' Then, he began to preach what he learned, starting with The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path. He also preached what came to be known as The Middle Way, a way of life that is somewhere between the lavish, exuberant lifestyle of the palace and the destitute life of the half-starved ascetic.
How Are Buddhism and Hinduism Different?
As mentioned previously, some would consider Buddhism a sect of Hinduism and others would find that to be blasphemous. In our humble opinion, their similarities are much greater than their differences. Their main difference being their ultimate view of the universe and the nature of things. However, their interpretations are very similar and perhaps semantical.
Hinduism has more diverse views within it than Buddhism, but an oversimplification of the Hindu worldview is essentially- All is One, this One is called Brahman. Brahman is an indescribable God figure that is the entire universe and is said to be Satcitananda (existence or truth, consciousness and bliss). You have a soul and it is part of that Brahman. The exact relationship of the soul (atman) and the universe varies from sect to sect, some being nondual and some dualistic, but that is the gist.
Buddhism on the other hand is always nondual and says that you have no soul (anatman) and that there is no God, but there is the ground of all being. Everything is a part of it and it is called Sunyata (emptiness).
Again, these are gross over simplifications, but essentially, both posit that your egoist self is an illusion, everything is connected and you are a part of that everything; they just argue about the details.
On this same note, a major difference is that Hinduism accepts the authority of the Vedas (holy Hindu texts), but Buddhists reject them, saying that all true knowledge comes from the self and introspection.
To a lesser extent, the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism were social and helped lead to the schism that created Buddhism. Mainly that Buddhism rejects animal sacrifice and the caste system (India traditionally had a social caste system. The caste that you were born into dictated your social standing, including things like which jobs you could do and whom you could marry).
What Does Buddhism Teach?
As Buddhism developed and traveled to new lands over time, it evolved into many schools of thoughts and lineages with diverse ideas. Again, the devil is in the details so to speak, but they all have more in common than different. The two main trains of thought within Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana, Mahayana developing out of Theravada, much like Buddhism came from Hinduism. Although Theravada does have its different lineages and varies country to country, it does not have different schools within it. Mahayana on the other hand exploded into many different schools, each with their own texts, lineages, etc. leading to things like Tantra, Pure Land, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.
Although Buddhism has many different schools and lineages, at its core are The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, Nonduality, impermanence and the illusion of the self.
Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, some might even consider it a sub-school of Hinduism. Despite all of the differences within Buddhism and between Buddhism and the other Dharmic paths, they all share a common lineage and worldview.
In the modern age, Buddhist and Yogic practices have been secularized and brought to the west, permeating all things mindfulness, meditation and breath related. These practices have helped people in areas as diverse as spirituality, wellness, business and even performances and sports. So, what you may consider trendy or new age, is probably really a long standing Buddhist tradition or practice. The same goes for many of the contemporary visualization, breath and centering modalities that are used in sports, performance and business that are typically considered to be cutting edge science.
We hope that this blog has helped you understand Buddhism and the Buddha a little better, as well as how Buddhism relates to the other Dharmic paths like Yoga and Hinduism. Stay tuned for more on Buddhist Wisdom in future blogs from Lotus Tribe.