Buddhism

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Buddhism is the religious tradition of the followers of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 6th century B.C.E.), a Hindu prince from Nepal. In essence, Buddhism is based on the theory that "it takes two to tangle" and "what goes around, comes around": the technical term for this is "karma"; the CIA would call it "blowback" and Buddhism says blowback is inevitable. Each deed and thought adds karma, good or bad, and ultimately leads to payback. It therefore asks followers to consider responsibly the consequences of any idea or action beforehand (the belief in reincarnation merely underscores the point that payback time does exist for everyone). It goes on to note that, even those who lead exemplary lives still fall prey to illness, old age, death and other forms of suffering. Suffering is only "payback time" for past deeds and thoughts of the follower's own making -- there is no Original Sin. You make your own karma and you alone will have to clear it sooner or later. Suffering is payback and payback is "Hell": hell is here and now. A further theory is that "Change is the only constant" and therefore all six hells of existence are temporary (two of them are almost entirely pleasurable), i.e. if we suppose an universe of constant flux, the concept of Eternal Damnation becomes absurd. As it takes a global view of the universe, it holds that "All is one". This makes it useless for any patriotic purposes and rules out Excommunication as a tool of inspiring the faithful.

Moreover, Buddhism holds that there is no God/Creator: the universe simply is. It goes on to offer a set of practices that promise to lead followers to a state of mind beyond suffering, or "enlightenment" (aka nirvana and satori). The only obstacle to achieving enlightenment is the ego, which it perceives as the wall between an individual and the universe. Without that wall, the individual instantly perceives that good arises from evil and evil, from good. Therefore both form part of the necessary and fundamental dynamic of the ever-changing universe. From the writings of Joseph Campbell, one eminent and brilliant Western scholar of Eastern culture and civilization, it is clear that he reached the brink of extinction of his ego, but chose not to: indeed, the pre-eminence of the ego is the very foundation of the Western mindset, the true cleavage alienating West from East and South. Against that, Albert Einstein named Buddhism as the religion most compatible with science.

More generally, Buddhism only claims to offer one path to Beatitude, Salvation or whatever. It claims no monopoly on Truth and openly acknowledges that the stunning diversity of humanity means that different people need different paths.

Buddhism has evolved into three main schools: Theravada, Vajrayana and Mahayana. Closest to early Buddhism and evicted from India by Islamic invasion, Theravada now prevails in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhism prevails in China(including Tibet), Japan and both Koreas; it places special emphasis on bodhisattvas, i.e. past practitioners who have opted to not quite leave the world in order to help more pedestrian followers. Vajrayana (aka Diamond Path, Tantric and Tibetan) prevails across both Mongolias and Tibet; it uses ritual meditations that operate on the symbolic level of the personality and is headed by the Panchen and Dalai lamas. Although one is theoretically responsible for spiritual matters and the other, temporal matters, in practice, one has usually held both powers and passed them on to the other at death in order to avoid a regency.

Buddhism totals some 350 million followers (breakdown: 185 million/Mahayana, 124 million/Theravada and about 21 million Vajrayana).

Apart from Richard Gere, the most famous living Buddhist is the Dalai Lama, holder of a Nobel Peace Prize. Holding that "All life is sacred", he once opposed abortion and birth control, but announced in the 1990s that, given the danger of population explosion, he changed his mind to "approve of all forms of non-violent birth control." More anecdotally, he is about to retire and has stated his intention to return to Tibet "shortly" before his death, as happened with the last panchen lama. While the last panchen lama came to terms with the Chinese Government, the current dalai has, at the time of writing, yet to do so.

Text by Arthur Borges in Zhengzhou, China

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