The best explanation of Buddha’s teachings is summarized in the Sanskrit word dharma, which means “the way things are.” Buddha found enlightenment when he perceived the true nature of the mind. This embodies awareness—moving beyond the obstructions of ego and self-absorption in order to see clearly and simply the way things truly are. Awareness is both the path and the ultimate goal of all Buddhist teachings.
Buddha was a human being, nothing more. When asked by a follower if he were a man or a god, he answered with a simple truth: I am awake. He was a human being who had discovered, through hard work and patience, a path to a freedom of mind which released him from the fear, clinging and drive for personal security that lies at the heart of how humans live.
This freedom of mind is called enlightenment. It is an experience of directly seeing what is real, before the moment when ideas, thoughts, beliefs, emotions and ego shape our experience. Though impossible to express satisfactorily in words, when one achieves enlightenment it can be seen as the ultimate in mental calmness, inexpressible joy and unfettered clarity.
Meditation and the associated teachings are the tools that help us gain the ability and the confidence to ‘let go’ and realize this kind of total awareness. At first we glimpse it in brief flashes during quiet sitting. Then, over time, we learn how to extend our experience—to maintain it throughout daily life. The Buddhist practice of “being present in the moment,” or mindfulness, is a fundamental part of bringing our meditation experience into everything we do.
Over 2500 years ago, in the 6th century BCE, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni was born as Prince Siddhartha. As a wealthy prince he was isolated from the hardships of life. But he was curious about the world, and as a young man he decided to venture beyond the security of his luxurious surroundings. Everywhere he looked, the suffering of the sick, the aged, and the dying confronted him.
After years of extreme asceticism in the forests of India, Buddha realized that he could not achieve his goal through physical deprivation. In a moment of clarity he saw that all our suffering originates from the mind. More to the point, he saw that the way in which the mind perceives its circumstances defines our experience. Buddha’s meditation turned exclusively to understanding the nature of mind. His efforts led to the ultimate breakthrough: release from suffering, as we experience it, through an awakening to the true nature of reality. He was 35.
After his enlightenment, Buddha taught throughout northern India for 45 years. He showed people how to seek happiness and avoid suffering by exploring the characteristics of mind in order to understand the true nature of reality: “the way things are” (dharma). The breadth and depth of Buddhist practices are a result of his long career teaching people with a wide range of capabilities. His voluminous teachings were written down and they form the foundation of the methods taught to this day.
History of the Teaching Traditions
People learn in different ways, and Buddha taught accordingly. He focused his teachings on the ability of each individual and their personal motivation. Those who wanted to avoid suffering for themselves concentrated on cause and effect (dependent origination and karma); those who were inspired to benefit others as well as themselves were given additional teachings on compassion and wisdom; those who had a strong trust in their own and others’ ability to reach enlightenment were given esoteric teachings on the direct view of mind: emptiness.
- Hinayana, more commonly known as Theravada, concentrates on the teachings to those who want to avoid suffering for themselves. It is practiced in some Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.
- Mahayana is for those who wish to benefit others in addition to themselves. It has found fertile ground in many countries including China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Commonly known forms of this tradition include the “Amithaba Pure Land” school and Zen.
- Vajrayana is for those who have great trust in the ability of themselves and others to reach enlightenment quickly. It emphasizes the Tantrayana (tantric) teachings, while also encompassing the diverse traditions of Theravada and Mahayana. This tradition has mostly been preserved in Tibet and Nepal, although one can find tantric teachings in some Japanese traditions today.