In its scriptures, what we call Buddhism is described as The Buddha Way
Buddhism is a form of Hinduism. Buddhists venerate not only the Buddhas but also Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, among other gods. The emphasis on the Hindu cosmology is more pronounced in esoteric Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism became official toward the end of the 1st century CE. Mahayana is a reformation movement that broke with classic Buddhism when it introduced Compassion as the highest virtue, and the doctrine that Enlightenment is available to women. The old Buddhism, now known as Theravada Buddhism does not offer enlightenment as an option for women or lay folk, you have to gain a male birth, become a monk and then gain the status of an Ahrat.
Mahayana means the greater vehicle because it extends its salvific mercy to all beings, including women. Theravada means the way of the elders, and salvation is available only to monks, but lay folk can earn merits by serving monks.
Over the course of many incarnations, human beings become perfected to a certain level of spiritual wisdom and purity, which is called enlightenment. When this happens, we become buddhas (wise ones). We do not get born again as humans, but we exist as spiritual beings elsewhere. Some of us can come back to earth to help others.
Buddhas are spiritual beings who do not anymore reincarnate to earth.
The Buddhist cosmology therefore is filled with spiritual beings, gods in other words, called buddhas in Buddhism. Most of the gods were human beings once who achieved Buddhahood, or enlightenment. These spiritual beings now exist in several levels of purity, or ranks. Buddhists pray to spiritual beings of the various ranks for advice, boons, merits and blessings.
A very senior level of gods, or buddhas, are said to reign over different heavens called Pure Lands. We are destined to be reborn as spiritual beings in one of those heavens.
The most senior of Buddhas still continue to be perfected. One day such a Buddha will be so perfected as to become as pure as the Source Energy, and then will simply flow back into that energy from which he came many eons ago when he was first created. Most Buddhist schools of thought, and there are many schools of thought, refer to this Source as the Adi-Buddha.
Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni was a man who lived about 500BCE, at which time he became a Buddha. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism venerate Gautama Buddha and other Buddhas as gods. Although Gautama Buddha is not one of the senior Buddhas who reign over pure lands, he is venerated, worshiped and prayed to because he was the human being who told us about the Buddha Way before he became a Buddha. Subsequently, after Gautama, millions of humans must have gained enlightenment and also became Buddhas.
Buddhists have shrines in their homes where they pray to the Buddhas of their choice and regularly visit shrines where they bring gifts and sacrifices to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (junior Buddhas).
Buddhists are very careful to not use the word soul, refusing to admit to its existence. They go to pains to explain their ontology and cosmology that says we do not really exist, we are never an individual entity, we are not soul—yet we can reincarnate from one life to another, we carry over karma from one incarnation to another, and we become buddhas with distinct personalities. In Buddhism, we are not souls or spirits, we don’t really exist but we do, mostly in our minds, but when a body dies the mind dies with it.
Siddharta Gautama performed many miracles in his time. He is said to have exercised the powers of Iddhi which includes Clairvoyance- this power allows one to see beings in other realms as well as see the future, The Divine Ear (Clairaudience), Travel by mind-made-body (Astral Travel), Travel with the Physical Body (to other realms), Telekinesis (Supernormal Locomotion), Flying, The power of Transformation of the physical body (shape shifting), The ability to replicate one’s body, Penetration of others’ minds (Thought Reading), Passing through solid objects, Diving in and out of the earth as if through water, Walking on water, Touching the sun and the moon with one’s fingers, Becoming invisible, and Recollection of past lives (some would call this a power, some would call it true knowledge). telepathy, super-hearing, divine seeing, and seeing past lives. These are described in the Mahasihanada Sutta and other suttas in the pali canon. Buddha had more superpowers than any other being including being, it is said in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. The Buddha could multiply into a million and then return, he could travel through space, he could make himself as big as a giant and then as small as an ant, walk through mountains, he could dive in and out of the earth, he could travel to Heavens to school the Gods and return to earth. inundated by a flood, he commanded the waters to stand back so that he could walk between them on dry ground.
Other miracles were the Taming of the Elephant, playing hide and seek with the god Brahma, he walked immediately after his birth, he was born from the side of his mother not her vagina, to prove his enlightenment to his family he produced what is called the ‘twin miracle’ of making flames and water flow from his body from alternating parts of the body.
Gautama Buddha prohibited images of him, and specifically prohibited worship of him. Images of Gautama Buddha were first made in Gandhara in the first century CE.
It was said that after his enlightenment Gautama Buddha perfectly reflected the image of the most compassionate of all beings, Amitabha Buddha, King and Father of Sukhavati heaven. For that reason, the images of Gautama were made to look like images of Amitabha Buddha. The one mudra that was initially reserved for Gautama Buddha was the differentiating factor to identify which Buddha is being depicted. That mudra was the “calling the earth to witness” or bhumi-sparsha mudra reserved for use by Gautama. Images of Amithaba, Father of the Heavenly Lotus Family, always depicted the Lord on a lotus throne, in simple and humble monk’s clothing, red in colour (for compassion) in meditation or dhyana mudra.
Witnin a thousand years we note that Theravadins especially started to conflate the two styles. In Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the Father Amitabha and the son Gautama because iconographers were either unschooled in the art or followed a redefined iconography.
It is not possible to give a short description of Gautama Buddha’s teaching. According to tradition, he produced more than 100,000 sutras, most of which had not yet been translated from Pali or the Sanskrit originals. The bulk of Gautama Buddha’s teaching deals with cosmology, descriptions of heavens and extraterrestrial abodes, and extraterrestrial beings of different types and classes. A lot of the teaching concerns the different Bodhisattvas, Buddhas and their powers to help people.
In Theravada Buddhism, the teaching is not generally available to lay folk because gaining wisdom is the domain of the male monk, who alone is working on his enlightenment.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the teaching is made available to all, because all have an equal chance (limited by the constraints of cultural sexism in communities) to gain enlightenment.
Gautama Buddha, when he was still a prince, set out to find a cure for suffering, old age, sickness and death. In the end, he captured his thesis in what is known as the Fourfold Truth.
- Suffering happens
- Suffering comes from unfulfilled desires
- The end of suffering comes from the end of desires
- The end of desires comes from serving the community of monks and following the eightfold path.
- Right understanding: Understanding that the Four Noble Truths are noble and true.
- Right thought: Determining and resolving to practice Buddhist faith.
- Right speech: Avoiding slander, gossip, lying, and all forms of untrue and abusive speech.
- Right conduct: Adhering to the idea of nonviolence (ahimsa), as well as refraining from any form of stealing or sexual impropriety.
- Right means of making a living: Not slaughtering animals or working at jobs that force you to violate others. (Many Buddhists, but not Theravada Buddhists insist on vegetarian diet)
- Right mental attitude or effort: Avoiding negative thoughts and emotions, such as anger and jealousy.
- Right mindfulness: Having a clear sense of one’s mental state and bodily health and feelings.
- Right concentration: Using meditation to reach the highest level of enlightenment.
Buddhism believes in a system of Karmic Merits whereby good deeds beget good merits which can be used to buy off bad karma from bad deeds.
Good merits can be gained by repeating mantras, bringing gifts and services to monks, gifting to shrines and paying homage to Buddhas, and more. Merit machines are found in most Mahayana temples where people can pull a lever to spin several thousand pieces of paper with mantras, thereby gaining the merits of several thousand mantra repetitions. In Theravada, merit machines are not poplar as the right way to gain merits is to gift to monks, temples (Wats) and provide services to them. Theravadin monks cannot exist without the benevolence of the rich and poor in the community.
Rich men with bad karma can use some of their money to buy chunks of good karma to offset the punishment for their evil deeds. Temples (Wats) cannot prosper without this penance, or sin tax.
The Bodhisattva Way
Mahayana embraces the Bodhisattva Way, which is the foundation of Wayism and other movements. In the Bodhisattva Way, insofar as merits are concerned, the practitioner vows (taking her example from Avalokiteshvara) to transfer the merits she has earned to the world at large. She does not want the good merits because she, just like her Lord Avalokiteshvara, vows to work for the salvation of all sentient beings on earth and only then will she take up her Buddhahood and go to heaven.