Buddhism

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Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on
personal spiritual development.
Buddhists strive for a deep insight into
the true nature of life and do not
worship gods or deities.

The Buddhist univers

The abode of the gods, happy figures surrounded by immaculate buildings, green trees, running water and a pet dog

The great tragedy of existence, from a Buddhist point
of view, is that it is both endless and subject to
impermanence, suffering and uncertainty. These
three are called the tilakhana or three signs of
existence.

Existence is endless because individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering throughout many lives.

It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering.

It is uncertain because when we examine our experience, no knower can be defined and no enduring essence of experience can be located.

Only achieving liberation, or nirvana, can free a being from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The realms

Buddhism has six realms into which a soul can be reborn. From most to least pleasant, these are:

  • Heaven, the home of the gods (devas): this is a realm of enjoyment inhabited by blissful, long-lived beings. It is subdivided by later sources into 26 levels of increasing happiness
  • The realm of humanity: although humans suffer, this is considered the most fortunate state because humans have the greatest chance of enlightenment
  • The realm of the Titans or angry gods (asuras): these are warlike beings who are at the mercy of angry impulses
  • The realm of the hungry ghosts (pretas): these unhappy beings are bound to the fringes of human existence, unable to leave because of particularly strong attachments. They are unable to satisfy their craving, symbolised by their depiction with huge bellies and tiny mouths
  • The animal realm: this is undesirable because animals are exploited by human beings, and do not have the necessary self-awareness to achieve liberation
  • Hell realms: people here are horribly tortured in many creative ways, but not for ever – only until their bad karma is worked off

(Early sources listed five realms, excluding the Titans.)

The first two levels are good places to be born. The inhabitants of the next three levels all have a particular defect (hatred, greed, ignorance), and hell is obviously the worst of the lot.

Interlinked

These are not all separate realms, but are interlinked in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy that mind and reality are linked.

The hungry ghosts, misshapen figures with huge bellies and tiny mouths, suffering from flames and thunderboltsHungry ghosts. Photo: Falk Kienas

Thus, although humans and animals live together in the same world, the implications of being born as a human and as an animal are very different, and they are represented as two separate realms.

And a human being can experience touches of heaven when happy, or the lower states when hateful, greedy, ignorant or in pain. Someone adept at meditation will experience progressively higher heaven realms.

These realms are depicted in a diagram known as the Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming, which is explored in detail in the next section.

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The Wheel of Life

The realms, or states of reincarnation, of the Buddhist universe are depicted in a diagram known as the Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming.

The wheel itself is a circle, symbolising the endless cycle of existence and suffering.

In the middle of the Wheel are the Three Fires of greed, ignorance and hatred, represented by a rooster, a pig and a snake. These are the cause of all suffering and are shown linked together, biting each other’s tails, reinforcing each other.

In the next circle out, souls are shown ascending and descending according to their karma.

The next ring out is composed of six segments showing the six realms: gods, humans and Titans above and hungry ghosts, animals and those tortured in hell below.

The outer ring shows twelve segments called nidanas, illustrating the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, the chain of causes of suffering (explained in the following section).

The wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death, who symbolises the impermanence of everything. The beings he holds are trapped in eternal suffering by their ignorance of the nature of the universe.

Buddhist Wheel of Life diagram, a circular diagram showing the different realms of life being held by a frightening demon

Buddhist Wheel of Life diagram, a circular diagram showing the different realms of life being held by a frightening demon

Wheel of Life overview
The Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming, is a mandala – a complex picture representing the Buddhist view of the universe. To Buddhists, existence is a cycle of life, death, rebirth and suffering that they seek to escape altogether.

The Wheel is divided into five or six realms, or states, into which a soul can be reborn. It is held by a demon. Around the rim are depicted the twelve stages of dependent origination. This gallery will explain the parts of the diagram.

Black-skinned monster with flames playing over his eyebrows and licking from his open mouth. He is sinking his fangs into the wheel of the universe. He has three fierce eyes and is wearing a crown of skulls

Yama
The frightening figure holding the wheel is Yama, the Lord of Death or Monster of Impermanence. He has three eyes and wears a crown of skulls.

Yama symbolises the impermanence of everything. The beings he holds are trapped in eternal suffering by their ignorance of the nature of the universe. Buddhism teaches that death is not the end and is not to be feared.

The centrepiece of the wheel diagram. A bird, a snake and a pig are rushing around in a circle, each holding the tail of the next in its mouth.

The Three Fires
In the middle of the Wheel are the three causes of all suffering. These are known as the Three Fires: they are greed, ignorance and hatred, represented by a rooster, a pig and a snake. They are shown linked together, biting each other’s tails, reinforcing each other.

A section of the wheel diagram shows the world of humans.  Many human figures are shown going about their lives

The realm of humans
Buddhists consider being born as a human to be the most fortunate state. Because they are not suffering as heavily as those in the other realms, yet are not in lengthy bliss like the gods, humans have the best chance of enlightenment.

A section of the wheel diagram shows the realm of the gods.  It looks like a happy and peaceful realm.  At the bottom, some of the gods are holding off angry figures, the Titans, who are aiming their bows and arrows at the gods

The realm of gods (and Titans)
The gods, or devas, live in a state of bliss in the realm of heaven. Later sources subdivide this into 26 levels of increasing happiness. The gods live for a long time, but they too will die. Only enlightenment is a complete release.

At the bottom are the angry gods, called Titans or asuras, who hate the devas. Later sources often show these in a realm of their own.

A section of the wheel diagram shows the abode of the hungry ghosts.  They are misshapen figures with huge bellies and tiny mouths.  They are suffering

The realm of hungry ghosts
Lingering around the edges of the mortal realm, trapped by their overattachment to the world, the hungry ghosts, or pretas, are in the grip of their unfulfilled desires. This is symbolised by their huge bellies and tiny mouths that can never satisfy their appetites.

A section of the wheel diagram shows the animal realm.  The animals are not having a pleasant time of it.  They are at the mercy of monsters and being captured and killed by humans

The realm of animals
Animals are used by humans and lack the necessary awareness to become enlightened. Buddhists do not believe it is a good thing to be reborn as an animal, although they believe in treating every living thing with loving kindness.

A section of the wheel diagram shows hell.  The human figures here are being tortured by demons, burned in fire and frozen in ice

Hell
At the bottom is the hell realm. People here are horribly tortured in many creative ways, but not for ever – only until their bad karma is worked off.

The rim of the wheel contains twelve images collected here. In order, they show: a blind man, a man making pots, a monkey swinging in the trees, a man in a boat, a house with doors and windows, two lovers embracing, a man with an arrow in his eye, two people having a drink, a woman picking fruit, a mother-to-be, a woman giving birth and an old man.

Dependent origination
This teaching of the Buddha’s is explained in detail here.

The twelve stages of dependent origination are shown around the rim. They are: 1. Ignorance: a blind man; 2. Willed action: a potter; 3. Conditioned consciousness: a restless monkey; 4. Form and existence: a boat; 5. Senses: windows of a house; 6. Sense-impressions: two lovers; 7. Sensation: an arrow in the eye; 8. Craving: a man drinking; 9. Attachment: clinging to a fruit tree; 10. Becoming: a pregnant woman; 11. Birth; 12. Old age, death

In the corner of the mural outside the wheel diagram is a picture of Buddha. He sits floating in the lotus position, pointing to the demon holding the wheel

Buddha
In the top right corner, Buddha is showing the way. He is outside the wheel to show that he has escaped the cycle of life and death. Buddha is pointing to Yama and the wheel to teach his followers the true nature of existence.

Origin of the universe

Blind man1. Ignorance
Man making pots from clay2. Willed action

Buddhism has no creator god to explain the origin of the universe. Instead, it teaches that everything depends on everything else: present events are caused by past events and become the cause of future events.

Indian religions often see space and time as cyclical, such that world-systems come into being, survive for a time, are destroyed and then are remade. In Buddhism this happens naturally without the intervention of gods.

One tale told by the Buddha in the Aggan̄n̄a Sutta describes the process of recreation on this grand scale. An old world-system has just been destroyed, and its inhabitants are reborn in a new system. To begin with they are spirits, floating happily above the earth, luminescent and without form, name or sex.

Monkey3.Conditionedconsciousness
Man in a boat4.Formandexistence

The world in these early stages is without light or land, only water. Eventually earth appears and the spirits come to taste and enjoy it. Their greed causes their ethereal bodies to become solid and coarse and differentiate into male and female, good-looking and ugly. As they lose their luminescence the sun and moon come into being.

Gradually the beings fall into further wicked habits, causing themselves – and the earth itself – to become less pleasant.

A house with doors and windows5. The senses
Lovers embracing6.Senseimpressions

In this way, the Buddha seems to be saying, desire, greed and attachment not only cause suffering for people but also cause the world to be as it is.

The physical world as we know it, with all its imperfections and suffering, is the product of what the Buddha called dependent origination.

Dependent origination

The Buddha taught that this was a 12-stage process – a circular chain, not a straight line. Each stage gives rise to the one directly after it.

Man with arrow sticking from his eye7. Sensation
People having a drink8. Craving

1. Ignorance: inability to see the truth, depicted by a blind man

2. Willed action: actions that shape our emerging consciousness, depicted by a potter moulding clay

3. Conditioned consciousness: the development of habits, blindly responding to the impulses of karmic conditioning, represented by a monkey swinging about aimlessly

4. Form and existence: a body comes into being to carry our karmic inheritance, represented by a boat carrying men

Picking fruit9. Attachment
Pregnant woman10. Becoming

5. The six sense-organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body (touch) and mind, the way sensory information passes into us, represented by the doors and windows of a house

6. Sense-impressions: the combination of sense-organ and sensory information, represented by two lovers

7. Sensation: the feelings we get from sense-impressions, which are so vivid that they blind us, represented by a man shot in the eye with an arrow

8. Craving (tanhā): negative desires that can never be sated, represented by a man drinking

Woman giving birth11. Birth
Bent old man12.Oldageanddeath

9. Attachment: grasping at things we think will satisfy our craving, represented by someone reaching out for fruit from a tree

10. Becoming: worldly existence, being trapped in the cycle of life, represented by a pregnant woman

11. Birth: represented by a woman giving birth

12. Old age and death: grief, suffering and despair, the direct consequences of birth, represented by an old man

>>> Next to Believe

BBC : Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

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