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Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:
Buddhism refers to a variety of traditions—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—whose source point was in Northern India 2500 years ago. Buddhism, like Christianity, comes from the name of its founder, Buddha, or “awakened one”, as Siddhartha Gautama was called. A primary difference between the two religions is that the Buddha remained silent on the question of God, whose existence, he felt, could not be proved. So he chose to focus his energies on what no one could deny: the presence of suffering.
This led to the Four Noble Truths: 1) All life is suffering. 2) The cause of suffering is desire. 3) To reduce your suffering, decrease your desire. 4) The Eightfold Path is a way to do this. By recognizing these Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path (right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration), a Buddhist seeks to experience Enlightenment and obtain Nirvana, a state of liberation from karmic rebirth.
Buddhism has no one scripture like the Bible, but rather a multiplicity of sutras or strands that guide its followers. The Buddha’s teachings, called the Dharma, were first compiled into a collection called the Pali Canon, but there are also later additional texts important to the various Buddhist subgroups. The Buddha however did not consider written teachings as important as experiential knowledge and encouraged his followers to put his teachings to the test in their own experience.
Among Buddhist practices, meditation is at the top of the list. This is not surprising, as the Buddha attained his own enlightenment while meditating. It is sometimes said that among the various forms of meditation in the religions of the world, there are basically two underlying approaches: “self-power” and “other power”. In the “self-power” forms, one relies on one’s own power of concentration and awareness in order to break through the ego to a larger identity. In “other power forms” one relies on the power of God, or the guru, or simply on complete surrender. The “self-power” forms are usually associated with Buddhism where devotion to God is perceived more as a crutch (the zen teacher will tell you to “slay the Buddha” if you see his image in meditation). The “other-power” forms are generally associated with Christianity, where the notion of enabling grace-as-God’s-free-gift is central.
Buddhism has its own version of the saints in Christianity. They are called bodhisattvas, beings who have attained Enlightenment but who choose to remain on earth to help other people and end their suffering.
Christians, accustomed to gather regularly in a community called Church, can also find a strong appreciation among Buddhists for a community of support among practitioners called Sangha. The three key words for Buddhists are: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.