Buddhism for beginners

Buddhist statues
Statues from the Ispathanaramaya Temple, Colombo. Credit Dominic Sansoni

Last Friday we went to a Buddhist ceremony where prayers were said for a senior colleague who is very unwell. Scores of people she has worked with from across the city had come along, some with young, and impeccably behaved children.

The ceremony was held in a large complex in central Colombo. Despite the Friday evening rush it was peaceful and secluded as soon as we shed our shoes at the entrance. There was a temple adorned with frescos depicting the dharma – Buddhist teaching and law – and housing statues set in different degrees of awakening.   

Outside stood the dome-like stupa, forever housing Buddhas the world over in womb and tomb. The main ceremony took place in the evening darkness around a gnarled Banyan tree, known to Buddhists as the ‘Bodhi-tree’,  a symbol of the self and its journey to enlightenment. Here offerings of simple food platters arrived in procession, against a backdrop of chanting, incense and candle light. 

Buddhism is a religion I confess to knowing little about, but the event inspired me to discover more about the faith. The main religion of Sri Lanka, it is practiced by the majority of the Sinhala population.  The country is said to have the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 2nd century.

Here are some basics about Buddhism:

A Buddha is generally considered to be a person who discovers the true nature of reality through lifetimes of spiritual cultivation, investigation of the various religious practises of his time, and meditation. This transformation and discovery is called Bodhi, which literally means ‘awakening’, but is more commonly called ‘enlightenment.

Bodhi and Nirvana carry the same meaning – that of being freed from raga (greed), dosha (hate), and moha (delusion). Bodhi is attained when the Four Nobel Truths are fully grasped, the essence of all Buddhist teaching:

  1. The suffering – that life is full of suffering of mind and body
  2. The cause of suffering – that suffering happens through attachment to sensual pleasures, worldly things, wealth, status, power, and leads to selfishness and greed
  3. The cessation of suffering – that the total abandonment of lust, greed and attachment is the goal of life
  4. The path that leads to the cessation of suffering – that through the right mindset, conduct, concentration, endeavour and aspiration, we can end suffering and attain Bodhi.

Paraphrased from the Buddhist Cultural Centre website, Sri Lanka

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