A solid understanding of the tenets of Eastern faiths is an important attribute for any global citizen. Buddhism, in particular, is one of the world’s most unique and popular religions and is worthy of additional study. This sample religious studies essay discusses Mahayana Buddhism and some of its core teachings.
Understanding traditional Buddhism
Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism lends itself to a certain level of abstraction absent from other Eastern traditions. Nevertheless, while some may suggest that this ambiguity may function as a detriment, the fluidity and flexibility of the various doctrines that compose Mahayana Buddhism allow these doctrines for grafting into the individual circumstances of willing believers.
This perspective is what makes The Great Vehicle such a unique and scintillating teaching. Understanding four foundational principles of the Great Vehicle, the annihilation of the self, the responsibility that comes with free will and choice, the duty of the enlightened to assist others to reach Nirvana, liberation, and essential means, allow one to begin to understand the tenants of Mahayana Buddhism.p>
The teaching of sense of self
In the same vain as the Post-Modernists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Mayahana Buddhism posits that the self cannot be self-existing. The unenlightened individual perceives the self, the flower, and the animal as possessing an innate nature. However, Mahayana Buddhism points out the inconsistencies of this notion by highlighting the fact that individuals often define themselves through the other. Mahayana Buddhism asks:
“How can a thing exist without either self-existence or other-existence?” (Lotus, 202).
By pointing out that the self is defined by the other, by difference, Mahayana establishes that suggesting the self exists independently but depends on the other to be defined is clearly a paradox. This analysis of the self does not function merely to deconstruct the linguistic inconsistencies of the unenlightened; it feeds into the deeper meaning of the Great Vehicle.
Mahayana Buddhism further establishes:
“The immortal essence of the teachings of the Buddhas, the lords of the world is without identity or distinction; it is not destroyed nor is eternal” (Lotus, 206).
This idea is so vital to the Great Vehicle because losing the notion of the self is requisite to reach nirvana and become Buddha:
“[if] a Bodhisattva has a mark of self, a mark of others, a mark of living beings, or a mark of a life, he is not a Bodhisattva” (Diamond, 159).
In other words, becoming consumed with the idea of the self undermines the path to nirvana, which requires the denial of fear, pain, and all other carnal attributes. Furthermore, this perspective of the self weaves its way into the responsibility of Buddha’s to assist others in reaching the path toward Nirvana.
It also is important to note Buddhism does not subscribe to the same notion of nihilism that Albert Camus believed. Camus believed the self doesn’t exist because nothing exists. Buddhists believe the notion of self is derived from attachments to the world they live in and enjoy.
Buddhist ethics and responsibility to others
Once an enlightened individual has reached Buddhahood, it is not sufficient for that individual to simply remain in a state of idleness or stagnation. It is at this point a Buddha must turn back and return to the millions of unenlightened beings and guide them toward the path of nirvana.
The Lotus Sutra teaches a Buddha has the responsibility to teach beings expedient means by which they can also attain nirvana and Buddhahood. Complimenting this idea from the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra further teaches:
“Not only must one have great wisdom and the resolve to realize Bodhi, but one must also extensively rescue living beings. Avalokiteśvara’s Bodhisattva’s Universal Door exemplifies such resolve. However, in taking living beings across, one should not become attached to the mark of taking them across” (Diamond, 78).
This teaching not only underscores the importance of a Buddha to guide others down the path of enlightenment, but it also stresses the necessity of stripping the self of all worldly attachments and carnal appetites. As a Buddha instructs and enlightens living beings toward the path of nirvana and Buddahood, teaching believers to liberate themselves from pain, suffering, and the vicissitudes of mortal living is essential to reaching Buddahood.
Nirvana and liberation from worldly attachments
Other world religions’ notions and beliefs in the peaceful attainment of an afterlife is not found in Buddhism. Instead, the attainment of enlightenment and Nirvana is the ultimate goal. The importance of liberation is interconnected and dependent on accepting that the self is neither created nor eternal.
The mortal’s predisposition for self-preservation is what sabotages their ability to let go of these inhibitions and embrace the metaphysical certainty that the self is and the self is not at the same time. In his own analysis of liberation and Buddhism, Jeffrey Timm attempts to nuance the discussion of liberation within different traditions of Buddhism. Timm asserts:
“Suffering in samsara was not the result of an attachment to an erroneous metaphysical view; it was the result of attachment to any view whatsoever…Unlike an appropriate remedy applied in the case of a particular illness, the teaching of an enlightened being will become an impediment when it is asserted as a universal metaphysical claim.”
This analysis emphasizes the crippling tendency human beings have to impose rational structures on phenomena and attempt to draw distinctions between the self and the other. The true Buddha recognizes that there is no real distinction.
It seems that the tendency of mortal beings to assign one all-encompassing discourse to natural phenomena functions as a manifestation of the fear they possess of the unknown and seemingly implausible. Fundamental to arriving at the path toward Buddahood is rejecting these discourses and finding knowledge that is not circumscribed within the myopic constructs of human reason.
Buddhist belief and worship of empiricism
Surely rejecting these discourses doesn’t occur overnight. Mortal beings, especially those who are products of the Western, post-Enlightenment society are conditioned to worship empiricism. Adopting the views that propel one onto the path toward Buddahood require one to accept a different philosophical perspective. When reading writings from Mahayana Buddhism I it is important to understand writers like Nagarjuna:
“write from the perspective of an enlightened bodhisattva…[his] perspective is non-dualistic [and] grounded in an intuitive process which is devoid of content” (Naragjuna, 98).
This perspective is what makes Mahayana Buddhism so unique and understanding it brings the function of the Great Vehicle into focus. While a majority of other religious sects teach that specific rites, rituals, and ordinances must be performed in order to reach Heaven or some other Celestial sphere. The Great Vehicle possesses a more nebulous system, which can conform to the various circumstances of the individual. Given the plurality of Buddhas, any mortal being can reach enlightenment by adhering to teachings of any Buddha:
“Buddhas…use countless numbers of expedient means, various causes and conditions, and words of simile and parable in order to expound the doctrines for the sake of living beings” (Diamond 10).
Consequently, the Great Vehicle doesn’t possess the rigidness many other systems do and is satisfied by all attempts of genuine followers to reach Buddhahood. From this perspective, the Great Vehicle has a perpetual effect of constant enlightenment as Buddhas turn back and even invites those interested in the secular aspects of Buddhism to achieve nirvana.