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Buddhist Belief

Entering the Buddhist world one is immediately aware of, and easily confused by, its inherent complexity. The essential essence of the Lord Buddha's teachings has been developed in a number of different directions to generate a multitude of alternative categorizations, symbolisms and practices. Born over 2,500 years ago in northern India, Buddhism divided into two great traditions: the Hinayana or 'Lesser Vehicle' - more commonly known as Theravada - now the dominant form in Southeast Asia, Burma and Sri Lanka; and the Mahayana or 'Greater Vehicle', as practiced in China, Vietnam and East Asia. The Tantrayana (Vajrayana) or 'Diamond Vehicle' evolved from within the Mahayana school, and was adopted across the Himalayas.

"The Hinayana should be taken as knowledge. The Mahayana should be taken as attitude. Tantra means practice. Tantrayana is the quickest way to become Buddha - like a rocket going to the moon." (Dasho Rigzin Dorji in Crossette (1995:x)) Tantric Buddhism offers a fast track to enlightenment. It is understood that the Buddha's instructions are contained not only in the Tripitaka - the Sutra (scriptures), the Vinaya (monastic discipline and ethics) and the Abhidharma (underlying psychology and logic) - but also in the Vajrayana (the Tantras). These constitute powerful 'hidden teachings', whose meaning can only be understood through the explanations of a religious master (or lama), and the practice of which imparts great merits.

Mahayana Buddhism recognizes a pantheon of symbolic deities and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be), who have attained enlightenment and the option of Nirvana, but have chosen to reincarnate in the world of humans to help others. This is the idea behind the Rinpoche (or Tulku), the auspicious reincarnation of a previous enlightened personality. Furthermore, six realms of conditioned existence (or Samsara) are identified, each associated with a particular mental poison: hells (anger), hungry ghosts (greed), animals (ignorance), humans (desire), demigods (jealousy) and gods (pride). The actions of great saints can be interpreted (and are often depicted) on each of these levels. Throughout the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora, Tantric Buddhism evolved in a particular way associated with the pre-Buddhist context. Certain elements of the earlier shamanic Bon religion have been assimilated, including the worship of mountains and local deities.

Tibetan Buddhism has over time developed into different schools and a number of sub-schools. The four major schools that predominate are the Nyingmapa (the 'ancients' directly linked to Guru Rinpoche), the Sakyapa, the Kagyupa (associated with the Karmapa) and the Gelugpa (the 'new' tradition allied to the Dalai Lama). The Drukpa Kagyupa sect followed in Bhutan is one of twelve Kagyu sub-schools, differentiated by the variations in method introduced by their respective founders. Each school uses two basic kinds of texts - Tibetan translations of original Sanskrit works accompanied by commentaries, and the philosophical treatises written by the masters of each school, often also supplemented by commentaries. Although practiced, taught and studied in different ways, the various schools are not radically different, and all subscribe to the essential essence of the Buddha's teachings.

The basic philosophy that informs a Buddhist perspective can be summarized by the Four Noble Truths - anguish, its origin, its cessation and the path leading to cessation - as expounded by the Lord Buddha shortly after achieving enlightenment. The 'First Truth' explains that our conditioned existence is never free from a state of suffering. Any happiness we enjoy is only temporary and in due course gives way to anguish. The reason for this - as described by the 'Second Truth' - is that any action one may do, say or think gives rise to a result which has to be experienced either later in one's life or in a future life. Rebirth is a result of one's actions, and the conditions into which one is born in one life are directly dependent on one's actions in previous lives, and more particularly the motives and attitudes involved.

The 'Second Truth', the principle of cause and effect or Karma, implies a degree of fatalism regarding material conditions. These are interpreted as possessing only a phenomenological existence and no true reality except on the plane of relative truth. It goes on to explain that the motivations behind our actions are negative emotions such as hatred, attachment, pride, jealousy and especially ignorance, which is the root of all the others. This ignorance concerns not only a lack of wisdom in how we act, but the basic ignorance behind how we perceive the whole of existence and constantly become caught by our clinging to the idea of our own egos and of the outer world as solid and lasting. We are therefore caught in Samsara, the cycle of existence in which one is endlessly propelled by negative emotions and the karmic force of one's actions from one state of rebirth to another.

The 'Third Truth' introduces the notion that it is possible to bring an end to our state of anguish. The principle insight is that our perceived reality, in both life and death, is only a state of mind, and can therefore be changed. The cessation of suffering and freedom from conditioned existence can be broken if and when we cease to act through ignorance. The 'Forth Truth' explains the path through which this can be achieved. This essentially embodies two methods: the accumulation of positive actions, such as charity, forgiveness and reverence and support of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community of practitioners)); and the practice of meditation, which can directly dispel the root ignorance which is the cause of anguish.

The core aspiration behind the 'Forth Truth' is the break from Samsara and the attainment of Nirvana, the state beyond suffering, an absolute emptiness in which there is no distinction between a subject and the object of its thoughts. This is possible through the complete realization of our Buddha nature, thereby achieving enlightenment. Each one of us possesses the innate potential to become a Buddha, one who has completely awakened from ignorance and become opened to one's vast potential of wisdom. A practitioner who follows the path with only his own liberation in mind can attain a high degree of understanding and overcome the negative emotions. However, only those who have as their motivation the good and ultimate enlightenment of all other beings can accomplish final Buddhahood.

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