What is Buddhism?

What is Buddhism

Buddhism is a 2,600-year-old religion, philosophy, and way of life originally based on the teachings of Gautama Shakyamuni, commonly referred to as the Buddha.  Shakyamuni began life as a prince in Northern India, but left his prestige and riches behind to fully investigate the cause of suffering and the truth of life.  He experimented with the ascetic practices of his day, but failed to find the liberation he was seeking.  Finally, he simply sat unmoving in the shade of a tree until the truth revealed itself.  He then spent the rest of his life teaching what he had discovered.

Much has been written about Buddhism over the centuries, but to put the Buddhist way of thinking and living in very simple terms, Soto Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura tells us:

“Wisdom and compassion are the two main aspects of Buddhism and must always go together. Without wisdom, compassion doesn’t work, and without compassion wisdom has no meaning; it’s not alive.”

Historical Development of Buddhism

Like other world religions, Buddhism diverged over time into different branches and schools.  Two main branches are Theravada and Mahayana.  The Theravada (Way of the Elders) branch emphasizes the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, as set down in writing in the Pali Canon in the centuries after Buddha’s life.  The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) is a set of teachings that arose as practitioners debated the core teachings and “mission” of Buddhism.  Mahayana thinkers emphasized the teaching of sunyata (emptiness) and settled on a vision of collective liberation, based on the ideal of the Bodhisattva who is dedicated to the welfare and liberation of all beings.  Mahayana Buddhism today includes the Japanese schools of Zen and Shingon, the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Pure Land schools

How does Zen fit into Buddhism?

The Zen school is said to have been brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma around the 5th century CE. It took some time before dedicated Zen (called “Chan” in Chinese) monasteries began to appear in China, but ultimately the school spread across China and to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In the 20th century, Zen began to be adopted in the west and Zen practice centers can now be found in countries throughout the world.

Sōtō Zen and Dogen

Sōtō Zen arose as an identifiable school in China (Caodong is the Chinese name) and counts two teachers as its founders: Dongshan and Caoshan. These teachers lived in 9th century China and emphasized mental silence and physical stillness in sitting meditation as the most useful practice for liberation.

In the 13th century, a young Japanese monk named Eihei Dogen journeyed to China in search of a true teacher. He satisfied his quest when he met Tiantong Rujing at a monastery still existent in modern Zhejiang province. He received Dharma transmission (recognition by an enlightened teacher) from Rujing and brought the Caodong/(Sōtō practice back to Japan, founding its first Sōtō monastery. Dogen was a prolific, insightful, and poetic writer, and his writings and teachings form the backbone of Sōtō Zen, which we practice at Valley Streams Zen Sangha today.