The MOD recently invited the NBO to submit a brief guide to Buddhism to include in its booklet – A GUIDE ON RELIGION AND BELIEF IN THE MOD AND ARMED FORCES. The following text was submitted by the NBO. We await to see what is published.
There are about 150,000 Buddhists in the UK according to the 2001 Census.
Beliefs and Practices
Buddhism is based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, an enlightened one (Buddha) whose ministry was in 5th century BCE India. Buddhism offers a practical path of self-transformation. Through practice Buddhists develop virtue, wisdom and compassion and can experience peace and release from the suffering and stress inherent in all human life.
Buddhists believe that all actions bring results in accordance with the motives and intentions of the action. Good actions motivated by generosity, compassion and wisdom lead to good results. Many Buddhists believe that ultimately, at the end of life, the quality of an individual’s actions during their lives will condition rebirth in a new life.
Buddhism stresses love for all living beings and respect for all forms of life and emphasises self-discipline and meditation. Buddhism represents a way of life informed by moral rules of conduct and the establishment of good social relationships. Wisdom and compassion lie at the heart of Buddhism and in addition to their cultivation through generous and skillful action, are cultivated through various forms of meditation. These include chanting, mindfulness, loving-kindness and calming meditations amongst others.
The main traditions in Buddhism are Theravada (the earliest form now practised in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia), Mahayana (a later form practised in China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Mongolia) and Vajrayana (practised in Tibet). All Buddhist traditions are represented in the UK.
Buddhist temples are places of teaching, religious observance and meditation.
During religious observances, often led by a monk, nun or Buddhist priest or cleric, meditation and chanting are usually practiced, incense may be burned and a teaching, discourse or sermon given to those attending. In some traditions, fasting after midday is undertaken at each new and full moon.
There are many festivals, some of which are more important than others. They are celebratory in character rather than obligatory religious observances. Different traditions in Buddhism celebrate different festivals. Festivals follow the lunar calendar and therefore do not take place on the same day each year.
The most important Buddhist festival is:
- Vesak or Wesak (Therevada tradition) between April/May (which celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death)
Other festivals include:
- Parinirvana (February) -The anniversary of Buddha’s death.
- Magha Puja Day (February/March)
- Honen and Shinran Memorial Day (March)
- Hana Matsuri (Mahayana tradition) – 8th April – celebrates Buddha’s birthday.
- Buddhist New Year – varies according to tradition
- Dharma Day – Celebrates three events in the Buddhist’s life, and is generally celebrated in a monastery in the presence of monks (July).
- Abhiddhamma Day (October)
- Kathina Day (October)
- Bodhi Day (December)
Some Buddhists are vegetarian or occasionally so at the time of certain festivals. Vegetarianism is held in high regard and considered to be consistent with the spirit of the teachings.
There are no specific rules relating to dress but some Buddhists may prefer to wear clothing which conforms to their belief in non-harm (e.g. not wearing leather clothing or shoes). Buddhists also dress modestly with the upper body and arms and legs covered, especially at temples and monasteries and during meditation practice.
Rites of Passage
Weddings are civil rather than religious ceremonies but services of blessing usually follow in the temple or elsewhere. Funerals usually focus on a reflection on the transitions of life. Bodies can be either buried or cremated.
Most forms of Buddhism teach a variety of meditation practices. These include chanting, mindfulness, loving-kindness and calming meditation as well as visualisation practices. Most Buddhists aim to include periods of meditation in their daily lives and appreciate quiet spaces for this practice.
All forms of Buddhism encourage skilful personal conduct. A widely used set of precepts found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures and used today in many major Buddhist traditions advocate:
- Avoiding harm to living beings
- Avoiding taking what is not given
- Avoiding lying and harmful speech and communication
- Avoiding irresponsible, coercive and manipulative sexual gratification
- Avoiding intoxication and drunkenness
And forms of livelihood that lead to the breaking of these guidelines are discouraged.