Principles of Buddhism
The Three Jewels
Buddhists seek refuge in what are often referred to as the Three Jewels, Triple Gem or Triple Jewel. These are the Buddha, the Dharma (or Dhamma), and the "noble" (Sanskrit: arya) Sangha or community of monks and nuns who have become enlightened. While it is impossible to escape one's karma or the effects caused by previous thoughts, words and deeds, it is possible to avoid the suffering that comes from it by becoming enlightened. In this way, dharma offers a refuge. Dharma, used in the sense of the Buddha's teachings, provides a raft and is thus a temporary refuge while entering and crossing the river. However, the real refuge is on the other side of the river.
To one who is seeking to become enlightened, taking refuge constitutes a continuing commitment to pursuing enlightenment and following in the footsteps of the people who have followed the path to enlightenment before. It contains an element of confidence that enlightenment is in fact a refuge, a supreme resort. Many Buddhists take the refuges each day, sometimes more than once in order to remind themselves of what they are doing and to direct their resolve inwardly towards liberation.
In most-- if not all-- forms of Buddhism, the Three Jewels are taken before the Sangha for the first time, as a part of the conversion ritual.
Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these differing motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha's teachings without depending upon some form of syncresis that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate.
It is extremely important to note that in Buddhism, the word "refuge" should not be taken in the English sense of "hiding" or "escape;" instead, many scholars have said, it ought be thought of as a homecoming, or place of healing, much as a parent's home might be a refuge for someone. This simple misunderstanding has led some Western scholars to conclude that Buddhism is "a religion for sticking one's head in the sand," when most Buddhists would assert quite the opposite.
In the 11th century, Lamp for the Path by Atisha, and in the subsequent Lamrim tradition as elaborated by Tsongkhapa, the several motives for refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the "scope" (level of motivation) of a practitioner:
Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve the lot of this life
Low scope is taking refuge to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms
Middle scope is taking refuge to achieve Nirvana
High scope is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood
Highest scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha taught that life was dissatisfactory because of craving, but that this condition was curable by following the eightfold path. This teaching is called the four noble truths:
1. Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
3. Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
4. Marga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In order to fully understand the noble truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, Buddha recommended that a certain lifestyle or path be followed which consists of:
1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
Sometimes in the Pali Canon the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages which the practitioner moves through, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, but it is more usual to view the stages of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development.
The Eightfold Path essentially consists of meditation, following the precepts, and cultivating the positive converse of the precepts (e.g. benefiting living beings is the converse of the first precept of harmlessness). The Path may also be thought of as a the way of developing ala, meaning mental and moral discipline.
The Five Precepts
Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Laypeople generally undertake five precepts. The five precepts are:
1. I undertake the precept to refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.
In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy; the fourth precept, which pertains to incorrect speech, is expanded to four: lying, harsh language, slander, and idle chit-chat. Monks and nuns in most countries also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules.
The three marks of conditioned existence
According to the Buddhist tradition all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma Seals:
Anatta (Pali; Sanskrit: anatman): In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called atman (that is, "soul" or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence conceived by virtue of existence. This concept and the related concept of Brahman, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate atman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. The Buddha rejected all concepts of atman, emphasizing not permanence but changeability. He taught that all concepts of a substantial self were incorrect and formed in the realm of ignorance.
According to some thinkers both in the East and the West, this may imply that Buddhism is a form of nihilism or something similar. However, as thinkers like Nagarjuna have pointed out, Buddhism is not simply a rejection of the concept of existence (or of meaning, etc.) but of the hard and fast distinction between existence and nonexistence, or rather between being and nothingness. Buddhism thus has more in common with Western empiricism, pragmatism, and anti-foundationalism than it does with nihilism per se.
Anicca (Pali; Sanskrit: anitya): All things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for its existence. Everything is in flux, and so conditions are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
Dukkha (Pali; Sanskrit: duhkha): Because we fail to truly grasp the first two conditions, we suffer. We desire a lasting satisfaction, but look for it amongst constantly changing phenomena. We perceive a self, and act to enhance that self by pursuing pleasure, and seek to prolong pleasure when it too is fleeting.
It is by realizing (not merely understanding intellectually, but making real in one's experience) the three marks of conditioned existence that one develops Praj?a, which is the antidote to the ignorance that lies at the root of all suffering.
Other principles and practices
Meditation or dhyana of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratatya-samutpada). Actions which result in positive retribution (happiness) are defined as skillful or good, while actions that produce negative results (suffering) are called unskillful or bad actions. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime. Most teachers are, however, quick to point out that though it may be a result of someone's past-life karma that they suffer, this should not be used as an excuse to treat them poorly; indeed, all should help them and help to alleviate their suffering, leading to them working to alleviate their own suffering.
Rebirth, which is closely related to the law of karma. An action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. The full realization of the absence of an eternal self or soul (the doctrine of anatta (Pali; Sanskrit: anatman)) breaks this cycle of birth and death (samsara).
The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. Monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging and to have little or no control over their diet. During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if the monk witnessed the animal's death or knows that it was killed specifically for him. This rule was not applied to commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.
On the other hand, certain Mahayana sutras make a stronger argument against eating meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion which a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.
In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition was historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvastivada, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama has recently made several comments encouraging its adoption. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monks.