Enlightenment is the way

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
Buddhism is a religion, but followers do not worship a god. It encourages freedom from the ties that bind you to a material world. James Heartfield reports

Around 534 years before Christ was born, Siddartha Gautama left his father's house, his wife and his child to live the life of a mendicant monk.

Gautama rejected the impermanence of worldly life, the cycle of birth and death, and the consuming passions that tied us to worldly goods. After attempting the extreme ascetic goal of fasting and rejecting all possessions, he in turn rejected self-mortification for a balanced, inward enlightenment. From then he was known as Sammasambuddha, the "Perfectly self-awakened one". As such, Bhudda means "awake". After Gautama, there have been many more Buddhas, or awakened ones.

Today, there are 520 million Buddists following the way that was taught by Buddha and recorded 500 years later by Sri Lankan Buddhists of the Therevada school, in the Pali Canon, as well as in China and India.

In 2001, 151,816 people in the UK declared themselves Buddhist, though that would not include those who are Buddhist and Christian, or Taoist. One in every 100 people in Cambridge and the London borough of Westminster are Buddhists. Brighton, Ceredigion, in Wales, and Oxford also have many. More than one in 10 Chinese residents in the UK are Buddhists.

Buddhism has a laity and monks and nuns in temples across the UK. It is officially a religion, but in the very broadest sense of a bond between people. Buddhist scripture includes the gods of India, but it does not imply worshipping a god. Rather, it is a way to enlightenment, an understanding of the ties that bind you to the material world, which will in turn set you free.

Children, like adults, affirm their Buddhism, though some will say that they were "born Buddhist". But Buddhists would think it unwise to enforce belief.

According to Ajahn Vajiro of the Amaravati centre, which runs a children's camp each summer, says that Buddhist children often say "people can't really understand not to have a god that one prays to", and might get teased about that.

But there are few points that a school environment would directly clash with the Buddhist way because it is a philosophy that abjures anger and pride. Few teachers could object to the idea that "anything that harms oneself and others" is to be avoided in the classroom.

Though freedom from greed is at the core of the teaching, Mr Vajiro is careful to explain that rewarding good behaviour is not a problem, because aspiration is good. Even if a teacher were to use the un-Buddhist methods of blame and guilt, that would only indicate an "unskilful" approach.

Buddhists are used to accepting others' views.

Yolanda, who grew up in a Buddhist household in Brighton, agrees. The worst problem that she had to face was teasing from other children who overheard her mum's chants. On the contrary, she says, Buddhism helps to "bring out your best potential, gives you confidence"; she would "chant before an exam".

Reincarnation features in some Buddhist writings, but this is generally taken to be a metaphor for your impact upon the world and oneself, rather than a literal reincarnation as a cat or god.

There are no specific dietary needs Buddhists have. Some do interpret the injunction against taking any life as implying vegetarianism, but throughout his mendicant preaching, Buddha was dependent upon others to feed him, so could not set conditions on their gifts. Dissection might create a problem, but even then, only if the animal was killed for the purpose.

The best that teachers can do to accommodate Buddhists, thinks Ajahn Vajiro, is to "create a space for silence".


Buddha literally means "awake" and, broadly, "wisdom". This wisdom is freedom from greed and the ties that bind us to the temporal world of sorrows. Awakening is not just a rational understanding, but a devotional task of self-awareness through meditation.

Nirvana (nibanna) is the "blowing out" (as of a candle) of the negative, limited character of the world. Dharma (dhamma) is the way of the truth that will lead more directly to nibanna. Kharma is the ordinary course of life, the summation of all of one's actions that, if unwise, will add to the unhappiness of the world and bind one to a hell-like existence, or if wise, will lead to growth. The sangha, or priesthood, are the community that serve to uphold the truth. Buddha, dharma and sangha are known as the three jewels.

The four noble truths of Bhuddism are: dukkha - all worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering; samudaya - there is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance; nirodha - there is an end of suffering, which is nirvana; maggo - there is a path that leads out of suffering.


Buddhist monasteries are found in Northumberland, Hertfordshire, Chithurst, Honiton, in Devon, and a hermitage near Sherbourne. Many accept school visits. For the full list, see: www.forestsangha.org

Amaravati centre runs a family centre, including a camp that runs once a year, 10 days before the August break. Amaravati Buddhist monastery, St Margaret's Lane, Great Geddesden, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP1 3BZ; www.amaravati.org

www.accesstoinsight.org is one internet site introducing the Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhist children's books are available for download from www.buddhanet.netebooks_childrens.htm

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