The Buddha Message

Shakyamuni Buddha founded a monastic order, but taught for 45 years to both monastic and lay people. Buddhist texts describe a monk’s typical day as follows: waking up early in the morning, meditating, alms-begging in the closest town, returning to eat the meal, bathing, meditating, and then teaching.

Through his travels in northeast India, Shakyamuni expounded the principles to which he himself had awakened, teaching in a way suited to each listener. Often using parables and other suitable means, he was able to gather many disciples, both monastic and lay followers. The essence of his message was that ordinary human beings could not escape suffering; at the very least, there was the pain of birth, sickness, old age and death. The only way to escape suffering was to awaken, through one’s own efforts, to the cause of suffering. This message is crystallized in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path outlined below:

The Four Noble Truths state that:

1. There is suffering
2. There is a cause of suffering
3. There is an end to suffering
4. There is a noble path to lead one away from suffering

The path away from suffering is known as the Noble Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the importance of having a right view or understanding, right thought and resolve, right speech, right action, right living and livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. (The word right is used to mean correct, ethical and balanced. In some explanations, the word perfect is used instead of right.)

Another well-known Buddhist concept is the principle of karma, or cause and effect. Shakyamuni referred to it as the Twelve-linked Chain of Dependent Origination, which corresponds to the second of the Four Noble Truths – that everything has a cause. A good cause brings a good result, whereas a bad cause brings about a bad result. Shakyamuni taught that whatever one’s karma, with correct practice in line with the Noble Eightfold Path, one can break the karmic cycle of cause and effect.

The Buddhist community, as a whole was encouraged to put into practice what Shakyamuni had taught. Gradually, to provide guidelines for everyday conduct, the Vinaya code (rules) was devised for monks and the shilas (moral precepts) for both monastic and lay practitioners. These have come down to us, especially for lay practitioners, as the Five Precepts: the vows not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie or become intoxicated.

Shakyamuni treated everyone equally, regardless of the social caste into which they were born. He is believed to have said, “A true Brahmin (the highest of the castes, the priestly class) is one who has conquered evil within himself: one who is free from pride, is restrained, and virtuous. He alone may call himself a Brahmin.”

The role of women was a controversial issue in Shayamuni’s day. Although there were numerous lay women disciples, many monks were reluctant to include them in the ordained monastic community. This reflected broader societal attitudes regarding women. Affirming that women had the same potential as men for enlightenment, Shakyamuni encouraged the formation of a nuns order, with his step-mother and aunt, Maha-prajapati as the founding member. Women also played key roles in the later rise of the Mahayana and esoteric Buddhist movements.

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