by Thom Kilburn
The West notoriously misconstrues the hallowed precepts of Buddhism. Strict veganism, constant meditation, pacifism and shaved heads are often the first things that come to the uninformed mind. However, to over 500 million practitioners around the globe, Buddhism is much more than these things: it is a religion that provides the toolkit to eliminate suffering and ignorance, curb the ego, and unlock the secrets to happiness and universal understanding.
To begin to understand Buddhism, we must first turn our attention to the Three Characteristics of existence, as taught by the Buddha: all aspects of the world are impermanent, everything conjures up suffering and dissatisfaction, and that all phenomena lack any underlying essence, self, or soul. The characteristics of impermanence, suffering and no-self operate in what the Buddha calls “samsara”, which literally translates to “wandering on,” referring to the sensory world in which one is born, dies, and wanders on to be reborn.
When one realizes the true nature of samsara and its transitory and suffering-inducing qualities, and overcomes his or her attachment to worldly objects (like oneself, friends, family, and possessions), that individual will have achieved enlightenment and entered into Nirvana. Contrary to mainstream thought, however, Nirvana is not a place one reaches similar to the Christian conception of Heaven. Instead, Nirvana is a state of enlightened being that one achieves in understanding Buddhist precepts and the truth of reality. As such, Nirvana is the cessation of samsara, the cycle of rebirth.
So how exactly is Mahayana Buddhism different than other traditions? Literally translating to “great vehicle,” Mahayana places a greater emphasis on the role of the bodhisattva than Theravada or Vajrayana Buddhism. In the Mahayana tradition, a bodhisattva is the ideal Buddhist practitioner and has trail-blazed the path toward enlightenment. However, unlike the Theravada conception of the bodhisattva, the Mahayana bodhisattva doesn’t mentally depart to Nirvana. Rather, this enlightened individual hangs around the sensory world (samsara) to altruistically help others on their paths to enlightenment.
Another key component to Mahayana Buddhism is the concept of upaya, or skill in means. Upaya is employed by the bodhisattva to adapt the Buddha’s teachings to best fit the individual. In essence, practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to achieve enlightenment. For example, a bodhisattva would show a farmer the Buddhist way by tying the doctrines into agriculture-related teachings.
Sunyata is an additional element that plays an integral role in Mahayana Buddhism. Translating to “emptiness,” sunyata expounds on the idea of impermanence. According to Mahayana doctrines, everything exists without an essence because of the transitory nature of the world. This means that each and every thing we see and experience has been conditioned by the past. The past, even, has been conditioned by what came before it.
Bearing this in mind, that all things are causally conditioned, one can easily assert that each moment we live through has arisen dependently upon the previous moment. As such, each moment lacks an essence and is therefore empty, or possessing sunyata. While this concept seems relatively complicated, it is a crucial component to not just Mahayana Buddhism, but all sects of the religion as a whole.
For some, looking at the world as being empty or full of suffering can induce great unhappiness or even nihilism. For Buddhists, however, these concepts allow them to best navigate the complex world in which we live. Their spirituality allows them to live with minimal attachment to material possessions, to lead a moral life, to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and to foster wisdom and understanding.
Buddhism teaches that happiness is not something that can be bought or owned. Rather, it challenges us to turn inward and discover the happiness that ultimately resides in each and every one of us.