by Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii

Buddhism began in India about 5th century BCE and began its spread through Asia from about the 3rd century BCE when King Asoka sent out missionaries to South Asia and to the West. In the course of time, it evolved into two major traditions known in ancient times as Hinayana and Mahayana, the Smaller and the Larger Vehicles. Today, we do not us the term Hinayana or the Small vehicle, because it is pejorative. The style of teaching of that early tradition is now called by the name Theravada, which means “Way of the Elders.” There are significant differences between the two traditions which we will not take up in detail, except to indicate that Mahayana Buddhism spread largely to the Northwest and then North and East Asia, including the countries of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea and Japan.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy seeking a religion, in contrast to Christianity which was a religion seeking a philosophy. The consequence of this difference has been that Buddhism focuses on certain philosophic principles rather than beliefs. There are beliefs but they are not the primary consideration. There is, therefore, a considerable variety of teachings in Buddhist tradition, sometimes contradictory and confusing if one does not know the history.

However, Buddhism is a religion of practice and in its monastic forms strives to realize the principles as experiences in one’s own life.

Ultimately, they hope to achieve enlightenment as Gautama experienced. Speculation and doctrine are secondary to experience guided by a teacher and the major principles. Hence, meditation is a central feature of Buddhism.

Gautama’s enlightenment experience reached after six years of intensive spiritual search includes basic principles that permeate all Buddhist traditions. These are the Middle Path between extremes of hedonism and asceticism; the four noble truths and eightfold path, and the principle of interdependence, no-soul, and impermanence.

These teachings are first expressed in what we call now the Theravada teaching and practice. As indicated by its name, it is more conservative. The Mahayana tradition is more flexible and adaptable so that each country and culture where it spread developed its own distinctive styles of Buddhism which have been maintained to the present time.

Mahayana Buddhism elaborated on the initial principles and developed a cosmic, universal perspective indicating that all beings have Buddha nature and all beings will attain Buddhahood. Mahayana has been very positive in affirming life in this world, though it also has beliefs about the afterlife. It has a philosophy of education that takes into account individual differences whereby the teaching is to be given in harmony with the level of understanding and spiritual development of the student. This has been the basis of its adaptability and integration with native cultures. It is replete with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who meet the spiritual need of each individual. While merging with folk traditions, Mahayana also developed subtle systems of philosophy focused on the concept of emptiness and exploring the nature of reality and our perception of it. There is a a wide variety of literature.

Buddhism in Hawaii is mainly the Mahayana tradition in its various forms which we see in the differing denominations. There are South Asian Buddhists from Vietnam and Laos; East Asian from China, Korea and Japan; and Tibetan Buddhists. There are Theravada Buddhists mainly from Thailand and some from Cambodia.

Mahayana Buddhism never denied the Theravada but built its teaching with that as its foundation and precedent. They considered the Theravada as elementary teaching and background for the more advanced Mahayana teachings.

Buddhism has had a concern for health, spiritual health, from its very beginning. Gautama, who became Buddha or Enlightened One, initially tried to solve the problem of human existence through extreme ascetic practice. He found this harmful and ineffective. He discovered that enlightenment could come only when there was a healthy mind in a healthy body. He enunciated the principle of Middle Path between extremes. Spiritual development can only come when one avoids hedonism, devotion to pleasure or asceticism, mortification of the body.

The Buddha is sometimes described as a physician because his analysis for the human condition proceeds as a doctor might in observing the condition, seeking the cause, prescribing the cure and applying it. In Buddhism these are called the Four Noble Truths.

The first truth is that all life is suffering. Westerners often see this declaration as a negative, pessimistic assessment of life. Rather, it is realistic, looking at the actual conditions of human life. The term for suffering — Dukkha — refers to a broad spectrum of conditions, namely dis-ease, not merely disease as a physical experience, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction. It takes into account that there is suffering in parting from things we love and meeting things that are unpleasant. There is suffering in what we call surfeit or too much of a good thing. Suffering in Buddhism comprises both physical and mental features.

Based on the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism sees the core problem in suffering caused by ignorance, not knowing the true nature of our life and world. We avoid facing the impermanence of life in all its dimensions. We are deluded by focusing on permanence and not realizing the non-soul character of all things. Non-soul is one of the difficult concepts of Buddhism and it means that nothing has its own essence or is totally self explainable or contained. Everything is interdependent with every other thing and the failure to see this leads to our egoism and our problems and conflicts with others who also pursue their own ego interests. We see everything only in reference to ourselves and as self-centered beings, we encounter resistance in the world, which increases our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Going deeper, the cause of the many forms of suffering is desire, perhaps better craving, lust, thirst or in general passions of hatred, greed and anger. These passions arise from our ego attachments to things, our ideas, our bodies etc.

However, Buddhism is an optimistic system and proposes a cure or healing. Whatever has a cause can be remedied by removing the cause.

The way to remove the cause is known as the Noble Eightfold Path It includes: Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

The system is a total spiritual discipline involving the body and mind. It aims not only at improving life, but also to liberate one from the bondage to finite existence and repeated reincarnations in the stream of births and deaths. The goal is ultimately Nirvana.

Though Buddhism aims at a final solution to the problems of existence, it also provides a pattern for living holistically in this world. Initially, it was for monks but its principles have relevance for ordinary life. The system of eight aspects of Buddhist spirituality begins with Right Views, which contributes to mental health. By having a proper and realistic understanding of the self as a dynamic, evolving process, we may become more adaptable and flexible confronting life situations. Accepting the impermanence of life and things, we may become more tranquil. There is a famous story about a mother, Kisa Gotami. Her baby had died and she was distraught. She pleaded with the Buddha to restore her child. The Buddha agreed, on the condition that she bring a mustard seed from a home where there had never been a death. She searched but could not find such a home. She gained insight and returned to the Buddha, now understanding that her child suffered death as all others do. She then accepted the death of her child.

The five aspects of Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort take up the inner and outer dimensions of our life activities. Buddhism focuses on the activities of the mind, body and speech, which are involved in all our activities. These should be integrated and in harmony with our understanding of reality. It involves ethical, spiritual and physical dimensions of living.

Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are perhaps the best known features because we hear so much about meditation in Buddhism and other traditions. Mindfulness is maintaining a focus of attention, an awareness of what is going on without focusing on a particular objects. It is a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment

Right Concentration describes the unification of all mental functions on an object of meditation. It involves deep attentiveness and tranquility. Essentially meditation enables a detachment from the distracting flow of stimuli that assault the mind and permits an inner unification of the psyche to develop. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has written on mindfulness and meditation, it is like climbing out of a raging current in a stream and watching the stream from the bank. This unification can become the basis for more creative activity or involvement. We call it centering or working from the inner quietude of our minds. In meditation our egoism and its stake in things is set aside, allowing other perceptions and alternatives to emerge. When people get angry and wish to retaliate for a hurt, we say count to 10. That is, give space for the mind to truly assess the situation and find a more proper response. Meditation is a more developed spiritual approach to our problems.

Buddhism contributes to mental and physical health through encouraging the development of a unified and centered personal approach to our life affairs. It assists the well-being of the body through the body-mind synthesis in which the physical elements and the psychological and spiritual dimensions are all part of a continuum and a dynamic interrelation. In the west, we are prone to distinguish flesh and body, matter and spirit, body and soul, etc. However, Buddhism sees things as process in which all features of existence are interdependent and ultimately one. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn:

“Since the mind plays such an important part in people’s experience of their bodies and what’s possible in their lives, it seemed that a hospital would be a perfect place to train people in meditative awareness. They could optimize their inner resources for healing and take responsibility for their health.” (“Mindful Medicine – An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn”)

According to Kabat-Zinn, meditation-mindfulness can help in reducing stress, pain and depression. By letting go of stress, one may even enhance the body’s self-healing powers. Studies have shown that anger and hostility affect our health. According to one study, they influence heart disease (Dalai Lama, Dr. Howard Cutler, “The Art of Happiness,” New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p.247.)

The Dalai Lama states:

“The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant, it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely. When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best art of your brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of your actions.” (Ibid., p. 250.)…

However, the role of Buddhism in creating healthy life-conditions does not involve miracle cures, but employs methods for dealing with the emotional elements that accompany pain and even intensify it. The Dalai Lama indicates that happiness is not merely a feeling, but is the result of right thinking. Our problems begin with negative thinking. However, negative thought is not intrinsic to our minds and the mind can be trained to develop positive attitudes of love, compassion, patience and generosity. This approach has taken form in what is known as cognitive therapy, which seeks the source of negative and self-defeating ideas. Right thinking is not just a matter of correct information and belief. Right thinking in Buddhism means a transformation in one’s understanding of the nature of existence. Enlightenment is transformation of one’s total being.

I should point out that there are forms of therapy based in Buddhism. From the Pure Land tradition, there is the method of Naikan therapy which is a system of introspection to make one aware of our interdependence with others and to arouse the sense of gratitude for their contribution to our lives. This positive force can offset personal problems that induce negativity.

There is also Morita therapy based in Zen Buddhism and is reality therapy, that is living in harmony with reality as it is. According to Morita therapy, “the gap between the world as it is and the world as we think it ought to be can fill with pain. When we do not look the way we think we ought to look and when we cannot accomplish our goals as rapidly and effortlessly as we think we ought to be able to accomplish them, we worry that either there is something wrong with us or we are victims of injustice. Rather than futilely railing against nature or trying to force it into complying with our ideals, we can learn to live in harmony with it. To live in harmony with nature, we accept as parts of ourselves our talents, imperfections, painful feelings and real desires.”

I should conclude by indicating that Buddhism has all the elements of folk religions common around the world. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas who offer healing and prayers requesting their blessing. There are shrines and services where people seek alleviation and healing from their illnesses. Among the most common figures are: Yakushi Buddha, the Buddha of healing; Kuan-yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion (a central figure in healing); and Jizo Bodhisattva who cares for children and the dead and also heals. Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra devoted to Kuan-yin presents the blessings she gives to her devotees. The text called the Heart Sutra, a profound philosophical text which is one page, is often recited in times of disaster and personal problems. There are practitioners who are considered to have special powers for healing and are consulted for many problems. There are practitioners in this community, some well known and others not.

In addition, there is the Daishi-sama cult based in Shingon Buddhism. The central figure is Kobo Daishi, a great teacher in ninth-century Japan who founded the Shingon sect. He became known in popular tradition as a healer, as well as culture hero. Many people in Hawaii also pray to Kobo Daishi.

Much of Japanese religion focuses on healing using different methods. The popular religion is focused on benefits in this life of health, wealth and success — though still holding traditional beliefs about the afterlife. The modern new religions also maintain this emphasis.

Buddhism is a complex of spiritual principles, practices and practitioners all designed to enhance the life of people corresponding to the level of their understanding and devotion. The heart of Buddhism is the Buddha’s compassion, which takes many forms and applications.