I have been asked to teach on Eastern religion, starting with Buddhism. When one learns the premise of Buddhism, that the world is made of suffering, one is discovering the same premise which led the rich and knowledgeable Prince Siddhartha to leave his royal life and become the first Buddha, starting one of the most wondrous religions in the world.
Before examining the thought leading to his enlightenment, it is therefore extremely helpful to consider a little more the nature of the premise. It may seem a non sequitur that I therefore commence with the first lecture given to me on behavioral psychology, which was possibly the most significant teaching I received at Oxford University, but would appear at first blush totally irrelevant.
The professor commenced by saying "When one reads about experiments with hungry rats in cages, they all start with the recipe 'take one hungry rat.' this seems easy enough to the naive until they actually meet a hungry rat. Have you ever even seen a hungry rat? They are a nasty, mean, ferocious ball of claw and teeth that will attack anything in their path, and they will gladly bite off and swallow your finger. Before any student proposes doing any experiment on a hungry rat, they should consider not their fingers, but rather the unfortunate beast that they intend to tease and torture with levers and tiny pieces of food. I fI were to say they a hungry rat would consume your finger with vengeful relish, you could hold me at fault for anthropomorphism." After the lecture I was shocked to hear two girls complaining to each other they had not taken a psychology course to hear about how nasty rats can be. Thus, when considering the different forms of Buddhism, there are two observations to which I point first. The story is that Prince Siddhartha, leaving his grand palace in disguise at night in order to learn of the real lives of his subjects, saw for the first time human suffering. It is too easy to skip the significance of that to his later teaching, and some may even ridicule the young Prince for reaching adulthood without knowing suffering.
Such a reaction is actually not uncommon, and is more than anything else something for which we now can be grateful, that so many people have good lives, without needing to worry greatly about whether they would be able to stay warm, feed themselves, and even find water every day, let alone be afraid of rape, pillage, and plunder by aggressive exploiters. So many people now have little idea of true suffering, and for that we should all be truly grateful. At the same time, the extent of anguish and horror which Prince Siddhartha felt upon seeing the poverty and disease of his citizens is almost impossible for us to understand. Many people go through their entire lives without realizing how lucky they truly are, simply even for a flushing toilet and running water, which all by themselves are far more than Siddhartha's public mostly could access. Therefore, we all find it difficult to understand the extent of horror which Prince Siddhartha felt, but it must have been deep indeed for him to abandon his royal life and start a religion to appease it.
The second observation is about those who have turned to Buddhism and practiced it, in these two millennia. The majority of those in Buddhist monasteries in the Pradesh and Sri Lanka, even now, cannot read. Their teachings are sometimes taught orally, before the words are understood, as sound incantations. Even as recently as the 1960s, men in remote and impoverished mountain communities with little food chose either to raise children or join a monastery. The monasteries existed so that the men would not need to be killed in war, as there was insufficient work or food or other housing to support them. these isolated communities each explored different methods to continue Buddha's teaching. In the West, we may have academic debates as to their relative significance and truth, but the communities that developed and continued the Buddhist teachings are really not concerned with which is right or which is wrong. They had for many centuries far more immediate concerns, and sought deeper truths each in their own ways to meet the needs of the people in their communities, including but not limited to the prevention of conflict between races of different origin living in the same regions and with limited natural resources. This conglomeration of teachings is referred to as the 'Mahayana,' the great vehicle, which contains many variants, but all ascribe to seek and provide the same result.
The success of the Mahayana led to missionaries carrying its teaching all across Asia to Japan, and further variations arose due to the needs of the people. These were different in China and Japan, which had not created the caste system to prevent royal feud and continual war, so the teachings were again adapted to the needs of people living in far greater chaos and hatred than even Siddhartha knew.
That is to say, the variations are a product of the nature of the suffering which different races and communities need to endure, but they all start with the premise: that human suffering is unavoidable, and the way of Buddhism is a response to that, in which we may learn how to avoid suffering in our own spirit, and with one another.
And so, after such preparatory thought, one can understand better how, after seeing the suffering of his people, Siddhartha left his palace and sought a better way. After studying Vedic teachings under Hindu Brahmans, he withdrew to meditate under a fig tree, and after several days attained a new form of enlightenment. His thought was as follows.
In the normal course of physical life, we cannot avoid suffering, and no one wishes to suffer. In the physical world, we are led to believe that such things as ownership of more possessions, sexual satisfaction, and power over other people stops suffering. Such belief creates desire. As a result of the desire we act. But there is a logical fallacy in that, because acting in the material world to obtain such goals itself creates more suffering, either for oneself or, more importantly, for others. Additionally, satisfaction of any one desire merely leads to another desire. Hence, by perpetuating such acts resulting from desire, we perpetuate the delusion that satisfaction of desire ends suffering. That is the rule of karmic delusion: not that the material world is an illusion, but rather our actions resulting from desire create an illusory interpretation of the material word. So many people believe the actions resulting from desire are correct, it becomes self perpetuating and self reinforcing. To participate in the fallacy of acting upon desire simply results in increasing the burden of work we must carry though life. The greater the burden which we choose to put upon ourselves as a result of desire, the more we must work, and the less true happiness we can obtain.
It is self perpetuating as follows. When we die, the actions we choose as a result of desire have affected, and to an extent remain in affect in the material world, after we die. If we choose great karmic delusion in our own life, another person in the world is put in the situation of having the consequences of our own desire, perpetuating the suffering due to the karmic fallacy. This is to say, the world of karmic law is delusional but real, and within it, our soul is not limited with the physical body, bur instead our karmic burden passes to another. In fact, Buddha saw the depth of karmic delusion so great that many souls are totally trapped within it forever, passing their burdens between each other.
Moreover, so many are in this continual flow of delusion, any one soul can be perceived as nothing more than a continuation of another's delusions, and without any further spiritual attributes whatsoever. This transfer of delusion from one person to another is hence referred to, in totality, as the transmigration of souls within the karmic delusion, which is so great, and so many souls are trapped within it, it appears infinite in extent. But in truth we are only drops of water in a great sea, churning with tides of delusion, and as each of us move within it through time, touching others with our delusions, we experience continual movement and interaction without ever liberating ourselves from suffering, and without any real sensible direction. But the sea is not infinite, and in time, the sea of delusion will end. Nonetheless, for any soul that remains trapped within, the experience of the delusion is infinite, as souls transmigrate back and forth within it endlessly in the cycle of karma.
After Siddhartha realized that karmic burden is inescapable and self perpetuating, he attained a new vision of reality. He saw the movement of spiritual forces, acting upon desire and perpetuating suffering, and understood asceticism in a new way. In the past, the Brahmans had concluded that a minimal life of introspection, reducing human interaction and eliminating desire as much as possible, reduced the world of karmic delusion, and therefore was the most desirable path in life. This they called the Hinayana, or narrow way, or small vehicle. Siddhartha perceived however that living a minimal life still does not end karma. Asceticism simply enables some individuals to reduce the karmic burden on the souls after them in transmigration, and thus while elevating their future spirit, such ascetics still perpetuate the karmic delusion.
The raw power of this vision caused Siddhartha to visualize a new path out of karmic delusion, not through its minimization, but rather through transcending it. The spiritual elevation resulting from his vision caused his spirit to move to a new plane of reality, above karmic delusion, in which he is named The Buddha. The Buddha could have chosen to remain entirely detached from the world of karmic delusion, but instead, he perceived with compassion the souls suffering in karmic delusion below him, and so he chose to teach ways to attain the same transcendence. It was for this act on his part that Siddhartha Buddha, also called Gautama, is considered unique or special. For while other souls attain enlightenment, it was Buddha who, through compassion, opened new ways of enlightenment. The way that Buddha taught is that there is no one way out of suffering, but many, although ultimately all ways are the same one way because their result is the same. And this is referred to as the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, or the multiple paths on the One Way. Now in this formulation, most of us do not attempt to abstain from the physical world. We neither act in desire, nor deny the necessity of acting in the material world. This is referred to overall as the Middle path, or that of moderation.
All ways start with the same premise, and all ways pass through the gateway experience of transcendence, during which we recognize the true form of the Buddha. For each person there is a different way to transcend delusion, because all people are in different places on the karmic path. And in compassion, from such a higher plane of awareness after transcendence, we choose to follow moral laws to assist others who are also confronted with the problem of karmic delusion. For different cultures, there are different problems, and that results in different emphases in the Mahayana doctrines across different countries. Thus there are various methods, various enhancements, and various modifications, but all forms of Buddhism have these principles at their core.
Karmic desire in the material world causes suffering. But not all desire is bad. Desire for knowledge gained from teachers (called 'dharma') is either ok, or dharma can even be ''good karma,' or 'positive karma.' Good karma accelerates the arrival of bliss in earthly life.
Not all forms of buddhism include positive karma. It depends on the type of buddhism. For example, In theravada, mahayana, and chinese forms, there is usually no positive karma, In the vajrayana (Tibetan buddhism), there absolutely is positive karma. Indeed there is so much positive karma. you can even become a kind of holy saint, called a 'bodhisattva.'
Earthly Bodhisattvas are people who can transcend the cycle of material form, but choose to stay in compassion for others. The Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva, although he is too humble to say so himself. Thai buddhism has bodhisattvas, as do the ancient schools across Burma.
But in Zen, there is no karma at all...
As a side note, mahayana buddhism does have a *kind* of positive karma. If you are a good girl, for example, you are rewarded as being reincarnated as a *man* (!) in the next life. That's considered a definite step up in the ancient traditions. But you don't get karma credit points in life,,like in the vajrayana. It only happens during reincarnation, if you haven't transcended.
The above image shows a traditional depiction of a human bodhisattva,with demons below and holy spirits above. The sphere around him represents the sphere of knowledge, which has epistemological layers; and the multiple arms represent the different powers he has obtained in the material through the strength of his dharma. He sits on a lotus flower, symbolizing the unfolding of infinite knowledge. The sphere floats on the ocean of change, from which we all emerge, and into which we all become no more than drops of water in an endless sea.
Note that in Tibetan buddhism, unlike the mahayana tradition, there are also female bodhisattvas.
Some of the vajrayana symbolism is common to India. Some of the details, such as the dual-lotus-sceptre, are shared with Tibet's 7-day ritual to assist with rebirth after physical death.
In Tibetan buddhism, there are also tantric Gods called Bodhisattvas, who appear to the most transcendent spirits during the cycle of transmigration. But that is another topic.