Mount Meru surrounded by heavens and hells
Meru stood at the centre of the world, square, vast, and so high that the sun and moon and stars circled round it. In the gardens and palaces on its summit lived the gods, including Indra their king, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, together with the divine apsara dancers and gandharvas musicians and the innumerable devada handmaidens, nagas, garudas, and many others. Spread out below Meru was Jambudvipa, the world-continent, home of humans, which they shared with animals, and also with spirits and ghosts and demons, and beneath Jambudvipa were the many worlds of hell, and surrounding it was the boundless cosmic ocean.
About a thousand years ago, in the land of the Khmers on the continent of Jambudvipa, a king built a temple in the shape of the universe.
As a visitor to Angkor Wat you start at a moat, representing the cosmic ocean. Crossing a causeway lined with naga-serpents, you pass through a colonnaded boundary wall representing the circling mountain ranges of Jambudvipa and enter the outermost sacred area. When Angor Wat was first built it would not have been permitted for ordinary people to go further than this. Nor would they have wanted to: their gods were family and village spirits, the ancestors who protected them from ghosts and demons. But they would know that at the top of the temple there was a chamber, that this chamber was visited by the god Vishnu, and that important rituals took place there involving the kings and priests.
Time passed, Buddhist monasteries and monks replaced Hindu gods and Brahman priests, and the spirits, the gods and the Buddha became the faith of the modern Khmer people.
Buddhism introduced only a few changes the Brahmanic cosmology. Extra heavens were added above Meru, divided into three realms of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Beings in the Realm of Desire are governed by the senses and are therefore subject to illusion, even the gods on Meru, who take pleasure in music and dance and sweet scents. The beings of the higher heavens of form and formlessness above Meru are not subject to the senses but are still the victims of illusion. They live for immensely long periods, but even they eventually die and are reborn.
The Roots of Buddhism
Buddha in meditation
Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a man, not a god. He lived in the foothills of the Himalayas some two and a half thousand years ago, and through inquiry and meditation he came to understand the nature of things. For this reason he is called the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and because he came from the tribe of the Sakyas he is called Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakyas.
The Buddha’s teaching was a reaction to Hinduism, the religion of India at his time. The historical Siddhartha would not have been aware that he lived in India. India in his time was called Bharat; our modern name comes from the word Sindhu, meaning simply “the river,” the modern Indus River in Pakistan.
In ancient times the Persians, close neighbours to the Indians, changed Sindhu to Hindush, and the Greeks adopted this as Indos (for the river) and India (the land). The Romans inherited the name from the Greeks, and Europe inherited it from the Romans. The Arabs called the country, its people and its religion al-Hind, and 19th century European scholars, wishing to discuss the religions of India, invented the term Hinduism.
In Buddha’s time religion was dharma. Dharma was not then, and is not now, a single belief. It encompasses the role and teachings of the Brahmans, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the spirits of nature and the ancestors worshiped by the villagers, and much else. There was no such concept as Hinduism until scholars tried to draw all this together. For this reason modern scholars talk about Brahmanical religion, a term that includes “Hinduism”, (the inverted commas are because of the difficulty of defining the term), cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which come close to being religions in their own right, Jainism, and many other traditions of which Buddhism is only one.
Three Gems, Four Truths, and the Eightfold Path
Buddhism begins with the Three Gems:
- Buddha: The aim of human life is enlightenment, as was reached and taught by the historic Buddha;
- Dharma: Enlightenment can be attained through understanding dharma, the law of cause and effect that propels the world forward; and
- Sangha: Dharma can be learned through the sangha, the monkhood.
Having grasped the Three Gems, the student moves on to the Four Noble Truths:
- Human life is dukkha;
- The cause of dukkha is craving;
- There is a way to end dukkha;
- That way lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.
Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It does refer to the ordinary sufferings of life, but dukkha is also latent in pleasure, because pleasure is transitory. So long as we crave pleasure, we suffer. It is therefore desirable to end craving through the Eightfold Path, whose eight steps, grouped into three categories of wisdom, virtue and awareness, are:
- Right understanding (wisdom)
- Right intention (wisdom)
- Right speech (virtue)
- Right action (virtue)
- Right livelihood (virtue)
- Right effort (concentration)
- Right mindfulness (awareness)
- Right concentration (awareness)
Wisdom is found in the Pali scriptures, which must be studied under a teacher, and meditation is also best done under the direction of a teacher. Both are best followed within the monkhood, but virtue is open to all. The essence of virtue is set out in the Ten Precepts.
The Way of Virtue
Monks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
The Ten Precepts are divided into three groups, of which the first, the Five Precepts and their converse the Five Virtues, form the basic moral code for every Buddhist. The Precepts are formulated as undertakings (“I undertake to…”):
- Refrain from destroying living creatures;
- Refrain from taking that which is not given;
- Refrain from sexual misconduct;
- Refrain from incorrect speech;
- Refrain from intoxication;
Like the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. The First Precept forbids the taking of life – not just human life, but any life at all. Yet fish is the national dish, chicken runs a close second, and every villager keeps cows. How are the facts of life to be reconciled with religion? Sin lies in the act of killing, and to eat meat is not itself against religion. City people buy their fish and chicken in the market, which exempts them from guilt; villagers, closer to the realities of life, will say if asked that the fish that swims into the net has not been killed by the fisherman, that the little boys who wring the necks of chickens are too young to be held morally accountable, and that pigs and cows are slaughtered by non-Buddhists such as Chinese and Cham Muslims Despite the casuistry, there is widespread respect for life and for the welfare of animals.
The second and fourth precepts prohibit stealing and lying, and this raises major problems in a country where teachers expect daily “tea money” from even the youngest pupils and firemen will not begin to put out fires until they’ve been paid. This is endured but not approved. A young food vendor who was interviewed in the course of a study into Cambodian social values said that a good man is one who neither lies nor cheats and takes only good and legal employment, but that there were not many good men in Cambodia.
Precepts three and five prohibiting sexual misconduct and alcohol are widely broken, but as with the second and fourth there is a general recognition that this is not good behaviour.
Corresponding to the five precepts (undertakings to avoid) are five virtues (undertakings to practice). These are:
- Practice compassion towards living creatures;
- Practice patience in right means of livelihood;
- Practice contentment in married life;
- Practice truthfulness in speech;
- Practice watchfulness (intoxication prevents the mind from being watchful).
The Five Precepts plus the following three are mandatory for monks and are followed voluntarily by many religiously-minded lay people, making a list of the Eight Precepts:
- To refrain from eating between midday and morning;
- To refrain from dancing, music, singing, and other such pursuits;
- To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds. (The last can be interpreted as the avoidance of luxury in general).
Monks observe two additional precepts, making up the Ten Precepts:
- To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and other things used to beautify and adorn the person;
- To avoid handling money.
Karma & Reincarnation
Coffin at Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh
In the opening verses of the Book of Job we find the upright Job blessed with sons and daughters, possessing sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants, “the greatest man among all the people of the East.” His friends take his blessings as the outward sign that God has rewarded him because he is a righteous man. God puts Job’s righteousness to the test, killing his sons and daughters, robbing him of his wealth, and afflicting him with loathsome diseases, and his friends now advise him to look into his heart and discover what evil he has committed that has caused God to replace blessings with suffering. The assumption, in short, is that good fortune is the divine reward for good deeds, while suffering is the outward sign of inner corruption.
The concept of karma is similar, up to a point. Karma means the way actions determine outcomes – good deeds lead to happiness, bad deeds to suffering. Where karma differs from the Old Testament is in the absence of God or gods – karma is as impersonal as the law of gravity.
Reincarnation is the idea that there exists a kernel of individual existence – a “soul” – that survives death and is reborn. When this concept is linked to the workings of karma, it becomes clear, or at least plausible, that the good and bad deeds of this life will have their rewards and punishments in the next.
Enlightenment and Nirvana
Death and Nirvana of the Buddha
The Buddha taught that the conscious mind forms an an impression of its existence as a unique self, but this is based on a misapprehension. This misapprehension is the cause of craving, and thereby of the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth. This cycle, called samsara, is what the Buddha’s teaching promises to end.
Even the gods are not immortal, although their lives are immensely long, millions and millions of years, but they too are subject to the workings of karma and rebirth. The ultimate goal is not to be reborn as a god, but to move beyond rebirth and the three realms and reach the state of nirvana.
In Pali nirvana is called nibbana. The word means “blowing out”, as in extinguishing a candle, and fire imagery is frequently used when the scriptures describe nibbana. The fires to be extinguished are those of attachment, lust, and ignorance. We are attached to the things of this world through our senses; because we are attached to them we lust after them, wanting those things we don’t have, fearing to lose the things we possess; being ignorant of the means of escape we remain attached, and the world continues to be dukkha.
Dukkha is the result of attachment to things which are not-self, attachment arises from the illusion that self and not-self are separate. Dukkha can be overcome by understanding the nature of the illusion.
Every act, good or bad, will sow a seed in the mind, and this seed will bring its appropriate crop. Most karma will keep the individual bound to the wheel of rebirth, but some will accumulate merit and lead to nibbana. The monk, and indeed the religiously awakened layperson, will therefore strive to accumulate merit.