A Brief Introduction to Buddhism

BUDDHISM is a system of spiritual practice including meditation, self-examination and virtuous action, whose goal is to understand the nature of the mind, cultivate positive qualities, and free oneself and others from the sufferings of the world. It was established in the sixth century BCE by Prince Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Buddha (the Awakened One) taught that while all beings thirst for happiness, few can find true peace of mind. In fact, many of the ways people seek happiness only cause more suffering. This, the Buddha said, was because ego-centered attachment, aversion, and indifference create a confusion or obscuration that makes it difficult for us to relate openly and honestly with ourselves and the world around us. This obscuration can be removed through the practice of meditation combined with the development of compassion and wisdom, which enable us to unravel our negativity and approach the world and suffering with gentleness, clarity and inner strength. Buddhism stresses the basic sanity and goodness (Buddha Nature) of individuals, and teaches that this sanity and goodness, if freed from the cloud of afflicting emotions and confusion, can develop into enlightened awareness.

MEDITATION is the basic practice of all Buddhist lineages. Several kinds of meditation exist, based on three “vehicles” (Sanskrit yana, Tibetan t’heg) of practice. The Hinayana, or “vehicle of individual liberation”, emphasizes meditations of self-awareness and tranquility that promote both openness and peacefulness of mind. Quiet sitting meditation, called shamata meaning “calm-abiding,” is an example of this type of practice. This is combined with the practice of pure moral conduct. Meditations of the Mahayana, or “greater vehicle” expand one’s awareness and goals to include others. These meditations stress the attitude that one wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings and the skills to see things as they are. There is a great emphasis on developing loving-kindness and compassion for others. The meditations of the Vajrayana, or “indestructible vehicle,” help us cultivate our latent enlightened qualities of mind through such techniques as sacred visualization and speech (mantra recitation) in order to recognize the sacred quality of the ordinary world. The practitioner is empowered to see his or her inherent sanity and goodness, and then manifest those qualities in everyday life. Such meditations must be practiced under the guidance of a qualified master.

BUDDHISM IN AMERICA After the death of the Buddha, Buddhism spread to many different countries. In each it developed differently based on cultural diversity and the needs of different peoples. One form of Buddhism currently practiced in the United States is Tibetan Buddhism, which involves the practice of all three levels or vehicles. It especially emphasizes Vajrayana, which derives from the Indian Buddhist tradition of Tantra, a practice that uses everyday experiences, even negative ones, to uncover the basic sanity and goodness of enlightened mind. In the high and isolated land of Tibet, Vajrayana was preserved and flourished. However, the Chinese Communist invasion of 1959 forced Tibetan Buddhist lamas (teachers) to escape the ensuing destruction of everything religious by fleeing to India, Bhutan and Nepal, and from there to other points of the globe at the invitation of enthusiastic students from various countries.

THE KAGYU LINEAGE is one of the four major lineages, or teaching traditions, of Tibetan Buddhism. Our center belongs to this tradition which traces its history back to Shakyamuni Buddha through meditation masters from India: Tilopa (988-1069 AD) and Naropa (1016-1100); and Tibet: the translator Marpa (1012-1097), the great yogi Milarepa (1052-1135), the scholar Gampopa, and the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193). The Kagyu tradition has been called “The Practice Lineage” because of its emphasis on meditation practice (direct experience) over intellectualism, and also has been described as an “Oral Transmission” because its highest teachings are still passed on from teacher to student in an unbroken line. The lineage is headed by the Gyalwang Karmapa, a highly realized meditation master who represents the lineage and embodies its accumulated spiritual energy. Karmapa means “one who manifests Buddha activity.” The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1985 and lived at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet until January 2000, when he left Tibet. He is now living in India.