An overview of Buddhism

Some 2,500 years ago, an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, sat quietly in a place known as Deer Park at Sarnath [now India] and began to offer simple teachings, based on his own experience. These teachings, referred to as the dharma, meaning simply ‘truth’, were practical instructions on how to free oneself from suffering by relating to the everyday experience of life and mind.

Because his realisation was profound, he became known as the Buddha, which means ‘the awakened one’. The teachings he offered came to be known as the buddhadharma, and these form the core of Buddhism still today. The Buddhist teachings proclaim the possibility of awakening wisdom and compassion within every human being, and they provide a practical method for doing so. This practical method, passed down from generation to generation, consists of meditation that develops mindfulness and awareness.

Buddhism is a living tradition, passed from teacher to student, as a set of pragmatic instructions and techniques for cultivating sanity and brilliance in ourselves and our world. Its ancient wisdom is as relevant and useful today as over the centuries of its long history.

Buddhism’s development

The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born around 560 BC at Lumbini in present-day Nepal. He was brought up as a prince of the Shakya clan and excelled in all the worldly arts of his day. Growing weary of the pleasures of palace life, Siddhartha ventured forth and encountered for the first time the ravages of old age, sickness and death as well as the promise of the spiritual path. Understanding the inevitable impermanence and suffering in human life, at the age of twenty-nine he left his kingdom to seek spiritual understanding.

After several years studying with many spiritual teachers, Siddhartha realised that neither worldly pleasures nor strict asceticism could bring him fulfilment. He chose the middle way, accepting rice milk from a girl named Sujata in order to strengthen his body and mind. He then sat under a tree in what is now Bodh Gaya and vowed not to rise until he had discovered the truth about life and death. Through examining the nature of his body and mind, he attained enlightenment—complete awakening.

The Buddha’s discovery cannot adequately be described as a religion, a philosophy, or a psychology. It is better described as a journey or way of life. This journey entails seeing things as they are, beyond the fixation of our ego and the agitation of negative emotions. Chögyam Trungpa called the Buddhist path a ‘journey without goal’, because waking up to the way things are occurs in the present moment, at any time, in any place, right now.

The Buddha taught several approaches to liberation from suffering at different times and places during his long teaching career. It is traditionally explained that he taught different topics to different groups depending on their inclinations and level of spiritual advancement. These developed into distinctive branches of Buddhism:

  • the schools focusing on the Buddha’s foundational teachings for individual liberation of which Theravada today survives (sometimes referred to as the hinayana or ‘narrow vehicle’);
  • the teachings of the mahayana (or ‘great vehicle’) emphasising universal compassion and analysing the ultimate nature of reality; and
  • the vajrayana (or ‘diamond vehicle’) containing a host of skillful means for swift accomplishment.

While it is said that the Buddha taught each of these approaches during his lifetime, historically Buddhist scriptures appeared over a period of centuries in India, allowing for new developments in philosophy and meditation techniques. Buddhism thrived in India until the twelfth century, when it was wiped out in military incursions by subsequent waves of Turko-Afgani invaders.

Over the centuries, Buddhism spread throughout most of Asia. The Theravada spread to Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand), the Mahayana to East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), and the Vajrayana northward to Nepal and across Himalaya to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is unique in its synthesis of all three approaches or ‘vehicles’ as progressive stages on a comprehensive path of practice and study.

Buddhism in Tibet

Buddhism came to Tibet in two waves. The first occurred in the 7th to 9th centuries during the height of its empire, when Tibet dominated vast tracts of central Asia. The Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo commissioned a script to be devised based on Sanskrit (the ancient language of India), and his successor Trisong Detsun presided over a massive translation effort to render the corpus of Buddha’s teaching into Tibetan. After the collapse of empire, there was a ‘dark period’ of political and cultural fragmentation.

Toward the end of the 10th century, Tibetans once again made the intrepid journey across Himalaya to seek out Buddhist texts and spiritual techniques in India. Some visited the great Buddhist universities in India, such as Nalanda, to study philosophy and the arts. Some wandered to remote and desolate places to seek out oral instructions from accomplished meditation masters. Out of this, distinctive traditions of scholasticism and meditation developed in Tibet.

There are now four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma (or ‘old school’) trace their origin to the first wave of Buddhism’s propagation in Tibet and the Sarma (or ‘new schools’)—which consolidated into the Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk—developed out of the second wave. Some lineages, like the Sakya and Geluk, put special emphasis on an intellectual approach to the teachings, training students as scholars and logicians. Others, like the Kagyu and Nyingma, put special emphasis on the practice of meditation; they are often referred to as ‘practice lineages’. Within each of these four main schools are distinct teachings transmitted from master to disciple over subsequent generations in an unbroken succession.

The founder of the Shambhala community, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was a holder of both Kagyu and Nyingma lineages as the abbot and 11th descendent in the line of Trungpa tulkus (incarnate lama) of Surmang Monastery in eastern Tibet. His eldest son and spiritual heir, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is the reincarnation of the renowned 19th century Nyingma master, Ju Mipham.

Revelation of terma

Since the 11th century, the revelation of terma is one way that Tibetans have continued to introduce innovative teachings in every generation, appropriate to the needs of the time. Terma literally means ‘treasure’ and refers to a set of teachings hidden way until the time is ripe to propagate them.

Most tertöns or ‘treasure revealers’ trace their past lives back to the 8th century as direct disciples of the tantric master Padmasambhava. Terma are considered to be teachings originally given by Padmasambhava (or another comparable master) and later hidden away in the Tibetan landscape and in the mindstream of tertöns. In eastern Tibet, many tertöns also trace their past lives to the time of the legendary king Gesar as one of the generals in his army or ladies in his court.

The process of treasure revelation involves awakening a memory from the tertön’s past life and decoding arcane symbols that might appear in the landscape, on yellow scrolls, or in the mind of the tertön. It is the task of each tertön along with his or her students and lineage holders to further unravel the meaning of a terma into a coherent cycle of teachings and system that can be used for an individual’s regime of meditation and in community practice.

Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala, was himself a tertön. He began revealing terma before leaving Tibet, but few of these survive. The Shambhala teachings emerged as terma out of the visions and revelations of Chögyam Trungpa after he had come to the west. In recent years, Sakyong Mipham has been elaborating his father’s terma into a complete system of training for students in English. These teachings contain the essence of ancient wisdom, yet are tailored to the specific challenges of modern living.

Shambhala is a union of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism with the Shambhala teachings introduced by Chögyam Trungpa in the 1970s, based on the warrior tradition of Tibet’s legendary king Gesar.