Exploring the Middle Path : Culture of Buddhism in Practice, Literature and Art

Article of the Month - Sep 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

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The world is full of very varied religions with unique characteristics. The believers of these beliefs often dedicate their lives to it, so much of the art, architecture and expressions revolve around their religion since religion is an important part of culture and in Buddhism, a religion of more than 500 millions of members is no exception. This religion founded between the 6th and 4th centuries BC in ancient India and that follows the teachings of Gautama Buddha is no exception, since it has shaped a large part of the Asian continent thanks to the knowledge, ideas, traditions and customs of this religion.

In search of enlightenment

Before knowing about the Buddhist culture, it is important to know about this religion and the precepts that make it up, because at all times the culture revolves around it. The origin of this religion takes place thanks to Gautama Buddha; “Buddha” is a term that literally means "the Awakened One" due to his enlightened condition. According to ancient texts, this master was born in Lumbini, a city located in Nepal that today is an important pilgrimage site. Considered a prince according to tradition, when he left the luxuries he had in his palace, he could see the problems of the world: from sick people, poverty and suffering. He understood that he was a privileged person and for this reason he abandoned his wealth and began the spiritual search to free him from suffering by resorting to various teachers and methods that however were not enough. Understanding that peace is through mental discipline, he sat down to meditate under a bodhi tree, where he reached enlightenment. Buddha left several teachings such as the Four Noble Truths: realities about suffering, its origin, and the way how we can stop it. Concepts such as Nirvana, the Three Jewels, as well as forms of meditation and practices that make this religion a tool to overcome suffering.

Large Size Buddha

Buddhism in the world

Buddhism today has more than 500 million adherents spread throughout the world, mainly in countries on the Asian continent such as China, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand. With so many believers, it is evident that Buddhist cultural practices are very varied; in fact, this religion is divided into "schools" with different beliefs and values, but always preserving the teachings of Buddha. The main schools are Theravada: the oldest of the schools that follows the Pāli Canon (a series of ancient Buddhist texts) and the Mahayana, which accepts other texts known as Mahāyāna Sūtras. There are other subschools among which Tibetan Buddhism stands out, probably the best known Buddhist expression in the Western world

The culture of the peace

When we think of Buddhism, the first thing we probably think of is that it is a peaceful religion, that it promotes peace with the teachings of Buddha and the non-violence. Buddhist ethics promote moral ideas known as the Five Precepts, which function as a code of conduct to be able to live together in peace; from avoiding killing, committing fraud, stealing, lying or consuming harmful substances, Buddhists follow these instructions to be able to live together in peace. Other idea such as nekkhamma or renunciation seeks to eliminate the interest and desire for earthly things, those desires that can have negative influences on our mind and in this way contribute to our sadness. There are many practices to promote this idea, such as rejecting material goods, practicing celibacy or becoming a monk, the goal is for the person to be able to advance on the spiritual path and avoid obstacles that in our life can lead to sadness. It is important to mention this because Buddhist practices and behaviors promote ideas of peaceful coexistence, which have contributed to this belief being known for being one that promotes calm, harmony and promotes meditation as a method of liberation.

Artistic expressions

Art is one of the most important areas within Buddhist culture, as it has been the way to express their ideas and vision of this religion, the way to communicate aesthetically. Either with icons or symbolic representations, it seeks to express its beliefs in an iconic way. The most notable iconic example is the physical representations of the Buddha, statues in which the master is represented in many ways, mainly meditating. At first Buddha was not represented in the form of an icon, but they preferred to resort to symbolic representations. The representation of Buddha statues is influenced by Hellenistic art due to the interaction that this culture had in the East in times of Alexander the Great, giving rise to Greco-Buddhism; similarly, in the Indian city of Mathura, an art form also developed that influenced Buddha sculptures. These statues represent Buddha in various ways, from meditating, reclining, or simply his head. Notable examples of these statues are the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Seated Buddha from Gandhara and the Leshan Giant Buddha.

The following expression of Buddhist art is found in his mandalas: these symbolic representations formed by geometric figures and symbols are a way of representing the sacred. In them we can see Buddha diagrams with representations of the Buddhist universe in which disciples or deities are frequently included. These representations are an important meditation tool, as their elaboration requires patience and concentration. In Tibetan Buddhism, mandalas are very important and the construction of mandalas made of colored sand stands out, a rigorous process that can last weeks and in which after its construction it is dismantled in a ritual way, a ceremony in which each word or deity represented is eliminated in order, until finally the rigorous creation disappears. This is done with the aim of representing the impermanence of the material and that material life is transitory.

Another of the iconic Buddhist creations are the Thangkas, huge embroidered tapestries that represent paintings, designs, deities or the Buddha himself. One of the most striking themes is the wheel of life or Bhavacakra, which consists of a representation of the existence of cyclical life, that is, life, death and reincarnation. These tapestries are used to tell stories, teach or meditate so they are very popular with monks and devotees. In countries like Bhutan, much larger Thangkas known as Thongdrel are made and can measure several meters and that curiously cannot be directly impacted by the sun's rays according to tradition.

Tibetan Buddhist God Large Size Buddha Who Grants Succor From Both Spiritual and Physical Sickness

Through architecture we can create and design a great variety of things, build incredible wonders thanks to human knowledge. Religion greatly impacts architectural constructions as it seeks to create spaces that exalt the magnificence of the belief in question. In Buddhism there are several types of temples, one of them are the Vihara, which are the monasteries where monks can live under their religious precepts; these places are home to Bhikkhu monks or those who have been ordained. Notable examples are the Mahabodhi Temple and the Ajanta Caves in India. Another place typical of Buddhism are the Stupas, very special places because they keep the relics considered sacred or worthy of veneration by Buddhists, as objects that belonged to spiritual masters, and even some associated with the Buddha himself. Its sacred character contributes to making the resting place of these relics worthy and with a special architecture, as well as creating an ideal place for the monks to meditate. Examples of this are the Jetavanaramaya, one of the tallest structures in the ancient world and Borobudur, considered the largest Buddhist monument in the world.Buddhist shrines or places of prayer are known as Chaitya; these places are usually built in the mountainside or excavated in caves, so it is a very complicated job with an incredible result. Examples are the Karla Caves and the Bhaja Caves in India, both carved out of rock.

Music for enlightenment

Music is one of the areas where Buddhism has created its own culture, as they have used harmonious melodies and rhythms to achieve enlightenment and contribute to meditation, which is why there are several types of songs with different characteristics. The songs serve as a tool to memorize and recite religious verses; For example, in Mahayana Buddhism, repetition chants are performed where Amitābha, one of the many enlightened teachers with celestial importance, is named multiple times. In Japan, Buddhists practice a liturgical music known as Shomyo, through which they recite Buddhist texts in a choir and without instruments for their veneration. In this country the musical pieces known as Honkyoku are also played, which consists of playing a bamboo flute known as Shakuhachi. In Tibet, singing is characterized by cultural issues, such as overtone singing, by which Tibetan Buddhists perform chants using their throat. Music is important for Buddhists and their cultural practices because through it they can meditate and purify their hearts, making it special at weddings, funerals, dances and festivals.

Tibetan Buddhist Deity Amitabha Buddha

Holidays of course Buddhists celebrate very important days related to festivals and commemorate important events within the Buddhist tradition, these days are very important and due to their activities it is an important sample of Buddhist culture. Vesak is undoubtedly the most important Buddhist day, because through this celebration they remember the Buddha. This celebration that commemorates his birth, enlightenment and death takes place in the lunar month of Vaisakha (April or May) and is a time to bring happiness to other people, especially those who need it most as sick or poor so donations are common. Besides this is an important date for meditation, interpreting the Eight Precepts. The birthday is also commemorated with ritual, dances and music, making it a holiday in various Asian countries.

Another important day is Parinirvana, which is celebrated on February 8 or 15. This is the day that Buddha is believed to have reached Parinirvana, which is how full nirvana is known. Unlike the previous celebration, this is a day of meditation and prayer, so believers often frequent Buddhist temples and recite important texts. Magha Pooja is a festival celebrated in the month of Maagha, which corresponds to January or February. This day the meeting that took place between Buddha and his first disciples, who promised to follow the teacher's teachings, is celebrated. On this day there are activities such as visiting temples, helping those in need, meditating and reflecting in different ways, it is notable that Buddhist holidays are dates of charity, commemorations that seek to remember the teachings of Buddha.

In Bhutan, the Tsechu festival ifs celebrated, the festival where huge Thongdrels are hung that cannot be directly impacted by the sun. In this festival the Cham dance takes place, dances where people use costumes and masks to meditate or exalt the celestial beings; this entire festival is carried out with the aim of bringing together all people, especially those from very remote villages, which is why it fulfills a function of integrating the communities in all The world is full of very varied religions with unique characteristics. The believers of these beliefs often dedicate their lives to it, so much of the art, architecture and expressions revolve around their religion since religion is an important part of culture and in Buddhism, a religion of more than 500 millions of members is no exception. This religion founded between the 6th and 4th centuries BC in ancient India and that follows the teachings of Gautama Buddha is no exception, since it has shaped a large part of the Asian continent thanks to the knowledge, ideas, traditions and customs of this religion.

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