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Buddhism began near Benares in India around the fifth century BC. The founder was Siddhartha Gautama, who achieved a state of enlightenment and the title of Buddha ('awakened one'). It is a path of spiritual self-development and does not believe in a God. It spread throughout Asia, forming a number of different schools, and over the last century or so has been growing in the West. There are about 360 million Buddhists around the world; 152,000 in the UK; and 1,900 in Greater Nottingham.

Early History

Siddhartha Gautama was a prince with a sheltered, comfortable life. On a trip to the city at the age of 29 he saw a sick person, an old man, a corpse and a serene holy man. He resolved to understand suffering and find a way to end it, and spent six years trying all sorts of demanding spiritual practices. Eventually he chose a Middle Way between self indulgence and self-denial, and his determined meditation allowed him to break through to a new understanding. He gathered disciples and travelled to pass on what he'd learned.

Religious Scriptures and Symbols

Although the Buddha is revered, he is not worshipped: he is a guide to the teachings. Different schools have their own scriptures, but most accept the Pali language canon, also known as the Tripitaka, collecting material from the Buddha and his disciples. Many schools have vast collections of other sutras, writings around a particular theme. Buildings for devotion are known as temples or, simply, centres. Common symbols are the Buddha image and the eight-spoked wheel, representing the Eightfold Path of right conduct.

What do Buddhists believe?

Buddhists talk about 'going for refuge' to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (teachings) and the sangha (community). One can learn the teachings, but they're only truly understood through an experience of 'awakening' where one sees into the ultimate nature of existence and responds with compassion for all beings. The core of the dharma is the Four Noble Truths. The first is the idea of duhka,'unsatisfactoriness': life is accompanied by imperfection, impermanence and suffering. Second, the origin of duhka is desire and attachment. Third, this craving can be quenched and transcended, leading to a state called nirvana where one is free from impulses like greed and hatred. Fourth, the way of life that can lead one toward this is the Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

There is no permanent, immortal soul. We are collections of ever-changing elements like feelings and perceptions. After death, these elements are reborn into a new life, according to the good and bad deeds of past lives. The Buddhist desires to escape from this wheel of birth and death.

Buddhists are expected to behave according to the Five Precepts, refraining from harming living beings, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, harmful speech and substances that cloud the mind. There are two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada focuses on the historical Buddha, the Tripitaka and achieving nirvana for oneself. It is found mainly in south Asia. Mahayana regards the Buddha as a divine being with many different forms, accepts other sutras, and its ideal is the Bodhisattva, one who postpones their final nirvana to work for the enlightenment of all. It is mainly found in north Asia, and includes Pure Land Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Zen (known as Ch'an in China). The Western Buddhist Order is a new movement drawing on all the traditions of Eastern Buddhism while engaging with modern Western culture.

What do Buddhists do?

Meditation is central to Buddhism. It is thought to build confidence, concentration, mindfulness, energy and wisdom. There are various different methods, but two basic forms. Tranquillity meditation is about promoting a calm, concentrated state of mind. It often involves being aware of one's breathing and sending out goodwill to the whole world. Insight meditation focuses on seeing the true nature of the world. Meditation can be aided by focusing on an image or statuette of a Buddha or Bodhisattva or a sacred diagram called a mandala, by special chants called mantras, or by particular hand gestures.

Different schools have different styles of building, from simple meditation halls to ornate temples. In the UK most places for devotion are in converted houses. There is usually at least a statue of the Buddha; there might be images of Bodhisattvas. A space free of distractions for meditation is often accompanied by teaching facilities. There is no particular holy day in the week. Many Buddhist centres offer meditation classes to the general public. Most Buddhist homes also have a small shrine with a statue. The puja ceremony involves offering food, flowers, incense and water to show devotion to Buddha's teachings.

Many Buddhists go away on retreats. These can be for solitary meditation, small study retreats, or large family retreats. In the UK they're often held in country retreat centres. Buddhist schools often have monks and nuns, men and women who adhere to a particularly spiritual and chaste life. They are often called upon to officiate at ceremonies and help with running the Buddhist community.

Most Buddhists in the west are vegetarian, and many avoid alcohol and smoking. However, this is not a rule but an individual decision about applying the principle of not harming living beings, including oneself. There is no baptism or initiation as such. The ceremony of Ordination recognises someone's commitment to Buddhism and the centrality of dharma practice in their life.

Dates of importance

Buddhist festivals are based on the lunar calendar, so dates vary, and they also vary between traditions. Here are some major ones. New Year (Mar/Apr) is a major festival but not specifically a religious one. Wesak or Buddha Day (May) marks the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha in Theravada and is also observed by other Buddhists in the West. Asalha or Dharma Day (Jul/Aug) remembers when the Buddha first taught. Sangha Day is an expression of the spiritual community of all Buddhists.

Buddhism in Nottingham

The following groups differ regarding philosophy, but in general members meet to meditate together, study Buddhism and discuss how their practice of Buddhism is going. They also run classes for members of the public who are interested in trying meditation or learning about Buddhism.

The Soka Gakkia International have eight groups around the county, meeting in homes and other venues.
The Nottingham Akshobya Centre (New Kadampa Tibetan)
Nottingham Buddhist Centre (Friends of the Western Buddhism)
Nottingham Serene Reflection Meditation Group (Soto Zen Buddhism).