Tradition has it that the Buddha gave 84,000 teachings during his 80 year life (he died around 410 BCE). Although perhaps not literally true, this very large number illustrates the idea that the Buddha’s teachings are so extensive that people in all kinds of different situations can find within them something that meets their particular need. Some people understand what the Buddha taught as philosophy. Others see within it all the elements we expect to find in a religion - practices and rituals; ideas about salvation; otherworldly beings and so on. More recently some have understood the Buddha’s teaching as therapy for stress and other similar problems. Whichever way we characterize the Buddha’s teachings, it is clear that he intended them to be used.
The Buddha’s time was one of particular creativity and change. Trade was developing, administrative borders were changing and people were moving from the countryside into the towns. The Buddha seems to have made certain assumptions about the world and about the place of men and women within the world that would have been familiar to the people among whom he lived. For example, his teachings are based on the idea that all beings experience life as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. He taught that the aim is to escape from this cycle of suffering. But the Buddha also turned many of the ideas circulating at that time on their heads. Unlike those around him, he taught that there is nothing about us or about what we experience that is eternal and unchanging. Flux is pervasive.
When he was a young man, the Buddha set out from his privileged family home with the intention of gaining understanding about life, the universe and everything. He sought out the most revered teachers and tried their methods of accessing knowledge and understanding, including nearly starving himself to death. When none of these methods worked he sat down under a tree and resolved to stay there until his quest for truth reached its goal. We are told that in the night he realised the truth he had been looking for.
The Buddha’s experience was so powerful that he felt compelled to pass on what he had learned. As he travelled around the countryside and towns he was questioned by individuals who knew of his reputation. Many of his teachings represent his answers to their questions. They are therefore responses to real life situations. His followers remembered these answers and, shortly before he died, the Buddha told them that what he had explained - the truth and the practices that lead to that truth - would meet all their needs.
In the years after his death, the Buddha’s followers, who lived as monks, gathered the teachings together and organized and presented them in a systematic way so that they formed a coherent whole. We can summarize the Buddha’s ideas very briefly as: life is experienced as unsatisfactory or coloured by suffering but it is possible, by following a defined path, to end the causes of this suffering and end the anger, greed and delusion that prevent people from knowing and understanding the truth and keep them in the death and rebirth cycle.
"...those who live in ethical ways, avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, travel towards happiness..."In addition to his explanation about why we experience life as we do, the Buddha proposed a path of practical remedies for the human predicament. He laid down a set of ethical principles or precepts by which people should live, either as monks and nuns inside the monasteries or in everyday working lives within families. These include detailed rules, such as proper ways to dress and behave for monks, but also guidance for all to follow. He taught that the benefits of ethical actions are self-evident; those who live in ethical ways, avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, travel towards happiness whereas those who don’t travel away from happiness.
The Buddha also taught meditation practices. These practices provide space in people’s busy lives, and in their busy minds, to develop understanding and help them to live well. Meditation calms the mind. A person who sits quietly has the opportunity to see why it is better to live ethically, why attachment to things, people and ideas leads to pain, and eventually to understand what the Buddha understood. Buddhist meditation practices are many and varied, silent and chanted. Some have been taken up as therapy outside the context of Buddhist doctrine.
Billions of people across the globe live in areas where the Buddha’s legacy has been, remains, or is newly influential. Among his followers wise and compassionate people have inspired and nurtured others, helping them to understand what the Buddha taught. Over the centuries there have been different interpretations of the Buddha’s path. This has led at times to tensions between groups. There have also been Buddhist teachers and leaders who have acted unlawfully and unethically. Like the followers of other influential teachers, Buddhists have been implicated in wars and other conflicts. His teachings, however, are said to remain ‘stainless’.
The Buddha’s 84,000 teachings have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and to resonate with people at different times and in contrasting cultures. In all ages teachers in the varied parts of the world where Buddhism has spread from Japan to Sri Lanka; Tibet to Australia have inspired their followers and refreshed aspects of the Buddha’s teachings to make them relevant for new circumstances.