As we begin the 21st century, a religion with its origin in India, over 2,500 years ago, is gaining greater recognition and acceptance in America. That religion is Buddhism. It is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and provides a path to enlightenment, the attainment of Nirvana.

When most Americans think of Buddhism the images that come to mind may be of the Dalai Lama, small Asians dressed in colorful robes or the “Laughing Buddha," the “fat guy.” Years ago the image of only Asians being Buddhist may have been correct but today Americans of all backgrounds and races are practicing the teachings, known in Buddhism as the Dharma. As to the “fat guy," he is actually a representation of a Chinese god named Hotei. According to legend he traveled the countryside giving gifts to children, sort of like Santa Claus. Westerners, in our usual cultural misunderstanding, started to refer to him as the “Laughing Buddha.” The historical Buddha actually was thin, he and his disciples lived entirely on food given to them by others.

Many teachings in Buddhism are quite similar to teachings in other religions with a major difference, in Buddhism there is no deity. Gautama Buddha was a human being, he never professed to be a God nor did he say that the teachings were the word of God. Therefore, Buddhists do not worship the Buddha. Buddhists express gratitude for the teachings. The statues of Buddha are simply a reminder of the teacher. There is no prayer in Buddhism, as there is no deity to petition with prayer. This has led to the misconception that Buddhists say there is no God. This is not the case at all. Buddha never speculated on the existence of God nor on the creation of mankind or the universe. His teachings do not rely on the existence or nonexistence of God, they address cause and effect in the universe. This is the concept known as Karma.

Buddhism is also different from many other religions in that it does not seek converts. There are no Buddhist missionaries Buddhism respects all other religions and people of different beliefs. In Buddhism a basic teaching is that you should not believe something just because a teacher or minister says it, you should only believe it when you experience its truth for yourself.

Certain Buddhist practices, such as meditation, are now being used by people of all faiths. Through this practice they are able to gain a deeper appreciation for their own beliefs. This is a goal of Buddhism, to overcome our ignorance and thereby lessen the suffering that comes with human life. In the next few months I will present some of the basic Buddhist teachings. I hope that people of all faiths will be able to find something of value.

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