Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering and disappointment, from which the wise man must seek to deliver himself. The aim is thus to transcend the cycle of births and attain the final liberation of Nirvana. Nirvana (literally the act of erasing or extinguishing: the word is used, for example, of putting out a fire) means deliverance, a state of blissful repose and release from further reincarnations. It is the complete absence of all physical consciousness, all thought, all will. It differs totally from all other terrestrial phenomena, being subject neither to birth nor to death. Is Nirvana eternal felicity, or is it nothingness, eternal death? Buddha was asked this question but refused to reply, on the ground that it was not his function to supply speculative explanations but to encourage men to seek holiness and point a way towards deliverance. He was also aware that Nirvana cannot be comprehended by our human faculties and that it is vain to attempt to speak on the level of our understanding.
There are four paths towards the cessation of all desire, which alone leads to Nirvana:
1. The understanding and acceptance of the Three Principles the transitory character of all things (anicca), the imperfection of all things (dukkha) and the impersonality of all things, or their lack of a separate soul (anatta).
2. The understanding and acceptance of the Four Noble Truths – that all life is suffering and disappointment (dukkha); that this life of suffering stems from the craving and the desire to live (tanha); that the extinction of this craving puts an end to life and suffering (Nirvana); and that the extinction of the craving is attained at the end of the Noble Eightfold Path.
3. The Noble Eightfold Path, which represents the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. It involves (1) Right Understanding; (2) Right Resolve; (3) Right Speech; (4) Right Action; (5) Right Livelihood; (6) Right Effort; (7) Right Recollection; and (8) Right Meditation or Concentration.
4, The observance of moral precepts. There are five rules which all must follow – they must not kill, they must not steal, they must not live loosely, they must not lie or deceive, they must not become intoxicated.
For members of the monastic Order there are a total of 227 rules.
In its original form Buddhism has neither sacraments, nor rites, nor magical formulas, nor any privileged class of clerks with assured keys to Nirvana. Each individual must find his own way, without any intercessors to guarantee his success. Buddhism is thus not quite a religion in the sense in which the term is generally understood.
The canon of Buddhist scriptures, which has come down to us in Pali, is the Tipitaka or “Three Baskets” – three divisions which between them embrace all aspects of religious life. The three baskets are the Vinaya Pitaka, the “basket of discipline”, which contains the rules for monks; the Sutra Pitaka, the “statement of doctrine”, a collection of the Buddha’s sermons; and the Abhidamma Pitaka, the “basket of metaphysics”, which contains scholastic explanations of the various elements in the doctrine. A vivid picture of Thai cosmology is given in the Traiphum or “Three Worlds”. The three worlds are the region of sensuality, the region of forms and the region without form. The gods live in all three regions; men, animals and demons live only in the first.
The ideas current in Thailand in our own day are not all in accord with the strict Buddhist doctrine. Perhaps because Buddhism was not a complete religion in the ordinary sense of the term, it assimilated, in Thailand as in other countries, elements from various other religions. In course of time these brought about changes in the doctrine and introduced a variety of rites, particularly on the level of popular religious belief. Since the beginning of this century, however, there has developed within the urban educated class a “neo-Buddhist” school of thought which rejects recent alien accretions, the mythological cosmology, etc., and seeks to recover the foundations of Buddhist doctrine. In some respects this trend is close to the Christian ethic.