Ask your average man or woman in the street and they will probably tell you that a Buddhist is a mysterious creature that lives in the mountains (probably in a country such as Tibet or Nepal,) wears brightly coloured robes, and hums a lot.
For many people, this is not the case – in the 2001 census, there were over 65,000 UK born Buddhists living in Britain, many of whom undoubtedly hold normal jobs and pay bills and spend little to none of their time humming, wearing robes, or wandering around Ben Nevis.
So what do they do that makes them a Buddhist?
Buddhism is a nontheistic religion – that is, one without a god – that centres around a set of teachings by a man called Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, previously known as the happy fat man in the windows of Chinese takeaways. At its core, Buddhism is a bit like a self-help tape, albeit one that’s been around about two and half thousand years and had over three hundred million followers.
What are the Four Noble Truths?
Like any self-help tape that’s been handed down for thousands of years, there are certain disagreements and interpretations, but the main gist of it is this, ‘The Four Noble Truths:’
1. Life is a cycle of suffering. Stomach ache, let’s say.
2. Suffering – the stomach ache – is caused by desire. The desire you had for all those Chinese takeaways, perhaps.
3. The only way to get rid of that suffering is to get rid of that desire. So stop eating Chinese takeaways. Or take some Rennies. I’m still metaphorically speaking, of course.
4. The way to get rid of everyone’s suffering is by following the Eightfold Path.
What is the Eightfold Path?
You may be asking, what is the Eightfold Path? Is this where the robes and the humming comes in? Not even close.
The Eightfold Path is as follows:
1. Understand things properly.
2. Thinking about things properly.
3. Talk about things properly.
4. Do things properly.
5. Live properly.
6. Try properly.
7. Treat people properly.
8. Concentrate properly.
That last one is where the humming comes in for many people: you’ve probably heard the term Zen Buddhism being used. Zen came around long after the start of Buddhism, and acts as a sort of Hollywood remake, if Hollywood was obsessed with sitting down and thinking about things. Originating in China, Zen Buddhism is still popular today, leading many people to the notion that it encompasses Buddhism as a whole.
As you may have guessed from the above over-simplified explanation of the Eightfold Path, Buddhism is largely concerned with doing things properly. So to go back to my original question what does a Buddhist look like?
People ask me this all the time.
Questions I’ve been asked have stemmed from whether or not I meditate all the way over to whether I wear robes and speak Chinese. The questions have come from concerned friends, from preachers in the street, and indeed from actual Chinese people.
My answer is this: a Buddhist isn’t a lot of things – but it is a person trying to do things properly.
Written by Lewis Shaw
Photography by Clare Hudson