Center for Faith and Vocation


Religious History/Beliefs

Altar at the An Lac Buddhist Temple, Indianapolis

Buddhism is a major world religion that is most prominent in Eastern Asia. It began in present day Nepal around 500 BCE with Siddhartha Gautama who, after his enlightenment, was known as the Buddha. The Buddha began questioning the truth of human existence after seeing the suffering people face in their everyday lives. After several years of spiritual practice, he resolved to sit under a tree and meditate until he obtained a true understanding of ultimate reality, or enlightenment. Thereafter the Buddha lived his life in a constant state of enlightenment, and when he died, he passed into nirvana. Nirvana is the term used to describe the end of suffering, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. It is a state of complete bliss, liberation from the limitations and desires of the physical world, and the end of the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

During the Buddha's experience of enlightenment he realized several truths about reality, four of which when joined are known as the Four Noble Truths. The first of the Noble Truths is that life is full of inevitable suffering. Although it may not be continuous, it is always unavoidably recurring; to live is to suffer. The second Noble Truth explains the root cause of human suffering. The Buddha suggested that suffering comes from desire or thirst for things in this world. People have desires and attachments to the physical world because they are ignorant of the fact that all reality is constantly changing. Thus, no one can ever be truly satisfied when attached to this world. The third Noble Truth presents a solution to suffering. The Buddha claimed that an end of desire leads to an end to all suffering. When one achieves nirvana, one is finally freed from all desire and thus all suffering. Finally, the last Noble Truth provides a practical set of directions that lead to nirvana. It suggests that one can attain nirvana by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path includes eight objectives: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right work, right effort, right meditation and right contemplation. The entire Eightfold Path requires one to face life objectively and without attachments, to live kindly and compassionately, and to cultivate inner peace and understanding. When one utilizes all of these practices simultaneously and continuously, it is believed that one will achieve nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

Zen Garden at Friends of Awakening Sangha, Indianapolis

Buddhism also teaches about the importance of embracing the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. In terms of the Three Jewels, the Buddha represents the ideal human who exists in a timeless dimension beyond the known world. The Buddha is a model of mindfulness and self-control, which Buddhism encourages people to strive for. The dharma is the collection of all the Buddha's teachings. The dharma describes how to live properly and righteously and how to view the world from a detached, objective point of view. Traditionally the sangha is the community of Buddhist monks and nuns, but in a broader sense, the sangha is understood to be the community of fellow Buddhists.

There are three primary schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, also known as Tantrayana or Mantrayana. Theravada is the earliest school of Buddhism and it was continued by disciples of the Buddha after his death. It is centered on the sangha, the community of monks. Theravada Buddhism suggests that nirvana is only attainable through meditation and detachment from the world entirely. Mahayana Buddhism first emerged in India between 150 BCE and 100 CE. This group focuses more on compassion and the idea that nirvana is a possibility for anyone. Finally, Vajrayana Buddhism is a combination of the native, deity-centered religions in places like Tibet, and the Tantric Buddhism movement that emerged in present day India around 700 CE. Vajrayana Buddhism employs tantric techniques that focus on using things of this world to accelerate the process of attaining enlightenment. One such technique is to repeat mantras, words or phrases that hold a certain power, to propel one into enlightenment. Vajrayana Buddhism is sometimes considered a subgroup of Mahayana Buddhism.

It is difficult to determine the number of practicing Buddhists in Indianapolis. There are many different sects of Buddhism, including the Vietnamese at the An Lac Temple and the Zen Buddhists at the Indianapolis Zen Center. But Tibetan and self-practicing Buddhists are present in Indianapolis as well. Not every Buddhist is actually affiliated with a particular place of worship, and because of this, it is hard to give an actual numerical quantity. Estimates based merely on attendance at various public Buddhist institutions suggest that there are around several hundred Buddhists in Indianapolis. However, given the number of East Asian immigrants in the Indianapolis area, and given the fact that many Buddhists are not associated with a public Buddhist institution, the actual number of Buddhists in Indianapolis is likely much higher.

Individual Institutions