Buddhists/The Gospel of Buddha
I have been studying the teachings of Buddha, and I have some questions that I was hoping a more experienced Buddhist could help me with:
1) What exactly is the role of meditation in Buddhism? From what I've read so far of the book "The Gospel of Buddha" (1995) there's much mention of achieving nirvana, but there's no mention so far of using or needing to use meditation to do so. Is it possible to achieve nirvana without meditation? Is meditation a later addition to the Buddhist practice, added after the time of Gautama Buddha? And what exactly is one supposed to be doing during meditation -- seeking the absence of desires?
2) I've also come across the passage of Buddha warning his followers not to carry on sexually with women, and since I've never really heard much about chastity among Buddhists, I was wondering about that -- is chastity something only monks follow? If lay people are not required to follow it, what is the justification? (It seems like the Buddha's words on it are pretty clearly against it.)
3) The Buddha teaches that it is OK for people to do good (for a modern day person, presumably that would mean through their job, or by doing charity around their occupation) and that they don't need to become beggars. Why is it, then, that Buddhist monks seem to live on donations, and most of Buddha's followers in the Gospel of Buddha book live on alms from the poor? Is the ideal for followers to live on alms?
Sorry for all the questions. I am a newcomer, and I am trying to figure out some of these seeming contradictions. If you can refer to original teachings of Buddha in your answer, it would be much appreciated.
Sorry I was slow to answer - I had an internet problem.
Firstly, although the "Gospel of the Buddha" was influential in its day, it is not exactly a clear representation of Buddhism - a lot of good work has been done since it was written. So, if you are interested, do please look at more recent sources!
Your first question is an extremely good one, since many people assume that it is "obvious" what meditation is. It is not. There is no reason to doubt that it was one of the foundation stones of Buddhist practice. If anything, the emphasis on "Nirvana" might be a later development, although much depends on what you mean by the word. Anyway, meditation is not really just "a" practice – in one sense it is practice itself, and in another sense it is a complex field involving many different techniques, and not all of them have the same purpose. Some methods are designed to increase loving kindness and compassion, some methods are intended to increase insight into the nature of things, and some methods are intended to make our minds become calmer.
As for your second question, you are again quite right: chastity is for monks and nuns. The thing is that in the early days, nearly all the Buddha's followers were those who would form the nucleus of what later became the monastic community. So most of the texts that would have formed the basis of the book to which you refer were addressed to an audience that largely consisted of monks and nuns. If you have not taken vows of chastity, then the important thing simply is, as ever, to act with compassion. Telling people you love them in order to get into bed with them and then leaving the next morning without leaving your number is not a good thing. (Although it hardly needed Buddhism to tell you that, I rather imagine.)
As to your third question, it perhaps helps to remember that in the India of 2500 years ago, society was very, very tightly structured. If you continued the life of what is known as a "household", your life was full of duties, and there was very little scope for study, meditation, or any other kind of practice. These days even relatively poor people in Western societies have a great deal of spare leisure that was undreamt of back then. There was a tradition of people leaving home to take up the ascetic, "holy" life, so provided you were prepared for the hardship it was one of the few ways open to people to devote themselves to spiritual practice. That tradition still has a strong influence on the way things are done today.
I hope these answers help a little.