To become a Buddhist, one merely made public profession of the faith by reciting the Refuge: “I take my refuge in the Buddha; I take my refuge in the Doctrine; I take my refuge in the Brotherhood.”
Buddhism took origin in a historic person, not in a myth. Gautama’s followers called him Sasta, meaning master or teacher. While he made no superhuman claims for either himself or his teachings, his disciples early began to call him the enlightened one, the Buddha; later on, Sakyamuni Buddha.
The original gospel of Gautama was based on the four noble truths:
1. The noble truths of suffering.
2. The origins of suffering.
3. The destruction of suffering.
4. The way to the destruction of suffering.
Closely linked to the doctrine of suffering and the escape therefrom was the philosophy of the Eightfold Path: right views, aspirations, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and contemplation. It was not Gautama’s intention to attempt to destroy all effort, desire, and affection in the escape from suffering; rather was his teaching designed to picture to mortal man the futility of pinning all hope and aspirations entirely on temporal goals and material objectives. It was not so much that love of one’s fellows should be shunned as that the true believer should also look beyond the associations of this material world to the realities of the eternal future.
The moral commandments of Gautama’s preachment were five in number:
1. You shall not kill.
2. You shall not steal.
3. You shall not be unchaste.
4. You shall not lie.
5. You shall not drink intoxicating liquors.
There were several additional or secondary commandments, whose observance was optional with believers.
Siddhartha hardly believed in the immortality of the human personality; his philosophy only provided for a sort of functional continuity. He never clearly defined what he meant to include in the doctrine of Nirvana. The fact that it could theoretically be experienced during mortal existence would indicate that it was not viewed as a state of complete annihilation. It implied a condition of supreme enlightenment and supernal bliss wherein all fetters binding man to the material world had been broken; there was freedom from the desires of mortal life and deliverance from all danger of ever again experiencing incarnation.
According to the original teachings of Gautama, salvation is achieved by human effort, apart from divine help; there is no place for saving faith or prayers to superhuman powers. Gautama, in his attempt to minimize the superstitions of India, endeavored to turn men away from the blatant claims of magical salvation. And in making this effort, he left the door wide open for his successors to misinterpret his teaching and to proclaim that all human striving for attainment is distasteful and painful. His followers overlooked the fact that the highest happiness is linked with the intelligent and enthusiastic pursuit of worthy goals, and that such achievements constitute true progress in cosmic self-realization.
The great truth of Siddhartha’s teaching was his proclamation of a universe of absolute justice. He taught the best godless philosophy ever invented by mortal man; it was the ideal humanism and most effectively removed all grounds for superstition, magical rituals, and fear of ghosts or demons.
The great weakness in the original gospel of Buddhism was that it did not produce a religion of unselfish social service. The Buddhistic brotherhood was, for a long time, not a fraternity of believers but rather a community of student teachers. Gautama forbade their receiving money and thereby sought to prevent the growth of hierarchal tendencies. Gautama himself was highly social; indeed, his life was much greater than his preachment.