The Essence of Buddha: The Path to Enlightenment is an outstanding and comprehensive overview of Buddhism written by World Teacher and Happy Science Founder Ryuho Okawa. The book is unique amidst a vast market of contemporary Buddhist literature in that it endeavors to concentrate upon the original teachings provided by Shakyamuni Buddha, as opposed to later developments in Buddhism such as those of the Vajrayana or Zen schools; it accordingly focuses upon Mahayana and Theravada teachings specifically.
The book begins with a thorough explanation of the circumstances that Shakyamuni experienced while still a prince; this account differs somewhat from popular concise accounts, in part due to the conventional wisdom that Okawa employs in describing it. The reader is given a thorough overview of what the life of Shakyamuni looked like prior to his renunciation. Following his renunciation, an account of Shakyamuni’s unsuccessful search for a genuine teacher is provided as well; in seeing that all of the great teachers of the time were missing something, Shakyamuni ultimately stopped searching for a teacher and turned inwards in order to discover the Eternal Buddha, or God, within himself. What commences from here is an exploration of his ascetic training, which adopted a variety of fascinating methods, challenges and realizations that, in due time and over the course of several years, amounted to his achieving Great Enlightenment.
That Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his Great Enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree is well known, and it was from this point that Shakyamuni realized his mission. As Okawa states, it is known by anyone who achieves the state of enlightenment that it does not remain perpetually and must rather be maintained. Such was how Shakyamuni came to devise the Eightfold Path to enlightenment as a simple system of spiritual training that any person could engage in. As is stated in the book, “Shakyamuni took the eight things we do and the ways we direct our thoughts in daily life – seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, living, making effort, using the will, and meditating – and developed them into specific goals of the Eightfold Path. Then he used the word “right” to describe these goals.” Shakyamuni did not use the term “right” to imply opposition to “wrong”, but rather to indicate that the aforementioned qualities may be employed in accordance with deep self-reflection so as to reveal the enlightened nature that is present in each of them. Okawa takes the reader through each element of the Eightfold Path and explores them in detail with practical guidance for contemporary practitioners.
Okawa states that if he were to describe the essence of Shakyamuni’s teachings, “it would be the idea wisdom exists deep in the mind and wells up like a spring.” The original Buddhist teachings were concerned with looking inwards, however following the ascent of Shakyamuni to Heaven a religious element became integrated into Buddhism, as is observed in the Mahayana school; the reason for this, as Okawa explains, is that the teachings were then supported by Shakyamuni from Heaven, and specifically from the 9th Dimension. It is accordingly that Buddhist teachings came to integrate the power of faith in something higher rather than the power of faith in one’s inner self alone. While Shakyamuni himself was aware of the highest spiritual worlds and the ultimate Creator, he initially chose to teach in accordance with the method that he achieved his enlightenment, and, following his ascent to a higher dimension, began to provide Heavenly guidance to Buddhist practitioners that amounted to changes in Buddhist practice.
Following the Eightfold Path, the book describes and discusses the Six Paramitas, or qualities of perfection that are present in enlightened beings. The Six Paramitas are the perfections of offering, of observing the precepts, of perseverance, of effort, of meditation, and of wisdom. As is taught in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the practice of the Six Paramitas causes the energy of the Eternal Buddha (God) to “gush like a fountain” within us and into the world. These teachings are accordingly not only a path to self-mastery and enlightenment, but to achieving the precepts of the Bodhisattva Vow that endeavors to bring enlightenment to all people; in other words, Buddhism is a path through which benefitting the self also benefits others. Okawa provides a thorough and excellent overview of the Six Paramitas, as well as a modern approach to them that remains aligned with the original teachings.
The book progresses with an overview of teachings about the Void, which is a concept that many Buddhist practitioners, as well as those who are interested in Buddhism, are often fascinated by. It is stated early in this chapter that Shakyamuni was dissatisfied with the inequalities of the caste system held in India and was determined to make happiness and enlightenment available to all people, regardless of their position of social standing. Shakyamuni’s teachings concerning life, death and reincarnation are likewise explored in this chapter, with captivating insights into how they were integrated into the social landscape of his time on earth. The notably advanced understanding that Shakyamuni had, as concerns the dynamics of the spirit world and multiple dimensions, is also indicated.
As the chapter on the Void continues it is explained that the Void may be interpreted in several ways which may be summed up in the statement that “matter is void – void is matter”. The material world is ultimately transient, and is accordingly void of permanence. All things arise from out of the spiritual world and eventually pass back into it. The teaching of the Void likewise indicates that all dimensions of existence are composed of light, which is in truth the Light of Buddha. Contemporary physics confirms this truth in the knowledge that elementary particles have attributes of both light and waves. That which appears solid in this world is, without exception, constructed of light. Shakyamuni taught about the void in order to help humanity to become less attached to the world of apparent material permanence, that humans may come to understand the transience of all things. Okawa states that, in time, Einstein’s notion that light is with a constant velocity will be overturned in accordance with the discovery of the spiritual light of the Void is faster than the light that can be measured in the third dimension alone.
Okawa continues the book with an extensive discussion of the Law of Causality that relates to karma, cause and effect, and free will. Okawa states that there are essentially two levels of free will; one is passive and waits, while the other is active and dynamic. Our experience of causality is determined by the manner in which we employ our free will, and when we apply it towards spiritual discipline we experience a new path to the future and unexpected results that may be considered miraculous.
The book concludes with an examination of the philosophy of human perfection that thoroughly discusses enlightenment and the path to it. In this chapter Okawa describes the prerequisites for enlightenment, as well as the qualities present in Arhats, Bodhisattvas, Tathagatas, and finally, the path to becoming a Buddha. Happy Science Devotees may be unsurprised by the vast amount of commonalities that exist between Shakyamuni and Ryuho Okawa, and the teachings concerning Buddhism in this book exemplify that Okawa himself is a living Buddha.
The Essence of Buddha is a magnificent work for those who are interested in Buddhism, whether they are just starting out or have been practitioners for a number of years. There are few books that explore the original teachings of Shakyamuni in such a thorough and simultaneously approachable manner, which makes The Essence of Buddha a truly masterful exposition of Buddhist concepts and ideas that may be put into practice.