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Basic Buddhism

When Emma Slade visited Bhutan in 2011, the seeds of her meditation and yoga came to fruition. The Buddhist mantra of compassion and interaction with a lama (guru) touched her deeply. Consequently, she left her accountancy career to become a Buddhist nun. She says, “Your life is in your hands. But you should ask what matters to you? What do you know that is of any use?”

Buddhism is the major religion in the Asian countries of Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, China and Mongolia. It is comprised of the teachings of the Buddha, which includes concepts such as karma, rebirth and nirvana (enlightenment). This post is one in a series on major religions. To minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Buddhist websites.

Buddhism 1 400pxDefinitions

The word “Buddha” is derived from “budhi”, which means ‘to awaken”. So the Buddha is the awakened (or enlightened) one. The term applies to both the founder of Buddhism and to those who attain enlightenment and nirvana.

“Dharma” refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and to expand upon the Buddha’s teachings. And it is also used to describe the way things are.

A Lama is a Buddhist spiritual teacher (or guru). For example, the Dalai Lama (a former political leader of Tibet) is the spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhists. He lives in exile in Nepal after fleeing Chinese rule of Tibet in 1959. As the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetans believe he is the reincarnation of his 13 predecessors.

Buddhism has a wide range of sacred texts and scriptures. There are three primary canons of Buddhist scripture, called after the languages in which they were preserved — the Pali Canon (The Tripitaka, complied in the 1st century BC), the Chinese Canon, and the Tibetan Canon, and many of the same texts are preserved in more than one canon. The Tripitaka has three sections: disciple for monks and nuns; the teaching of Buddha; and Buddhist theology. And the Sutras were written by the 2nd century AD.

There are three main movements in Buddhism: Southern Buddhism (Theravāda, in south Asia and southeast Asia), which maintains the importance of the community of monks and uses the traditional Pali canon; Eastern Buddhism (Mahāyāna in east Asia), which is more liberal and open to a wider range of authoritative texts (appearing several centuries after the death of Buddha) and ideas; and Northern Buddhism (Vajrayāna in Tibet, Bhutan, and Mongolia) which is based on tantras (texts) that appeared another several centuries later and has mystical and magical elements and uses techniques such as the mantra (spells) and mandala (symbolic diagrams).


Buddhism arose in northeastern India in about the 5th century BC. It’s founder, Siddharha Gautama (Buddha), was a charismatic teacher. He was brought up in the ancient Hindu (Vedic) faith. Buddha found enlightenment in mediation. This is achieved by human effort, not through belief in any god. Buddha didn’t claim deity and didn’t attribute his teachings to any deity. So his teachings are not theistic. Instead they are a human system of self-discipline. Buddha spent much of his life teaching the dharma (the path to liberation from suffering) and establishing the sangha (a community of monks).

However, early Buddhist theology shows that the Vedic gods were highly respected and enthusiastically worshipped by the earliest Buddhists. Buddha was a polytheist, but he rejected the idea of a creator. He often spoke with various gods and one his names was “teacher of gods and humans”.

There are many varieties (schools) of Buddhism. About the 3rd century BC, the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika schools formed. Over the following centuries the Mahasanghika school eventually disappeared and the Theravad (“Doctrine of the Elders”) school, emerged from the Sthaviravada school. The latter is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

During the 1st century CE, a new Buddhist school named Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) developed. This school had a more adaptable approach and was open to doctrinal innovations. It is the dominant form of Buddhism today in China, Japan, and Korea.

Buddhism spread through much of Asia, but it declined in India during the Middle Ages when Hinduism incorporated the Buddha as part of its pantheon of gods.

Several centuries later a third Buddhist denomination emerged in North India. Called Vajrayana (the “Diamond Vehicle” or “Tibetan Buddhism), it spread throughout the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and northwards into Mongolia. In more recent times, immigration lead to Buddhism impact elsewhere via Meditation, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and New Age beliefs.

Over its long history, Buddhism has taken a wide variety of forms. Some emphasize rituals and the worship of deities, while others completely reject rituals and gods in favor of pure meditation. Yet all forms of Buddhism share respect for the teachings of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

Although there are a wide range of Buddhist beliefs, here are some of their major beliefs. Please note that different Buddhist schools can follow different beliefs and practices.

buddhism 7 400pxNine major beliefs

Some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism are summarized below. These are believed to be universal truths. The core beliefs are called jewels, truths and precepts.

The three jewels (three refuges)

– I take refuge in my Buddha (as our teacher, so we can be enlightened).
– I take refuge in my dharma (in the Buddha’s teachings and methods).
– I take refuge in my religious community (monks and nuns).

The four noble truths (of suffering)

– All of life is marked by suffering. It’s the central reality of life. People get sick and die. Sometimes we can’t have what we want. Or, if we can have it we can’t keep it because nothing is permanent.
– Suffering is caused by desires and attachments. It originates in our mind. When we want something, that creates karma. And the karma keeps us trapped in a re-birth cycle. Desire means clinging to an impermanent world. Craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
– Suffering can be stopped by eliminating desire and attachment. If we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free.
– The way to end desire and suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path (like a monk).

In Buddhism, the primary purpose of life is to end suffering. How can we be happy when there is so much misery and suffering? What can we do to find enlightenment (nirvana)? By following these beliefs, we can be freed from suffering and become enlightened. We can overcome the suffering that is an inevitable part of life by attaining a state called nirvana, in which we are no longer attached to our life. It has also been called a middle path between extremes such as indulgence and austerity. People who have attained detachment are enlightened and have attained nirvana. Those nearing nirvana are called bodhisattvas, who are committed to leading others towards Buddhahood.

The noble eight-fold path (of compassionate living)

These are eight rules of behavior that involve right (or compassionate):
– Wisdom (view, and intention),
– Moral values (speech, action or values, and livelihood),
– Meditation (mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration).

This path is an intense program of self-perfection and self-discipline in how to live with compassionate non-attachment in each moment. It leads to a form of meditation (like Raja Yoga in Hinduism) which enables a person to reach enlightenment. It encourages the Buddhist to live a virtuous life by following the ‘right’ (or compassionate) course of action in eight contexts. Many of these are moral evils to be avoided. But the eighth step, ‘Right Concentration’, goes to the heart of the Buddhist ideal. Right Concentration is described in Buddhist scripture as concentrating on a single object (or nothing) to induce a special state of consciousness through deep meditation. In this way, the Buddhist hopes to achieve complete purity of thought, leading ideally to nirvana, which is blissful acceptance of the world as it is.

The 5, 8 and 10 precepts

These are the moral code for Buddhists:
– Do no harm to any living being
– Always tell the truth
– Do not steal
– Refrain from illicit sex
– Do not consume alcohol
– Wear no decorations or jewelry
– Do not attend amusements (such as dancing, singing, and music)
– Eat moderately and not after noon
– Do not sleep on high or wide beds
– Touch no gold or silver

The first five precepts are for all Buddhists. The first eight precepts are for lay people on special days and the whole ten precepts are for monks and nuns.

The five clinging aggregates (Skandhas)

The components that make up an individual are:
– Physical body
– Emotions and feelings
– Perceptions
– Mental activity
– Consciousness

It is believed that these five factors constitute and completely explain a person’s mental and physical existence. But each of these is claimed to be empty and without substance. They are illusionary. This means that a person’s “self” is also illusionary. It has no real existence. This is a way to remove suffering because a belief in self is said to be a source of suffering They are suffering because they are impermanent. They change from moment to moment. By getting rid of the idea of self, we can look at happiness and suffering, praise and blame, and all the rest with equanimity. In this way, we will be no longer subject to the imbalance of alternating hope and fear.

The Buddha taught that the skandhas are not “you.” They are temporary, conditioned phenomena. They are empty of a soul or permanent essence of self. And clinging to these aggregates as “me” is an illusion.

The skandhas refute the idea of a “being or individual”, and complement the anatta doctrine of Buddhism which asserts that all things and beings are without self. The anatta and “five aggregates” doctrines are part of the liberating knowledge in Buddhism, wherein one realizes that the “being” is merely made up of a temporary grouping of five aggregates, each of which are “not I, and not myself”, and each of the skandha is empty, without substance. This means that there is no such thing as individual identity. Instead, we are all part of the oneness of the universe.


Reincarnation refers to the idea that there is an eternal soul that gets reborn into body after body. As Buddhists don’t believe in an eternal soul (they prefer to use the word “mind”), strictly speaking they don’t believe in reincarnation. Instead, they use the term rebirth to convey continuity across different lifetimes. This lifetime is the effect of previous lifetimes, and the actions and intents of this lifetime will affect future lifetimes. So many Buddhists believe in a cycle of birth and death, which differs from the Hindu sense of reincarnation in which the soul is transferred. But Secular Buddhists, and probably lots of Zen Buddhists, don’t believe in the sort of continuity that results in remembering past lives.

In the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, karma determines where a person will be born and their status in the next life; good karma leads to a heavenly realm, while bad karma can lead to rebirth as an animal or torment in hell. In Buddhism, there are six realms into which a person can be reborn; these realms are depicted in the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life). There are numerous heavens and hells into which one may be reborn; one also may be reborn here on earth, either as a human being or as an animal. The form into which one is reborn is dependent upon the way that one lives in this life.

Only with enlightenment can a person be freed from the cycle of rebirth. The rebirth depends on the merit or demerit gained by one’s karma, as well as that accrued on one’s behalf by a family member. After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain nirvana. This is a state of liberation from the cycle of rebirth and freedom from suffering. So, after death one is either reborn into another body (rebirth) or enters nirvana. Only Buddhas (those who have attained enlightenment) will achieve nirvana.

Buddhists believe that each rebirth we go through offers a chance to learn how to behave, how not to hurt someone, how not to be evil, and how not to be selfish. Nirvana is the Buddhist belief of lasting peace, which releases us from the cycle of rebirth. But we will not reach nirvana until we learn these things.


As in Hinduism, this is the moral law of cause and effect. Everything we do has consequences. This simple law explains things such as: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, and why some live only a short life. People build up karma (both good and bad) as a result of their actions. This then determines the state of existence to which one is reborn after death. In Buddhism, the different levels can include hells, humans or animals in this world, or one of several heavens.

A notable aspect of the karma theory in Buddhism is merit transfer. A person accumulates merit not only through intentions and ethical living, but also is able to gain merit from others by exchanging goods and services, such as through dāna (charity to monks or nuns). Further, a person can transfer one’s own good karma to living family members and ancestors.

We are responsible for our past and present actions. How can we test the karmic effect of our actions? We can look at (1) the intention behind the action, (2) the effects of the action on ourselves, and (3) the effects on others. This inspires us to take responsibility for our own lives. Just like gravity, the law of karma functions everywhere and all the time. We shape our future through our thoughts, words and actions. What we do now accumulates good or bad impressions in our mind. Knowing this gives us great freedom and puts us back in control of our lives. Karma is not fate. We can choose not to do harmful actions, and thus avoid creating the causes of future suffering. To sow the seeds for good results, we engage in positive actions.

Nirvana (Enlightenment)

The goal of Buddhism is a state of lasting, unconditional happiness known as nirvana (enlightenment). It is also described as full liberation, highest happiness, bliss, fearlessness, and freedom. Nirvana means ‘blowing out’, as of a flame. It is the end of the cycle of rebirth. It is a blissful transcendent state which can be achieved either in life or after death – and which is achieved by anyone who becomes Buddha. Anyone can be a buddha. That’s when they reach enlightenment.

To bring us to this state, Buddhism points us to lasting values in this impermanent world, and gives us valuable information about how things really are. Through understanding the law of cause and effect, using practical tools like meditation to gain insight and develop compassion and wisdom, we can tap into our potential to realize the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

Buddhism teaches that the solutions to our problems are within ourselves not outside. The Buddha asked all his followers not to take his word as true, but rather to test the teachings for themselves. ln this way, each person decides for themselves and takes responsibility for their own actions and understanding.


The Buddha’s teachings and Theravada Buddhism are essentially atheistic, although neither deny the existence of beings that might be called “gods”. Buddhism does not involve the worship of gods nor require a belief in gods. One doctrine agreed upon by all branches of modern Buddhism is that “this world is not created and ruled by a god”. God is unnecessary in Buddhism because it emphasizes practical results over faith in beliefs or deities.

But in the earlier scriptures, the deities of Brahmanism are taken for granted, and later on Buddhists adopted the deities of their local district. So, most Asian Buddhists seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods”. Also, in Mahayana Buddhism, the universe is populated with celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas (a person who can reach nirvana but because of their compassion delays doing so and instead stays in the human realm to help others reach enlightenment) who are worshipped as gods and goddesses. Among the most popular Buddhist deities are Kuan Yin, the Medicine Buddha, the Laughing Buddha and the Green and White Taras.

Buddhist Temple 400pxFive major practices

Buddhism embraces many practices and traditions. Some Buddhist practices are summarized below.


Meditation is at the heart of the Buddhist way of life. It is a method for understanding and working with the mind by learning to identify different mental states, and then learning how to minimize disturbing emotions and to develop peaceful and positive mental states.

Anyone can learn basic meditation techniques and experience great benefits, but to progress beyond basic meditation requires confidence in the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (monks).


A mantra is a sequence of words or syllables that are chanted, usually repetitively, as part of Buddhist practice. The chanting of a mantra is thought to evoke enlightenment. Sometimes mantras are used as a form of meditation to induce an altered state of consciousness. Often it is combined with breathing meditation so that one recites a mantra simultaneously with in-breath and out-breath to help develop tranquility and concentration. Many Buddhists meditate on thousands of mantras each day. Usually, a minimum of 21 recitations is considered useful, but normally a minimum of 108 mantras will be chanted in a meditation session.

Mantras are a linguistic device for deepening one’s thought or developing the enlightened mind. They are like medicine for the mind.  Mantras are often considered protective and healing, or even life-changing. They are enable protection and blessing from the Buddha. The more we say a mantra, the closer to the Buddha we get. If we lack compassion, we might chant a mantra to Tara the Tibetan goddess of compassion. If we need healing, it could be to the Medicine Buddha. If we face an exam, it could be Manjushri’s wisdom mantra.

It’s repeated because it purifies our mind, blesses our body and purifies our karma. The more we say it the less time there is for delusions in our mind. They have also been used for purposes such as attaining wealth, long life and eliminating difficult circumstances in order to be of benefit to others. Mantras can also be chanted for the healing of others.

Simple mantras use repetition of the Buddha’s name, “Buddho,” or use the “Dharma,” or the “Sangha,” (the community of monks), as mantra words. Some mantras direct attention to the process of change by repeating “everything changes,” or “let go”. Because the sound of the mantra is as important, sometimes more important, than the meanings, they are usually chanted in Asian languages. Sanskrit was usually the original language, but they have been translated into other languages as well.

The mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, known by the Chinese as goddess Kuan Yin, is “Om Mani Padme Hum” which translates to “Hail to the jewel in the lotus.”. The mantra calms fears, soothes concerns and heals broken hearts. And this mantra is on the lips of many Tibetans all their waking hours. By chanting this mantra, they can invoke the divine protection and immense blessings from Chenrezig, the manifestation of divine compassion from Bodhisattva (a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings) Avalokitesvara.

According to Tibetan Buddhism, the mantra “Om tare tutare ture soha” can not only eliminate disease, troubles, disasters, and bad karma, but will also bring believers blessings, longer life, and even the wisdom to transcend one’s cycle of rebirth.

Veneration of Buddha

Buddhists pay respect, reverence and honor to statues of the Buddha and are encouraged to have household shrines with images of the Buddha. Offerings such as lights, incense, flowers, water, fruits, sweets, and prepared food are placed near the shrine. The offerings acknowledge Buddha as the ultimate teacher and the embodiment of enlightenment. Bowing to the image is an expression of gratitude for the teachings.

To express veneration, a Buddhist may bow before the image of the Buddha, or members of the Sangha. When a Buddhist prostrates before an image, they acknowledge that the Buddha has attained perfect and supreme enlightenment. Such an act helps the Buddhist to overcome egoistic feelings and prepares them to listen to the teaching of the Buddha.

Buddhists revere the image of the Buddha as a gesture to the greatest, wisest, most benevolent, compassionate and holy man who has ever lived in this world. The worship of the Buddha means paying homage, veneration and devotion to Him and what He represents, and not to the stone or metal figure.

Buddha images are symbolic representations of his great qualities. The image is a visual aid that helps one to recall the Buddha in the mind and to remember His great qualities. Images of Buddha can also be seen as representations of one’s own Buddha qualities. And bowing can be seen as respecting the divine in one’s self and others.

Monastic order (Sangha)

Monks and nuns are responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teaching and the guidance of Buddhist lay people. They embody or represent higher levels of spiritual achievement. They live an austere life focused on the study of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of meditation, and the observance of good moral character.

Monks and nuns refrain from sexual conduct; taking life; taking what is not given; telling untruths; taking intoxicants; attending entertainment; using ornaments, cosmetics, and perfumes; sitting on luxurious seats and beds; taking food at unregulated times, and handling silver and gold. Marriage, family life, career, and personal concerns are rejected as distractions to their religious concerns. Other rules help them remain mindful of every action in daily life. Traditionally, Buddhist monks and nuns wear robes and have shaved heads.

As Buddhist monks generally do not engage in commerce or agriculture, the monastic order is dependent on the lay community for economic support in the form of finance and property. Buddhists give the monks material gifts that function as sacrificial offerings. Buddhist monks and monasteries accept donations of cash, land, and material of all kinds, and they sometimes become rich and powerful.

Festivals and pilgrimages

Buddhist festivals are joyful occasions. Typically, Buddists will go to the local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks and take the Five Precepts and listen to a Dharma talk. In the afternoon, they distribute food to the poor to make merit, and in the evening perhaps join in a ceremony and walk around the temple three times in honor of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). The day will conclude with evening chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.

The most significant celebration happens every May on the night of the full moon, when Buddhists all over the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. It has become to be known as Buddha Day. Buddhists also attend festivals involving the dead, or to arrange or participate in funerary rites on behalf of the dead. They also visit a temple to pray to a deity through the medium of a statue of that deity and leave a gift (incense, fruit, or flowers).

The earliest centers of Buddhist pilgrimages were the places associated with the life and teachings of the Buddha in Nepal and India. After the death of the Buddha, the relics of his body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed and burial mounds were erected on the relics. The practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism probably started with visits to these places, the purpose of which was to achieve personal advantage such as rebirth in a good location, as well as to honor the great master. It is stated that the Buddha encouraged all devotees to make pilgrimages to four holy sites to ensure that they would be reborn in a heavenly world. Also, many Buddhist countries have shrines and places which can be visited as a pilgrimage. For example, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afganistan (that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban).

Comparison with Hinduism

Buddhism rejected the Hindu scriptures (the Vedas and Upanishads), the concept of the Atman (soul, self), Brahman (god), and the nature of the afterlife. In traditional Indian thought, the soul (atman) is an eternally existing spiritual substance or being and the abiding self that moves from one body to the next at rebirth. The Buddha rejected this concept. He taught that everything is impermanent (anicca), and this includes everything that we associate with being human: sensations, feelings, thoughts and consciousness. This is the doctrine of anatta (“no-soul” or “no-self”), which is a central concept of Buddhism.

The Buddhist belief of rebirth is a concept of “renewal” and not exactly reincarnation of a spirit (or soul) or body. Under Hinduism the soul is reborn (reincarnated) in a new body. Under Buddhism, the consciousness of a person can become part of the consciousness of another person, as a flame moves from one candle to another. The second flame is not identical to the first, nor is it totally different. Thus, Buddhists believe life is a continual journey of experience and discovery and not divided between life and the afterlife.


This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Buddhist faith. These beliefs, practices and culture impact everyday life for about 1 billion people across the world.

Written, August 2017, updated in January 2018 (using comments from quantumpreceptor)

Also see: Testing Buddhism
Basic Hinduism
Basic Islam