Buddhism for Beginners
If you’re reading this, chances are you are relatively new to Buddhism. We’ve created this Buddhism for Beginners page just to offer a few basic ideas essential to the Buddhist teachings. As you begin to investigate this tradition that is thousands of years old, you’re bound to find many different opinions, teachings, and experiences. Our intention is simply to offer what we find to be important, from commonly used terms to the basic teachings that lay a foundation for this rich tradition. If you’re a beginner to Buddhism, we encourage you to check this page out. We also encourage you to investigate other Buddhist traditions and schools, as there are many!
A Brief Buddhist History
In order to understand any set of teachings, it is important to understand where they come from. By learning about the Buddha’s times and culture, we can gain perspective on some of the teachings. We also must understand that scholars agree that there was indeed a historical Buddha, but many of the details of his life are contested. Most scholars believe the Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama sometime around 400 BCE in what is now the country of Nepal. Contrary to popular belief, the Buddha was not a prince. He was born to a wealthy family, but lived a relatively normal life for his times. Legend says that the Buddha left his home and discovered sickness, old age, and death in the streets of his community. This brought him awareness of the suffering in life.
The Buddha set out from him home and investigated different forms of religion/spirituality. He sat with meditation masters, lived as an ascetic, and wandered by himself in the woods. Eventually, Siddhartha discovered the Middle Way. After living as an ascetic, eating very little and drinking very little, he decided that we must find some balance and middle ground. The Buddha sat down with the intention to awaken, and did not open his eyes until he achieved nirvana, or awakening.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha wandered around what is now India, teaching his method of meditation. He gained followers, and cultivated a community of monks and nuns. Many of his teachings are to his monastic community, but the Buddha also taught to “householders,” or non-monastic followers. The Buddha taught up until his death 40 years later, spreading his teachings and offering his path to all. This, of course, is a very concise history of the Buddha. To read further, I recommend starting with Karen Armstrong’s book, Buddha.
Common Buddhist Terms
The Buddhist suttas are a collection of teachings believed to be spoken by the Buddha. They were passed down orally for several centuries, committed to memory by dedicated followers. The suttas were first written in the Pali language, the language of the Buddha. Some Buddhist traditions use Sanskrit as the language of choice, and you are probably more familiar with the Sanskrit versions of many words. On our site, we often use both Pali and Sanskrit terms, although our Buddhist tradition utilizes the Pali language.
Dukkha is a word that is the same in both Pali and Sanskrit. It is most commonly translated as “suffering,” but a more accurate translation may be “unsatisfactoriness,” or “dis-ease.” The Buddha spoke frequently of dukkha, pointing it out as one of the Three Marks of Existence and including it as an essential part of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha taught that life is full of this disease or discomfort, from physical pain and death to anxiety and wishing things were different.
Metta is another word that happens to be the same in Pali as it is in Sanskrit. Metta is the first of the brahma-viharas, or heart practices. Metta is a quality of the mind/heart that we cultivate through meditation. It is an opening of the heart, extending gentleness and kindness to others and to our own experience. Metta is most commonly translated as “lovingkindness,” but I much prefer the translation “gentle friendliness.”
Sangha is one of the Three Jewels, and a very important part of Buddhism. It refers to a community. Originally, the Buddha used the word sangha to refer to the community of monastics, but it may also refer to a community of lay followers.
Dana is a word you will hear a lot if you attend meditation groups and dharma talks. The Pali word dana means generosity, referring to the act of giving. The quality of mind/heart that goes along with generous action is caga, which is a generous heart. We may practice dana by financially supporting our teachers, but we can also practice generosity in daily life by lending time, energy, and attention to others.
Kamma, or karma in Sanskrit, is an important Buddhist teaching that is often misunderstood. The Buddha taught that every intentional action has a consequence. “Kamma” is this action, while phala or vipaka are the results. This idea is fairly simple: for every intentional action, there is some sort of reaction. This does not mean that if you cut somebody off in traffic, somebody is bound to cut you off. Rather, it means that if you lie to someone, the consequences may be that you are cultivating the habit of lying and you may feel guilty. Read our post What is Karma? for more about karma!
Sati is the Pali word for mindfulness, while the Sanskrit word is smrti. Although we often hear mindfulness as “awareness of the present moment,” the word sati actually means “remembering.” Mindfulness is not just being present with our experience, it is also recognizing what is happening and understanding it.
You’re probably more familiar with the Sanskrit word, nirvana. Nibbana is enlightenment, or full awakening. The Pali word actually means “to take off the fire.” This points to the fire of suffering, or dukkha. When we awaken through the dhamma, we free ourselves from the suffering of the world.
Dhamma, or Dharma in Sanskrit, has many meanings. It most often refers to the Buddha’s teachings, or the path. You may hear a teacher give a dhamma talk or dharma talk, sharing the Buddha’s teachings. Dhamma may also refer to any “thing.” The Buddha sometimes referred to thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc. as dhammas.
Basic Buddhist Teachings
The Buddha shared his teachings quite a bit, and the Pali Canon (collection of the Buddha’s original teachings) is very large. However, there are some teachings that the Buddha pointed to as being important, and returned to quite a bit.
The Four Noble Truths
Legend has it that this was the first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment. As far as we know this isn’t factually accurate, but it is a teaching that is incredibly important. The Four Noble Truths form the foundation of the Buddha’s path. The Four Noble Truths serve to explain dukkha, and how we may free ourselves from the discomfort of living. The Four Noble Truths are as follows:
1. Life is full of dukkha.
2. There is a cause of dukkha.
3. The cessation of dukkha is possible.
4. Here is the path to end dukkha.
I use the word dukkha here because it is more accurate than saying “suffering.” What the Buddha explained with the Four Noble Truths is that dukkha exists and there is a remedy. READ MORE ABOUT THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is the Fourth Noble Truth. The Buddha lays out the reality of dukkha, the cause of our dukkha, the truth that we can end dukkha, and in the fourth offers the remedy or course of action to end suffering. This course of action is through cultivation of these eight qualities.
1. Wise View
2. Wise Intention
3. Wise Speech
4. Wise Action
5. Wise Livelihood
6. Wise Effort
7. Wise Mindfulness
8. Wise Concentration
Although the Buddha’s teachings span many volumes, the cultivation of these eight factors are essential, and all of the Buddha’s teachings may be traced back to one of these pieces, or folds, of the path. READ MORE ABOUT THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH.
The term brahma-vihara translates to “heavenly abodes,” or the “abodes of the brahmin.” These are four qualities of the heart that the Buddha taught his followers to cultivate. These practices are a huge part of meditation practice and the dhamma. Without cultivation of these qualities, our practice becomes lopsided, focused solely on insight and wisdom, not on kindness or gentleness. The four heart practices are metta (gentle friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy), and upekkha (equanimity). As we cultivate the brahma-viharas, we respond more gently to others and to our own experience, and our insight and mindfulness grows stronger. READ MORE ABOUT THE FOUR BRAHMA-VIHARAS.
The Three Poisons
The Three Poisons or Three Unwholesome Roots are the three main causes of suffering in our lives. The Three Poisons are craving or clinging, aversion or hatred, and delusion or ignorance. The Buddha taught that when we experience something unpleasant, the mind naturally averts or pushes away from it. When we experience something that we find pleasant, we crave for more or cling to it. The delusion piece comes in the form of us not realizing we are falling into this trap, or that we are creating suffering for ourselves. Put most simply, the Three Poisons are that we want to be somewhere other than where we are, and believe this illusion. READ MORE ABOUT THE THREE UNWHOLESOME ROOTS.
Meditation is of course an important part of the Buddhist practice. When many people think of Buddhism, meditation is the first thing that comes to mind. There are many different forms of Buddhist meditation, and they are all important pieces to a well-rounded meditation practice. Meditation helps us dedicate effort to cultivating wholesome qualities such as concentration, mindfulness, compassion, and more. Meditation leads to greater insight and deeper understanding of experience. Furthermore, meditation helps us in daily life. As we meditate more often, the wisdom gained begins to seep into the mind and we see the world with more clarity. I highly recommend just diving right into meditation and investigating it for yourself. We can talk and talk about meditation, but the best way to understand the practices and the benefits is to give it a shot. Check out our Guided Meditations page to get started.
Concentration is what most people think of when they think of Buddhist meditation. In concentration practice, we focus our attention on a single object and put effort forth to keep our attention there. Most often, people work with the physical sensation of the body breathing. The mind wanders, and we just gently bring it back to the breath. In this way, we are training the mind to stay focused. Concentration meditation helps us focus better in daily life, gives us the ability to concentrate in other meditation practices, and can lead to deep states of insight and wisdom. As we grow in our ability to concentrate, we can see more clearly.
The heart practices, or brahma-viharas, are the Buddhist practices of opening the heart. There are four specific practices: metta, compassion, mudita, and equanimity. With these practices, we are cultivating a more loving and gentle mind/heart. Often practiced via the repetition of phrases, the heart practices help us greatly. In daily life, we are able to connect with others more deeply. In meditation, the heart practices help us to be present for experience and not react so strongly.
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness meditation. It is quite popular these days. Mindfulness is not simply sitting with the breath. Mindfulness, as the Buddha taught it, is the process of noticing our direct experience, how it feels, and what the mind’s reaction is to it. In mindfulness meditation, we gain clarity into the way experience works and how we suffer. Mindfulness is at the core of the Buddha’s dhamma, and is an important quality to be cultivated in meditation practice. We cultivate mindfulness through practicing with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and just like other forms of meditation, mindfulness serves both to deepen insight in meditation and to help us in our daily lives.
Although we think of meditation as a sitting practice, the Buddha actually stressed the importance of practicing meditation in different postures. Walking meditation is a practice that serves to help us investigate our practice differently than in a sitting posture. We can tune into new things, such as movement in the body. Also, walking meditation can be a great bridge to bring our practice to daily life, as we can practice walking meditation discreetly anywhere.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are five training rules for lay practitioners to undertake. The precepts were devised by the Buddha to create a safe and nurturing community, and they are still extremely relevant in today’s society. If you are new to Buddhism, these are a great place to start your practice. Buddhism is not just about meditation; many of the Buddha’s teachings discuss sila, or ethical conduct. These five precepts are a great foundation for wholesome and healthy behavior. You can read more about the five precepts (and three additional ones) HERE. The five precepts that people undertake are:
1. To refrain from killing.
2. To refrain from taking that which is not freely offered.
3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. To refrain from false speech.
5. To refrain from the use of intoxicants.
Getting Started with One Mind Dharma
One Mind Dharma has many great offerings for people new to meditation practice. Our blog has many posts about Buddhist principles in meditation and daily life. We have a small guided meditation library that we are constantly adding to. There are a few different One Mind podcasts. We offer daily guided meditation emails and daily inspiration emails. You can get acquainted with us here at One Mind Dharma and begin investigating our offerings HERE. If you have any questions about Buddhism or meditation, or are interested in working one-on-one with a meditation coach, you can call us at (888) 991-6463 or email us at [email protected]