What is Buddhism? A Brief Introduction
Buddhism is a rich tradition. With about 500 million Buddhists worldwide according to Pew Research Center, it is one of the world’s most popular religions. If the word religion throws you off in reference to Buddhism, you can read our post Is Buddhism a Religion?. We will also discuss this topic briefly below.
As there are many different types of Buddhism, it can be difficult to pinpoint Buddhism exactly and answer the question “What is Buddhism?” perfectly. However, there are core Buddhist teachings similar across traditions. We will dive into the teachings, the history, and the practices to understand what Buddhism is all about.
Basic Facts about Buddhism
- Began between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE
- Started by Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha
- Holidays include the Buddha’s birthday, the day of awakening, and lunar observances
- Some traditions emphasize gods and deities, while others fall toward apatheism
- Considered by most scholars to be a nontheistic religion
- Hundreds of different Buddhist traditions across the world
- Collection of texts or scriptures includes over 20,000 pages, not in a single book
- Originated in what is today India
- The Buddha was an awakened human, not a god
A Brief History of Buddhism
The word Buddhism is a relatively new term, first popping up in the 19th century. Many followers of the Buddha’s teachings use the word dharma, which can mean many things. In this case, it means the path or teachings. When the Buddha awakened, he taught a path to lead to awakening called dharma. You can learn more about the word dharma in our post What is Dharma?
Siddhartha Gautama lived sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE in what is today India. Contrary to the common narrative, the Buddha was not a prince. His family was wealthy and he grew up with privilege. At 29 years old, the Buddha left the comfort of his village and life to pursue a deeper satisfaction.
After studying with various meditation teachers in different traditions of the time, the Buddha found what is today known as the Middle Way or Middle Path. This is at the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and is the idea that we must find balance in our practice.
After awakening, the Buddha taught about the path to enlightenment for the rest of his life. Upon his death, he left no clear successor. His monks memorized his teachings, eventually writing them down. Over the coming centuries, Buddhism spread across Southeast Asia and the world.
In the 20th century, Buddhism made it’s way into (more) mainstream Western culture. As it was brought over to the United Kingdom and the United States, only bits and pieces were carried over. Many of the traditional teachings and rituals were left, perhaps with the intention to make the path more palatable.
Because of this transmission, the dharma is often seen as a philosphy, way of life, or form of psychology even in the West. It is an integral inspiration of dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and many mindfulness-based therapies. Although there are traditional Buddhist temples in the West, many people practice a more secular form of Buddhism.
The teachings of the Buddha are vast, and vary from tradition to tradition. However, there are some core beliefs and teachings that are generally found in every tradition.
Basic Buddhist Beliefs
Karma and Rebirth
Karma may most simply be understood as the law of cause and effect. When we act, we create consequences. We can act to create liberation, or we can act and cause more suffering. According to the dharma, we must take action in order to espace the cycle of samsara completely.
This is a teaching that is often lost in Western Buddhist circles. The teaching of rebirth is left out, and some consider it to be a teaching rooted in the culture and time of the Buddha. Regardless, it is a core Buddhist belief and teaching and therefore worth mentioning!
The Buddha said, “I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.” The word suffering comes from the Pali word dukkha, which may be understood as the dis-ease, discomfort, or lack of satisfaction we all experience in life.
The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is perhaps the most foundational teaching of the Buddha. It teaches that there is suffering, there is a cause to our suffering, there is cessation of suffering, and there is a path to cessation. That is, the Buddha outlines the problem, the cause of the problem, the fact that there is a solution, and how to achieve the solution.
Nirvana and the Path
Full awakening is known as nirvana. Nirvana is not a place or a state. Rather, it is the release of the suffering or dukkha. The Buddha himself achieved awakening, and taught others how to achieve the same liberation in the Fourth Noble Truth.
This solution is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. These are eight factors to be cultivated that lead to the end of suffering. This path really incorporates everything the Buddha taught, and lays a basic blueprint for ending dukkha.
Meditation in Buddhism
When people think of the Buddhist path, they often think of the practice of meditation. Although this is just one part of the path, it is one that is heavily stressed in the West. In secular traditions like MBSR, meditation is the majority of the practice and focus.
If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhist meditation, you can check out our Meditation for Beginners: The Complete Meditation Guide.
Mindfulness in Buddhism
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most well-known forms of meditation practice. Rooted in the Buddha’s teachings on establishing mindfulness, mindfulness is about establishing present-time awareness and recognition.
With mindfulness, we see what is arising and passing. We know what is leading to suffering and what is leading to liberation. A patience observance, mindfulness involves receiving what arises with equanimity and nonjudgement. There are many different ways to cultivate mindfulness (more on this below). As we observe mindfully, we begin to see the truth of reality and the human experience.
Concentration is the practice of cultivating a collected and focused mind. Wise Concentration is one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is an important practice. Without concentration, we cannot be mindful of what is arising as the mind grows distracted constantly. Deeper states of concentration lead to deep insight into the nature of experience.
The Heart Practices
The heart practices, or brahma-viharas, are four practices to cultivate an open and caring heart. These practices are metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy), and upekkha (equanimity). These practices support our relationships with others, and the cultivation of both concentration and mindfulness.
Buddhism is often considered to be a way of life, a philosophy, or a simple set of teachings. This is because the Buddha did not stress the importance of a creator or God. The Buddha was not explicity atheistic. Instead, he was apatheistic. That is, he did not think this was an important matter to consider as it did not impact our awakening or liberation.
Although there is no central god in Buddhism, many traditions use prayer and homages to deities and bodhisattvas. Furthermore, the presence of extensive rituals and traditions are reminiscent of more traditional religions. Many scholars, sociologists, and anthropologists consider Buddhism to be one of the notheistic religions.
Because Buddhism does not stress the importance of a creator, many people find Buddhism to be an acceptable set of teachings to follow while also following other religious beliefs. At our meditation center in Northern California, we have members of the community who also practice Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although some teachings may clash, individuals find what works for them to promote liberation and wellbeing.
The actual practice of Buddhism varies from country to country and tradition to tradition. The practices in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism have many differences. The amount of different practices are impossible to count, but we will do our best to offer a simple introduction to Buddhist practices.
Ethics in Buddhism
Ethics, or sila, is an important part of the Buddhist path. In many Buddhist countries, ethics are practiced for years before meditation training begins. The Buddha’s most simple teachings on ethics is that of the five precepts, or training rules. Undertaken by millions of laypeople, these precepts offer a foundation of ethical living. The five precepts are:
- To abstain from killing
- To abstain from taking that which is not freely offered
- To abstain from sexual misconduct
- To abstain from false speech
- To abstain from intoxicating drinks which may lead to heedlessness
To start practicing Buddhism, we need to lead an ethical life. If we cause harm left and right, meditation periods will be filled with guilt and pain. Living ethically is a form of creating wholesome karma, and helps us to deepen our investigation of ourselves.
It can be done.
If there were no likelihood, I would not ask you to do it.
But since it is possible
and since it brings blessing and happiness,
I do ask of you:
Cultivate doing good.
It can be done.
If it brought deprivation and sorrow, I would not ask you to do it.
But since it brings blessing and happiness,
I do ask of you:
cultivate doing good.”
-The Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya)
There are many different meditation practices in Buddhist traditions. The first, and most well-known is mindfulness. You can take our Mindfulness I course to begin practicing. It’s an online meditation course, and offers an introduction to mindfulness and the practices.
Mindfulness meditation may utilize the breath, the body, the mind, or anything else we experience. Included are practices like the body scan meditation, tuning into feeling tones, and looking at the mental reactions. Below is a basic mindfulness meditation you can try.
Another important meditation practice is concentration. In concentration meditation, we cultivate the ability to focus with our full attention. A form of samatha, or calming the mind, concentration helps us develop ease and deeper insight. Below is a basic concentration practice to try!
Finally, there are the heart practices. These are practices that help us to open the heart and respond with a tender caring. Instead of reacting strongly, we respond with gentleness or loving-kindness. We care for the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us. These practices can be beautiful, helping us to free the heart from hatred, resentment, and jealousy. You can check out our Meditation CD’s for a collection of practices working with the heart.
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Buddhism is not all about practice. We must study the Buddha’s teachings in order to lay a foundation of understanding. As we read, learn, and listen, practice is required. Understanding the foundations of the Buddhist path, we can reflect on the teachings and begin observing our own experience in meditation.
Studying is definitely not the only part of the path, and it doesn’t work if we don’t practice. However, taking the time to read some books about Buddhism can help us understand what is required to practice, how to practice, and what to look for as you begin following the dharma.
Finally, the Buddha stressed the importance of engaging with a sangha, or community. By practicing with a community, we support one another, learn from each other, and cultivate a collective awakening. Finding a local group or online group can be a powerful way to kickstart your Buddhist practice.
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