What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is one of the major world religions. It originated more than 2,500 years ago when Siddhattha Gotama was fully awakened (enlightened) at the age of 35. He came to be known as the Buddha. The word Buddha comes from the word ‘budh’, meaning ‘to know or to awaken’.

Who was the Buddha?

The Buddha was a fully enlightened teacher who was born into a royal family in northern India, in 563 BC. Known as Siddhattha Gotama, he realised at the age of 29 that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he explored the different teachings, religions and philosophies of the day, to find the key to human happiness. After six years of study and meditation he finally found ‘the middle path’ and gained enlightenment. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the Dharma, or Truth – until he passed away at the age of 80. He taught a path to enlightenment from his own experience. His teachings (the Dharma) came to be known as Buddhism and are maintained by the Sangha, the community of monks and nuns.

What did the Buddha teach?

One of the core teachings of the Buddha is known as the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is unsatisfactory (dukkha), that is, life encompasses pain, old age, disease, and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc. This is an irrefutable fact which cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because it views all things as transient and changing. Buddhism is also optimistic in that it explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.

The second truth is that suffering is caused by craving. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectations, or we do not get something we want, etc. In other words, getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your desires. Attachment and craving deprive us of contentment and happiness, and lead to physical and mental suffering. A lifetime of desires and craving, and especially the craving to continue to exist, creates a powerful energy which causes the individual to be reborn. On the other hand, craving for non-existence can lead to suicide.

The third truth is that suffering and all forms of dissatisfaction can be overcome with the cessation of craving, which leads to the realisation of the ultimate state of Nirvana. In other words, if there is no craving, there is no attachment, and then there is no becoming, no rebirth, no old age, no sickness and death.

The fourth truth is the way or path to the complete cessation of suffering. This is called the Noble Eight-fold Path. What is the Noble Eight-fold Path? The Noble Eight-fold Path can be summarised as follows: being moral in everything we say and do, focussing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the nature of existence and having compassion for others.

Is Buddhism a religion?

To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy or way of life. It is a philosophy because philosophy means “love of wisdom” and the Buddhist path can be summed up as follows: to lead a moral life, to be mindful and aware of thoughts, speech and actions, and to develop wisdom and understanding.

Do Buddhists worship idols?

Buddhists sometimes pay respect to images of the Buddha, not in worship, nor to ask for favours. A statue of the Buddha with hands rested gently in its lap and a compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. When Buddhists bow they are actually venerating or showing their respect and appreciation for the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). Bowing is an expression of reverence, humility and gratitude.

Are other religions wrong?

Buddhism is a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs and religions. Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions, but Buddhism goes further by providing a long term purpose within our existence, through wisdom and true understanding. Real Buddhism is very tolerant and not concerned with labels like “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Hindi” or “Buddhist”. This is also why Buddhists do not preach or try to convert others, but instead explain only if an explanation is sought.

* Adapted from Venerable Mahinda: A 5 minute Introduction to Buddhism