Buddhism for Beginners (a Quick Intro)

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Are you interested in learning about Buddhism?  Then my article on Buddhism for beginners will help you understand the religion easily, and with some great infographics!

For most Westerners, the term “Buddhism” conjures up preconceptions of an Asian religion that has seemingly foreign ceremonies and rituals, unusual words, complex theories, and monks in flowing orange robes.  But what is Buddhism really about?  And more importantly, what does Buddhist teachings mean for you?

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  

Article Summary (TL;DR)

I know you may not have a lot of time to read a lengthy article (“too long; didn’t read”), so this summary can help.  However, it is best to read the entire article when you can!

Here is how I sum up Buddhism:

Buddhism teaches us how to remove our attachment to the false belief that we have an independent and permanent self.   Attachment to this idea of self is the source of all delusion, which causes suffering and unwholesome actions in our life.  When we are free of this delusion, we see reality as it truly is, and can then live in peace without ignorance, greed, or anger.  

There are a few words and topics in that explanation that will be unfamiliar to you but will be covered in this article!

To help explain the core teachings of Buddhism, look no further than my infographic (featuring the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path):

Zoom in to view the graphic, hover over image to find social media share buttons, and click the image if you wish to get a printable PDF version.  To view/share on Pinterest, click here.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a worldwide religion (over 350 million people) based on the insight and teachings of the Buddha¹ of our current era, known as Shakyamuni Buddha (commonly called “The Buddha“).

The Buddha

  • The Buddha was a human who was born about 2,600 years ago as Siddhārtha Gautama in the region where the modern-day countries of India and Nepal are located.
  • He led a life of luxury until he one day in his 30’s he left to discover and understand the truth of suffering (Duhkha/Dukkha).
  • After learning from many teachers and excelling in their techniques, he found them all to not be sufficient in his quest.

What He Achieved

  • Through his own effort, determination, and insight, he was awakened to the true nature of our reality and how to transcend it.
  • This made him an enlightened being, and he became the Buddha of our current era.

What He Discovered
The Buddha identified “Three Marks of Existence” that permeate our reality:

  1. Impermanence:  Nothing is permanent, and all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions to exist (or cease).
  2. Suffering:  Called Duhkha or Dukkha in the Buddhist scriptures.  Our reality and existence are unsatisfactory, even if we don’t always perceive it this way.  This suffering is caused by our belief that we are permanent are not dependent on other things, which causes us to have attachments and cling to things.  This in turn causes us to create actions (Karma) that keep us trapped in a cycle of rebirth (Samsara).
  3. Non-Self:  Nothing is independent of other things to exist, and our belief that our ‘body’ makes us permanent and independent is false.  We are just a temporary grouping of things, known as the “Five Aggregates“, in this existence.  The only thing that continues after we die is our actions.

What This Causes
Sentient beings, such as humans, erroneously believe we have a permanent and independent “self” or soul.

  1. This belief causes us to “cling” and “crave” things (commonly referred to as “attachment“).
  2. Because we believe in this false concept, and are attached to things, we create what is called the Three Poisons or Three FiresIgnorance (or Delusion), Greed (or Desire), Hatred (or Aversion).
  3. These Three Fires need fuel, which they find thanks to our attachments to things due to our belief in a permanent and independent self.
  4. This results in an endless cycle of “Birth and Death” known as “Rebirth” where actions are created and come to fruition at some point.
  5. This unsatisfactory reality and cycle are calledSaṃsāra” which is caused by our attachments and actions.  
  6. Suffering is directly caused by our actions but does not need to be a constant occurrence.  Enlightened beings realize that everything is impermanent, and that there is no independent and permanent self.
  7. When this occurs, enlightened beings no longer have suffering because they have starved the Three Fires of their fuel because they no longer are attached to things, and no longer generate karma.
  8. Specifically, they are no longer attached to the false belief they have a self, which breaks the chain and cycle that causes suffering and rebirth.

What Happened to Him

  • Understanding these truths, he was awakened to the reality of our world, and became enlightened.
  • As an enlightened being, he was no longer influenced by the Three Marks of Existence and lived in the natural peaceful mental state of Nirvana.

What He Did Next

  • For over 40 years, he taught anyone who wanted to achieve what he had
  • As an enlightened teacher, he was known as a Buddha (the title given to an awakened teacher).  We commonly call Shakyamuni Buddha just “The Buddha” for simplicity. 
  • Shakyamuni Buddha is the current Buddha of our era in whose teachings we follow, but there have been Buddhas in the past, and there will be Buddhas in the future
  • The name “Shakyamuni” means “Sage of the Shakyas (his clan name was Shakya).

His Teachings
He summarized his experience in the Four Noble Truths.  While brief, the Four Noble Truths encompass all the other Buddhist teachings and topics such as Dukkha, Impermanence, Non-Self, Samsara, Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and many others.

  1. Life entails Dukkha
  2. Dukkha is caused by delusions, craving, and clinging
  3. There is a way to end Dukkha
  4. To end Dukkha, follow the Buddha’s Eightfold Path which leads to Nirvana.

He provided a roadmap to anyone who wants to achieve what he did through the fourth truth, which is the Noble Eightfold Path.  This allows one to live their life in perfect balance with the teachings, which in turn allow one to become awakened, realize enlightenment, and live in their natural state of Nirvana.

  1. Right Understanding (or View)
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort (or Diligence)
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right [Meditative] Concentration

His entire teaching life was centered around these fundamental concepts and teachings

His Accomplishment

  • His followers were also able to successfully achieve enlightenment through his teachings and were known as Arhats.   
  • He eventually died in his 80’s and entered “final” Nirvana.
  • His teachings continued and grew into many different traditions that can now be found around the world.  Many Buddhist traditions in existence today can trace their lineage to the original Buddha’s monastic community.

What This Means to Us

The Buddha’s teachings allow us to see our reality, which consists of the Three Marks of Existence, and transcend suffering as he did.

    1. Our reality causes us suffering and dissatisfaction (“Duhkha/Dukkha”) caused by our own actions (“Karma”). 
    2. Our actions are primarily caused and triggered by our belief that we have a permanent and independent self (soul).
    3. When we understand this, it allows us to become enlightened and liberated (“Nirvana/Nibbana”) from creating unskillful actions (“Karma/Kamma”) that has kept us trapped in the cycle of birth and death known as Samsara. When enlightened, we can transcend Samsara, and live in our natural state of Nirvana.

What Did the Buddha Teach?

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Let’s go into a little more details about Buddhism in the next few sections.

The Buddha revealed important insights about the world we live in:

    1. We are trapped like prisoners in the world of “Saṃsāra“, which is the term we use to describe the cycle ofbirth and death” (rebirth).
    2. This is not just an ‘after death’ thing.  Saṃsāra is our daily life, which is full of impermanent and imperfect situations (“Dukkha“, commonly translated as ‘suffering’ in Western countries).  Think of Saṃsāra as a road that is sometimes smooth, and sometimes full of potholes.  The potholes are caused by our own mind.  Dukkha is like bad tires on your car.  If the tire/wheel is not balanced properly, or is made incorrectly, you will have a ‘bumpy’ ride even on a smooth road.  The opposite of Dukkha is Sukkha, meaning perfectly balanced (which is Nirvana, in Buddhism).
    3. Saṃsāra is caused by our ignorance (delusions), greed (desires), and anger (hatred) (known as the “Three Poisons” or “Three Fires”).
    4. The Three Fires are like a fire that needs fuel.
    5. The Three Fires find this “fuel” with “attachments” (objects, people, feelings, etc.).
    6. Because the Three Fires are ‘wrong views’, and can never be truly satisfied, our senses are constantly craving to find more and more fuel (attachments).
    7. Because regular sentient beings (like humans) do not guard our senses (we do not practice awareness/mindfulness), the Three Fires constantly use our senses to find more and more fuel to keep these fires going (even though the fuel – which are attachments – will never satisfy us). This is why the Buddha told his followers that all things are ‘burning’ when we do not guard our senses.
    8. The craving caused by the Three Fires for fuel (attachments) causes us to have wrong actions (karmawhich in turn make us “attached” to Saṃsāra, and thus have rebirth.
    9. Karma (actions) can be generally either wholesome or unwholesome.  Typically, our karmic actions are unwholesome due to our ignorance, greed, and anger, and keep us in Saṃsāra (known as “samsaric acts”).  Our karmic actions that help lead us towards being free from Saṃsāra are known as “wholesome” karma and occur when you follow the Buddhist teachings (Dharma).  However, the ultimate goal, and only way to be free of Saṃsāra and rebirth, is to be free of all karma.  An enlightened being, like the Buddha or his followers, do not generate any karma.
    10. Our ignorance, greed, and anger are caused by believing things (including the belief in an independent and unchanging “self”) are permanent and unchanging.  All things are, in-fact, impermanent (“impermanence”), interconnected (“interdependence”), and dependent on causes and conditions (“dependent origination”) in order to exist.
    11. All things (such as you) are empty (“emptiness” / “sunyata”) because “things” are not independent of other things.  We call this the concept of not having an independent self “nonself“.
    12. Things only arise (and end) due to dependence on causes and conditions (known as “dependent origination“).  For example, you exist due to many things such as the sun, plants, air, water, etc.  When one thing is removed, such as air, you would end very quickly.  Nothing exists independent of other things.

The Buddha’s Solution

The Buddha explained “a way out” of this self-imposed prison of Saṃsāra:

  • The Four Noble Truths explains the world we live in and why we suffer, that there is a way out, and the way out is through the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path, which is the fourth Noble Truth, provides the practice that leads to the path of liberation.
  • Liberation is achieved when one is awakened to the truth and becomes enlightened (an enlightened being, such as an Arhat or Bodhisattva).
  • An enlightened being can realize their true nature, which is the state of Nirvana, and reside in that state.
  • In that state of Nirvana, a fully enlightened being no longer creates Karma and thus no longer has has rebirth.  However, those in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism follow the Bodhisattva path, meaning even if they become enlightened, they voluntarily remain in the cycle of rebirth to help all sentient beings.

The Goal of Buddhism

Monastic and Laypersons. CC0 Photo by reginaphotos on Pixabay

To explain this “way out” and “liberation” a little more, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened (awakened) for the following reasons:

    1. We become enlightened when we can recognize that the “self” (ego) is a fabricated illusion. Ironically, enlightenment is the absence of the illusion of an independent “self” to benefit or achieve anything.  This is the concept of nonself.  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained why understanding non-self is important, and how it relates to the Three Fires:

      The reason Buddhists emphasize the lack of an independent self is to help each one of us get past the narcissistic devotion we normally feel toward our body and the deluded belief that the body “proves” that there is some absolute “self”.  Attachment to the self is the root source of all delusion.  It produces anger and greed, and keeps us bound firmly to ignorance.  Contemplation of the second Dharma seal will teach us how to break the bonds of self-love.

    2. When we are enlightened, we are able to live in the state of Nirvana ³ (the highest level of realization, and our natural state).  Nirvana essentially means “cessation” or “blowing out”, but it is a beneficial cessation (“blowing out”) of the fires of ignorance, greed, and anger (the Three Fires) which have been causing “Dukkha” (suffering, etc.) in our life, which cause us to have actions (“Karma”), resulting in the endless cycle of rebirth.
    3. Nirvana allows us to transcend rebirth, which occurs in the endless cycle of birth and death (“Saṃsāra”).
    4. By being enlightened and living in the state of Nirvana, we transcend rebirth by no longer creating any type of Karma ³ (which is the cause of rebirth).
    5. We are able to stop creating Karma (known as “karma without outflows”) because we have overcome our wrong views (the Three Fires).
    6. Therefore, by overcoming our wrong views (the Three Fires) we understand (awakened/enlightened) our true nature (Nirvana).  This allows us to stop clinging to (the wrong views of) ignorance, greed, and anger which were causing us to create Karma which was keeping us trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth.
    7. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva path is emphasized, so becoming enlightened (either as an Arhat or Bodhisattva) does not mean your only goal is to attain nirvana for yourself in order to leave Saṃsāra.  Instead, the ultimate goal is to become a Buddha, which is the inherent nature of all sentient beings as explained by the Buddha upon his enlightenment.  Enlightened Bodhisattva’s are better able to help all sentient beings, so this goal is still encouraged.

The Buddha’s Elevator Pitch

The Buddha explained what his teachings were all about:

Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I teach, and the cessation of suffering² ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

The Buddha summarized his teachings with this short and simple explanation:

Do nothing that is unwholesome, Do all that is wholesome, Purify the mind.
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

What’s the Buddha’s Story? 

Photo via Pixabay (CC0 License)

The Buddha was a human being, just like you and me, but his teachings transformed society and the world in ways we are still experiencing today.

As a Buddha, he is considered an extraordinary human being because he achieved something that few others have through his own initiative.  Yet, he didn’t keep this a secret, and set out to help anyone who wanted to achieve the same thing.  That is extraordinary!  

  • The historical Buddha was born 2,600 years ago as Siddhārtha Gautama in a state called Śākya Gaṇarājya,which was located in the region where the modern-day countries of India and Nepal exists.  He was born into a life of luxury and privilege, but was prevented from seeing real life by his father Śuddhodana (the elected leader of Śākya Gaṇarājya) for fear he would become an ascetic/holy person (it was predicted he would be a great ruler, or a holy person).
    • Before he was the Buddha, Siddhārtha is often referred to have been a Prince.  But he may not have been a prince at all (or lived in a palace), and his first name (commonly thought to be Siddhārtha) was never revealed in the original early texts (only his family name of Gautama was revealed), according to Bodhipaksa.  His father was likely a representative (like a senator).  This doesn’t take away any of the fundamental teachings from the Buddha’s teachings though which is the important part.
  • It wasn’t until Prince Siddhārtha sneaked away from the palace and discovered the world is not perfect and contains suffering (“Dukkha², which is commonly translated as suffering, impermanence, dissatisfaction, etc.) through the “four sights” (see image at the bottom of this section) that he had a desire to find the truth to eliminate suffering.
    • Again, according to Bodhipaksa, the Buddha may never have even had these “four sights”.  Bodhipaksa says this was likely him telling the story of a former Buddha called Vipassi (yes, there have been many Buddha’s prior to Shakyamuni).  It was in the Attadana Sutta (Sutra) that the Buddha revealed why he was stirred to leave home and find the way of truth.  Regardless if the Buddha actually say these four sights for himself or not, the story itself has helped many understand and have the desire to practice Buddhism for themselves.
The “four sights” of Prince Siddhartha which revealed the truth of the world, and prompted him to take the difficult step to leaving his life of luxury to discover the truth. These sights were 1) the consequences of aging by observing an old person, 2) observing a sick person suffering from disease, 3) observing a dead body, and finally 4) observing an ascetic who was dedicated to finding an end to suffering.
  • Determined to find the truth, he left his privileged lifestyle and family and became a monk.  He learned and practiced many methods to find the truth being taught by holy persons throughout the region, and quickly succeeded in learning those skills.  However, none of the practices he learned from others ever answered the question of how to transcend Dukkha.
    • According to Bodhipaksa, the Buddha didn’t sneak away in the middle of the night leaving his wife and child without a trace (as is commonly said).  The Mahasaccaka Sutta (Sutra) reveals it was well known that he likely talked about his desire to leave for a while.  And on a flip note, the story about the Buddha’s mother dying when he was born is likely just a legend!  It reveals how hard it is to know everything about someones life when nothing was written down for centuries after their death.  The Buddha was born 500 to 600 years before Jesus Christ, for example, and we also don’t know alot about Jesus Christ’s life!
  • It was not until a near death event when Prince Siddhārtha learned that going to extremes was not the way, and that following the “middle way” was the best course of action.
  • He then sat under a pipal (Ficus) tree (later to be known as the “Bodhi Tree”) with the desire to mediate until he understood the truth of the cause of suffering, and how to transcend it.  He succeeded and became a Buddha (a person who obtains full enlightenment and teaches the truth).
  • The “truth” the Buddha discovered was Nirvana, which is the highest level of realization and the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.  All sentient beings can also discover their true nature, Nirvana, when they no longer have the three poisons/fires of ignorance, greed, and anger.  Nirvana is our natural state, which means we exist in peace.
  • His very first teaching as a Buddha was known as the Four Noble Truths which helped explain the situation we are all in (a life of suffering), and how to liberate ourselves from it.
  • The Fourth Noble Truth said there is a way to liberation (enlightenment / Nirvana) through the transcendent teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Noble Eightfold Path shows us how to not be trapped by Karma, which then allows us to transcend the cycle of birth and death (rebirth).  This is the essential practice that all Buddhist’s follow.
  • Because everyone is at different stages along the path, not all Buddhists are able to fully understand and realize the transcendent teachings on Karma (where they can be free of rebirth).  Buddhists who do not attain enlightenment (and Nirvana), continue in the cycle of birth and death (rebirth).  However, because they are following a path (teachings) that increase wholesome Karma, and reduce unwholesome Karma, future births are more favorable.  It should be noted that this is not the same as reincarnation (as taught in Hinduism), and that the Buddha’s teachings are about escaping Karma (and not about staying within the cycle of birth and death).  Although Buddhists do not desire rebirth, enlightened beings such as Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s may voluntarily choose to continue in the cycle of birth and death in order to benefit all beings (even though they could now rest in Nirvana and escape rebirth).

How and Why Do We Practice Buddhism?

Buddhist teachings are very expansive, and for the new (and even experienced) Buddhist, can be very overwhelming.  However, at its core Buddhism is the simplest thing in the world to understand…yet we put on some very dark and dirty sunglasses (ignorance, greed, and anger) which shield us from understanding.

  • As you begin to learn the teachings and practice them (an important part!) your “sunglasses” become clearer and everything comes in focus.  This is what we call enlightenment.
  • As you learn more about the Buddhist teachings, you realize that you are not free.  You have been a [longtime] prisoner in samsara (the cycle of birth and death).  But you have been previously unable to see that you are in prison, and thus you suffered and continue to suffer.
  • However, what is utterly amazing about this “prison” is that the door is wide open for you to walk out of it at any time.  In-fact, there are no walls or prison bars at all!  The only thing keeping this prison standing, is you.
  • As you become “awakened”, you realize that you are your own jailer.  Worry not, as you can leave whenever you’d like, and the Buddha is your guide out of there (since he has escaped this same prison you are in).

The Prison We Create

Ignorance, greed, and anger keeps us endlessly in a sort of self-created prison (“samsara”) through our actions (“karma”) which leads to returning to this prison all the time like a unrehabilitated criminal (“rebirth”) which means we are in the prison system forever (“samsara”).

  • As humans, we have the rare opportunity to transcend samsara, but just like a hardened prisoner, we do all we can from being granted parole, and stay within this prison through our wrong actions.
  • We are not satisfied or truly happy in this prison, but we think it is our natural state and place to live.  After all, “it is the only home we know”.  It’s not.
  • Freedom (“nirvana”) from the wrong views that have been keeping you in this prison makes you a free person.  You were never a prisoner and have been wrongly incarcerated only by yourself due to these wrong views.
  • Being released to freedom is within your grasp (and all other humans), at any time.

The Discovery

Photo by Ben Ashmole on Flickr

The Buddha explained all this through the Four Noble Truths . These Four Noble Truths are a big deal because they are the foundation to which all other Buddhist teachings come from.  These didn’t come out of nowhere either, as each one is something the Buddha experienced, realized, and taught.  In a similar way, it is as if the Buddha was a doctor in an emergency room who was diagnosing a disease and set out to cure it:

    1. The Symptom:  Life entails suffering² (“Dukkha“)
    2. The Diagnosis:  This suffering  is caused by delusion and attachment (“Trishna”)
    3. The Prognosis:  There is a cure to this suffering, which helps you achieve a state known as “Nirvana
    4. The Prescription: Follow the eightfold path to eliminate suffering in your life (“Maggha”)

The Way Out

Photo by Peter Thoeny on Flickr

Just like a key, Buddhism provides us teachings (which is the “prescription” in the fourth noble truth) so we can understand how to walk out of this prison (“awakening” / “enlightenment”), end our karmic actions, and live in the state of peace and understanding (“nirvana”).

The fourth Noble Truth is regarding the path to liberation, known as the Noble Eightfold Path .  This path helps us end our karmic actions so that we may overcome this ‘affliction’ or ‘sickness’ of “Dukkha” through wisdom, conduct, and discipline by living the “Middle Way”:

      1. Helps you understand the truth about suffering (“wisdom”) through Right Understanding and Right Thoughts.
      2. Helps you create the conditions to transcend suffering (“conduct” or “morality”) through Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action.
      3. Helps you keep on the path towards awakening (“discipline” or “meditation”) through Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Staying on the Path

Buddhists follow the “Cardinal Precepts”, which is often called simply the “Five Precepts“.

By practicing the five precepts, which allow us to abstain from these wrong actions, we are walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, his teachings, and the Noble Eightfold Path.

When properly understood and followed, the precepts help you to not create any unwholesome Karma, nor do they allow your mindfulness and concentration to be hindered in your progress along the path.

While these may seem “basic” moral items that any society follows (and has laws about), there are few people in our world that actually comply with all of them.  A Buddhist actively strives towards complying with all of them, all the time.   The five precepts are:

    • Refrain from not killing, harming, or violating others, 
    • Refrain from stealing or taking what is not yours,
    • Refrain from sexual misconduct,
    • Refrain from lying, gossip, or harsh speech, and
    • Refrain from intoxicants or stimulants.

These five precepts are the bare bones minimum actions/virtues a Buddhist practitioner follows if they are serious about the faith, and the Buddha’s teachings.  These precepts are the “clothing” you need to drape yourself in to successfully walk the Noble Eightfold Path.

Conclusion

The main practice of Buddhists is meditative concentration and insight. Photo via Pixbay

Wow, you have learned a lot about Buddhism today, but this is only the beginning!  There is much more to learn, and I invite you to continue reading more of my articles (and others elsewhere) to learn more.

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