Are you interested in learning about Buddhism? Then my article on Buddhism for beginners will give you a quick introduction to help you understand the religion easily, and with some great infographics!
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”).
- Buddhism teaches us how to remove our delusional attachment to the false belief that we have an independent and permanent self.
- Attachment to the belief in a permanent and independent self is the cause of all 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 actions or perceptions that cause ignorance, greed, or anger.
The Buddha’s teachings allow us to see the truth about our reality, and the ability to transcend suffering as he did. Suffering is not our natural state, nor is it permanent.
- Our reality causes us suffering and dissatisfaction (“Duḥkha/Dukkha”) caused by our own actions (“Karma”).
- Our actions are primarily caused and triggered by our belief that we have a permanent and independent self (soul), and the perceptions, attachments, and actions we take based on that false belief.
- This keeps us trapped like prisoners in an endless cycle of rebirth and existence known as Saṃsāra.
- When we understand these truths and reality, it allows us to become enlightened and liberated (“Nirvana/Nibbāna”) from creating unskillful actions (“Karma/Kamma”) that have kept us trapped in the cycle of birth and death known as Saṃsāra. When enlightened, we can transcend Saṃsāra, and live in our natural state of Nirvana.
Do not worry if some of these words seem foreign to you. In this article, I will explain more about these Buddhist terms and what they mean to you!
If you are a visual learner, my infographic gives you a very quick overview of Buddhism:
Who Was The Buddha?
The historical Buddha was born around 2,600 years ago as Siddhārtha Gautama in a nation-state called Śākya Gaṇarājya, which was located in the region where the modern-day countries of India and Nepal currently exist.
- Siddhārtha was born into a life of luxury and privilege but was prevented from seeing the harsh realities of real-life by his father Śuddhodana (the elected leader of Śākya Gaṇarājya) for fear he would become an ascetic/holy person.
- It was predicted that Siddhārtha would one day become either a great ruler or a holy person.⁵ His father wanted him to be a ruler like himself and kept him shielded from the harsh realities of our world. The artificial life his father created for him prevented him from seeing any form of suffering so that he would not feel drawn to becoming a holy person.
- It wasn’t until Siddhārtha was 29 years old that he sneaked away from the palace and discovered the world is not perfect and contains suffering (“Dukkha“², which is commonly translated as suffering, impermanence, dissatisfaction, etc.).
- He encountered Four Sights each time he left his home which created a desire within him to find the truth to eliminate suffering.⁶
- Shocked by these sights, he became determined to find the truth of suffering and how to transcend it. 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 their teachings and skills. However, none of the practices he learned from other teachers ever answered the question of how to transcend Dukkha.
- It was not until a near-death event when Siddhārtha learned that going to extremes was not the way and that following the “middle way” was the best course of action towards discovering the truth.
- He then sat under a pipal (Ficus) tree (later to be known as the “Bodhi Tree”) with the desire to meditate until he understood the truth of the cause of suffering, and how to transcend it.
- After 40 days he succeeded in becoming awakened to the truth and enlightened. He then became a Buddha (an enlightened teacher) whom we call Shakyamuni Buddha.
- 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). Although we commonly call Shakyamuni Buddha just “The Buddha” for simplicity.
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 what he did.
That is extraordinary!
What the Buddha Discovered
Siddhārtha achieved something that few people have: enlightenment.
- He was awakened to the reality of our world, and the truths of suffering, and became enlightened.
- As an enlightened being, he was no longer influenced by the Three Marks of Existence or the Three Fires/Poisons, stopped generating Karma, and lived in the natural peaceful mental state of Nirvana that is free from craving, anger, suffering, and overall free from the cycle of rebirth.
- He then became “The Buddha”, meaning an enlightened teacher. There is one Buddha for each era in which people follow their teachings.
- Siddhārtha is the Buddha of our era, and we call him Shakyamuni Buddha.
The Buddha identified “Three Marks of Existence” that permeate our reality:
- Impermanence: Nothing is permanent, and all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions to exist (or cease). We call these two teachings Impermanence and Dependent Origination. This is a core principle in Buddhism because deeply understand that everything is impermanent, that liberates you from the belief in a “self”.
- 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 (Saṃsāra).
- The illusion of Self: Nothing is independent of other things to exist, and our belief that our ‘body’ makes us permanent and independent is false (known as “non-self” or “no-self”). 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 (Karma).
The Buddha revealed an important insight about the world we live in:
- We are trapped like prisoners in the world of “Saṃsāra“, which is the term we use to describe the endless cycle of “birth and death” (rebirth).
- Saṃsāra is our mundane existence and daily life, which is full of impermanent and imperfect situations (“Dukkha“, commonly translated as ‘suffering’ in Western countries) created by our own actions (Karma). Saṃsāra is best described as a process of existence that we flow through endlessly (through countless births and deaths).
Think of Saṃsāra as a road (your mundane existence) that is sometimes smooth, and sometimes full of potholes. The potholes are caused by our own perceptions.
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! This is because you have created these potholes due to your perceptions (due to delusion, greed, and anger which are all based on the belief in a “self”).
You are unequipped with the right “tire” to drive down this road smoothly.
The opposite of Dukkha is Sukkha, meaning perfectly balanced (which is Nirvana, in Buddhism, when we fully follow the Eightfold Path). Nirvana is the absence of these false perceptions which created the “potholes” on the road. Your tire/wheel is now perfectly round, and can drive effortlessly and smoothly on this road.
Saṃsāra is caused by our ignorance (delusions), greed (desires), and anger (hatred) (known as the “Three Poisons” or “Three Fires”):
- The Three Fires are like a fire that needs fuel.
- The Three Fires find this “fuel” with “attachments” (objects, people, feelings, etc.).
- 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).
- 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.
- The craving caused by the Three Fires for fuel (attachments) causes us to have wrong actions (karma) which in turn make us “attached” to Saṃsāra, and thus have rebirth.
- 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”). The 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 the 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, does not generate any karma.
- 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”) to exist.
- 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“.
- 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 independently of other things.
The Buddha’s Solution
Understanding the three marks of existence, The Buddha explained “a way out” of this self-imposed prison of Saṃsāra:
- 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. While brief, the Four Noble Truths encompass all the other Buddhist teachings and topics such as Dukkha, Impermanence, Non-Self, Saṃsāra, Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and many others.
- The Symptom: Life entails suffering² (“Dukkha“)
- The Diagnosis: This suffering is caused by craving or desire (“Trishna”)
- The Prognosis: There is a cure to this suffering, which helps you achieve a state known as “Nirvana“
- The Prescription: Follow the eightfold path to eliminate suffering in your life (“Maggha”)
- The fourth Noble Truth is regarding the path to liberation (enlightenment/Nirvana), known as the Noble Eightfold Path ⁴.
- The Noble Eightfold Path allows one to live their lives in perfect balance with the teachings, which in turn allow one to become awakened, realize enlightenment, not be trapped by Karma, live in their natural state of Nirvana, and allows us to transcend the cycle of birth and death (rebirth).
- Following the Eightfold Path ultimately allows us to overcome this ‘affliction’ or ‘sickness’ of “Dukkha” through wisdom, conduct, and discipline by living the “Middle Way”:
- Helps you understand the truth about suffering (“wisdom”) through Right Understanding and Right Thoughts.
- Helps you create the conditions to transcend suffering (“conduct” or “morality”) through Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action.
- Helps you keep on the path towards awakening (“discipline” or “meditation”) through Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
- 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 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.
For over 40 years, all his teachings were centered around these fundamental concepts and teachings and he taught anyone who was ready to realize what he had achieved.
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). ⁷
Unlike other spiritual teachers, the Buddha set out to teach that anyone can realize exactly what he realized. No external force or entity is needed – only yourself and your own determination.
Why the Buddha’s Teachings Are Important
Sentient beings, such as humans, erroneously believe we have a permanent and independent “self” or soul.
This is the fundamental obstacle, called delusion in Buddhism, which prevents us from being at peace.
- This belief causes us to “cling” and “crave” things (commonly referred to as “attachment“).
- Because we believe in this false concept and are attached to things, we create what is called the Three Poisons or Three Fires: Ignorance (or Delusion), Greed (or Desire), Hatred (or Aversion).
- These Three Fires need fuel, which they find thanks to our attachments to things due to our belief in a permanent and independent self.
- This results in an endless cycle of “Birth and Death” known as “Rebirth” where actions are created and come to fruition at some point.
- This unsatisfactory reality and cycle are called “Saṃsāra” which is caused by our attachments and actions and is a self-created prison.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Ignorance, greed, and anger keep us endlessly in a sort of self-created prison (“Saṃsāra”) through our actions (“karma”) which leads to returning to this prison all the time like an unrehabilitated criminal (“rebirth”) which means we are in the prison system forever (“Saṃsāra”).
- As humans, we have the rare opportunity to transcend Saṃsāra, 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 genuinely 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.
What Buddhism Means to You
The Buddha’s salvific teachings allow us to see our reality, which consists of the Three Marks of Existence, Dependent Origination, Saṃsāra, and the ability to transcend suffering as he did.
- Our reality causes us suffering and dissatisfaction (“Duhkha/Dukkha”) caused by our own actions (“Karma”).
- Our actions are primarily caused and triggered by our belief that we have a permanent and independent self (soul).
- When we fully understand these truths, it allows us to become enlightened and liberated (“Nirvana/Nibbana”) from creating unskillful actions (“Karma/Kamma”) that have kept us trapped in the cycle of birth and death known as Saṃsāra.
- When enlightened, we become liberated and can transcend Saṃsāra, and live in our natural state of Nirvana.
To explain this “way out” and “liberation” a little more, the goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened (awakened) for the following reasons:
- 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. The contemplation of the second Dharma seal will teach us how to break the bonds of self-love.
- When we are enlightened, we can live in the state of Nirvana ³ which is 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 (Saṃsāra).
- Nirvana allows us to transcend rebirth, which occurs in the endless cycle of birth and death (“Saṃsāra”).
- 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).
- We can stop creating Karma (known as “karma without outflows”) because we have overcome our wrong views (the Three Fires).
- 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.
- 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 summarized his teachings and our practice 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.
Buddhist teachings are very expansive, and for the new (and even experienced) Buddhists 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 into focus. This is what we call enlightenment.
- As you learn more about Buddhist teachings, you realize that you are not free. You have been a [longtime] prisoner in Saṃsāra (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).
Staying on the Path
Buddhist laypersons follow a set of “Cardinal Precepts”, which is often simply called 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 can follow all of them fully. 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.
Buddhists practice the “Threefold Training” of Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation, which correspond to the Eightfold Path.
Each of these is grouped into one of three categories (“Threefold Training”):
- Wisdom: Right Understanding and Right Thought (Training: Cultivation of Wisdom)
- Conduct (or Morality): Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action (Training: Cultivation of Morality)
- Discipline (or Meditation): Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (Training: Meditative Concentration)
From the book “For All Living Beings” by Ven. Master Hsing Yun:
The Buddhist scriptures themselves share a common structure with the threefold training. The Tripitaka, the core of the Buddhist canon, is divided into three divisions; sutra, vinaya, and abhidharma. The sutras contain the discourses of the Buddha and offer many teachings on developing meditative concentration; the vinaya details the discipline, rules, and morality for the Buddhist monastic order; and the abhidharma collects the analytical and commentarial tradition which focuses on the cultivation of wisdom. Anyone approaching the Buddhist teachings must bring the threefold training into their everyday thinking and living. [emphasis added]
So, what the Buddha “successful” with his teachings?
His followers, who were monks and nuns, were able to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana just as he had.
Laypersons were able to gain merit and understanding that helped to sow the seeds of wholesome karma in their lives, and in the cycle of rebirth. They also gained comfort and strength from the Buddha’s teachings in their everyday lives, and on their deathbed.
- The Buddha’s monastics 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: Parinirvana.
- 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.
There is much more to learn, and I invite you to continue reading more of my articles (and others elsewhere) to learn more!
- Article’s Main Featured Photo: Photo copyright by vectorx2263 (shutterstock.com) and purchased for this website.
- Thank you to Venerable Sanathavihari LosAngeles for his review and feedback of the original version of this article.
- Books for Further Reading: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Old Path White Clouds, and What the Buddha Taught.
- Websites and Sutras for Further Reading: Buddhanet’s Basic Buddhism Guide, Saṃyutta Nikāya 56, and Saṃyutta Nikāya 45, Debunking Seven Myths About the Buddha.
- ¹ Although we think of “The Buddha” as just one historical person, there have been many Buddha’s in the past, and any sentient being can technically become one. Prince Siddhārtha happens to be the Buddha of our era (after his awakening he was known as Shakyamuni Buddha), and the teachings we follow (which make up the religion we call “Buddhism”) are his. Siddhārtha, as a Buddha, is formally called Gautama Buddha or Śhakyamuni Buddha.
- ² Although commonly translated and referred to as “suffering” in English, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” (or “Duḥkha” in Sanskrit) which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc. Learn more here.
- ³ Nirvana is called Nibbāna in Pali. Karma is called Kamma in Pali
- ⁴ Buddhists routinely use the word “Noble” in these two teachings (Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path), however, this is perhaps a rough translation from the original language. Some say that “Perfected” or “Perfect” might be a more accurate translation. However, the actual titles of these two important parts of Buddhism are less important than the teachings they contain.
- ⁵ 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.
- ⁶ 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.
- ⁷ However, because Buddhists 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 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas 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).
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