Introduction to Buddhism for Beginners

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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!

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What is Buddhism?

Buddhism provides the liberating path towards freedom (Pāli: Nibbāna / Sanskrit: Nirvāṇa) from unsatisfactoriness in life (Pāli: Dukkha / Sanskrit: Duḥkha), which is a result of unwholesome karma, which gives rise to re-birth in the cycle of birth and death (Saṃsāra).

  1. The Buddha’s teachings explain the true nature of our existence and world, which is marked with Dukkha. Because we are ignorant to the truth the Buddha taught (Pāli: Dhamma / Sanskrit: Dharma), we believe Dukkha is our true nature or mental existence.  This is because we are clouded to the truth of Dukkha’s conditioned foundation which the Buddha said can be ended.
  2. The Buddha explained that unsatisfactoriness is rooted in the Three Poisons (or Fires), which are ignorance of the Dharma, the resulting greed, clinging, and craving to sensual pleasures, and anger and hatred when we are separated from pleasurable feelings, things, and perceptions.
  3. The Three Poisons give rise to unwholesome intentional volitional actions (Pāli: Kamma / Sanskrit: Karma) of the mind, body, and speech. Karma is any intentional action that happens at every moment.  However, it is not some otherworldly “judging force” but is rather the natural law of cause and effect where the results of actions can come to fruition immediately, in this lifetime, or future existences.
  4. Karma is what continues after death, connects all prior and future existences, and gives rise to new existences. This is due to Karma with outflows (outflows are known as “fetters[1]” – which binds one in Saṃsāra).
  5. By becoming awakened to the truth (Dharma), one ends the delusion caused by our ignorance of the truth and are able to see the true nature of things – which is the conditioned, impermanent, ever-changing, and interconnected nature of our world. This is the world that we previously viewed and interact with as unenlightened beings incorrectly due to our attachments and perceptions.  When ignorance has been removed and one becomes awakened to the truth the Buddha taught, they have ended the unwholesome Karmic actions of greed and anger.  Karma had been the force that prompted new existences to be created in the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra) which is unsatisfactory (Dukkha). 
  1. One’s true existence is free of the Three Poisons, Dukkha, and the Cycle of Rebirth, and is known as Nirvāṇa. In this enlightened state, one no longer creates unskillful and unwholesome actions (Karma) that were leading to rebirth, which is unsatisfactory.  They can now be in the world in their true natural state free of wrong perceptions, unskillful actions, and continued re-becoming in the cycle of rebirth.

The goal of all Buddhists is to become enlightened to the truth so they can free themselves from the cycle of rebirth (and the unsatisfactory nature of it) and realize their true natural peaceful state of Nirvāṇa. 


Who was the Buddha?

The historical Buddha was born 2,600 years ago as Siddhārtha Gautama in the area where the modern-day country of Nepal is located, which is near modern-day India.

  • Siddhārtha was born into a life of luxury and privilege but was prevented from seeing real life by his father for fear he would become an ascetic/holy person. This was because it was predicted that Siddhārtha would be either a great ruler or a holy person.  His father naturally wanted him to follow after him as a leader.
  • He eventually left this life of luxury to become a holy person and learned many techniques from other teachers. However, none of these techniques led to the “truth” he was seeking.
  • It was not until he nearly died after starving himself to attain higher levels of attainment that he resolved to follow the “middle way” of not going to extremes. He then resolved to meditate until he achieved awakening and realized enlightenment.
  • He meditated for 49 days until he became enlightened, and was then known as the Buddha, which is the title of an enlightened teacher. He is the latest of many Buddhas who have existed in the past and is called Shakyamuni Buddha or Gautama Buddha.  Shakya was his clan’s name, and Shakyamuni is Sanskrit for “Sage of the Shakya.”  Shakyamuni Buddha is known as a “Buddha of our era.”  Each era has a single Buddha whose teachings (Dharma) we know and follow to become enlightened.
  • The Buddha taught for roughly 45 years in the country known as India, establishing many monastic communities, followers, and giving teachings to numerous people.
  • His foundational teachings are the Four [Noble] Truths, the [Noble] Eightfold Path (which is the fourth noble truth) leading to the freedom of Nirvāṇa, and Dependent Origination.

It’s important to know that the title of “Buddha” is not restricted to Shakyamuni:

  • There will be more Buddhas in the future when his teachings are lost in this world (the next Buddha of an era is known as Maitreya).
  • There are “solitary Buddhas” (Pratyekabuddhayāna) which are enlightened beings that have awakened to the truth on their own (in an era without a Buddha) but do not enlighten others.
  • In Mahāyāna Buddhism, all beings strive towards becoming a Buddha, even if that takes eons. There are countless Buddhas in other worlds and dimensions to aid one in this goal.  For example, most Mahāyānists follow the path to enlightenment through Amitābha Buddha and his Western Pure Land.  Pure Lands, also known as “Buddha Fields” (buddhakṣetra) are perfect environments where one can become more easily enlightened under a living Buddha.  For example, when Shakyamuni was on this Earth, Vulture’s Peak in India (where he gave many sermons) may be considered his Pure Land.

What did the Buddha Teach?

The Buddha’s teachings and mission are centered around one central theme:  the ending of unsatisfactoriness in our life (Pāli: Dukkha / Sanskrit: Duḥkha).  His teachings help us to end delusion of what we believe to be true about our self and reality by transforming ignorance through wisdom.

  • Imagine you are driving your car on the wrong side of the road. This may result in a horrible accident to you or others.  You are delusional because you think you are driving correctly.  This delusion is caused by ignorance of how and why to drive correctly.
  • When we view and interact with our world and self in a delusional way (which is unskillful and unwholesome) it is due to our ignorance of it’s true nature and the Buddha’s teachings and path.
  • Through Buddhist practice, one understands the truth of Dukkha, becomes enlightened, and realizes their true natural state of NirvāThis is accomplished by breaking down the belief in a permanent, unchanging, and independent “self” (ātman).

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

  • Impermanence: No conditioned phenomena are permanent, and all 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 when we fundamentally understand that everything is impermanent, it liberates us from the false belief in a permanent “self.”
  • Suffering[1]: Called Duḥkha 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, unchanging, and are not dependent on other things, which causes us to have attachments and cling to things.  This in turn causes us to create actions (Kamma/Karma) that keep us trapped like prisoners in an endless cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra).
  • The illusion of Self: Nothing is independent of other things to exist, and our belief that our ‘body’ and ‘mind’ makes us permanent and independent is false (known as “anatman” which means ‘non-self’ or ‘not-self’).  We are just a temporary grouping of things, known as the “Five Aggregates”.  The only thing that continues on after we die is our actions (Karma).

Based on the Three Marks of Existence, the Buddha revealed the true nature of our existence.  He explained that is Saṃsāra is Dukkha, which is rooted in the Three Poisons (also called the Three Fires) of our ignorance (and delusions), greed (desires), and anger (hatred).

  • We fuel the Three Fires through our sense organs of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and intellect (“manas”) and how they react to sense objects of a visible object, sound, odor, taste, touch, and mental object (which are both material and immaterial).
  • Saṃsāra is our mundane existence, which is full of impermanent and imperfect situations (Dukkha) created by our intentional actions (Karma). It is a process of existence that we flow through endlessly (rebirth).  In contrast, Nirvāṇa is your true nature which is absent of the Three Poisons which is the root cause of Dukkha and continued re-birth.

What Are the Four Noble Truths?

The Buddha’s very first sermon was the Four Noble Truths called “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma / Dhamma in Motion.”  This sermon succinctly explained what “Buddhism” is and why we practice it.  It is structured similar to the Buddha as a Doctor who explained your symptoms, illness, prognosis, and cure.

  1. The Truth of Dukkha (“The Symptom”):  You are suffering (“Dukkha/ Duḥkha”).
  2. The Cause of Dukkha (“The Diagnosis”): Dukkha is caused by repeated “birth” due to clinging to the false belief in a permanent, unchanging, and independent “self”, the resulting mental cravings of sensual pleasures (Kāma), for existence (Bhava), and for non-existence (Vibhava), and the resulting karmic actions trapping one in rebirth. (“Trishna / Taṇhā”)
  3. The Truth of the End of Dukkha (“The Prognosis”): There is a cure for Dukkha, which helps you achieve your true natural peaceful state known as “Nibbāna / Nirvāṇ”
  4. The Truth of the Path That Frees of Dukkha (“The Prescription”): Following the eightfold path eliminates Dukkha caused by rebirth and the five aggregates. (“Magga / Mārga”)

The Four Noble Truths focuses on the word Dukkha (Pāli) / Duḥkha (Sanskrit).  This word is sometimes loosely translated as “suffering” by Westerners but is a complex term that has multiple meanings such as unsatisfactoriness, incapability of satisfying, stress, or something not quite right.

  • Dukkha refers to the unsatisfactory nature of our current “existence” due to two things: rebirth and the clinging to the five aggregates.  These may be confusing to beginners and Westerners, and we will go more in-depth about them later in this book.  However, they are important to Dukkha.
  • Rebirth refers to the continual cycle of birth and death (arising and ceasing). When one dies, there is no permanent, unchanging, independent “self” or “soul” that continues on.  Instead, your karma (actions) and a stream of consciousness give rise to the next existence in a “realm” of rebirth.  Every new existence that arises and we cling to is
  • Each existence, such as a human, consists of ‘building blocks’ known as the Five Aggregates. When arisen in this new and temporary and every changing form, the Five Aggregates work seamlessly together as something called “Nāmarūpa” which gives the illusion of a permanent, unchanging, and independent “self”.  Because this is not ‘reality’, but we believe it is, we cling to the belief in it and create actions (karma) that result in us remaining trapped in the cycle of rebirth.  The Buddha said:  “In brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”
  • Buddhists see the cycle of rebirth as something that is not wanted because it gives rise to new existences (Five Aggregates/Namarupa) which is Dukkha. “Life” itself isn’t Dukkha, instead the cycle of rebirth where new forms constantly come in and out of existence, and the ignorance of that fact, allows Dukkha to exist.

A Buddhist’s mission is to clear away the confusion about “self” (awakening) so they can reside in their true state of Nirvāṇa where they have “blown out” the Three Fires of greed, anger, and delusion, which allows them to no longer cling and crave to the idea of “self”, sensual objects, and creating actions (Karma) based upon it, which kept them trapped like a prisoner in rebirth.

Learn more about the Four Noble Truths in my article here.

What is the Noble Eightfold Path?

The fourth Noble Truth in Buddhism is regarding the path to liberation, known as the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight parts are grouped into three categories practiced as the “Threefold Training”.  It helps us overcome this ‘affliction’ or ‘sickness’ of “Dukkha” through the cultivation of specific disciplines:

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

Following the Noble Eightfold Path is the “prescription” the Buddha wrote so all sentient so we can heal our sickness (“Dukkha”) caused by our delusions, desires, and attachments. This path is known as the “Middle Way”, which means to not go to extremes when striving to realize enlightenment and Nirvāṇa.

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 Nirvāṇa, which allows us to transcend the cycle of birth and death (rebirth).

  1. Right View: The ability to have the right concepts and right ideas that lead away from delusion and wrong views.
  2. Right Thought: Keeping thoughts in accord with the Buddha’s Dharma.  This is the “speech of your mind”, therefore you want to ensure your thoughts align with Right View.
  3. Right Speech: Ensuring your “verbal” Karma consists of words of truth, compassion, praise, and altruism.
  4. Right Action: Ensuring your “bodily” Karma consists of not killing, not stealing, and not engaging in sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood: Having the right occupation in life that does not harm others and ourselves.
  6. Right Effort: Diligence in preventing unwholesome states that have yet to arise, ending unwholesome states that have arisen, and strengthening wholesome states.
  7. Right Mindfulness: True contemplation where the mind is pure, aware, and does not give rise to unwholesome thoughts.
  8. Right Concentration: Using samādhi (meditative concentration) to focus the mind and settle the distracted body to develop insight to the Buddha’s truth (Pāli: vipassanā / Sanskrit: vipaśyanā).

Mahāyāna Buddhism places emphasis on cultivating the Six Perfections (Pāramitās) which are the qualities of an enlightened being (which correlate to the Eightfold Path).  The Six Perfections[1] are Giving, Morality, Patience, Diligence, Meditation, and Prajñā-Wisdom.

For Mahāyānists, the development of these perfections, along with the Bodhisattva Vow and cultivation of Bodhicitta (enlightened mind), constitutes the disciplined “path” of a Bodhisattva that is working their way towards Buddhahood.  Eventually becoming a Buddha is the ultimate goal for all Mahāyānists.

Learn more about the Noble Eightfold Path in my article here.

What is Dependent Origination?

The truth the Buddha awakened to was that of Dependent Origination or Conditionality (Sanskrit: Pratītyasamutpāda / Pāli: Paṭiccasamuppāda).  This is the teaching that is fundamental to all aspects of his teachings and mission.  Dukkha, rebirth, karma, etc., all stem from this realization.

  • Dependent Origination is the teaching that all phenomena (which include sentient beings such as you) exist and are sustained due to “causes and conditions.”
  • It teaches we do not have a “self” that is permanent, unchanging, or “exists” separately from others. In other words, your “self” is interdependent upon and conditioned by other things.
  • When causes and conditions no longer support the existence of a phenomena, it ceases in that current form.
  • There are twelve links, called Nidānas, that describe the entire process of Dependent Origination covering birth, death, and rebecoming.

To explain this concept at a basic level, we can use a Lotus flower:

  • When the right causes and conditions arise (such as the soil, water, sun, nutrients) the flower starts to grow and eventually blooms.
  • The flower, however, will cease in that form eventually.
  • It was never something permanent, unchanging, or independent of other things to exist.

Why is Dependent Origination important?

  • All unenlightened sentient beings have ignorance of the truth of Dependent Origination.
  • This leads us down the road of fueling the Three Poisons/Fires of greed, anger, and delusion with our attachments to “self,” the karmic actions that we create, and being trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth bound in saṃsāra – which is Dukkha.
  • To understand and end Dukkha, we must fundamentally understand Dependent Origination to free
  • Unfortunately, we often do not provide the conditions to water or nourish the “seed” of enlightenment, so it never blooms.
  • Fortunately, the Buddha provides the teachings and practice so that we can understand Dependent Origination and break down the belief in a permanent, unchanging, independent self.
  Links of Dependent Origination (Nidānas) Process / Result
Jarāmaraṇa :  The impermanence of all conditioned bodies due to aging (present), decay, and death (future) of the body. Impermanence of life (Dukkha)
Jāti:  The birth or rebecoming of a phenomenon (Five Aggregates).
Bhava:  Coming into existence of the imaginary “self” and “world”. The imaginary “self” and personalized “body” becomes the “self” in the “world”
Upādāna    The clinging to sensuality, views, vows, and the illusionary idea of “self”.
Taṇhā (Tṛ́ṣṇā):  The craving for sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, ideas, sensuality, form, and formlessness.
Vedanā:  The feelings or sensations of vision, hearing, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and intellectual sensation with your consciousness. Experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, and/or neutral feelings. Cognitive Process (Mana)
Phassa (Sparśa):  Contact with (sense impression) the sense object and consciousness.
Saḷāyatana (ṣaḍāyatana):  The experience of the six sense bases of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
Nāmarūpa: “Name and Form” which is the mental and physical components of a person working together seamlessly due to perception).
Viññāṇa (Vijñāna):  The sense consciousness of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Process of Perception (includes Nāmarūpa)
Saṅkhāra (Saṃskāra):  Mental formations of the sensory entities we have visualized.
Avijjā (Avidyā):  Ignorance of the truth of Dukkha.

What is Karma?

When it comes to the concept and word “Karma” (“Kamma” in Pāli), you are likely to hear many explanations and definitions as to what it means.  To make things confusing, the word has become part of the vocabulary in society and used in ways that do not reflect the Buddhist meaning.

The Buddhist focus on Karma is about:

  • Stopping or reducing the amount of unwholesome karma we generate because it prevents us from reaching enlightenment, which keeps us in the cycle of birth and death.
  • Generating more wholesome karma because it is skillful and helps us progress on the path towards enlightenment, which will eventually lead us out of the cycle of birth and death. While wholesome karma is important for creating the conditions for liberation, it is not sufficient alone.
  • Stop creating “any” karma so we can end our cycle of rebirth. Enlightened beings generate “karma without outflows,” and thus rebirth ends for them.

You make [wholesome or unwholesome] karma three ways:

  • Your Actions
  • Your Thoughts
  • Your Words

By understanding these three things create either wholesome or unwholesome karma, you can work to transform them:

  • Wholesome karmic actions are based upon generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness, or
  • Unwholesome karmic actions are based upon the Three Poisons/Fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.

There are different types of karmic results:

  1. Negative Karma: Actions that only produce negative karmic effects.
  2. Positive Karma: Actions that only produce positive karmic effects.
  3. Both Negative and Positive Karma: Actions that produce some negative, and some positive, karmic effects.
  4. Neither Negative nor Positive Karma: Also known as “karma without outflows” is the type of karma of enlightened beings (such as the Buddha or one of his enlightened disciples).
  5. Neutral Karma: When you committed a transgression that was not intentional or volitional.

The fundamental nature of Karma is that it does not go away.  It is like a “seed” waiting for the right conditions to bloom.   Right now, you have Karmic “seeds” within you since the time of your birth.  This is because Karma casually links all prior and future existences.

While you cannot get rid of any “unwholesome” Karmic seeds, Buddhists focus on generating good merit which is wholesome Karma.  Like salt in a glass of water, you can’t remove the salt, but you can dilute it with more clean water.

Learn more about Karma in my article here.

What is Not-Self?

A fundamental concept of Buddhism is that we do not have a permanent, unchanging, and independentself” or “soul” (Ātman).  Instead, we are a temporary grouping of things that create the illusion of “self” that we believe is permanent and unchanging.  This belief and attachment to “self” is the cause of Dukkha and Rebirth.

To help remove this belief, and lead one away from Dukkha and Rebirth, the Buddha taught we do not have a permanent, unchanging, and independent self, which leads to non-attachment to that idea of self.  This teaching is called Anattā (Pāli) or Anātman (Sanskrit) in Buddhism.

  • Because we believe in this type of “permanent and unchanging self,” we create actions (Karma) based on the three poisons/fires of greed, anger, and delusion, that keep us trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra) which is unsatisfactory (dukkha).
  • One is “born” (arises) due to five components coming together called the “Five Aggregates” or “Five Skandhas” of form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.
  • The Five Aggregates – “you” – are a temporary condition that gives the false impression of a permanent, independent, and unchanging “self” due to all these components working very seamlessly together. This process creates the illusionary belief that we have something that is a permanent and unchanging “self” called “Nāmarūpa” (“name” and “form”).
  • Nāmarūpa works through our sense organs interacting with sense objects, and with the mental formations that arise, we believe what we think, see, hear, feel, etc., is “real.” But that belief is conditioned by us and is not revealing the true nature of things.

The Six Sense Organs and Six Corresponding Objects are:

Organs Objects
Eye Visible Form
Ear Sound
Nose Odor
Tongue Taste
Body Tangible Feeling
Mind Thoughts and Ideas
  • Due to the belief that a permanent and unchanging “self” exists due to the Five Aggregates and Nāmarūpa, we create fuel (attachments) to support that belief. This is the source of Dukkha.
  • The Three Fires of greed, anger, and delusion are fueled by your belief in self, and we then create intentional actions (Karma) with outflows. Outflows are like a ball and chain that keep you trapped in the cycle of rebirth.  This cycle of rebirth is a beginningless and endless cycle of arising, ceasing, and rebecoming which is unsatisfactory (dukkha) which Buddhists strive to end.

What is Rebirth?

A common misconception is that Buddhism believes in “reincarnation” where a permanent and unchanging “self” or “soul” transmigrates to a new body or existence.  The Buddha firmly rejected this.

In Buddhism, the focus on “karma,” and generating wholesome karma, is related to rebirth.  The reason Buddhists want to achieve enlightenment and realize Nirvāṇa is to stop creating the types of karma that keep them trapped so they can end the cycle of birth and death known as Saṃsāra.

  • The cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra), and thus our current existence, is unsatisfactory (Dukkha) due to the arising of this “self” (Five Aggregates) and the actions (Karma) we take. The Buddha taught us that this human realm in the cycle of rebirth is our best path to freedom because it allows us to become enlightened to the causes of Dukkha and rebirth and end it by residing within Nirvāṇ  Nirvāṇa allows us to only create Karma without outflows and thus ending rebirth (parinirvāṇa).
  • For the unenlightened, Karma with outflows “binds” them in the cycle of rebirth – where they cling and grasp to things that feed their belief in a “self” that is permanent, unchanging, and independent. That karma, and other factors, determine what “realm” that karma is reborn in.  But it is always a temporary existence in any realm (see page 53 for the different realms).
  • One is “born” or “arises” in a new and temporary existence (such as a human being) due to causes and conditions (Dependent Origination) and the casual connection of karma between one life to the next. Karma is one of the four conditions[1] required for a new life to exist and the catalyst for rebirth.
  • A simile of this cycle of birth and death is with a candle. The flame of a candle casually lights the wick of another candle.  The two candles are not the same, and the flame (which is “karma” in this example) is what continues to the new existence (the “new” candle).  When one realizes their true state of Nirvāṇa, they blow out that flame of Karma with outflows, so it does not keep them in Saṃsāra.  When one who is fully enlightened passes away, they are freed from Saṃsāra.
  • In Mahāyāna Buddhism, rebirth takes on a slightly different meaning for fully enlightened beings such as a Buddha, known as dharmadhātu. This dharmadhātu is the enlightened being’s mindstream that is of pure essence and free of all attachments.  Upon parinirvāṇa (final Nirvāṇa or death of the body/five aggregates), their mindstream is not only liberated from Saṃsāra but also the illusionary nature of both Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa.
  • Mahāyānists teach that a Buddha has “three bodies” known as Dharmakāya. Even though they do not arise in a new physical existence[2] after parinirvāṇa, they exist in an expansive state (a Buddha’s Reward Body) where they may be realized during deep meditative states or by other means (for example, Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land is due to his Reward Body)Shakyamuni Buddha continues to have both a Reward Body and Dharma Body.  A Dharma Body is essentially pure truth (Dharma) and awakening itself, which is the goal of all Buddhists.
Learn more about Rebirth in my article here.

What is Nirvāṇa?

Nirvāṇa (Nibanna in Pāli) is simply the end of all suffering (Dukkha).  It has often been translated as meaning to “blow out” (or “extinguish”), so it can be confused with the term “extinction”.

Thankfully, it has nothing to do with extinction.  Nirvāṇa is the blowing out of unwholesome things (which are known as the “Three Fires”) that cause suffering and dissatisfaction (“Dukkha”) in our lives, and the creation of unwholesome actions (“Karma”) that keep us trapped in the cycle of rebirth known as Saṃsāra.  Saṃsāra is Dukkha, and Nirvāṇa is the solution to it.

  • In the Buddhist world, unenlightened beings are engulfed in the three fires of greed, anger, and ignorance that are the root cause of Dukkha and unskillful actions.
  • Because these “fires” are “conditioned”, they can be put out. What remains after the fires are blown out, is Nirvāṇa.  Nirvāṇa is the Buddha’s Third Truth and your natural, or “true”, state.
  • An example of Nirvāṇa is the embers of a fire that has been put out. The fire is nice, we think, but it can also cause much destruction…which is why we often have it “safely” contained in an earthen, stone, steel, or metal structure.  If we get too close, we could get burned, breathe in the smoke, or if the flames reach something flammable, it can ignite them. After the fire goes out, the embers are still quite hot or warm, but of course not as hot as the flames were!  Those who have “blown out” the Three Fires are still very aware of them, and some “residual” heat exists.  However, after some time, the embers are “cool”.  While it may sound scary to “blow out” these fires, the result is cool and refreshingNirvāṇa.
  • While the Five Aggregates of their current existence remains, there is no longer “fuel” being poured on the Three Fires, and therefore no actions (karma) that bind them in rebirth.
  • For a fully enlightened being, Nirvāṇa takes on another meaning when their physical body dies known as parinirvāṇa or final Nirvāṇa. Because they are no longer generating karma with outflows, they are no longer bound to the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra).  At parinirvāṇa, they are no longer forced to “arise” in a new existence since they have eliminated the “conditions” that had been creating it.
  • There is also the concept of Non-Abiding Nirvāṇa (Apraḍiṣṭhita Nirvāṇa) which is not “fixed”, “stationary”, or where you “dwell” in any single state of mind or position (i.e., Nirvāṇa or Saṃsāra). Non-Abiding Nirvāṇa is the perfect state of Buddhahood.
    • In Theravāda, there is only one type of Nirvāṇa which is firm in the Arhat’s mind as the “other shore” of Nirvāṇ
    • In Mahāyāna, the “static” concepts/labels of Nirvāṇa and Saṃsāra break down completely. One who realizes Non-Abiding Nirvāṇa is not “attached to” or “abides in” either.  They are no longer caught in the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra) or limited to staying on the “other shore” (Nirvāṇa).  Like a ferryman, they can come and go into the illusionary and conditioned world of “Saṃsāra” aiding others towards awakening.
Learn more about Nirvana in my article here.

What Next?

Now that you have a high-level overview of Buddhism, you can pick your path!  Here are my recommendations:

 

 

Article Notes

  • 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 on the original version of this article.
  • Websites and Sutras for Further Reading: Buddhanet’s Basic Buddhism GuideSaṃyutta Nikāya 56, and Saṃyutta Nikāya 45, Debunking Seven Myths About the Buddha.
  • Fetters are mental beliefs or attitudes that bind one (like shackles) to the cycle of rebirth.  While there are many fetters, the following are the most agreed upon and important to “cut off” in order to realize Nirvāṇa:  1) the belief in a permanent, unchanging, and independent “self”, 2) doubt, which includes doubt about any of the Buddha’s teachings (Dharma), and 3) attachment to rites and rituals [that do not lead to awakening].
  • There are three types of suffering:  1) Suffering of “Suffering(Dukkha-dukkha) due to the physical and emotional discomfort and pain we all experience as humans.  2) Suffering of “Change(Viparinama-dukkha) due to our inability to accept the truth of impermanence and change, clinging to pleasurable experiences, and sadness when they pass.  3) Suffering of “Existence(Sankhara-dukkha) due to the overall unsatisfactory nature of the arising of the Five Aggregates within Saṃsāra.
  • Theravāda Buddhism has Ten Perfections (Pāramīs) which are Giving, Virtue, Renunciation, Wisdom, Effort, Patience, Truthfulness, Determination, Loving-Kindness, and Equanimity.
  • The other conditions for existence are food, sense organs contact with sense objects, and consciousness.
  • Shakyamuni Buddha had a Pure Land around him on this earth due to his Reward Body, but also had a Manifested Body that allowed ordinary beings to see and interact with him as a form of skillful means towards their awakening.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 saw these four sights for himself or not, the story itself has helped many understand and have the desire to practice Buddhism for themselves.
  • 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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