Buddhism, a Quick Intro

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I only teach suffering, and the transformation of suffering.
~ Shakyamuni Buddha

Buddhism…the name alone conjures up preconceptions of an Asian religion that appears to have weird rituals, unusual words, complex theories, and monks in flowing orange robes.

But what is Buddhism really all about?  And more importantly, what does it mean to you?  Join me as we take a quick walk through basics of Buddhism!

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

Buddhism, a Visual Overview

Before we talk about the basics of Buddhism, let us take a “visual” look at the basics in this infographic! Be sure click the image to view larger if needed.

A brief note on the term “suffering” used in this infographic, and in this article:  Although commonly translated and referred to as “suffering”, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc.

What, in a Nutshell, Is Buddhism?  

  • Buddhism is a worldwide religion (over 350 million followers) based on the insight and teachings of the historical Buddha¹, known as Shakyamuni Buddha (more commonly called “The Buddha“).  “Buddha” is a title of an awakened teacher, not a person, however we commonly call the Buddha of our age (Shakyamuni) “The Buddha”.  There have been many Buddha’s before Shakyamuni, and it is said there will be Buddhas in the future.
  • The Buddha revealed important insights about the world we live in:
    • We are trapped in the world of “Saṃsāra“, which is the cycle of “birth and death“, caused by our delusions, desires, and attachments (known as the “Three Poisons”).  These wrong views cause us to create actions (karma) which lead to rebirth.
    • Karma (actions) can be generally either wholesome or unwholesome.  Typically, our karmic actions are unwholesome due to our delusions, desires, and attachments and keep us in samsara (known as “samsaric acts”).  Our karmic actions that help lead us towards being free from samsara are known as “wholesome” karma.  However the ultimate goal, and only way to be free of samsara and rebirth, is to be free of all karma.
    • Our delusions, desires, and attachments 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.
    • All things (such as you) are empty (“emptiness” / “sunyata”) because “things” are not independent of other things.  Things only arise (and end) due to dependence on causes and conditions (“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 ultimate goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened (awakened) for the following reasons:
    1. We become enlightened when we are able to recognize that the “self” (ego) is a fabricated illusion. Ironically, enlightenment is the absence of the illusion of a independent “self” to benefit or achieve anything.
    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”, but it a beneficial cessation of the delusions, desires, and attachments (the Three Poisons) which have been causing “Dukkha” (suffering) in our life and leading to 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 Poisons).
    6. Therefore, by overcoming our wrong views (the Three Poisons) we understand (awakened/enlightened) our true nature (Nirvana).  This allows us to stop clinging to (the wrong views of) attachments, delusions, and desires which were causing us to create Karma (which in turn was keeping us trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth).
  • The Buddha summarized his teachings (as recorded in the Dhammapada ) 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.

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

What’s The Buddha’s Story? 

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.

  • The historical Buddha was born 2,600 years ago as Prince Siddhārtha  in the region now known as northern India and Nepal. He was born into a life of luxury and privilege, but was prevented from seeing real life by his father (the King) for fear he would become an ascetic/holy person (it was predicted he would be a great ruler, or a holy person).
  • It wasn’t until Prince Siddhārtha 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.) through the “four sights” (see image at the bottom of this section) that he had a desire to find the truth to eliminate 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 ever answered the question of how to transcend Dukkha.
  • 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 remove delusions, desires, and attachments.
  • 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 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 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).

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.

Your Path to Liberation as a Prisoner of Samsara

Buddhist teachings are very expansive, and for the new (and even experienced) Buddhist, can be very overwhelming.  However, at its core Buddhism is the most simple thing in the world to understand…yet we put on some very dark sunglasses (delusions, desires, and attachments) which shield us from understanding.  In a similar way, 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.

One thing that becomes clear is that you are actually not free.  You have been a (very) longtime prisoner in samsara (the cycle of birth and death).  But you were unable to see this prison, and thus you suffered and continue to suffer.  However, what is truly 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.  You are actually your own jailer.  Worry not, as you can leave whenever you’d like and the Buddha is your guide (since he has escaped this same prison you are in).

  • A Prison We Create:  Delusions, desires, and attachments 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 keep 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!
  • A Discovery:  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”)
  • A Way Out:  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 all of these five precepts, which allow us to abstain from these wrong actions, monastics and laity alike are walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, his teachings, and the Noble Eightfold Path.  When properly understood and followed, they allow 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: Not Killing, Not StealingNot LyingNo Intoxicants, and No Sexual Misconduct.  These five precepts are the bare bones minimum a true Buddhist practitioner follows if they are serious about the faith, and the Buddha’s teachings.  These precepts are essentially the “clothing” you need to drape yourself in to successfully walk the Noble Eightfold Path.

Wow, you have learned a lot about Buddhism today!  But this is only the tip of the iceberg!  There is much more to learn, and I invite you to continue reading more of my articles (and others elsewhere) to learn more.  Be sure to sign up for my email updates whenever I post a new article.

I would like to offer you this gift of a quick reference card on the basics of Buddhism which you learned today.  Keep it somewhere so you can always be reminded of the teachings, and to stay on the path.  Please click the image below for a high quality card you can print out:

Article Notes

  • Thank you to Venerable Sanathavihari LosAngeles for his review and feedback 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 GuideSaṃyutta Nikāya 56, and Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.
  • 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“, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc.
  • 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.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Peto.
This article was originally published on 14 Dec 2011, and last updated on 04 Sep 2017.

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