I only teach suffering, and the transformation of suffering. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha
Buddhism…the name alone conjures up preconceptions of an Asian religion that has 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?
I know you may not have a lot of time to read a long article, so this summary can help. However it is best to read the entire article when you can!
- The Hidden Truth: The historical Buddha, Prince Siddhārtha, was born into a life of luxury and privilege and prevented from seeing real life by his father, the King. It wasn’t until he sneaked away from the palace and discovered the world is not perfect (and contains suffering, dissatisfaction, etc.) that he had a desire to find the truth to eliminate suffering.
- Finding the Truth: He learned and practiced many methods to find the truth, but it was not until a near death event where he learned that going to extremes was not the way, and that the “middle way” was the best course of action. He then sat under a pipal (ficus) tree with the desire to mediate until he understood the truth of the cause of suffering and how to eliminate it. He succeeded, and became a Buddha (a person who obtains full enlightenment). Although we think of “the Buddha” as just one 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, and the teachings we follow (which we call “Buddhism”) are his.
- Understanding the Truth: The “Four Noble Truths” explain why suffering occurs, and how to eliminate it. They are: Life entails suffering, this suffering is caused by delusion and attachment, there is a cure to this suffering which helps you achieve a state known as Nirvana, and to eliminate suffering you must follow the Noble Eightfold path.
- Getting to the Truth: The path towards enlightenment and Nirvana is through understanding and practicing the “Noble Eightfold Path” which consists of: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Now that you have this summary, this article will provide you more information (hyperlinks on this page take you to other articles that I wrote which explain a topic further).
There’s a Buddha In You
Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of the historical Buddha, known as Shakyamuni Buddha (or commonly referred to simply as “The Buddha”). The Buddha was born as Prince Siddhārtha Gautama over 2,600 years ago (his specific birth date is often a topic of speculation) in the region that now occupies India and Nepal.
- The Life of a Prince: The Prince led a life of luxury and privilege thanks to his father (and King of the city-state he ruled) who wanted him to become a great ruler, and not a religious leader (as one of the two predicted outcomes for his son). The King tried hard to keep the harsh realities of life away from the Prince, and kept him ignorant of the suffering and truth of everyday life.
- The Four Sights: Prince Siddhārtha, however, was curious and eventually left the palace grounds four times and observed four things (known as the “Four Sights”) that transformed his life: #1: All living things get old, #2: all living things get sick, #3: all living things die, and finally #4: he saw an ascetic who had given up ‘normal life’ and devoted himself to finding the cause of human suffering. After witnessing the first three sights, the fourth sight gave the Prince hope.
- The Decision: Determined to find the truth (about suffering and how to overcome it) for himself, he left the palace grounds, his life of luxury, and his loved ones, to become an ascetic.
- Learning, But Not Finding the Truth: Siddhārtha was by all accounts a prodigy who learned quickly, and could even understand and perform the most advanced meditative states. Still not finding the answers to his quest, he explored other religious teachings and finally was practicing one where he barely ate (by some accounts, only one grain of rice a day) and became very weak. It was during this time that he was bathing in a river and collapsed, almost being washed away and drowned.
- The Revlation: A young village girl named Sujata gave him a meal of rice milk which quickly replenished Siddhārtha’s deprived body. It was at this time he realized that moderation is the key (to be later called “the middle way”) and not to live life in the extremes. He then went to sit under a pipal (ficus) tree nearby and famously swore to meditate and not leave until he has found “the truth”. After some time in deep meditation he finally became “enlightened” (or “awakened”) and understood the ‘truth’, which is the cause of suffering (Dukkha) and how to eliminate it.
The Buddha taught that all sentient beings, but specifically as humans (as being a human is a rare and precious opportunity), can eliminate suffering in their life and transcend the cycle of birth and death. Why? Because everyone has inherent “Buddha Nature” within them, basically meaning that everyone’s true nature is that of a Buddha, but we are prevented from seeing this due to our own delusions, desires, and attachments (the historical Buddha never said “Buddha Nature”, and this is a Mahayana explanation, but is a good way to explain that we all can achieve enlightenment and nirvana). These delusions, desires, and attachments cause suffering in our lives.
It is important to note that Prince Siddhārtha was a human before he became a Buddha, and was human after he became a Buddha. A Buddha is not a god, deity, or any type of supernatural being, but is simply a human who has achieved enlightenment (understanding of the truth) and nirvana (eliminating the “fires” of greed, hatred, and ignorance).
Paging Doctor Buddha
The Buddha was very much like a doctor, diagnosing a sickness that has spread to all living things. Upon becoming enlightened, the Buddha gave his very first sermon where he explained what he had learned about suffering* (the Four Noble Truths), and how to eliminate it (the Noble Eightfold Path). This is the heart of Buddhism, and what he taught for 49 years before he died.
*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, etc.
The Four Noble Truths explain:
- The Symptom: Life entails suffering (“Dukkha”)
- The Diagnosis: This suffering is caused by delusion and attachment (“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”)
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.
The fourth Noble Truth is regarding the path to liberation, known as the Noble Eightfold Path. This path helps us overcome this ‘affliction’ or ‘sickness’ of “Dukkha” through wisdom, conduct, and discipline:
- 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.
This Noble Eightfold Path (click here to learn more) allows you to live the “Middle Way“, meaning it allows you to live a life of moderation, and not extremes. Before the Buddha become enlightened, he lived a life of extremes of power and luxury, to poverty and starvation. Extremes do not help achieve freedom (liberation), but following a path of moderation (middle way) does. As you learned earlier in this article, the Buddha learned that extremes (such as eating just one grain of rice a day in order to achieve a higher state) was foolish and almost cost him his life!
Here’s an infographic that can help explain it a little better (click image to view bigger if needed):
The Buddha Taught…A Lot
While this article is only meant as a quick introduction to Buddhism, there is much more to explore. The Buddha and other teachers provide a wealth of teachings, experiences, and ways to practice to help you reach enlightenment. The articles on my website take you through many of these (with more being added as I can write them) so they can make sense to the western reader.
- The Four Noble Truths: The Buddha’s first and last teachings were all about the Four Noble Truths. Learn more about this fundamental teaching.
- The Noble Eightfold Path: Understand the Buddha’s map to freedom from Dukkha
- Karma: You’ve probably heard of “Karma” before, and it is important to understand this concept as it is central to Buddhism. Karma governs the law of cause and effect (intentional deeds), which can directly impact your ability to be free of suffering, and achieve enlightenment.
- The Three Dharma Seals: All Buddhist teachings are “stamped” with these three seals so you know they are genuine. But more than that, they explain an extremely important concept in Buddhism, which is that of how the world really is. This is central because when you understand the way things truly are, you can reveal your true Buddha nature.
- Enlightenment: This is the goal of all Buddhists, and why we practice Buddhism, but what does it mean? A very difficult concept to explain, you’ll enjoy learning about it with this article.
- Rebirth: This is not the same as “reincarnation”, but it is often confused with that. Rebirth is also a core Buddhist teaching that is very important to understand.
- Nirvana: This is the concept related in the Third Noble Truth (and the goal of Buddhist practitioners). But what does it mean? Learn more in this article!
Free Quick Reference Card
To keep a quick reference of the basics of Buddhism, please click the image below for a high quality card you can print out: