Buddhism is an Indian belief system that began some 2,500 years ago by a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. Gautama began asking questions about his luxurious life, as well as life in general. His search leads him down very different paths to find answers to basic questions such as “why is there suffering?” He wanted to go deeper than the why.
He wanted to know the root cause of suffering. Gautama sought to find a way that people might be able to break the chains of the life of suffering. His quest for the answers to these questions required him to look deep within himself for the answers he was seeking and his efforts lead to the development of many schools of Buddhist thought in the thousands of years since the man who became the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Like all belief systems, there are many different branches of Buddhism. These vary slightly in the texts taught and rituals performed, but there are commonalities across all systems of belief, often called basic beliefs. The basic beliefs in Buddhism are the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts.
Though there many who still debate whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. What is not up for debate is how popular and strongly this belief system resonates with people. Since its inception some 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has become the fourth most popular religion in the world.
It now boasts over 520 million followers. Buddhism, like all religions and schools of thought, have different traditions and branches that adhere to slightly different customs, texts, beliefs, rituals, and the like. There is a lot of variance among the different branches of Buddhism. However, there are basic tenets and practices that are generally common among all the sects.
Most schools believe in the value of virtue and virtuous living, meditation, and monasticism. The show deference to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The overarching goal for the Buddhist is to attain enlightenment and Nirvana. This will allow them to break the cycle of suffering, life, death, and rebirth. Depending on the tradition adhered to, different texts and rituals may be the focus of study. What texts are most sacred and important may also vary. Despite all the differences, as noted above, the basic beliefs are largely the same. We will now look at them in more detail.
The Three Universal Truths
These universal truths serve as the foundation for Buddhist thought and practice. The first universal truth of Buddhism is that life is fluid. It is impermanent and always changing. The flux of life is something that we can accept or that can lead to further suffering. The second universal truth relates to the ever-changing nature of life. This means one cannot find meaning or happiness in the acquisition of material gain or from other people. A focus on these things will lead to more suffering due to want in life.
The third universal truth is that there is no “eternal self” or “I” that one can latch onto. Due to the nature of impermanence and change, we too are always changing from one moment to the next. The self is merely a set of traits and behaviors that are as impermanent as everything else in life.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha was a teacher and did not want his followers to revere him as a god. Rather, he wanted followers the truths he had discovered and to live their lives in accordance with them. This lead to his development of the Four Noble Truths. These provide the foundation for pretty much all sects of Buddhist thought. The four truths are as follows:
- Life for humans is suffering.
- Want, greed, and desire are what causes suffering.
- It is possible to escape the suffering of life.
- The way to escape suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
It is through the Noble Eightfold Path that followers of the Buddha can begin their path towards enlightenment, or to escape from the suffering due to the impermanence in life.
- The first step on the Eightfold path is having the proper understanding of the world. This is based on both the Three Universal Truths and the Four Noble Truths.
- Develop the values of compassion and kindness, avoiding selfishness and greed.
- Use the “right speech.” This means to be honest, avoid harmful words, and not to engage in slander or petty gossip.
- Live a life of right action, which involves living by the Five Precepts described below.
- Doing the right work in life. This means doing something that does no harm and/or is useful to humanity as a whole.
- Work towards the right efforts, which means encouraging positive thought and discouraging negative thought.
- Practice mindfulness, being aware and in the moment. This helps to develop an understanding of what and why you do what you do.
- Engage in regular, proper meditation as the practice of meditation is what will lead one to Nirvana.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts that help govern how one should live are adhered to across sects. The Precepts are guiding ideas on how to live a good life. These Precepts are:
- Do no harm – this means one should not harm living things, be they people, animals, etc.
- Only take what is given. This means that one should not steal or take more than what is offered to them.
- Lead a good life – understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path.
- Be kind in speech and manner – this means that the Buddhist should always be honest, compassionate and kind in their words, as well as actions.
- Avoid unhealthy substances of vice – the Buddhist does not take drugs or drink alcohol.
Meditation forms a huge part of Buddhist practice and is thus one of the most important elements of achieving enlightenment. This practice is far more difficult than many would think, at first. With focus, practice, and concentration, one can use this as a means to begin to look inward. This is where we find the truths we are all seeking and as a means to understand the teachings of the Buddha and other important teachers. It takes time and effort to really learn how to meditate in the proper manner.
Through meditation, one can be fully present in their life, but without desire. This means without suffering, which is the ideal state, referred to as enlightenment or Nirvana. In this practice, the Buddhist hopes to ultimately find a place of true quietness and calm at the moment, and it is this that is the absence of suffering.
The Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts are the basis and foundation for Buddhist thought. These are adhered to across sects. These concepts give those who practice Buddhism the guidance they need to live a just and moral life. It keeps them on the path towards Nirvana. This allows them to disengage from the life of suffering, death, and rebirth, most of us are tied into. Buddhist use these foundations to help guide their actions. Through practice, meditation, and living by basic beliefs Nirvana is attainable.