Buddhism is an ancient belief system and set of practices that seek to help the follower free themselves from suffering. To achieve this state, the Buddha believed that you have to look within. Through introspection and specific action and practice, enlightenment can be attained. When one becomes enlightened, they no longer have want or desire. It is a process that lasts a lifetime, but one that many have followed passionately.
This guide will provide a basic overview of the history and tenets of Buddhism. It will then describe the ways in which Buddhism is practiced. These can help one begin their path to Nirvana.
What is Buddhism?
In short, Buddhism is a spiritual belief system. There are some who liken it to a philosophy and others who call it a religion. Since its inception 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has gained hundreds of millions of followers.
Just as with other belief systems, there are many different sects of Buddhism. These sects do have many commonalities. They differ in practice and texts seen as most important. But the basic concepts and pretexts are the same. The foundation of Buddhism is to free oneself from desire. For the Buddhist, desire is the root of suffering.
Buddhism was started by a wealthy prince named Siddhartha Gautama. Gautama began his quest once he started to look inwards. He saw that he led a life of luxury, whereas there was so much suffering in the rest of the world. He set out to find answers to the question “why do we suffer.” In the process, he also sought to find a way that one might free themselves from this cycle of suffering.
The Journey of the Buddha
Gautama had lived a charmed life and had been shielded from a good deal of the suffering that existed in the world beyond the palace gates. It is said that the journey of the Buddha began after leaving the royal grounds and witnessing the suffering of humanity first hand. Before he left his sheltered environment, he had never seen the suffering of regular people. Legend states that upon leaving the grounds, he saw an old man, a sick man, and a corpse, which affected him greatly.
Upon witnessing this, Gautama left his world of luxury and set off to live as a homeless holy man in the vein of the monk. He traveled and saw that suffering was truly something that almost all humans dealt with. First, he studied with known religious figures in hopes that they would provide answers. He did not find answers in these individuals.
What he found on his journey was that suffering stems from desire and want. To free oneself from suffering then means to free oneself from desire. His path took him many places and would ultimately lead to his becoming the Buddha. The word “Buddha” simply means “awakened one.”
After he had studied with various religious figures, Gautama met anesthetic who urged denial of the flesh. For some six years, he lived in an extreme asceticism. However, he found that he still had not escaped the suffering he was looking to rid himself of.
The Middle Way
Gautama had lived in many different ways. He had grown up in luxury. He had lived amongst the spiritual guides of his day, also had lived as an extreme aesthetic, denying himself for years. None of these had allowed him to become free of suffering. This lead Gautama to look for what would be dubbed “the Middle Way.” This can be seen as some sort of “happy medium” between a life of grandeur and one of willful self-denial.
This Middle Way, Gautama would argue, is the path towards freedom from want and suffering. It is the path to enlightenment. He practiced deep meditation and sought to find what the Middle Way entailed. This was when he began his path to becoming the Buddha.
History states that Gautama was meditating beneath a Bodhi tree for 49 days. The Bodhi tree would become known as the “tree of awakening.” He was deep in meditation, pondering his existence. It was in this deep state that he achieved enlightenment. The Buddha was content and at peace.
Legend states that in this state of Nirvana, the Buddha was visited by the king of the gods, Brahma. Brahma asked the Buddha to become a teacher and share what he had learned of enlightenment with the world.
Buddha the Teacher
After achieving enlightenment and being urged by Brahma to share his knowledge with the world, the Buddha began his teaching. He did not want to be revered as a god. Nor did he feel that the path to enlightenment required the worship of any gods. Rather, what mattered was what is called dharma. Dharma means perfect teaching.
The Buddha was thought of as a perfect teacher, bringing Dharma to his disciples. His biggest message was one of compassion. He felt that part of the path towards enlightenment was being able to teach and live with compassion towards all living creatures. He taught his philosophy to a number of disciples.
The teachings he spread is called the Gangetic Plain for more than 45 years.
It is important to note that Gautama was the Supreme Buddha, but he was not the only one. The fundamental elements of the teachings of Buddhism mean that anyone has the potential to become a Buddha. Meaning “awakened one,” it doesn’t imply that Gautama is the only one. Rather, he was the first or original Buddha. While anyone can become a Buddha, there have been very few who have actually attained this status.
Sangha is a word that in both Sanskrit and Pali means something along the lines of “community” or “association.” This original group started out very small, but they would be the members who would help spread the Dharma of the Buddha to the world. Not all Buddhists are members of the Sangha in most sects of Buddhism. However, in the Mahayana practice, all Buddhists may be referred to as part of the Sangha.
The first two lay disciples of the Buddha were brothers from Balkh, now in Afghanistan. Taphussa and Bhallika were both merchants. Legend states that the Buddha gave them each a hair from his head. Now holy relics, these hairs are said to be housed at Shwe Dagon Temple in Burma.
The brothers were never members of the Sangha, however. After teaching the merchants, the Buddha traveled to northern India where he gave his first sermon to five disciples. These five members, along with the Buddha, formed the original Sangha. These would be the individuals who would spread the teachings of the Buddha. Within just a few months, some 60 adherents had already become arahants. After the conversion of three brothers, all called Kassapa, their numbers continued to grow. Ultimately, the original sangha would have some 1,000 members.
The five members who, along with the Buddha, make up the Sangha, became arahants. Arahant, or arhat, is a Sanskrit and Pali word for someone who has achieved enlightenment in the Theravada tradition. In other sects of Buddhism, this term denotes someone who has advanced along the path to enlightenment but has not achieved Buddhahood.
This term, while important, does have quite varied meaning across different Buddhist traditions. Many traditions believe that the arahant has only achieved an imperfect approximation of enlightenment. Regardless of the differences in what this term means across sects, the arahant is an important part of Buddhist tradition. Almost all sects revere the arahants in a similar way that Christians revere saints or prophets. Not as divine, but as someone who has attained a higher level of being.
The Travel and Spread of Buddhist Teachings
The lore surrounding the travels and teachings of the Buddha indicates that he traveled far to spread his teachings. He traveled through Nepal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and more. It is said that he would teach anyone who was willing to listen and learn. His students were a wide-ranging group of people. He instructed nobles, the poorest of the poor, and even convicted murderers and cannibals.
Both the Buddha himself, as well as the other members of the sangha traveled India and its surrounding environs, spreading the dharma. It is said that they traveled all year except during the Vassa rainy season, which lasted 4 months. This did not mean that they were not giving lessons during this time. Rather, those interested would have to come to the sagha, rather than the other way around.
Buddhism Basic Concepts
While, as we have noted, there are different schools of Buddhist thought, there are common beliefs. One of the most important aspects of Buddhist thought is the concept of impermanence. For the Buddhist, nothing is permanent. Everything is fleeting. This means life, the self, and everything else. It is our efforts to hold on to some concrete notion of permanence that furthers suffering.
Another common concept among Buddhists is called reincarnation. Though in actual Buddhist thought, this word is not typically used. Basically, the Buddhist believes in the cyclical nature of life. Birth, living, death, rebirth, and so on. It is more accurately referred to as rebirth. For the Buddhist who achieves Nirvana, they have freed themselves from this cycle. This means that in addition to no longer suffering, one would never have to be reborn.
One of the more important concepts in Buddhism is that of impermanence. Basically, this is the idea that everything is subject to change and always in flux. Nothing is stable in a tangible manner that can be grasped on to from one minute to the next. Continuity of the self is more of an illusion than a reality. In essence, impermanence can be likened to entropy. Everything decays. Everything that is born, dies. Often called anicca, impermanence is one of the fundamental truths of existence. The self, life, creation, are all states that come into existence and then cease to exist. All realms, even gods, are subject to this concept of impermanence. In Buddhism, because there is no static self, attachments to self cause suffering.
As rebirth is a very important part of Buddhist teaching, it makes sense to delve into it a bit more. There are many misconceptions about what the Buddhist means by this concept. This is not the common misconception of someone coming back in another life as a cheetah.
Rather, for the Buddhist, rebirth is a cycle, and it isn’t a good one. The Buddhist refers to the cycle of rebirth as dukkha, which means painful. The path towards enlightenment and liberation from suffering will also free the follower from the dukkha cycle of rebirth. Basically, for the Buddhist, rebirth is associated with thoughts and actions in life. It is these thoughts and actions that will lead someone to an endless cycle of rebirth after death.
Even within Buddhism, there are very different ways of thinking of rebirth. This is still a contention and highly debated part of the belief system. There are many different ideas as to what part of one is reborn in each incarnation. There is also discussion as to how long one must wait to be reborn upon death. With the idea that there is no concrete self, what transitions from one life to the next remains unclear.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are part of the basic foundation of all schools of Buddhist thought. These truths are what guide the basic reality for the Buddhist.
The First Noble Truth is that everyone and everything suffers. Suffering and lack of satisfaction is something that all humans must deal with.
The Second Noble Truth is that desire is the cause of suffering. It is through attachment and wants that humans suffer. Attachment to things that are impermanent will naturally lead to suffering.
The Third Noble Truth is that there can be an end to desire. An end to desire means that an end to suffering is possible.
The Fourth Noble Truth states that this end comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is also adhered to across Buddhist tradition. It is by following this path that one has the chance to achieve enlightenment. This will free us from the cycle of death and rebirth. This is the journey of a lifetime for the Buddhist.
The first step on the Eightfold Path is to understand and accept the Four Noble Truths. This means seeing reality as it really is. It means being free from delusions and notions of a static self. This requires an acceptance of the ever-changing nature of life. It is a way to develop wisdom. One develops wisdom through a deep understanding of themselves and others.
The second step on the Eightfold Path involves right thinking. This is the conscious decision to correct the course of one’s life in accordance with the Precepts and Noble Truths. Right thinking involves freeing oneself from a self-centered nature. It involves the deep cultivation of compassion, empathy, and loving kindness.
The third step on the Eightfold Path is right speech. This means that one does not lie, gossip, or engage in idle chatter. One must use speech that is kind and free of any deception. One’s words must be intended to help or infused with compassion.
The fourth step on the Eightfold Path is right conduct. This involves following the Five Precepts, outlined below. This means living and acting in accordance with compassion and kindness. One’s actions and conduct should never harm others. It should show compassion for all living things.
The fifth step on the Eightfold Path is to pursue a right livelihood. To have a right livelihood, one cannot partake in work that causes any harm. One should not take work that will distract them from the Path.
The sixth step on the Eightfold Path is right effort. This means that one should seek to live a life of moderation. One should focus on their spiritual progress without becoming zealous. This entails working to exist in more benevolent mindstates. It also means working to live in the moment more fully.
The seventh step on the Eightfold Path entails right mindfulness. Mindfulness involves paying very close attention to one’s mood states and thoughts. This state of monitoring will help you rid your mind and heart of improper thoughts and desire. Cultivate a deep awareness of your present moment and reality.
The eighth and final step on the Eightfold Path is right concentration. This refers to the need to practice proper, deep, and regular meditation. It is through the act of meditation that one will rid themselves of desire and attachment.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are, in essence, ethical guidelines. They guide the Buddhist in how to live a good and right life. It is through these Precepts that one lives a life in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.
The first Precept is to do no harm. This means not to destroy or endanger any living creature.
The second Precept involves only taking what is given. This means not taking more than one’s a fair share.
The third Precept is to refrain from wrongdoing, sexually. This means not engaging in any sort of sexual misconduct. It does not prohibit the Buddhist from sexual activity.
The fourth Precept is to avoid wrong speech. This means that one speaks compassionately. It also means that one does not lie or gossip.
The fifth Precept requires one to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
There is no special equipment or renunciation required to become a practicing Buddhist. In essence, to be a Buddhist means to follow the teachings of the Buddha. This means that you understand the basic fundamental concepts. It also means that you partake in moral, right behavior and thought. This also requires a deep commitment to meditation. It is an imperative step of the path towards enlightenment. It is through the practice of meditation that one will ultimately reach Nirvana. And it was during a deep and intense meditation session that Gautama became the Supreme Buddha.
To many, once you have an understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and agree to live by the Five Precepts, you are a Buddhist. In some sects, there can be a small ceremony called Taking the Three Refuges, but this is not something done in all traditions. Buddhism is a way of life and a way of viewing the world. It does not require belief or reverence to any specific gods. It is more about your actions, your thought, and how you attend to your life.
To be a practicing Buddhist, you simply live your life in accordance with the basic tenets of Buddhism. For some this will require a greater emphasis on some areas than others. Perhaps you will have to focus more of right speech or right thought than someone else. Through your thoughts and actions, as well as through meditation, one becomes and is a Buddhist.
Meditation is one of the most important aspects for the practicing Buddhist. It can also be one of the hardest parts to master. The practice of meditation allows one to go deep within themselves. It is here that one finds the answers to the fundamental questions of life. It is also here that one will achieve enlightenment.
To learn to meditate properly is a process and it will take time. Most people start out slowly and work their way up to longer, deeper meditation sessions. When one meditates, one clears their mind of all thought. This makes one really present at the moment. When this state is perfected, one is free from want and desire. That is, free from suffering. This is the ultimate end goal for the practicing Buddhist.
However, this should not be the primary focus. Many people practice their entire lives and do not achieve the level of clarity and enlightenment that some do. Even for those who do not attain Nirvana, meditation is a helpful practice. Studies have shown it to be highly valuable at reducing stress, lessening anxiety, and as a great means to recharge.
Once one delves into meditation. they will see that there is more to it than they might have originally thought. There are different types of meditation. People meditate for different purposes and towards different ends.
Meditating for the First Time
Those who are longtime practitioners of meditation advise those new to the practice to start small. Trying to meditate for five minutes at a stretch is more than enough for the beginner. To get the most out of your practice, you need to find a quiet and private place.
Once you have selected your location, find a comfortable seat on the floor. Most people sit on a cushion or directly on the floor with their back straight and legs crossed. You can use a chair if you need to, but try not to lean against it. Place your palms face up on your thighs. You want to be seated upright, but not rigidly so.
Once you are in position, you want to direct your gaze slightly downward and find a comfortable position to rest your eyes. It is time to pay attention to your breathing. You want to maintain an awareness of your overall environment, but focus your attention on your breath. Stay with your breathing as you inhale and exhale. This is one of the best ways to get in the proper mindset.
As you continue your practice, take note of your thoughts and feelings. This does not mean to pass any judgment, positive or negative, onto the emotions or thoughts. Just note them and then let them go. While doing this, you should still be focused on your breath and maintaining your comfortable yet straight posture.
You can end your meditation session whenever you wish. Many start for just a short period of time and then work their way up as they become more practiced. There is no set amount of time that people meditate for. You can obtain excellent results from a short session as much as a lengthy one. Meditation can also be rather uncomfortable at first. It takes time to develop the right posture and get used to the experience. Many people try a lot of different positions and locations before they find what works best for them.
Buddhism is a popular and ancient belief system. It has gained hundreds of millions of followers since the Buddha set out on his quest for answers 2,500 years ago. Buddhism appeals to people because it gets at the heart of existence. It uncovers the nature of suffering, which is desire and attachment. The Buddha provided an outline for how to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. An understanding of the Four Noble Truths is the basis for all teachings. Following the Eightfold Path and living in accordance with the Five Precepts will allow one to journey on the path to enlightenment.