Buddhism 101 For Beginners

by Brittany Chavers
Buddhism

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world, with over 520 million followers. Followers of Buddha teachings are called Buddhists. This religion possesses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices that are in various scriptures and sacred texts.

 “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.”

This quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, describes Buddhism well.

Buddhist teachings value giving, kindness, and respect for all living creatures above everything else. The origin of Buddhism is an excellent example of the religion’s core strengths and philosophies.

The Beginning of Buddha

Buddhism originated in ancient India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, also known as “the Buddha,” lived during the 5th century B.C.

The Buddha was born a prince into a wealthy royal family in Nepal and would live a life with little suffering due to his lavish and sheltered lifestyle. Some Buddhists believe that a holy man prophesize Gautama would one day be a great ruler of the land or lead a great spiritual movement.

After hearing the prophecy, his parents decided they would keep him away from the public to ensure he would become a great leader of the land and not a spiritual leader. They gave him everything he could ever want, and more so, he would be less tempted to leave the castle.

His parent’s plan worked for a while, but eventually, Gautama decided to tour the land he would be ruling. He immediately was exposed to the suffering and sickness of others. He even came across a dead body.

Buddhism
beautiful golden hand of sitting buddha in wat si chum temple in sukhothai, thailand

Despite the sparse and minimal life these people led, they still seemed happy and determined to keep going. Their strength moved him so much that from that day forward, he decided to give up the lifestyle he was so accustomed to and endure poverty.

By keeping Gautama away from the suffering of people for so long in hopes of forcing him to be a leader of others, his parents made it so he would see the stark contrast between suffering and indulgence. This contrast would become a large part of Buddhist teachings and what inspired him to embark on his spiritual journey.

Buddha’s Journey

According to the Buddhist sutras, the suffering of humanity and its seemingly endless repetition due to rebirth was Gautama’s first concern and motivation. He set out on a journey to somehow end this repeated suffering through spiritual means.

Early Buddhist canonical texts and early biographies of Gautama state that Gautama first studied under Vedic teachers named Alara Kalama, or Arada Kalama in Sanskrit, and Uddaka Ramaputta, or Udraka Ramaputra in Sanskrit.

He learned meditation and ancient philosophies from Arada and Udraka. Arada instilled within Gautama the concept of nothingness and emptiness. Udraka taught him the idea of “what is neither seen nor unseen.”

What he learned under Arada and Udraka was a start, but not nearly enough to end all of the sufferings in the world, so he began to learn the practice of asceticism and then dhyama. Gautama found these teachings to be insufficient in helping him to attain his goal.

The Bodhi Tree

Finding these teachings to be insufficient to attain his goal, he turned to the practice of asceticism. Asceticism is an extreme form of deprivation, which means no food or other earthly distractions. Gautama found this method left him unable to think clearly and reach his end goal.

Once asceticism too fell short of his needs, he turned to the practice of dhyana or meditation. He sat in under a Ficus religiosa tree now referred to as the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, South Asia, and meditated for a long time.

By working through his karma and his former lives, he attained enlightenment. Now fully enlightened, he was The Buddha. He attained enlightenment using a method he called the Middle Way. This method was to be the spiritual practice that would end suffering from rebirths in Samsara for everyone.

The Middle Way is rightfully named, for it means existing between two extremes. Thus, saying one should lead a life without indulgences but also without complete deprivation.

Achieving Buddha in Buddhism

In Buddhism, anyone can achieve the state of Buddha through years of spiritual investigation, studying, using meditation, and gaining ultimate wisdom. Buddhist teachings and practices help to facilitate people in achieving Buddha.

Little monk praying with candles in front of buddha statue inside old pagoda, Bagan Myanmar

While many Buddhists practice Buddism as their religion, the concept goes far beyond belief. Whereas most religions have strict practices and laws, Buddhism is the opposite. If a part of Buddhism doesn’t resonate with your spirit, then you are free not to follow it.

Another reason Buddhism differs from other religions is that to a lot of Buddhists is because it is more of a philosophy or’ way of life’ that can be incorporated into any religion or lack thereof. Many view the meaning of the word philosophy or’ love of wisdom’ as the Buddhist path because it can be summed up as love and understanding as a way of life.

Most Buddhists believe that if they are leading a life of non-violence, kindness, and respect for all forms of life, then they will be lead to achieving Buddha. Others believe the key to attaining Buddha is recognizing that everyone gets sick or die and coming to peace with the impermanence of youth, life, and health.

Buddhist Beliefs

The Buddha is not a type of God, just like the prophecy predicted he was a great spiritual leader. He was just a mortal man that found the root of all suffering and how to end it and dedicated his life to teaching others how to find their own paths to freedom and peace.

Karma

Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is of great importance in Buddhism. This idea was common in India before the Buddha became a spiritual leader, but he gave the belief a more complete and comprehensible meaning.

So, why do some people suffer and others do not? Why do some people suffer more than others? Either this inequality between different people has a cause, or it is purely accidental luck. Buddha and most Buddhists believe that the cause of inherent inequality among people is due to Karma.

This would mean that nothing happens to a person that he or she does not deserve. According to Buddhism, the Karma you accumulate is the result of your own past and present actions. Even those born with inflictions or into poverty had accumulate negative Karma in their past lives and those born into wealth had accumulated positive Karma.

We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven and Hell here on earth and we are the sole architects of our own fate.

Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

Much of Buddhist teachings center around how to escape life’s never-ending suffering and find freedom by focusing on the Four Noble Truths. These are the truths Buddha realized while on his path to enlightenment.

Buddhist praying
Novices praying with candles in front of buddha statue inside old pagoda, Bagan Myanmar

1. Suffering exists (Dukkha)

2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires (Samudaya)

3. Suffering ends when attachment to desire ceases (Nirodha)

4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

These truths are easy to understand if you think of them as the root of all suffering. Dukkha, the first noble truth is suffering exists because people crave and desire. The Buddha identifies the problem (suffering) first.

In the Second Noble Truth, he identified its cause. Suffering comes from wanting what is not permanent or necessary, and it originates from within your mind and keeps you stuck in old patterns and karma.

In the third Noble Truth, he tells us there is a cure for our illness and what it is. To stop Dukkha or suffering, we must start by giving up wanting and needing.

The fourth and final Noble Truth, the Buddha gives us the Eightfold Path, which is the how-to method on how we can end our suffering.

The Eightfold Path of Buddhism

The Eightfold Path also is known, as Middle Path or Middle Way is a system followed to achieve spiritual enlightenment and end suffering. The eight aspects of this path are:

  • Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
  • Right thought (Samma sankappa)
  • Right speech (Samma vaca) 
  • Right action (Samma kammanta)
  • Right livelihood (Samma ajiva) 
  • Right effort (Samma vayama)
  • Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
  • Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

The primary purpose of the eightfold path is to begin mastering good ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. This path will mean something different for everyone, depending on his or her perspective, karma, beliefs, and stage of life.

The path does not need to be followed and practiced one after in order, but instead, they can all be worked on and developed at the same time or in whatever order depending on the person. They are all linked, and each one can help a person master another on the path to enlightenment.

Becoming Buddhist

As long as you work at being a good person, training your mind to be positive and satisfied, and gain wisdom from doing those things, you are already practicing Buddhism. You can also begin meditating, practicing mindfulness, and studying the eightfold path and other Buddhist teachings from sacred texts.

Buddhism is not a belief system that operates with a set of rules, or a “one size fits all” way to be. It is a way of life and philosophy to help you achieve ultimate liberation and peace in this lifetime. So, however, you want to become a Buddhist is the right way for you.

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