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A lotus flower, a common Buddhist symbol (Image from Spiritual Experience)

Before Jesus preached what would become Christianity and Muhammad spread what would become Islam, Siddhartha Gautama (“he who has attained his goals”), a well-to-do prince who lived a sheltered life, wandered from his private palaces and witnessed the reality of the world – the reality of suffering. At 29, he left his pampered life to find the path to overcome suffering. This answer he discovered after days meditating under a fig tree in the village Bodh Gaya, and became the Buddha (“he who is awake”).

Beliefs

Some call Buddhism a religion; some, a philosophy; and some, a way of life. Whether or not it deserves a place among the major world religions depends on what one considers a religion. If religion is limited to worship of a supernatural god or gods, then Buddhism is not a religion. However, if religion is viewed as a set of beliefs or principles, then Buddhism is a religion.

Though Buddha’s image is often cast in statues and Buddhists may invoke Buddha in their chants, the Buddha himself did not present himself as a god and Buddhists do not treat him as such. Buddhists acknowledge that the Buddha was just a man, with the defining quality of having achieved Enlightenment. The Buddha is a symbol of the ideal, a representation of what all men should strive to attain.

The Gautama Buddha’s teachings form the base of Buddhist beliefs. The essence of Buddhism is summarized in the Four Noble Truths[1]:

  1. Dukkha, the truth of suffering: Suffering exists.
  2. Samudāya, the truth of the origin of suffering: Suffering is caused by desire and ignorance.
  3. Nirodha, the truth of the end of suffering: Suffering ends when one achieves Enlightenment, like the Buddha.
  4. Magga, the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering: Through the Eightfold Path, one may end suffering.

Following the Eightfold Path, requires right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

In addition, Buddhists abide by the Five Moral Precepts, which mandate restraint from harming life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicating oneself.

Similar to Hinduism, Buddhists believe in a cycle of birth and death. When one dies, his soul leaves his body and seeks an existence elsewhere. Depending on the karmic actions of the previous life, the soul may rebirth in one of six realms: heaven, human, asura (unhappy, jealous demi-gods), hungry ghost, animals, or hell.[2]

Only through release of all desire – Enlightenment – may one escape this cycle. Thereby, a Buddhist enters Nirvana, the ultimate goal of the journey. In Nirvana, suffering, desire, and selfishness do not exist.

Holy books

The term Tripitaka [“three baskets”], also called the Pali Canon, refers to the Buddhist scriptures canonical to Theravada Buddhism (see “Sects” below). The name comes from the division of the writings into three baskets: Vinaya Pitaka, the Discipline Basket; Sutra Pitaka, the Discourse Basket, and Abhidharma Pitaka, the Special Teachings.[3] These are the discourses of the Gautama Buddha, preached orally and later transcribed.

In addition to the Tripitaka, Mahayana Buddhists regard the 2,184 Mahayana Sutras as sacred scripture. These sutras were written after the Buddha lived, and other Buddhist schools of thought eye them warily.

Two texts exclusive to Tibetan Buddhists are The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, works from the 14th century by teachers Je Tsongkhapa and Karma Lingpa. The latter discusses what the deceased should expect in passing through the stages from death to rebirth.

Sects

Numerous schools branched out from Buddhism, the main divisions being Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

  • Theravada, “Doctrine of the Elders”: This form of Buddhism most closely adheres to the original teachings of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhists believe that one may only attain Enlightenment through the same path as the Gautama Buddha.[4]
  • Mahayana, “The Greater Vehicle”: This form of Buddhism allows for more flexibility in attaining Enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists believe that one may enter Nirvana with the help of bodhisattvas, one who had rid themselves of desire and could enter nirvana, but chose to postpone entrance so as to help others.[4]

Vajrayana Buddhism, the main form of Buddhism in Tibet, developed from Mahayana Buddhism. Of the religious sects, it deviates most from traditional Buddhism, employing mantras, incantations, rituals, and magic to accelerate the long process of reaching Nirvana that Theravada Buddhism requires.[5]

Worship

In addition to a shrine a home, usually containing a statue of Buddha and flowers before which one offers goods, lights, candles, chants, and prayers, some Buddhists visit communal temples.[6] The form of temple varies by region. In China and Japan, pagodas, a derivation of Indian stupas, are common. Both pagodas and stupas house sacred Buddhist relics. At other temples, one may perform daily rites of worship before other Buddhist statues.

A common misconception is that Buddhists worship the Buddha as a god. In fact, the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the bowing before a statue of the Buddha is worship to the Buddha out of respect for the gifts of his teachings.[7]

Celebrations

The celebrations observed depend on the country and the sect. The globally celebrated ones surround events in the life of the Gautama Buddha, the most important being Vesak, also spelled Wesak. Falling on the full moon in May, Vesak celebrates the birth of Buddha. In Theravada Buddhism, it also celebrates his Enlightenment and death.[8]

Buddhism Today

As of 2010, the 488-535 million adherents to Buddhism make it the fourth largest world religion. Almost half of the world population of Buddhists live in China, which borders Nepal, the birthplace of the Gautama Buddha. Most Buddhists live in Southeast Asia, where they constitute 50% or more of nations’ populations. Nevertheless, Buddhist or not, followers of all faiths may relate the essence of Buddhism: the striving toward the end of suffering.

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More posts in “World Religions”

[1] Basics of Buddhism
[2] Cycle of birth and death in Buddhism
[3] Buddhist texts
[4] Major sects of Buddhism
[5] Vajrayana Buddhism
[6] Worship in Buddhism
[7] Buddhism FAQs
[8] Wesak and Vassa

Disclaimer: I am not a religious scholar or theologian, but only a young woman trying to better understand the beliefs of those around me. I do not claim infallibility in my analysis of religion, and apologize for any errors.