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Buddhism: Introduction

World Faith

Buddhism: Key facts

Information: This section contains a brief summary of the history and key teachings of Buddhism. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Buddhists do not worship any God/gods. They also do not worship the Buddha. Rather, they simply revere him, and follow his teachings as one who understood and taught the way to be Enlightened.

The Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama, and as his family were Hindus he was raised to be a Hindu. Siddhartha was also brought up in luxury in a palace, and during his younger years had been prevented by his father from seeing anything bad in the world. However, he began to question the nature of things outside the palace, and as such he also began to feel a sense of dissatisfaction with his own life.

Reluctantly, Siddhartha's father allowed him to leave the palace. However, Siddhartha's experience of doing so led him to see for the first time an old person, a sick person, a dead body and holy people (ascetics). These experiences (also known as the four sights), led Siddhartha to leave behind his life of luxury (and also a wife and son), to join with other ascetics to search for the meaning of life.

Siddhartha Gautama - Freeze in New York church (December 2005))

Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha)

Siddhartha's great desire was to understand why people became dissatisfied in life, such as he himself had done. Siddhartha wanted to know why this occurred, how people could prevent this from happening, and also how they could be free from it.

Buddhism began in North-east India around 531 BCE, when Siddhartha came to understand why suffering (dukkha) occurred, how people could prevent themselves from suffering, and also how they could be free from it. Knowledge of these things is called the Buddha's Dharma (or teaching).

The basic teachings of the Dharma were set out in The Four Noble Truths. These are:

  1. People have an illness: Suffering (dukkha).
  2. The cause of the illness: Suffering is caused by desire (tanha).
  3. Accepting that there is a cure for the illness: Removing selfish desires, craving and attachment to things in this world will reduce dukkha.
  4. The medicine: Following The Noble Eightfold Path is the cure for suffering.

The Eightfold Path is not actually a method for achieving Enlightenment, but more a way of understanding how someone can work towards achieving it. It basically sets out the right approach, mental attitude, and behaviour one needs to adopt, in order to achieve it.

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The ultimate goal for Buddhists is to attain Nirvana. This occurs when one's selfish desires and attachment to the things of this world, have been totally extinguished in a person.

An important stage on the journey towards Enlightenment is realising that everything in the world passes away, and that nothing in it is permanent (anicca). The idea of impermanence even goes so far as to suggest that no human has a permanent self, or soul (anatta).

Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the cycle of samsara (the cycle of birth, death and rebirth). Part of being freed from this cycle is to realise that everything in the world changes, even ourselves. Buddhists also believe that if people accept the idea of anatta and anicca, then they will not be surprised when things change in both the world and in their lives, and as such will not experience dukkha.

One of the things the Buddha drew attention to was that people often expect things to stay as they are, but they cannot and will not do so. For example, everyone knows they will get old, but often start to fret and worry when they see the first signs of ageing. However, the Buddha would simply say to people at this point that they knew they were getting old from the moment they were born, so why be surprised by this? Rather, they should accept getting old as an inevitable fact of life.

Like Hindus, Buddhists also believe in karma, which means that the way a person lives their life will affect their future rebirth. A person will be reincarnated (or reborn) into the world, as long as bad karma and dukkha remain in them.

The Buddha made quite a significant detour from the Hindu notion of karma. He argued that karma was not so much dependent on past lives, but also how one lived now. He did this because he wanted to challenge the Hindu teaching that people deserve a certain kind of life, simply because of their past life. Instead, he suggested that people have the chance to change their lives for better (or worse), by their attitudes and actions.

Meditation is very important to Buddhists. It is a technique for quietening and focusing their thoughts, so that they can think clearly about life, understand who they are (anatta), and to accept the true nature of the world around them (anicca).

Buddhists do not believe they should try to change the world, but only the attitudes and desires of those living in it. They do not try to convert people to be Buddhists, lest this creates more suffering in the world. They believe in showing the truth of what they believe in how they live. The Sangha, the community of Buddhists, all work to spread compassion around the world.

Over the years the teachings of the Buddha have become diversified into Theravada Buddhism ("Doctrine of the elders"), Mahayana Buddhism ("Great Vehicle") and Vajrayana Buddhism ("Diamond Vehicle").

Buddhism is fast becoming a popular religion for spiritually-minded people, especially those who do not believe that God exists. In Western countries (such as the UK), Zen Buddhism and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) have become popular amongst those newly attracted to Buddhism.

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