What Is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a set of methods that helps us to develop our full human potential by understanding the true nature of reality.

Founded 2,500 years ago in India by Siddhartha Gautama – better known as Buddha – Buddhism spread throughout Asia and is now the world’s fourth largest religion. Buddha spent most of his life teaching the methods for awakening that he had realized, so that others could become enlightened Buddhas themselves. He saw that while everyone is equal in their ability to become a Buddha, people also differ vastly in their preferences, interests and talents. Respecting this, he taught a wide variety of ways to overcome one’s limitations and realize one’s full potential.

Different aspects were emphasized in each culture that adopted Buddhism and although there are many forms of Buddhism, they all share its basic teachings.

The Basic Buddhist Teachings – Four Noble Truths

Buddha’s most fundamental teaching is known as the Four Noble Truths, which are four facts seen as true by highly realized beings:

First Noble Truth: True Problems

Although there are many joys to be had in life, every being – from the tiniest insect, to a homeless person, to a billionaire – faces problems. In between birth and death, we age and get sick, and our loved ones die. We face frustration and disappointment, not getting what we want, or encountering what we don’t want.

Second Noble Truth: True Cause of Problems

Our problems arise from complex causes and conditions, but Buddha said that the ultimate cause is our own ignorance of reality: the way our minds project impossible ways of existence on to ourselves and everyone and everything else.

Third Noble Truth: True Stopping of Problems

Buddha saw that it was possible to get rid of all our problems so that we never have to experience them again, by destroying their cause: our own ignorance.

Fourth Noble Truth: The True Path of Mind

Problems stop when we eliminate ignorance, by understanding reality correctly. We do this by realizing that everyone is interconnected and interdependent. On this basis we develop love and compassion for all beings equally. Once we’ve eliminated our confusion about how we and others exist, we’re able to act beneficially for ourselves and others.

The Range of Buddha’s Teachings

The Dalai Lama makes a threefold distinction for Buddhism:

  • Buddhist science of mind – how perception, thought and the emotions work from the point of view of subjective experience
  • Buddhist philosophy – ethics and logic, and Buddhism’s understanding of reality
  • Buddhist religion – belief in past and future lives, karma, rituals and prayer.

Buddhist science supplements modern neuroscience by providing an extensive map of the various cognitive functions of the mind, including sense perception, concentration, attention, mindfulness and memory, and both our positive and negative emotions. Through forging positive neural pathways, we can enhance our mind’s beneficial abilities.

Buddhist thinking relies more on investigation than on faith, so scientific findings are very helpful to Buddhist thinking. – The 14th Dalai Lama

On a physical level, Buddhist science also encompasses sophisticated medical systems that include treatments for numerous diseases. Externally, it presents a detailed analysis of matter and energy, with many similarities to quantum physics. It also discusses the origin, life and ending of the universe, asserting a stream of universes preceding the present one with no beginning.

Buddhist philosophy deals with issues such as interdependence, relativity and causality. It presents a detailed system of logic, based on set theory and debate, that helps us to understand the faulty projections of our minds.

Buddhist ethics are based on discriminating between what is beneficial and what is harmful, both to oneself and to others.

Irrespective of whether we are believers or agnostics, whether we believe in God or karma, everyone can pursue moral ethics. – The 14th Dalai Lama

It entails appreciating and developing the basic human values of kindness, honesty, generosity and patience, while trying as hard as possible not to harm others.

Buddhist religion deals with topics like karma, past and future lives, the mechanism of rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and the attainment of enlightenment. It includes practices such as chanting, meditation and prayers. There’s no single holy book in Buddhism, like a “Buddhist Bible,” as each tradition has their own texts based on the original teachings. Many of the texts from the Tibetan tradition can be found in our Original Texts section.

People can pray anytime and anywhere, although many choose to do so at temples or before shrines in their homes. The aim of prayer is not to be granted wishes, but to awaken our own inner strength, wisdom and compassion (See How to Develop Compassion).

There are no dietary laws, but most masters encourage students to be vegetarians as much as possible, and Buddha also instructed his followers not to drink alcohol or take drugs. Buddhist training is aimed at developing mindfulness and self-discipline, which we generally lose when we get drunk or high.

Buddhism has a monastic tradition with monks and nuns, who keep hundreds of vows including total celibacy. They shave their heads, wear robes, and live in monastic communities where they devote their lives to study, meditation, prayer and performing ceremonies for the lay community. Nowadays, many lay people study Buddhism and practice meditation in Buddhist centers.

Buddhism Is Open to Everyone

A human being just like us, Buddha saw the reality of how we actually exist, overcame all his shortcomings and realized his full potential; in Buddhism we call this “enlightenment” (See What Is Enlightenment?).

Buddha couldn’t simply wave his hands and make all our problems go away. Instead, he showed us a path we can follow in order to free ourselves of life’s problems and develop the good qualities of our minds – love, compassion, generosity, wisdom and many more.

The teachings on how to develop these qualities are open to everyone – regardless of cultural background or religion. Buddhism doesn’t involve faith in God or gods, but simply asks us to examine the teachings as if we were buying a really precious item. In this way, we come to appreciate the essence of Buddha’s teachings – ethics, compassion and wisdom – where we naturally refrain from harmful actions and actively engage in positive ones, beneficial to ourselves and others. This can only lead to what is desired equally by each and every one of us: happiness and well-being.