What is Buddhism:
Buddhism is an Eastern religion and philosophy based on the teachings
attributed to an prince-turned-ascetic named Siddhartha Gautama. It is
chiefly concerned with suffering and how to overcome it. The goal of Buddhism
is to attain Nibbana or Nirvana – a state of mind that is completely
at peace, no longer craves and therefore no longer suffers. Understanding
how to achieve this state is expected to be attained through meditation
and mental training. Buddhists also believe in rebirth, which is in turn
influenced by karma – the idea that a person’s actions attracts
either happiness or hardship depending on the intent behind them. Much
like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism varies greatly across the nationalities
it has encompassed.
How Buddhism began:
Siddhartha Gautama was a Prince born around the 4th Century BCE. There
is archaeological and historical evidence attesting to his existence as
a person, though in the stories that contain the particulars of his life
as a religious teacher, it’s often unclear how much is actual and
how much is folk lore. The sayings of Buddha were passed down orally for
three or four centuries before being written down in what is known as
the Pali Canon. According to these, Siddhartha left his family and luxurious
lifestyle at age 29 to become an ascetic – an indigent holy man
who voluntarily takes on a life of poverty and contemplation in order
to reach spiritual enlightenment. After unsuccessful attempts to find
satisfaction through the leadership of other teachers, he decided that
self-deprivation was actually working against him, not for him. He changed
his tact, and after nourishing his body, sat under a tree to meditate
for several weeks. During those weeks, he made several realizations about
the nature of suffering, reality, self and what to do to cease suffering.
Afterwards, he began teaching others about what he had discovered and
showing them ways to discover it for themselves. His movement grew, and
was carried on by his supporters after his death.
Who is a Buddhist:
The least nebulous definition of who can be labeled a Buddhist is a person
that has undertaken the practice of "taking refuge in the Triple
Gem". It is roughly equivalent to the Nicene creed, the Sinner's
prayer, or the sacrament of confirmation or the Islamic profession of
faith. It demonstrates that the believer accepts 3 "gems" as
tools to help find enlightenment. These "gems" are the Buddha,
the dharma (doctrines), and the sangha (religious community). It can be
a private decision or a formal ritual at a temple.
Aspiring Buddhists are advised to thoroughly investigate Buddhism before
making this commitment. Once they’ve become a Buddhist, they are
expected to strive to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct
How is Buddhism different from other religious views:
One distinguishing feature of Buddhism is that instead of striving for
an eternal afterlife of peace, the ultimate goal is actually non-existence
– to escape the constant cycle of life, death and rebirth. In Buddhism,
nothing is considered permanent, therefore an eternity in any particular
state is not possible. A person’s notion of self and of reality
are said to be illusions.
Buddhism doesn’t have a doctrine of judgment or sin. One’s
thoughts and actions have direct consequences that are not consciously
administered by an interventionist god as punishment or reward, but arise
naturally in a 'cause and effect' relationship.
A few misconceptions:
One of the most common misconceptions about Buddhism is that rebirth in
Buddhism is the same idea as reincarnation in Hinduism. This is not true.
Hindus usually believe in an immortal soul, while Buddhists do not. Reincarnation
is basically the “re-housing” of an immortal soul in a new
mortal body. The idea of rebirth deals with the arisal of the same set
of attributes that define a consciousness in different lives, in a cycle
that can be broken (though it is more extensive and nuanced than can be
described in one sentence).
Another misconception is that there is only one Buddha, and that Buddha
is the name of the Buddhist god. Buddha is the title given to an individual
that has awakened to the highest level of enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama
was not the only Buddha, and is not revered as a god in the sense of creating
and governing the universe, but as a teacher, though some forms of Buddhist
worship do seem similar to Hindu polytheism.
On the other extreme, there is a tendency by some in the West is to portray
Buddhism as simply an Eastern philosophy completely free of the hallmarks
of superstition and mythology that other religions exhibit. This is not
always the reality – the Buddhist scriptures do include questionable
events such as a snake shielding the Buddha from rain with its hood and
Buddhism is interpreted differently in the various cultures it has embedded
itself in, often adapting to local traditions. These things might not
be fundamental to the main teachings, but they are endemic to Buddhism
as a religion nonetheless.