Approximately 2500 years ago, an affluent prince named Siddharth Gautama started to question his luxurious, influential life in his father’s palace. His retrospection led him to leave his palatial life in quest of the unknown. And, this quest led to what is now known as the fourth-largest religion in the world – Buddhism. At its core, Buddhism beliefs refuse us to worship God; instead, it preaches us to take ownership of our actions and our lives.
With over 520 million followers, which is around 7% of the global population, Buddhism comprises a variety of beliefs, spiritual practices, and traditions that are majorly derived from the original teachings of the Buddha. Though religion is believed to have originated in India, its reach all across the world has led to several modifications in the practice. Countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, China, Tibet, and Cambodia follow Buddhism. In fact, for a lot of these countries, Buddhism happens to be their primary religion.
Let us take a deeper look at what is Buddhism and what it teaches the humankind
The History of Buddhism
Siddharth Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in a royal family in present-day Lumbini, Nepal. He lived a happy married life and had a child until one day he stepped outside the comfort of his palace and came across an old man, a sick man, and a dead body. This led him to understand that despite his affluence and power, sickness, aging, and death were inevitable.
During his journey outside the palace, he also came across a monk and took it as a sign that he should give up the comforts of his life and follow the footsteps of monk life. However, this life led him to experience even more of human suffering and misery. At this point, Siddhartha tried to live an extreme lifestyle of discipline and self-deprivation. He also practiced meditation. But, this wasn’t enough either.
After six years of leaving an eccentric life, he decided to find a ‘middle way’. He didn’t go back to his palatial life but he didn’t live in the extreme ascetic state as well. Finally, after meditating for years under the Bodhi Tree, also known as the tree of perfect knowledge, in Bodhgaya, he reached the state of enlightenment. This is what turned Siddhartha into the Buddha.
After his demise, Buddha’s disciples began preaching what they learned to the world and that is what laid the foundation of Buddhism. Over the next few centuries following this, Buddhist teaching began spreading across different parts of the world. And, while the philosophies and thoughts remained the same, the interpretations varied from one place to another.
3 Different Types of Buddhism
As mentioned, with time, Buddhism beliefs gained prevalence all around the world, but majorly in Asia. These gave birth to three schools of thought that shared many similarities but were also distinct in some aspects.
1. Theravada Buddhism
This type of Buddhism is based on the belief that Buddha was a man, not God. It teaches us that only by practicing the eightfold path can we achieve nirvana.
The most popular and followed Buddhism belief, Theravada, or Hinayana is the oldest kind that is known to preserve and follow the teachings of Gautama Buddha as mentioned in the Pāli Canon. The followers of this kind, also known as the Theravādins, are more conservative in their beliefs. They base their practices on the belief, as claimed by the Buddha, that he wasn’t a God; he was just a man.
Literally meaning ‘the Doctrine of elders’, Theravada Buddhism has been a predominant religion in countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. The practice has also gained a major reputation in the west, particularly in the US, Europe, and Australia. Also, popular as ‘Southern Buddhism’ in contrast with ‘Northern Buddhism’ that is followed in Korea, Japan, Tibet, and China, the key teachings of Theravada Buddhism revolved around the framework of the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path.
As per the texts of Pāli Canon, the Buddha teaches that the practice of the ‘Middle’ is what brings us to nirvana and that it could only be reached if you practice the eightfold path.
2. Mahayana Buddhism
This type of Buddhism believes that many Buddhas have walked on this Earth and that nirvana is attainable only by monks.
While there is little to be said about the origin of Mahayana Buddhism, this branch of Buddhism follows the path of Bodhisattva or the path to enlightenment. Contrary to the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana doesn’t believe in the concept of Buddha being unique; instead, it believes that he was only one of the many Buddhas to have walked the face of the earth.
Additionally, while both the branches believe in and follow the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the Middle Way, Theravada states that nirvana is only attainable by monks and Mahayana claims that it can be attained by anybody who follows the path to enlightenment with mindfulness and right concentration.
3. Vajrayana Buddhism
This Buddhism belief emphasizes on magic and the occult. It includes hand movements, postural changes, and sacred chanting as a way to channel the mystical energy around us.
There are two different mindsets for the third school of Buddhism. Some claim that Vajrayana Buddhism is an entirely different branch while others consider it to be an extension or an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism with a lot of emphasis on magic and the occult. Vajrayana Buddhism is known to have added tantra practices to Mahayana.
According to the beliefs of Vajrayana, tantras are a collection of sacred texts which layout a secret methodology to fast-forward our journey towards nirvana. Some of these special methodologies include mudras (hand movements) that are believed to channel mythical energies, certain postures of the body (known as yoga to the world), and pious mantras (sacred chanting) that bear mystical power when recited repeatedly.
Another important aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism is the ‘Mandala’ – a significant circular diagram that denoted spiritual connections and cosmic spaces. It is believed that by deep, intense meditation rituals over the mandala, you can reach an out-of-the-body experience.
Another form of Buddhism that is mainly prevalent in Tibet is Tibetan Buddhism. Also observed in certain parts of northern India as well as China, this branch is considered to be derived from the newest stages of Mahayana Buddhism, meaning the tantra practices of Vajrayana Buddhism.
This form of Buddhism also believes in the cycle of rebirth and suffering – samsara, and highlights practices that allow us to break away from the vicious circle and attain nirvana.
The Core Values of Buddhism Beliefs
Like most major religions in the world, Buddhism is also based on many varied traditions. These traditions, however, share a mutual set of fundamental principles. One such critical principle followed by every branch of Buddhism is the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation is also defined by some as the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
However, Buddhism states that reincarnation and rebirth aren’t the same. The religion claims that reincarnation is the reoccurrence of the same individual repeatedly, however, in rebirth, you may or may not be born again as the same entity.
The basic teaching or the core values of Buddhism include ‘The Three Universal Truths’, ‘The Four Noble Truths’, and ‘The Eightfold Path’.
The Three Universal Truths
Buddhism has three truths – nothing is permanent, one needs to let go of possessions to be happy, and everything is related to one another.
As per Buddhism beliefs, the three universal truths are:
- Nothing is permanent in this life and everything is always changing
- Because everything is always changing and is impermanent, a life based on holding on to possessions cannot be a happy life
- For every event that happens, there will be another consequential event and whether it is good or bad will depend on the nature of the first event
Buddhists believe strongly in the law of Karma which states that every action that you take today will have an immediate or delayed effect in your life. And, whether the second event is pleasant or not will depend on how skillful or unskilful your intention behind the first event was.
Therefore, it states that we must take ownership of every action that we take because it has an effect on our lives as well as on those around us as well as the entire universe.
The Three Universal Practices
There are 3 practices associated with Buddhism – Sila, which means morality and good conduct, Samadhi which means meditation, and Prajna which means wisdom.
Furthermore, religion follows three practices:
Sila – Sila means morality and good conduct. It is based on two fundamental principles i.e. the principle of equality and the principle of reciprocity. While the first fundamental teaches us to give equal weightage to every living being, the latter defines that we should treat people the way we would like for them to treat us.
Samadhi – Samadhi refers to meditation and concentration. This practice states that proper concentration and meditation lead to mental development which is the ultimate path to wisdom. It also helps in strengthening control over our mind and remain in good conduct.
Prajna – Prajana implies wisdom, enlightenment, and discernment. The beating heart of Buddhism, this practice explains that wisdom will only exist if your mind is calm and pure. And, only such a mind can lead you on the path of enlightenment.
The principle of reciprocity is prevalent in almost all the major religions in the world. In Christianity, it is considered as the ‘Golden Rule’ and is defined as “to do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you”.
The Four Noble Truths
There are four noble truths of Buddhism. Dukkha means suffering is universal to human life. Samudaya means that the main of suffering is attachment.
Nirodha means that man can end suffering if he frees himself from attachments. Magga means that one needs to follow the eightfold path to end suffering.
Buddha preaches that there are four noble truths that explore the aspects of human suffering. They are:
Dukkha – In simple terms, Dukkha means suffering or that suffering is universal to human life. There can be various causes behind the suffering – loss, sickness, pain, poverty, failure, and the impermanent nature of pleasure. Irrespective of the cause, suffering is inevitable.
Samudaya – The Buddhism belief of Samudaya talks about the main cause of suffering i.e. attachment. The true nature of humans that include the need to possess and control things is what leads us to suffer. Suffering can be in several forms – the desire to be rich and famous, jealousy or anger towards something or someone, craving of sensual gratifications.
Nirodha – The concept of Nirodha says that there can be an end to the suffering. By liberating ourselves from attachments, we can rid ourselves of our sufferings. Once you learn to let go of your desires and cravings, the mind experiences non-attachment and complete liberation. This is what leads us to Nirvana.
Magga – The final truth out of the Four Noble Truths, Magga explains that to end the suffering and break away from our attachments, we must follow the eightfold path.
The Eightfold Path
Samma Vaca, teaches us to abstain from lies. Samma Kammanta talks about your actions. Also, Samma Ajva means making our livelihood through appropriate means. Samma Vayama focuses on preventing unwholesome states of mind.
Samma Sati means being conscientiously aware of the activities of our mind. Samadhi or mental disciple is the right concentration. Samma Dankappa signifies detachment. Samma Ditti refers to understanding things as they are.
We talked about the three essential elements of Buddhism above, namely Sila, Samadhi, and Prajna above. Interestingly, the noble eightfold path is categorized under these three elements.
Before we dig deeper into the paths, let us divide them as per the three elements.
Sila or Ethical Conduct comprises three aspects of the eightfold path – Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
Samadhi or Mental Discipline includes three other factors of the eightfold path – Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration.
And, finally, the third element, Prajana constitute the remaining two paths i.e. Right Thought and Right Understanding.
Let us now take a detailed look at the eightfold path that leads us on the path to Nirvana, as defined by Buddha.
Right Speech (Samma Vaca)
Right Speech, or Samma Vaca, is the Buddhism belief that teaches us to abstain from lies, backbiting and slandering that may bring disharmony and hatred, harsh, rude and abusive language, and gossip and idle babble. The path states that when we restrict ourselves from all these forms of speech, we are left with nothing but the truth.
And, hence, what we speak is polite, benevolent, useful, and gentle. We must weigh our words and speak them only when it is necessary. And, if we have nothing to say, we must observe the ‘noble silence’.
Right action (Samma Kammanta)
Samma Kammanta talks about your actions. It teaches us to refrain from any action that may cause harm or damage to others and the nature around us. Destroying life such as plants and animals, stealing, making dishonest collaborations, and indulging in illegitimate sexual intercourse are some of the negative actions that this path teaches us to stay away from.
Right livelihood (Samma Ajiva)
Simply put, the Buddhism belief of right livelihood mentions that we should withhold ourselves from making our livelihood through inappropriate means. War, arms and ammunition, intoxication, killing animals, working a dishonorable profession, and cheating are some of the actions that we must learn to avoid.
It also mentions that we should help others around us to lead the same honorable and responsible way of life.
Right effort (Samma Vayama)
Samma Vayama encompasses four basic learnings – to prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising, to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, to produce or arouse the wholesome states of mind that are yet to arise and to nurture and perfect the wholesome state of mind that is already present within us.
Right mindfulness (Samma Sati)
Right mindfulness refers to being conscientiously aware of the activities of our mind, the activities of our body, our feelings and sensations, and our ideas, conceptions, thoughts, and things (dhamma).
The practice of controlled breathing, also known as meditation, is a well-known exercise that connects the body to improve our mental development.
Right concentration (Samma Samadhi)
The final factor of Samadhi or mental disciple is the right concentration that ultimately takes us to the four stages of Dhyana, also known as ‘trance’. In the first stage of this Buddhism belief, you get rid of unwholesome thoughts such as lust, worry, skepticism, and restlessness; instead, you embrace happiness and joy as well as certain mental activities.
In the second stage, you learn to suppress all intellectual activities, develop one-pointedness and tranquillity, and continue to retain happiness. In the third stage, the active sensation of joy also disappears while happiness and mindful equanimity still remain. And, lastly, in the fourth stage, all of your sensations, including happiness disappears, except pure equanimity and awareness.
Right thought (Samma Dankappa)
Samma Dankappa, or Right thought, is the part of Prajana or Wisdom. This signifies detachment, non-violence, selfless renunciation, and love. Interestingly, love, non-violence, and detachment have been grouped under wisdom which goes to show that true wisdom can only be obtained with these noble traits and anything opposite leads to lack of wisdom in all spheres of your life – individually, socially, as well as politically.
Right understanding (Samma Ditthi)
The eighth and the final path in the noble eightfold path is Right Understanding or Samma Ditti. This refers to understanding things as they are and that can be defined purely by the four noble truths. This understanding of the four noble truths is regarded as the ultimate reality, the highest wisdom.
Buddhism differentiates understanding in two categories – one is anubodh or ‘knowing accordingly’ which only refers to grasping of knowledge based on the date given to us, and the other is pativedha or ‘penetration’ which means seeing things in their truest form and nature without having to label them. Pativedha is only possible when the mind is pure and completely developed through meditation and concentration.
The Five Precepts of Buddhism
The five precepts of Buddhism are – to not kill another being, to not lie, to not steal, to not conduct any sexual misadventures, and to not consume alcohol or drugs.
Now that we have spoken about the various aspects of Buddhism beliefs, it is important that we learn about the five essential moral guidelines that must be followed in daily life to live a life on the path to enlightenment. These are:
1. Do not kill
This Buddhism belief can also be translated to non-violence or not harming. The accompanying virtue to this precept is compassion and kindness. It is directly congruent with the human right to life.
This precept prevents one from taking the life of sentient life, whether it be a fly or a bigger animal. However, it should be noted that there are some qualifiers to this. An accidental injury to another being does not violate this precept. How seriously this precept should be taken is also dependent on the size of the being, intelligence, and spiritual status of the being.
For instance, killing a big animal is more serious than a small animal, killing a human is more serious than an animal, and killing a spiritual monk is more serious than killing a normal human being. However, at the end of it all, all types of killings are condemned.
This precept also condemns concepts like capital punishment. Suicide is also seen as a forbidden behavior under this precept, along with abortion. This is because Buddhism states that all life starts at conception.
This is the most important precept in Buddhism. The positive virtue that goes along with this precept is the vow to protect other living beings. Certain qualities like respect for the life of others, empathy, sympathy are based on this precept. This concept is the underlying foundation of all Buddhist behavior.
2. Do not steal
This can be loosely translated to acquiring things by way of fraud and cheating. The accompanying virtue to this precept is renunciation and generosity. It is directly congruent with the human right to property.
This precept is focused on stealing what one knows does not belong to oneself. How severe the theft is dependent on the value of the owner of what has been stolen, and the value of the thing that has been stolen.
Forgery, bribing, cheating, fraud – all these activities violate this precept. A positive and opposite aspect of this precept is the protection of the property of other people.
3. Do not lie
This refers to the hiding of truth as well as indulging or creating gossip or back-biting others. The accompanying virtue to this precept is being honest and dependable. It is directly congruent with the human right to human dignity.
Lying in this context does not extend to spoken word, it also involves lying via actions. It also includes wrong forms of speech, such as harsh words, gossip, and malicious words. If the lie has an ulterior motive behind it, it is considered an even more serious violation of this precept, compared to, for example, a white lie. The virtues that are congruent with this precept include being honest and dependable in one’s work and personal lives, truthfulness towards others, and loyalty to one’s superiors.
This is the second most important precept in Buddhist literature because it is considered that a person who can lie has no shame, and is, therefore, capable of many kinds of wrongdoings. This precept says that one must avoid any kind of untruthfulness, not only because it can harm others, but also because it goes against the Buddhist principle of finding the truth.
4. Live a decent life
This would also include prohibiting the misuse of sexual encounters and indulging in adultery. For monks and nuns, complete celibacy is imperative. The accompanying virtue to this precept is contentment and respect for faithfulness. It is directly congruent with the human right to fidelity in marriage.
This precept basically forbids one from any kind of sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct may include adultery, sleeping with a person one knows is married, engaged, or otherwise committed, rape, incest, etc. This precept focuses on preventing greed for oneself and harm towards others. The violation of this precept is more serious if the person being cheated is a good person.
It primarily involves being content with one’s partner and recognizing and respecting the sanctity of one’s marriage.
5. Do not take drugs or consume alcohol
This includes any form of intoxication that can cloud the mind and your judgment. The accompanying virtue to this precept is mindfulness and responsibility. It is directly congruent with the human right to security and safety.
This precept focuses on being more aware and mindful of one’s surroundings. Drugs and alcohol can come in the way of that. Buddhism also states that while other precepts may or may not be violated depending on the caveats and situations, this precept is always more blamable because it prevents from understanding the teachings of Buddha and can ultimately lead to madness.
Buddhist texts have described alcohol as a doorway to idleness and laxity. It can add to quarrels, negative feelings and states of mind, and can also damage one’s intelligence. Therefore, Buddhism prohibits alcohol consumption.
While everyone should practice these five moral following, the religion further states some additional guidelines for those who are preparing themselves to live a hermetic life.
This includes refraining from dancing, singing, and music of grotesque nature, eating untimely meals, using high seats, using personal adornments including perfume and garland, and accepting valuables such as gold and silver.
“You only lose what you cling to.”
“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
“To abstain from lying is essentially wholesome.”
“Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.”
“For soon the body is discarded, Then what does it feel? A useless log of wood, it lies on the ground, Then what does it know? Your worst enemy cannot harm you As much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, No one can help you as much, Not even your father or your mother.”
“To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”
“However many holy words you read, However many you speak, What good will they do you If you do not act upon them?”
“Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”
“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. Indeed. it is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”
Irrespective of the various schools of thought, the core values, and principles of Buddhism teach us to live a peaceful, selfless life filled with love and affection towards all human beings. It also teaches us ethical and moral guidelines that help us bring joy and happiness in our lives and prevent any kind of suffering due to indulgence in any negative aspects.
Buddha and Buddhism lay huge importance in the Middle Way as the path to enlightenment. It doesn’t teach us to worship a God or to have blind faith. Instead, it talks about taking ownership of our actions and making informed decisions.
Namrata Singh is a dentist turned writer and clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team