What is Buddhism?

by Luke Wayne

Buddhism is a group of religious movements that derive from the philosophy and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as "the Buddha," or "the enlightened one." Buddhism began in India around the late 6th century B.C. Many views and teachings vary widely among the various Buddhist movements, but the central teachings summarized in what are called the "four noble truths" and the "eightfold path" are at the core of every expression of Buddhism. While different strands of Buddhism may nuance these teachings in differing ways, they nevertheless define what makes any sect "Buddhist."

Brief History of Buddhism

There is little that we can say with certainty about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, but the legends of his life that have been most foundational to Buddhist identity are as follows:

He was born a prince in 563 BC in what is today Nepal1 and was afforded a rather luxurious life.2 At his birth, a fortune teller predicted to his parents that he had two possible paths, both destined for greatness. If he remained a worldly man, he would be a great king and unite all the kingdoms of India under his rule. If he forsook a worldly life, however, he would transform the world with spiritual truth.3 His father desired him to be the former, and so he sought to keep him ensnared by all the worldly pleasures that his wealth and status could afford, and did everything in his power to shield him from any suffering or want.4

As the legend goes, all was well with Gautama up to his early twenties, when, while walking outside the palace walls, he came upon four sights that would instill in him a discontent, thereby leading him to leave his life behind in search of a greater truth. The four sights were that of a frail old man, a person who was visibly diseased, a corpse, and a poor monk walking about, bowl in hand, begging for alms.5 From these sights, it is said, Gautama first came to know of old age, sickness, death, poverty, and the religious quest for truth.6 Once he learned that suffering and death were the inevitable fate of men, he was no longer satisfied with his decadent pleasures.7 He is said to have had a wife, his cousin Yosodhara, and a son who he named Rahula8 which means "fetters" or "shackles."9 One night, he could bear his discontent no more, and quietly left his wife, his child, and the comfortable life of his father's house to pursue the truth.10

He studied with Hindu masters and learned the art of meditation and the best of Hindu philosophy, but he finally concluded that he had learned all he could from them and still had not found the truth he was seeking.11 He then joined a band of ascetics who pursued enlightenment through extreme discipline and bodily deprivation. The stories say that he outdid them all in his zeal, at one point reducing his diet to six grains of rice a day and pushing himself to the brink of starvation.12 In the end, he found this was also futile.

After years of these efforts, Gautama finally came to the place where he would become the Buddha. He sat under a tree, which came afterward to be known as the "Bodhi Tree" or "tree of enlightenment."13 The legends tell of an evil spirit attempting to distract Gautama with desire, pleasure, fear, and doubt.14 Nothing, however, could turn him from the path of enlightenment, and as he sat in meditation under the tree all through the night, he came to a new awareness, discovered the truth, and became the Buddha.15 The legends describe in cosmic terms how all things in existence rejoiced the next morning at the event of the Buddha's enlightenment.16

The Buddha traveled about teaching the truth he had discovered, gathering to himself a faithful following of devotees, and challenging the Hindu authorities of the day.17 At eighty years old, the Buddha breathed his last somewhere around 483 B.C.18 Within a century of his death, different factions within Buddhism were already arising.19 By the time any of the Buddha's teachings were written down centuries later, there were already many rival schools and subgroups offering their own interpretations and unique traditions of Buddhist thought.20 There is, however, an essential core of teachings that all Buddhist groups share and that certainly goes back to the earliest days of Buddhism's beginnings. That teaching is what are called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path that they prescribe

Summary of the Four Noble Truths

In basic summary, the four noble truths are:

  1. "Dukkha" (typically translated "suffering"). Because nothing is permanent, constant, and unchanging, therefore nothing can ever truly satisfy. Even pleasure only increases our pain. Sickness and death come to all men. This suffering taints every aspect of life.
  2. Dukkha is caused by our desires. We crave and cling to pleasurable things that will inevitably pass away. We try to avoid unpleasurable things that will inevitably come. These cravings are the cause of our suffering, and, in fact, it is these desires that keep the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth perpetuating this suffering lifetime after lifetime.
  3. It is possible to end Dukkha and thus transcend this cycle to the state of "nirvana" by completely letting go of all cravings and desires.
  4. One attains this escape by following the eightfold path.

The eightfold path consists of:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Though Buddhist schools of thought all accept these central points, they divide over precisely how one ought to interpret them. They also divide over related issues such as the nature of "nirvana" and what role Buddha himself now plays after his physical death.

Anatta and Rebirth

All of this cannot entirely make sense without at least a general idea of the Buddhist picture of life. Unlike the Hindus, who believe there is a permanent divine essence that passes from one life to the next in the cycle of reincarnation, the Buddha rejected this idea.21 He believed that man is made up of a variety of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors, but that none of these are permanent. There is not, in fact, any aspect of a person that persists in this life or that passes on to the next life.22 The Hindu idea of the permanent, divine "self" was called "Atman, " and so the Buddhist doctrine against this idea is called "Anatta" or "no Atman."23 The precise implications of this vary from one stream of Buddhism to another, but in some sense, all would deny that individual humans have what one would think of as an "enduring self." Your perception of such is an illusion that must be broken to abandon one's cravings and find release from suffering. Buddhists often prefer the term "rebirth" to "reincarnation" because, although they do believe in an ongoing series of past and future lives, they reject the idea that there is a constant essence or real "you" that passes continually from one life to the next. There is not any specific, ongoing being that is "incarnated" in each new life.24

  • 1. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 4
  • 2. ibid, 4
  • 3. ibid, 5
  • 4. ibid, 6
  • 5. ibid, 6
  • 6. ibid, 6
  • 7. ibid, 6
  • 8. Steven T. Asma, Buddha for Beginners (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 7
  • 9. Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross (Multnomah Books, 2001) 30
  • 10. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 6-7
  • 11. ibid, 8
  • 12. ibid, 8
  • 13. ibid, 9
  • 14. ibid, 4
  • 15. ibid, 10
  • 16. ibid, 11
  • 17. ibid, 12
  • 18. ibid, 12
  • 19. ibid, 63
  • 20. Thich Nat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (Broadway Books, 1998) 13-14
  • 21. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 54
  • 22. Steven T. Asma, Buddha for Beginners (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 52
  • 23. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 55.
  • 24. Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross (Multnomah Books, 2001) 23