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Basic Beliefs and Tenets of Buddhism

August 5, 2023

Buddhism is founded on Siddhartha Gautama’s fifth-century B.C. teachings from Nepal and northern India. He became known as “the Buddha,” meaning “awakened one,” after realizing the nature of life, death, and existence. Buddha was enlightened in English, but Sanskrit is “bodhi,” or “awakened.”

Buddha traveled and taught throughout his life. After becoming enlightened, he didn’t teach others. He taught people to find enlightenment themselves. He taught awakening by actual experience, not ideologies and dogmas.

Buddhism was minor and unimportant in India when he died. The Indian ruler established Buddhism the state religion in the third century B.C.

Buddhism thus became a major religion in Asia. The number of Buddhists worldwide varies because many Asians practice more than one religion and because it is difficult to estimate how many Buddhists live in Communist countries like China. The most prevalent estimate is 350 million, making Buddhism the fourth largest faith.

Religions Differ From Buddhism

Some debate if Buddhism is a religion because it is so different. For instance, most religions emphasize one or more. But Buddhism is non-theistic. The Buddha taught that gods were useless for enlightenment.

The beliefs of most faiths characterize them. Believing theories is irrelevant in Buddhism. The Buddha said doctrines should not be embraced because they are in scripture or preached by priests.

The Buddha emphasized self-realization rather than memorizing and believing concepts. Buddhism emphasizes practice over belief. Buddhist practice centers on the Eightfold Path.

Basic Lessons

Buddhism is a discipline, and a rigorous one, despite its emphasis on unfettered inquiry. Although Buddhist teachings should not be blindly embraced, understanding them is a vital component of that discipline.

The Four Noble Truths underpin Buddhism:

The truth about pain (“dukkha”)

True source of suffering (“samudaya”)

Truth of suffering’s end (“nirhodha”)

Path truth that frees us from pain (“magga”)

By itself, truths aren’t much. However, innumerable teachings on existence, the self, life, death, and suffering lie beneath the facts. The goal is to study, analyze, and test the teachings against your own experience, not merely “believe in” them. Exploration, understanding, testing, and realization define Buddhism.

Different Buddhist Schools

2,000 years ago, Buddhism split into Theravada and Mahayana schools. Theravada Buddhism has dominated Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos for millennia. Mahayana rules China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea, and Vietnam. Recent years have seen Mahayana gain many Indian devotees. Subschools of Mahayana include Pure Land and Theravada Buddhism.

Vajrayana Buddhism, mostly connected with Tibetan Buddhism, is a third major school. Mahayana includes all Vajrayana schools. 

The two schools disagree on “anatman” or “anatta.” According to this philosophy, there is no permanent, integral, autonomous “self” in an individual existence. Anatman is a challenging teaching, yet it’s crucial to comprehending Buddhism.

Theravada views anatman as a delusion of the ego or personality. The individual can experience Nirvana after overcoming this misconception. Mahayana strengthens anatman. All phenomena in Mahayana lack inherent identity and only have identity in connection to others. There is only relativism, no reality. Mahayana teaches “shunyata” or “emptiness.” 

Ethics, Wisdom, Compassion

The two eyes of Buddhism are wisdom and compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom is anatman or shunyata realization. The words “metta” and “karuna.” mean “compassion.” Metta is selfless, benevolent kindness to all. Karuna is active sympathy, soft affection, and accepting others’ grief, possibly pity. Buddhist theory says those who master these virtues will respond rightly in all situations. 

Misconceptions About Buddhism

Most people think all Buddhists are vegetarian and believe in reincarnation. These two statements are false. Buddhist rebirth doctrines differ from most “reincarnation.” Vegetarianism is advocated but optional in several cults.

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