Buddhism is a religious and philosophical tradition founded in India sometime around 500 BC. Over the centuries, Buddhism has grown and evolved into a highly diverse tradition with many different sects who emphasize different aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. It has also merged with other traditions of Asia, including Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even Islam.
Buddhist philosophy is extremely subtle and complex, the product of thousands of years of study and contemplation by Buddhist monks and nuns all over the world. The main ideas, however, are summed up in the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering. Everyone gets sick. Everyone experiences loss and disappointment. And in the end, everyone dies. Suffering is all around us, and Buddhists believe we have to acknowledge that suffering before we can try to address it. This suffering does not end with death, either! Many Buddhists believe in reincarnation, or the idea that the soul moves from body to body, so at the end of each lifetime you start again in a new form — perhaps another person, an animal, or even a tree!
- Suffering is caused by desire. The goal of Buddhism is to maximize happiness and inner peace. Buddha taught that this could not be achieved if we were constantly buffeted around by the winds of desire — we spend all our time wanting more money, a better job, or a person who has caught our eye. But when we get these things, they don’t bring lasting happiness and the disappointment leaves us worse off than before! Buddhists teach that true happiness can only come when we quiet our desires and focus our attention elsewhere.
- There is a way to end suffering. Even though all life involves suffering, we don’t have to give up hope. There are specific practices we can take up that will help minimize our own suffering and that of other people. For Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, the answer to suffering is to end the constant cycle of death and rebirth: once we achieve enlightenment, we will no longer be reincarnated, and will no longer suffer.
- The way to end suffering is through wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation. Also known as the Noble Eightfold Path, these practices involve intense meditation and constant effort to be more wise, kind, and compassionate. Buddhists have developed many different forms of meditation, all with the aim of following the Eightfold Path and becoming better human beings.
II. Types of Buddhism
There are hundreds of different types of Buddhism! But most of these different sects fall into one of two categories:
- Theravada Buddhism. This is considered the older or more “orthodox” type of Buddhism. Found primarily in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, and surrounding countries), it is based on rituals passed down through generations of monks in ancient monasteries. The monks study ancient scriptures from the time of the Buddha and seek to preserve their wisdom. This school of Buddhism tends to be polytheistic, worshipping many gods. Typically, these gods are either traditional local deities or major figures borrowed from Hinduism.
- Mahayana Buddhism: a later form of Buddhism found in China and throughout the Himalayas. This strand does not emphasize scriptures or the worship of gods as much as Theravada Buddhism. Instead, Mahayana Buddhists emphasize daily meditation practices. Mahayana Buddhism has many well-known subtypes, including Tibetan Buddhism (the religion of the Dalai Lama) and Zen Buddhism (a form of peaceful meditation that has become increasingly popular in the West).
III. Buddhism vs. Confucianism
Though they are both widespread in China today, Buddhism and Confucianism are very different philosophies (or religions). Buddhism developed in India, whereas Confucianism developed thousands of miles away in China. Due to their different cultural origins, the two philosophies have very different approaches:
Deals with individuality and serenity from within
Focuses on overcoming adversities
Believes in reincarnation
Deals with relationships and seeks social unity
Focuses on overcoming chaos, violence, and emptiness in life
Believes in worshipping ancestors.
Traditionally studied by monks
Reduces the focus on God or Gods, though they are still part of the local religions
Not easily defined in terms of Western ideas of faiths; all ideas seem consistent with modern science
Bear in mind that this is only a rough comparison! Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism have deeply influenced each other over the years, and in any given part of China you may find Confucians who resemble Buddhists or vice-versa.
IV. Buddhism vs. Hinduism
In much the same way that Christianity evolved out of Judaism, so Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism. Ironically, however, Buddhism is now almost entirely gone from the land of its birth! Over the centuries, Buddhism spread all over Asia, but it declined in India itself so that today there are very few Buddhists there.
It’s almost impossible to compare/contrast Hinduism with Buddhism due to the fact that Hinduism comprises a vast array of different religious traditions, which don’t necessarily have much in common with each other! Some versions of Hinduism are very similar to Buddhism, focusing on meditation and trying to minimize suffering. Other versions of Hinduism are more focused on worshipping God or the Gods, rather than on human problems like suffering. (Hinduism is such a diverse religion that Hindus don’t even agree on whether there is one God, many Gods, or no God!)
V. Famous Quotes About Buddhism
“Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.” (Buddha, Dhammapada verse 223)
There are all kinds of fake Buddha quotes floating around on the Internet. Most of them originate with self-help authors and have very little to do with the Buddha’s real teachings. This one, however, is a documented saying of Siddhartha Gautama. It expresses his belief in treating others kindly regardless of whether they deserve it or not — an idea that would show up many centuries later in the teachings of Christ. The passage has a second layer of meaning as well: the “angry man,” the “liar,” etc., don’t have to refer to actual people. They may refer to aspects of your own personality that you need to overcome by practicing love, kindness, generosity, and truth.
“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (H.H. Dalai Lama XIV)
The Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, a major school within the Mahayana tradition. In his many books about Buddhism and the modern world, the Dalai Lama often emphasizes the harmony between Buddhism and science. He argues that scientific analysis is an important way to find out the truth of the universe, and maintains that nothing in Buddhism should be incompatible with science. This is the sort of thing you would be likely to hear from a Mahayana Buddhist, but not from a Theravada Buddhist since Theravada retains many supernatural elements that wouldn’t fit in with science.
VI. The History and Importance of Buddhism
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who lived in northern India sometime around 500 BC. We know very little for sure about who he was, but the traditional stories say that the prince was born into a fabulously wealthy family — yet his life was marred by tragedy right from the start. When he was still only a few days old, his mother died of a sudden illness. Despite this painful loss, however, Siddhartha lived a life of ease and pleasure, wearing the finest clothes and being fed luxurious foods by his many servants. Throughout his childhood, he knew very little about the real world.
That changed, according to the stories, when he became a young man. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left the palace to meet his subjects, against the wishes of his father who wanted to prevent him from seeing the misery of the common people. Outside the palace walls, Siddhartha encountered all sorts of suffering — disease, old age, death — that he couldn’t understand. He decided that he needed to give up his comfortable life and dedicate himself to a spiritual journey that would, he hoped, give him a truer understanding of life and death.
At first, he became an ascetic, giving up all pleasures for a life of strict discipline. He nearly starved himself to death in this period. Eventually, he found himself sitting under a bodhi tree, meditating and trying to overcome the intense hunger in his stomach. Tradition states that he stayed in meditation for 49 days, not touching food or water.
Finally, Siddhartha was approached by a young girl carrying a bowl of rice pudding, which had been his favorite dessert as a child. After years of asceticism, he finally decided to allow himself the pleasure of accepting her gift. At that moment, he attained his greatest insight: a life of mindless pleasure blinds us to the realities of life, but completely avoiding pleasure is not the right idea either — instead, we should follow what Siddhartha called the Middle Way.
At this moment, Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, which means “Awakened One.” He spent the rest of his life traveling around India spreading the word about his discovery. Buddha’s disciples became the first Buddhists, and they were the ones who first spread the new religion throughout the broader world of India and Asia.
VII. Buddhism in Popular Culture
Martial arts movies and video games often feature Shaolin monks, warriors who gain their power through meditation and intense discipline. The Shaolin monks are not just a Hollywood cliché, however — they are a real Buddhist sect centered on a monastery in the Songshan mountains of China. Like many Buddhist sects, the Shaolin monks train in martial arts as a form of meditation, but still practice nonviolence.
There are many Buddhist references in Avatar: the Last Airbender. For one thing, Aang’s shaved head and red-and-orange robes are the traditional markings of a Buddhist monk. In addition, the show deals with reincarnation, an idea that is common in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The sequel series to Avatar is The Legend of Korra, which stars a character said to be Aang’s reincarnation.
Buddhism: a Philosophy or a Religion?
Like many Asian religions, Buddhism doesn’t easily fall into either category: it’s both a philosophy and a religion. Part of the reason for this confusion is that people in the West have a tendency to imagine that other religions will look more or less like Christianity in their structure: early scholars, when they studied Buddhism, looked for its Holy Book, its prophet(s), its temples and priests, and its God. But Buddhism doesn’t necessarily have any of these elements! For some people, Buddhism is simply a philosophy or a way of life, while for others it’s a social system more like traditional Western religion.
In the end, the best way to understand Buddhism (or any other non-Western tradition) is to try not to categorize it. Categories like “religion” and “philosophy,” as we understand them in the West, were developed in a particular cultural context, and they make less and less sense the further you go outside that context. In the case of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism, it’s probably best to drop the categories altogether and just try to understand each tradition on its own terms.