Buddhism represents many things to many people. It’s generally considered to be a religion, though others prefer to characterize it as a spiritual tradition, a philosophy, or a more general way of life. The philosophy has been co-opted somewhat in Western culture, what with the rise of “Tibet import” shops that sell Buddha statues, tapestries, incense, and other novelties that give Westerners a taste of Eastern mysticism—in material possessions, if not in practice.
But there’s far more to the Buddhist tradition than Gautama statues or abstract concepts of Zen, and given that an estimated 8-10 percent of the entire world population are Buddhists, it’s worth examining the practice in more detail.
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is one of the oldest and most widespread doctrines in the world. It unofficially began in ancient India, though it quickly grew and expanded throughout Asia to become a driving force for behavior, politics, art, and culture across the world.
At its core, Buddhism deals with the fundamental nature of humanity. Although it’s commonly thought of (in the West, at least,) as a strange form of mysticism, it’s actually quite pragmatic when compared to other major religions.
In Buddhism, there are no gods that demand worship, nor is there an afterlife to plan for. It doesn’t focus on questions like “why are we here?” and “who made us?” Instead, Buddhist teachings focus on our relationship with the natural world, the realities of life and death, and how we can ease our suffering while we’re here.
Buddhism is all about suffering
Perhaps the most central tenet of Buddhist belief is that, as humans, suffering is unavoidable. We’ve all experienced it before. No matter how well we plan, how hard we work, or how many pleasures surround us, it’s impossible to escape suffering completely. Tragedy strikes us when we least expect it. We get something we want, only to find that we now want something else.
In short, our desire for health, wealth, happiness, and a perfect life makes us unhappy, and after plenty of suffering, we die. But it doesn’t stop there. While many religions view death as an end, in Buddhism, it’s only the beginning.
Karma, reincarnation, and samsara
In Buddhism, death isn’t the end. After our bodies die, we’re eventually “reborn” in a different form based on the actions we took in our life and in our previous lives. This is the concept of reincarnation; another key aspect of Buddhist philosophy.
Of course, the life we’re reborn into depends largely on our karma; the sum of all of our actions in all of our lives. Those who perform evil acts have poor karma, and it’s thought that these individuals are brought back as lower life forms. Those who do good works attain positive karma, and enjoy higher states of being throughout their lives.
This cycle of reincarnation based on our karma is called samsara. And in the Buddhist view, being stuck in samsara isn’t so great. It’s a non-stop cycle of death and rebirth, where we’re forced to endure lifetime after lifetime of unavoidable suffering.
It sounds rough to think about existence in those terms, but Buddhist philosophy isn’t so dark. Indeed, acknowledging this cycle is one of the first steps toward the highest goal of Buddhist tradition: achieving a state of Nirvana, or enlightenment, and escaping the cycle once and for all.
Escaping from the cycle of suffering
Buddhists believe that the only true escape from samsara is by attaining enlightenment: a state of positive karma, knowledge, and wisdom that can only be achieved by completely eliminating one’s desire.
Of course, this process isn’t easy. Buddhist practitioners may spend their entire lives seeking enlightenment through rigorous discipline, study, and meditation, with nothing to show for it. Indeed, devout practitioners have no real expectation of achieving enlightenment in their own lifetimes, as they understand that their efforts in this life are only a small part of a larger whole.
Achieving enlightenment isn’t something that any practitioner can accomplish in a single life; by all Buddhist schools of thought, it’s a long process that many take hundreds, or thousands, of lifetimes to accomplish. In the span of human history, few people can claim to have achieved true enlightenment. One of the few with the truest claim is certainly the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. Or as he’s more commonly known, the Buddha.
Who and what is a Buddha?
“Buddha” means “enlightened,” in the simplest terms.
Therefore, being a “Buddha” just means being one who has achieved the prerequisite state of Nirvana. In theory, anyone could be a Buddha; they’re not thought to be gods, nor are they meant to be worshipped. A person who attains Buddhahood is simply any person who achieves this awakened state of being.
In human history, Siddhartha Gautama is considered the only “true” Buddha, though many have laid claim to Buddhahood over the years. It was Siddhartha Gautama who first attained enlightenment thousands of years ago, and he spent the rest of his life teaching his students how to do the same. After his death, his teachings were put to print and became the foundation of Buddhism as we know it today.
Understand the nature of Buddhism
With all of the above in mind, it’s important to point out that Buddhism is a large, complicated system of beliefs. There are many schools of thought and sects with different rules, much as Christianity has multiple sects and denominations.
But regardless of the specific rule sets followed, much of Buddhism is built on a singular concept: By eliminating our desires, we eliminate suffering. And by doing so, we work toward lives of knowledge, serenity, and harmony with other people and the natural world.