Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, also considered a philosophy and a moral discipline, originating in India in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
It is the world’s fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists.
Buddhism was founded by the sage Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha l. c. 563 – c. 483 BC) who, according to legend, had been a Hindu prince.
Siddhartha Gautama was the warrior son of a king and queen. According to legend, at his birth a soothsayer predicted that he might become a renouncer (withdrawing from the temporal life). To prevent this, his father provided him with many luxuries and pleasures. But, as a young man, he once went on a series of four chariot rides where he first saw the more severe forms of human suffering: old age, illness, and death (a corpse), as well as an ascetic renouncer. The contrast between his life and this human suffering made him realize that all the pleasures on earth where in fact transitory, and could only mask human suffering. Leaving his wife—and new son (“Rahula”—fetter) he took on several teachers and tried severe renunciation in the forest until the point of near-starvation. Finally, realizing that this too was only adding more suffering, he ate food and sat down beneath a tree to meditate. By morning (or some say six months later!) he had attained Nirvana (Enlightenment), which provided both the true answers to the causes of suffering and permanent release from it.
Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, Buddhism has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of Asia, and, beginning in the 20th century, it spread to
Ancient Buddhist scripture and doctrine developed in several closely related literary languages of ancient India, especially in Pali and Sanskrit.
Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they’re said to have experienced nirvana.
Buddhists embrace the concepts of karma (the law of cause and effect) and reincarnation (the continuous cycle of rebirth).
“Dharma” in Buddhism refers to the Buddha’s teaching, which includes all of the main ideas outlined above. While this teaching reflects the true nature of reality, it is not a belief to be clung to, but a pragmatic teaching to be put into practice. It is likened to a raft which is “for crossing over” (to nirvana) not for holding on to.
Buddhism’s central vision can be summed up in four verses from one of its central sacred texts, the Dhammapada:
- Our life is shaped by our mind – we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.
- Our life is shaped by our mind – we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.
- From desire comes grief, from desire comes fear; one who is free from desire knows neither grief nor fear.
- Attachment to objects of desire brings grief, attachment to objects of desire brings fear – one who is free of attachment knows neither grief nor fear.
Buddhist scriptures explain the five precepts as the minimal standard of Buddhist morality. It is the most important system of morality in Buddhism, together with the monastic rules.
There are two main groups of Buddhism: Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is common in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. It emphasizes the role models of bodhisattvas (beings that have achieved enlightenment but return to teach humans). Theravada Buddhism is common in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). It emphasizes a monastic lifestyle and meditation as the way to enlightenment.
The five precepts are seen as a basic training applicable to all Buddhists. They are:
- “I undertake the training-precept (sikkha-padam) to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.” This includes ordering or causing someone else to kill. The Pali suttas also say one should not “approve of others killing” and that one should be “scrupulous, compassionate, trembling for the welfare of all living beings.”
- “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given.” According to Harvey, this also covers fraud, cheating, forgery as well as “falsely denying that one is in debt to someone.”
- “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.” This generally refers to adultery, as well as rape and incest. It also applies to sex with those who are legally under the
protection of a guardian. It is also interpreted in different ways in the varying Buddhist cultures.
- “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech.” According to Harvey this includes “any form of lying, deception or exaggeration…even non-verbal deception by gesture or other indication…or misleading statements.” The precept is often also seen as including other forms of wrong speech such as “divisive speech, harsh, abusive, angry words, and even idle chatter.”
- “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.” According to Harvey, intoxication is seen as a way to mask rather than face the sufferings of life. It is seen as damaging to one’s mental clarity, mindfulness and ability to keep the other four precepts.
Widely observed practices include meditation, observance of moral precepts, monasticism, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and the cultivation of the Paramitas (perfections, or virtues).