A Buddhism Primer

– Part III of World Religion Series –

Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura

Buddhism comes to us from the enchanted land of India. With its teachings of the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhism is known as a religion of peace; meditation; and enlightenment. So what is Buddhism based on? Who is the diety depicted in the statues and art of the Buddhist religion? For for those answers and more, lets talk Buddhism.

A History of Buddhism

The historical Buddha was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived some 2,600 years ago in an area that today is part of northern India and Nepal. He was born into a warrior clan known as the Shakya, which is why he is often called Shakyamuni, “Sage of the Shakyas” Buddha.

According to legend, shortly after Siddhartha’s birth, a sage prophesied that the child would grow up to be either a great king or a renowned spiritual leader. His father, the king, did everything in his power to ensure that his son and heir would have no reason to pursue religious life, showering him with every privilege and luxury and sheltering him from the harsh realities of the world outside the palace.

The prince married and later had a son, but he became extremely dissatisfied and at the age of 29 ventured beyond the palace walls on a series of carriage rides that would change the course of his life. On the first trip, he saw a sick man; on the second, an old man; and on the third, a corpse. These were his first encounters with the inevitable suffering experienced by all human beings, no matter how highborn, and the knowledge was devastating. Then, on a fourth carriage ride, Siddhartha saw a mendicant spiritual seeker and he had a revelation: there might be a way out of suffering, and the possibility lay in the religious life.

Soon thereafter, Siddhartha left the palace to set out on a religious quest. He studied with two renowned spiritual teachers and then embarked on a journey with 6 companions, meditating and taking up severe ascetic practices, such as prolonged fasting, which nearly killed him.

Ascetic – characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.

Oxford Dictionary

Ultimately, he had another realization: the way out of samsara—the cycle of birth, suffering, and death—lay neither in indulgence nor in extreme physical denial. There was a “middle way” to end suffering, through training the mind. The former prince resolved to meditate under a ficus tree in a town called Bodhgaya, until he discovered the answers he sought. After 49 days, he had a series of insights into the nature of reality, and he became enlightened.

On the 49th day, according to legend, the Buddha entered into a state of concentration so deep and clear he began to see the nature of his mind and that of the universe. During three phases or “watches” of the night, he apprehended how suffering and unhappiness are caused by our actions, and by our clinging to an illusory sense of self. And he understood how to let go of all that.

When the morning star rose in the sky, the man who had been Siddhartha Gotama, the prince of the Shakya tribe, was now the Buddha—the Awakened One.

The Buddha would spend the next 45 years of his life sharing the path of practice that leads to awakening so that others could work to attain the same state of enlightenment—freedom from suffering and from the cycle of birth and death—that he had achieved.

Buddhism’s Earliest Disciples

According to Buddhist tradition, the first people the Buddha taught were five spiritual seekers who had been his companions and who practiced with him the form of extreme self-denial that he himself later abandoned. When they first encountered the Buddha after his enlightenment, in a place called Deer Park in Benares, India, they made a pact to not show him any deference—they considered him a failure who had returned to a life of luxury.

But when they looked closer, the five ascetics realized that the Buddha had become a different caliber of being—noble, wise, and beyond all suffering. The Buddha taught them that the means to awakening wasn’t self-indulgence or self-denial but a path in between—the Middle Way. He then taught them his foundational insights—the 4 Noble Truthsand the Noble Eightfold Path leading to enlightenment. And thus was born the sangha, the first community of followers.

Religious texts tell us that in the earliest days of the monastic community, the Buddha did not ordain women, though this hasn’t been verified. The story goes that between the exhortations of his stepmother, Mahapajapati (and 500 women who accompanied her), and the influence of his disciple Ananda, the Buddha created the first order of Buddhist nuns. Texts known as the Verses of the Elder Monks and Nuns, tell the stories of many of the Buddha’s students, showing the vast variety of people who became his followers and were able to reach enlightenment by practicing the path he taught.

At the age of 80, after 45 years of teaching, the Buddha died, surrounded by a large group of his disciples. That event is known as the parinirvana—a term that refers to the death of someone who has attained nirvana, or enlightenment, during their lifetime and will not be reborn again. They are freed from the cycle of birth and death and all the suffering that entails.

Emissaries took Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Burma, and elsewhere. In the successive centuries, Buddhism spread further into East and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.

Are There Multiple Buddhas?

There are actually many different Buddhas.

In Buddhist scriptures, legends, and art, we see many buddhas besides the one we probably think of as the Buddha. The term buddha means “awake” or “awakened,” so it can refer to any number of beings that are believed to be fully enlightened, not just the historical Buddha. It can also refer to an archetype or idea of an enlightened being.

That said, scriptures from early Indian Buddhism talk about five buddhas that have existed during the current cosmological era or kalpa—a term that means an aeon, or the period from the origination to the end of the present world. The Buddha we know about, Shakyamuni Buddha, was the fourth of this group. The fifth is known as Maitreya, or the Buddha of the future.

In Theravada Buddhism, the tradition practiced mainly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, people pay homage to 29 buddhas, most of whom existed during other kalpas, according to the scriptures.

Not every buddha is specifically known to us. One class of enlightened beings is made up of buddhas “on their own” (in Pali and Sanskrit paccekabuddhapratyekabuddha). These beings have achieved awakening without a teacher or guidance, and they don’t teach the path to enlightenment or have followers.

What about the cute, plump, smiling Buddha we all thought we knew and loved? Well, that is actually just a mistake! The depiction is that of Budai, a semi-legendary Chinese monk who may have lived around the 10th century. Considered a deity of contentment and abundance, Budai is also a protector of children and the sick. A collection of Zen stories mentions him briefly as a possible emanation of Maitreya, the buddha of the future, but he has never held the place of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Did simple mispronounciation cause the confusion between Budai and Buddah?

The 4 Noble Truths

The 4 Noble Truths as discovered and taught by Buddha upon his enlightenment are:

  • Life has inevitable suffering.
  • There is a cause to our suffering.
  • There is an end to suffering.
  • The end to suffering is contained in the Eightfold path.

Buddhists see time as an endless cycle of rebirth – suffering – death – rebirth – suffering – death. The only way to break the cycle is to attain enlightenment. And Buddha taught that the Noble Eightfold Path was the road to enlightenment.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Mastery of the Noble Eightfold Path will allow the Buddhist to enter Nirvana and break the cycle of reincarnation. The Buddhist must master:

  • Right View -Truth
  • Right Intention -Freeing the mind of evil
  • Right Speech -Say nothing to hurt others
  • Right Action -Work for the good of others
  • Right Livelihood – Respect life
  • Right Effort – Resist evil
  • Right Concentration – Meditation
  • Right Mindfulness – Controlling thoughts


Buddhism embodies the belief that to know one’s self is the highest form of knowledge, and is in fact the key to peace in an afterlife. There may be many Buddhas, but there is only one path. And at least the Buddha didn’t look like Cartman from South Park!


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