Buddhism Basics

Buddhism Basics

Although there are many schools or systems of Buddhist philosophy, there are several core teachings and ideas common to them all. Every attempt has been made to provide a clear, concise description of the Buddha's life and primary teachings.


The Life of the Buddha

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gotama, lived in northern India from approximately 563 BCE to 483 BCE. His father was Suddhodana the ruler of the Shakya nation, a small kingdom on the border of modern Nepal and India. The exact date of his birth is not known, but it is widely accepted that it was on the full moon day during the month of April. Modern Buddhists usually celebrate Buddha's birthday on April 8th.

Several legends are attributed to the birth of Siddhartha, including a prophecy that he would either be a great ruler or a fully enlightened teacher, but very little else is known of the early life of Siddhartha. No other indication of his destiny is recorded other than a reference to an incident when he was a child in which he fell into a meditative trance while sitting in an open field watching a festival. When he was 16, Gotama married his cousin, Yasodara, and she gave birth to a son sometime later, named Rahula.

It is said that King Suddhodana wanted his son to fulfill his legacy as rightful heir to the kingdom rather than become a great religious leader, and accordingly brought him up with all the luxuries befitting a future king. The events that forced Gotama's decision to take up the religious life occurred when he was about 29 years old. On a rare trip outside the palace, Siddhartha witnessed what would come to be called the Four Sights: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a religious wanderer, or samana. In the first three, Gotama saw the suffering and misery of human existence, something quite foreign to someone who was raised in the sheltered luxury of a palace. The fourth site, however, intrigued Gotama. The samana, seemed to transcend the suffering that existed around him to live in relative peace and calm. It appeared to Gotama, that the holy man was not concerned with posessions or comfort, finding instead solace and equanimity in renouncing all worldly things. It was these signs that led Gotama to question if he too would experience sickness, old age and death. Could this suffering be avoided or even stopped altogether? The samanaseemed to have reached a state of transcendence, but was he striving to end suffering for everyone or just himself? Back in the rich splendor of the palace, Gotama decided he would renounce the world he had been born into and become a samana himself, spending the rest of his life in search of an end to the world's suffering. That same night he left the palace aided by his friend and charioteer, Ananda. Once outside the palace walls, Gotama donned the garments of a wandering mendicant and took up the homeless life.

The next seven years of Gotama's life were devoted to his quest. During this time, he became a disciple of the leading religious teachers of his day, most notably Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra, masters of yogic meditation, but Gotama quickly surpassed them in mastery. Then, since he realized that these methods were not an end unto themselves, Gotama left his teachers to continue his search on his own.

By this time his wandering had taken him south of the Ganges river. He formed an association with five other samanas, who were devoted to the practice of extreme austerities. Just as he had learned mastery of his mind from Kalama and Ramaputra, Siddhartha was able to endure an immeasurable degree of self mortification and denial of the physical self. Mastery of the body, however, did not provide Gotama the answers he was looking for. After a near-death experience, he left his companions and continued his search alone.

Looking back on the last few years of his life, his teachers and fellow samanas, Siddhartha wondered if the answers he was seeking lay somewhere in between the polar extremes of denial and luxury. Sitting beneath a large tree, he vowed to not get up from his seat until he reached a final, irrefutable answer. He sat in meditation for seven days. Then, as the morning star rose on the eighth day, Siddartha Gotama achieved final realization and enlightenment and became a Buddha (a Sanskrit word meaning, "one who has awakened").

The first proclamation of the Buddha's teachings (dharma) took place in a deer-park close to the city of Sarnath, near modern Benares. The first to hear Buddha's teachings were his five former ascetic companions, who upon hearing his words became the Buddha's first disciples. From that day on until his death some 45 years later, the Buddha and the growing community (sangha) of monks and disciples travelled tirelessly around Northern India proclaiming his message.

The Buddha died at the age of 80, at a place called Kusinagara, mid-way between Vesali and Savatthi. Here he delivered his final discourses, telling his followers to discover for themselves, as he had, whether or not any of the teachings he had extolled for the last 40+ years were indeed true. There is much debate about how exactly the Buddha died, but it is generally assumed that it was the result of the last meal he consumed, either tainted pork or mushrooms.


The Basic Teachings of the Buddha

One of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha is that no law or truth should be assumed to be true without first testing or studying it for yourself. No teachings of his or any other spiritual or temporal leader should be taken at face value. The Dharma as taught by the Buddha should be verified by the practitioner pragmatically to determine whether or not the teaching is true or valid for the individual.

Three Marks of Existence

During his first discourse to his five companions, it is said the Buddha "turned the wheel of the Dharma" for the first time. It was during these teachings that he identified the "sameness" of the human condition, the cycle of suffering known as "samsara," and the simple path one can follow to alleviate it. Buddha began by discussing traits common to all of mankind. He called them the Three Marks of Existence, and he used them to identify the fundamental characteristics of all "compounded" things, animate or inanimate, micro or macroscopic:

  • Anicca: The law of impermanence which asserts that all states of being are subject to constant change, to rise and fall, and that no permanent state, either physical or inanimate, exists. The law of anicca establishes impermanence as the primary belief of Buddhism.

  • Dukkha: The law of dukkha concludes that all states of being are inherently unsatisfactory. Although this idea is what causes Buddhism at times to be characterized as nihilism, it is in reality, anything but. Dukkha merely means that no compounded thing or state of being could be considered as a universal norm, either good or bad, and needs to be considered in relation to the human situation wherein unsatisfactoriness typically manifests itself as "suffering."

  • Anatta: The third law states that there is no permanent essence, "self", ego, or soul in any given state of being. The Buddha recognized that the delusion of self or ego was one of the most powerful human instincts, and one of the most potent sources of ignorance. Buddhism does not deny the reality of the external world, rather it argues that all states of being can be broken down into their constituent components, and that nothing else but these components exist. It is in this sense that all states of being are declared to be empty (shunyata). The law of anatta also asserts that there is no fixed essence or being in any state of existence, only a process of becoming or arising and falling away.


The Four Noble Truths

Using the law of dukkha as a starting point, the Buddha next identified four basic truths regarding existence. These beliefs would form the core of the Dharma, and have become a convenient way of explaining the fundamentals of Buddhism in general.

The Buddha frequently asserted that he was interested in the problem of the alleviation of human suffering: "Only one thing do I teach: suffering, and how to end it". With the Four Noble Truths, his approach to the problem of suffering was similar to that of the physician to a patient: he first diagnoses the malady, then seeks its cause, then finds out whether a cure is possible. Finally, he prescribes the cure.

  • The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering
  • According to the Buddha, this truth affirms that the law of dukkha is applicable to the human condition:

    "Birth is suffering, decay is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering. To be separated from the pleasant is suffering; to be in contact with the unpleasant is suffering; in short, all of existence connected with attachment is suffering."

    The truth of dukkha does not deny the existence of good or bad experiences, but speaks to the very incompleteness and transitory nature of these experiences.

  • The Second Noble Truth: The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  • The immediate cause of suffering is craving, desire, or greed, while the root cause is always ignorance. The objects of craving are virtually limitless: sensual pleasure, material possessions, glory, power, fame, ego, etc.

  • The Third Noble Truth: The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
  • In religious terms, this truth could be called the "good news" of Buddhism. It basically states that the cause of suffering can be alleviated.

  • The Fourth Noble Truth: The Truth of the Path to Enlightenment
  • The last Truth holds that the end to all suffering can be accomplished by following what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Although the "steps" of the path are categorized in relation to different aspects of Buddhist thought and practice, they are not meant to be studied individually, rather they are each closely interrelated, each step "informing" the other.


The Noble Eightfold Path

The adjective, "right," as used to describe the steps of the Eightfold Path, must be understood in relative terms. The steps are not meant to be taken as "laws" or "commandments," but understood in relation to the Four Noble Truths as a whole. That is, the "right" action in any given situation, according to Buddhism, is that which promotes or helps to end the cycle of suffering.

  • Right View
  • This is the right way of interpreting and viewing the world. It requires the realization of the Four Noble Truths as being applicable to the human condition. More generally it involves the abandonment of all dogmatically held wrong views.

  • Right Intention
  • The Buddha said that all human thought and action spring from basic "intentions", "dispositions", or "roots", which are capable of deliberate cultivation, training and control. The three roots of wrong, unwholesome or "unskillful" action are: Greed, Aversion and Delusion. Right Intention, which the Buddhist path requires, is an intention which is free from these roots.

  • Right Speech
  • Since speech is the most powerful means of communication, the Buddha emphasizes the cultivation of right modes of speech. These have been described as avoiding falsehood and adhering to the truth; abstaining from frivolous talk; refraining from harsh language or profanity and cultivating gentle and courteous speech; avoiding vain, irresponsible and foolish talk, and speaking in reasoned terms on subjects of value. Naturally, right speech includes in the modern context right ways of communication whatever the medium used.

  • Right Action
  • This refers to willful acts done by a person, whether by body or mind. It involves such forms of ethical conduct as not killing (or harming) living beings, theft, and not engaging in irresponsible sexual conduct. On the positive side, right action, also called wholesome deeds, involves acts of loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and generosity (caga).

  • Right Livelihood
  • This involves not choosing an occupation that purposely brings suffering to others. Some examples would be trading in living beings (including humans, plants, and animals), weapons, drugs, etc. This step of the path, in modern terms, can be the most difficult of all to practice, as virtually any occupation causes suffering in one form or another to individuals or the world around them.

  • Right Effort
  • This step has been described as "the effort of avoiding or overcoming evil and unwholesome things, and of developing and maintaining wholesome things." Right effort enables an individual to cultivate the right frame of mind in order to accomplish the ethical goals set forth by Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right Effort allows individuals to develop loving-kindness (metta) compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha).

  • Right Mindfulness
  • This is the basic Buddhist technique of cultivating awareness, and is generally viewed, along with Right Concentration, as the prime component of meditation practice.

  • Right Concentration
  • Along with Right Mindfulness, this concentration of the mind is associated with developing a wholesome consciousness. Progress along this step of the path is marked by the achievement of the different levels of "absorption" (jhana).

The eight components of the Path are generally placed into three separate categories. The first two are grouped under wisdom (prajna), the next three under morality (sila), and the last three under mental development (bhavana).

The first of these components (Right View) is generally considered the most important, but there is no particular order of importance when it comes to the others. However, different traditions have put varying degrees of stress on different components.


Other Important Buddhist Beliefs

While the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path contain the kernel of the Buddha's teaching, and were proclaimed by the Buddha in his first discourses, there are many other doctrines that are central to the philosophical system of Buddhism.

The Five Aggregates or Skandhas

The five aggregates or skandhas set forth the fundamental Buddhist idea that all individual experiences are inherently "empty" (shunyata). Basically, suffering arises when attachment arises to a particular state of becoming as experienced through the aggregates. Logically then, by relinquishing these attachments, suffering is subsequently extinguished. Only by deeply seeing into one's own nature (through meditation) and realizing the intrinsically empty nature of all the aggregates, can suffering be eliminated.

  • Form - External and internal matter
  • Sensation - Either the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensing of an object
  • Perception - Cognition of an object
  • Mental Formations - All thoughts, ideas, opinions, and decisions triggered by an object
  • Consciousness - the base which supports all experience


The doctrine of "emptiness" (shunyata) or "no-thing-ness," sets forth the belief in the impermanent nature of all forms and states of being in relation to the five aggregates or skandhas, and that nothing posseses what could be considered an enduring, unique identity. Insight into this basic truth leads to wisdom (prajna).

The primary principle of shunyata is that everything, including the "self," is interrelated and mutually dependent, without inherent existence.

The Middle Way

The Buddhist path to enlightenment was discovered by the Buddha through his own personal effort and practice. It has been called the Middle Way or Path because it is a medium between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Both extremes of practice were common in the Buddha's day (as indeed they are to some extent today). The Buddha called such extremes vain, profitless and ignoble.


The Buddhist doctrine of karma ("deeds", "actions"), and the closely related doctrine of rebirth, are perhaps the best known and often the least understood of all Buddhist doctrines. The matter is complicated by the fact that the other Indian religious traditions of Hinduism and Jainism have their own theories of Karma and Reincarnation.

In Buddhism, the law of karma is the moral law of causation: good actions give good results and vice versa. It is the quality of an act which determines its consequences. But what determines the karmic quality of a deed? Buddhism evaluates the karmic quality of an act in terms of moral and ethical criteria. In particular, it is the mental factors which bring rise to and follow through with an act itself that determines its consequences. According to Buddhism, all negative karma (i.e. those leading to bad consequences) arise from the three roots of unwholesomeness: greed, aversion, and delusion. Accordingly, good karmic results follow from deeds that spring from generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. The Buddha emphasized that it is these mental factors, rather than the deeds themselves, that determine future consequences. Thus, the same deed committed with different mental factors will have different consequences. Likewise, purely accidental deeds may have neutral consequences. However, if the accident occurred because insufficient mindfulness was exercised, it could have adverse results for the person responsible.


The Buddhist theory of rebirth asserts that the fruits of some karma may manifest themselves in future lives. Similar concepts can be found in other religious systems, such as the Platonic theory of the "pre-existence of the soul," and the Hindu/Jain theory of reincarnation. Whereas reincarnation theory involves the transmigration of a soul, however, Buddhist thought holds that it is the "unripened" karmic acts at the death of an individual which precondition a new birth. In other words, it is the store of karma generated by the acts of previous existences which generates the destiny of the new individual. In the Buddhist view of rebirth, the only links between two successive lives is the karmic residue carried over along with an element of consciousness, which momentarily links the two lives. In Buddhism, there is no conception of a transmigrating soul which inhabits successive material bodies until it unites with God.

Buddhism uses the Pali term samsara to denote the "cycle of births" in various planes of existence governed by the law of karma. The acceptance of this idea is very difficult for some people. Buddhism does not require an acceptance of any theory regarding rebirth or karma but asks that a person merely attempts to interpret or verify his/her personal life experience, as samsara is present and identifiable in every moment of existence.