Basic Knowledge about Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha.

Buddha is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance (avidyā) by way of understanding and seeing dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and eliminating craving (taṇhā), and thus attain the highest happiness, nirvāņa.

Buddhism reached its peak under the Mauryan Empire (322-185 AD). Ashoka gave royal patronage to Buddhism and made it a pan-Asian religion. He sponsored Buddhist missions to various areas within his empire and also to the Greek-ruled areas of the Northwest, Sri Lanka in the south as well as the Central Asia. After the death of Ashoka, Buddhism did not get a direct royal patronage. Soon Buddhism declined and was almost wiped out from India but instead spread to the South East Asian countries and to Sri Lanka.

Gautama Buddha

Siddhārtha Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, around the year 563 BCE, and raised in Kapilavastu. Young prince Gautama was kept away from seeing the sufferings of normal people since an astrologer prophesied that he would renounce the material world if sees the miseries of Life. In a series of encounters, known in Buddhist literature as the four sights, he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

For six years, Siddhartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, studying and following different methods of meditation with various religious teachers. But he was never fully satisfied. One day, however, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl and he accepted it. In that moment, he realised that physical austerities were not the means to achieve liberation. From then on, he encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He called this The Middle Way.

At the age of 35, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, in the town of Bodh Gaya in India, and meditated. He purified his mind of all defilements and attained enlightenment after many days, thus earning the title Buddha, or “Enlightened One”.

Thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order. He spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, traveling throughout the north-eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, and died at the age of 80 (483 BCE) in Kushinagar, India.


Samsara is “the cycle of birth and death”. Sentient beings crave pleasure and are averse to pain from birth to death. Buddhists strive to end the sufferings by eradicating the causes and conditions, applying the methods laid out by the Buddha and subsequent Buddhists.

Karma in Buddhism is the force that drives saṃsāra. Good, skillful deeds (kusala) and bad, unskillful (akusala) actions produce “seeds” in the mind that come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth. The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the cultivation of positive actions is called śīla.

Rebirth refers to a process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception to death. Buddhism rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. Each rebirth takes place within one of five realms according to Theravadins, or six according to other schools. These are further subdivided into 31 planes of existence.

Branches of Buddhism

Two branches of Buddhism are generally recognized: Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) and Theravada (“The School of the Elders”)

  • Mahayana The followers of Mahayana believe that Buddha taught universal salvation. One should not aim at personal nirvana and should help ease the suffering of humanity. Mahayana Buddhism is found throughout East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan etc.) and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, and Tiantai (Tendai). In India, this form of Buddhism is followed in Ladakh, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh.
  • Theravada The Theravada Buddhism is better known as the earliest form of Buddhism. The ‘Thera’ means old and ‘Vada’ means school. The aim of this form of Buddhism is to attain personal nirvana through the triple recourse to ethical conduct, mental discipline and higher knowledge or wisdom. It has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar etc.). In India, this strain of Buddhism is represented by the followers of Dr B.R.Ambedkar known as the Ambedkar Buddhists, who are exclusive to India.

In some classifications, Vajrayana practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and adjacent parts of China and Russia is recognized as a third branch. Hinayana is an ugly Mahayana polemical term coined by Mahayanists to both classify and refer to those schools of Buddhism with which the Mahayana disagreed.

The Four Noble Truths

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are regarded as central to the teachings of Buddhism. These four truths explain the nature of dukkha, its causes, and how it can be overcome. They can be summarized as follows:

  • The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction): explains the nature of dukkha.
  • The truth of the origin of dukkha: It says that the origin of dukkha can be known. The origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving conditioned by ignorance. On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance.
  • The truth of the cessation of dukkha: It says that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible.
  • The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha: It identifies a path to cessation of dukkha.

Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha. The Eight factors are:

  • Right View (or Right Understanding): Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
  • Right Intention (or Right Thought): Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness
  • Right Speech: Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way
  • Right Action: Acting in a non-harmful way
  • Right Livelihood: A non-harmful livelihood
  • Right Effort: Making an effort to improve
  • Right Mindfulness: Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness
  • Right Concentration: Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas


The foundations of Buddhist tradition and practice are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). Taking “refuge in the triple gem” has traditionally been a declaration and commitment to being on the Buddhist path, and in general distinguishes a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist. Other practices may include following ethical precepts; support of the monastic community; renouncing conventional living and becoming a monastic; the development of mindfulness and practice of meditation; cultivation of higher wisdom and discernment; study of scriptures; devotional practices; ceremonies; and in the Mahayana tradition, invocation of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The Buddhist place of worship is called a Vihara or Gompa, which usually houses one or more statues of the Buddha. The five great events in Buddha’s life are represented by symbols as under:

  • Birth by Lotus and Bull
  • Great Renunciation by Horse
  • Nirvana by Bodhi Tree
  • First Sermon by Dharmachakra or Wheel
  • Parinirvana or death by the Stupa.


The Wheel of Law or dharmachakra, is the most important symbol of Buddhism. According to the Buddha, dharma is the law that ensures the welfare of the greatest number of people if practiced faithfully. The wheel symbolises the goodness in every person. The wheel has eight spokes representing the eight virtues enumerated by the Eight Fold Path, the path to salvation.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhism is “essentially Buddhism of the Mahayana school, with elements of modified Shaivism and native ritualistic shamanism”. Monks belonging to this strain of Buddhism are called lamas. Tibetan Buddhism, also called Lamaism, is a predominant religion of Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of the world. In India it is practised by over 1,20,000 Tibetans settled in their different settlements at Dharamsala, Dehradun (UP), Kushalnagar (Karnataka), Darjeeling (West Bengal),Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh.

The Tibetan Buddhism follows a strict code of traditional hierarchy. The supreme position is occupied by two lamas: the Dalai Lama (Grand Lama) and the Panchen Lama (Bogodo Lama). Of the two, the Dalai Lama is more powerful and is considered as the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, while the Panchen Lama is the second most senior religious authority. Next in rank are the Hutukhtus, or spiritual dignitaries. The Rimpoches or Hobilghans or bodhisattvas form the third level of authority.

The present and the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was identified and enthroned in 1940, in Lhasa. After the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and established a Government-in-exile at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.

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