Introduction to Buddhism

Get a quick understanding of Buddhism



Founder: Buddha
Location: India
Date: ~500 BCE
Primary Scripture: Tipitaka (Tripitaka)
Main Goal: Achieve Nirvana

Main Figures

  • Buddha
    • Other names
      • Sakyamuni (Sakya clan sage),
      • Siddhartha Gautama (Birth Name)
    • Contribution: Founded Buddhism
    • Occupation: Prince

Mahayana and Vajrayana sect Figures

  • Amitabha Buddha
    • Contribution: Established Pure Land sect (Mahayana)
  • Manjushri
    • Contribution: Bodhisattva of Wisdom
  • Avalokiteshvara
    • Other names/manifestations
      • Pure Land (Mahayana): A manifestation of Amidha Buddha (sits at his right hand)
      • China (Mahayana): Kuan Yin - Goddess of Compassion
      • Tibet (Vajrayana)
        • Chenrezig (Main form)- Male of couple that gave birth to Tibetan people
        • Tara (manifestation)- Female form of Chenrezig
        • King Songtsen Gampo (manifestation)- Brought Buddhism to Tibet
        • Dalai Lama (manifestation)- Chief spiritual and political leader of Tibet.
    • Contribution: Bodhisattva of Compassion

History of Buddha

Siddhartha (Buddha) was born around 563 B.C.E. in the town of Kapilavastu (located in today's Nepal). Siddhartha's parents were King Shuddhodana and Queen Maya, who ruled the Sakyas. His history is a miraculous one... One night, Queen Maya dreamed that an elephant with six tusks, carrying a lotus flower in its trunk, touched her right side. At that moment her son was conceived. Brahmins (learned men) came and interpreted the dream. The child would be either the greatest king in the world or the greatest ascetic (a holy man who practices self-denial). The future child would be named Siddhartha, which means "he whose aim is accomplished."

Later when Queen Maya was going to her father's home to prepare for the birth, she stepped off her chariot in the Lumbini Gardens and held the branch of a sal tree to rest. In that instant, Siddhartha emerged from her right side without any help. The infant walked seven steps each in four directions of the compass, and lotus flowers sprouted from where his foot touched the earth. Then the infant said, "No further births have I to endure, for this is my last body. Now shall I destroy and pluck out by the roots the sorrow that is caused by birth and death." Seven days later Queen Maya died. Mahaprajapati, Maya's sister, looked after Siddhartha. King Shuddhodana shielded Siddhartha from all kinds of suffering and hardship. When Siddhartha was about 20, he married Yasodhara, daughter of one of the King's ministers, and one year later they had a child named Rahula (meaning "fetter" or "impediment").

At age 29, Siddhartha asked his charioteer, Channa, to take him out of the city two times without the consent of the king. During these two trips, Siddhartha saw "Four Sights" that changed his life. On the first trip, he saw old age, sickness, and death. The second trip, he saw a wandering holy man, an ascetic, with no possessions. Siddhartha started questioning the holy man, who had a shaved head, wore only a ragged yellow robe, and carried a walking-staff. The man said, "I am... terrified by birth and death and therefore have adopted a homeless life to win salvation... I search for the most blessed state in which suffering, old age, and death are unknown." That night, Siddhartha silently kissed his sleeping wife and son, and ordered Channa to drive him out to the forest. At the edge of the forest, Siddhartha took off his jeweled sword, and cut off his hair and beard. He then took off all his princely garments and put on a yellow robe of a holy man. He then ordered Channa to take his possessions back to his father.

Siddhartha then wandered through northeastern India, sought out holy men, and learned about Samsara (reincarnation), Karma, and Moksha. Attracted to the ideas of Moksha, Siddhartha settled on the bank of Nairanjana River, and adopted a life of extreme self-denial and penances, meditating constantly. After six years of eating and drinking only enough to stay alive, his body was emaciated, and he was very weak. Five other holy men joined him, hoping to learn from his example.

One day, Siddhartha realized that his years of penance only weakened his body, and he could not continue to meditate properly. When he stepped into the river to bathe, he was too weak to get out, and the trees lowered their branches to help him. In that instant, a milk-maid named Nandabala came and offered a bowl of milk and rice, which Siddhartha accepted. The five holy men left Siddhartha after witnessing this. Refreshed by the meal, Siddhartha sat down under a fig tree (often refered to as the Bo tree, or Tree of Enlightenment) and resolved to find out an answer to life and suffering. While meditating, Mara (an evil god) sent his three sons and daughters to tempt Siddhartha with thirst, lust, discontent, and distractions of pleasure. Siddhartha, unswayed, entered a deep meditation, and recalled all his previous rebirths, gained knowledge of the cycle of births and deaths, and with certainty, cast off the ignorance and passion of his ego which bound him to the world. Thereupon, Siddhartha had attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (enlightened one). His own desire and suffering were over and, as the Buddha, he experienced Nirvana... "There is a sphere which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air...which is neither this world nor the other world, neither sun nor moon. I deny that it is coming or going, enduring, death or birth. It is only the end of suffering." Instead of casting off his body and his existence, however, Buddha made a great act of self-sacrifice. He turned back, determined to share his enlightement with others so that all living souls could end the cycles of their own rebirth and suffering.

Buddha went to the city of Sarnath and found the previous five holy men that deserted him earlier at a deer park. When they saw Buddha this time, they realized that he had risen to a higher state of holiness. The Buddha began teaching them what he had learned. He drew a circle in the ground with rice grains, representing the wheel of life that went on for existence after existence. This preaching was called his Deer Park Sermon, or "Setting in Motion the Wheel of Doctrine." Siddhartha revealed that he had become the Buddha, and described the pleasure that he had first known as a prince, and the life of severe asceticism that he had practiced. Neither of these was the true path to Nirvana. The true path was the Middle Way, which keeps aloof from both extremes.

"To satisfy the necessities of life is not evil," the Buddha said. "To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom and keep our mind strong and clear." Buddha then taught them the Dharma, which consisted of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The five holy men and others soon joined Buddha, accompanying him everywhere. As more joined, Buddha organized the Sangha, a community of bhikkus (dedicated monks and later nuns). The Sangha preserved the Dharma, and allowed bhikkus to concentrate on the goal of Nirvana. On raining seasons they would settle in Viharas (resting places in cave dwellings). Upasaka, followers who believed in Buddha's teachings, but could not follow the stict rule of the Sangha, were taught to follow the Five Precepts. Buddha returned to his birthplace in Kapilavastu, and his father was mortified to see his son begging for food. Buddha kissed his father's foot and said, "You belong to a noble line of kings. But I belong to the lineage of buddhas, and thousands of those have lived on alms." King Shuddhadana then remembered the Brahmin's prophesy and reconciled with his son. Buddha's wife, son, and cousin (Ananda) later joined the Sangha.

When Buddha was about eighty, a blacksmith named Cuanda gave him a meal that caused him to become ill. Buddha forced himself to travel to Kushinagara, and laid down on his right side to rest in a grove of shala trees. As a crowd of followers gathered, the trees sprouted blossoms and showered them on Buddha. Buddha told Ananda, "I am old and my journey is near its end. My body is like a worn-out cart held together only by the help of leather straps." Three times, Buddha asked the people if they had any questions, but they all remained silent. Finally Buddha said, "Everything that has been created is subject to decay and death. Everything is transitory. Work out your own salvation with diligence. After passing through several states of meditation, the Buddha died, reaching Parinirvana (the cessation of perception and sensation).

The Major Sects of Buddhism

  • Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism
    • Literal: School of the Elders (Small Vehicle)
    • Main Focus
      • Four Noble Truths
      • Meditation
      • Sage Buddha
    • Main adherents: Southeast Asia
  • Mahayana Buddhism
    • Literal: Large Vehicle
    • Main Focus
      • Four Noble Truths
      • Meditation
      • Divine Buddha
      • Bodhisattvas
    • Main adherents: China, Japan, and Korea
    • Subdivisions
      • Pure Land School
      • Tian Dai (China) or Tendai (Japan) Buddhism
        • Confucianism Influence
      • Chan (China) or Zen (Japan) Buddhism
        • Daoism Influence
        • Main Focus
          • Meditation
          • Chanting
          • Teacher-Student dialog
          • Sometimes influences Tea ceremonies
  • Vajrayana Buddhism
    • Literal: Diamond Vehicle
    • Main Focus
      • Meditation
      • Chanting
      • Enlightenment in one lifetime
      • Tibetan gods and demons
      • Religious visualizations
      • Philosophical debate
      • Ritual
      • Yoga
      • Tantric Sex
    • Main adherents: Tibet

Four Noble Truths

  1. Life is suffering - dukkha
    • Birth trauma
    • Illness
    • Old age
    • Fear of approaching death
    • Separation from what one loves
    • Stuck with what one hates
  2. The cause of suffering is desire - tanha
  3. The cure for suffering is to remove desire
  4. To remove desire, follow the Eightfold path

Eightfold Path

  1. Right Knowledge
    • Understand the Four Noble Truths
  2. Right Thinking
    • Decide to set a life on the correct path
  3. Right Speech
    • Don't lie
    • Don't criticize others unjustly
    • Don't use harsh language
    • Don't gossip
  4. Right Conduct
    • Follow the Five Precepts
  5. Right Livelihood
    • Earn a living that does not harm living things
  6. Right Effort
    • Conquer all evil thoughts
    • Strive to maintain good thoughts
  7. Right Mindfulness
    • Become intensely aware of all the states in body, feeling, and mind.
  8. Right Concentration
    • Deep meditation to lead to a higher state of consciousness (enlightenment)

Five Precepts

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not steal
  3. Do not lie
  4. Do not be unchaste
  5. Do not take drugs or drink intoxicants

The Three Jewels

  1. Buddham saranam gachami
    • To the Buddha I go for refuge.
    • Buddha is truth and example of path.
  2. Dharmam saranam gachami
    • To the Dharma I go for refuge.
    • Dharma is teachings.
  3. Sangham saranam gachami
    • To my Sangha I go for refuge.
    • Sangha is spiritual community.

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