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What Is Buddhism?
An Introduction to Buddhist Beliefs and History
The answer to What is Buddhism is that it is a religion founded by The Buddha, that has its roots in Hinduism, but has as many differences as there are similarities. There are numerous different schools of Buddhism today, but they all started with the birth of the the founder of the religion, a man born with the name Siddhartha Gautama, in approximately 563 BCE, in what is now part of Nepal. After years of searching the path to enlightenment, he finally succeeded and called himself The Buddha, which means The Enlightened One.
Traditional Buddhism believes that living creatures exist in a state of samsara, meaning an endless cycle of rebirths in the material world. We are affected by the deeds, good and bad, that we did in our previous births, and that effect is known as karma. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to end the cycle of rebirths through enlightenment and enter a state of nirvana, which actually means "cool," and implies to not be touched by the flames of desire. In Buddhism, the path to enlightenment consists of compassion for other beings, and understanding of one's mind and the world.
While traditional Buddhism does not deny the existence of a supreme God or ultimate reality, the Buddha taught that it was not important to try and comprehend this supreme reality. The Buddha further warned that simple devotion to a particular deity was NOT a path to liberation from the endless cycle of briths, and that animal sacrifices were to be avoided, since all beings (including animals) were on their own journey to liberation and, hence, should not be killed.
The Buddha had been born of royal blood, and had later given up his privileged life and lived a life of austerities, sacrificing in order to attain enlightenment. Since neither of these two opposites worked, he then became convinced that a "middle way," avoiding both extremes, was the true path to Buddhahood. The Buddha provided many real-world examples of how to live this kind of life.
The Four Noble Truths
Often referred to as the basis of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths are an essay on the nature of suffering, known as dukkha, which is at the root of all dissatisfaction and the cause of defilements (kilesa) which prevent us from achieving liberation.
The First Noble Truth states that all life is suffering, as all things born must decay, yet we yearn for things to never change, to never decay, causing us to cling to material items which are all impermanent. Some Buddhists interpret this to mean that everything - even inanimate objects such as tables and clocks - are suffering, since they must one day decay. Others say that only living things are suffering.
The Second Noble Truth states that the craving for possessions and pleasures led to this suffering. He further stated that the craving leads to repeated existence (meaning constant rebirths - in essence, continued samsara).
The Third Noble Truth states that the way to end suffering is by ending craving; that craving had to be abandoned and that beings had to be detached from craving in order to end suffering. Renown Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, believes that the Buddha also included other defilements (kilesa), such as anger, ignorance, and arrogance, as causing suffering. Other Buddhist scholars believe that craving is the cause of these other defilements. Our craving for recognition, for example, may lead to arrogance.
The Fourth Noble Truth states that the way to end craving, and hence cease suffering and achieve enlightenment, is by following the Eightfold Path, which is explained below.
The Eightfold Path
Often represented by a wheel with eight spokes, the Noble Eightfold Path is a group of 8 behaviors that are to be practiced concurrently, for one to be able to reach Nirvana. They are:
1) Right Understanding: Learning and testing the Buddha's teachings to see if they are true,
2) Right Thought: Developing the motivation to practice selflessness,
3) Right Speech: Avoiding lying and gossiping, and hurtful speech,
4) Right Action: Behaving properly by refraining from killing any living being, refraining from becoming intoxicated, not overindulging the senses,
5) Right Livelihood: Earning a living through ways that do not adversely affect the environment or other living beings,
6) Right Effort: Regulating one's energies so that only proper effort is put into each task or endeavor,
7) Right Mindfulness: Becoming aware of the state of the mind and the body, so that one may meditate.
8) Right Concentration: Achieving deep meditation so as to facilitate enlightenment.
But aside from all of the traditional teachings, I think that His Holiness the Dalai Lama answers the question what is Buddhism with this statement:
"If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion."