Buddhism: An Introduction
This paper examines Buddhist Philosophy and explores the core principles
taught by Buddha in his first sermon; specifically the Four Noble Truths and the
Eightfold Noble Path. It then examines scripture found within the Pali Canon and
provides analysis to better understand the Buddhist philosophy of the self. Next, it
contrasts the various sects of Buddhism, and defines how Buddhists attempt to reach
enlightenment through various practices. Finally, it attempts to show how Buddhism,
Daoism, Confucianism, and modern science have influenced the beliefs held by people
in Buddhist countries.
Buddhism: An Introduction
Self-reflection often leads to profound discoveries about the true reality of the
world and the nature of its environment. Such is the case when looking at the life of
Siddhartha Gautama; the one who became enlightened and challenged the spiritual
belief system of the society in which he lived. His profound philosophical teachings
have endured thousands of years of scrutiny and have influenced the moral foundation
of numerous cultures throughout history. Buddha’s philosophy differed from other
religions in that it was psychological, and it focused on reaching enlightenment
through introspection rather than by prayer and worship. Buddhism’s philosophical
teachings demonstrated that anyone could reach liberation through their practice and
contemplation, regardless of their social status. Buddha taught people to live in
moderation and showed them the importance of avoiding intemperate behavior. Many
of the key teachings of Buddhism revolve around the principle of the middle path, and
in order to understand its importance, we must first examine the story of how Gautama
became the enlightened one.
The Life of Siddhartha Gautama
Gautama’s story began in northern India nearly 2,500 years ago during a time
when Hinduism influenced much of India’s societal norms and social roles. Gautama
was said to be the prince of a small kingdom called Lumbini, in modern day Nepal
(Buddha Dharma Education Association 1999). Being part of a royal family, Gautama
was surrounded by pleasure and was guarded from the harsh realities of the world. It
wasn’t until he left his royal estate and witnessed the devastating nature of disease and
death that he gained his first insight into these harsh realities of the world. According to
the Pali Canon, Gautama saw the world as a cycle of suffering, and this belief
influenced him to leave his life of luxury and to live life as an ascetic. During this time it
was common for people who were trying to live a holy life to leave their family and
possessions as a way to sever attachments to worldly things (Armstrong 2001). As an
ascetic, Gautama had two teachers that taught him yogic meditation; however, he
rejected their spiritual training because he felt he had not achieved his goal of
enlightenment (Robinson & Johnson 1982). For six years Gautama practiced trance
inducing meditation and abstained from eating food to the point where he almost died.
These experiences influenced his belief that enlightenment was unachievable through
extreme behavior, and led him to develop the idea of the middle path. Sometime later,
according to legend, Gautama accepted food from a woman in the community and sat
under a Bhodi Tree to meditate. At that point he was threatened and tempted by a
demon called Mara. During this meditative trance, Gautama rejected Mara’s temptation,
found nirvana, and was transformed into the Buddha by, according to Robinson and
Johnson, “…realizing the destinies of all living beings and of the general principles
governing these destinies” (1982). After his enlightenment, Buddha wanted to stay
under the Bhodi Tree to pass away without teaching people what he had learned, but
the Hindu god Brahma came before him and begged him to teach people of his new
found wisdom. He agreed to Brahma’s request and traveled for the next 40 years to
teach his philosophy of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Middle Way
(Fieser & Powers 2008).
Comparing Buddhist and Hindu Thought
We have seen from the story of Gautama’s enlightenment that Buddhism
emerged from Hinduism. Therefore, comparing and contrasting philosophical
differences between these two religions is unavoidable and essential in understanding
the Buddhist faith. First, we must understand that the Hindu religion was authoritarian,
ritualistic, traditional, graceful, and mysterious (Smith 1994). Hinduism’s authority
came in the form of a priestly class called Brahmins, who were seen as the spiritual
leaders of Indian society. During this time there was a strong caste system made of four
specific classes; Brahmin, Kshatriya, Viashya, and Shundra. In Hinduism, people believe
that time and space is endless, that everyone is reborn in an endless cycle (samsara), and
that their present destiny is determined by the accumulative karma of their past life. An
individual’s main goal in life is to have good karma throughout their lifetime in order to
move up the caste system, end samsara, and reach nirvana (Robinson and Johnson
6 1982). The Buddha saw fault with these concepts and preached that people had control
of their own spiritual destiny (Smith 1994). He thought that anyone could reach
nirvana regardless of their social status and that the value of one’s life rested on the
quality of the decisions that he or she made throughout their current lifetime.
One of the Buddha’s greatest achievements involved freeing ethics from the
rituals that people held in Hinduism. He believed that Hinduism put too much emphasis
on superstitious practices and failed to adequately promote the personal growth of an
individual. He placed his focus on the moral development of the individual and did not
emphasize other worldly matters, such as life after death or transcendence (Smith
1998). His goal was to help people to terminate the endless cycle of suffering which was
caused by desire and ignorance, through education and self-analysis (Robinson &
Johnson 1982). Buddha wanted people to find this knowledge through their own
experience and discouraged learning through ritualistic practices (Smith 1998). Overall,
we find that Buddhism differs from Hinduism in that it is inner worldly, and places the
focus of spirituality on the individual rather than with religious authorities.
Buddha’s Key Teachings
Now that we have a basic understanding of the Buddha’s life and goals, we can
examine the Buddha’s first sermon, which provides the foundation for the beliefs held
by those who follow the principles of Buddhism. We can first look at the Four Noble
1. All existence involves suffering.
2 This suffering was caused by desire,
3. There can be a cessation to this suffering,
4. By following the Eightfold Noble Path.
Next, Buddha instructed his followers to follow the Middle Path and condemned
extreme behavior, giving them a set of rules called the Eightfold Noble Path as a guide.
The Eightfold Noble Path’s only prerequisite is that we must have the right association
with people in our social environment. This is extremely important to understand
because much of our behavior is influenced by our social interactions and social
environment. The Eightfold Noble Path includes:
* Right Knowledge asserts that we must first understand the Four Noble
Truths and understand that desire and ignorance causes suffering (Smith 1994).
Buddha cautioned that anger, greed, and the ego could corrupt our thoughts and
sway us from reaching our goal of liberation. He suggested that we must be
aware of harmful thoughts and feelings so that we can eliminate the desires that
sway our good intentions. He argued that ridding oneself of wrong intention and
gaining virtue is an important step toward the path of enlightenment.
* Right Intention says that we must understand what we really want to achieve in
life. We must find what goal we are really trying to accomplish and seek out that
* Right Speech tells us to analyze what we say and instructs us to analyze how our
speech influences our character. The Buddha emphasized that we should not lie,
be abusive, or gossip. Instead, we should focus on speaking the truth, and
promote charity and good will (Smith 1994).
* Right Behavior is the idea that we should not bring corruption or harm to
oneself or others. We must have good morals and promote virtues with our
actions. The Buddha instructed his students with five precepts to follow, which
include; do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, or take intoxicants (Smith 1994).
* Right Livelihood states that we should live a monastic life, but if we do not we
should only be involved in trades that do not bring harm to oneself or others.
This is important because we spend most of our time and attention focused on
* Right Effort says that we should abandon all the aspects of life that cause
suffering, and place a strong emphasis on moral exertion (Smith 1994). Only by
having a strong will that desires good can we reach our ultimate goal of
* Right Mindfulness states that we should be aware of ourselves and we should
not speak when being inattentive. We need to continually analyze our thoughts
and feelings so that we do not become ignorant of the world around us. The
Buddha recommends that we meditate on our fears and disinterests so that we
can control our ego (Smith 1994).
* Right Absorption says that we should meditate on experiences that expose the
true nature of ourselves and the world in which we live. This type of meditation
helps us to guide our consciousness toward an understanding of the true
perception of reality. The ultimate goal of this practice is to purify our
consciousness in order to free the mind from the afflictions of a cyclic existence.
Buddhism’s Sacred Texts
The Pali Canon is a collection of texts central to the teachings of Theravada
Buddhism. The Pali Canon addresses the rules of conduct and regulations within the
monastic order of Buddhism, the discourses spoken by the Buddha and his disciples, and
scholastic interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha (Fronsdal 2005). We will focus
on a series of discourses taught by Buddha to further our understanding of Buddhist
[Buddha:] “What do you think monks: Is form permanent or impermanent?”
“And is the impermanent suffering or happiness?”
“And with respect to what is impermanent, suffering, naturally unstable, is
it proper to perceive it in this way: “This is mine; I am this; this is my self?”
“Definitely not sir.”
“It is the same way with feelings, discrimination, compositional factors, and
consciousness. Therefore, monks, every single form- past, future, or present;
internal or external; gross or subtle; low or high; near or far- should be viewed
in this way, as it really is, with correct insight: ‘This is not mine; this is not I; this
is not my self.’
Source: Samyutta-nikaya 3.59.TR.JP.
In this passage the Buddha speaks about the Five Aggregates that create a false
notion of the soul. Since everything we experience is impermanent and constantly
changing, we must try to achieve a clear perception of reality by disassociating
ourselves from desire. Having a desire for anything impermanent we will inevitably
lead to suffering. Even the aggregates that are responsible for our perceived self are
impermanent and ever changing.
“All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind. Speak or act
with a corrupted mind, and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the
hoof of the ox. All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind, and happiness follows like a never-departing
Source: Dhammapada 1.1-2
This piece of scripture shows us that we have the ability to choose the path we
follow. Being aware of the repercussion that our speech or actions create is an
important aspect of being mindful and self-aware. As we saw in the Buddha’s first
sermon, we should control our minds and focus on expressing speech and behavior that
promote charity and good will, so that we can avoid suffering. If we deviate from
having good intentions and create suffering, we will inevitably feel karma’s immediate
The Sects of Buddhism
When the Buddha passed away he told his followers that the Dharma would be
their leader and instructed them to follow the teachings he had already taught. The
Buddha once compared his Dharma to a raft, which could be used to cross the river of
life and death, but should be discarded once we reach our final destination (Loy 2008).
We must understand that the various sects of Buddhism may have considerably
13 different approaches for attaining liberation, but they are all trying to achieve the same
Around two hundred years after the Buddha’s nirvana there was a schism that
separated Buddhism into two main sects; Theravada and Mahayana (Robinson &
Johnson 1982). The Theravada Buddhists believe that liberation is found through
personal wisdom, and their ultimate goal is to become an Arhat, one who attains
Nirvana. The Mahayana Buddhists believe that once an individual achieves liberation
they should become a bodhisattva, and try to help others find the path of buddhahood
(Feiser & Powers 2008). Another distinction between the two sects is that the Theravada
Buddhists do not accept gods and mythologies in their practice, while the Mahayanas
pray to the Buddha for spiritual strength (Smith, 1994). It also important to note that
the Theravada practices are more common in monastic life, while the Mahayana
practices are more common for the layman (Smith 1994). Overall, the major differences
between these two sects can be simplified by saying that the Theravada sect is
traditional and the Mahayana sect is liberal in its practices and beliefs.
There are two more sects of Buddhism that can be examined to understand Buddhism more completely. The Zen sect of Buddhism is prominent in Japan and can be
seen as a convergence of Daoism and Buddhism. Its main influence is said to be found
in the Buddha’s flower sermon. In this sermon he held up a golden lotus flower instead
of speaking. This sermon is crucial for understanding Zen Buddhism because its
followers use koans. Koans can be described as questions that have no clear answer, and
cause the mind to be agitated to a point where one abandons logic. This will eventually
lead the mind to let go of its concepts so that one can experience the world with clarity.
The Zen Buddhists use koans as a means of clearing their mind of concepts much like
the lotus flower cleans dirt off itself.
Vajrayana is a sect of Buddhism that is primarily found in Tibet and is known for
its use of tantras. The Vajrayanas believe that the use of sounds, sights, and movement
can help empower an individual during meditation, and believe that pleasure can be
sought after the mind is purified. They habitually use mantras during meditation and
try to envision deities in order to enhance their spiritual power (Smith 1994). Overall,
we find that the Vajrayana and Zen Buddhists are mystical sects that place emphasis on
experiences rather than reading scripture to reach enlightenment.
Modern Convergence of Belief
Buddha preached that change was inevitable and that everything is
impermanent. This idea is relevant when looking at the various sects of Buddhism, but
can also be applied when looking at the development of culture. We must first
recognize that most people in Buddhist countries do not see themselves as primarily
Buddhist because they also incorporate Daoism and Confucianism into their worldview.
They are influenced by Confucius in social matters, Daoism in understanding nature,
and Buddhism in death (Smith 1994). Technological advances in the sciences have also
influenced their understanding of the world, as seen in the Dalai Lama’s book The
Universe in a Single Atom . In this book, the Dalai Lama compared Buddhist beliefs to
the ideas found in Quantum Physics, the Big Bang Theory, Evolution, and Psychology.
The Dalai Lama concluded that Science has contributed to the lessening of suffering in
modern life, but its power to manipulate the environment could have many
consequences in the future (2005). Overall, we find that Buddhism is tolerant of the
convergence of many belief systems because understanding reality is a central construct
of its overall philosophy.
First, we examined Siddhartha Gautama’s life and teachings to better understand
Buddhism. Then, we learned that the core beliefs of Buddhism revolve around the
cessation of suffering, guided by the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and by
following the Middle Path. We analyzed excerpts of the Pali Canon to better understand
the Buddhist conception of self and mind, and we explored the various sects of
Buddhism and defined how their practices differ. Finally, we examined how Buddhism,
Daoism, Confucianism, and Science influence the beliefs held by people in Buddhist
countries. Overall, we can conclude that the Buddhist religion has done much good for
the world by influencing individuals to be responsible for their lives and respectful of
the world around them.
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