Topics: Buddhism


Major world religion and philosophy founded in northeastern India between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC.

Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, Buddhism takes as its goal the escape from suffering and from the cycle of rebirth: the attainment of nirvana. It emphasizes meditation and the observance of certain moral precepts. The Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally by his disciples; during his lifetime he established the Buddhist monastic order (sangha). He adopted some ideas from the Hinduism of his time, notably the doctrine of karma, but also rejected many of its doctrines and all of its gods. In India, the emperor Ashoka promoted Buddhism during the 3rd century BC, but it declined in succeeding centuries and was nearly extinct there by the 13th century. It spread south and flourished in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and it moved through Central Asia and China (including Tibet; see Tibetan Buddhism), Korea, and Japan (see Pure Land Buddhism; Zen). In the 19th century, Buddhism spread to Europe and the United States, and it became increasingly popular in the West in the second half of the 20th century. Buddhism’s main teachings are summarized in the Four Noble Truths, of which the fourth is the Eightfold Path. Buddhism’s two major branches, Mahayana and Theravada, have developed distinctive practices and unique collections of canonical texts. In the early 21st century, the various traditions of Buddhism together had more than 375 million followers.

Buddhism is the religion and philosophy that developed from the teachings of the Buddha (Sanskrit: “awakened one”), a teacher who lived in northern India between the mid-6th and the mid-4th centuries BC (before the Common Era or Christian era). Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, Buddhism has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of Asia, and during the 20th century it spread to the West.

Ancient Buddhist scripture and doctrine developed in several closely related literary languages of ancient India, especially in Pali and Sanskrit. In this article Pali and Sanskrit words that have gained currency in English are treated as English words and are rendered in the form in which they appear in English-language dictionaries. Exceptions occur in special circumstances—as, for example, in the case of the Sanskrit term dharma (Pali: dhamma), which has meanings that are not usually associated with the English “dharma.” Pali forms are given in the sections on the core teachings of early Buddhism that are reconstructed primarily from Pali texts and in sections that deal with Buddhist traditions in which the primary sacred language is Pali. Sanskrit forms are given in the sections that deal with Buddhist traditions whose primary sacred language is Sanskrit and in other sections that deal with traditions whose primary sacred texts were translated from Sanskrit into a Central or East Asian language such as Tibetan or Chinese.

The foundations of Buddhism

The cultural context

Buddhism arose in northeastern India sometime between the late 6th century and the early 4th century BC, a period of great social change and intense religious activity. There is disagreement among scholars about the dates of the Buddha’s birth and death. Many modern scholars believe that the historical Buddha lived from about 563 to about 483 BC. Many others believe that he lived about 100 years later (from about 448 to 368 BC). At this time in India, there was much discontent with Brahmanic (Hindu high-caste) sacrifice and ritual. In northwestern India there were ascetics who tried to create a more personal and spiritual religious experience than that found in the Vedas (Hindu sacred scriptures). In the literature that grew out of this movement, the Upanishads, a new emphasis on renunciation and transcendental knowledge can be found. Northeastern India, which was less influenced by the Aryans who had developed the main tenets and practices of the Vedic Hindu faith, became the breeding ground of many new sects. Society in this area was troubled by the breakdown of tribal unity and the expansion of several petty kingdoms. Religiously, this was a time of doubt, turmoil, and experimentation.

A proto-Samkhya group (i.e., one based on the Samkhya school of Hinduism founded by Kapila) was already well established in the area. New sects abounded, including various skeptics (e.g., Sanjaya Belatthiputta), atomists (e.g., Pakudha Kaccayana), materialists (e.g., Ajita Kesakambali), and antinomians (i.e., those against rules or laws—e.g., Purana Kassapa). The most important sects to arise at the time of the Buddha, however, were the Ajivikas (Ajivakas), who emphasized the rule of fate (niyati), and the Jains, who stressed the need to free the soul from matter. Although the Jains, like the Buddhists, have often been regarded as atheists, their beliefs are actually more complicated. Unlike early Buddhists, both the Ajivikas and the Jains believed in the permanence of the elements that constitute the universe, as well as in the existence of the soul.

Despite the bewildering variety of religious communities, many shared the same vocabulary—nirvana (transcendent freedom), atman (“self” or “soul”), yoga (“union”), karma (“causality”), Tathagata (“one who has come” or “one who has thus gone”), buddha (“enlightened one”), samsara (“eternal recurrence” or “becoming”), and dhamma (“rule” or “law”)—and most involved the practice of yoga. According to tradition, the Buddha himself was a yogi—that is, a miracle-working ascetic.

Buddhism, like many of the sects that developed in northeastern India at the time, was constituted by the presence of a charismatic teacher, by the teachings this leader promulgated, and by a community of adherents that was often made up of renunciant members and lay supporters. In the case of Buddhism, this pattern is reflected in the Triratna—i.e., the “Three Jewels” of Buddha (the teacher), dharma (the teaching), and sangha (the community).

In the centuries following the founder’s death, Buddhism developed in two directions represented by two different groups. One was called the Hinayana (Sanskrit: “Lesser Vehicle”), a term given to it by its Buddhist opponents. This more conservative group, which included what is now called the Theravada (Pali: “Way of the Elders”) community, compiled versions of the Buddha’s teachings that had been preserved in collections called the Sutta Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka and retained them as normative. The other major group, which calls itself the Mahayana (Sanskrit: “Greater Vehicle”), recognized the authority of other teachings that, from the group’s point of view, made salvation available to a greater number of people. These supposedly more advanced teachings were expressed in sutras that the Buddha purportedly made available only to his more advanced disciples.

As Buddhism spread, it encountered new currents of thought and religion. In some Mahayana communities, for example, the strict law of karma (the belief that virtuous actions create pleasure in the future and nonvirtuous actions create pain) was modified to accommodate new emphases on the efficacy of ritual actions and devotional practices. During the second half of the 1st millennium ce, a third major Buddhist movement, Vajrayana (Sanskrit: “Diamond Vehicle”), or Esoteric Buddhism, developed in India. This movement was influenced by gnostic and magical currents pervasive at that time, and its aim was to obtain spiritual liberation and purity more speedily.

Despite these vicissitudes, Buddhism did not abandon its basic principles. Instead, they were reinterpreted, rethought, and reformulated in a process that led to the creation of a great body of literature. This literature includes the Pali Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”)—the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Discourse”), which contains the Buddha’s sermons; the Vinaya Pitaka (“Basket of Discipline”), which contains the rule governing the monastic order; and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (“Basket of Special [Further] Doctrine”), which contains doctrinal systematizations and summaries. These Pali texts have served as the basis for a long and very rich tradition of commentaries that were written and preserved by adherents of the Theravada community. The Mahayana and Vajrayana/Esoteric traditions have accepted as Buddhavacana (“the word of the Buddha”) many other sutras and tantras, along with extensive treatises and commentaries based on these texts. Consequently, from the first sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath to the most recent derivations, there is an indisputable continuity—a development or metamorphosis around a central nucleus—by virtue of which Buddhism is differentiated from other religions.

Giuseppe TucciJoseph M. KitagawaFrank E. Reynolds

Source: Buddhism. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 13, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

The Four Noble Truths

The First Noble Truth

"I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That's all I teach", declared the Buddha 2500 years ago.

The Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha's teachings. It was these four principles that the Buddha came to understand during his meditation under the bodhi tree.

1. The truth of suffering (Dukkha)

2. The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudaya)

3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)

4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)

The Buddha is often compared to a physician. In the first two Noble Truths he diagnosed the problem (suffering) and identified its cause. The third Noble Truth is the realisation that there is a cure.

The fourth Noble Truth, in which the Buddha set out the Eightfold Path, is the prescription, the way to achieve a release from suffering.

Suffering (Dukkha)

Suffering comes in many forms. Three obvious kinds of suffering correspond to the first three sights the Buddha saw on his first journey outside his palace: old age, sickness and death. But according to the Buddha, the problem of suffering goes much deeper. Life is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations. Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, but even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last; or if it does, it becomes monotonous.

Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled, unsatisfied. This is the truth of suffering.

Some people who encounter this teaching may find it pessimistic. Buddhists find it neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. Fortunately the Buddha's teachings do not end with suffering; rather, they go on to tell us what we can do about it and how to end it.

The Second Noble Truth

Origin of suffering (Samudaya)

Our day-to-day troubles may seem to have easily identifiable causes: thirst, pain from an injury, sadness from the loss of a loved one. In the second of his Noble Truths, though, the Buddha claimed to have found the cause of all suffering - and it is much more deeply rooted than our immediate worries.

The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is desire, tanha. This comes in three forms, which he described as the Three Roots of Evil, or the Three Fires, or the Three Poisons. A bird, a snake and a pig shown rushing around in a circle, each holding the tail of the next in its mouth.

The three roots of evil

These are the three ultimate causes of suffering:

* Greed and desire, represented in art by a rooster

* Ignorance or delusion, represented by a pig

* Hatred and destructive urges, represented by a snake

Language note: Tanha is a term in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, that specifically means craving or misplaced desire. Buddhists recognise that there can be positive desires, such as desire for enlightenment and good wishes for others. A neutral term for such desires is chanda.

The Fire Sermon

The Buddha taught more about suffering in the Fire Sermon, delivered to a thousand bhikkus (Buddhist monks).

Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?

The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.

The Buddha went on to say the same of the other four senses, and the mind, showing that attachment to positive, negative and neutral sensations and thoughts is the cause of suffering.

The Third Noble Truth

Cessation of suffering (Nirodha)

The Buddha taught that the way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment. This is the third Noble Truth - the possibility of liberation. The Buddha was a living example that this is possible in a human lifetime. Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in the eye, finds estrangement in forms, finds estrangement in eye-consciousness, finds estrangement in eye-contact, and whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful- nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, in that too he finds estrangement.

"Estrangement" here means disenchantment: a Buddhist aims to know sense conditions clearly as they are without becoming enchanted or misled by them.

Gold-coloured statue of the Buddha, a serene expression on his face


Nirvana means extinguishing. Attaining nirvana - reaching enlightenment - means extinguishing the three fires of greed, delusion and hatred. Someone who reaches nirvana does not immediately disappear to a heavenly realm. Nirvana is better understood as a state of mind that humans can reach. It is a state of profound spiritual joy, without negative emotions and fears.

Someone who has attained enlightenment is filled with compassion for all living things. When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: 'Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.'  After death an enlightened person is liberated from the cycle of rebirth, but Buddhism gives no definite answers as to what happens next.

The Buddha discouraged his followers from asking too many questions about nirvana. He wanted them to concentrate on the task at hand, which was freeing themselves from the cycle of suffering. Asking questions is like quibbling with the doctor who is trying to save your life.

The Fourth Noble Truth

Path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)

The final Noble Truth is the Buddha's prescription for the end of suffering. This is a set of principles called the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Way: it avoids both indulgence and severe asceticism, neither of which the Buddha had found helpful in his search for enlightenment.

The eight divisions

The eight stages are not to be taken in order, but rather support and reinforce each other:

1. Right Understanding - Samma ditthi

* Accepting Buddhist teachings. (The Buddha never intended his followers to believe his teachings blindly, but to practise them and judge for themselves whether they were true.)

2. Right Intention - Samma sarikappa

* A commitment to cultivate the right attitudes.

3. Right Speech - Samma vaca

* Speaking truthfully, avoiding slander, gossip and abusive speech.

4. Right Action - Samma kammanta

* Behaving peacefully and harmoniously; refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleasure.

5. Right Livelihood - Samma ajiva

* Avoiding making a living in ways that cause harm, such as exploiting people or killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons.

6. Right Effort - Samma vayama

* Cultivating positive states of mind; freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states and preventing them arising in future.

7. Right Mindfulness - Samma sati

* Developing awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind.

8. Right Concentration - Samma samadhi

* Developing the mental focus necessary for this awareness.

The eight stages can be grouped into Wisdom (right understanding and intention), Ethical Conduct (right speech, action and livelihood) and Meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration).

The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as a means to enlightenment, like a raft for crossing a river. Once one has reached the opposite shore, one no longer needs the raft and can leave it behind.

Buddha Statue at Bodhgaya, India