What Is Buddhism?

What Is Buddhism?

One of the most challenging religions for Western societies to understand is Buddhism.

Many of us are familiar with certain imagery regarding Buddhism. Maybe you’ve seen Buddhist monks or purchased a statue of the Buddha. Maybe you’ve heard of the quest to find enlightenment or the importance of meditation.

But what is Buddhism really all about?

The Buddha

Understanding Buddhism begins with understanding its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, a man from India who eventually came to be known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One). Historical data is scarce, but tradition suggests that Siddhartha Gautama was born in northern India or Nepal to a royal Hindu family around 500 BCE.

At the age of twenty-nine, he left the comforts of a well-to-do home and a politically significant future to become a wandering ascetic. Disenfranchised with the futility of carnal pleasures, he pursued a path of spiritual enlightenment. After spending several years in meditation on the nature of temptation, evil, and suffering, he wondered if escape were possible.

Eventually, believing he had overcome all earthly desires and achieved spiritual awakening through meditation, the Buddha set out to teach others the pathway.1

The Path to Enlightenment

The Buddha’s teaching (the Dharma) claims that the true path to enlightenment is found in letting go of all attachments to this physical life. This results in achieving the transcendent state of Nirvana. Our world—with its suffering and desires—is an illusion.

Entering the passionless state of Nirvana breaks through that illusion. Buddhism is best summarized by the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path:2

Four Noble Truths

      1. To live is to suffer. This idea is common among other Eastern religions.
      2. Suffering is caused by desire. Humans cause their own suffering when they get too attached to the things of this world.
      3. One can eliminate suffering by eliminating desire. This follows if suffering is truly and always caused by desire.
      4. Desire is eliminated by means of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Noble Eightfold Path

      1. The right view: one’s realization of the Four Noble Truths
      2. The right intention: one’s commitment to achieving enlightenment
      3. The right speech: speaking in a non-hurtful, but not exaggerated, truthful way
      4. The right action: wholesome action, avoiding anything that would hurt others
      5. The right livelihood: one’s job does not harm in any way oneself or others
      6. The right effort: one makes a conscious effort to improve
      7. The right mindfulness: mental ability to see things for what they are
      8. The right concentration: state where one reaches enlightenment and the ego has disappeared


If a person follows this pathway, the cessation of suffering and achievement of Nirvana are attained through one’s own effort and discipline. Unlike the beliefs of other world religions, Buddhism holds that this may be achieved without divine help. Consequently, Buddhism is considered largely anthropocentric (human-centered).

This is deathless, the liberation of the mind through lack of clinging.The Buddha3

Adherents to Buddhism reach their destination through moral, ethical, physical, and mental discipline. But there is a balance to maintain—in rejecting fleshly desires one must also avoid the extreme forms of asceticism. The Noble Eightfold Path provides the way.

Schools of Buddhism

Buddhism is mostly concentrated in East and Southeast Asia, and Buddhist sacred literature varies as widely as the many schools of Buddhism that have taken root throughout Asia. Each has distinctive philosophies and practices.4

One example is Zen Buddhism, a set of Buddhist practices that has emerged in Japan and China (where it is known as Ch’an). It traces its roots to the original Buddhist religion, but it has developed certain teachings about achieving a state of inner tranquility.

In the school of Zen, the realization of enlightenment takes place internally, apart from one’s outward words and explanations. Zen Buddhism is not the most dominant form of the religion, but it has had a significant influence in the West, unlike some of the more conservative Buddhist practices.

Buddhist Practices

Despite the enormous diversity among Buddhist communities in places like China, Tibet, Japan, Thailand, and Nepal, three practices are fairly universal in all forms of Buddhism.

First, the life cycle of an individual is significant. Young boys go through a period of monkhood whereby they learn Buddhist ways and renounce carnal desires. Marriage and death are also considered important events. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but karma does not play as significant a role in one’s future life.

The second is the common Buddhist confession that guides one’s actions: “I seek refuge in the Buddha (the person and his example); I seek refuge in the Dharma (the teaching of the Buddha); I seek refuge in the Sangha (the community of Buddhist scholars and devotees).”

A third practice significant for all Buddhists is the celebration of holidays and festivals. New Year’s Day, Buddha Day (which commemorates his enlightenment,) and a day for remembering the dead are generally the most important.

Buddhism and Western Hesitations

Like other Eastern religions, Buddhism can be difficult for Westerners—especially those who subscribe to the Judeo-Christian tradition—to comprehend. The idea of a personal God who acts within history or answers the prayers of humans is not central to Buddhism.

A Buddhist worldview is more concerned with inexpressible experiences within oneself and the goal of enlightenment. One cannot control the external world, but through detachment, meditation, chants, and mindfulness, one can achieve a positive state of mind and mental purity.

Many Westerners find this goal subjective, elusive, and indefinable. Buddhists do not think this way. Rather, they believe one’s lack of understanding is a part of the illusion that contributes to desires and suffering. The path to reality and enlightenment requires a transformation of the mind that, when undertaken, changes one “into a different kind of creature who experiences the world in a new way.”5

  1. For more background on the Buddha’s life and Buddhism in general, see John L. Esposito et al., World Religions Today, 4th ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 391–478.
  2. Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1994), 70–75.
  3. The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya, 106.
  4. Mary Pat Fisher, Living Religions: A Brief Introduction, 3rd ed., (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2012), 81-108.
  5. Smith, 75.
  6. Photo Credit: Kittichai / Shutterstock.com.