Defining Qualities of Buddhism

Buddhism is split into two major divisions: Theravada & Mahayana. Subsects within these may range from atheistic humanism to polytheism. Most sects (but not all) strive to attain nirvana through nonattachment.

Founded when: 6th century BC

Founded by: Siddhartha Gautama (also called Buddha)

Holy book(s): 

  • Tripitaka (the original canon of scripture, which was transmitted orally and then written down 400 years after Buddha’s death)  
  • Vinaya Pitaka (law & rules for monastic practice for Buddhist monks and nuns; taken from the Tripitaka) 
  • Sutras (Mahayana) and others, depending upon sect

Where are Buddhists found? A decreasing number live in India; however, sects of Buddhism may be found throughout Asia and a growing number in Western nations. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka was the primary figure responsible for spreading it the Buddhist faith to a larger world.

Story of Buddha

Long ago, around 560 BC, a young Kshatriya (warrior/ruler) named Siddhartha Gautama was born in India to a Hindu rajah. His life was filled with plenty and happiness. He lacked for nothing.

Even while he was still young, Siddhartha was blessed to marry a princess as lovely as her name: Yasodhara, which means bearer of glory. Soon they would have a son, Rahula, to carry on the family line and care for them in old age.

All seemed well in this life of indulgence and pleasures. But they were living in a world of illusion...maya...and they were blind to the presence of suffering all around them.

Read more about the life of Buddha…

Key Sites in Indian Buddhism

  • Bodh Gaya (Bihar): Bodh Gaya (formerly Uruvela) is known as the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and a major destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. Of the four sites of pilgrimage said to have been prescribed by the Buddha — Lumbini, his birthplace; Bodh Gaya; Sarnath, site of his first sermon (see below); and Kushinara, where he died — Bodh Gaya is probably the best known and most frequently visited. Both the Mahabhodi Temple and the legendary Bodhi Tree are located here.
  • Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh): Near Varanasi, Sarnath was the place of Buddha’s first sermon. It is a wealth of both natural beauty and archaeological treasures, including many stupas, shrines, carvings, and an Ashokan column. But it is very much a living Buddhist community, complete with five Buddhist monasteries and a park. It is well worth seeing.
  • Sanchi (Madya Pradesh): Sanchi is an amazing site of Buddhist monuments and stupas, some dating from around the 3rd century BC. French and British archaeologists completed restoration of the site in 1912. Visitors may circumbulate stupas thick with carvings of figures from stories such as the Jataka tales, as well as Hindu-Buddhist deities, nature spirits, elephants, and lions.
  • Ajanta (Maharashtra): Ajanta is the site of twenty Buddhist cave temples. Replete with entrances sculpted into living rock, cave frescoes, and various carvings, Ajanta is a UNESCOE World Heritage Centre. 

Key Buddhist Teachings

Integral to Buddha’s doctrine is the problem of suffering, as revealed to him in the Four Passing Sights. It clearly shook him, and the majority of his teaching is constructed around this central problem.

The Four Noble Truths state that:

  1. All of life is suffering.
  2. Attachment / desire is the root cause of this suffering (lust, cravings, attachment to things and relationships, desire to live).
  3. To escape from suffering, it’s necessary to break all attachments, the good as well as the bad.
  4. The way to escape suffering and achieve nirvana is by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path:

  1. Right belief
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Contrasting Solutions to Suffering

Despite occasional comparisons between Buddha (particularly the Buddha of legend) and Jesus Christ, it is also in regards to this issue that we run up against one of the primary differences between Buddhism and the so-called “Western” faith of Christianity. Those who suffered were noticed and addressed in both faiths—but the solutions were very different

Other Key Concepts

  • Don’t kill (not even insects).
  • Don’t steal.
  • Don’t commit adultery.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages or take drugs.

Despite the range of difference between the various sects, these basic principles should be followed by the vast majority of Buddhists, although some groups do make exceptions or find loopholes in the core beliefs. In fact, it’s worth noting that there can be more radical difference between two Buddhist sects than between two entirely different religions.

Major Buddhist Holidays and Dates

Some Famous or Noteworthy Indian Buddhists:

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