What is Buddhism?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Buddhism is a religion developed by Siddhartha Gotama, sometimes Siddartha Gautama, who was born around 566 BCE in Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. After living a life of privilege, then giving it up for a life of asceticism, Siddhartha became enlightened, or awakened, to the idea that the only way to escape suffering in life is through practicing deliberate non-attachment. Today, that initial meditation has led to the practice of Buddhism in about six percent of the world’s population.

The Dalai Lama, a high lama of of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama, a high lama of of Tibetan Buddhism.

Siddhartha’s, or as he was renamed, Buddha’s awakening evolved into the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Although today there are several recognized variants of Buddhism, most believe in the Truths and the Path as the way to receive Nirvana, a state of bliss on earth.

Buddhism was developed by Siddhartha Gotama of Nepal.
Buddhism was developed by Siddhartha Gotama of Nepal.

The first truth is that life is composed of suffering, physical and mental. The second, is that we have pain on earth because we are attached to the world or despise the world. Constantly wanting more, we will continue to suffer more. Thus the second truth realizes that by detaching ourselves from the cycle of wanting and craving, we deliver ourselves from suffering.

Buddhism is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, or Buddha.
Buddhism is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, or Buddha.

The third truth is that true happiness is possible on earth, depending upon the degree to which we can detach ourselves from wanting worldly things. If we give up “wanting,” we can attain Nirvana. Finally, the fourth truth is that the Noble Eightfold path is the path toward achieving this detachment and thus attaining Nirvana.

    The eightfold path involves the following:
  • Right understanding means we understand suffering in the proper context, and know through the eightfold path that we can end it.
  • Right thinking frees the Buddhist from ill thoughts toward others.
  • Right speech frees our tongues from lies or evil comments.
  • Right action means no actions that involve stealing, killing or harming another, or being unchaste.
  • Right livelihood means abstaining from work that would create more pain for others. In some cases, this means never manufacturing weapons. A Buddhist could not write for a gossip magazine, as this would contradict right speech. Work undertaken should help and not hurt others.
  • Right effort is mental energy applied to following the other path guidelines.
  • Right mindfulness focuses on seeing the world clearly, untainted by wantings or cravings. Right mindfulness is achieved through contemplation of the body, feelings, and state of mind.
  • Right concentration focuses on developing concentration through meditation.

Schools of Buddhism focus or lean toward one or several principles, and often follow different teachers or Bodhisattvas that came after Siddhartha. Trying to describe such different schools would be like listing all the versions of Christianity. It can be said that two major types of Buddhism exist, Theravāda and Mahāyāna. Theravāda is primarily practiced in Southeast Asia. Focus tends to be on attaining right effort and concentration by developing the mind. Through meditation people may become holy like Siddhartha, though they will never attain the holiness of the Buddha.

Mahāyāna tends to be focused on more priestly endeavors, and is primarily found in Northeastern Asia. It is often called Tibetan Buddhism, but is also the source for Zen Buddhism. Both the Buddhism of Tibet and Zen seem more readily received in the Western world, than Theravāda.

Some call Buddhism non-religious because it does not focus around a god, but rather a way of life. People may revere Buddha, or Siddhartha, but they do not pray to, or petition him. Buddhist statues are meant for contemplation and inspiration, rather than as sites to pray. In some ways Buddhism is quite compatible with the practice of other religions. Much of Christ’s teaching center on many of the same concepts, however Buddhists are opposed to mortification of the flesh.

Though most Buddhists live in Asia, there is much interest in the West regarding the philosophy of Buddhism. Many recognize the well-known actor Richard Gere, as a Mahāyāna Buddhist who follows the Tibetan school. This Tibetan tradition is linked to the current Dalai Lama, whose teachings are respected by virtually all practicing Buddhism. His continued crusade for non-violence and his life in exile since Chinese occupation of Tibet, has made him a world leader.

Most Buddhists live in Asia, where the religion was founded.
Most Buddhists live in Asia, where the religion was founded.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Siddartha Gautama was a calm individual. Why would anyone who truly cared argue passionately about anything concerning him, his teachings, or his life? Every minute the Earth moves approximately 17 miles, so how far away from where we are now is the birth life and death of Buddha? He achieved a beautiful thing for himself and made the story of his journey as widely known as he could so that others may follow a similar path.

Our stories will all be different as will our experiences, his enlightenment is not our own and following the path he laid before us will not lead us to his place of enlightenment, but to our own and only when we decide that we do not want it.


This article is misleading and somewhat inaccurate. Although the historical accuracy of any events taking place over 2500 years ago may be difficult to ascertain, it is well known that the story goes more like this:

Sakyamuni left his "home life" which was really a life of luxury and decadence at the age of 29 to search for the end of human suffering. He learned from various Indian masters all that they could teach him, and he quickly absorbed all they had to offer. He proceeded on a path of asceticism, basically starving oneself for a prolonged period of time, in order to try and find an end to suffering. After six years of this he realized that it was not The Way (to enlightenment), as he collapsed and almost died -- he would have died before attaining Enlightenment or The Truth and he realized that asceticism is not the way to cultivate The Way.

Meditating deeply under the Bodhi tree, Siddartha attained total wisdom and was awakened to the "true reality of things." That moment was his enlightenment and he stayed silent for seven weeks (or 40 days in some sources) and then, finally began teaching the Four Noble Truths. This article implies that he began teaching and the material finally evolved into "The Four Noble Truths" which is not the case. He attained enlightenment and then proceeded, for the next 40-some years until his death, to tirelessly teach and demonstrate The Dharma (what we now call the collection of his teachings).

For those interested in where he was born, Buddha was born in what is now Nepal, although the actual land area of Nepal is smaller today because when the British colonized India a portion of Nepal also came under their control -- when the British abdicated "occupying" India, they returned all the territory to India -- however, part of the territory that they held was originally Nepalese, so Nepal almost magically became smaller, although by international agreement it seems that India should return this territory -- depending on your point on view.

For more, accurate information, I would encourage all those with an interest in Buddhism to read from multiple sources and multiple translations. Truly, Dharma is a superb thing -- it is the liberating message for all of mankind, and it is unfortunate that it has become clouded in this many years since The Blessed One last walked the earth. Really, the actual "birth" and "death" of Sakyamuni are just appearances -- in Buddhism birth and death are small segments of a continuous transformation.

More about Buddha and Buddhism is widely available on the Internet.

The vocabulary will become familiar to you over time so do not fret if there are unfamiliar words. It is all about patience, and trying to truly understand who we are. It is all about The Truth.


That is an interesting point. It seems to be a common pattern, in some respects: Christianity originated in the Mid-East and yet came to have a very strong presence in Europe. Perhaps these two examples are due to the fact that the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as well as the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism were something like a religious mother-daughter relationship. When a new "sect" springs out of a religion, it usually has thousands of other sects to compete with, but can sometimes gain a firm foothold among outside populations.


Why is it that Buddhism is relatively unpopular in India and yet came to have such a strong influence on the Far East? It is strange to me that the religion originated in India but is very popular elsewhere.



In his day, Siddartha Guatama's homeland was under the reign of his familial Shakya janapada, which was an Indo-Aryan kingdom in what would be modern day Nepal. Well before it became Nepal, however, Shakya was conquered by the Indian kingdom of Kosala.


Actually Siddartha Gautama was burn in Nepal (Lumbini) and you have written that Siddartha Gautama lived in India (Near Nepal). Why you don't want to say he born in Nepal?

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