An Introduction to Buddhism




Shakyamuni: The founder of Buddhism

The real name of Buddha Sakyamuni (563-483 BC) was Siddhartha and his surname Gautama. Any other names are actually titles, e.g. Buddha means "enlightened" and Sakyamuni "wise of Sakya." He was born in Kapilavastu, the capital of a small kingdom of Sakya people in the foothills of Himalaya. His father was King Suddhodana and his mother was Maya – a word that means illusion – who died a week after his birth. He married at the age of seventeen and lived happily in the palace, but one day Siddhartha left his palace to meet his subjects. On this excursion he encountered a disabled man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he thought to find a method to overcome aging, sickness, and death for the sake of his subjects. So at the age of 29, shortly after the birth of his son, he left his kingdom and became a wandering seeker. As was the custom of that time, Siddhartha journeyed to the caves of celebrated hermits and the remote ashramas of renowned sages. He met many yogis and gurus of his day, learned many secrets of nature, but the great questions remained unanswered.

With a small group of dedicated yogi he engaged in rigorous exercises, meditation and fasting. For six years he practiced such austerity and self-discipline that he finally collapsed and it was feared that he would not survive. Finally convinced that such practices would not help him to accomplish the enlightenment, which he sought, Siddhartha renounced them forever. He changed attitude, followed the middle path and sank into meditation under a big tree called Asvattha (Indian fig). After three days in deep meditation, it is said that obtained enlightenment and became a Buddha. He realized suddenly that all people are Buddhas, all beings are enlightened, but they do not know it! So he did not consider his enlightenment as attainment, since it has always been a Buddha. Just at that moment he realized deeply what has always been, that is: an enlightened entity.

Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path

The wise Shakyamuni wanted to convey this message to the world, but even the anchorites who until then was keeping up with him, did not convicted immediately by his truth. They waited a great philosophy, which would be the solution to all problems. He had found the ultimate truth, but it was so simple that it was not believable. So he made a rational system and began to teach travelling round the India. He explained that here in this world we cannot find happiness, only transient joys and more suffering until death. He found out that the cause of all suffering is the desire. Therefore one must get rid of desires, give up desires. To succeed we must understand the four noble truths of Buddha. The first truth says that all existence is characterized by suffering. The second truth gives as the cause of suffering craving for desire. The third truth says that through perfect elimination of craving, suffering can be brought to an end. The fourth truth gives the eightfold path as the means of the ending of suffering. The Eightfold path is: good perception, good judgment, good speech, good behavior, and good life, right effort, right thinking, correct meditation.

Many people received with joy his new teaching and he soon made many disciples, kings and poor brahmans and pariahs, men and women, people of every race and educational level. A lot of people heard his speeches (sutra) and, according to tradition, even gods and other non human beings. Having founded the Buddhist brotherhood (samga) for monks and nuns and taught them the "Noble Path" he went on nirvana, i.e. a situation beyond death and the need for rebirth.


Buddhists call their religion Aryamarga, meaning "Path of Nobles". In a sense it is difficult to define it as a religion, since they do not accept the existence of a supreme God. They certainly accept that there are gods, but the destiny of the Buddha is higher than that of the gods. That is why it is said that even the gods often were attending his sermons, because he was revealing transcendental situations and worlds beyond the region of the gods. He asserted that virtually there is an ultimate spiritual entity embracing the whole universe, called Svambhava, i.e. “self-existent”. "I speak for a Svambhava", he told his disciples, "beyond logic and phenomena". All Buddha fields and the countless worlds exist in this Svambhava.

The basic principles of Buddhism are: (1) the Four Noble Truths about the cause of the suffering of this world and overcoming; (2) the Noble Eightfold Path; (3) the theory that the "reality" consists of phenomena the external world and subjective life and there is no ego or soul behind them; (4) the person is chained to a wheel of twelve rays, which are the causes of the subsidiary's existence; (5) when one can and released from this wheel dissolving phenomena and overcoming obstacles, enters the true reality or nirvana. Apart from these early Buddhism has adopted the ideas of Hinduism for karma and reincarnation.

 The Four Sects of Buddhism

The historical development of Buddhism can be divided into four major phases: (1) From the middle of the 6th to the middle of the 5th century B.C.E., the phase of early Buddhism or Hinayana, in which the teaching was expounded by the Buddha and diffused by his disciples. (2) The 1st to the 7th century C.E.; the rise of the Mahayana with its two major currents – Mahayana and Yogacara. (3) After the 7th century the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Ch’an (or Zen).

The first Buddhist school or sect is the Hinayana (Small Vehicle). The followers of Hinayana refer to their teaching as the Theravada (Way of the Elders). Hinayana presents primarily the path to liberation. It provides an analysis of the human situation, the nature of existence and the structure of individuality and shows methods fro the resolution of suffering. Tripitaka (Three Baskets) is the Canon of Hinayana, consisting of the three parts: Vinaya (Rules and comments on them), Sutra (sermons of Buddha) and Abhidharma (special teachings for the education of mind).

Mahayana (Great Vehicle) is the second sect. It is called Great Vehicle because, thanks to its many-sided approach, it opens the way of liberation to a great number of people and, indeed expresses the intention of its adherents to liberate all beings. The Mahayana places less value on monasticism than the Hinayana. By contrast to early Buddhism, here the layperson can also attain nirvana. With Mahayanists nirvana does not mean only liberation from samsara (the unfinished cycle of incarnations), but beyond that also the realization that by one’s very nature one is liberated and inseparable from the Absolute (Svambhava). The teachings of the Mahayana are contained in the Mahayana sutras, among which are some of the most profound writings of Buddhism. Mahayana is base on ten Paramitas (Perfections). There are six Paramitas: dana (generosity), shila (discipline), kshanti (patience), virya paramita (energy or exertion) dhyana (meditation) and prajna (wisdom).

            Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) is a school of Buddhism that arose primarily in north India. It developed out of the teachings of the Mahayana and reached Tibet, China and Japan along with Mahayana. The teachings of Vajrayana formed an esoteric tradition that combined elements of yoga and of the ancient Indian nature religion, with the original Buddhist thought. Among its most important written works are the Guhyasamaja Tantra and Kalacakra Tantra.

 The Buddha‘s Teaching

            The Buddha’s teaching was in five stages. In the first stage of three weeks, he explained the Avatamsaka Sutra, which only Bodhisattvas understood, as it was beyond the comprehension of his disciples. In the second stage of twelve years, he taught the Agamas, urging his followers to forsake their attachments to the concepts of ego and phenomena in order to rest temporarily in the Hinayana’s relative Nirvana. After they had made further progress, he taught the Vaipulya doctrines in the third stage of eight years to help them develop the Mahayana mind. After they had been initiated into Mahayana, he taught the Prajna Sutras into the fourth stage of twenty-two years to arouse their inherent wisdom so that it could manifest and function normally. In the fifth stage of eight years, he taught the Lotus Sutra to open their mind to the One Buddha Vehicle which transcends the three expedient vehicles of Sravakas, Pratyeka-buddhas and Bodhisattvas by revealing it to them so that they could awaken to and enter it. Before passing away, in a day and night he taught the Mahaparinirvana Sutra to reveal the four absolute realities of Eternity, Bliss, Self and Purity in the ultimate Nirvana.

 Sangha, the Brotherhood of Buddhists

            The members of this brotherhood are called sravaka (listeners or hearers). There are four types of sravakas or disciples. They are disciples who have achieved one of the four stages of enlightenment. Srotapanna is one who has entered the stream, the first stage, which can be attained by an adherent of faith. A stream-enterer is free from the fetters of individualistic view, but has not yet rid of the passions. He may be reborn as many as seven times in order to attain liberation. Sakritagamin (once more to be reborn) is the second stage of supra-mundane path. He is reborn only once more before the attainment of Nirvana. Anagamin is the non-coming or non-returning sravaka who will not be reborn in this world – the third stage of the path. Arhat (worthy one or destroyer of fetters) is one who has attained the highest level of the Hinayana School. The fruition of arhatship is the Nirvana. The arhat was the ideal of early Buddhism. In contrast to the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana who wishes to free all the beings, with the arhat the main emphasis is on striving to gain his own salvation.

 The Path of Bodhisattvas

In Mahayana Buddhism a bodhisattva is a being who seeks buddhahood through the systematic practice of paramitas (perfect virtues), but renounces complete entry into Nirvana until all beings are saved. The determining factor for this action is karuna (compassion) supported by highest insight and wisdom. The idea of the bodhisattva is rooted in the belief in future Buddhas, who have long since existed as bodhisattvas. The Mahayana distinguishes two kinds of bodhisattvas – earthly and transcendent. Earthly bodhisattvas are persons who are distinguished from others by their compassion and altruism as well as their striving toward the attainment of enlightenment. Transcendent bodhisattvas have actualized the paramitas and attained budhahood but have postponed their entry into complete Nirvana. They are in possession of perfect wisdom and are no longer subject to samsara. They appear in the most various forms in order to lead beings on the path of liberation. The most important of these transcendent bodhisattvas are Avalokitesvara, Manjusri and Maitreya.

            Buddha himself in the Surangama Sutra describes the ten stages of the Bodhisattva’s path:

1. “After these virtuous men’s skillful understanding of the Great Bodhi, they become aware of the Tathagata’s full state of Buddhahood. This is called the stage of Joy at having overcome all hindrances and so entering upon the path of Buddhahood.

2. They now realize that all differentiation merges into a single unity, which also vanishes. This is called the stage of freedom from all defilements (vimala).

3. Utter purity now begets further enlightenment. This is called the stage of illumination.

4. Perfect understanding leads to Bodhi in its fullness. This is called the stage of mastery of glowing wisdom.

5. Realization of the condition beyond unity and differentiation is called the stage of mastery of utmost difficulties.

6. The manifestation of non-active Bhutatathata is called the stage of the appearance of the Absolute.

7. Thorough penetration of the whole region of the Absolute is called the all-embracing stage.

8. Full manifestation of the absolute One Mind is called the stage of imperturbability.

9. Full manifestation of its absolute function is called the stage of forest wisdom. As these Bodhisattvas complete their practice and training with great success, this is also called the stage of successful practice.

10. They now realize the state in which sheltering clouds of compassion cover the ocean of Nirvana; this is called the stage of Dharma-clouds. – Surangama Sutra tr. by Lu Kuan Yu.