From Second Renaissance

See also: Wikipedia: Buddhism


Buddhism is a religion or philosophical tradition based on teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha.

With the spread of Buddhism has come the development of varying schools of Buddhism, differing in their interpretation of the various Buddhist texts and their specific teachings and practices. One major branch of Buddhism is Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: “The Great Vehicle”).


Who was Gautama Buddha?

Siddhartha Gautama was born about 563 BC, in today’s Nepal. Soon after he was born, a sage announced that Siddhartha would grow up to be a fully enlightened buddha, a teacher of men and gods. Siddhartha’s father, Shuddhodana, was determined that this prediction would not come to pass. Thinking that it would be experience of the ugly and painful things in life that would turn Siddhartha to religion, Shuddhodana confined Siddhartha to comfort and pleasure. 

Having grown up confined to his father’s palaces, Siddhartha was curious about the world outside the palace walls and therefore embarked on four trips to the outside world. On the first he encountered an old man, on the second a sick man, and on the third a corpse being carried away to be cremated. On the fourth visit he saw a sadhu, a wandering holy man. He was alone, dressed in rags and possessed nothing, yet had a tranquility that other men, for all their possessions and family connections, lacked. Siddhartha had been awakened to the central problem of human existence, suffering. But he had also been shown a potential way of finding a solution to it.

On the night that his son, Rahula, was born, Siddhartha left the palace. He sought out the most distinguished shramana teach­ers of the day. While he gained a great deal of intellectual knowledge he still lacked a solution to his spiritual problem. So Siddhartha began to submit his body to the most extreme forms of asceticism, so that through this mortification of the body suffering itself could be finally overcome. Siddhartha realized however that if he continued abusing his body in that way he would die before finding an answer to his problem. 

There was one thing that he had not tried - a middle way. At a place now called Bodh Gaya in the modern Indian state of Bihar, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in meditation until he found an answer to the problem of suffering. According to some accounts (for example the Mahāsaccaka-sutta, and the Samaññaphala Sutta), during this time of meditation Siddhartha went into samadhi, a state of meditative concentration. Then, with his mind fully clear and concentrated, he began to practice vipassana or insight meditation, gaining certain special kinds of knowledge: he “remembered many former existences”; he gained knowledge of the workings of karma; he gained knowledge of the destruction of the asavas: sensual desire, desire for existence, and ignorance. 

Following this transformation, he was Siddhartha no more, but the Buddha - The Awakened One. The Buddha delivered his first sermon near Benares which set out the Four Noble Truths. As a fully enlightened Buddha, he attracted followers and founded a Sangha (monastic order). He spent the rest of his life teaching the Dharma he had discovered.The term ‘Dharma’ has many meanings, but the underlying idea is of a universal law which governs both the physical and the moral orders of the universe. At the age of 80 he died in Kushinagar, India, achieving ‘final nirvana’.

The teachings of the Buddha are recorded in various collections of scripture known as ‘canons’. The only one of these early canons which has been preserved intact is the Pali Canon.

Following the Buddha’s death, followers were left to interpret the Dharma for themselves. Disagreements soon arose, leading to the formation of different Buddhist schools.


Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in India around the beginning of the Common Era. By the 9th century it was the dominant influence on the Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia.

Rather than seeking one’s own salvation, in the way the earlier teachings had advised, Mahāyāna Buddhism places great emphasis on working to save others. This idea was embodied in the bodhisattva, someone who takes a vow to work tirelessly over countless lifetimes to lead others to nirvana.

The new Mahāyāna cosmology held that the wisdom of Buddha continued to emanate from the higher levels of the cosmos down to the human sphere. Mahāyāna Buddhism devised many new sutras, with the new cosmology making it possible to claim that if Buddha was not the human author of the new sutras, he was at least the spiritual author. These sutras led to new philosophical developments and reinterpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. 

Central Ideas and Claims


Karma is a kind of natural law. Karmic actions are moral actions, and the Buddha defined karma by reference to moral choices and the acts consequent upon them. According to Buddhism, human beings have free will, and in the exercise of free will they engage in self-determination. By freely and repeatedly choosing certain sorts of things, an individual shapes his character, and through his character his future.

What makes an action good or bad? Actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion are bad (akusala) while actions motivated by their opposites—non-attachment, benevolence, and understanding—are good (kusala). Good intentions, however, must find expression in right actions, and right actions are basically those which do no harm to either oneself or others.

Not all the consequences of what a person does are experienced in the lifetime in which the deeds are performed. Certain key aspects of a person’s next rebirth are thought of as karmically determined. These include the family into which one is born, one’s social status, physical appearance, and one’s character and personality.

Buddhist doctrine holds that living beings are constantly reborn. Movement is determined by karma. The number of times a person may be reborn is almost infinite. This process of repeated rebirth is known as saṃsāra or ‘endless wandering’. All living creatures are part of this cyclic movement and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana. Buddhist doctrine states that the answer to the problem of suffering does not lie in a better rebirth in the cycle of reincarnation (saṃsāra), but that only nirvana offers a final solution.


The Buddha’s teaching on suffering and the way out of suffering is set out in the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths

1. Duhkha exists.

The Sanskrit term duhkha is traditionally translated into English as “suffering”. The beginning of the road to wisdom begins with a recognition of the fact of duhkha. Once we accept this fact, we can start to do something about changing our lives and putting them on a deeper, more authentic footing.

2. Duhkha has an identifiable cause - trishna.

Trishna can be reduced to a fundamental ache that is in everything that exists: a gnawing dissatisfaction with what is. We can never be at rest but are always grasping for something outside ourselves. This is what powers the endless cycle of the Wheel of Life, driving us on from one moment to the next, one life to the next. If we want to get off the Wheel of Life and thereby liberate ourselves from duhkha, we must do something about it.

3. That cause may be terminated - nirvana.

Freedom from trishna is known in Pali as nibbana, come to be known as nirvana. Nirvana cannot be described in words. As it lies wholly outside our normal field of experience, one must come to it through direct insight. The word nirvana possesses connotations of blowing out, as a flame may be blown out or extinguished. It is cool and peaceful. Duhkha doesn’t touch it. Nirvana is praised in the Buddhist scriptures as amounting to supreme bliss.

4. The means by which that cause may be terminated.

The practical steps to achieve nirvana are laid out in the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path:

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

The Eightfold Path is known as the ‘middle way’ because it steers a course between a life of indulgence and one of harsh austerity. The path can be further subdivided into three main elements: wisdom, morality, and meditation.


Virtually all schools of Buddhism see meditation as the high road to enlightenment, and it constitutes a major part of the ‘experiential’ dimension of Buddhism as a religion. Meditation is the specialized activity that helps practitioners to fully realize the Buddha’s teachings. It weans us away from our usual habit patterns. It sharpens and inten­sifies our powers of perception. Two elements are usually identified in basic Buddhist meditation:

  1. Shamatha:

Concentration is focussed on a single object to the exclusion of all else (eg breath, sensations of the body).

2. Vipashyana:

The mind is opened and awareness is directed to all that enters its sphere; old fears and phobias, traumas and repressions. The meditator is neutral towards them, not rejecting, repressing, nor, on the other hand, identifying and becoming carried away by them. Treated to ‘bare attention’, they pass away. This has been adopted as a form of psychotherapy.

Key Actors

  • Gautama Buddha
  • Ashoka Maurya: The spread of Buddhism was boosted in the 3rd century BC when Ashoka Maurya became emperor of India around 268 BC.

Key Texts

  • The most famous account of the Buddha’s life is an epic poem known as the Buddhacarita or ‘Acts of the Buddha’, composed in the 1st century AD by Aśvaghoṣa
  • Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or ‘Path of Purification’ is a compendium of doctrine and practice and has remained a landmark in Theravāda literature.
  • The KharoṣỖhī Fragments: the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. 
  • Lotus Sūtra (AD c.200): a major Mahāyāna sutra.
  • Pali Canon


  • Snelling, J. (1991) The Buddhist Handbook. Barnes & Noble, Inc.,
  • Suzuki, S. et al. (2006) Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Boston: Shambhala (Shambhala library).

Further reading

  • Batchelor, S. (2017) Secular Buddhism: imagining the Dharma in an uncertain world. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Bodhi,B. (2005) In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Gethin, R. (trans.) (2008), Sayings of the Buddha: New Translations from the Pali Nikayas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nhất Hạnh (1999) The heart of the Buddha’s teaching. Available at: https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=609E9669-159E-4CE7-BA64-1EEB9B1E95E1 (Accessed: 23 May 2020).
  • Nhất Hạnh (2012) Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press. Available at: http://site.ebrary.com/id/10538113 (Accessed: 4 May 2021).
  • Wright, R. (2017) Why Buddhism is true: the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. First Simon&Schuster hardcover edition. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Yates, C.J., Immergut, M. and Graves, J. (2015) The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science. Available at: http://ebooks.kcls.org/ContentDetails.htm?ID=D9B49526-1021-4F3F-B6F3-5A4C4F99F4D1 (Accessed: 2 January 2021).