Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and philosophy with between 230 to 500 million adherents worldwide. The vast majority live in Asia. It consists of two major schools: Mahayana and Theravada Mahayana is in turn divided into East Asian (including Pure Land, Chan/Zen, Nichiren, Shingon and others) and Tibetan (sometimes grouped with Shingon under the term Vajrayana). However there are many other sects besides these. These divisions reflect a combination of doctrinal differences and regional syncretisms.
Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Gautama Buddha, who lived in parts of what is now Nepal and northeast India circa the fifth century BCE. While there is disagreement between denominations over the Buddha’s teachings nearly all Buddhists recognize some version of the Tipitaka (”Three Baskets”), though it plays a far more central role in Theravada than in Mahayana. Also, Mahayana Buddhists recognize a set of texts called the Mahayana Sutras which Theravadins do not accept. Buddhism originated in Northern India over 2500 years ago. While many Buddhist traditions converge on aspects of the birth, life, enlightenment and death of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, it is recognized in modern scholarship that these stories are not verifiable, as we have no primary sources from Siddhartha himself. The stories concerning Siddhartha’s life were compiled in a retrospective manner, in an attempt to solidify the most meaningful aspects of the numerous interpretations found throughout the early oral traditions of Buddhism. Buddhism today is the result of centuries of revision and refinement.
There are key aspects of the stories of Siddhartha’s life that serve to enhance the understanding of Buddhism’s purpose for human beings. Unlike most Western religions, where the central prophet or messiah figure’s significance stems from his historical existence, the historical reality of Siddhartha is not important in Buddhism.
Unsatisfactoriness encompasses the pervasive question of the “self” and the basic nature of personal identity. This question of the self arises when the human mind perceives itself to be separate from the rest of the world, in a way that is deeply troubling. This erroneous view of the self as separate from the rest of reality-as opposed to its role as an integral part-is what Buddhism addresses through its various contemplative and meditative methods.
Given that all things emerge from a kind of cosmic continuity, Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on non-dualism. Instead of viewing the world in terms of “good” versus “evil,” “liberal” versus “conservative,” “us” versus “them,” Buddhism recognizes that the orientations and views humans take stem from particular perspectives that each yield their own conclusions. Though this is a kind of relativism, Buddhist morality avoids moral relativism by acknowledging the Universal reality of interconnection and interdependence. A Buddhist cannot act in any way he or she pleases, in a selfish manner, because hurting others does not acknowledge this basic reality of interconnection and interdependence.
1) testimony of an authority;
2) account of an authoritative text; and
3) personal experience
All of these components must be considered, and no single source of knowledge is sufficient to generate an informed understanding of the world. However, method (3), experiential verification, plays a particularly prominent role in Buddhism. This is often demonstrated in the Buddha’s famous admonition, “Be a light unto your selves.”
In Buddhism, the primary purpose of life is to end suffering. The Buddha taught that humans suffer because we continually strive after things that do not give lasting happiness. We desperately try to hold on to things – friends, health, material things – that do not last, and this causes sorrow.
The Buddha did not deny that there are things in life that give joy, but pointed out that none of them last and our attachment to them only causes more suffering. His teachings were focused entirely on this problem and its solution.
In Hinduism, the soul, is an eternally existing spiritual substance or being and the abiding self that moves from one body to the next at rebirth. The Buddha rejected this concept. He taught that everything is impermanent, and this includes everything that we associate with being human: sensations, feelings, thoughts and consciousness. This is the doctrine is a central concept of Buddhism.
Human existence, in the Buddha’s view, is nothing more than a composite of five aggregates:
- Physical forms
- Feelings or sensations
- Mental formations or dispositions
A person is a “self” in that he or she is a true subject of moral action and karmic accumulation, but not in the sense that he or she has an enduring or unchanging soul.
The Buddha’s teachings and Theravada Buddhism are essentially atheistic, although neither deny the existence of beings that might be called “gods.” (See Is Buddhism Atheistic? for more information.)
In Mahayana Buddhism, however, the universe is populated with celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas who are worshipped as gods and goddesses. The historical Buddha is honored in this way, but most other Buddhist deities are adapted from the cultures Buddhism has encountered – from the pantheon of Hinduism to the indigenous religions of Tibet, China and Thailand.