Buddhism: Beliefs and Teachings

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The Three Jewels

Buddhism can be said to consist of three parts, referred to as The Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha. In this section we will look at these three and how they fit together.  

The Buddha

Early Life 

Siddhartha Gautama was born into a life of luxury as a prince in the North-East of India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. According to tradition, upon his birth it was predicted that he would either become a great king or a great holy man.

His Father, who wanted him to become a great king, tried everything to keep Siddhartha comfortable and away from pursuing the life of a holy man. Siddhartha was given three palaces to live in and his father organised a marriage between Siddhartha and his cousin Yasodhara, who was the same age. Siddhartha and Yasodhara had a child together called Rahula.

Siddhartha lived the life of a wealthy prince for 29 years, but he felt increasingly dissatisfied with the material wealth that surrounded him.

The Four Sights

When he was 29 Siddhartha insisted upon leaving the palace to see what life was like outside. His father agreed but attempted to shield him from the suffering in the world, by carefully orchestrating luxurious chariot rides for Siddhartha. However, on subsequent trips outside Siddhartha first came across an elderly man, and learned about the pains of aging. Second, he came across a sick man, and learned about how people suffer from illness. Third, he found a corpse of a man who had died, and learned about the fact of death. Finally, he saw an ascetic, or holy man.

These experiences had a profound effect on Siddhartha, who decided as a result to find a way to end the suffering caused at the hands of aging, illness, and death by studying the teachings of the ascetics. He left in secret, accompanied by his charioteer Channa.


Siddhartha traveled and mastered the teachings of different groups; including the foremost ascetics, yogis, and meditation masters. Instead of seeking to push to the extremes of either self-indulgence, like his life as a prince, or self-mortification, like the holy men who starved themselves, Siddhartha felt that there should be balanced Middle Way.

With this realisation Siddhartha made a decision and, taking a seat under a Pipal tree (later renamed the Bodhi tree) vowed not to leave until he had found the answers to his questions.

According to the tradition, he sat in meditation for 49 days. This is when Siddhartha achieved Enlightenment, he found the answers to his questions and became the first Buddha or ‘Enlightened One’ at the age of 35.

The Dharma

In Buddhism the truths that Siddhartha learned, the truths that equate to Enlightenment when they are properly understood are called the Dharma.

Dependent origination

Dependent origination or conditionality (paticcasamupada / pratityasamutpada) is a core teaching of Buddhism. It is a view of reality that does not accept a linear progression of causation. This means the rejection of the idea that everything relies on something before it for existence; something that caused it. This model produces a chain of events that stretches back into the past and forward into the future. Buddhism rejects this.

Instead of a linear progression, Buddhism argues that everything finds its origin in everything else. In this way the chain is not a line stretching back into the past, but a loop that cycles round and around. According to Buddhism there are twelve links to this chain:

  1. Ignorance – Avidyā
  2. Formation – Saṅkhāra
  3. Consciousness – Vijñāna
  4. Name and Form – Nāmarūpa
  5. Six Senses Bases – Ṣaḍāyatana
  6. Contact – Sparsha
  7. Feeling – Vedanā
  8. Craving – Taṇhā
  9. Clinging – Upādāna
  10. Becoming – Bhāva
  11. Birth – Jāti
  12. Old Age and Death – Jarāmaraa

According to Buddhism, everything in existence follows this pattern, this cycle is the cycle of existence. Understanding this cycles can be difficult.

It refers to the cycle of death and rebirth: we can imagine the life cycle for a human following this pattern. We are born ignorant, and gradually take shape and become aware of our surroundings. As our senses develop we are able to take in the world around us. It is natural for us to try to avoid bad sensations and chase good sensations. This chasing shapes our life and whether we achieve our desires or not, before long we are plunged into old age and death.

Three Marks of Existence (lakkhanas / lakshanas)

If dependent origination is the pattern that all things that exist follow, then we can study the pattern in order to learn about the nature of existence itself. Based on this cycle, Buddhism argues that we can say three things about existence:

  1. Everything is impermanent – Anicca. Nothing stays forever at one point on the cycle, everything flows and is in flux from one state to another.
  2. Existence is suffering – Dukkha. The cycle turns and always ends in death, even for those who lived the happiest of lives.
  3. There is no self, essence or soul – Anatta. There is nothing that remains unchanged through this process, nothing ‘survives’ the cycle. This is the flow of existence. The cycle does not describe one thing changing into different forms, but different things coming in and out of existence.

Four Noble Truths

This bleak situation is exactly what Siddhartha set out to find a solution for when he sat down under the Bodhi tree. His analysis of the problem, and its solution, is what is known as the Four Noble Truths.  

  • The First Noble Truth is the fact that suffering (dukkha) is an unavoidable part of existence. The most obvious forms of suffering relate to the sights that the Buddha saw on his first journeys outside the palace: Old Age, Sickness, and Death.
  • The Second Noble Truth is that the causes of this suffering is desire. Desire takes on three base forms: the Three Poisons. Delusion, Greed, and Hatred. Delusion refers to our desire to hold on to the truths that we have constructed about the world, principle among them the idea that we have selfhood. Greed refers to our desire for more than we need. Hatred refers to our resentment and anger when we do not get what we want. 
  • The Third Noble Truth is the fact that therefore in order to free ourselves from suffering we must free ourselves from our desires. In order to achieve Enlightenment, like Siddhartha, we must rid ourselves of ignorance, greed, and hatred. Bring in such a state is often interpreted as Nirvana.
  • The Fourth Noble Truth is that the way to achieve Nirvana/Enlightenment, is to follow the Eightfold Path. The following can and has been grouped into three groups, known as the Three-fold Way. The first two steps relate to wisdom (panna/prajna). Steps three, four, and five relate to ethical conduct (sila). Steps six, seven, and eight relate to meditation (Samadhi).
  1. Right Understanding – Realization of the truth.
  2. Right Intention – Commitment to follow the teachings. 
  3. Right Speech – Speaking honestly and kindly.
  4. Right Action – Behaving peacefully and without giving into desires.
  5. Right Livelihood – Not taking work that causes harm.
  6. Right Effort – Cultivating states of mind free of the three poisons.
  7. Right Mindfulness – Being aware of the body, feelings, and mind.
  8. Right Concentration – Developing the focus to maintain this state.

These Four Noble Truths necessarily shape how we view ourselves and our role in existence. Looking back to the Three Marks of Existence we see that everything is impermanent and there is no such thing as the self. 

In Buddhism, everything is in flux; including what we think of as humanity. A human is the mere flowing together of five separate ‘aggregates’ or ‘groupings’ (skandhas) into a single grouping. These five things are: a form (or body), sensations, perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness. The process of how they come to flow together is described above when we talked about Dependent Origination.

It is important to note that our perception of these five things flowing together as a creative act is an illusion: there is no self. This brings us to the concept of Śūnyatā, or ’emptiness’. We may perceive the world around us as a collection of things that each have a distinct shape and existence. In actuality, everything is constantly in a state of flux, all we have is a mere snapshot that we are trying to use to pin down the various things that exist. There is no existence beneath the flowing together of things that we perceive; everything is empty of essence, the ultimate ‘nature’ of all things is nothing.

This realization, of the emptiness at the root of existence, is essential to achieving Enlightenment. The Buddha stands as an example to the fact that humanity can overcome this illusion. This is where two complicated terms come into play: Buddha-nature and Tathāgatagarbha. These terms are contested and complex, but one way to conceptualize it may be that humans are able to undo the Twelve links in the chain of Dependent Origination. We are able to liberate ourselves from the suffering of existence by consciously unbinding the chain that is our existence. We are thus able to undo the illusions that keep us in a state of suffering, and achieve a higher level of consciousness, by following the path laid out by the Buddha.

The Sangha

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Since Siddhartha first walked this path and became the Buddha, many others have tried to follow. The Buddha’s first followers represent the beginning of the third jewel of Buddhism; the Sangha. A key thing to remember is that Buddha is a title, not a name; it is used when referring to anyone who has achieved Enlightenment. Siddhartha holds a special significance as the founder of Buddhism, but he is not the only, or even first, Buddha.

When somebody gains Enlightenment they are also described as reaching Buddhahood. In Theravada Buddhism this term is reserved only for those who achieved enlightenment without the aid of a teacher, like Siddhartha.

Another title is that of Arhat, Theravada Buddhists use this term to describe those who have achieved enlightenment with the aid of a teacher, thus differentiating it from Buddhahood. However, other groups use this term to describe somebody who is advanced in their understanding, but cannot be said to have achieved enlightenment.

The final commonly used term is that of Bodhisattva. This term is an ideal state, exemplified by Siddhartha, which describes somebody who is dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment for the purpose of relieving the suffering of all sentient beings. Mahayana Buddhism uses the term more generally to describe this selfless and moral ideal, whereas Theravada Buddhists are more likely to reserve the term for those of exceptional moral standard.

The Good Life

Buddhism teaches that existence is cyclical. This is true of human existence as well, saṃsāra is the term that refers to the cycle of birth, a life full of suffering, followed by death. Because of the cyclical nature of existence, the actions that we take during life have consequences, but those consequences are not always seen or even felt by us. Karma is integral to the cycle of  saṃsāra. It highlights that every action is the result of intention, and the results of our actions will therefore reflect the intentions behind the actions.

The cycle of existence that we are caught in is pushed forward by intention, therefore if we wish to avoid even greater suffering we must act in an intentionally good manner. This is more than merely not having bad intentions, because it is also possible to act mindlessly (without intention), which also brings suffering. Karma can be seen as a rule of existence that the consequence of our actions will eventually reflect the intention behind our actions.

It is important to note that Karma is therefore a natural cycle, not a punishment system. It is the process by which we are kept trapped in the cycle. The stronger our desires the more suffering we bring to existence. The more closely we follow the Buddha’s example, the more we avoid and alleviate suffering, liberating ourselves from the cycle of saṃsāra.

Greed, Hatred, and Ignorance (The Three Poisons) are the main things that keep us locked in the cycle of suffering. It follows then that cultivating their opposites is the path towards liberation. The opposite of Ignorance is understanding the Four Noble Truths. The opposite of Hatred and Greed are compassion, karuā, and loving kindness, mettā, which denote a general happiness and a care for others.

The cultivation of karuā and mettā feed into a set of rules for everyone to live by known as the Five Preceptspañcasīla. These rules are:

  1. No killing living beings. 
  2. No stealing.
  3. No sexual immorality.
  4. No lying.
  5. No intoxication.

These rules are seen to compliment the Eightfold path as guidelines for what not to do as you progress along the way to Enlightenment. They are the basic moral requirements in Buddhism.  

Those who are more devoted to following Buddhist teachings are held to higher standards. They are not simply expected to avoid doing these five things, but are expected to actively pursue perfecting certain virtues during their lives. Six Perfections, pāramitā, are encouraged in Mahayana Buddhism:

  1. Generosity – Dāna
  2. Moral Discipline – Śīla
  3. Patience, Tolerance – Kṣānti
  4. Energy, Diligence – Vīrya
  5. Concentration – Dhyāna
  6. Wisdom – Prajñā

This list varies between different groups of Buddhists, but the beliefs that inform these lists of virtues are the same. The only way to find liberation form the cycle of suffering that is existence is the cultivation of the virtues needed to walk the Eightfold Path as laid out by the Buddha.

These similarities and differences are informed by specific Sources of Wisdom and Authority. It is to these sources that we now turn our discussion on the next page.

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