Quick Guide

Quick Guide to Buddhism

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Core Concepts

  • The origins of what we now call Buddhism began with a prince from Nepal named Siddartha Gautama, later to be known as the Buddha (“Awakened One”). 
  • Buddhism is not based on a belief in a god or gods, but instead is based on the teachings of the Buddha.
  • A core belief in Buddhism is that life is suffering. 
    • We suffer because we have desires that we are attached to. 
    • Like in Hinduism, we are all stuck in samsara (endless cycle of existence) and reincarnation (birth, death, and rebirth) is determined by karma (actions). 
    • Compassion and kindness are ways to help alleviate suffering. 
  • The goal in Buddhism is to reach Enlightenment so that one can attain nirvana (release from endless cycles of rebirth) by seeing past illusion.
Two Buddhist monks pay reverence at a shrine located inside of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Photo taken in November, 2019. Photo courtesy of Angela May.

Buddhist Vocabulary

  • Siddhartha Gautama – is the birth name of the Buddha, a prince from the 5th c. BCE and known as Shakyamuni Buddha after he reached enlightenment 
  • Samsara cyclical existence. Specifically, life is eternal; there is no ultimate death, only infinite existence
  • Reincarnation – part of the concept of samsara, reincarnation is the act of birth, death, and rebirth 
  • Karma – literally, “action.”  The actions that determine the condition of one’s future lives/existence
  • Dharma – literally, “duty.” In Buddhism, it refers to the teachings of the Buddha
  • Punya – literally, “merit.” Tally of good karma
  • Nirvana – extinction of desire and suffering and individual consciousness
  • Parinirvana – final liberation from cyclical existence (samsara)
  • Enlightenment – awakening, wisdom, or insight 
  • Sangha – refers to the community of Buddhist monks and nuns

The Time and Life of the Buddha 

Who was the Buddha?

Today, some may see the Buddha as a philosopher, a teacher, a social reformer and activist, as a superhuman, or even a god.

But the first thing to remember is that the Buddha was a human and was reacting to the time and culture he lived in.

Beliefs and social structure of ancient India and Nepal

  • During the 6th – 5th century BCE the social system was stratified
    • There were four social classes called varnas (see infograph to the left)
    • To be in a varna, one must be born into it
    • The varna social system form the roots for the later Hindu caste system 
    • In this social system, the belief was if you do your duty (dharma) within your social class then you will get good karma and be reborn in a higher class
  • The 6th – 5th century BCE was also a time of introspection and philosophical debate
    • the strict rituals of Brahmins (sacrifice, caste, etc.) gave reason for the Buddha to search inward and let spiritualism be his form of rebellion
  • Wanderers known as Shramanas were spiritual teachers who renounced society and lived as ascetics (individuals who withdraw from society and abstain from sensual pleasures)
    • the Buddha was a shramana, as well as Mahavira – the founder of Jainism
  • It was a time of warfare and disease
    • So suffering was heavy on the mind, which is why suffering is the crux of the Four Noble Truths
The remains of Wat Mahathat, a Buddhist temple in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo taken in February, 2020. Photo courtesy of Angela May.

The Four main events of the Buddha’s life

  • Believed to be born in the 6th c. BCE
  • Renounced royal life at 29
    • Became a wanderer 
    • Practiced extreme forms of meditation
  • Reached enlightenment at 35 
  • And died at 80, never to be reborn again

What the Buddha attained 

  • Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment at the age of 35
  • This means he gained ultimate wisdom and knowledge
  • He was able to see past illusion (maya) and understand the workings of the universe
  • Following Enlightenment he was given the name Shakyamuni 
    • shakya – the Buddha’s clan from Nepal // muni – sage

What the Buddha Taught

  • The Four Noble Truths
    1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
    2. The cause of suffering is desire (tanha)
    3. The cure to suffering is to remove desire
    4. To remove desire, follow the Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right View
    A true understanding of how reality and suffering are intertwined.
  2. Right Resolve
    The aspiration to act with correct intention, doing no harm.
  3. Right Speech
    Abstaining from lying, as well as divisive or abusive speech.
  4. Right Action
    Acting in ways that do not cause harm, such as not taking life, not stealing, and not engaging in sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood
    Making an ethically sound living, being honest in business dealings.
  6. Right Effort
    Endeavoring to give rise to skillful thoughts, words, and deeds and renouncing unskillful ones.
  7. Right Mindfulness
    Being mindful of one’s body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities.
  8. Right Concentration
    Practicing skillful meditation informed by all of the preceding seven aspects
Monk meditating at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo taken in February, 2020. Photo courtesy of Angela May.

Basic Buddhist Practices


  • Sangha – the Buddhist monastic community (monks and nuns)
  • Laity – non-monastic Buddhist followers


So why did the Buddha turn to meditation as a way to reach Enlightenment? The skill of meditation comes from ancient Indian traditions, like yoga. Meditation is a way of training, calming, and purifying one’s own mind. Meditation is a pathway to a deep understanding of the nature of life.

Devotional Images

Depictions of the Buddha vary greatly depending on what era of time and area of the world the images were created in. However, there are certain iconographic elements that indicate the Buddha and Buddhist imagery. 

Young monk paying reverence at Sarnath, India, the place where the Buddha gave his first teaching. Photo taken in January, 2019. Photo courtesy of Angela May.


The Buddha was a wanderer, and just like the Buddha moved from place to place, so do Buddhist devotees. Going on a Buddhist pilgrimage and facing the harshness of travel in order to pay reverence to a Buddhist relic or site is a way to gain Buddhist merit (punya).

The four main pilgrimage sites in Buddhism are:

  1. Lumbini, the Buddha’s place of birth
  2. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha reached Enlightenment
  3. Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching
  4. Kushinagara, where the Buddha died and attained Parinirvana

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