What Are the Basic Beliefs of Buddhism?

What Are the Basic Beliefs of Buddhism?

What Are the Basic Beliefs of Buddhism?

Two hundred years after Siddhartha Gautama died, missionaries of his movement were sent out.

Otherwise known as the Buddha, Gautama unofficially founded Buddhism after achieving ultimate enlightenment.

This movement remained fairly local to Siddhartha’s home in northern India until King Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries throughout India and into Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, most of Southeast Asia, and parts of North Africa.

As people from these regions began to implement the Buddha’s teachings, divergent doctrines and practices emerged.

Buddhism absorbed and incorporated the local belief systems of many of the cultures it reached, and the Buddha’s teachings were passed down orally for centuries before eventually being written down in two languages, Pali and Sanksrit. 

Today, Buddhist beliefs and practices vary, and it is difficult to make a universal statement about what exactly every Buddhist believes.

However, most adhere to a common devotion to the Buddha’s life and several fundamental concepts.


Buddhism, religion and philosophy developed from the teachings of the Buddha (Sanskrit: Awakened One), a teacher who lived in northern India between the mid-6th and mid-4th centuries BCE (before the Common Era).

Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, Buddhism has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of Asia, and, beginning in the 20th century, it spread to the West.

Ancient Buddhist scripture and doctrine developed in several closely related literary languages of ancient India, especially in Pali and Sanskrit.

In this article Pali and Sanskrit words that have gained currency in English are treated as English words and are rendered in the form in which they appear in English-language dictionaries. 

Exceptions occur in special circumstances—as, for example, in the case of the Sanskrit term dharma (Pali: dhamma), which has meanings that are not usually associated with the term dharma as it is often used in English.

Pali forms are given in the sections on the core teachings of early Buddhism that are reconstructed primarily from Pali texts and in sections that deal with Buddhist traditions in which the primary sacred language is Pali. 

Sanskrit forms are given in the sections that deal with Buddhist traditions whose primary sacred language is Sanskrit and in other sections that deal with traditions whose primary sacred texts were translated from Sanskrit into a Central or East Asian language such as Tibetan or Chinese.

Buddha Sculpture FAQs

What Is Forbidden In Buddhism?

They constitute the basic code of ethics to be respected by lay followers of Buddhism. The precepts are commitments to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

Can Buddhist Have Tattoos?

Yes, Buddhist monks can get tattoos! Perhaps the most famous example of this are the monks of Wat Bang Phra.

The Buddhist monks of this Thailand based temple practice the sacred art of Sak Yant tattoos.

They are both great examples of many Europeans and Westerners who have embraced the Buddhist way as well as tattoos.

Can Buddhist Have Relationships?

There is no obligation for Buddhists to marry and most Buddhists believe marriage is a choice.

As long as they are both happy to do so, Buddhists are allowed to cohabit .

As a result, Buddhists do not have any formal teachings on what the marriage ceremony should consist of.

Can A Buddhist Smoke?

The large majority of monks feel that smoking is not an appropriate practice and that there should be a Buddhist law that recommends they do not smoke.

Most monks, however, have little understanding of the specific detrimental effects smoking has on them, as well as the effects of secondhand smoke.

Is Smoking A Sin In Buddhism?

Buddhism goes on to state that using tobacco will result in climatic disorders, pollution, famines, diseases and wars.

The sin of smoking, sniffing and chewing tobacco will also affect religion as tobacco will veil the three jewels from people and good deeds will have less merit

How Did Buddhism Begin?

About 2500 years ago, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama began to question his sheltered, luxurious life in the palace.

He left the palace and saw four sights: a sick man, an old man, a dead man and a monk.

These sights are said to have shown him that even a prince cannot escape illness, suffering and death. 

The sight of the monk told Siddhartha to leave his life as a prince and become a wandering holy man, seeking the answers to questions like

Why must people suffer? What is the cause of suffering? Siddartha spent many years doing many religious practices such as praying, meditating, and fasting until he finally understood the basic truths of life. 

This realization occurred after sitting under a Poplar-fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India for many days, in deep meditation.

He gained enlightenment, or nirvana, and was given the title of Buddha, which means Enlightened One.

What Did Buddha Teach?


Buddha discovered Three Universal Truths and Four Noble Truths, which he then taught to the people for the next 45 years.

Three Universal Truths

  • Everything in life is impermanent and always changing.
  • Because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or persons doesn't make you happy.
  • There is no eternal, unchanging soul and "self" is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.

Four Noble Truths

  • Human life has a lot of suffering.
  • The cause of suffering is greed.
  • There is an end to suffering.
  • The way to end suffering is to follow the Middle Path.

Buddha then taught people not to worship him as a god. He said they should take responsibility for their own lives and actions. He taught that the Middle Way was the way to nirvana.

The Middle Way meant not leading a life of luxury and indulgence but also not one of too much fasting and hardship. There are eight guides for following the Middle path.

The Eightfold Path

  • Right understanding and viewpoint (based on the Four Noble Truths).
  • Right values and attitude (compassion rather than selfishness).
  • Right speech (don't tell lies, avoid harsh, abusive speech, avoid gossip).
  • Right action (help others, live honestly, don't harm living things, take care of the environment).
  • Right work (do something useful, avoid jobs which harm others).
  • Right effort (encourage good, helpful thoughts, discourage unwholesome destructive thoughts).
  • Right mindfulness (be aware of what you feel, think and do).
  • Right meditation (calm mind, practice meditation which leads to nirvana).

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is an essential practice to most Buddhists. Buddhists look within themselves for the truth and understanding of Buddha's teachings. They seek enlightenment, or nirvana, this way.

Nirvana is freedom from needless suffering and being fully alive and present in one's life. It is not a state that can really be described in words -- it goes beyond words.

Meditation means focusing the mind to achieve an inner stillness that leads to a state of enlightenment. Meditation takes many forms:

  • It can be sitting quietly beside a beautiful arrangement of rocks, contemplating beauty.
  • It can be practicing a martial art such as karate or aikido since they require mental and physical control and strong concentration.
  • It can mean focusing on a riddle such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
  • It can be contemplating a haiku or short poem that captures a moment in time.
  • It can be in a meditation room of a monastery.
  • It can involve chanting.
  • It can involve the use of a mandala to focus attention to the invisible point at the center of interlocking triangles.
  • It can involve quietly noticing one's breath as it goes in and out. It can happen anywhere at any time.

Where Are Buddha's Words Written Down?


After Buddha died, his teachings were gradually written down from what people remembered.

The Tripitaka, or The Three Baskets, is a collection of Buddha's sayings, his thoughts about them, and rules for Buddhists monks.

The Tripitaka was first written on palm leaves which were collected together in baskets.

If Buddhism Began In India, Why Is It All Over Some Many Eastern Countries?

There are over 500 million Buddhists today. After Buddha's death, some of his followers had some differences of opinion which eventually led to their breaking away and forming separate kinds of Buddhism.

There are two main types, Theravada, which spread to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and Mahayana which spread to Nepal, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan.

Mahayana took on aspects of the cultures where it was practiced and became three distinct branches: Vajrayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

The Five Precepts

Even though each form of Buddhism took on its own identity, all Buddhists follow a set of guidelines for daily life called the Five Precepts.

These are:

  • Do not harm or kill living things.
  • Do not take things unless they are freely given.
  • Lead a decent life.
  • Do not speak unkindly or tell lies.
  • Do not abuse drugs or drink alcohol.

Important Beliefs In Buddhism

The Buddha’s aim was to escape suffering and be released from the cycle of rebirth.

Buddhists today have the same goal.

When a Buddhist reaches a transcendent level of enlightenment—most often achieved through dedicated meditation—a Buddhist has achieved nirvana, an eternal state of perfect peace, happiness, and enlightenment.

Buddhists believe the process of being reborn over and over is determined by the fruits of their karma—their deeds and actions—in the present life.

Their deeds can help tip the balance of karma in their favor by making merit. Making merit, or earning good karma, is achieved through acts such as visiting a temple, making donations to a monk, or repeating chants to cleanse the mind from worldly desires.

At the core of the Buddha’s dharma—his collective teachings—are The Four Noble Truths.

  • Suffering exists.
  • Desire is the cause of suffering.
  • There is freedom from suffering.
  • The Eightfold Path is the way to gain freedom from suffering.

The Eightfold Path comprises eight ways of living that will help a Buddhist reach nirvana: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Basically, the more you can make yourself “right,” the better chance you have of escaping rebirth.

As Buddhism took root in different parts of Asia, it split into several sects.

Here are three prominent sects, along with how Buddhism is typically practiced today in the West.

Theravada Buddhism


Theravada Buddhism is the oldest and most conservative branch of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhists adhere strictly to the Pali Canon—the earliest written texts of the Buddha’s teachings—as their authority for understanding his teachings.

They emphasize the Buddha’s claim that he was an ordinary man, not a god. Like Buddha, they believe divine beings may exist but cannot help us.

They believe rigorous self-effort is required to attain nirvana, and the path is a demanding one for the individual, who must abandon worldly living and desires.

For this reason, it is primarily the monks, who choose to devote their entire lives to following Buddha’s teachings and withdraw from normal life, that reach nirvana.

Because attaining nirvana is so difficult and unlikely for the average person, most Theravada Buddhists spend their efforts on making merit that will ensure favorable karma and a better rebirth.

This branch of Buddhism is prominent in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Mahayana Buddhism

In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism is the most liberal and the largest branch of Buddhism. Mahayanists use the Sanskrit version of the Buddha’s teachings.

These scriptures emerged much later than the Pali Canon and are known as Sutras.

They incorporate Pali texts as well as thousands of other volumes that contain extensions of the Buddha’s message.

Taken as a whole, the texts often present contradictory teachings. Therefore, there are more varied beliefs and practices among Mahayanist adherents.

The Sutras maintain there are multiple universes and multiple Buddhas.

They view the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) as a transcendent being, in direct contrast to what he believed about himself.

The Sutras teach that the path to enlightenment is open to everyone. All people, not just monks, can attain nirvana.

Another significant element of Mahayana Buddhism is the introduction of bodhisattvas.

Bodhisattvas are figures that have already attained nirvana, but instead of going there immediately, they have compassionately chosen to wait and assist individuals who cannot get there on their own for various reasons, such as lack of discipline or insufficient merit making.

Compassion is one of the highest ideals within this branch. Mahayana Buddhism holds mass appeal and is practiced in many countries including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism is an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism with a special emphasis on the magical and the occult.

Vajrayana Buddhists add to the Mahayana scriptures a collection of sacred texts called Tantras.

These texts have roots in Hinduism and describe secret methodologies and practices to hasten the path to nirvana.

Some of these include special hand positions called mudras that channel mythical power, certain postures of the body (yoga), and sacred phrases or mantras that bear magical power when repeated over and over.

There is also an important circular diagram known as the mandala that represents cosmic spaces and spiritual relationships.

Deep meditation on the mandala leads to out-of-body experiences.

Like the Mahayana branch, Vajrayana Buddhism is deeply eclectic and has its own expression in every culture, often absorbing existing rituals and religions. It is most commonly practiced in Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia.

Buddhism And Social Change

Buddhist beliefs might have focused on individual enlightenment, but they had important social consequences.

Buddhism challenged the structure of Indian society, where Brahmins had authority and status.

It also challenged the caste system more broadly, because enlightenment was not limited to those of upper castes.

Buddhism also welcomed women into monastic life, providing roles outside of the home.

These differences made Buddhism appeal to many in the lower castes of Indian society.

As mentioned above, the road to enlightenment was difficult, and—probably like you—most people were unable or unwilling to abandon their families and possessions for a life of spiritual devotion.

Most people who chose lives as monks or nuns did so because they could afford it.

Laborers and servants, for example, could not simply abandon their livelihoods and retreat into spiritual contemplation.

But Buddhism was flexible. As it spread, new versions emerged to meet the different needs of converts.

For example, Mahayana Buddhism, which means "the great vehicle," allowed people to strive toward enlightenment even if they couldn't become monks. Mahayana Buddhism grew into the most widespread form of Buddhism in the world. Buddhism's rejection of the caste system and the flexibility of its "middle path" is what helped it spread across Asia.

From One Buddha To Many Buddhisms

Though Buddhist beliefs originated in India, they spread quickly. Buddhism moved through trade networks, traveling on Silk Road caravans through Central Asia to China and aboard merchant ships to Southeast Asia.

Buddhism also got some help from powerful leaders. Emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Mauryan Empire in India from 268 to 232 BCE, used his power and conquests to spread Buddhism through India and beyond.

He sent missionaries from his empire into the surrounding regions, including Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

A big part of Buddhism's success outside India was its ability to accommodate local beliefs.

As it spread, Buddhism changed, blending with elements of different belief systems, a process known as "syncretism."

For example, Buddhist ideas blended with Confucian and Daoist beliefs in China, where concepts like ancestor veneration honor and filial piety became part of Buddhism. 

Another example is Greco-Buddhism. Descendants of Alexander the Great's empire still lived in Central Asia, and when they converted to Buddhism, they blended it with elements of Greek culture.

In some places, the Buddha came to be regarded as a deity, and new Buddhas were added to the pantheon, though these were not part of the original belief system.

After reaching China, Buddhism began to expand during the third century CE. An age of political upheaval followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE. This collapse of political authority meant many people sought meaning in new kinds of communities.

For many, Buddhism offered a fresh start as the old order collapsed. Chinese rulers began using Buddhism to unite their people. From China, Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan.

There too, Buddhism blended with local practices. Buddhist monks in Japan even became caretakers for Shinto shrines and participated in Shinto rituals.

Why did Buddhism spread around the world? First, it offered a universalist message: that every individual could attain enlightenment by following its teachings.

This message appealed to those, like women and peasants, who were marginalized in society.

Second, Buddhism was missionary and had several powerful political supporters. 

Buddhists believed that their message could and should be spread to everyone and anyone.

Emperor Ashoka was the first ruler to encourage Buddhist missionaries to travel abroad, and later Chinese rulers sought to spread Buddhism as a way to build their own power and influence.

Finally, Buddhism was a flexible belief system, capable of adapting and changing to fit very different places and people.

Though it is one of the largest belief systems in the world, with about 500 million followers today, Buddhism is not singular. It has taken on many forms in many places. From northern India, where it originated, Buddhism traveled along trade networks to Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond. 

And though it originated and spread in India, Buddhism gradually became less popular there.

In countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Buddhism is today the dominant belief system. Wherever it went, Buddhism changed how communities were organized.

It challenged social hierarchy, created opportunities for women, and gave individuals of all classes a role in spiritual practice.

But as Buddhism changed each new society it touched, so too did Buddhism change. Indeed, it was Buddhism's ability to adapt to new contexts that allowed it to spread so far.


Buddhism is a religion that teaches the way to end suffering and live a happy life.

It was founded by Buddha, who lived in India 2500 years ago.

The basic beliefs of Buddhism are based on four things: nothing lasts forever; holding onto what you have will only cause more pain; everyone wants happiness but not everyone knows how to get it; everything comes from within yourself--there's no god or supernatural being watching over us.

In order for someone to follow Buddhist teachings they must first believe these principles and want them to be true.

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