Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering, achieve nirvana, and escape what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth.
Two major branches of Buddhism are recognized: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). Theravada – the oldest surviving branch – has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Mahayana is found throughout East Asia and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, Tendai and Shinnyo-en. In some classifications Vajrayana – a subcategory of Mahayana practiced in Tibet and Mongolia – is recognized as a third branch. While Buddhism remains most popular within Asia, both branches are now found throughout the world. Estimates of Buddhists worldwide vary significantly depending on the way Buddhist adherence is defined. Lower estimates are between 350–500 million.
Buddhism is a faith that was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) more than 2,500 years ago in India. With about 470 million followers, scholars consider Buddhism one of the major world religions. Its practice has historically been most prominent in East and Southeast Asia, but its influence is growing in the West. Many Buddhist ideas and philosophies overlap with those of other faiths.
Some key beliefs include:
- Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they’re said to have experienced nirvana.
- The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary man, but not a god. The word Buddha means “enlightened.”
- The path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists often meditate because they believe it helps awaken truth.
- There are many philosophies and interpretations within Buddhism, making it a tolerant and evolving religion.
- Some scholars don’t recognize Buddhism as an organized religion, but rather, a “way of life” or a “spiritual tradition.”
- Buddhism encourages its people to avoid self-indulgence but also self-denial.
- Buddha’s most important teachings, known as The Four Noble Truths, are essential to understanding the religion.
- Buddhists embrace the concepts of karma (the law of cause and effect) and reincarnation (the continuous cycle of rebirth).
- Followers of Buddhism can worship in temples or in their own homes.
- Buddhist monks, or bhikkhus, follow a strict code of conduct, which includes celibacy.
- There is no single Buddhist symbol, but a number of images have evolved that represent Buddhist beliefs, including the lotus flower, the eight-spoked dharma wheel, the Bodhi tree and the swastika (an ancient symbol whose name means “well-being” or “good fortune” in Sanskrit).