Learn about Buddhism. Primary beliefs, symbol, founder, sacred texts, branches, major holidays, and key terms.  


Name:   Buddhism

Worldview category:  Non-theistic – Buddha did not address the topic of God’s existence.

Symbol:  The lotus flower, as well as the Dharma wheel (shown below), which represents the Eight-Fold Path.

Dharma wheel


Description:  Buddhism is an eastern religion that shares some key beliefs with Hinduism, including karma and reincarnation.  It has many variations, depending on the Buddhist tradition that is practiced.  Some practitioners consider Buddhism a philosophy and life practice, rather than a religion. 

Founder:  Siddhartha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit), who is referred to as the Buddha, which means "awakened one".  Firm dates for his life cannot be established from historical information.  Conventional sources say he lived from 566 - 486 BCE.  Recent research suggests the dates 490 – 410 BCE.

Date founded:  Approximately 441 BCE, according to conventional sources.

Place founded:  Northeastern India, near the city of Patna.

Number of adherents:  376 million                                 

Countries with largest number of adherents:  China, Japan and Thailand

Sacred texts: 

Buddha’s discourses are collected into four divisions:

Digha Nikaya

Majjhima Nikaya

Anguttara Nikaya

Samyutta Nikaya – Part of the canon of Buddha’s discourses (also known as sutras)

Dhammapada – A collection of Buddha’s verses.  Part of the Theravada canon.

Jataka – 550 stories about the former lives of Buddha.

Branches:  There are several major branches of Buddhism:

Mahayana – Known as the "Greater Vehicle".   Mahayana is practiced predominantly in north Asia, including Tibet, China and Japan.  Schools within Mahayana Buddhism include Nichiren Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism.

Theravada ("original teaching") - Also referred to as the “Lesser Vehicle”.  Practiced predominantly in south Asia, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Primary Beliefs:

Supreme being:  Buddhism is nontheistic, since Buddha did not address the issue of the existence of a supreme being.  It cannot be called atheistic, since it does not hold to the belief that there is no God.

"The Buddha rarely if ever discussed God – theism is not a central part of Buddha’s path to awakened enlightenment, peace, and deathless nirvana. Whether there is a God or not is one of the 14 questions that Buddha famously refused to speculate about or entertain, mainly because he was intent upon people seeking and finding the deepest truth about reality through their own experience."[1]

Buddhism includes belief in the existence of gods and spirits. "Buddha actually accepted and took for granted the existence of higher beings like Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, and the other devas (long-lived gods, demigods, archangels)…"[2]

Reality:  Reality consists of both the material and spiritual worlds. 

Nature of man:  Man has no soul.

Man’s primary problem:  The primary problem faced by people is suffering, which is caused by desire.

Solution to man’s primary problem:  The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path

The Four Noble Truths, which are also called the Chatvari Arya Satyani, are:

  1. Suffering - Man’s primary problem is suffering (sorrow or misery).  It cannot be avoided.
  2. The origin of suffering - Suffering arises from desire (craving).
  3. Restraint of suffering - Suffering can end if desire is ceased.
  4. The way that liberates from suffering (the Eight-Fold Path)

Man is viewed as having three different paths to follow in life: 

  1. The pursuit of desire and pleasure (sensuality).
  2. The pursuit of pain and hardship (asceticism).
  3. The middle way, which is between the two extremes above.  The middle way, which liberates from suffering, consists of the Eight-Fold Path.

The Eight-Fold Path includes:

  1. Right view
  2. Right aim
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right living
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindedness
  8. Right meditation

Afterlife:  The goal of Buddhism is nirvana, which is a complete cessation of existence.  It is the end of the cycle of rebirth, where all passions have been extinguished.  A central aspect of Buddhism is reincarnation, where the "process of repeated rebirth is known as samsara or ‘endless wandering’, a term suggesting continuous movement like the flow of a river. All living creatures are part of this cyclic movement and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana."[3]

Place of worship:  The communal practice of Buddhism takes place in a temple or center.

Major Holidays:

Kathina – An annual festival in which Buddhist followers give material to monks for their robes.

Magha Puja Day - A day to show appreciation to Buddhist monastics for their dedication and practice.

Vesak - Buddha Day - Also known as Wesak, Visakah Puja and Buddha Day. The most sacred holy day of Theravada Buddhism.  An observation of the birth, enlightenment and death of the historical Buddha.  Mahayana Buddhists tend to separate these three events of the Buddha's life into three separate holidays.  Buddha Day takes place on the day of the first full moon in May.

Rituals:  Meditation is a central practice in Buddhism.  Buddhists meditate at temples/centers, as well as in their homes.  It is also a common practice for Buddhist lay people to give food, flowers and incense to a Buddhist temple. 

Key Terms:

Dharma – The teaching of Buddha.  Dharma also means "protection".  "By practising Buddha’s teachings we protect ourself from suffering and problems.  All the problems we experience during daily life originate in ignorance, and the method for eliminating ignorance is to practice Dharma."[4]

Karma – A moral act that a person does. Good karma leads a person up the ladder of the realms of rebirth.  Bad karma leads a person down the ladder of the realms of rebirth. The consequences of a person’s actions may be experienced in the present lifetime and/or a future lifetime.

Monastery – A place where Buddhist monks live.

Monk – A person who devotes his life to Buddhist principles and practices.  A monk’s head is shaved upon initiation.  "Buddhist monks have no priestly role – they are not intermediaries between God and mankind – and their ordination confers no supernatural powers or authority."[5]

Nirvana – "A complete cessation of being and supreme goal of Buddhist endeavor."[6]

Parinirvana – The complete ending of rebirth, cessation of suffering and perfection of happiness

Samsara – The cycle of rebirth.  Literally means "to wander".  A process of rebirth that is repeated numerous times; reincarnation.  It is referred to as endless wandering.  "All living creatures are part of this cyclic movement and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana."[7]

Realms of rebirth – There are 6 realms of rebirth, from top (most desirable) to bottom (least desirable).  There is no rebirth in the five highest levels.

  • Gods – the heavenly realm, which consists of 26 levels.
  • Humans
  • Titans – demons bent on warfare due to a thirst for power.
  • Ghosts – spirits who are former humans with insatiable desires.
  • Animals
  • Hell – a temporary place of torment due to evil behavior in a previous life.

Sutra – A teaching of Buddha. 



Adherents.com – www.adherents.com

Buddhanet – www.buddhanet.net

Smith, Huston.  The World’s Religions.  New York:  Harper One, 1991.

1Lama Surya Das, The Big Questions (New York: Rodale, 2007), 79.
2Ibid., 80.
3Damien Keown, Buddhism - A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 28.
4Ibid., 9.
5Ibid., 6.
6Pushpesh Pant, Buddhism  (New Delhi: Roli Books, 1997), 23.
7Keown, Buddhism , 28.