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Brief introduction to Buddhism


Thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni by Andy WeberPrince Siddhartha Gautama lived over 2500 years ago in North India. After a long spiritual search for the truth, he achieved full enlightenment and became a Buddha. Also known as Shakyamuni Buddha he taught over 40 years. The essence of all his teachings is about suffering and the way to end it.

Basically, everyone can become a Buddha by developing all positive mental qualities and removing all negative aspects of the mind. The Buddha summarised his teachings as: “Do not commit any non-virtuous actions, perform only perfect virtuous actions, subdue your mind completely— this is the teaching of the Buddha.”

During one of his first teachings, the Buddha explained the basic principles as the 'Four Noble Truths':

  1. Life comes with suffering (physical and mental)
  2. The causes for suffering are disturbing emotions (like attachment and anger) and negative karma
  3. It is possible to stop suffering completely and to experience permanent happiness (nirvana)
  4. We can achieve this by following the eight-fold path (with guidelines for motivation and behavior)

The word 'suffering' does not only refer to pain in Buddhism, but to all kinds of discomfort, problems and frustrations, physical and mental. All this suffering (even physical pain) is ultimately experienced by the mind, and that is determined by how we experience and understand life.

According to the Buddha, in particular our disturbing emotions such as attachment, anger and ignorance are the cause for all our problems. This confusion makes us do things that harm others and ourselves later (karma). When we can reduce and even stop these harmful emotions and confusion, we will also reduce and eventually stop our problems in the long run, we can liberate ourselves from suffering and reach enlightenment..

Meditation is a very importat tool to develop the mind in a positive way. There is much emphasis on developing compassion and wisdom. By gaining more control over our own mind, we can gradually un-learn false projections and bad habits. We can become calm and peaceful because we understand ourselves and the world around us better. Because of this emphasis on how the mind works, sometimes Buddhism is called a kind of psychology.

Besides meditation, also our daily activities should reflect this positive attitude. We like to rid ourselves of problems and pain, but other people and animals encounter similar problems. The most fundamental attitude in Buddhism is to avoid harming others, and instead trying to make them happy, so in that sense, one could say that Buddhism is a way of life.

We can decide to try and help others with compassion, but in order to be able to help them, we should not be completely caught up in our own problems and confusion. So it becomes necessary to develop our own mind. The Buddha represents the full achievement of positive qualities such as kindness and wisdom, so when we become a Buddha ourselves, we become the best possible guide for others. 

A few important notions in Buddhism:

  • Rebirth; all sentient beings are reborn, and experience problems and suffering in life. We can liberate ourselves from this cycle of rebirth by developing wisdom, and realise ultimate happiness of enlightenment (Nirvana and Buddhahood).
  • Karma; all our intentional actions have consequences - also for ourselves. Helping others does not only bring happiness to them, but to ourselves as well, just like harming others will ultimately also harm ourselves. Actions of which we have not experienced the consequences during our life time accompanies us from life to life, so that we often expereince the negative results of actions done in a previous life time.
  • Love is defined in Buddhism as 'wishing that sentient beings are happy'. This ideal form of love is entirely without self-interest, so altruistic. (The vague definitions of love in our Western culture create much confusion, because specifically with falling in love and having sex, our self-interest plays a major role.)
  • Compassion / loving kindness is in Buddhism 'wishing that sentient beings do not experience suffering'. Obviously it is not far from love, but traditionally, compassion is accompanied by a feeling of having to do something about the problems to help others. When we really care for other sentient beings as much as for ourselves, then we create automatically the causes for our own happiness.
  • Wisdom; everything changes continuously and exists merely relatively. This is a hard to understand concept in Buddhism, also called selflessness or emptiness. This wisdom of emptiness is essential for our liberation from all suffering by escaping the cycle of rebirth. 
  • Meditation; an important practice to understand and control our own mind, and to develop ourselves positively.
  • Enlightenment; strictly spoken, there are two levels of enlightenment in Buddhism: one is of an Arhat, which is someone who is liberated from the cycle of rebirth and all suffering, the other is of a Buddha, someone who has developed all possible positive qualities and abandoned all negative qualities.
  • Taking refuge means 'becoming a Buddhist'; in other words put your trust in the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma) and the Buddhist community (the Sangha). During the refuge ceremony, usually one or more vows are taken, such as not killing, stealing, lying, no intoxicants (like alcohol or recreational drugs) and no harmful sexual behavior.