Buddhism: A Brief Overview*


Buddhism is the religion established initially in northern India by the historical Buddha (the awakened or enlightened one), Sakkamuni (Sakyamuni Buddha)(490-410 B.C.). (Sakyamuni refers to sage of the Sakya clan). His original name was Siddhattha Gotama (Pali language) or Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit language). He was born in the garden of Lumbini the town of Kapilavatsu in what is now Nepal.

The Four Noble Truths (ariya-sacca/arya-satya) are the core of the Buddha's teaching:

(1) all existence is suffering (dukkha/duhkha),

(2) the cause is ignorance and craving (samudaya),

(3) the cure is to eliminate or minimize ignorance and craving (nirodha), and

(4) the way to end suffering is the Eightfold Noble Path to enlightenment (magga/marga).


The Eightfold Noble Path (ariya-atthanga-magga/aryastanga-marga) includes:

Wisdom (panna/prajna)

(1) right understanding,

(2) right resolve,

Morality (sila/shila)

(3) right speech,

(4) right action,

(5) right livelihood,

(6) right effort,


Meditation (samadhi/samadhi)

(7) right mindfulness, and

(8) right concentration. 


The Five Negative Precepts are to abstain from:

(1) taking life (ahimsa),

(2) taking what is not given,

(3) adultery and sexual misconduct

(4) lying, and

(5) intoxicating substances.


The Five Positive Deeds are:

(1) compassion (karuna),

(2) good vocation,

(3) control of passions,

(4) truth, and

(5) mindfulness. 


The Four Needs are:

(1) food,

(2) clothing,

(3) shelter, and

(4) medicine.


Taking Refuge: one becomes a Buddhist simply by taking refuge in, or vowing to follow, the Triple Gem:

(1) the Buddha,

(2) the Dharma/Dhamma (teachings or law of the Buddha), and

(3) the Sangha (community of monks and nuns).

Buddham saranam gacchami (In the Buddha I take refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (In his teaching I take refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (In the monastic community I take refuge)


Key Central Concepts in Buddhism include the following:

(1) dukkha/duhkha - the first of the Four Noble Truths, a fundamental condition of existence regarding sorrow, sadness, dissatisfaction with one's situation

(2) impermanence (anicca/anitya) - a fundamental condition of existence regarding the lack of constancy or stability in everything

(3) emptiness (sunnata/sunyata) - voidness, nonself, or no soul, lack of an essence, being dependent on causes and conditions

(4) cyclic rebirth (samsara/samsara) - the trap of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth or repeated reincarnation, thus endless suffering

(5) Kamma/Karma - the cosmic law of cause and effect in ethical theory wherein every volitional action inevitably has a concordant consequence for better or worse in some future life if not in the present one

(6) nonviolence (ahimsa)

(7) compassion (karuna/karuna) - active concern or sympathy for the suffering of all sentient beings

(8) loving kindness (metta) -

(9) middle way (majjhimapatipada/madhyama-pratipad) - avoid any extremes including hedonism and asceticism

(10) moral attitudes and behavior aimed at perfection by pursuing the precepts sila/sila)

(11) nibbana/nirvana - to extinguish self, liberation from the endless cycle of rebirths, the final goal of Buddhist practice

(12) Bodhisattva - especially in the Mahayana tradition, one who avoids entry into nirvana because of compassion for all sentient beings


Primary Sacred Text is the Pali Canon (Tipitaka), the first two parts of which were written down in Sri Lanka around C. 80 and the third part between C. 400-500:

(1) Sutta Pitaka (discourses, sermons or sutta/sutra)

(2) Vinaya Pitaka (monastic code or rules for monks and nuns)

(3) Adhidhamma Pitaka (scholastic treatises and commentaries)


Three Main Traditions

From 2000-1000 years ago Buddhism spread beyond India into other parts of Asia and became differentiated or locally domesticated. There are three main traditions of Buddhism, and several varieties of each (lineages):

(1) Theravada (Sri Lanka C. 250, Thailand 1,000 or earlier, Burma 400)

(2) Vajrayana or Tantric (Bhutan, Tibet 600, Ladakh), and

(3) Mahayana (Japan 500, Korea 400, parts of China and Mongolia 100, Taiwan, Vietnam 150).

Cambodia 150 and Laos are transitional between Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhism essentially disappeared from India between 1200-1300 with the expansion of Islam and other factors.

By 1850, Buddhism started to spread beyond Asia into Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. Buddhists comprise only about 6% of humanity, around 353,794,000 people living in 86 countries, although 95% of Buddhists are in Asia. Estimates are that there are 3-4 million Buddhists in the U.S.A., 1,139,100 in Europe, 1 million in Russia, 140,000 in Australia, and 5,000 in South Africa. While Buddhists comprise only 1.6% of the U.S. population, during the last decade Theravada and Vajrayana centers have doubled in number. Today there are more than a thousand Buddhist centers in the U.S.A. The American Buddhist Congress was founded in 1987.


Best Introductions to Buddhism are:

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Renard. John. Responses to 101 Questions on Buddhism. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1999.


Reference Work:

Powers, John. A Concise Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.


* Technical terms are in Pali/Sanskrit.