Buddism Introduction - Here's a nice summary or primer to Buddhism. Very friendly, accessible presentation; not advanced in any way, but I just found it pleasing and informative to read.

BTW, my favorite book introducing Buddism is Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.

So you want to convert to Buddhism

What the Buddha Taught

If link dies, read cached copy below.

So you want to convert to Buddhism

What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around, does it make a sound? And why are Buddhists so obsessed with the sound of stuff?

Deep questions like these could be a part of your life, too as you join an estimated 500 million other Buddhists around the world in the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Neophytes on the road to wisdom and weary old travelers alike will benefit from a review of the basics, so assume the lotus position, and read on, grasshopper.

One of the nice things about Buddhism is that it generally doesn't take itself too seriously. Buddhists are a light-hearted, peace-loving group who haven't gone around burning astronomers, drowning weird old women, or drinking Kool-Aid (at least, not in the last 2000 years). Our point: understand that our use of humor in this SYW is not intended to insult anyone. If you are insulted, chug yourself a glass of Kool-Aid and get over it.

There's a story told in Buddhist lore about a follower of another religion who went to the Buddha to try to convert him. The man was so impressed by the words of the Buddha that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. Buddha said to him, "Make a proper investigation first." Notice that the Buddha did not proselytize aggressively, but suggested that people should take it or leave it according to their own personal assessment without relying on hearsay or mere tradition. So study as broadly as you need to and make up your own mind. Keep this story in mind as you read about Buddhism; it strongly exemplifies its core values of achieving your own internal happiness instead of blindly following the words of others.

OK, so what is Buddhism? Is it a religion or a philosophy? It doesn't have a fixed, unquestionable ideology like major religions of faith, but there are definite elements of mysticism and spirituality. The most practical (and common) approach to understanding what Buddhism fundamentally is, is to consider who's doing the asking. If your Presbyterian relatives are wondering whether you've lost it and gone and joined a cult, and are rewriting their wills accordingly, then reassure them quietly that Buddhism is strictly a philosophy for rational, inquiring minds. When you're claiming tax breaks from the IRS for the shrine going up in the garage, you can definitely call it a religion. What could be simpler?

In Buddhism, there is no God, nor any gods or goddesses, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, demons, mythological beasts, familiars, pan-dimensional cyborgs, or talkative shrubbery. That's one thing that distinguishes it from other major religions, and that's also what seems to make it so appealing to the ultra-rational, scientifically trained Western mind. The only steadfast rule about Buddhism is that you accept the teachings of the Buddha (we'll get into these teachings later). The interesting difference is that rather than submitting to a Supreme Being in whom you must believe (lest ye face lightning bolts, fire and brimstone, an eternity spent with Courtney Love), you instead accept the teachings because they're supposed to make you happy. It says that you should follow its teaching because you want to, not because there are consequences if you don't.

As there are many different sects in Christianity and many sprinkles on a rainbow donut, so too are there many different factions of Buddhism. Not having a central thesis or any current core figure of authority (such as the Pope), Buddhism has become richly diversified. In some cases, the teachings of Buddha have become intertwined with local polytheistic traditions, as in Tibetan Buddhism. In these offshoots, supernatural beings, elaborate cosmologies, rituals, and other things you certainly wouldn't call strictly "philosophical" may appear.

For the sake of simplicity, what we're going to present in this SYW is a rather generic distillation of the common practices and teachings taken from the two main branches: The School of Elders (Theravada) and The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), one subdivision of which is the well-known Zen Buddhism. Just always keep in mind that when dealing with so large a subject as Buddhism, nothing is indisputable and there will always be an exception to the rule. As you delve further into the subject on your own, you'll encounter many variations and outright contradictions. Don't panic. All will become clear in time.

You may be confused, thinking "Wait, so how do you convert?" Just so that you understand where we're going, we'll give you the short answer: you become Buddhist when you say you're Buddhist. Knowing that, read on to realize what your are, as a Buddhist, expected to believe.

By the way, the following are all synonyms for the Buddha:

  • Siddharta Gautama
  • The Awakened One
  • The Blessed One
  • Shakyamuni
  • Tathagata
  • Great Seer
  • Shower of the Way
  • Worthy One
What the Buddha Taught

The story of the Buddha

The Buddha was a man, and not a god. He was born as Siddharta Gautama, the prince of small kingdom in northern India. Until he was 29 years old, he lived the life of King's son - that is to say, he partied a lot, ate a lot, probably had sex a lot, and he remained protected from the seedier side of life outside the palace walls.

The story goes that one day the pampered prince accidentally saw a old sick man in the street, and Siddharta was overcome with horror at this unaccustomed sight of ugliness, disease, and decay. How could people ever be happy knowing that all life must end in death and decay? Siddharta remained in this deep funk until he one day encountered an ascetic holy man. In the midst of all the working-class depression, this man somehow managed to maintain a serene attitude. The prince became a follower of this holy man, and thus embarked on his spiritual career.

In Siddharta's day, being a beggar monk was an acceptable lifestyle; people respected these mendicants for giving up earthly ambitions and devoting themselves to a virtuous poverty. They received shelter and handouts of food from pious folk everywhere. There was a lot of disagreement, however, as to what exactly it means to be holy and virtuous. Ask a dozen different gurus and you'd get a dozen different answers. Which was the right way? Siddharta, having become a poor monk, joined the school of ascetics, who believed that mortification of the body leads to the purification of the mind and spirit. Starving yourself, sitting upright for days without sleep, poking needles through your body - this was all pudding and lollipops to the ascetics. Siddharta pursued this path to paradise with varying degrees of success until the age of 35. But finally, having reduced himself to a mere skeleton, he realized that this self-denial wasn't anymore satisfying than his original lifestyle of ignorant hedonism had been.

Siddharta abandoned his vows of asceticism, much to the disgust of his fellow practitioners, and he strengthened his body and sat down under a fig tree to meditate. And that's when it happened: Siddharta Gautama realized the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism, and became enlightened. He was now the Buddha.

The Buddha made no fuss about this experience, but his former holy man pals, who were still annoyed with him for abandoning his ascetic vows, noticed that he seemed to be peculiarly serene and that his eyes seemed to shine with the light of understanding. So they gathered one day and asked the Buddha what was going on. That was when the Buddha gave his first talk as the Awakened One, the lecture which explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These noble truths are the core of the Buddhist belief system; the only way to reach enlightenment (which is good) is to accept these four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth

Life can suck. There's disease, injury, high rent, final exams, warm beer, natural disasters, and death. There's lots of good stuff about life too, so much time is spent attempting to protect ourselves from the bad, that we completely ignore the good. Even when you're happy, it's difficult to free yourself from the memory and anticipation of stressful things. People end up living always for tomorrow, whether that means the anticipation of a promotion, retirement, a better job, or the Second Coming. Life is characterized by suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction.

The Second Noble Truth

The origin of suffering is the craving for pleasure, existence, and non-existence. You get it in your head that you want things, and your mind then becomes an instrument for chasing those things. The actual objects you desire are irrelevant; wanting things - anything - severely circumscribes a person's capacity to be joyful and serene. The body needs sustenance, but it's the self that craves pleasure, existence and non-existence, and it's the self that must be seen as insubstantial.

The Third Noble Truth

Some people say that all this talk of suffering makes Buddhism a pessimistic religion. And perhaps so it would be, if it weren't for the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering; that there is a way to rid yourself of this suffering. Good news, eh?

The Fourth Noble Truth

You wanted a way out of the madness and stress? To rid yourself of suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path. As you've probably guessed, it consists of eight parts. Get to know them, but don't expect to fully understand them right away. A fair amount gets lost in the translation when you're dealing with concepts. Read on to familiarize yourself with the path.

The Eightfold Path The Five Precepts

The Eightfold Path

The whole reason for becoming Buddhist is to achieve happiness and become "enlightened." In order to do this, you must follow the Eightfold Path. Once you have accomplished all eight steps, you are officially enlightened:

  1. Right Knowledge: Strive to comprehend the first three Noble Truths. This might seem a bit circular, but language is a tricky thing, and the Great Seer wanted to make sure you had all your bases covered. The Noble Truths perhaps aren't as straightforward as they may seem at first. So you must strive to fully comprehend them.
  2. Right Thinking: Consciously dedicate yourself to a life in harmony with the Noble Truths elucidated by the Buddha.
  3. Right Speech: No gossiping, lying, backbiting, and harsh language. If you don't have anything valuable to say, keep your big yapper shut. Always good advice.
  4. Right Conduct: For lay Buddhists (meaning Buddhists who aren't monks), Right Conduct means following the Five Precepts (see below). If you're a monk, there are some more rules for conduct, but don't worry about them until you're ready to become a monk.
  5. Right Livelihood: Go peacefully into the world and do no harm. So choose a profession that's harmless to living things, and refrain from killing people.
  6. Right Effort: Conquer the flow of negative thoughts, replacing them with good thoughts.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Achieve an intense awareness of your body, emotions, and mental states. Quiet the noises in your head and dwell in the present.
  8. Right Concentration: Learn about (and practice) various kinds of meditation, an important booster rocket on the launch pad to enlightenment. Read this article for a full introduction to Meditation. An online course in meditation is also available.
What the Buddha Taught

The Five Precepts

The Five Precepts are the basic rules of conduct for lay Buddhists-as opposed to monks and nuns, who have 227 and 311 rules to follow respectively. The Five Precepts aren't commandments given to you by an angry God who threatens you if you disobey; rather, they are guidelines meant to improve your karma and help you along the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. These few rules keep you out of the worst kinds of trouble, ultimately making you happier:

  1. Don't kill - man or beast
  2. Don't steal
  3. Don't lie
  4. Don't cheat on your loved one
  5. Don't take drugs or drink booze

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it?

Now we get to the nitty-gritty. Buddhism is basically made of three things:

  1. The Buddha: the Awakened One.
  2. The Dhamma: the teaching, including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and a large canon of sacred texts.
  3. The Sangha: the community of Buddhist monks and enlightened beings.

You become a Buddhist partly by taking "refuge" in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. This is a fancy way of saying that you agree to learn from the Buddha's example, from the sacred texts, and participate in some way in the organization of Buddhist monks and lay persons.

How do you become officially a Buddhist? Well, unlike some religions, membership can be a little vague. If you say, "I'm a Buddhist", you're not likely to be questioned by anyone, because there aren't any universal badges of membership. A Catholic gets baptized, a Jewish man get circumcised, but a lay Buddhist (non-monk) isn't necessarily required to go through any special ritual.

It is a good idea to contact a Buddhist priest. Look for temples and associations in the Yellow Pages, or go to the Global Resources Guide at the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. The priest (which can be a man or a woman) will guide you through initiation into his/her branch of Buddhism, and perhaps set up some kind of commitment ritual, but it isn't absolutely necessary.

If you don't want to get in touch with a priest (or you can't) but would still like to do something to mark the occasion of your setting out on a new path, you can perform a do-it-yourself initiation online. Otherwise, just try to follow the Five Precepts, learn about the Four Noble Truths, and congratulations: you're a lay Buddhist.

Sometimes Buddhism, especially as it's been adopted in the West, can appear so liberal and watered down that it's difficult to distinguish between an actual Buddhist and a plain old "open-minded seeker of wisdom." There's no sacred law telling you, for example, that you ought to attend service at the temple every Wednesday and donate 10% of your income to the Dalai Lama. Lay Buddhism is about as flexible as religion can get.

Nonetheless, one of your refuges as a Buddhist is the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns), so why not make use of it? These intrepid souls have given up all worldly possessions, shaved their heads, and left their families. They spend each and every day trying to become wiser, better people (with varying degrees of success), and some of them are available to you at certain times for guidance and counseling. Your spiritual journey might benefit from their wisdom, as well as from the companionship of fellow Buddhists.

What role will Buddhism play in your everyday life?

The tricky thing about the Middle Way is the Emptiness of it. Here's what the Buddha said about Nirvana (that is, the paradisical state of enlightenment towards which all Buddhists are journeying):

'Monks, there is that sphere in which there is neither earth nor water, fire nor air: it is not the infinity of space, nor the infinity of perception; it is not nothingness, nor is it neither idea nor non-idea; it is neither this world nor the next, nor is it both; it is neither the sun nor the moon.'

'Monks, I declare that it neither comes nor goes, it neither abides nor passes away; it is not caused, established, begun, supported: it is the end of suffering.'

'What I call the selfless is hard to see, for it is not easy to see the truth. But he who knows it penetrates his craving; and for him who sees it, there is nothing there.'

Buddhism can be frustrating for someone seeking spiritual guidance precisely because the Awakened One perceived the highest wisdom as a kind of absence. Every time you find a star in the Buddhist firmament to guide yourself by, it fades into darkness. That's sort of the point. The truth of the Middle Way is supposed to be beyond the reach of those who are chasing it. Mellow out. Enjoy life. Rejoice in the absence of a great burden of rules and doctrines.

As a Buddhist, you don't have to make a big deal of being a Buddhist. Feel free to keep a low profile in the broader community if it's easier for you. Keeping a little bronze Buddha statue on your desk at work isn't going to win you any special points. Were he alive today, the Buddha wouldn't care whether you denied his Buddhahood to the world, or had an image of him tattooed on your forehead. As a Buddhist, you can even participate in other religions. Allow us to illustrate with a story (Buddhism is big on stories):

A Buddhist master was once asked by a student, "Have you ever read the Bible?

"No," said the master. "Why don't you read it to me?"

"'Do not worry about tomorrow,'" read the student, "'for tomorrow shall worry about itself.'"

"That man was enlightened who said that," commented the master.

The student read further: "'Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asks receives, and he that seeks finds, and to him that knocks, it shall be opened.'"

"That's great stuff!" exclaimed the master. "The writer of those words is very close to Buddhahood."

Discovering Buddhism isn't the beginning of your search for wisdom, and taking refuge in the Buddha won't be the end. Follow the guidance of your priest (if you have one), keep on reading, and build a spiritual routine that feels right for you. This might include going to the local temple, performing acts of charity, going on retreat, meditation, contemplating the sacred texts, and perhaps even becoming a novice monk. Go in peace, and above all, keep your sense of humor, cause you're gonna need it. Some Buddhism humor to leave with:

What did the Buddhist monk say to the hotdog vendor? "Make me one with everything." When the monk asked for his change, the vendor replied, "Change comes from within."

What the Buddha Taught

Related Posts

Tom — 10 March 2007, 06:00

Dear Friend,

Buddhism denies the existence of God, hell, and believes in reincarnation. It is out of love that I refer you to the website below. Don't take chances please!


Brent — 10 March 2007, 09:25

Hi Tom,

Very kind of you to share that. I'll have look. I'm very intrigued by the various philosophies we use to create meaning in our lives.

But the most important thing is for all of us to engage one another (not just "tolerate" each other), so that we learn and share our points of view. The wisdom of experience loses value when kept to ourselves.

Thanks again! Brent

asa — 16 July 2007, 21:08

except buddism no escape for man

Brent — 17 July 2007, 08:08

I don't read Buddhism that way. I know the belief about reincarnation suggests that meditation and other practices can lead to enlightenment, that "one" can escape the cycle or rebirth...but I wonder if this is a distortion of what the Buddha meant. I think his message is simpler. To avoid suffering, follow the 8 fold path. His advice seems more pragmatic and focused on life. He seemed to avoid questions of the "afterlife," saying those questions were not worth trying to answer, a waste of effort. He urged people to instead focus on the here and now, to avoid suffering by non-attachment, etc.

So escape? Escape suffering, maybe. But I'm not so clear about the escape of "rebirth." I know it's doctrine, but I wonder if, as with Christ, the message has been distorted by believers/practitioners.

peaceful_one — 09 March 2008, 18:33

Er, to Mr. Tom, Buddha don't give a rat ass if there's a God, hell, or whatever. Basically it's a way of life, not a religion. You can be Buddhists and Christian. Take a chill pill man. God will not "SMITE THEE" for following Buddha's teaching since it is the same, if not more detailed, as Jesus. I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus got ideas from Buddha since there's a 30 year history of Jesus missing since the time he was in Egypt and to the time when he became the messiah. Anyways, Bible thumper, the Bible wasn't even written by God or Jesus but by a whole bunch old English writers who wholly misinterpreted and mistranslated from the old broken scriptures. This included Shakespeare, read the Psalms and find his signature 'iambic pentameter'.