A defining characteristic of human civilization is the presence of religion, which is the belief in and worship of a supernatural being(s) through rituals. Most people in the world practice a religion and their particular faith influences their worldview and affects how they act.
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There exist many religions with most of them having unique beliefs and rituals. One of the major world religions is Buddhism, which is practiced by about 400 million people from over the world. In spite of being a major world religion, most people are not familiar with what Buddhism is since this religion is primarily practiced in Asia. This paper will set out to elaborate on what Buddhism is by providing a history of the religion and underscoring some of the beliefs and rituals practiced in this religion.
Buddhism is referred to as an Indian religion since it originated in the subcontinent of India. Like most major religions such as Christianity and Islam, Buddhism has a central figure upon whom it is founded. This founder is the Buddha and his personality in history is absolutely essential to the religion on Buddhism (Warren 110).
The Buddha began his life on earth in northern India as Siddhartha Gautama around 2,500 years ago. His mother was Queen Maya while his father was the powerful Lord Suddhodana. As a prince, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury and his parents prevented him from seeing any painful human experiences. However, he one day drove his chariot outside the palace and witnessed the effects of human suffering when he say an old man, a leper, and a dead body (Yamamoto 7).
Witnessing this suffering made Siddhartha conclude that worldly happiness was an illusion and he therefore renounced his worldly life and set out on a pilgrimage. He at first practiced a life of self-denial but abandoned this after seven years since he found out that self-torture was vain and fruitless.
He came to understand the importance of the Middle Way, which did not engage extreme pleasure of austerities (Warren 110). Later, Siddhartha sat under a fig tree and while meditating here, he achieved enlightenment. With this enlightenment, Siddhartha became the Buddha, which literally means “the awakened one” (Yamamoto 7). With his awakening, the Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths, which became the central tenets of Buddhist philosophy.
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha set out to share the knowledge he had gained with others. By doing this, the established the Buddhist faith. Attracted by his teaching, many people started following the Buddha. He became a teacher and spiritual guide to his followers, helping them on their path to become enlightened.
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Many sects of the religion exist but the two major branches of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism is the fundamentalist branch of the religion since it follows most of the original teaching of the Buddha. Theravadins revere the Buddha as a great teacher but do not consider him a god.
Mahayana Buddhism is the non-fundamentalist branch of the religion since it rises about some of the concepts taught by the Buddha. Warren notes that the Mahayanists find the Theravains too fundamentally tied to the simple, basic acts of the world (124). This branch claims knowledge to the higher teachings alluded to by the Buddha.
An immediate aim of Buddhism is to provide its followers with knowledge that can help them overcome the inevitable suffering experienced in the world. This knowledge is contained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths that were discovered by the Buddha during his enlightenment (Warren 110).
The truths essentially state that human suffering is inevitable and it is caused by our desires. The truths also declare that happiness can only be achieved through detachment from our cravings and following the path that frees human from suffering.
The ultimate goal for Buddhists is to attain perfection and have one’s soul join Brahman. The religion proposes that each person has the opportunity to practice the teachings of the Buddha and therefore become enlightened. Before achieving enlightenment, a person’s soul is trapped in the cycle of reincarnation (Loy 360).
Buddhism embraces the concept of Samsara, which refers to the continuous movement from birth and death. A person goes though many lives and Karma determines the rewards or punishments that a person gets on reincarnation. This Karmic cycle ends when the person achieves Nirvana by reaching the seventh step of Samsara (Loy 360). The core goal of Buddhist is therefore to end the cycle of Samsara by following the teachings of the Buddha.
An important aspect of Buddhism is that it is a non-theist religion, which means that god does not play an important role in the religion. The Buddha did not teach about a god since a deity was not needed for one to achieve enlightenment (Warren 126). For the Buddhist, the primary objective is to overcome suffering through Nirvana and the god factor is irrelevant.
This paper has provided a brief but informative description of Buddhism. It has offered a history of this Eastern religion and articulated the major beliefs of Buddhism. Over two millenniums after the birth of this religion, the teachings of Buddha continue to inspire millions of devote followers from all over the world.
Loy, David. “The difference between samsara and nirvana”. Philosophy East and West 33.4 (1983): 355-365.
Warren, Matthew. World Religions. NY: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
Yamamoto, Isamu. Buddhism, Taoism, and Other Far Eastern Religions. New Delhi. Zondervan Publishers, 1998. Print.