Buddhism – Definition, Founder & Origins

Buddhism is a religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) over 2,500 years ago in India. With around 470 million followers, scholars consider Buddhism to be one of the world‘s major religions. Its practice has always been most prominent in East and Southeast Asia, but its influence is growing in the West. Many Buddhist ideas and philosophies overlap with those of other religions.

Buddhist beliefs

Some key beliefs of Buddhism include:

  • Followers of Buddhism do not recognize a supreme god or deity. Instead, they focus on achieving enlightenment, a state of inner peace and wisdom. When adepts reach this spiritual level, they are said to have experienced nirvana.
  • The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god. The word Buddha means “enlightened”.
  • The path to enlightenment is achieved using morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists often meditate because they believe it helps to awaken truth.
  • There are many philosophies and interpretations within Buddhism, making it a tolerant and evolving religion.
  • Some scholars do not recognize Buddhism as an organized religion, but rather as a “way of life” or a “spiritual tradition”.
  • Buddhism encourages its people to avoid self-indulgence but also self-denial.
  • Buddha’s most important teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths, are essential to understanding the religion.
  • Buddhists embrace the concepts of karma (the law of cause and effect) and reincarnation (the continuous cycle of rebirth).
  • Followers of Buddhism may worship in temples or in their own homes.
  • Buddhist monks, or bhikkhus, follow a strict code of conduct, which includes celibacy.
  • There is no single Buddhist symbol, but a number of images have evolved that represent Buddhist beliefs, including the lotus flower, the eight-pointed dharma wheel, the Bodhi tree, and the swastika (a ancient symbol whose name means “well-being” or “good fortune” in Sanskrit).

A golden Buddha figure at Longhua Temple south of Shanghai, first built in 242 AD.

Founder of Buddhism

siddhartha gautamathe founder of Buddhism who later became known as “Buddha”, lived in the 5th century BC

Gautama was born into a wealthy family as a prince in present-day Nepal. Although he had an easy life, Gautama was moved by the suffering in the world.

He decided to abandon his lavish lifestyle and endure poverty. When this did not satisfy him, he promoted the idea of ​​the “middle way”, meaning to exist between two extremes. Thus, he sought a life without social indulgences but also without deprivations.

After six years of research, Buddhists believe Gautama found enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to achieve this spiritual state.

History of Buddhism

When Gautama died around 483 BC. AD, his followers began to organize a religious movement. Buddha’s teachings became the foundation of what would become Buddhism.

In the third century BC. BC, Ashoka the Great, the Indian Emperor Maurya, made Buddhism the state religion of India. Buddhist monasteries were built and missionary work was encouraged.

Over the following centuries, Buddhism began to spread beyond India. The thoughts and philosophies of Buddhists have diversified, with some followers interpreting ideas differently from others.

In the 6th century, the Huns invaded India and destroyed hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, but the intruders were eventually driven out of the country.

Islam began to spread rapidly in the region during the Middle Ages, forcing Buddhism into the background.

Types of Buddhism

Today, many forms of Buddhism exist in the world. The three main types that represent specific geographic areas include:

  • Theravada Buddhism: Prevalent in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Burma
  • Mahayana Buddhism: Prevalent in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam
  • Tibetan Buddhism: Prevalent in Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of Russia and northern India

Each of these types worships certain texts and has slightly different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. There are also several sub-sects of Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism and Nirvana Buddhism.

Some forms of Buddhism incorporate ideas from other religions and philosophies, such as Taoism and Bon.

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Buddha’s teachings are known as “dharma”. He taught that wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion were important virtues.

Specifically, all Buddhists live by five moral precepts, which prohibit:

  • kill living beings
  • take what is not given
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Lying
  • Using drugs or alcohol

Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha are:

  • The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  • The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  • The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  • The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

Collectively, these principles explain why humans suffer and how to overcome suffering.

Eightfold Trail

The Buddha taught his disciples that the end of suffering, as described in the Fourth Noble Truths, could be reached by following an eightfold path.

In no particular order, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism teaches the following ideals for ethical conduct, mental discipleship, and attainment of wisdom:

  • Right Understanding (Samma ditthi)
  • Right Thought (Samma sankappa)
  • Right Speech (Samma vaca)
  • Righteousness (Samma kammanta)
  • Righteous Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
  • Right effort (Samma vayama)
  • Mindfulness (Samma sati)
  • Right Concentration (Samma samadhi)

Buddhist holy book

Buddhists revere many sacred texts and scriptures. Some of the most important are:

  • Tipitaka: These texts, known as the “Three Baskets”, are considered the earliest collection of Buddhist writings.
  • Sutra: There are over 2,000 sutras, which are sacred teachings embraced primarily by Mahayana Buddhists.
  • The book of the dead: This Tibetan text describes in detail the stages of death.

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama and the history of Buddhism

Nobel Laureate and spiritual leader exiled from Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 2001.

The Dalai Lama is the main monk of Tibetan Buddhism. Followers of the religion believe that the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a former lama who agreed to be reborn to help humanity. There have been 14 Dalai Lamas throughout history.

The Dalai Lama also ruled Tibet until the Chinese took over in 1959. The current Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, was born in 1935.

Buddhist holidays

Every year, Buddhists celebrate Vesak, a festival that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.

During each quarter moon, followers of Buddhism participate in a ceremony called Uposatha. This observance allows Buddhists to renew their commitment to their teachings.

They also celebrate the Buddhist New Year and participate in several other annual festivals.


Buddhism: an introduction, PBS.
Buddhism, Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Buddhism: an introduction, BBC.
Buddha’s story, Cooperative History.
Buddhism demographics, Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs.
Worship : Buddhism, BBC.
Buddhist scriptures, Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs.
The Noble Eightfold Path: Tricycle.