What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that was founded over 2500 years ago during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Who was the Buddha?
There are many different versions of the Buddha's life, but they all tell of Prince Siddhartha, as he was then known, being profoundly moved by the suffering and apparent futility of life that he saw around him. He resolved to understand what caused suffering, how to free himself from it and so to discover life's true meaning.
Through meditation, eventually he experienced a deep and lasting realisation of the true nature of the mind and understood what caused unhappiness and suffering. This is called 'enlightenment'. It was at this point that he became known as the Buddha, which means the "Fully Awakened One", because he had woken up to the true nature of existence.
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha then spent 45 years teaching others how they too could attain freedom from suffering and experience lasting peace and happiness. Rooted in principles of non-violence and loving-kindness, his instruction set many people on the path to their own liberation. Among these were numerous disciples who committed the Buddha's teachings to memory in order to pass them on to the generations that followed. These teachings became known as the "sutras". In this way the Buddha's wisdom and compassion have been transmitted down through the centuries and continues to help people to this day.
Was the Buddha a god?
Sometimes, people mistakenly think that Buddhists believe the Buddha to be a god. This is a misconception. The Buddha was a real man, albeit an exceptional one, who lived and died. He is revered because he undertook the very difficult task of understanding why there is suffering in the world, and came to realize that the only natural response to suffering is wise compassion.
So when Buddhists bow to a statue of the Buddha or say prayers, it is not because they think of the Buddha as a supernatural being who requires worship. Instead, they are simply showing deep respect for a great teacher and drawing their own inspiration and guidance from his teachings.
What does Buddhism teach?
The teachings of Buddhism can be summarised in three points:
Do no harm;
Perform wholesome actions; and
Train the mind through meditation.
Why is meditation an important part of Buddhism?
Buddhist methods of meditation are aimed not only at calming the mind, but also at achieving insight into how the mind functions. Through sustained meditation practice our mind gradually settles more and more into the peacefulness of the present moment. With this peacefulness as a basis, insight arises as to how our limiting patterns of mind operate and this enables us to uncover a deeper level of wholeness and truth within ourselves. In this way, we gradually transform our negative tendencies of mind and our innate qualities of wisdom and compassion manifest more and more fully in our lives.
What different forms does Buddhism take?
There are three different levels of Buddhist teaching and practice, each one forming the basis for the next one. They are often called 'vehicles' because they are the means for travelling the path to enlightenment. The first level is the *Hinayana* or 'Basic Vehicle'; the second level is the *Mahayana* or 'Greater Vehicle'; and the third is the *Vajrayana* or 'Indestructible Vehicle'. Each of these vehicles was taught by Shakyamuni, the Buddha, at different times and places. Sometimes people mistakenly believe that the three vehicles are different sects of Buddhism that are in opposition to one other. This is not correct; they are all interrelated parts of a single body of teachings given by the Buddha over his lifetime.
Hinayana is called 'the path of renunciation' and is rooted in disciplined behaviour and ethical conduct. It teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path as a means to free oneself from the suffering of samsara - the suffering of everyday life - which is also referred to as 'the wheel of conditioned existence.'
Mahayana is called 'the path of the bodhisattva'. A bodhisattva is a person who perceives the empty nature of all phenomena and cultivates the heart of great compassion, which aspires to free all living beings from suffering and guide them to complete enlightenment.
All three vehicles have been preserved within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are practiced and taught these days by four main schools - the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug - each of which can trace its lineage back to Shakyamuni Buddha.