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Population percentage Buddhist Map
Siddhartha Gautama statue

"Buddha Preaching" created from 3rd Century Kandahar, Afghanistan

Buddhism focuses on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who was born around 563 BCE in ancient India.  With as many as 500 million followers, Buddhism is the 4th largest religion in the world.  Siddhartha was born a Hindu, but had a difficult time believing the teachings because of all of the suffering he saw in the world.  He also rejected the caste system.  


Siddhartha was born a wealthy prince, but gave up everything to find a true understanding of the world.  He tried many different types of Hindu beliefs, but eventually he formed his own belief system and taught many others.  He was called “The Buddha”, or the enlightened one.  Many of Siddhartha teachings or what is called his “dharma” come from Hinduism.  His teachings were written in Buddhist holy books called Tripitaka or Sutras.

Buddhism is a religion that is not based on the idea of God—it’s more of a way of life, so it is actually a philosophy, but most people still call Buddhism a religion.  Siddhartha believed in a powerful spirit force, but not a god.  A “Buddha” is a person who discovers the true understanding of life through years of spiritual investigation and studying using meditation. There have been several Buddhas, but Siddhartha was THE Buddha, the first Buddha.  Buddhists respect all life and encourage nonviolence and kindness.  Buddhism encourages its followers to reach enlightenment—understanding the true meaning of life and truth about the world.

Buddhist praying during a ceremony
Buddhist statue at dawn

Buddhists do not require a special building, like a church, to worship. However, there are common forms of Buddhist architecture that Buddhists visit, especially during holidays. Buddhist worship is called puja.  It involves meditation, bowing, chanting, or making offering, but the way Buddhists worship is just as varied as any other religion. It depends on local customs and the intensity of belief. A Buddhist monk. A monk is man or woman who separates themself from regular society and lives alone or in a community with other monks called a monastery. They completely devote their lives to learning the Dharma. 

Buddhist Pagoda


A pagoda is a temple usually found in China and Japan with several tiers or levels. The tiers symbolize the five elements: Fire, Air, Earth, Water, and Wisdom.

Buddhist Stupa


A stupa is a mound-like structure that often has a Buddhist "relic" buried underneath. Relics are the cremated remains of Buddhas and considered an important reminder of Buddha.

Buddhist Temple


Temples are places for meditation, chanting. They often have an image of The Buddha on an alter where people make offerings of flowers and incense.

During his time, Siddhartha viewed life as a time of great suffering. Illness, disease, poverty, loss--there was a lot of pain in the world. After many years of exploration and meditation Siddhartha came to believe someone could overcome the suffering by following the right path in life. His "path" became known as his dharma. He developed what are knows as the 4 Noble Truths (below).  It is said he reached this enlightened view while meditating under the bodhi tree in the picture for 49 straight days without moving!


The Buddha believed if someone understands the world’s reality (enlightenment), all of his or her suffering will end. The spirit is freed from all possessions; it is the realization that all human desires are temporary and pointless. If a person can end the sorrow of life (reaching enlightenment) they will reach Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of all desire, ignorance, and sorrow.  Nirvana is also the end of reincarnation.

The Mahabodhi Tree at the Sri Mahabodhi Temple

The Mahabodhi Tree at the Sri Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya by Ken Wieland via ​CC BY-SA 2.0

Buddhists inherited their belief in reincarnation and karma from their Hindu roots. However, in Hinduism they believe there is a permanent unchanging soul that is reincarnated into different bodies. Buddhists don't believe in the permanent soul or self. They believe the karma and dharma follow from one life to another, but not as the same unique soul. Buddhists see rebirth as a flow of life from one to the other, while Hindus views it as an actual soul changing the bodies. 

Karma is the belief that peoples actions, thoughts, and words determines what will happen to them in the future.  If something bad happens to someone it is sometimes thought to be the result of bad karma from previous bad actions, thoughts, or intentions. Buddhist view are very similar to Hindu beliefs about karma, although many Buddhist believe in natural events that are not the result of karma.

Today, there are three main denominations of Buddhism, Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana.  Theravada is the oldest form of Buddhism and mostly found in Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. They are more traditional--they accept fewer historical people as true Buddhas and include fewer local adaptations of the practice of Buddhism.  Mahayana Buddhist represent the largest group, commonly found in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Mahayana history was built along the Silk Road, adapting new ideas, new people, and incorporating local traditions as the ideas of Buddhism spread to their area.

The least common among the three primary branches--Vajrayana Buddhism, also called Tantric Buddhism--is primarily centered in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. Vajrayana focus on enlightened teachers called lamas, such as the Dalai Lama. They believe you can become enlightened in just one lifetime. Each denomination emphasizes different writings and has different views on who can reach Nirvana and how. All Buddhists, especially Theravada wish to achieve the end of suffering--Nirvana.  To do this, all Buddhists must train and purify their mind by following the Four Noble Truths.

Buddhism denomination map
Reincarnation Painting

Reincarnation (4) by Brahma Kumaris via CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Monk praying

The Four Noble Truths are the fundamental ideas in Buddhism, explained by Siddhartha Gautama. They make up the central structure of Buddhist teachings, offering wisdom about the essence of human life and the way to find freedom from suffering. The Four Noble Truths are:

1—Life is suffering

2—Suffering is due to attachment to things

3—Attachment can be overcome

4—There is a life path to accomplish all of this

The "path" mentioned in the 4th Noble Truth is called the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Noble Eightfold Path is often represented as a wheel with eight spokes.  This is called the Buddhist dharma wheel because it shows Siddhartha's dharma or life path to Nirvana.  It is meant to focus the mind and behavior of Buddhists and help them reach Nirvana.  The correct view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration is Siddhartha's idea of how to avoid the sorrow of life and eventually reach Nirvana.

Buddhist Dharma Wheel

The Dharma Wheel by Shazz, Esteban.barahona via CC BY-SA 3.0

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