History of Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion which is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a wealthy landowner born in northern India around 560 B.C. In order to achieve spiritual peace, Gautma renounced his worldly advantages and became known as Buddha, or “the enlightened one”. He preached his religious views his entire life throughout South Asia.

The story of Gautma’s path to enlightenment has mythological quality. The son of a ruler, a prophecy at the time of his birth said that he would be a great king if he stayed at home, but would become a savior for mankind if he were to leave home. Therefore, his father kept him at home and surrounded him with all the worldly pleasures a boy could want, and kept all painful and ugly things out of his sight.

Gautma eventually married and fathered a son, but still had not left his father’s palace. One day, he told his father that he wished to see the world. This excursion would change his life, for during this journey, he saw the “four passing sights”. Even though his father had ordered the streets to be cleaned and decorated and all elderly or infirmed people hidden, some people did not listen. Gautma saw a decrepit old man, and learned for the first time that everyone someday becomes old. Next, he met a sick man, who taught him that people are liable to sickness and suffering. He saw a funeral procession which taught him that people die. Lastly, he saw a monk begging for food. He longed for the tranquility which he saw on the monk’s face and decided this was the lifestyle for him. He left his father, wife, and son to live on the streets and meditate.

While in meditation, he reached the highest degree of nirvana. He stayed under a fig tree which was later called the bodhi or bo tree (the tree of wisdom) for seven days. During this time, he learned truths which he, Buddha, would impart to the world until his death at age 80.

Buddhism became a strong force in India before Buddha’s death. The diffusion of Buddhism, however, was limited until the Indian emperor Asoka became a convert and supported missionary activities. Soon, Buddhism became established in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, where it is most practiced today. Hinduism is now the predominant Indian religion.



Buddhism Terms

Bhikkhu A Buddhist monk who wanders about depending upon others for his basic necessities .

Bodhi A Buddhist term for the wisdom by which one attains enlightenment.

Bodhisattva In Mahayana Buddhism, one who postpones attaining nirvana in order to help others achieve this goal. In Theravada Buddhism, it is one who is on the way to becoming a Buddha. Gautama was called a Bodhisattva before he attained enlightenment.

Buddha“enlightened one”- This title was given to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, upon his enlightenment. Likewise, a person can gain this position through following the fourfold path to enlightenment.

BuddhismThe religion based upon the teachings of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). The Buddha’s main teaching revolved around the causes for human suffering and the way to salvation from this suffering could be achieved. The two main branches of Buddhism are called Mahayana and Theravada or Hinayana.

Dhamma The teachings of the Buddha.

Dukkha Suffering, which is rooted in desire and attachment.

Mahayana The form of Buddhism prevalent in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Literally translated, means “the great vehicle.”

Nirvana In Buddhism, it is basically a blissful spiritual condition where the heart extinguishes passion, hatred and delusion. It is the highest spiritual plane one person can attain.

Pitaka Literally, “basket.” Refers to the “three baskets” (Tripitaka) of sacred Buddhist writings.

Samsara The cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.

Sangha The Buddhist monastic order literally translated as “group” or “community.”

Theravada Literally the “teachings of the elders.” The form of Buddhism that arose early among Buddha’s disciples. Also called Hinayana Buddhism. Prevails in Southeast Asia.


McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. Twelfth printing, June 1992.

Written by Sara Wenner, 2001


Written by Sara Wenner, 2001

Basic Beliefs of Buddhism

The basic beliefs of Buddhism can be demonstrated in the following concepts and doctrines:

The Four Noble Truths

The First Noble Truthis the existence of suffering. Birth is painful and death is painful; disease and old age are painful. Not having what we desire is painful and having what we do not desire is also painful.

The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It is the craving desire for the pleasures of the senses, which seeks satisfaction now here, now there; the craving for happiness and prosperity in this life and in future lives.

The Third Noble Truth is the ending of suffering. To be free of suffering one must give up, get rid of, extinguish this very craving, so that no passion and no desire remain.

The Fourth Noble Truth leads to the ending of all pain by way of the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path

The first step on that path is Right Views: You must accept the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The second is Right Resolve: You must renounce the pleasures of the senses; you must harbor no ill will toward anyone and harm no living creature.

The third is Right Speech: Do not lie; do not slander or abuse anyone. Do not indulge in idle talk.

The fourth is Right Behavior: Do not destroy any living creature; take only what is given to you; do not commit any unlawful sexual act.

The fifth is Right Occupation: You must earn your livelihood in a way that will harm no one.

The sixth is Right Effort: You must resolve and strive heroically to prevent any evil qualities from arising in you and to abandon any evil qualities that you may possess. Strive to acquire good qualities and encourage those you do possess to grow, increase, and be perfected.

The seventh is Right Contemplation: Be observant, strenuous, alert, contemplative, and free of desire and of sorrow.

The eighth is Right Meditation: When you have abandoned all sensuous pleasures, all evil qualities, both joy and sorrow, you must then enter the four degrees of meditation, which are produced by concentration.

Buddhist Precepts

There are five precepts taught by Buddhism that all Buddhists should follow:

  1. Kill no living thing.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not commit adultery.
  4. Tell no lies.
  5. Do not drink intoxicants or take drugs.

Other precepts apply only to monks and nuns:

  1. Eat moderately and only at the appointed time.
  2. Avoid that which excites the senses.
  3. Do not wear adornments.
  4. Do not sleep in luxurious beds.
  5. Accept no silver or gold.

Sacred Scriptures

In Theravada (Southeast Asian) Buddhism, there are three groups of writings considered to be holy scripture, known as the “Three Baskets” (Tripitaka). The Vinaya Pitaka (discipline basket) contains rules for the higher class of Buddhists; the Sutta Pitaka (teaching basket) contains the discourses of Buddha; and the Abidhamma Pitaka (metaphysical basket) contains Buddhist theology.

Mahayana (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) Buddhism contains an incredibly large amount of holy writings, over five thousand volumes. The oldest scriptures are based on Sanskrit, while others have been written in Nepalese, Tibetan, and Chinese. There are no clear limits as to what should be admitted as scripture, so thousands of writings on the topic have been admitted.


McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. Twelfth printing, June 1992.

Shelley, Fred M. and Audrey E. Clarke, eds. Human and Cultural Geography. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1994.