What is Buddhism?

Buddhism was founded in India some 2500 years ago by a man called Siddartha Gauttama. He became known as the Shakyamuni Buddha – or simply “Buddha”. Buddha is a title meaning “he who is awake” – a human being who can see the truth of things around them, directly and without any delusion or bias.

Buddhism is a vibrant, living tradition, passed unbroken from generation to generation between teacher and student. Because Buddhism is a living experience, the essence of Buddhism is cannot found in books.

The teachings of the Buddha (called Dharma) quickly spread and he gathered a spiritual community (called a Sangha). Buddhism was transmitted from its home country throughout Asia, to countries which include Burma, Thailand and Sri-Lanka. Eastwards it spread into Japan and Korea. Northwards Buddhism moved into the high Himalayan kingdoms including Bhutan, China and Tibet.

In the last 150 years Buddhism has finally spread to the rest of the world, making it a truly universal path. It is now beginning the process of transformation necessary for adoption deep into our western culture.

Wherever Buddhism has spread it has taken on a local flavour, adapting to many cultures. At the same time, despite taking on many diverse regional forms, at heart it always maintains the core insights and teachings transmitted by the Buddha himself.

Buddhism has always emphasised the importance of personal experience over received dogma. The teachings of the Buddha are often described as being like “a finger pointing at the moon”. We are encouraged to see the moon for ourselves and not become attached to the finger. While a very important pointer, the teachings are not an end in themselves.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a non-theistic religion, a religion without a creator. But, perhaps it is best described as a spiritual path – a journey for individuals, leading us into a deeper experience of what it means to be a truly human being. The Buddhist path is often divided into three stages: ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Ethical practice is not about trying to be a merely “good” person. It is not an end in itself. Buddhist training principles (precepts) are method to help us prevent causing harm to ourselves and others. Ethical awareness helps us to develop a stable lifestyle, a foundation on which an effective meditation practice can be built.

Meditation helps us to calm our busy minds, allowing us to reflect deeply on the nature of our human experience. We can reflect on many things: the rarity and preciousness of our human life, the impermanence of conditioned things and the deep nature of our heart/mind.

Wisdom is the fruit of the Buddhist path. The direct seeing of things as they really are. Through the practice of meditation and reflection we start to notice insights beginning to arise. Slowly, we gain confidence in our own insights and learn to trust them. With the help of a qualified teacher we can begin to stabilise our insights, bringing them into our daily lives. In this way we can transform ourselves and our world.