What Is Buddhism? - Beliefs & History

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  • 0:04 Buddhism Origins
  • 0:52 Buddhist Beliefs
  • 2:58 Buddhism Spread
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Denise Miles
Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion with an estimated 350 million followers spanning the globe. Let's examine the history and beliefs of Buddhism as it grew to the large following it has today.

Buddhism Origins

Though there is debate about the exact century of origin, the Buddhist faith can be traced back to between the 4th and 6th century BCE. It was during this time that the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, lived and built a following through his teachings.

Siddhartha Gautama was the son of royalty and lived a privileged life. When he was exposed to the suffering of the world, he knew he must seek an answer to end this suffering. Shedding his worldly possessions, and his family, Siddhartha Gautama set out on his journey. Along that journey he attained enlightenment, a transcending of this world to a knowing of the truth. Siddhartha Gautama came to be known as Buddha and taught what would become the principles of the faith for thirty five years before dying at the age of 80.

Buddhist Beliefs

As with many religions, Buddhism has various branches that hold different tenets of the faith. However, there are two teachings from Buddha that are widely held as the foundation for the faith. We'll look at these two teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths, quite often noted as a summary of the Buddhist teachings, is identified as the first sermon delivered by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. By meditating and coming to internalize these truths, Buddhists move closer to peace and enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. There is an end to this suffering, and
  4. There is a distinct path to this end

The path that is described in the Four Noble Truths is the Eightfold Path, the other core beliefs of Buddhism that we'll be examining. While described as a single path, Buddha was careful to caution that there is no one path that will work for everyone. The components of the path are the same for everyone, but how people chose to apply these steps define their individual journey. The eight pieces of the path are:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Action
  3. Right Attitude
  4. Right Livelihood or Vocation
  5. Right Speech
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Some Buddhist traditions are hesitant to use of the word 'right.' Use of the word can imply that there is one right way to do these things. Again, this set of teachings is designed to be a path that individuals apply in a way that works for them.

In addition to these two key teachings, Buddhists believe that you must live by the Middle Way to know these truths and become enlightened. The Middle Way is simply living in a way that allows you to avoid the extremes in life. By living this way, Buddhists believe that one can avoid suffering because you are neither living recklessly or in an overly cautious way.

Buddhism Spread

Having solidified his teachings and delivered them to his followers, Buddha formed the foundation for the faith prior to his death. Upon his death, Buddha reminded his followers that Buddhism is not based on a god or a single leader, rather the teachings serve as the guide to the faithful. After his death, his followers continued preaching and building the Buddhist faith.

The first major expansion of Buddhism happened around 380-250 BCE when the Indian King, Asoka, supported and spread the ideals of the religion. Several hundred years later, Buddhism would become the first world religion to spread from its origin. The expansion also saw the division of Buddhism into three major sects.

Around the 1st century CE, Theravada Buddhism spread into Southeast Asia through the Indian trade routes. Theravada Buddhism is also known as the Doctrine of the Elders, and it treats Buddha as a historic figure who demonstrates the path to nirvana through his actions.

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