Labelled variously as a religion, philosophy and even sometimes a "science", Buddhism is probably one of the world's more confusing religions. A few things to note first:
No forms of Buddhism explicitly teach the existence of a creator god. Some reject the existence of all godlike beings. Some hold that God is equivalent to the Ultimate Reality that is sought via Enlightenment, though that does have slightly different connotations than most mainstream religions. Others believe that gods (and demons) are simply another forms of life and no better than humans.
Siddhartha Gautama was the first declared-by-that-name Buddha (perfectly enlightened one) but there have been many others before him, and many beings of various stages of enlightenment since.
Buddhism is not necessarily a form of atheism. Some variations are perfectly compatible with atheism, but not all (as noted above). Buddhism is, more or less, an offshoot of Hinduism, so the oldest school(s) pretty much teach the existence of the same gods. In general, one could consider it a very soft version of the Nay-Theist position- whether one believes gods exist or not, or whether one worships them or not, they are considered largely irrelevant to the actual point of Buddhism- the attainment of Enlightenment.
There is no concept of a "soul" in Buddhism, at least not as most people define it. There's a lot of theory behind it, but basically Buddhism doesn't allow existence of such an independent object.
Every sentient being has the potential to achieve Nirvana (a state of permanent peace, liberation, and "consciousness without feature, without end" beyond suffering and desire), if not in this life, then another.
Life of the Buddha
The story of Buddhism begins with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in modern-day Nepal around the year 500BCE. As was the fashion of the time, his father, King of Shakya, took his newborn son to an oracle to have his future read. The oracle told the King that the child would grow up to either be a great king if he experienced no suffering, or a great spiritual teacher if he did. King Suddhodana preferred that his son follow in his own footsteps, and so young Siddhartha was raised with every desire fulfilled but without being allowed to leave his father's palace.
Fast forward 29 years. Siddhartha is now married and is in the prime of his life. But he wonders how he can be an effective king if he has never even left the palace to see his kingdom. So his father relents and allows Siddhartha a single day outside the palace. But King Suddhodana secretly sends his ministers to pre-arrange every sight that Siddhartha will see, removing from public view all of the beggars, lepers, and dying subjects.
As Siddhartha walks the street greeted by his subjects, though, he catches sight of an old man. Having been sequestered in a false, perfect world up until this point, he is forced to ask his chariot-driver what is wrong with the elderly individual. He is told that it is an old man, and all men will someday grow old like him. Siddhartha is shocked, and continues looking into the crowd in earnest, whereupon he sees a leper. Again, he is shocked by the unhappiness that is visited upon humanity, and embarrassed by his naiveté. The third sight that he sees is a decaying corpse, and is told by his driver that it is the fate of all human beings to die. At last, he comes upon the fourth sight - a Hindu ascetic monk. Siddhartha abandons everything to follow this monk, who he hopes will lead him out of the cycle of misery that afflicts all humankind, leaving behind his kingdom and a father who is probably somewhat ticked off at the Broken Masquerade.
The Hindu ascetics were extremely severe, and they ate and drank so little that some of them would even die of starvation. Siddhartha himself almost died of hunger and misery while pursuing the ascetic lifestyle, but a peasant girl brought him a bowl of rice to eat and he accepted her generosity. His five ascetic companions were scandalized. Fed up, Siddhartha planted himself under a Bodhi tree and refused to budge until he received enlightenment.
For 49 days, Siddhartha struggled with his ignorance under the tree. Tempted by the demon Mara, assaulted by flies, distracted by all of the drama that comes with being human, he refused to give in to any illusion and continued seeking absolute enlightenment. At age 35, under a Bodhi tree, Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became the "Buddha," a Sanskrit word meaning "One who is awake."
The Buddha had realized that the trouble with being human came from clinging and attachment. Everything that comes into existence goes out of existence - all our friends, lovers, family, video game consoles, health, our lives, and even TV Tropes. The trouble wasn't that these things happen to us, but that we approach life with a flawed set of expectations. One who can accept what happens to them without complaint and without craving will never, ever be disappointed. People who find happiness within themselves can be happy no matter what the external circumstances of their lives are, and can eventually achieve the perfection of equanimity, beyond even happiness.
The Four Noble Truths
After Siddhartha achieved enlightenment, it is said that he taught the Four Noble Truths in his first sermon. They are, summarised:
That life is suffering
That suffering has an origin and this is attachment or desire
That there is a way to end suffering
That this way is through the Noble Eightfold Path
These concepts form much of the basis of Buddhism.
The Four Dharma Seals
Buddhists believe that all phenomena in the physical world are characterised by the Four Seals or Axioms. They are, summarised again:
All things are impermanent (both in a state of change and not eternal)
That physical existence is suffering and dissatisfaction
That all things have no true self (i.e. a soul)
Nirvana is peace and liberation
Reincarnation and Karma
Two more important concepts key to Buddhism are those of reincarnation and karma. In Buddhist theology, there is no fixed soul, so there is nothing that could actually be reborn. Instead what we perceive as a person's soul or a person's self is rather a continuous stream of thoughts which continues even after a body has died and will continue in another newly born body. For a great number of lay Buddhists this is mostly a technicality though, and not given much thought, if any. The body which the person is reborn in is determined mostly by karma (although skilled practitioners can control to a certain extent which realm they are reborn in, as can higher beings).
Karma is an action or energy created through action that drives a person's life, death, and rebirth. The concept of karma is like that of cause and effect - Buddhists believe that whatever actions are taken by the individual will have an impact on the individuals future. Buddhism makes special emphasis on the mental intent behind an action - it is possible to accrue positive or negative karma through emotions and thoughts. Karma can be both short term, which arises as the near immediate consequences of one's actions in the physical world (for example, anger at another person can lead to hate from that person); and long term, which will decide a person's future circumstances and rebirth.
A person is responsible for his or her own karma, and it is their actions which will ultimately decide their future.
The extent to which reincarnation and karma are taken literally or viewed as extended metaphor varies wildly from school to school. In Asia these are more likely to be accepted parts of Buddhist theology; in the West they're generally dismissed as illustrative.
Also, the only force in the Universe, at least according to Theravada Buddhism, is NOT just karma, but also (loosely translated to English), the climate/weather, the nature of things to pass on their characteristics to their offspring, the nature of things to age/ change, and the nature of the mind to rush around and not stay on one subject/ point.
Three Vehicles of Buddhism
Buddhism is an ancient religion, and over time has split into many denominations. These are grouped into three main "vehicles". Theology varies wildly between them, but contains the same basic core.
Theravada: Found mostly in South East Asia ,India and Sri-Lanka Theravada is the oldest existing vehicle and most similar to earlier forms of Buddhism. It emphasises self-liberation through enlightenment by following the Eightfold Path.
Mahayana: The vehicle with the largest following, Mahayana is also known as "The Greater Vehicle". It teaches the concept of "Bodhicitta", an all-encompassing compassion and altruism which drives a being to seek Nirvana not for their own self, but in the hopes of eliminating suffering for all human beings. Bodhisattvas, beings who hold off full enlightenment so as to help other beings achieve lasting happiness are considered to hold this in its purest form. Often "adopts" local deities into a pantheon of Boddhisattvas and gods (note that gods are simply higher beings, but are still prone to desire, ignorance and suffering).
Vajrayana: The "Diamond vehicle." The smallest denomination (practiced almost exclusively in Tibet), and arguably the most demanding of the paths. Really hammers home the impermanence of the material world, and the importance of spiritual devotion (outsiders have noted that there are no "casual" Vajrayana believers). Put simply, Vajrayana is Mahayana's Nintendo Hard cousin. For reference, this is the path the Dalai Lama follows.
All religions rely on storytelling, and all storytelling relies on tropes!
Above Good and Evil: Some schools take dharma as not strictly good or evil. But since your act will add to karma, being nice will be beneficial. For example, being lazy isn't evil but it will make you less likely to be a successful person.
Anti-Villain:Type I Mara has been shown to have lots of noble qualities at times. This makes him a Noble Demon plus the fact that he has never been shown doing anything worse than stopping people from becoming Buddhas.
Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Five Precepts prohibit murder, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicants/intoxication. Note: The first four are part of the ten unwholesome deeds i.e. murder, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, idle speech, covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong views. All ten unwholesome deeds are always unskillful, which leaves out subtle intoxicants/intoxication like jaywalking.
There is however an actual ascension to a higher plane for very pure people, who are likely to be reincarnated as gods. For many asian Buddhists, this is a great reward in itself, but many others see it as undesireable, as even gods are not immortal and subject to suffering. With their divine powers and extremely long lives, its easy for gods to forget that all existing is hardship and all things must come to an end, so being reborn as a human is actually more desirable.
Probably even more importantly, beings can also descend to a lower plane of existance and be reincarnated as an animal, a demon, a ghost, or in Hell. Which is the reason that becoming a god is only a temporary freedom from suffering that will come to an end.
In Pure Land Buddhism, a school of Mahayana Buddism, it is believed that persons who concentrate all their thoughts on the bodhisatva Amida on the moment of their death, will be taken by Amida and be reincarnated in his Pure Land. The Pure Land is an almost perfect paradise where people will be taught the words of the buddha all day, and which offers excelent conditions to meditate, making it kind of an express highway to nirvana.
Blood Knight: Dharmapalas "being bound by oath to protect Buddhism who will use any excuse for violence (well, any excuse related to protecting Buddhism)"
Crossover Cosmology: Mahayana Buddhism enthusiastically assimilates pretty much every religion it comes across, simply adding the local deities to the vast pantheon of Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, and Heavens. This is for the infinitely amusing reason that, even if Vishnu exists, he still needs enlightenment.
East Asians Love Siddhartha Gautama: Buddhism was founded in India, Got VERY popular in Japan, China, and other parts of Asia, yet in India there are very few Buddhists left. This was due to Indian sages convincing much of the Indian subcontinent that Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu.
Buddhism has actually experienced a sort of revival in India in the last 100 years for a number of reasons.
America has also seen a dramatic rise in Buddhism in the last 50-odd years, making it the main non-Asian country to call Buddhism home; currently, it ranks as the 3rd most popular religion in the United States, behind Christianity (no.1) and Judaism (no.2). Its teachings, traditions, and practices have become immensely popular even among non-adherents, and Buddhist-style meditation has been accepted by more progressive Christian groups as a means of achieving Oneness with God.
Buddhism is even bigger in Australia, where it is the second largest religion, and is the faith held by 2.5% of the populace (which is also percentage-wise much larger than in the US, although Australia has barely more than half a million Buddhists at last count).
God Is Evil: A complex trope. Mara (the Buddhist devil) is a deva of the highest heaven of the desire realm and rules of the desire realm. To be specific in Kamadhatu (Desire realm), there is Parinirmita-vaśavartin or Paranimmita-vasavatti (The Heaven of Devas with Power over other's Creations). Maras rules over that world and all worlds below it. His divinity isn't absolute in that to escape his reach, all one has to do is be reborn in Rupadhatu or Arupadhatu ie world above him.
Put another way, Mara is less a god of evil and more a god of anti-enlightenment.
Heart Is an Awesome Power: The Buddha miraculously calmed Naalgiri (an enraged elephant) simply by emanating maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion)! This is also how evil spirits get converted into good and then, vow to protect Buddhism, thus exlpaining the legion of Dharmapalas protecting Buddhism!
Heel-Face Turn: Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other Buddhists have been said to have converted evil spirits from evil to good.
Humans Are Special: Zig-Zagging Trope. We are not any more (or less) special than any other lifeform... But because we live a balanced life, we have the best chance to attain enlightenment and are the only race that can become Buddhas. Pretas and dwellers of Naraka suffer too much to better themselves. Animals are dominated by instinct and can't fully understand dharma. Asuras are Drunk with Power, and Devas' lives are so filled with comfort that most of them do not care about the future at all.
Sometimes some text like the Lotus Sutra say non-humans can attain enlightenment like the Nagaraja's daughter (a naga, a type of deva). All stress, however, that doing so is much more difficult than for a human.
I Choose to Stay: "Bodhisattvas," those who are ready to achieve Enlightenment... but refuse to do so in order to ensure everyone else can, too. A popular concept in Buddhist art and literature.
Meditation Powerup: Tranquility leads to enlightened asskicking — The legendary Shaolin Monastery is a Chan (Also known as Zen in Japan and the US) Buddhist Monastery that uses martial arts as a form of meditation. In a broader view, Zazen and other forms of meditation allow for impressive feats of concentration, which allow for other, equally impressive, feats.
Also, various supernatural powers are said to be gained by meditation!
Moral Event Horizon: Icchantikas are sentient beings who have crossed this. Texts vary in if they are or are not beyond redemption. Varying version of the Nirvana Sutra have differing opinions as well.
The icchantika is, according to some Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, the most base and spiritually deluded of all types of being. The term implies being given over to total hedonism and greed. In the Tathagatagarbha sutras, some of which pay particular attention to the icchantikas, the term is frequently used of those persons who do not believe in the Buddha, his eternal Selfhood and his Dharma (Truth) or in karma; who seriously transgress against the Buddhist moral codes and vinaya; and who speak disparagingly and dismissively of the reality of the immortal Buddha-nature (Buddha-dhatu) or (essentially the same thing) the Tathagatagarbha present within all beings (including icchantikas themselves, though it is more hidden from their consciousness than in other individuals due to the massive accretions of sinfulness and delusion which conceal it from their sight). The two shortest versions of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra - one translated by Fa-xian, and the other a middle-length Tibetan version of the sutra - indicate that the icchantika has so totally severed all his/her roots of goodness that he/she can never attain Liberation and Nirvana. The full-length Dharmakshema version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, in contrast, insists that even the icchantika can eventually find release into Nirvana, since no phenomenon is fixed (including this type of allegedly deluded person) and that change for the better and best is always a possibility. Other scriptures (such as the Lankavatara Sutra) indicate that the icchantikas will be saved through the liberational power of the Buddha - who, it is claimed, will never abandon any being.
In later, more localized adaptations of Buddhism, there are many hells, or Narakas, where those who racked up particularly bad karma were reborn, where they live, suffer, die, and are reborn again for many kalpas (eons) on end until they have worked off all their bad karma. But the lowest hell, Avici, is reserved for those who commit one or more of the Five Grave Offenses, the personal Moral Event Horizons of the religion: intentionally murdering one's father, intentionally murdering one's mother, killing an arhat (enlightened being), shedding the blood of a Buddha, and causing a schism in the sangha (the community of Buddhist monks and nuns). Existence in the Avici hell lasts the longest out of all of the other hells put together, such that it is often known as "the non-stop way."
Avici hell means "without waves". One can translate it to The Ceaseless. With a cosmology where a trillion of trillion years is a mere metric for time, this should clarify that the cosmic judgment of karma only reserves Avici for Complete Monsters only.
Also, considering the cyclic nature of Buddhist cosmology, even sins fit for Avici is not truly irredeemable. Still, that is only theoretical. Nobody who has fallen into Avici, since the beginning of reality an infinity years ago, has been redeemed yet.
However, there is dispute about when this idea originated. Traditionally, it comes from the story of Devadatta, a monk who killed his father, twice assaulted the Buddha, and split the sangha. But there are at least two versions of the story of Devadatta - one of which has him being consigned to a very long stay in Avici and one of which has him repenting and achieving some level of enlightenment. Some historians date the story of Devadatta to a hundred years or more after the Buddha died, which would make it a later addition.
No Swastikas: Inverted, both figuratively and literally; Not only is the swastika embraced by Buddhists (being a religious symbol), but it is also depicted as turning in the opposite direction. The Buddhist swastika is a descending spiral (the pointy bits point in a counter-clockwise progression), whereas the Nazi swastika is invariably an ascending spiral (pointy bits go clockwise).
Noble Demon: Theravada's text note that there are plenty of Asuras in heaven. These Asuras are incarnation of people who did good deed with wrong motive. For example, helping the poor to impress public.
Older Than Feudalism: Buddha lived approximately 563 BCE to 483 BCE (traditional dating in the range of 566-560 BCE to 486-480BCE with newer dating in the range of 491-480 BCE to 411-400 BCE).
Religion is Magic: Many Buddhist traditions include monks being developing spiritual powers (flight, control of weather, etc) and having the ability to invoke and banish or bind spirits. As in the yogic traditions above, these powers are seen as a potential distraction from achieving enlightenment and so are to be used sparingly. Additionally, relics of the Buddha and other enlightened individuals are supposed to have particular power.
An interesting note is how matter of fact the treatment of the supernatural can be in some Buddhist traditions. For example, in many Tibetan monasteries part of the oath you take when you become a monk is that you are not a spirit disguised as a human being. Other monasteries are placed specifically to be bindings for demons, oracles and divination are fairly common practice for lamas, and there are many lamas who have repeatedly reincarnated and continued their teaching. Part of the reason Chinas destruction of monasteries and abuse of monks during the cultural revolution was so devastating was the way knowledge of the spiritual landscape and the whereabouts of reincarnated lamas was lost.
Second Place Is for Winners: Well, third place. Being reborn as a Deva is the highest state, but it's impossible to achieve Nirvana — it's just too much fun. Being born human is the middle state, and the one most conducive to escaping the cycle.
Self-Immolation:The Bodhisattva Bhaisajyaguru(vaiduryaprabharaja) gives us one of the oldest examples as in the Lotus Sutra.
Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, for various reasons, including Sati, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. Certain warrior cultures, such as in the Charans and Rajputs, also practiced self-immolation. An article entitled History of Religions, written by Jan Yun-Hua, investigates the medieval Chinese Buddhist precedents for self-immolation. Relying exclusively on authoritative Chinese Buddhist texts and, through the use of these texts, interpreting such acts exclusively in terms of doctrines and beliefs (e.g., self-immolation, much like an extreme renunciant might abstain from food until dying, could be an example of disdain for the body in favor of the life of the mind and wisdom) rather than in terms of their socio-political and historical context, the article allows its readers to interpret these deaths as acts that refer only to a distinct set of beliefs that happen to be foreign to the non-Buddhist.
Is the world eternal? or not? or both? or neither?
Is the world finite? or not? or both? or neither?
Is the self the body? or not? (or both? or neither?)
Does the Tathagata (Buddha) exist after death? or not? (or both? or neither?)
Though Mahayana and Vajrayana consider the answer to be: Yes, the Tathagata exists after death. Buddha says in the Brahma Net Sutra: Now, I, Vairocana Buddha am sitting atop a lotus pedestal; On a thousand flowers surrounding me are a thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas. Each flower supports a hundred million worlds; in each world a Sakyamuni Buddha appears. All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree, all simultaneously attain Buddhahood. All these innumerable Buddhas have Vairocana as their original body. Such a statement may imply that a Buddha is immortal. Even though he descends in the samsara to preach Dharma and save sentient beings from suffering, his original body remains in a transcendent realm. That body will not die upon the death of the physical body of Buddha, and hence a Buddha is beyond arising and passing away. The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the movement and meaning of the Lotus sutra, in which another Buddha, who passed long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of the eternality of Buddhas is repeatedly expounded in the tathāgatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra
The Fundamentalist: Various Buddhists have criticized New Kadampa Tradition and Nichiren Buddhism of being this.
NKT: The alleged connection between the New Kadampa Tradition (aka NKT) and radical Indian and Nepali Shugden groups was strongly rejected by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the NKT, arguing: "The NKT is completely independent from Shugden groups in India..." and "This really is a false accusation against innocent people. We have never done anything wrong. We simply practise our own religion, as passed down through many generations." In an open letter to the Washington Times, he stated "In October 1998 we decided to completely stop being involved in this Shugden issue ... everyone knows the NKT and myself completely stopped being involved in this Shugden issue at all levels. I can guarantee that the NKT and myself have never performed inappropriate actions and will never do so in the future, this is our determination. We simply concentrate on the flourishing of holy Buddhadharma throughout the world - we have no other aim. I hope people gradually understand our true nature and function."[ The editor of the Washington Times article retracted the claim about the relationship between Shugden groups from India and Nepal and the British-based New Kadampa Tradition. David Kay argued in his doctoral research that the New Kadampa Tradition fit into the criteria of Robert Lifton’s definition of the fundamentalist self. However, the following scholars do not fully agree with the characterization of the NKT as "fundamentalist." Although Inken Prohl agrees that the NKT fits within Lifton's specialized use of the term fundamentalist, she expresses hesitation over its use outside that context because of "the vague and, at the same time, extremely political implications of this term." Likewise, Paul Williams avoids the word fundamentalist in describing the NKT and other Dorje Shugden followers, preferring the term traditionalist. Reacting to the charge by a former member that the NKT is 'a fundamentalist movement,' Robert Bluck said, "Again a balanced approach is needed here: the practitioner’s confident belief may appear as dogmatism to an unsympathetic observer."
NB: A Japanese school of Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, which believes that other forms of Buddhism are heretical, has also been labelled fundamentalist. There are several sects of the Nichiren School, the most widely known is the lay Buddhist organization the Soka Gakkai International (SGI). The SGI, however, demonstrates cultural exchange and interfaith initiatives. A fuller understanding of the history and contemporary impact of Nichiren Buddhism can be found in other Wikipedia pages on Nichiren Buddhism. Some Nichiren sects contain influences from Shintō and a strong nationalistic streak.
1. belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi) 2. doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā) 3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso) 4. sensual desire (kāmacchando) 5. ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo) 6. lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo) 7. lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo) 8. conceit (māno) 9. restlessness (uddhaccaŋ) 10. ignorance (avijjā)
Warrior Monk: Shaolin Monks and Sohei are early examples of this.