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Basics of Buddhism

The Three Jewels

1. The Buddha refers both to the historical Buddha and to the ideal of Buddhahood itself. The whole Buddhist tradition derives from the historical Buddha and all schools regard him as their root founder, guide and inspiration. Going for Refuge to the Buddha means seeing him as your ultimate teacher and spiritual example. It also means committing yourself to achieving Buddhahood – Enlightenment for the sake of all beings – which means that you aim to become someone who sees the nature of reality absolutely clearly, just as it is, and lives fully and naturally in accordance with that vision. This is the goal of the Buddhist spiritual life, representing the end of suffering for anyone who attains it.

2. The Dharma primarily means the teachings of the Buddha, or the truth he understood. The word ‘Dharma’ has many meanings but most importantly it means the unmediated Truth (as experienced by the Enlightened mind). As a term it also encompasses Buddhist teachings as that same Truth mediated by language and concepts. In this second sense, Dharma is the teaching that was born when the Buddha first put his realisation into words and communicated it to others at Sarnath in Northern India. The occasion is traditionally referred to as ‘the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma’, and the eight-spoked Dharma wheel is a common emblem of Buddhism.

3. The Sangha. All of us need other people to learn from. If we are to practise the Dharma we need the example and teaching of others who have done so before us, especially those who have gained insight into the nature of reality themselves. So the third of the Three Jewels is the Sangha or the spiritual community.

More broadly ‘sangha’ also refers to the people with whom we share our spiritual lives. We need the guidance of personal teachers who are further along the path than we are, and the support and friendship of other practitioners. This is very important because Buddhism is not an abstract philosophy or creed; it is a way of approaching life and therefore it only has any meaning when it is embodied in people. And in the broadest sense the Sangha means all of the Buddhists in the world, and all those of the past and of the future.

The Four Noble Truths


  • The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction)
  • The truth of the origin of dukkha
  • The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  • The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

The Four Noble Truths comprise the essence of Buddha’s teachings, though they leave much left unexplained. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. More simply put, suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end; and it has a cause to bring about its end. The notion of suffering is not intended to convey a negative world view, but rather, a pragmatic perspective that deals with the world as it is, and attempts to rectify it. The concept of pleasure is not denied, but acknowledged as fleeting. Pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst. The same logic belies an understanding of happiness. In the end, only aging, sickness, and death are certain and unavoidable.

The Four Noble Truths are a contingency plan for dealing with the suffering humanity faces — suffering of a physical kind, or of a mental nature. The First Truth identifies the presence of suffering. The Second Truth, on the other hand, seeks to determine the cause of suffering. In Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied. As a result, desiring them can only bring suffering. Ignorance, in comparison, relates to not seeing the world as it actually is. Without the capacity for mental concentration and insight, Buddhism explains, one’s mind is left undeveloped, unable to grasp the true nature of things. Vices, such as greed, envy, hatred and anger, derive from this ignorance.

The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering, has dual meaning, suggesting either the end of suffering in this life, on earth, or in the spiritual life, through achieving Nirvana. When one has achieved Nirvana, which is a transcendent state free from suffering and our worldly cycle of birth and rebirth, spiritual enlightenment has been reached. The Fourth Noble truth charts the method for attaining the end of suffering, known to Buddhists as the Noble Eightfold Path. The steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Moreover, there are three themes into which the Path is divided: good moral conduct (Understanding, Thought, Speech); meditation and mental development (Action, Livelihood, Effort), and wisdom or insight (Mindfulness and Concentration).

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering, as it was laid out by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things. Together with the Four Noble Truths it constitutes the gist of Buddhism. Great emphasis is put on the practical aspect, because it is only through practice that one can attain a higher level of existence and finally reach Nirvana. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.

1. Right View

Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truth. As such, right view is the cognitive aspect of wisdom. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Right view is not necessarily an intellectual capacity, just as wisdom is not just a matter of intelligence. Instead, right view is attained, sustained, and enhanced through all capacities of mind. It begins with the intuitive insight that all beings are subject to suffering and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.

2. Right Intention

While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, i.e. the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.

3. Right Speech

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

4. Right Action

The second ethical principle, right action, involves the body as natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others. Further details regarding the concrete meaning of right action can be found in the Precepts.

5. Right Livelihood

Right livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

6. Right Effort

Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavours that rank in ascending order of perfection: 1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

7. Right Mindfulness

Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualise sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facticity of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualisation in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.

8. Right Concentration

The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.


Division Eightfold Factor Description
Wisdom(Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā) 1. Right view Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
2. Right intention Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness
Ethical conduct(Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla) 3. Right speech Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way
4. Right action Acting in a non-harmful way
5. Right livelihood A non-harmful livelihood
Concentration(Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi) 6. Right effort Making an effort to improve
7. Right mindfulness Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness;being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion
8. Right concentration Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas

The Buddhist Precepts

To be a Buddhist, one take refuge in the Triple Gems. The Buddha, The Dhamma, The Sangha for one’s direction. Devotion is not the main path in Buddhist belief, but practice of good morality. All Buddhists are encouraged to observe Buddhist Precepts, that can be in five, eight or ten. The practice of precepts help to cultivate compassion, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and mindfulness. Every Buddhists should try to observe at least FIVE PRECEPTS in order to elevate himself morally and spiritually.

5 Precepts

1. Refrain from killing living things.

2. Refrain from stealing.

3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.

4. Refrain from lying.

5. Refrain from taking intoxicants.


8 precepts

6. Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon).

7. Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs (performances).

8. Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland (decorative accessories).


10 Precepts

9. Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds

10. Refrain from accepting money.


The Five Skandhas

In Buddhism the concept is anatta (no-self), but there are the five aggregates:

  1. Matter (rupa)
  2. Consciousness (vinnana)
  3. Feeling (vedana)
  4. Perception and memory (sanna)
  5. Mental formations (sankhara)

There is no permanent entity in any of the five aggregates. The five aggregates exist in the body and mind. They do not exist without the body and the body does not exist without the aggregates.

All of our thoughts are impermanent, our personalities are transitory, feelings, perceptions, and life itself is impermanent. Kamma is the process which conditions our existence. The only way out of the karmic cycle is through the experience of enlightenment.

When we have a body and mind we have the five aggregates and with the five aggregates we have buddha-nature. We have kammic energies, kammic consequences, and a capacity for insight and enlightenment. All animal species and perhaps other living things have this buddha-nature. It is not a thing, it is not a soul, and it is not something that can be grasped.

The age-old, common question to Buddhas and Buddhists is, if there is no soul, who or what is re-born? The karmic energies are said to be a progression or transmission from one being to the next. It is a series that continues, but with no permanent personality. One analogy is that of a candle flame. The fire burns from one candle to the next if you use the flame on one to light another. The fire appears to be the same, but is it? The flame from the one candle, let’s say that it is burning out, lights the new candle just as the flame from the first candle dies out. The flame appears to be continuing its existence, but it is just an appearance. The flame has a new body (the wax of the new candle) and new properties of existence. It appears to be the same flame, but it is not, it is a continuation of the series.

The Ven. Madawela Punnaji has put it in another analogy: that of a television remote control. The remote control unit sends a signal to the television and the channel changes. The signal is like our karmic energies. One thing causes the other. It is cause and effect. The remote control unit or its signal does not “become” the television or the channel.

Middle Way

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way (or Middle Path), which is said to have been discovered by Gautama Buddha prior to his enlightenment. The Middle Way has several definitions:
  1. The practice of non-extremism: a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification;
  2. The middle ground between certain metaphysical views (for example, that things ultimately either do or do not exist);[48]
  3. An explanation of Nirvana (perfect enlightenment), a state wherein it becomes clear that all dualities apparent in the world are delusory (see Seongcheol);
  4. Another term for emptiness, the ultimate nature of all phenomena (in the Mahayana branch), a lack of inherent existence, which avoids the extremes of permanence and nihilism or inherent existence and nothingness.

Dependent Origination

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects everything else. Everything that is, is because other things are. This is the teaching of Dependent Origination.

This teaching has many names. It is called Interdependent Origination, or (Inter)dependent Arising, or Co-Arising, or variations thereof. It’s called Conditioned Genesis and Causal Nexus and many other things. It would be nice if English-speaking Buddhists could agree on a term, but so far we haven’t. The Sanskrit is Pratitya-samutpada. I’ve found the Pali name spelled Panicca-samuppada, Paticca-samuppada and Patichcha-samuppada.

Whatever it is called, Dependent Origination is a core teaching of all schools of Buddhism.

Nothing Is Absolute

No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist. Things and beings perpetually arise and perpetually cease because other things and beings perpetually arise and perpetually cease. All this arising and being and ceasing go on in one vast field or nexus of beingness. And there we are.

In Buddhism, there is no teaching of a First Cause. How all this arising and ceasing began, or even if it had a beginning, is not explained. The Buddha emphasized understanding the nature of things as-they-are over speculation of what might have happened in the past or what might happen in the future. It might be said that the Buddhist version of Genesis is: Stuff happens, because other stuff happens.

Also, things are the way they are because they are conditioned by other things. You are conditioned by other people and phenomena. Other people and phenomena are conditioned by you.

The Buddha explained,

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.

Nothing Is Permanent

Dependent Origination relates to the doctrine of Anatman. According to this doctrine, there is no “self” in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality and ego, are temporary creations of the skandhas — form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness.

So there you are, an assembly of phenomena generating the idea that there’s a permanent “you” separate and distinct from everything else. These phenomena (form, sensation, etc.) were caused to arise and assemble in a certain way because of other phenomena. These same phenomena are perpetually causing other phenomena to arise. Eventually, they will be caused to cease. Everything in the phenomenal world is dukkha (suffering or unsatisfying), anicca(impermanent) and anatta (without individual essence; egoless).

Put another way, “you” are a phenomenon of the Causal Nexis in much the same way a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. A wave is not a piece of the ocean in the same way a brick is a piece of a wall. A wave is ocean. Although a wave is a distinct phenomenon it cannot be separated from ocean in the way a brick can be taken out of a wall. When conditions cause a wave, nothing is added to ocean. When the activity of wave ceases, nothing is taken away from ocean.


Contrary to what is accepted in contemporary society, the Buddhist interpretation of karma does not refer to preordained fate. Karma refers to good or bad actions a person takes during her lifetime. Good actions, which involve either the absence of bad actions, or actual positive acts, such as generosity, righteousness, and meditation, bring about happiness in the long run. Bad actions, such as lying, stealing or killing, bring about unhappiness in the long run. The weight that actions carry is determined by five conditions: frequent, repetitive action; determined, intentional action; action performed without regret; action against extraordinary persons; and action toward those who have helped one in the past. Finally, there is also neutral karma, which derives from acts such as breathing, eating or sleeping. Neutral karma has no benefits or costs.

The Cycle of Rebirth

Karma plays out in the Buddhism cycle of rebirth. There are six separate planes into which any living being can be reborn — three fortunate realms, and three unfortunate realms. Those with favorable, positive karma are reborn into one of the fortunate realms: the realm of demigods, the realm of gods, and the realm of men. While the demigods and gods enjoy gratification unknown to men, they also suffer unceasing jealousy and envy. The realm of man is considered the highest realm of rebirth. Humanity lacks some of the extravagances of the demigods and gods, but is also free from their relentless conflict. Similarly, while inhabitants of the three unfortunate realms — of animals, ghosts and hell — suffer untold suffering, the suffering of the realm of man is far less.
The realm of man also offers one other aspect lacking in the other five planes, an opportunity to achieve enlightenment, or Nirvana. Given the sheer number of living things, to be born human is to Buddhists a precious chance at spiritual bliss, a rarity that one should not forsake.

Enlightenment or Nirvana

Enlightenment is the ultimate state of spiritual development attained by the complete eradication of craving and release from the endless cycle of life. An enlightened person will have developed an intuitive wisdom (sati panna) which enables him or her to see clearly the true nature of the world, i.e. the three characteristics of existence, namely, dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence or the transient nature of things) andanatta (non-existence of a permanent soul).

An enlightened person enjoys a state of supreme joy which comes from being entirely free from cravings and attachments.

The path to Enlightenment is the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha.

One who has entered the first stage of enlightenment has a glimpse ofNibbana and is called a Sotapanna (Stream winner or enterer): the stream meaning the Noble Eightfold Path. At this stage, he has eradicated three of the ten fetters. That is, wrong views, doubts and adherence to wrongful rites and rituals. A Sotapanna will be reborn no more than seven times.

By continuing to develop Insight, he enters the second stage, Sakadagami (once-returner). He will be reborn in the human plane only once. At this stage, he has reduced two further fetters, sense desires and ill will. Thoughts of lust and anger may still be present, but to a lesser extent.

Continuing to progress, he reaches the third stage, in which above two fetters are completely eradicated. He is now known as Anagami (Non-returner). An Anagami will be reborn in a celestial plane (called a Pure Abode) before finally attaining Nibbana.

At the final stage of sainthood, the remaining five fetters are completely eradicated and he becomes an Arahant. The five fetters are: attachment to material planes of existence, attachment to immaterial planes of existence, pride, restlessness, and ignorance.

On death, an arahant attains the state of parinibbana (completenibbana), and there is no more rebirth.

Buddha – A Documentary About Buddhism

This documentary is made by filmmaker David Grubin and narrated by Richard Gere. It tells the story of the Buddha’s life, a journey especially relevant to our own bewildering times of violent change and spiritual confusion. It features the work of some of the world’s greatest artists and sculptors, who across two millennia, have depicted the Buddha’s life in art rich in beauty and complexity. Hear insights into the ancient narrative by contemporary Buddhists, including Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.S. Merwin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

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