Buddhism is the path taught by the Buddha to end suffering.
Siddhatta Gotama was born into a royal family in Lumbini (now in Nepal) around 2,500 years ago. Eight days after his birth, his father the king asked eight Brahmin (priestly) scholars to tell Siddhatta's future. Seven of them said that he would either be a great king or a great holy man, while the eighth said that Siddhatta would definitely become a great holy man.
As he grew up, his father kept him surrounded by luxury. At age sixteen, he married his cousin Yasodhara. When he was 29 years old, he ventured outside the royal palace and saw a sick man, an old man, a dead body and a wandering ascetic. He realised that suffering was universal and sought to put an end to it. He decided to leave his luxurious life and seek the answers to lasting happiness.
Siddhatta studied under two great masters of his day, and achieved high levels of meditative consciousness, but ultimately felt unsatisfied by this. After this, he spent six long years praticing extreme ascetism. His body becamse so thin that it resembled a skeleton. He came to realise that neither extreme asceticism nor extreme indulgence would lead to the answers he was looking for, so he decided to pursue the "Middle Way" between these two extremes.
Siddhatta sat down under a tree and decided not to get up until he had found the answers to his questions. After a period of meditation, he achieved enlightenment. Siddhatta had become a Buddha, an awakened one.
The Buddha sought out the five ascetics he had previously been practicing with. Upon seeing him, they thought that he had gone back to a life of indulgence. But the Buddha told them about his enlightenment, in particular the Four Noble Truths. The five ascetics became the Buddha's first disciples. The discourse that the Buddha gave to the ascetics is called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (The Discourse on Rolling Forth the Wheel of the Dhamma).
The Four Noble Truths
The First Noble Truth is that suffering exists. While we may have happy times in our lives, these will not last and suffering will once again present itself. The Buddha said "Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, disappointment, pain, distress and despair are suffering, association with what one doesn't like is suffering, separation from what one likes is suffering, not to obtain what one desires is suffering".
The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by craving. We all crave pleasant sensations and wish to avoid unpleasant sensations. When these cravings are not met, suffering arises.
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and we can attain happiness. Since suffering is cause by craving, the way to eliminate suffering is by eliminating craving. By eradicating greed, hatred, anger and delusion, we can eradicate suffering. This is called Nirvana.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path to eradicate craving. Suffering can be weakened, reduced and finally eliminiated by following the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In brief, the Noble Eightfold Path is practicing morality through what we say and do, focusing the mind and being fully aware of our actions and thoughs, developing compassion for others and developing wisdom through understanding the Four Noble Truths.
1. Right Understanding
To accept and understand the Four Noble Truths.
2. Right Thought
To cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness, compassion and generosity.
3. Right Speech
To abstain from lying, slander, divisive speech, harsh speech and gossip, and to cultivate truthful, peaceful, kind and meaningful speech.
4. Right Action
To refrain from killing any living being, taking what is not given, and sexual misconduct. The Five Precepts (see below) fit into Right Action.
5. Right Livelihood
To avoid livelihoods and occupations that involve killing living beings, trading in humans, animal flesh, poisons, weapons and intoxicants. One should also avoid unethical, immoral and illegal occupations.
6. Right EffortTo apply mental discipline to control the mind, in order to dispel unwholesome thoughts, stop unwholesome thoughts from arising and instead develop and maintain wholesome thoughts.
7. Right Mindfulness
To be aware of one's body, posture and sensations. One should be aware of the mind and its thoughts, feelings and emotions. One should also be aware of the Buddha's teachings.
8. Right Concentration
To practice meditation to train and focus the mind so that one can acquire and cultivate wisdom.
The Five Precepts
The Precepts are the moral code within Buddhism. The main five are:
1. Do not kill any living being.
2. Do not take that which is not given.
3. Do not commit sexual misconduct.
4. Do not lie.
5. Do not consume intoxicants.
The Three Marks of Existence
In his enlightenment, the Buddha realised that everything that exists has three characteristics.
Everything is in a constant state of change, and therefore nothing in permanent.
Because everything is impermanent, existence is subject to suffering. There will always be craving for that which is pleasant and aversion to that which is unpleasant, as a result of the eternally changing nature of existence.
There is no permanent, unchanging 'self' or 'soul'. What we perceive as the 'self' is made up of five aggregates or khandas: body, feelings, memory, volitions and consciousness.
Put simply, karma is the law of cause and effect. In other words, our actions have results. All individuals are responsible for their past and present actions. The karmic effect of one's actions can be determined by the intentions as well as the effects, both on oneself and others.
Buddhism denies the idea of an unchanging, immortal soul passing from one life to the next, because of the teaching of non-self. It is the mind in Buddhism that passes from one life to the next. Karma also follows the consciousness to the next life and determines the next birth.
Hinduism speaks of rebirth in the sense of taking off one set of clothing and putting on another. Buddhism, on the other hand, tends to speak rather of a flame from one candle being used to light another candle. The second candle's flame is neither different from nor the same as the flame of the first candle, even though it originated from the first candle. Likewise, the consciousness moving from one life to another is neither identical to nor different from the consciousness from the previous life.
Karma and rebirth explain why there is inequality in the world. Why are some people born in rich famlies and others in poor families? Why are some people born with disabilities and others with great gifts? Because everyone is reaping the effects of their past actions.
The Buddha's teachings are know as the Dhamma or Dharma. They were collected into three groups, known as the Tipitaka (Three Baskets).
The Sutta Pitaka contains all of the discourses of the Buddha. The Buddha spoke according to the ability of his audience, using simple or complex ideas accordingly. The teachings of the Sutta Pitaka are pragmatic and applicable to daily life, even 2,500 years later.
The Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules for the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the Sangha). The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains extremely complex and sophisticated teachings dealing with existence, reality, matter, and the human mind.
Different Buddhist Traditions
As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, it adapted to different countries and cultures. There are three main Buddhist traditions.
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest extant form of Buddhism, and the form of Buddhism practiced by Wat Phra Dhammakaya Dunedin. It is focused on morality and meditation, and places a lot of emphasis on monasticism. Theravada is the preominant form of Buddhism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
Mahayana Buddhism developed in India and emphasises compassion and helping all sentient beings attain enlightenment. There are several different schools and may sub-schools of Mahayana Buddhism including Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land. Mahayana is the predominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Vajrayana Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that includes teachings known as tantras which originated in India. It makes use of mantras, mudras (hand gestures) and mandalas (sacred diagrams), and contains esoteric teachings intended to quickly bring one to enlightenment. A teacher is needed to progress along the Vajrayana path. Vajrayana is the preominant form of Buddhism in Tibet (in fact, the only non-Tibetan Vajrayana lineage is Japanese Shingon).