Buddhism is a unique religion. None of its core principles of mindset or behavior ultimately require belief in magical things. Buddhism’s principles are primarily about realistic self-improvement and ending suffering. For this reason it has attracted a surprising amount of interest among people who reject supernatural claims, and secular forms of Buddhism are starting to grow.
There is definitely a variety of magical beliefs among the different branches of non-secular Buddhism. But as you will see, the core principles of Buddhism form a much more practical, realistic, and thought out system of ethics and wisdom than the Abrahamic religions, or Theism in general. I think everyone can find something interesting among these ideas!
Buddha is not a name. It is a title meaning “awakened one”, and it refers to a person who has achieved the deepest possible understanding of life, and achieved total mental detachment from the causes of suffering. Someone can only become a Buddha, not be born as one.
Different traditions have different views on how many Buddhas there have been in the past, but the term generally refers to a man named Siddartha Gautama. He is sometimes called Gautama Buddha.
No Creation Story or Worship of a Deity
One of the first aspects of Buddhism that will interest many people is that unlike the majority of world religions, Buddhism does not concern itself with how the world came to be. It views both the idea of creation and a creator god as being pointless to discuss.
The Buddha believed in teaching only what was necessary and relevant to the problem of suffering, not extraneous beliefs and mythology (although traditional Buddhism indeed contains superstition and even beliefs in spiritual realms, but they are not central to the doctrine).
As a result of this, the Buddha warned against supernatural speculation since it doesn’t bring us any closer to the truth and it offers nothing useful.
More (Buddhist parable)To express his views on discussing the nature of gods and the ultimate origin of the universe, the Buddha told a parable to make a comparison. In the parable, a man is shot by a poisoned arrow. But rather than let anyone remove the arrow, the man says that first he wants to know the name of the man who shot the arrow, how tall he is, what type of bow was used, and many other questions, none of which had anything to do with the practical problem he should be focusing on. The Buddha concludes that the man would die while obsessing over such questions and would never even learn all the answers. Therefore it makes infinitely more sense to focus on the here and now, on what can be understood, and what improves our lives.
While Buddhism has many aspects in common with other religions, like belief in life after death and spirit beings, it also has some fundamental messages that are blatantly contrary to doctrines in religions like Christianity. One striking difference is that in Christianity, Jesus sacrifices himself thus, by this act, saving all of mankind who would be doomed without him no matter what good they personally did.
However Buddhism has a core focus on personally responsibility and the need to better oneself and progress towards liberation through one’s own efforts. When Gautama Buddha died, his death was not a sacrifice and no one was helped by it.
This concept of personal effort and change that is so contrary to Abrahamic doctrine is expressed clearly in this example from the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha:
By oneself is evil done,
by oneself is one made impure.
By oneself is evil undone,
by onself is one made pure.
Each one is responsible for purity and impurity.
No one can cleanse another.
Impermanence, Change, and Flow
Through his own observation, the Buddha concluded that the nature of all things is impermanent and constantly changing. Everything is in constant change, and all beings are becoming, changing, and dying. One thing passes into another. Everything and everyone is interconnected like threads woven together in a sheet of fabric. No one lives unconnected. Our happiness is linked to the happiness of others, and theirs is linked to ours.
The Buddhist texts express this flow of interconnection in a beautiful, abstract way:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this,
comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the ceasing of this,
comes the ceasing of that.
The Middle Way
Buddhism focuses on finding moderation rather than going to extremes of behavior which can be unhealthy. The belief is that peace of mind and body is achieved by avoiding extremes, and thus by finding a “middle way”. And conversely, extreme behaviors are viewed as the products of a confused and restless mind.
This notion rejects overt self-satisfactory indulgence, but also rejects doing any self-inflicted harm. The story of the Buddha (Siddartha Gautama) tells that he was trying to gain enlightenment by starving himself and rejecting all material pleasures. Because of this, he had become sick and weak. But then he saw a group of girls dancing and singing a song:
Fair goes the dancing when the sitar is tuned…
But the string too tight breaks,
And the music dies.
The string too slack has no sound,
And the music dies.
There is a middle way.
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high.
Hearing this song, the Buddha realized that the same wisdom applied to achieving happiness as well.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are the ethical code of Buddhism. They are based around the principle of doing to others as you would have them do to you (Same as the “golden rule” of Christianity which came later. However Christianity is also a heavy mix of ideas that are not at all consistent with the Golden Rule).
The Five Precepts are:
Refrain from destroying lifeDo not harm living beings of any kind.
Refrain from taking what is not givenSelf explanatory. Do not steal.
Refrain from overindulgence of sensual pleasuresThis includes refraining from gluttony, but it primarily refers to sexual behaviors which harm anyone, disrespect relationships, or result in you placing importance of your senses over your mind. Examples are adultery, rape, and promiscuity.
Refrain from untrue speechHave respect for truth. Do not lie or mislead.
Refrain from what causes intoxicationDo not become intoxicated, as this causes you to lose awareness and self-control, which harms one's own health and can result in unintended harm to others.
Note however, that Buddhism doesn’t make many major dogmatic declarations or orders. It advocates that people make their own judgments. For example, it may be necessary to kill if someone attacks you or your family. But one should always refrain from such actions to the greatest degree possible and your intentions must always be pure, with the goal of reducing all being’s suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha taught that four basic principles were necessary to be understood and accepted by anyone wishing to end dissatisfaction and suffering. The Four Noble Truths are not superstition to be accepted blindly. Instead they are observed truths of experience, as the Buddha saw it. They serve as both a starting point and a simplified description of the Buddha’s expansive teaching.
In order, the Four Noble Truths are:
The Truth of SufferingIn life we experience suffering of all kinds: dissatisfaction, pain, anxiety, frustration, stress, anger, and fear. Even things that are good and pleasurable leave us dissatisfied or suffering when they inevitably end. In Buddhist texts, the word Dukkha is used to encompass all these forms of misery. As a result, the word is often translated as "suffering" but "dissatisfaction" might be most literally accurate.
The Truth of the Cause of SufferingThe cause of suffering is craving, or "attachment". We suffer when we feel that our happiness comes from satisfying our desires rather than flowing from our own state of mind. We feel attachment to all kinds of pleasures, successes, and even opinions about ourselves and the way we want to the world to be. But if we have a constant need to have our desires fulfilled and our expectations met, then we feel endless craving and thus we always experience varying levels of dissatisfaction.
The Truth of the End of SufferingSuffering can be overcome by ending attachment and craving.
The Truth of the Path to Liberation from SufferingThe path which can be followed to end suffering is the Eightfold Path. This is a set of eight principles that will lead to the cessation of craving, and therefore the cessation of suffering.
The Eightfold Path
As described in the previous section, the Eightfold Path is a set of principles to live by that, if followed earnestly, will lead to the cessation of craving, and therefore the end of suffering. On a more specific level, it intends to help one develop correct insights into the nature of reality and bring an end to delusion, craving, and anger.
The principles of the Path are:
- Right Perception
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation
The Three Poisons
There are considered to be three main causes of suffering, called the Three Poisons:
Delusion (Ignorance, Misperception)Misunderstanding the real nature of oneself, others, and reality. It especially refers to the misperception that phenomena exist in a more absolute or permanent way than they really are. This misperception of reality gives rise to the other two poisons.
Attachment (Greed, Craving)Clinging to desires as a wrong means to happiness. The feeling of needing to satisfy one's desires, wherein happiness or suffering is determined by their fulfillment or non-fulfillment. This gives rise to the next poison.
Aversion (Anger, Hate)Anger and hatred towards what we dislike and what blocks us from fulfilling our desires.
Good Desire and Bad Desire
It’s a common misconception that the goal of Buddhism is to eliminate all of one’s desires. Buddhism does not try, nor want, to eliminate all desire. It distinguishes between aspiration and craving, which respectively are healthy desire and unhealthy desire.
This doesn’t mean that people should not care about anything. The concept is simply that our happiness should not be contingent upon the success of satisfying our desires. The point is to not cling to what you want. This allows us to strive and aspire, but also to not suffer from craving and frustration that cause stress and misery.
The Buddha believed that the thoughts and sensations which comprise our being are ultimately the source of suffering because they cause the feelings which lead to unhealthy desire.
This idea is described in the Fire Sermon:
Everything is burning.
What is burning?
The eyes are burning. Sight is ablaze…
The ears are burning. Sounds are ablaze…
The nose is burning. Smells are ablaze…
The tongue is burning. Tastes are ablaze…
The body is burning. Touch is ablaze…
The mind is burning. Thoughts are ablaze.
Awareness from the mind is burning. Impressions received by the mind are burning.
And whatever sensations thence arise, as pleasure, pain, or neither, that too is ablaze.
Ablaze with what?
Ablaze with the fire of craving, the fire of contempt, the fire of confusion.
The Buddhist belief is that consciousness is not something with independent existence. It is a process, not an entity. It is awareness, not a being in and of itself.
According to Buddhism, consciousness (awareness) occurs due to the interaction of a sensory organ with an object it senses. For example, the eye interacts with light and thus causes awareness. Or a thought is experienced in the mind and that too causes awareness. Awareness then results in feelings that are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Thus in Buddhism, the mind experiences a constant series of mental acts that appear moment to moment as a result of interaction with the world or thoughts in the mind. These acts are thoughts, sensations, compulsions, and awareness (Note that Buddhism makes distinctions between all these terms). Therefore the physical body is the medium, or basis, for mental acts and consciousness (although Buddhism does not believe that mental acts are physical things).
These mental acts arise and pass away in the mind like bubbles in boiling water. Each mental act transmits “impressions” of its state to the next one that appears. Thus all our thoughts and feelings affect our subsequent thoughts and feelings. But with time and effort we can change the transmission of bad thoughts and bad feelings so as to improve our state of mind.
Since consciousness is a process, not an entity, and everything changes from moment to moment, Buddhism professes a doctrine of “No-Self” which rejects the idea of a soul or pervading identity. When we refer to “me” or “you” for convenience, we are really referring to nothing but a flow of thoughts in constant change.
So unlike most other religions, rather than a fixed identity called self or “soul” as a component in a person, a person is just an aggregation of changing, temporal thoughts, sensations, compulsions, and awareness; and that together, they form a mistaken belief that they have one specific, pervading identity. In this view, what could be considered “yourself”? Thus Buddhism dismisses the idea of “self” as misleading.
When we speak of “self” or consciousness, we are really referring to a flow of newly appearing mental acts and awareness. As such, there is just a process of subsequent thoughts and awareness, not any specific distinct entity beyond them or intervening from the outside.
The Buddha described an interesting way of looking at this concept of self. Since nothing absolute pervades from moment to moment, he said that “every moment you are born, decay, and die.”
In Buddhism, Karma is moral causation. It is the primary factor that determines the conditions of your life and lives to come.
Karma is comprised of intentional actions, both physical and mental. However, involuntary and unintended actions are not Karma and have no impact on future rewards and punishments. In Buddhist texts, Karmic actions are likened to seeds which later sprout and yield the appropriate fruit.
Everything about you is affected by prior Karma, both from this life and prior ones: your physical traits, health (including disease), talents, intelligence, and the class you are born into.
Karma is considered the primary cause for what determines these things, but it isn’t the only factor. Buddhism does not view the world as fatalistic or predestined. Rather, they believe we can work to change our thoughts and behavior so we can receive different karmic results. The accumulation of good Karma helps negate the accumulation of bad Karma, and this will improve conditions for you in the future.
Because Karma is the main cause of your future conditions, it is the force that drives the cycle of rebirth. And chief among the causes of bad Karma is craving. Thus upon one’s death, Karma produced by craving results in the formation of a new being (human baby, or another type of living being depending on your accumulated Karma) whose thoughts continue the chain of newly appearing consciousness.
“Rebirth” can be a misleading term since it normally implies, as it does in Hinduism, that some fixed, specific entity of consciousness or essence of identity like a soul is re-established inside a physical body, or connected to one.
In Buddhist belief, a person is an aggregation of body and thoughts and feelings, and at death, these things break up and dissolve. However, if the state of a person’s mental acts was still dependent on the senses and still suffers from craving, that consciousness gives rise to a new “aggregation” of thoughts, feelings, and body. In other words, it causes a new person to be born. And that new person’s first thought continues the causal chain of mental states which produced it.
But remember that each mental act that arises is new in each moment. It only bears the impression of the previous one, and what comprises an individual includes the thoughts and feelings that arise from the sense organs and mind. To Buddhists, this is why the next person is different, but as they believe, also has the ability to remember past lives through meditation.
Thus in Buddhism, rebirth is a word for the event where the final mental act in one being gives rise to a new being and makes an impression on its first thought, thus continuing the impressions from that sequence of mental acts.
Becoming a Buddha
Becoming a Buddha means achieving the rare state of being “awakened”. It is the state of being completely liberated from the suffering caused by the Three Poisons, because one’s state of mind has become utterly independent from the feelings that arise from the senses and unhealthy thoughts. Reaching this state requires great effort for many lifetimes, and a deep love and compassion for all life.
Someone who becomes a Buddha is also released from the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. Since Buddhism does not believe in a soul, there is nothing which can be said to “not exist”. Rather, the way to explain release from the cycle of rebirth is that the mental acts which comprised that being from moment to moment cease to give rise to a new aggregation (person) of thoughts and consciousness after the final thought at death. The process simply ends. No new awareness, thoughts, or feelings arise.
Addendum: Magical Beliefs and Buddhist Violence
The main article is meant to be an introduction to the core of original Buddhist beliefs, not a description of all things related to Buddhism. However I know that many people raise questions about the supernatural beliefs present in much of Buddhism today, as well as points about Buddhist violence.
Because of the focus of the main article I haven’t discussed much about the more elaborate supernatural beliefs in Buddhism. Many of them are later additions, and even the ones that were original were mostly not directly relevant to Buddhist principles.
But these beliefs now exist among the majority of Buddhists since as time passes, new beliefs are incorporated and new doctrines emerge. However remember that not all Buddhists hold to all the same texts. New texts have been created over time and the ideas espoused in them are not held by others.
The Mahayana tradition contains most of the absurd supernatural beliefs in Buddhism that have ballooned since its founding. And today the majority of all Buddhists are of the Mahayana tradition, which should not be a surprise since I think it’s well known that most people naturally gravitate towards the dumbest belief in the room.
Many Buddhists now believe in souls or a continual consciousness that defines the “self” and gets reborn, just like the Hindu concept. Some of these people declare this openly while others inadvertently utilize what George Orwell called ‘doublethink‘ to have it both ways. This latter group of people will deny believing in souls or self, but their own explanation of their views reveals that they indeed believe in souls, but just use different terms to explain it. In fact, ‘doublethink’ and trying to hold incompatible views is common in all religion, as it is often the only way to make the belief hold together or still appear moral.
Many Buddhists also belong to the Pure Land belief (part of the Mahayana tradition) which claims that no one can become a Buddha in this world. Instead, once they reach a certain spiritual level in this world, they ascend to a magical “Pure Land” paradise where they can complete their path to becoming enlightened.
Others even worship Gautama Buddha as a god and believe, similar to Hindu and Christian mythology, that he was a divine essence that manifested itself as a human (Although even original Buddhism believes that despite the Buddha being human, he became a higher spiritual being upon becoming enlightened).
Buddhists in history have also had their share of violence like any other religion, since no group of people are immune from ethnic struggles and so forth. But some Buddhist beliefs also can justify violating the precept to not harm any life.
For example, because of the belief in rebirth, extremists can justify killing through the belief that if you think certain people are bad then killing them prevents them from accumulating more bad karma and therefore helps them have a better rebirth. One Mahayana text even says there is no punishment from karma for killing someone who rejects the Buddhist scriptures since they considered spiritually empty or wicked (See the Mahaparinirvana Sutra chapters 22 and 40).
As is always the case with religion, the more that magical beliefs influence the doctrine, the more immoral and irrational the doctrine becomes.
But the good news is that in the grand scheme of things Buddhism has produced much less violence than most other religions. I would assume this is because its doctrines revolve around doing as little harm to others as possible, and the nature of its beliefs don’t provide much motivation for controlling people and governments. Thus it doesn’t offer much incentive or justification for killing, whereas killing in its various forms and methods seems overtly central to the beliefs of Abrahamic religions.
And regardless of all this which is certainly disheartening, remember what I mentioned in the preface of the article: Buddhism offers many core principles that can apply universally and detached from any superstition. The principles of thinking and behavior, and ways of looking at the nature of oneself and the world are insightful and can have value to anyone, and that is what I would like to focus on.