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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Buddhism

Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world’s largest religions and originated 2,500 years ago in India. Buddhists believe that the human life is one of suffering, and that meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior are the ways to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Religion, Social Studies, Storytelling

Image

Buddhist Prayer Candles

Incense are lit inside of Kun Yam Temple in Macao. Incense and meditation play an important role in Buddhism.

Photograph by Joe Scherschel

Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. It originated in India in 563–483 B.C.E. with Siddhartha Gautama, and over the next millennia it spread across Asia and the rest of the world. Buddhists believe that human life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but that if one achieves a state of enlightenment (nirvana), it is possible to escape this cycle forever. Siddhartha Gautama was the first person to reach this state of enlightenment and was, and is still today, known as the Buddha. Buddhists do not believe in any kind of deity or god, although there are supernatural figures who can help or hinder people on the path towards enlightenment.

Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince in the fifth century B.C.E. who, upon seeing people poor and dying, realized that human life is suffering. He renounced his wealth and spent time as a poor beggar, meditating and travelling but ultimately, remaining unsatisfied, settling on something called “the Middle Way.” This idea meant that neither extreme asceticism or extreme wealth were the path to enlightenment, but rather, a way of life between the two extremes. Eventually, in a state of deep meditation, he achieved enlightenment, or nirvana underneath the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening). The Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar, India—the site of his enlightenment—is now a major Buddhist pilgrimage site.

The Buddha taught about Four Noble Truths. The first truth is called “Suffering (dukkha),” which teaches that everyone in life is suffering in some way. The second truth is “Origin of suffering (samudāya).” This states that all suffering comes from desire (tanhā). The third truth is “Cessation of suffering (nirodha),” and it says that it is possible to stop suffering and achieve enlightenment. The fourth truth, “Path to the cessation of suffering (magga)” is about the Middle Way, which are the steps to achieve enlightenment.

Buddhists believe in a wheel of rebirth, where souls are born again into different bodies depending on how they conducted themselves in their previous lives. This is connected to “karma,” which refers to how a person’s good or bad actions in the past or in their past lives can impact them in the future.

There are two main groups of Buddhism: Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is common in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. It emphasizes the role models of bodhisattvas (beings that have achieved enlightenment but return to teach humans). Theravada Buddhism is common in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). It emphasizes a monastic lifestyle and meditation as the way to enlightenment.

Buddhism has been a controversial religion. The head of the Tibetan school of Buddhism and traditional leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, fled from China-controlled Tibet in 1959 to India in fear of his life. Many Tibetan Buddhists actively resist Chinese control of the region. Recently, the current Dalai Lama, who is understood to be the fourteenth reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, has raised questions over whether and where he will choose to reincarnate.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
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National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
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André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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