The basic beliefs of Buddhism are formally encapsulated in the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. More informally, we can begin to approach the study of Buddhism by taking note of a few signature characteristics.
The fundamental ideas in any religion are often mysterious, and Buddhism is no exception. Especially for the Westerner asking, What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism? the answers received can be frustrating.
Many religious beliefs are shared through stories and legends. But many of the stories of Buddhism, particularly Zen, seem to be nonsensical. What are we to make of a legend that tells us about the sound of one hand clapping? Or how about this typical story:
One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice.
As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine.
Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!
Such symbolic teaching is complicated by the fact that the basic beliefs in Buddhism are not actually beliefs at all. One of the fundamental teachings from teacher to student in Zen is a single word: "Doubt!" Unlike some other religions, Buddhism requires that the student start from the perspective of doubt, and encourages the individual to question everything.
It may seem hard to comprehend how an organized religion can thrive on the basis of doubt. The idea conjures images of anarchy, chaos, the opposite of comfort and peace. Revolutions happen when doubt arises. How can it be possible for spiritual happiness and fulfillment to be achieved through doubt?
The only way to find the answer to that question is to try it yourself. The same is true of any spiritual teaching we might study. We 'take it on faith' that Moses came down from the mountain, that Allah spoke to his people, that Christ was the Son of God. There's no way to logically prove these beliefs; you have to adopt and live them before they begin to deliver for you. So the only way to know that 'nirvana' is available through doubt is to start doubting.
Another mysterious tenet of basic Buddhism is the teaching that duality causes suffering. The new student of Zen learns quickly that going beyond duality is how enlightenment is attained.
What is meant by 'duality?' It is the Yin and Yang, the harmony of opposites that is the universe. Why is it necessary to go beyond it? Because in duality lie both our ecstasy and our agony; and in the unknown realm of beyond duality lies our peace.
But there's a twist: Buddhism suggests that we reject duality and at the same time love it dearly. Dharma is the word used to refer to mundane life, all the stuff of our days on Earth. The Buddhist's three greatest allegiances are to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (or community).
A third basic 'belief' of Buddhism is that we are all Buddhas, in our truly natural states. The practice of bowing to one another is a recognition of this idea.
The Buddhist tradition of Bodhisattvas holds that some individuals, who have already attained enlightenment, refuse to progress to 'heaven,' electing instead to return to Earth and help their follow humans evolve. They pledge to work for the salvation of all people before they claim their own reward.
These three basic concepts - doubt, duality, and oneness - are at the core of Buddhist thought and lead directly to greater advanced understanding of the Buddha's teaching.