Buddhism has spread through American culture on both a deep spiritual level and a more basic consumerist level. Buddhist statues and images can be purchased anywhere from your neighborhood hippie store to national franchises like Target. "Zen and the art of [insert anything here]" books fill the self-help sections of public libraries. While such a proliferation of Buddhist items for purchase invokes genuine curiosity, it also leads to a certain amount of misconceptions. This article will try to clarify some of the basic Buddhist beliefs through what is know in Buddhism as "the three jewels:" the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
"Buddha" is actually a title, not a name. There are several different Buddhas in the Buddhist pantheon. The title means "awakened one" and denotes someone who has woken up to the true nature of reality. This awakening is usually referred to as enlightenment. Most often when people talk about "the Buddha," they mean Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism. Shakyamuni Buddha was born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. The term "Shakyamuni" comes from Shakya, the clan Siddhartha's family ruled. After leading a sheltered life and pampered life, Siddhartha sneaked out of the palace to pursue the life of a religious mendicant. He studied with many teachers, but ultimately decided that none of them were truly enlightened. He set off on his own and sat down under a tree, vowing not to leave the spot until he was enlightened. Over the course of the night he had several visions in which Mara, the personification of delusion, tried to distract him from his commitment to enlightenment. Ultimately Mara failed. Siddhartha gained insight into the true nature of reality and became Shakyamuni Buddha.
So what is the true nature of reality? The Buddha's teachings form basic Buddhist beliefs, known as the Dharma. The third jewel of Buddhism, the Dharma is vast, consisting of numerous texts in several languages. But at the core of the Dharma, held in common by all Buddhists of various sects, are the Four Noble Truths.
1. Life is dukkha. Roughly translated, "dukkha" means suffering. This gives Buddhism the reputation of being a pessimistic religion. However, to say that "life is suffering" does not mean that every day of every being's life is nothing but pain and sorrow. Rather, it simply means that suffering is an inherent part of life. Sickness, sorrow, death, loneliness--none of us lives a life free of these afflictions. Rather than trying to explain them away or explain why some deserve suffering and others deserve happy productive lives, Buddhism teaches that everyone experiences suffering as the fundamental nature of life. We all experience joy in the same way.
2. Suffering is caused by ignorance, specifically the delusional belief in permanence, especially the permanence of the self. I am not the same person who typed the last paragraph. Since then my foot has fallen asleep. The conventional interpretation goes something like this "the true nature of my foot is to get proper circulation which in turn leads to sensory perception in my toes and a distinct lack of needle-like pain." Because I am attached to this concept of "footness," I become uncomfortable when this understanding of my foot ceases to be accurate. The fact that my foot is asleep does not cause suffering; rather my mental interactions with the notion that my foot is asleep cause me to suffer. If I truly understand that the nature of my foot is to be asleep sometimes and awake others, to gain and lose callouses, and to eventually decompose into dirt, then cutting off circulation or even cutting of my foot will not cause me to suffer. It may cause pain but not suffering. The ignorant belief in permanence leads to an attachment to things as they are which in turn leads to cravings and greed.
3. There is an end to suffering, which is called nirvana or enlightenment. I can in fact overcome my ignorance and thus my suffering.
4. The way to nirvana is the noble eightfold path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. If we think, act, and meditate in ethical ways we can free ourselves from the traps of ignorance. Books can, and indeed have, been written on how to meditate and lead ethical lives.
The Four Noble truths are not the whole of Buddhist teachings, but they are the core.
The third jewel of basic Buddhist beliefs is the sangha, or Buddhist community. Some Buddhist sects interpret sangha very narrowly to mean only the community of ordained monastics. Others consider it more broadly to encompass all Buddhist practitioners, or even any community that give you spiritual support on your path to enlightenment.