Last week Buddhists around the world celebrated Buddha’s birthday, known as Vesak Day (or Wesak), which is usually observed during the first full moon in May. On the holiday, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha.
Here are nine things you should know about this Eastern-oriented global religion:
1. Buddhism (like Hinduism) is often treated as a single religion when it is more accurate to describe it as a family of religions, or spiritual traditions that share common beliefs and characteristics. The religion originated in India about 2,500 years ago based on the teachings of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha, which means “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one.” Buddhism spread across Asia and became the dominant religious faith in such countries as Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet. Prior to the rise of Islam, it was one of the most widely practiced religions in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
2. Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family in present-day Nepal. Although he is often described as having been a prince, it is more likely that his status was that of a regional leader, similar to a tribe’s chief. During his late 20s he had a personal crisis driven by the reality of human suffering. He initially became a wandering ascetic but gave it didn’t help him achieve his objective. He purportedly attained Nirvana (perfect enlightenment) while sitting under a fig tree. Thereafter, he became known as the Buddha and dedicated his life to spreading his teachings. Scholars agrees that the Buddha died at some point between 410 and 370 BC.
3. For Buddhists, the most important of Buddha’s teachings is the “Four Noble Truths,” which is shared, with some variations, by all Buddhist sects. The four truths are dukkha (the truth of suffering); the arising of dukkha (the causes of suffering); the stopping of dukkha (the end of suffering); and the path leading to the stopping of dukkha (the path to freedom from suffering). As Charley Linden Thorp explains, the Four Truths are often best understood using a medical framework: Truth 1 is the diagnosis of an illness or condition; Truth 2 is identifying the underlying causes of it; Truth 3 is its prognosis or outcome; and Trust 4 is its treatment.
4. In Buddhist teaching, the fourth truth (the stopping of dukkha) contains the Eightfold Path leading out of samsara (i.e., the cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and dying again) to nirvana (release from release from rebirths in saṃsara and cessation of dukkha). It consists of:
- Right View – an accurate understanding of the nature of things, specifically the Four Noble Truths
- Right Resolve – avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred, and harmful intent
- Right Speech – correct speech, refraining from verbal misdeeds such as lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and senseless speech
- Right Action – refraining from physical misdeeds such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct
- Right Livelihood – avoiding trades that directly or indirectly harm others, such as selling slaves, weapons, animals for slaughter, intoxicants, or poisons
- Right Effort – abandoning negative states of mind that have already arisen, preventing negative states that have yet to arise, and sustaining positive states that have already arisen
- Right Mindfulness – awareness of body, feelings, thought, and phenomena (the constituents of the existing world)
- Right Meditation – single-mindedness; focusing attention in order to enter meditational states.
These eight aspects of the path are often divided into three groups or skandhas: three to five relate to morality; six to eight to meditation; and one to two to insight. As Thorp points out, this eightfold path is “not linear, passing from one stage to the next, but cumulative so that ideally all eight factors are practiced simultaneously.
5. Buddhism does not require faith or belief and does not include the concept of a god. As a non-theistic faith, the existence of god is considered irrelevant, neither affirmed nor denied. Buddhists also have no concept of sin, but instead consider the cause of cause of human suffering to be “ignorance.” A fundamental doctrine of Buddhism is karma, which is a law of moral causation. Any kind of intentional, volitional action— thought, word, or deed—is regarded as karma. It is karma that leads to saṃsara and necessitates the need for nirvana.
6. The four major Buddhist branches are Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, and Zen Buddhism. Mahayana is an umbrella term given to a group of Buddhist schools that have doctrinal diversity, but a moral unity centered on compassion and insight or wisdom. Theravada (which means “the doctrine of the elders”) emphasizes attaining self-liberation through one’s own efforts, such as through meditation. Vajrayana (which means “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”) believes that that nirvana and samsara are not different, and teach that anything—including desire—can profitably be used as a means to liberation, which can be achieved within a single lifetime. Zen Buddhism teaches that everyone has the potential to become enlightened and that the way to achieve such a goal is through meditation.
7. The most recognized religious figure in Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug (“Yellow Hat”) school of Tibetan Buddhism (a form of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be reincarnated manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. (Bodhisattvas are “realized beings inspired by a wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help humanity.”) The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 and considered by many Buddhists to be the reincarnation of the previous 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.
8. According to estimates by Pew Research, about half the world’s Buddhists live in China, where they make up only 18 percent of the country’s population. Most of the rest of the world’s Buddhists live in East and South Asia, including 13 percent in Thailand (where 93 percent of the population is Buddhist) and 9 percent in Japan (where 35 percent are Buddhist). Only about 1.4 percent of the world’s Buddhists live in countries outside of Asia. Buddhists make up roughly 1 percent of the adult population in the United States, and about two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are Asian Americans. In total, Buddhists made up roughly 7 percent of the world’s population in 2015. Because of low fertility rates and a low rate of conversions, though, they are expected to drop to 5 percent by 2060.
9. The spiritual context of Buddhism makes is especially challenging to share the gospel with Buddhists. Many Christian apologists recommend finding a shared context and common assumptions. For example, as Alex Kocman says, “The Four Noble Truths can give Christians four useful conversational diving boards to communicate the Bible’s views of life, death, and salvation.” Justin Caudill also highlights the importance of testimonies and genuine relationship. “Our testimonies work when other methods fail with Buddhists, and we believe this is true for several reasons,” Caudill says. “Testimonies are effective because they are stories, and story is the true heart language of Buddhists.” Sam Chan adds that Buddhist long for two things: power and control in their lives, and peace and shalom. “Jesus is the only one who can give us power over say, evil spirits, the power to be healed,” Chan says. “And Jesus gives us peace. He doesn’t take away suffering, but he lets us know there is a wisdom, there’s a plan, a purpose, a direction to this universe. And because of that, we can enjoy a peace, our shalom that no one else can enjoy.”