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About Buddhism

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A stone image of the Buddha. Photo courtesy of Aaron Logan

Buddhism’s long history has allowed it to adopt unique forms in various cultures, mostly throughout Asia, but more recently in the West.  A number of unifying Buddhist principles are shared by most Buddhist establishments, and these commonalities serve to connect the major traditions.  This article will outline these shared Buddhist views so that the reader can familiarize him or herself with a general but accurate understanding of Buddhism.  Most conclusively, Buddhism, in all of its forms, aims to 1) provide human beings with a practical and achievable path that leads to the alleviation of suffering or unsatisfactoriness through the genuine recognition of interdependence and interconnectivity, and 2) cultivate human actions that stem from this understanding.

Buddhism originated in Northern India over 2500 years ago.  While many Buddhist traditions converge on aspects of the birth, life, enlightenment and death of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, it is recognized in modern scholarship that these stories are not verifiable, as we have no primary sources from Siddhartha himself.  The stories concerning Siddhartha’s life were compiled in a retrospective manner, in an attempt to solidify the most meaningful aspects of the numerous interpretations found throughout the early oral traditions of Buddhism.  Buddhism today is the result of centuries of revision and refinement. 

There are key aspects of the stories of Siddhartha’s life that serve to enhance the understanding of Buddhism’s purpose for human beings.  Unlike most Western religions, where the central prophet or messiah figure’s significance stems from his historical existence, the historical reality of Siddhartha is not important in Buddhism.  Instead, the vital element in Buddhism is the reality and efficacy of Buddhist methodology, an actual path that leads to the verifiable alleviation of suffering or “unsatisfactoriness” in this world.  Unsatisfactoriness encompasses the pervasive question of the “self” and the basic nature of personal identity.  This question of the self arises when the human mind perceives itself to be separate from the rest of the world, in a way that is deeply troubling.  This erroneous view of the self as separate from the rest of reality—as opposed to its role as an integral part—is what Buddhism addresses through its various contemplative and meditative methods.  

Buddhism universally posits an interconnected and interdependent reality where humans are not separate, but fundamentally connected in an inherently meaningful way.  We are important precisely because we are here, and we function as a necessary part of reality.  This focus on interconnectedness and interdependence makes Buddhist action a social action.  We help and care for our neighbors not simply because we are told to do so, but because we see that they are integral to reality just like we are.  Moreover, we see them engaged in the same basic struggle as ourselves: as sentient beings seeking a solution to unsatisfactoriness.  Buddhism acknowledges that the realization of the inseparable oneness and inherent wholeness of the self (what Buddhists call “enlightenment”) is obtainable by all people.

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