Introduction to Buddhism









by Christian Schaller

Introduction to Buddhism









by Christian Schaller

Buddhism seems to have arrived in the Western world a long time ago. Buddha statues in the front garden, a yoga or meditation class in the evening and spiritual journeys of self-discovery to Southeast Asia have almost become the norm in our globalised world. But what does the world religion of Buddhism actually say? What use can we make of Far Eastern beliefs in modern 21st century Europe? This article aims to provide a short, concise introduction to Buddhist teachings and to explain their cultural significance.

How it all began – the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama and the origin of Buddhism

In the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, the word Buddha means “awakened one” and “enlightened one”. The so-called first Buddha was a verifiable historical person named Siddhartha Gautama who, according to different chronologies, lived in northern India in the sixth or fifth century BC. Because surviving sources tend to idealise Siddhartha, little is certain about his life. He probably came from a local ruling class, which is why he is sometimes referred to as a prince. He married and fathered a son before, after several years of searching for inner religious meaning, he left his family at the age of 29 and embarked on the life path of an ascetic. After six years of intensive efforts in the form of religious-philosophical immersion and meditation, he is said to have experienced enlightenment. From then on, he proclaimed the teachings of Buddhism as Buddha, i.e. as the enlightened one. Buddha recognised that all being is connected with suffering. He formulated the impermanence of each individual as the eternal cause of this suffering. The basic concept of Buddhism is therefore a balanced “Middle Way” between excessive debauchery and strict asceticism. The main goal of the Buddhist way of life is individual and inwardly attainable salvation, called nirvana in Sanskrit, a place or state full of happiness and contentment.

The historical Buddha was not a fanatical prophet, but rather a teacher. He did not preach about God, gods or a single path to salvation like the Abrahamic revealed religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nor did he refer to India’s traditional caste system as Hinduism did. Rather, it was addressed to each individual.

Tian Tan Buddha; © janeb13

The traditional religions of ancient India, such as the Veda or Hinduism, proved to be culturally quite dynamic and flexible in the pre-Christian centuries, so that reforms and new forms became possible. Gods, holy beings and creatures from hell, primarily the figures of the local Vedic or Hindu religions, did not play a role for Buddha, but he did not deny their existence either. Just like all living beings, they were also involved in the world of reincarnations and suffering. Siddhartha Gautama taught for over 40 years and organised his followers into a loose structure during his lifetime. His only legacy was the so-called “Middle Way”, which to this day, despite all its ramifications, is the unifying and identity-forming feature of all Buddhists. One year after Buddha’s death, the so-called First Council took place in Rajagriha, at which, among other things, the firm affiliation to a monastic community was stated.

At the time of Siddhartha Gautama’s death (according to one of several chronologies, around 390 BC at the latest), Buddhism was only widespread in northern India. More than a hundred years later, it reached the south of the subcontinent through the conquests of King Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (304-232 BC), who also sent missionaries to all neighbouring countries and the Hellenistic states of the Mediterranean. He maintained diplomatic relations above all with the neighbouring Seleucid territories and with the Greek-Bactrian Empire. In the first centuries after Christ, Buddhist teachings spread to all Asian countries, from Afghanistan in the west, Indonesia in the south to Japan in the east. The last time Buddhism reached Tibet was in the seventh century, while its influence was already slowly waning in its actual area of origin, India. Through persecutions and destructions of Islam or counter-missions and adaptations of Hinduism in the following centuries, Buddhism in India was increasingly pushed back and marginalised. In the 21st century, the affiliation to Buddhist religious communities in India is barely 1%.

Basic concepts and principles of Buddhism

Gebetsmühlen, © tianya1223

According to Buddhists, earthly existence is in an eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This perpetual cycle of becoming and passing away, also called samsara in Sanskrit, cannot be stopped or changed; moreover, it is always associated with deep suffering. Every human being suffers because of egoism or ignorance. Buddha was convinced that salvation from this can only lie in a change of mental attitude.

Nevertheless, Buddha modified his teaching compared to the other philosophical thought of his time and denied, for example, the existence of the eternal soul. In his view, an exit from samsara had to be possible in order to end earthly suffering. This transition into a state without suffering, nirvana, was to be achieved through the practice of enlightenment, bodhi. If one attained bodhi, one was a Buddha. This awakening does not take place through external, divine intervention, but solely through an individual, inner process of realisation. Anyone can gain this realisation, but it requires work and patience. First one must learn to understand being and mind.

The historical Buddha integrated the doctrine of karma into his views, i.e. that every action has consequences and affects the eternal cycle of rebirths. Karma can be translated as “action”. As a concept, this means that every good, neutral or bad action inevitably produces a corresponding result. However, it is not a matter of accumulating only good actions and thus good karma. Every human being lives out sensual desire – be it in thoughts or deeds – and thus clings to the appearances of the earthly world. In the worst case, he feels greed, anger and hatred. All this acting and thinking endlessly causes the generation of karma and thus leads to further entanglements in the world. The goal of Buddhist practice is to no longer generate karma and thus to leave the eternal cycle, samsara, behind and thus achieve nirvana. This concept of karma is based on the law of conditional arising or arising in dependence. All phenomena arise due to causes and conditions. If one escapes this dependence, one is free and redeemed.

The individual suffering of every living being is thus only a kind of unfortunate disturbance in the overall structure of the whole, universal, absolute and can therefore also be remedied by every human being. Therefore, through meditation and deepening, the realisation must be attained that both the material body and the I, the ego, must not and cannot really exist as sources of all earthly suffering. This non-self or impersonality is called anatman in Sanskrit and is a key concept in Buddhism. No existence and thus no living being possesses a fixed, unchanging and independent self. Since everything arises mutually conditionally, ultimately all phenomena are also not permanent and thus insubstantial. There are no fixed realities in the world, everything is in constant flux. This absence of an intrinsic nature and a constant being as well as a constant I is paraphrased as shunyata, which translated means emptiness.

During his lifetime, the historical Buddha proclaimed the Dharma. This complex term appears in numerous Asian religions and can be translated from Sanskrit as law or custom, but also includes ethical, moral and religious values, duties and actions. Simplified, dharma can be described as the actual teachings of Buddha. In Buddhism, it does not matter who created the world and life.

Taktshang, buddhistisches Kloster in Bhutan; © suketdedhia

Rather, the focus is on cultivating the Buddhist teachings, i.e. practical applicability and actual benefit for life. In concrete terms, this means recognising the suffering of all existence and striving to end this suffering. The Buddhist core theses are summarised in the so-called Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths are a central element of all Buddhist schools. They state: All existence is suffering. Suffering in turn arises from the desire and attachment of living beings to things. Suffering can ultimately be overcome through the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana can be achieved through the so-called Noble Eightfold Path. This worldview is not to be interpreted as pessimistic or negative, rather Buddha wants to point out that there is a higher consciousness to which the values and impressions of ordinary consciousness are subordinate.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the essential doctrinal content of all Buddhist currents and is intended to provide guidance for an ethically correct life that ultimately leads to salvation. Synonyms are the “middle path” or the “middle path”. The eight basic rules of conduct can be divided into three content blocks – the group of wisdom, morality and deepening. All components are of equal importance and should be lived out equally at all times. The wisdom group comprises the first two “paths”, right insight and view and right mind and intention. Only with wisdom can one think, recognise and decide virtuously. The morality group comprises the third, fourth and fifth “paths”, speech, action and finally earning one’s living in a right and virtuous way. The deepening group includes the last three “paths”, aspiration, mindfulness and concentration in a right way. In order to attain nirvana, the exercises and efforts must be done correctly, one must be fully aware of oneself and be able to collect one’s thoughts for right mental absorption.

To develop the virtue sought in the eightfold path even more effectively, the so-called Five Silas, basic resolutions of modesty, also help. Thus, one should refrain from murder, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and accepting intoxicating substances. The precepts can be repeated verbally and mentally in the course of meditation exercises. Through these renunciations, one attains wisdom, discipline and concentration, which are necessary to ultimately free oneself from being and suffering.

Only by taking refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, does one officially declare oneself a Buddhist. Refuge here means accepting the three concepts as central pillars of one’s life. Buddha functions as the supreme teacher, Dharma means the Buddhist teachings as a guide, and Sangha means the community of other Buddhists as a model.

In summary, non-self and emptiness must be understood and internalised in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, the Bodhi, and ultimately become a Buddha. This is achieved through the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Five Silas and finally by taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Trends of Buddhism

Each school of Buddhism can be understood as an emphasis on certain statements and practices derived from the Buddha’s original teaching. The splitting of original Buddhism into several major schools began around 250 BC after the Third Council in Pataliputra, today’s Patna in northern India. Apart from a myriad of sub-currents and schools, the Buddhist currents of Hinayana, Theravada and Mahayana are particularly significant at present.

Buddha Statuen, © Sense_All_is_Void

Theravada means “teaching of the ancients”. An alternative name is also Hinayana, the “small vehicle” – more an accusation by philosophical opponents that Theravada is a limited, elitist path for only a select few. Allegedly, only ordained monks can attain nirvana already at the end of their present life.

In general, followers adhere as closely as possible to the Buddha’s teachings, follow strict ethical principles and rules of the monastic and nunnery communities, and possess widely authoritative religious scriptures in the form of the texts of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the oldest coherent collection of the teachings of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. Traditional Theravada Buddhism is practised today mainly in Sri Lanka and the Mekong region.

Mahayana means “Great Vehicle” and aims to show all people the path of salvation to Nirvana. The central difference to Theravada is the concept or ideal of the Bodhisattva, which means “enlightened being”. On the path to Buddhahood, some people do indeed attain enlightenment, the Bodhi. Out of compassion and love for all other living beings, however, they renounce entry into nirvana in order to serve all living beings as mediators and helpers on the path to salvation. Every Buddhist, even a layman, can become a Bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhism can be found today mainly in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. An important school of Mahayana is that of Zen Buddhism.

Vajrayana means “diamond vehicle” and is a late form of Mahayana. To its philosophical foundations, Vajrayana adds tantric techniques designed to accelerate the path to enlightenment. These include meditation and visualisation, but also numerous secret rituals and practices in which special emphasis is placed on direct instruction from teacher to disciple. This “esoteric teaching” gained fame primarily through the Dalai Lama of Tibet, who, as the alleged recurring incarnation of a historical Bodhisattva, is an important authority in Tibetan Vajrayan Buddhism. In neighbouring Bhutan, Vajrayana is still the state religion today.

Philosophy or still religion? – The cultural significance of Buddhism and the Stoa

Buddhism is still stylised as India’s greatest cultural achievement and India is thus transfigured as the “mother culture” of all of Asia. In fact, a large part of the Asian countries has been influenced by Buddhism over the course of time, both in terms of art history and society. The largest Buddhist temple complex in the world, Borobudur on the island of Jawa, is located in Indonesia, which is now Muslim-majority. Buddhism influenced all aspects of everyday life in Asia, from pagoda architecture to Japanese garden design and martial arts. In the 21st century, Buddhism is still the subject of national and international cultural policy. One example is the fact that the People’s Republic of China denies the autonomy of Tibetan Buddhism and thus its political sovereignty to the annexed Tibet. While Buddhist thought has penetrated the Mediterranean region since antiquity, at least in detail, major reform movements and social upheavals began in the 19th century at the latest, which increasingly attempted to link traditional Buddhism with the modern world. This happened and still happens not least due to the consequences of colonialism, globalisation, migration and flight. In recent decades, Buddhist communities have emerged in Europe, North America and Australia. Worldwide, around 400 million people can be attributed to a Buddhist movement or community.

Despite all social or even technical progress, the psychological structure of human beings and the limits of existence – age, death, transience – have always remained the same over the millennia. For this very reason, it is likely that Buddhism will continue to occupy a firm place in our modern world.

Borobudur; © Jonathan-Smit

Through its psychological insights and its tolerant and practically applicable religiousness, it acts as an alternative to traditional, dogmatic Christianity, especially in the Western world. Religious speculations and world views such as the creation and nature of the universe play no role in Buddhism. It can therefore be understood less as a classical religion and much more as a spiritual “medicine” that wants to end the suffering of all living beings.

Buddhism appears in the Western world as an exotic, Far Eastern import. It has no denominations as we are used to, for example, in the form of Catholicism and Protestantism. Rather, it has been shaped and adapted by the local culture in the various regions and countries of Asia. The different major directions and schools do not compete with each other. With its practical applicability, Buddhism also comes close to modern psychotherapy and psychology, but not least to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. The Buddhist starting point, that everything is transient and impermanent, is also fundamentally found in the insights of the Greek philosophers – be it Heraclitus’ saying “Panta rhei” (Everything flows.) or Epicurus’ well-known “Carpe diem” (Pick the day.). Especially in the Hellenistic-Indian border regions, a huge ethnic and cultural diversity existed in the last three pre-Christian centuries. In the Greek-Bactrian Empire and later in the Indo-Greek Empire, Hellenistic and Asian cultures intermingled. In the area of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, this resulted in a unique cultural syncretism that shaped both cultural areas. For example, the so-called Graeco-Buddhism emerged, which in turn exerted great influence on the Mahayana and thus, centuries later, on the cultural development of the Chinese Empire.

The most parallels, however, can be found in the philosophical movement of the Stoa, whose founder is Zeno of Kition (333-261 BC), who taught in the marketplace of Athens in a colourfully painted portico – stoa in Greek. He is a contemporary of the Indian Buddhist ruler Ashoka Maurya.

The Greek Stoa is considered by the humanities to be one of the most effective “doctrinal edifices of the Occident”, which, through late-antique fusion processes, has shaped the moral and ethical ideas of Christianity up to the present day. At the same time, however, it is now enjoying a comeback and revival among the general public, as evidenced above all by the works of the American writer (and Stoic) Ryan Holiday. In the present day, the Stoa finds its followers not only in the upper echelons of business, politics and sport, but also for a long time in all strata of the population in the Western hemisphere. And it is precisely in the Stoa that central points of contact could lie in order to profitably integrate Buddhism into the “occidental” traditions, ways of thinking and philosophies and to integrate it into our western everyday life.

The Roman Stoic Seneca (ca. 1-65 A.D.), for example, propagated the middle way between opulence and frugality; he clearly preferred compassion to pity, which did not achieve its goal, and advocated sharing the wisdom one had acquired with one’s fellow human beings in any case. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) emphasised attention and introspection – one might almost say mindfulness – as a central characteristic of a Stoic philosopher and warned against trying to hold on to things over which one ultimately has no control. All these statements are strongly reminiscent of the Buddhist dharma. The Stoic concepts of apatheia and ataraxia, i.e. serene equanimity and peace of mind in the face of personal fate, find direct counterparts in Buddhism, as does the ideal of askesis, i.e. the constant inner practice of a resilient state of mind. The Stoics assumed a uniform structure and order underlying the universe, with which all events and things are connected and sequential – again a parallel to the concept of karma. However, a major difference lies in the Buddhist assumption of eternal rebirths, which is not present in the Stoa. Just as Buddhism has the supreme ideal of the Buddha, the Stoa pursues the ideal of the sophos, the sage who lives virtuously and free of passions and drives in perfect bliss. Just like Asian Buddhism, Western Stoa is not a dogma, not a religion; it calls for self-responsible thought and action.

Literature used

Brück, Michael von: Einführung in den Buddhismus. Berlin 2007.

Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang: Einführung in den Buddhismus: Eine Erklärung der buddhistischen Lebensweise. Berlin 2012.

Holiday, Ryan: The Obstavle is the Way. London 2014.

Mos Maiorum. Der römische Weg (Hg.): Die Stoa – Dharma des Westens? URL: (15.08.2020).

Schumann, Hans Wolfgang: Buddhismus: Eine Einführung in die Grundlagen buddhistischen Religion. München 2016.

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