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The Basics of Buddhism


Stephen Batchelor reminds us that “Buddha was not a mystic.” The truths that he taught are something anyone can measure against their ordinary experience. Buddha said simply, “I teach suffering and the end of suffering.” Asked whether he was a god, a man or something else, he replied, “I am awake.”

The man we now call Buddha was a prince who lived about 2500 years ago. He grew up in wealth and privilege and found satisfaction in none of it. He left his home at the age of 29 and lived as a wandering holy man. He found that life was also unsatisfactory. Eventually he sat down beneath a tree for a final confrontation with himself and his circumstances.

Sitting beneath that tree, he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, as he awakened to the truth, the simple truth that sits all around us and that we deliberately blind ourselves to avoid seeing. The truth is, simply, that we never will get what we want and that our unsatisfied craving for it causes our suffering. This central teaching is reflected in The Four Noble Truths that are common to every tradition of Buddhism. Our choice is to either live ignorantly and continue to suffer or to live skillfully and eventually reach the end of our suffering.

Buddha showed us the way. The body of teaching he left behind is called the Dharma. The community of followers who have preserved his teachings through the centuries is called the Sangha. Buddhists are those who go to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as their help and refuge.

There are many different Buddhist traditions. There are libraries full of scripture and monasteries full of devout and learned monks. There are centuries of rich practice and tradition to study and explore. But any truly precious idea can be expressed in a few words. This is how Buddha himself summed up his teaching:

“Not to do evil;
To do what is good.
To cleanse one’s own mind;
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.”
(Dhammapada v. 183)

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