Article Info

published: 3/17/04
last updated: 7/26/13

One-Page Overview of Buddhism





Young Burmese monks on their morning alms rounds. Photo © Sara Heinrichs.



Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet. Photo: Philip Lai.



Prayer wheels at a temple in Nepal. Photo: Dey.



Buddhist flag in Wellington, New Zealand.

Buddhism was founded by an Indian prince named Siddharta Gautama around the year 500 BCE. According to tradition, the young prince lived an affluent and sheltered life until a journey during which he saw an old man, a sick man, a poor man, and a corpse. Shocked and distressed at the suffering in the world, Gautama left his family to seek enlightenment through asceticism. But even the most extreme asceticism failed to bring enlightenment.

Finally, Gautama sat beneath a tree and vowed not to move until he had attained enlightenment. Days later, he arose as the Buddha - the "enlightened one." He spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching the path to liberation from suffering (the dharma) and establishing a community of monks (the sangha).





Today, there are over 360 million followers of Buddhism. Although virtually extinct in its birthplace of India, it is prevalent throughout China, Japan and Southeast Asia. In the 20th century, Buddhism expanded its influence to the West and even to western religions. There are now over one million American Buddhists and even a significant number of "Jewish Buddhists." Buddhist concepts have also been influential on western society in general, primarily in the areas of meditation and nonviolence.

Buddhist beliefs vary significantly across various sects and schools, but all share an admiration for the figure of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Theravada Buddhism, prominent in Southeast Asia, is atheistic and philosophical in nature and focuses on the monastic life and meditation as means to liberation.

Mahayana Buddhism, prominent in China and Japan, incorporates several deities, celestial beings, and other traditional religious elements. In Mahayana, the path to liberation may include religious ritual, devotion, meditation, or a combination of these elements. Zen, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land are the major forms of Mahayana Buddhism.