Recently, I had the opportunity to learn the basics of Buddhism at the beautiful Dharmakaya Center For Wellbeing in Cragsmoor, New York. Like any good yogi, I’ve explored Buddhism before, but what I knew about it was mostly some vocabulary words (like Nirvana, liberation, Noble Truths, and Eightfold Path) and meditation practices and philosophical ideas similar to those I know from Yoga.
Since both Buddhism and Yoga have their roots in Hinduism, there’s a natural connection between the two traditions. During this most recent exploration of Buddhism, we did a number of meditation practices that were unsurprisingly similar to ones I’ve done in yoga classes. But I also learned a little more about the history of the practice as well as some of the core ideas that don’t usually come up in Yoga circles.
Some Basics of Buddhism
If you don’t know the story of the Buddha, here’s a very brief version of it: The Buddha was a prince who lived a sheltered life and didn’t know anything about suffering and death until his was a young adult. As the story goes, the young prince, whose given name was Siddhartha Gautama, convinced a servant to sneak him out of the palace one day. Siddhartha had to sneak out because his father, who wanted to keep Siddhartha from finding out about the dark side of life, would not allow him to leave the palace.
Of course, when Siddhartha left the palace, he learned there is suffering in life. In fact, knowledge of suffering became the first of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths. Siddhartha was troubled by what he saw and set out to make sense of suffering. He eventually realized that suffering is caused by misunderstanding who we are (the second Noble Truth), that there is a way out of suffering (the third Noble Truth), and that the way out to follow the Noble Eightfold Path (the fourth Noble Truth). From there things get a little complicated, with various tenets and practices that change depending on which type of Buddhism we’re talking about.
One of the most important concepts for Buddhists to grasp is the idea that nothing is permanent and there is no self. Once we get that, the Buddha said, we can focus on what really matters, suffering will end, and we’ll reach the state of liberation known as Nirvana.
What Is(n’t) The Self?
In the past when I’ve heard about the Buddhist idea of no self, I’ve thought like many Westerners that Buddhism seeks to deny existence, that the idea is complete annihilation of…well, of everything. But my new understanding of the basics of Buddhism helped me see the concept of no self differently. It refers to the idea that what we think of as “me” does not really exist, because it’s impermanent, because of mistaken perceptions and thoughts, and because of misleading emotions.
All of this is my very novice take on a practice meant to be experienced, not explained, which is another fascinating thing about Buddhism.
The “self” I am right now is not the self I was a year ago, ten years ago, or the year I was born. It’s not even the self I was five minutes ago! If I understand it correctly, there’s not even a reality known as being born for Buddhists. There is just a moment in time when our being connects with a body. And then that body continues to change, as does the way our minds work, the emotions we experience, and the perceptions, thoughts, and abilities we acquire and lose over a lifetime.
For Buddhists, that lifetime is likely not the first or last lifetime we endure. I use the word endure, since what we know as life in human form is characterized by suffering in Buddhism. (But remember, liberation is possible!) The way to escape the experience of suffering is to understand reality—something most humans are apparently not very good at.
What is a Buddhist?
Another thing that struck me about the teachings during the weekend was there didn’t seem to be a clear starting place or direction to go in. Maybe you can relate to seemingly circular attempts to understand concepts from yogic philosophy or any other philosophy that informs your lifestyle practice.
Buddhism has no dogma. Emphasis is on the practice and direct experience. Without the practice, the teachings and philosophy are meaningless. Of course, it’s nice to understand why we do things, but it’s not essential.
I read that once you embrace Buddhism, you are a Buddhist. There is no formal ritual or rite that makes you an official member of the religion, though of course, there are vows and rules for monks and certain kinds of teachers (I think). I’m not sure if Buddhists would agree with my outsider’s point of view, but other religions don’t seem to welcome those outside their tradition as easily as Buddhists do.
The Basics of Buddhism: It’s All About the Practice
While you can go as deeply as you like into Buddhist philosophy, the basics of Buddhism, which include practicing mindfulness, meditating, and following the Noble Eightfold Path, may be enough to make a difference in your life.
I’ve experienced the benefits of meditation without ascribing them to Buddhism, but within the spiritual context of Buddhist philosophy, new doors of experience open. The Buddha’s aim was to understand the nature of existence in the present moment, and he believed meditation would reveal a way to see reality that would end suffering.
But don’t take the Buddha’s word for it, and don’t rely on the experience of Buddhists either. The only way to reach Nirvana—where suffering ceases—is to do the practices and experience for yourself what is true.
So, where can you start if you’re new to Buddhism? The answer may be different for each person, but committing to a meditation practice based in Buddhism and learning more about the teachings (as long as you do the practice too) are good places to start.
For me, learning the basics of Buddhism has helped renew my commitment to meditating regularly. While I do meditate, my practice is somewhat inconsistent (I get antsy when I don’t move). But now I have a new goal. Instead of simply seeking to calm my mind so I can feel less anxious and more joyful, I want to meditate so I can stop suffering and get to know who I truly am.
That’s surely a good reason to keep practicing!
What is your understanding of Buddhism? I’d love to explore the ways our spiritual paths connect. I believe we’re all on the same journey, and it’s great to take the trip with friends!
Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!