Buddhism

Buddhism began in India about 2,500 years ago. It is the fourth-largest religion in the world.

A Buddhist is someone who follows the teachings of a man called Siddhartha Gautama (or Siddattha Gotama), who became known as the Buddha. The religion began when Siddhartha, who’d lived a life of luxury as an Indian Prince, realised there was suffering in the world and wanted to understand why. He dedicated his life to finding the answer and teaching others what he discovered. 

Today there are about 500 million Buddhists all over the world.

Top 10 facts

  • Buddhists do not believe in a God who created the world and everything in it.
  • Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, grew up in a Hindu family.
  • The word ‘Buddha’ means the ‘enlightened one’, ‘the one who knows’.
  • There are now about 500 million Buddhists all over the world. Countries with the highest proportion of Buddhist citizens are Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Tibet but China is the country with the largest Buddhist population (over 102,000,000).
  • In Buddhism, the lotus flower is a symbol of enlightenment, which means seeing things as they really are.
  • Meditation is a very important part of Buddhism. Through meditation, Buddhists believe they can calm and clear the mind, making it peaceful.
  • Some Buddhists choose to leave their families and live as monks (if they are men) or nuns (if they are women) and dedicate their lives to sharing the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhist monks and nuns wear orange robes and shave their heads.
  • Buddhists believe in a constant cycle of life and death, and that people will be reborn after they die unless they reach Enlightenment and reach nirvana.
  • Buddhists worship at shrines at home and in temples and in monasteries (viharas). Calm, peaceful and shady gardens are important areas in monasteries.
  • The most important festival in Buddhism is Wesak, celebrated in May or June, when Buddhists remember the Buddha's birth and his Enlightenment.

Timeline

  • 563BC
    Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, was probably born at around this time in an area of northern India (modern-day Nepal)

  • 269-231BC
    Buddhism spread across India during the rule of Emperor Asoka

  • 200BC-1200AD
    Moving along trade routes, Buddhism reaches Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia and Borneo and remains a dominant religion until around 1200

Did you know?

The first stories and teachings of the Buddha weren't written down but were passed down by word of mouth. About 400 years after the death of the Buddha, his teachings were first written down in Pali and Sanskrit, two very old North Indian languages.

Some Buddhists choose to become monks and nuns and make religion the most important thing in their lives; they are known as the Sangha. Their job is to teach and guide other Buddhists using the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhist monks and nuns rely on the kindness of others for their food, shelter and clothes. You might have seen pictures of Buddhist monks wearing robes the colour of saffron (a kind of orange-yellow). They go barefoot and shave their heads. Some monks in Thailand live alone in the forest for three months of the year, praying and meditating. 

In Buddhist countries, there are many temples where people can make offerings of flowers and incense for Buddha and give food for the monks.

Temples exist in all Buddhist countries but Buddhists do not need to go there to worship and meditate. Buddhists worship in a temple or at home. Some Buddhists have a shrine in their own home with a small statue of Buddha.

When Buddhists enter a temple they put their hands together and bow to the image of the Buddha.

A wheel with eight spokes (dhamma) is often used as a symbol of Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha.

Puja is the name of Buddhist worship. People show their love of Buddha by meditating, lighting candles and making offerings of flowers and incense.

Siddhartha taught people to focus their mind on good thoughts and develop strength by refusing to do wrong. Once people were able to do this, they could achieve Enlightenment, an understanding of why suffering happens and how it can be stopped.

The faces of Buddha statues are usually made to look calm and serene. They often show the Buddha meditating, sitting with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap.

There are two main types (or schools) of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. All Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha, but different groups interpret the teachings in different ways. Theravada Buddhists do not pray to the Buddha, but believe that each person must gain Enlightenment for themselves. Mahayana Buddhists believe in Bodhisattvas, people who have gained Enlightenment. They pray to the Bodhisattvas for help in their daily lives and want to become more like them.

Wesak is a very important Buddhist festival. Statues are decorated, offerings are taken to the monasteries and there may even be fireworks.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • An image of the Buddha
  • Young Buddhist monks
  • A statue of the Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand
  • Buddhist prayer flags
  • A Buddhist symbol, an image of the Buddha in a lotus flower
  • Candles and prayer wheels in a temple
  • A statue of the Buddha
  • Buddha under the bodhi tree
  • Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan
  • A Buddhist shrine in Thailand
  • Buddhist monks
  • The ritual of bathing the Buddha

Gallery

About

Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, was born in an area of northern India (modern-day Nepal). He lived as a prince and his father the king tried to protect his son from the sadness and suffering of life. As a young man, Siddhartha left the palace for the first time and was upset by what he saw: old age, sickness and death. It changed his whole life. Although he had a wife and baby son, he decided to give up his comfortable life to see if he could find an answer to people’s fear and suffering. His local priests could not help him; he even went without food and warmth in his quest to find the truth about life. At the age of 35, Siddhartha sat under a tree (the bodhi tree) by a full moon, meditating. As dawn broke he saw the meaning of all things and was Enlightened. From this moment he was known as the Buddha.

The Buddha's teachings are known as dharma. They include Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (or Middle Way).

Buddhism's Noble Truths are:

  1. Life always involves suffering (dukkha).
  2. Suffering happens because people are greedy and not satisfied with what they have.
  3. Greed and selfishness can be overcome.
  4. The way to overcome them is to follow the Eightfold Path.

Siddhartha developed a way of life called the Eightfold Path, which meant his basic needs were catered for (food, clothing and shelter) but he did not look for any extra comforts. Buddhists still try to live according to the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right viewpoint (looking at life the right way and accepting the Buddha's teachings)
  2. Right values / thought (using the power of the mind in the right way and thinking about other people without being selfish)
  3. Right speech (making sure that your words are kind and helpful and not lying)
  4. Right actions (treating yourself and other people well and not doing anything that harms your body, like smoking)
  5. Right livelihood (having a job that does not harm other people)
  6. Right effort (doing good things and avoiding bad things)
  7. Right mindfulness (training the mind to see things in the right way)
  8. Right meditation (learning to concentrate and calm the mind by using meditation)

Siddhartha died at the age of 80. He left his teachings, the dharma, and his followers to teach others what he had taught them.

The Three Jewels of Buddism are a belief in the Buddha, the dharma and the monks and nuns who have dedicated their lives to religion (sangha).

Buddhism's main sacred text is the Tipitaka (it means three baskets and was first written on palm leaves collected in baskets). The Tipitaka contains Buddhist sayings and rules for Buddhist monks.

The Buddha was asked by a king what a monk needs to be happy. He said there were only four basic needs: food, a set of three robes, shelter for one night and medicine for illness. Today, Buddhist monks and nuns live very simply in monasteries and only own eight items: their robes, a bowl, a belt, a needle and thread, a walking stick, a toothpick, a water filter and a razor. Living as monks they promise, among other things, not to eat after midday, not to sleep in a soft bed and not to handle money. In some Buddhist countries it is common for boys to spend a few months or years living as monks when they are growing up. 'Novice' monks can be as young as eight years old.

Buddhists don't have fixed times of day or days of the week that are dedicated to worship.

Buddhist worship includes meditation and searching within the self to understand the Buddha's teachings. Some Buddhists chant mantras, or sacred words, as part of their meditation. In some countries Buddhists write mantras and prayers on coloured prayer flags; they believe that the wind blows the flags and spreads their messages throughout the world. Mantras are also written out on prayer wheels in temples and people spin the wheels to release the prayers.

Wesak is the most important Buddhist festival. It is celebrated on the night of the full moon in April or May, when Buddhists remember the Buddha's birthday and his Enlightenment and is also known as Buddha Day. People decorate their homes with flowers or streamers, meditate, make offerings at the vihara and may exchange cards (decorated with pictures of lotus blossoms of the Buddhist dhamma wheel with eight spokes) or small gifts. Some people wash statues of the Buddha when they celebrate Wesak, pouring scented water over it (this is called "bathing the Buddha"). They also try to be kind, generous and compassionate. Wesak is celebrated differently in different countries. In Sri Lanka people decorate their homes with lanterns or candles, in Thailand there is a candlelit procession and in Nepal monks wear colourful costumes.

Related Videos

Just for fun...

Play Buddhist-themed games online on DharmaGames

A traditional sweet porridge dish called kheer is often eaten as part of Wesak celebrations

Download a Story of the Buddha colouring book

The Buddha’s Victory is a cartoon version of the story of Prince Siddhartha the Bodhisattva

Colour in a dharma wheel, a bodhi leaf, a lotus flower and a Buddhist flag

Make a cut-out Buddhist greeting

Can you think of practical ways in which Buddhist teachings could be followed in a person's life?

Celebrate Wesak by making some mandala crafts or celebration lanterns

A Lotus Flower Paper Cup lantern is a great Wesak craft

Make your own origami crane (you'll need to download the instructions in two parts, Part 1 and Part 2) as a Wesak gift

Download a booklet of Wesak gift ideas and templates

Watch a video in which a Buddhist explains her belief system to aliens, then answer quiz questions to show off your knowledge of Buddhism

Read the story of Buddha, then choose the correct objects to illustrate the story of the Buddha's life

Children's books about Buddhism

                

Find out more

A general guide to all aspects of Buddhism

Hear traditional stories from Buddhism (The Elephant and the Blind Men and The Monkey King and the Mangoes) on the British Library's website

In a video about Buddhism for KS1 children, Charlie and her soft toy Blue visit a Buddhist Centre to find out about enlightenment and how Buddhists try to live peacefully

What the Buddha taught, explained for children

Watch an animated story for KS1 children on the BBC Teach website: The Story of Siddhartha and the Swan and The Monkey King

Find out more about Wesak (or Vesak), Buddha Day, and how Wesak is celebrated

See BBC Bitesize videos about Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, how Buddhists pray and the life of Buddhist monks

Read a guide to Buddhist meditation, with video clips and details of the health benefits of meditation

Try meditation at home with some tips from the Buddhist tradition

Hear chants from different Buddhist traditions

See the different-coloured robes worn by Buddhism monks and nuns in different traditions

Read more about Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and how they guide Buddhists' lives

Read the story of the Buddha in a digital version written for primary-school students

Listen to the story of the Monkey King's sacrifice on the BBC Schools website

Glossary of Buddhist terms

Bhikkhu - a Buddhist monk

Bhikkhuni - a Buddhist nun

Bodh Gaya - a town in north-east India where the Buddha became ‘enlightened’

Bodhi tree (or Bo tree) - the type of tree Buddha sat under when he became ‘enlightened’

Buddha - the name given to Siddhartha Gautama whose teachings Buddhists follow; the name Buddha means ‘enlightened one’

Dhamma - the teachings of the Buddha; the dhamma wheel has eight spokes, which stand for each of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path

Dukkha - the name Buddha gave to the suffering in life

Pagoda - a type of Buddhist temple which looks like a tower

Puja - Buddhist worship or practice and the offering of flowers, lights and incense

Sangha - the name given to any community of Buddhist monks, nuns and ordinary people

Stupa - a Buddhist shrine built in a traditional way

Vihara - a Buddhist temple or monastery

Wesak - a Buddhist festival which celebrates the birth of Buddha

See for yourself

Explore the ancient Amaravati Stupa online and read about some of the archeological excavations that have revealed the Stupa

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London holds one of the most important Asian collections in the UK including Buddhist sculptures and paintings

The Buddhist temple in Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in Morecombe Bay is open for visits, or you can tour the temple online

Also see