Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world with some 500 million adherents. Join Active Minds for an examination of its origins, teachings, beliefs and practices. We will discuss the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and discuss the various types of Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and others.

Key Lecture Points

  • Buddhism is the 4th largest religion in the world, with some 500 million adherents.  The majority of the world’s Buddhists live in Asia.  That said, in the eyes of Buddhists, the Buddha is neither god nor prophet.  For this reason, many suggest that Buddhism is not a religion but a set of teachings that one can live one’s life by.
  • Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest spiritual practices, originating from the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama in Northern India in the 6th century BCE.  After a life of relative wealth, Siddhartha experienced a period of self reflection that resulted in his experiencing a transformative enlightenment.  At that point, he became the Buddha.  Thereafter, he continued to travel and to teach disciples his set of practices and beliefs until his death at the age of 80.
  • By the 13th century CE, Buddhism had spread to most of Asia and had developed into many different sects/variants.  Although the sects have different practices and teachings, common to all is a belief in karma (that all our actions have consequences), all humans suffer, rebirth (consciousness extends after death and will find new expressions in the future) and following the Eightfold Path breaks the cycle of suffering.
  • Probably the most recognized Buddhist leader in the West is the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who fled into exile in India more than five decades ago following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.  Today the Dalai Lama is widely respected worldwide and is a powerful influence over the six million ethnic Tibetans within China’s borders.  He travels the world promoting his message for greater autonomy for Tibetans.  The Chinese government actively works to discredit the Dalai Lama and silence foreign criticism of its Tibetan policy.  The Dalai Lama is now in his 80’s, raising questions as to who will succeed him.  He has said he may not reincarnate.  But, observers expect he will reincarnate because the Tibetan people expect it.
  • Estimates of the number of American Buddhists range from 3 million to 4 million but the influence of Buddhism on US culture and lifestyles goes beyond those who identify as adherents.  This influence can be seen in movies, television, books and spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the key elements of Buddhism.  Why is it considered by many to be more a philosophy than a religion?
  • Describe three examples of how Buddhist practices and traditions evolved differently in different geographic regions.

Reflective Questions

  • Are there any Buddhist elements you have incorporated into your life?  If so, what practices?  Why have you added them to your lifestyle or religious life?
  • Have you ever visited a country with a significant Buddhist population?  What Buddhism influences did you see in that country’s culture?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Dalai Lama, Thubten Chodron, Gunaratana (foreword by), Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.  Wisdom Publications. 2017, 352 pages.  In this book the Dalai Lama and the American Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron outline the convergences and divergences of the major strains of Buddhism, pointing out the common heritage and common goals that all Buddhist share.
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  • Dalai Lama, Jeffrey Hopkins.  The Heart of Meditation: Discovering Innermost Awareness.  Shambhala, 2016. 168 pages.  The Dalai Lama explains the Dzogchen meditation process using a visionary poem by the 19th century saint, Patrul Rinpoche to help identify one’s innermost awareness—who we really are—and how to maintain contact with this awareness.
    Click here to order