Foundations of Buddhism—some notes

Stone Buddha Photo © David BlancoThe Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, lived approximately 563-483 bce in the north of India (today Nepal).

The Gotamas were a branch of the Sakya clan. His mother, Maya, gave birth to him in Lumbini Grove. She died seven days later and his aunt, Prajapati, took over as foster mother. The family were of the warrior (khattiya) caste.

As a young man, a prince, he began to contemplate sickness, old age, and death. Are we born just to get old, to get sick, and to die? Isn’t there more to life than this? He decided to leave his comfortable surroundings and to search for the truth of existence. Turning his back on everything, he cut off his hair, exchanged his fine clothes for rags, and set out on a spiritual journey. With great determination he began his new way of life.

For six years he sat at the feet of respected gurus and practised their teachings, living as a wandering ascetic. Earnestly he followed these revered teachers but didn’t find what he was looking for. Then one day, sitting in the shade of a tree, he composed his mind, looked within, and decided not to move from that spot until he had understood what he was, what life was, and the workings of his own mind. There, within himself, he found freedom from birth, decay and death. That was his awakening, his enlightenment, his Buddhahood.

The Buddha is just this ‘one who knows’ within this very mind. It knows the Dhamma. Ajahn Chah

If you think Buddha’s a person, you’ll never know Buddha. Zen Graffiti

The tathagata appeared for the sake of sentient beings lost in wrong views and inverted thinking. Avatamsaka Sutra

Even one’s livelihood and everyday work, are applications of the form and functioning of the tathagatas wisdom. Chinul

The Buddha is also known as the Awakened One, the Tathagata, and Shakyamuni Buddha (Sage of the Sakya clan).


Tathagata: Lit. thus come or thus gone. Buddha often used the word Tathagata when speaking of himself.

Tathagata: Being at one with the nature of things without duality. Suchness of reality as it is without notion of being or non-being.

Tathagata appears in the world, fully awakened, and teaches Dharma (truth) wonderful in its beginning, middle, and end. Kevatta Sutra

Tathagata is away from all consciousness and thoughts, thus I should not seek him through appearance. Unimaginable State Sutra

Those who seek for the Tathagata should seek for the self. For “self” and “Buddha” are synonymous. Prajnaparamita.

Teachings Dhamma (Pali) Dharma (Sanskrit)

Those who see the Dharma see me. The Buddha

For the next forty-five years

The early Buddhist communities (sangha) were small groups of practising ascetics. The Buddha would teach his followers and then urge them to go and meditate in forests and caves.

Arashiyama's 70 Rakan Photo © @KyotoDailyPhoto The Buddha, the Awakened One—devoted himself to pointing out the way of truth, the way of liberation of mind and freedom, to all who were interested. He taught how the truth life is altered by one’s state of mind, how fear, grief, excitement, wish or hope distorts the moment. He pointed out that when there is worry, for example, the whole of life takes on a worried appearance—the walls of the room, grass, trees, everything, is affected by this state of mind. The same is true of despair, anger, greed, confusion and any emotion. The Buddha taught that life is like a mirror, and that whatever is in the mind is like an object placed before the mirror. If anger exists in the mind, anger will be seen all around one. But the anger is in one’s own mind!

In a similar way, the Buddha spoke of birth, old age, and death as being ideas in the mind—first, an idea in the mind, and then a fact ‘out there’, and taken for reality. He advised us to see ourselves as we really are, to be totally honest about the way we think, act, and speak.

Four Noble Truths

The truth of suffering (dukkha)

This is the realisation that all things are subject to change, to birth, aging and death, and that all conditions in life are unstable and unsatisfactory.

 The truth of the cause of suffering

This is the realisation that suffering is a condition of the mind related to wanting life to be a certain way, and that physical discomfort and pain are not what is meant here by suffering; it is the realisation that we suffer in the mind and that the mind produces the condi­tions in life which are unstable and unsatisfactory.

 The truth of the end of suffering

This is the realisation that suffering begins and ends in the mind.

 The way, which is the end of suffering

This is living in a certain way, a harmless way, in the moment, skilfully and fearlessly, charac­terised by The Eightfold Path.

Dukkha translated as suffering, anguish, or unsatisfactoriness. Literally souring. Dukkha is experienced when we are unawakened. All Dukkha arises from false imagining.

Further reading: Four Noble Truths, What is dukkha? by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Four Noble Truths, talk by Ajahn Sumedho

The Four Noble Truths together have a transforming power, but the first one is recognising suffering as suffering. Corrado Pensa

 The Eightfold Path

 Right Understanding

Understanding suffering, its origin, its extinction, and the path that leads to the extinction of suffering; understanding what is wholesome and what is unwhole­some.

 Right Thought

Directing the mind towards benevolence and kindness. Being free from attach­ment, ill will, views and opinions.

 Right Speech

Abstaining from lying, gossiping, and speaking unnecessarily or harshly.

 Right Action

Abstaining from killing, stealing, and any action which harms oneself and others.

 Right Livelihood

Maintaining one’s livelihood without directly or indirectly harming any living being.

 Right Effort

Making the effort to remain aware and free from grasping in all circumstances.

 Right Mindfulness

Being aware of thought, speech and action.

 Right Concentration

Keeping the mind in the moment; being at one with life as it unfolds.

More on the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path

In awareness the Eightfold Path and all Buddhist teachings establish themselves.

 Nyoirin Kannon Photo © @KyotoDailyPhoto The Six Perfections

Giving without the idea of a giver, recipient, gift, or reward.

Being moral without the idea of morality, or one of good conduct, or immorality.

Being patient without the idea of patience, or one who is patient, or that which has to be endured.

Being vigorous, without the idea of vigour, or that which has to be done.

Meditating without the idea of medi­tation.

Being wise without the idea of wisdom, or one who is wise or stupid.

What is this awakened state?

If we look within ourselves, we shall begin to notice the way we react to life. We shall realise that everyone sees life accord­ing to his or her own state of mind, and we shall understand that this is why people have differing views and opinions. Truth, however, is more than views and opinions, and the way to see truth is to become aware of life as it is happening, as it is unfolding right now, and to now ideas and emotions for what they are. When we know: ‘This is an idea,’ or ‘This is emotion,’ and identify them for what they are, then we shall begin to open up to our own deep wisdom and natural compassion

The Buddha called this state tathata, suchness, things as they really are, and called himself the tathagata. This reality or Awakened state has many names in Buddhism — Suchness, Buddha, Buddha Nature The Unborn, True Nature, true self.

It can be described as birthless, deathless, timeless, true happiness. However, it is devoid of characteristics, and is best known by it’s functions which are awakened intuitive awareness (prajna) and compassion (karuna).

Buddhism is about realising, and then living from, this awakened state. But we shouldn’t think of this as something to get or gain. Shakyamuni Buddha said he attained absolutely nothing from full and perfect awakening.

In Zen there is a saying that reflects this. They say:

That which comes in though the front door is not the family treasure.

In other words, what we find, learn, or gain is not Awakening.

In an awakened life, existence is free from dukkha, free from impermanence and free from both self and not-self. The Buddha.

Seven Limbs of Enlightenment

Enlightenment is:

 Being mindful of what one is doing.

 Investigating the truth of every situation.

 Being conscientious and vigorous in treading the Path.

 Experiencing the joy of treading the Path.

 Being at peace with the world.

 Being in harmony with life.

 Being free from like, dislike, worry, despair, craving and wishing.

Three signs of being

In a materialistic unawakened life, existence becomes sour (dukkha), impermanent (anicca) and not self (anatta)

In an awakened life, existence is free from dukkha, free from impermanence and free from both self and not-self. The Buddha

Five Aggregates

In Buddhism we talk about the five aggregates (khandhas) — body (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana).

Read You Are Not A Permanent Person, by Ajahn Sumedho for more about the five aggregates.


Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Being Our Own Refuge, by Geshe Tashi Tsering.

Nirvana and Samsara

Nirvana is being aware, awake, without delusion.

If we are not interested in ­nirvana, then we are not interested in Buddhism. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

Comprehending form, not taking a stand in formlessness, those in nirvana have left death behind. Itivuttaka Sutra

I possess the true, marvellous mind of Nirvana, true form of the formless, subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words. The Buddha

When one is not yet near Nirvana, there are many other paths, but when one is near Nirvana, there is only a single path Suramgamasamadhi

The Truth is in all the ten directions, straight is the way to Nirvana. The Buddha

Samsara and Nirvana are inseparable. Padmasambhava

Those who have found the way, practise in solitude, and walking alone. But they roam nirvana together. Zen master Hsuan Chuen

Between samsara and nirvana there is not the slightest difference. Between nirvana and  samsara there is not the slightest difference. Nagarjuna

What is Nirvana? It’s knowing that samsara is without inherent existence. What is Nirvana? It’s knowing that samsara is without inherent existence. Padampa Sangye

Nirvana for Everyone by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

Nirvana only exists in the minds of those suffering in samsara. Zen Graffiti

The Middle Way

The bright mind is balanced and the defiled mind is imbalanced. When defilements (kilesa) come in, they take over. Then things are no longer in balance. And when the mind is out of balance, sometimes it goes off to the left, sometimes to the right, sometimes it goes up, sometimes down, or there is too much, or too little. This is what happens with defilements—the natural, pure balance of the mind is interfered with. This shows the importance of getting away from the influence of the defilements in order to live in the balanced Middle Way.

The Middle Way, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Encyclopedia

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23 replies

  1. Some good things here, my quibble is with the definition of Right Concentration – it sounds like mindfulness again. No mention of stillness, unification, gathering the mind, no mention of joy, one-pointedness, or any other traditional aspect of samadhi?

    • Adopting the translation of ‘Samadhi‘ as concentration probably not a good start.
      Right or Perfect Samadhi not so easy in simple notes.

      We tend to use ‘awareness’ more than concentration or mindfulness.

      My favourite from Hui Neng, ‘samadhi which comes and goes is not the true samadhi’.


      • You have a number of Zen teachers commenting on Samadhi in your magazine, but to me the clearest explanations of Samadhi that most relate to my experience are in the articles you’ve published about Jhanas… [Edited]

      • Cheers Doug,

        Most meditators go through the jhanas every time they meditate, nothing special.

        Don’t get caught up in playing the ‘jhana game’ as a Thai meditation teacher put it many years ago.

        Good luck!


      • Just noticed that WordPress can show me replies to my comments on your site so I just found this — Most meditators go through the jhanas? If true, this is the best kept secret in Buddhism. I don’t think it’s true myself, not where I am. Also if true, why not mention it in your blurb on samadhi?

        I’m not sure what you mean by the jhana game. I guess I don’t consider it a game because when I started experiencing joy and rapture when I meditated, when I realized the hindrances were suppressed, it it utterly changed my relationship to my practice. Heck, it changed my relationship to my life.

      • Very glad to hear about how meditation has changed the ‘relationship to my life’ Doug.

        There’s an old Zen saying: Successes in Zen are not very favourable, because what seem to be successes affect ones persistence. Iida

        And from this Tibetan teaching: Should they come to mind, reflect on how success and failure come and go. [Words of my Perfect Teacher]

        Playing the ‘the jhana game’ is an old Theravada saying.

        Keep up your practice.

        Good luck, R

  2. Love it

  3. This is a great, succinct summary.

  4. Here is a brief, concise explanation of the origins and nature of what we call Buddhism. Sources are cited and much made clear. Check it out!

  5. Great job.

  6. So I’m feeling spiritually lost and I’m hoping you can help. I feel like I need guidance but when I turned to Christianity (the religion I was brought up with) and read the bible for the first time, I didn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense to me. I’ve researched some other religions to see if there is one that fits my beliefs but with no real luck and now I’m turning to Buddhism. From what I know of it so far, it fits my beliefs and could help guide me in being a good person. And this post has helped but not given me all the information I need. But whereas with Christianity I read the bible to find out more, there is no holy book for Buddhism, so I was hoping you could lead me to a book where I could find an overview of the whole of Buddhism, that explains the eightfold path and the four noble truths and everything and also explains to me how Buddhists practice, while being able to be understood by someone who knows little about Buddhism. I feel Buddhism could be the path for me and wish to explore it further.

  7. For a newcomer to Buddhism this was a very helpful introduction thankyou. Are there any basic books on the foundations of Buddhism anyone can recommend please?

  8. What a enlightening post! Thanks!

  9. Back to the basics, grateful for this post. Refreshing.

  10. Here Here, Great post ,Thank You,

  11. refreshing dharma rain

  12. Yeah, what a great post! Very direct pointers with words on Buddhism

  13. Buddhism in a nutshell. Well done.


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