From reincarnation to koans to the the selection of the Dali Lama, Buddhism is a fascinating and unique way of life with a few surprises in store for those unfamiliar with it.
Arising from the ancient teachings of the Buddha, it is currently the 4th largest religion in the world, with over 495 million adherents, representing 7 percent of the global population spread out across nearly every country in the world.
While Buddhism may seem to be all about meditation, calmness, and quiet monasteries, it has just as many interesting quirks as the other major belief systems of the world. Let’s explore those quirks by taking a look at 7 Buddhism facts that will surprise you.
It was started by a prince.
The title “buddha,” refers to an enlightened person who has awakened from their ignorance and achieved freedom from suffering. Hence, there is more than one buddha.
The historical figure known as the Buddha—capital “B”—was born near the Ganges River basin in ancient Northern India, in what we know today as Nepal.
Before he became the Buddha, his name was Siddhartha Gautama—his given name meaning, “he who achieves his aim”—and he came from a royal family. His life was one of luxury, sheltered and protected from the suffering and violence of the world.
Around the age of 29, Siddhartha witnessed suffering for the very first time while on a chariot ride outside his family palace. This had a profound effect on the man, and because of it, he subsequently renounced his wealth and royal ties in a quest to find the cause of human suffering, and to put an end to it.
For six years, he sought out the best teachers of meditation, living a life marked by the denial of his wants, begging for food in the streets. However, this produced in him a feeling of weakness and ill health—he suffered, and so concluded that this was not the way.
After this, he sought the truth of suffering in yogic meditation. But in this, too, he was unsatisfied.
Eventually, he settled on what Buddhists call the Middle Way—a path of moderation that steers an individual away from extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Eventually Siddhartha sat beneath a pipal tree, where he vowed not to arise until he found the truth. But find it he did, and arose enlightened after 49 days of meditation, writing down what he learned—writings that became the basis for Buddhism.
Most modern scholars agree that the historical Buddha was alive between about 563 to 483 BCE. That means that the teachings of Buddhism have been passed down for over 2,500 years.
To give you an idea of how ancient this is, let’s look at what else happened around the time period in which the Buddha was alive.
Around this time, the contemporary English city of London found its origins amidst marshy waters near the River Thames, in the form of a few dozen huts and a small river landing built by the Celtic king, Belin. The catapult had also just been invented by the Greeks, and war was breaking out between Sparta and the city-state of Elis. Jesus, founder of Christianity, wouldn’t be born for hundreds of years.
With this in perspective, it’s hard not to be surprised at how long the Buddha’s teachings have been transmitted from teacher to teacher.
There is no single holy book.
Unlike the other major world religions, Buddhism has no single holy book from which all of its teachings come. Instead, there is a vast number of texts and teachings, but few that are accepted as authentic and authoritative.
Buddhist scriptures are called sutras, which means “thread”. This title indicates that the work is a sermon given by the Buddha, or by one of his disciples—many, however, have other origins.
There is a multitude of sutras, ranging in size from a few lines to that of a large tome. And beyond this, there are countless fables, rules for monks and nuns, and commentaries.
To complicate matters, Buddhism split into two major schools around 2,000 years ago, becoming what are known today as Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhist scriptures are divided into canons for each of these schools. And, to go even further, the Mahayana canon is split between the Chinese canon and the Tibetan canon.
Sound a little overwhelming? It is. Better get reading now!
There's no Buddhist god.
One major difference between Buddhism and other major religions is the lack of a central deity.
Siddhartha was just a man, albeit an enlightened one, and made no claims to divinity at all. Buddhists follow his teachings and try to live as he did, but they do not worship him.
Interestingly, the Buddha, in contrast to the gods of other faiths, encourages Buddhists to not take his word for anything, but rather to go find out what work for themselves—it’s all about exploring beliefs, understanding them, and testing those beliefs against experience.