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.
The Buddha, himself, explains this best, when he writes, “Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘This is our Teacher’. But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up… and when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, and that the wise believe them to be so, then accept them and follow them.”
This is Buddhism—it’s more about practice than merely holding a certain set of dogmatic beliefs.
It's closer to psychology than religion.
One fact about Buddhism fact that will surprise you the most is that it is closer to psychology than religion—it’s really quite practical.
The Buddha could be seen as an early psychologist, teaching his disciples the idea of acceptance—that the world is a certain way, and that wishful thinking only leads to sorrow.
One of the principal ideas of Buddhism is that suffering comes from craving—mainly, from wishing things were different than they are. We all wish that sickness didn’t take hold of our bodies. We want money, friends, and lovers. We want success and fame. We want and we want, and when the world doesn’t align with those wants, we suffer.
But Siddhartha, in his enlightenment, recognized the futility of this.
Buddhism fosters a mindset that helps adherents accept the world as it really is, and to abolish destructive cravings that lead to anger, sorrow, and suffering.
Doing this requires constant mindfulness—a concept that is becoming a huge trend in the psychology field. To be mindful is simply to focus your awareness on the present moment, while avoiding judging your thoughts and feelings as either bad or good. It means to live totally in the present, and it has proven to be incredibly therapeutic.
One of their leaders is found, not chosen.
Another Buddhism fact that may surprise you involves the Dali Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
The Dali Lama is found rather than chosen.
The Dali Lama is believed to have the ability to choose the body he is reincarnated into, meaning that each Dali Lama is a reincarnation of the last.
The High Lamas of the Gelupta tradition take on the search for the reborn Dali Lama each time the previous leader passes away. This can take years—it took, in fact, 4 years to find the current Dali Lama, Tensin Gyatso.
When the High Lamas have a vision, the search begins. They meditate at central Tibet’s holy lake, waiting for signs that may indicate where the new Dali Lama resides.
When the boy is found, the High Lamas enact a series of secret tests to make sure he is their actual reincarnated leader—this includes presenting the boy with a set of items, one of which belonged to the previous Dali Lama, and seeing if he chooses the correct one.
If chosen, the boy, family in tow, is taken to Lhasa, where he studies the Buddhist sutra to prepare for his place as spiritual leader of Tibet.
They study kōans.
A Buddhist kōan is a paradoxical statement or question that is used in Zen practice to provoke doubt and test progress in Zen practice. Once the solution has been found, the kōan is no longer paradoxical, and can be understood for what it is—a profoundly meaningful statement produced from the state of consciousness it is designed to awaken.
They’re usually just a few sentences in length. A well-known example is Master Hakuin Ekaku’s question, "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?"
Contrary to popular belief, these aren’t simply nonsensical statements which suddenly bring about “Enlightenment”. They are meant to be creatively solved, although not in the way our Western minds may expect.
This isn’t an easy process, either. Students meditate on them for a year or more, and in some schools, it can take up to 10 years to master all assigned kōans.
At the most basic level a kōan slowly breaks down a student’s conception of the way reality works, allowing them to begin to truly “see,” through the fog of presuppositions and expectations.
This last Buddhism fact may surprise you simply because of its effectiveness. Paired with a teacher, the solving of koans can breed immense clarity of mind.
Don’t believe that? Find a Zen master and try it out for yourself. You may just be surprised.
Learn about the path to a clearer vision.
Buddhism is very different from its Western stereotypes. It is a way of life that’s focused on alleviating suffering through a rational, emotional, and spiritual journey toward clarity. Surprisingly compatible with Western life, Buddhism is about cutting through prejudices and presuppositions to get to the truth of what reality is.
And these 7 Buddhism facts that will surprise you are only the beginning of this complex and ancient belief system. For more information about the core teachings of Buddhism, head here.