When Shakyamuni Buddha (formerly Prince Siddhartha) found Enlightenment around or after 400 B.C.E. after six years of striving and one night of meditating under the Bodhi tree in what is now northeastern India, the new religion of Buddhism emerged. Buddha’s awakening brought forth a religious movement that was grounded in the principal belief that profound suffering exists in the world. This suffering can be resolved by following Buddhist dharma or law that facilitates happiness and bliss. 

In Buddha’s first sermon, he identified suffering as all-pervasive in life. He saw the fundamental bases of suffering as the need to survive day-to-day existence, illness, aging, and death. As it was written in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, which is Buddha’s first sermon after finding Enlightenment. 

There is no general scholarly consensus on the exact date that the Buddha found Enlightenment. A number of scholars, though, regard the date of Enlightenment to be near his death, approaching 400 B.C.E.

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects. 

Buddhists believe that suffering also occurs through the selfish and mindless craving of sensual pleasure and material wealth and power by individual egos, which may cause evil deeds. Buddhists have further identified additional reasons suffering continues, including past conditioning to expect suffering and ignorance of the ultimate reality of existence or the Ultimate Truth. The Ultimate Truth, which has also been referred to as Nirvana (which means “to extinguish desire”), Enlightenment, or The Awakening, is a state of transcendent metaphysical reality, and the attainment of this state of happiness is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. 

In Buddhism, the Ultimate Truth cannot be described but may be understood only through direct insights, which may come through meditation approaches. Only the Ultimate Truth is permanent. The Ultimate Truth is the realm beyond death and is the infinite nature of the ultimate reality of the cosmic universe. There is no ultimate reality in the cosmic universe except cosmic emptiness or Shunyta. By awakening to the Ultimate Truth, Buddhists believe every sentient being can possess peace, bliss, joy, and happiness. The understanding of the Ultimate Truth is, in a general sense, a move toward significant comprehension of the true nature of the universe. For all Buddhists, the Ultimate Truth is beyond syllogistic logic and meaning, and within the Ultimate Truth, all space-time limitations disappear as they are ordinarily experienced by humans. Paradoxically, however, the rigorous use and traditions of logic and argumentation in some Mahayana Buddhism are required to obtain the Ultimate Truth and happiness. 

In the universe, all matter, energy, and time are interrelated and in constant fluid fluctuation. Within Mahayana Buddhism, a metaphor of the ocean is an important illustration of this principle. The ocean is absolute, stable, and changeless, but the waves are always changing. In much the same way, the reality in the here-and-now appears to be based on a unified and observable universe. However, this seemingly unified nature of the universe can also be compared with modern theories of physics, such as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity or quantum physics, where there are underlying and complex interactions between space, matter, and time that reflect a complex and ever-changing universe. When a sentient being experiences the Ultimate Truth of the ever-changing universe even paradoxically through rationalist logic, they have liberated themselves from all causes of suffering, including greed, hatred, and delusion, and they enter into a state of clarity, happiness, and peace. By perceiving Ultimate Truth and eliminating egotism in the form of greed, hatred, and delusion, happiness and Enlightenment ensues. 

Karma, in Buddhism, which means willful actions or the fruits of actions, is the everlasting law of cause and effect that is an essential ingredient in knowing the Ultimate Truth. Karma pertains to happiness in the following ways. Ultimate happiness is obtained through Enlightenment. Positive Karma results in higher rebirth, bringing one closer to Nirvana. The Vipaka (result) ripening of Karma (deeds) leads to greater happiness, joy, and bliss when a person is reborn. 

In Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism, one major position by Mipham and others holds that the nature of emptiness and ultimate reality is not knowable. But elements of reality, such as matter and energy, do exist and can be grasped by humans. In contrast, the Gelupka school in Mahayana Buddhism believed that reality is unknowable and encompasses a negation of all worldly corporeality.  

In part, Buddhism acquired the Karma idea from Vedic Hinduism but endowed it with further ethical constructs. Adherents of Vedic Hinduism, particularly the Upanishads, as early as the first century B.C.E. believed that good moral actions by humans turned a person into a good being in the next life while bad moral actions turned a person into a bad person in the next life. Under Karmic law, which functions as a natural law in the changing and interdependent universe, good or bad deeds have consequences for rebirth and nature, including the happiness of sentient beings. 

Karma’s impact in Buddhism is not rigid, as it responds on a continual basis to a sentient being’s good or bad deeds. A sentient being’s present character cannot nullify the consequences of an individual’s misdeeds in past lives but creates better Karma to offset bad Karma. In particular, four acts that counter past bad Karma are remorsefulness, the resolve not to commit an action again, actions to restore justice for past bad actions, and acts of holding another in loving-kindness. Mindfulness of one’s actions can have an important positive effect on future rebirth as a sentient being, including greater happiness. 

Because of the discursive nature of Karma, all are part of an intricate web. Karma is simultaneous and is constantly being revised in all of our interactions with one another. Such a view of interdependence sufficiently motivates us to forget our own narrow existence, changing us such that we begin to engage meaningfully with others and pursue collective happiness. By recognizing the true nature of interdependence, one can see that all Karma is collective, that all enlightenment is collective, and therefore that happiness and the policies required to promote it must be oriented toward collective achievement. 

According to Buddhists, without awakening to the Ultimate Truth and happiness and bliss, humans remain on the ever-moving Wheel of Life. Additionally, the cravings for sensual pleasure and material wealth and power represented by the Wheel of Life, are not permanent fixtures of human existence, and doing good karmic acts will increase happiness and wellbeing. The Wheel of Life pushes us from one moment of our lives to the next, and from one lifetime to the next, within the realms of humans, animals, asura or jealous gods, hungry ghosts, and ultimately Heaven and Hell. Yama, the deity of death, holds the Wheel of Life (Gethin 2004; Snelling 1998). 

The outer wheel is divided into a 12-fold chain of dependent origination, which represents the causes and effects of Karma that does not bring greater happiness. At the top of the Wheel is a blind man who represents ignorance. Moving clockwise, the potter represents action. Next is the monkey, which is symbolic of consciousness unable or unwilling to comprehend the Ultimate Truth. Three men in a boat represent a vehicle that can carry a sentient being across a body of water of growing consciousness of the Ultimate Truth and through life. Houses with doors and windows are symbolic of the ability to sense reality. Lovers represent the ability to engage in sensual impressions of reality. A man with an arrow stabbing his eye is representative of blindness to feeling itself or the feelings accompanying sensing the reality of the Ultimate Truth. Alcoholic drinking represents the non-productive thirst for sensual pleasure. Similarly, the monkey in the tree is illustrative of a consciousness fixated on ego-oriented desires. 

A pregnant woman indicates that the birth of a child and eventually old age will bear Karma’s burden of good and bad throughout a lifetime. 

Contained in and connected with the outer Wheel of Life is the second wheel, which represents the six realms of existence. These include heavenly, asura, animal, hell, hungry ghosts, and human realms. The six realms are metaphorical representations of conditioned existence or samsara. These realms are classified as dukkha or suffering being temporary and not perfect. Entry into one of the six realms is based on karmic deeds, good or bad. Bad deeds and decreased happiness, upon rebirth, mean entry into the asura realm, where there are envy and greed for power. Bad deeds also lead to the animal realm in which a sentient being is hunted or slaughtered; the hell realm where suffering is harsh and very long; and hungry ghosts, due to past transgressions, are doomed to suffer insatiable hunger and thirst that cannot be quenched due to past unrelenting material greed. Good deeds lead to the heavenly realm where there is continual happiness, pleasure, and no suffering. Entry into the human realm is based on both past good and bad deeds, which reflect a sentient being’s current human condition including, for instance, their social prestige and status. All of these realms are inhabited by sentient beings upon rebirth based on their past record of Karma. From the Buddhist perspective, being caught on the Wheel of Life means to continue to exist in the everyday realm without realizing or awakening to the Ultimate Truth. However, in each of the six realms, there is a bodhisattva shown to assist all sentient beings toward obtaining the Ultimate Truth and happiness. In Mahayana Buddhism, who remains in this world works to enlighten all and spread happiness and bliss. A bodhisattva is not yet a Buddha and not yet awakened. Bodhisattvas are bodhicitta or the "mind of awakening" with a goal of achieving Buddhahood. 

Finally, the third, innermost wheel represents the core reasons for negative karmic designations and decreased happiness. These are known as the Three Venoms: greed, hatred, and delusion. The poison of those trapped in everyday existence rather than knowing the Ultimate Truth energizes each of these Venoms. This is represented by sentient beings caught within the six realms in the second wheel. Ultimately, humans can exit the Wheel of Life including the third wheel, and find bliss and happiness by becoming enlightened. 


The Eightfold Path is followed in order to lead an ethical life and thus to end ones’ suffering, leading to happiness and the Ultimate Truth. The Eightfold Path is the ongoing condition of obtaining increasing bliss and happiness. The Path is divided into three parts. Sila encompasses proper physical actions and refraining from improper deeds of body and speech. Samadhi focuses on meditation practices, which help to gain mastery over ones’ own mind necessary to achieve the Ultimate Truth. Prajña offers insight into the true nature of the Ultimate Truth. 

Right Speech is required because words have an impact on others, and also influence spiritual development. It is important to speak charitable words that are truthful, pleasant, and benefit others. For the Buddha, this meant avoiding falsehoods, slander, harsh words, or gossip. Abstaining from the false speech is important to happiness because lies are motivated either by greed, by which the suffering of material attachments is increased; hatred, by which it is intended for other people to suffer; or delusion, as in an exaggeration or joke, and by which rationality is abandoned and replaced by ignorance. Abstaining from the slanderous speech is important because such speech is meant only to foster ill feelings and alienating division. Either the motivation to hurt another’s reputation or to win favor for your own ego is perverse and should be quelled. Happiness comes through cooperation, not self-interest and denigration. Abstaining from harsh language is important because it is born of anger, and aims to cause pain of some kind. A person who has controlled his own mind has no need for such expressions of enmity. Gentle words foster understanding, cooperation, and ultimately, happiness. Abstaining from idle chatter is important because if people talk of things, which have no depth or importance, they are more likely to find their minds wander into areas that are perverse or undesirable, which the mind will then feed on an unhealthy fantasy. Words should be chosen carefully in order to not diminish their meaning. Followers of this tenet should also try to avoid useless information in order to keep their minds unclouded in their path to understanding. The overarching goal of speaking Right Words is to create a foundation to establish peaceful relationships with all sentient beings. Right Action means moral action that avoids causing harm to any sentient being in whatever one does. Right Actions are not only what actions a person should not do, but also what actions a person should do. Exhibiting compassion for all embodies this. Incorporated in Right Action is the moral code of the Five Precepts, which calls for people to respect and cherish life and respect others. Buddhism places a heavy emphasis on the need to end destructive acts and to end dissatisfaction in the world through action. Abstaining from the taking of life is important because, aside from the obvious suffering that comes from the act of killing (the harm to the being itself, the emotional weight of the act of killing, and the grief of those who knew the victim), killing, like lying, comes from greed, hatred, or delusion, all of which hinder one’s ability to find personal contentment. The opposite of the inclination to kill is deep compassion and sympathy for other sentient beings, and this type of love leads to widespread happiness. Abstaining from taking what is not given (through stealing or deceit) is important because Buddhism values contentment with what one has, and giving up ties to the material world. Theft in any form comes from greed or hatred, both of which diminish happiness. Abstaining from sexual misconduct (having relations with a married or engaged person, a convict, one who is underage, those under a vow of celibacy, or close relations, or any intercourse which occurs by force) is important because according to the guidelines given in Buddhism partnerships, which constitute misconduct directly, this hurts someone in the process. In its most extreme form, the celibacy of nuns and monks represents the purity of thought required to reach Enlightenment, which should not be clouded with distracting sexual thoughts. 

Right Livelihood includes engaging in occupations that do not cause harm, pain, or injustice for others. The Buddha included engaging in the sale of weapons, harming animals, and producing intoxicants as examples of harmful types of livelihood. Also, one should not make more money than one needs, as this could lead to deception and exploitation of others. The work one should ultimately spread compassion to all sentient beings. 

Within Samadhi are another three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Right Effort includes making use of meditation practices, which overcome negative or unwholesome states of mind. These meditation efforts should occur on an ongoing basis. Right Effort also includes ridding oneself of the desire to commit unwholesome acts. Right, Effort involves the release of energy, which can be used in pursuit of “desire, aggression, violence, and ambition on the one hand, and generosity, self-discipline, kindness, concentration, and understanding on the other”. This means that, specifically, when energy is focused on the elimination of suffering, it promotes happiness, and this concentration is the Right Effort. 

Right, Mindfulness is having a keen sense of awareness about what is happening in the present. This includes focusing on feelings, the body, current consciousness, and unwholesome thoughts through meditation practices. Meditation is essential for the mind to stay on the Eightfold Path because it focuses on feelings and thoughts from the past and idealizes what might happen in the future. Mindfulness through meditation is the kind of objective awareness that allows one to see into the true nature of the universe as well as to gain an understanding of Buddhist teaching in the present. This stage of focus is closely tied to experiencing Enlightenment, the ultimate happiness. Right, Mindfulness is “the only way,” to indicate that a positive range of experiences is nothing without the insight granted through Right Mindfulness, and it is thus the key to sustaining one’s earthly happiness. 

Right Concentration requires that the focus of the mind is free of distraction so it will be clear and sharp enough to reach the full realization of the Ultimate Truth. This process requires great patience and focus and requires continual meditation. Key approaches to training the mind in the Right Concentration are mastering tranquility and insights into reality. This stage unifies the other mental factors in becoming Enlightened. It blocks out all distractions and focuses the mind on a single point for the greatest level of comprehension, given that the absence of ignorance and the presence of intense self-knowledge lead ultimately to happiness. Right Concentration is necessary to sharpen the ability of the other elements to the point at which they are able to penetrate into the true meaning of things. This understanding is where happiness comes from, either from the knowledge that the material world holds no bearing on personal satisfaction or from the acceptance and application of the Four Noble Truths. Through Right Concentration, mental and emotional peacefulness ensue, which fosters the realization of the Ultimate Truth. 

Prajña is the wisdom, which purifies the mind and allows awakening to the Ultimate Truth. Within Prajña are the final two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right Understanding and Right Thought. Right, Understanding is obtaining clear insight into the impermanence of the world, understanding how ego leads to greed and even evil, and comprehending every aspect of the Dharma, or Law, of the Buddha. Right, Understanding includes an agreement with the Four Noble Truths and the development of a deep awareness of dissatisfaction in the world. Acceptance of the Four Noble Truths leads to the understanding and elimination of suffering, which in turn leads to happiness. 

Right Thought includes developing freedom from states of mind that include greed and desire to harm others. Right Thought also focuses on refraining from unwholesome thoughts. Conversely, Right Thought also focuses on concern for the suffering of others. Renunciation of the material world fosters happiness in oneself by eliminating personal suffering due to desire and ego. Kindness and compassion foster happiness in others. Refusing to harm others limits the amount of suffering allowed to thrive in society. By faithfully practicing the Eightfold Path, a person moves towards greater happiness, compassion, and joy. 


A number of scholars believe about three months before the Buddha died at the age of 80 and entered parinirvana, or final liberation, the First Buddhist Council convened in Rajgir, the capital of the Kingdom of Magadha, to maintain Buddha’s teachings. Most of Magadha is located in the modern Indian state of Bihar, which also includes Bodh Gaya where the Buddha found Enlightenment and happiness. After the Buddha reached parinirvana or final nirvana, his body was cremated, and his ashes were buried under eight stupas, or chortens, as they are called in Tibet and Bhutan. Stupas or shortens symbolize Buddha and his passage into Nirvana upon his death. Two other stupas contained the urn and ashes of the Buddha. Stupas depict a crowned Buddha sitting in a meditation position on a lion throne and are an important icon in Buddhism. 

During the First Buddhist Council, the conveners divided Buddha’s teachings into Three Baskets, known as the Tripitaka. The Sutra Pitaka or the Basket of Discourses provide advice by the Buddha on meditation techniques and requirements and contains instruction by the Buddha on training the mind. Another set of teachings is the Basket of Discipline, which contains more than 225 rules of conduct for monks and nuns. Finally, like many Buddhist teachings, the Basket of Higher Knowledge contains Buddha’s insights into the nature of reality, including obtaining Enlightenment and happiness. 

During the Second Buddhist Council, which was held about 100 years after the First Buddhist Council, simmering divisions in the monastic community reached a boiling point, which initiated a process that resulted in a schism in Buddhism. While there is not a complete scholarly consensus as to what caused the schism, a number of scholars believe that the dispute between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsāṃghikas centered on the nature of what was the Vinaya. Vinaya, which is the path out of suffering by becoming, enlightened, and happy, is the regulatory framework for the sangha or Buddhist religious community. 

The Third Buddhist Council is thought to have been convened in Pataliputra by King Ashka in 250 B.C.E. Not all scholars believe the Third Buddhist Council actually happened, as there are no written records of the proceedings. However, oral Buddhist traditions affirm that it did occur. The primary purpose of the Third Buddhist Council was to purge “unworthy monks”. Subsequently, Theravada Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka in the First Century C.E. and became firmly established by the Third Century C.E. Mahayana Buddhism developed in China and India in the First Century C.E. and was firmly established by the Fourth Century C.E. Theravada Buddhism is primarily practiced in modern-day Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhism is predominantly in Central and East Asia, including Bhutan, Tibet, and China as well as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 


Mahayana, (Sanskrit: “Greater Vehicle”) movement that arose within Indian Buddhism around the beginning of the Common Era and became by the 9th century the dominant influence on the Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia, which it remains today. It spread at one point also to Southeast Asia, including Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka, but has not survived there. The movement is characterized by a grandiose cosmology, often complex ritualism, paradoxical metaphysics, and universal ethics.

The core beliefs of Mahayana Buddhism deal with the impermanence of reality, non-dualistic reality, egoless reality, Karma, transmigration or rebirth, and the Ultimate Truth. The Mahayana view of impermanence includes the fluidity of all spirit and matter. Impermanence is essential, as it represents how matter and energy are formed, endure, and decay in the universe. Like all forms of Buddhism, Mahayana also focuses on the process of uncovering insight into the Ultimate Truth. 

From the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism, the Ultimate Truth of the universe is based on the non-duality of reality, meaning that all in the universe is interconnected. Non-duality also means that all binary opposites will or can be eliminated. Any perceived dualities are based on illusions or doubts about the ultimate nature of the universe. Dualities must be eliminated in order to obtain Enlightenment, or knowledge of the Ultimate Truth. 

Mahayana Buddhists also believe that all of reality is egoless. There is no rigidity in personalities, as they are subject to complex changes. Nor does Mahayana recognize the Judeo-Christian concept of the soul. In Mahayana Buddhism all reality is impermanent. From this perspective, humans also have no permanent self or soul as they go from rebirth to rebirth. By contrast, in Judeo-Christian beliefs, the soul is the spiritual part of a human that is immortal and is often thought to survive beyond death. 

Additionally, in Mahayana, those that possess an ego are subject to suffering in the form of greed, craving for unnecessary things, undue political power, and even evil, all of which prevent them from obtaining Enlightenment. Thus, one of the goals of Mahayana Buddhism is to counter and eliminate egoism. 

Transmigration in Mahayana reflects the Karma that sentient beings have obtained in past lives. Under transmigration, there is a causal link between the deeds of the current life and the quality of the next one. The accumulation of good and bad acts in a lifetime provides the condition for a future birth. If a being’s life is filled with bad Karma, they may be reborn in a hellish realm. Ultimately, positive Karma is an important end goal of Mahayana Buddhism, and it is embodied in all aspects of the Eightfold Path. When a sentient being comprehended the Ultimate Truth, there is a cessation of suffering and destruction of the seeds of future rebirth based on good or bad karmic deeds. 


Beyond the core values of Buddhism, there are a few key fundamental differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. A major expectation of Mahayana Buddhism is an existence based on compassion and improving happiness and social wellbeing in the here-and-now for all sentient beings. Instead of achieving Enlightenment for oneself, bodhisattvas seek to bring compassion, happiness, and wellbeing to everyone else. Service to others is central to being a bodhisattva. This contrasts with Theravada's belief where the primary emphasis is on each individual seeking and obtaining an awareness of the Ultimate Truth. 

Mahayana Buddhists also view the Buddha in Trikaya Doctrine as a benevolent supernatural entity, in contrast to the historical Buddha. In Trikaya, Buddha has three bodies: his Nirmanakaya or body in this world; his Dharma body, in which he is eternal beyond all dualities in reality; and Sambhogaya, in which his body manifests itself for bodhisattvas in a celestial domain. Theravada does not have the Trikaya concept, viewing the Buddha as a historical figure. This belief in a supernatural Buddha eventually led to a new Mahayana worldview, where the Buddha contained three bodies. These are Dharmakaya, or the Buddha being the same as the ultimate truth; Sambohogakaya, where the Buddha who is transcendent exists in a heavenly paradise; and Nirmanakaya, where the Buddha has a mortal body on earth. 

Source by, Author Michael Givel, University of Oklahoma, [email protected],