Buddhism in a Nut Shell


Buddhism in a Nut Shell

 Lesley Francis

This article provides a basic introduction to Buddhism. It seeks to describe the central beliefs and practices of Buddhism at both a formal and popular level, and to outline the central features of the historical development of Buddhism. It aims to help the reader to be at ease in discussing the Christian faith with a Buddhist.

Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, can point to a specific founder. However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century BC).

Buddha wrote nothing, and the writings that have come down to us date from about 150 years after his death. By the time these texts came out, division had already appeared within Buddhism. 

Early Buddhism was confined largely to India and is usually referred to as Theravada Buddhism. Later Buddhism, which became very popular outside India (notable in China and Japan), became known as Mahayana Buddhism.

The adaptability and developing character of Buddhism accounts for its extraordinary variety, which makes the task of characterizing an ‘essence’ of Buddhism remarkably difficult. Buddhism has become woven into the texture of the social and political life of Buddhist countries. 

The cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy is the view that all life is suffering. Everyone is subject to the traumas of birth, sickness, decrepitude and death; to what they most dread (an incurable disease or an ineradicable personal weakness), as well as separation from what they love. The cause of suffering is desire – specifically the desire of the body and the desire for personal fulfillment. Happiness can be achieved only if these desires are overcome, and this requires following the ‘eight-fold path’. By following this path the Buddhist aims to attain nirvana, a condition beyond the limits of mind and feelings, a state of bliss. 

The continued existence of Buddhism for over 2,500 years, constitutes a very deep challenge to the Christian church. Buddhism has come to be more familiar to the Western world in recent years. Its impact can be felt, for instance in the conversion to Buddhism among Westerners.

There are radical differences between Buddhism and Christianity that make any attempt at reconciliation between the two faiths impossible. The Buddhist worldview is basically monistic. The existence of a personal creator and Lord is denied. The world operates by natural power and law, not by divine command. 

Historical Introduction 

The man who was to become Buddha, ‘the Enlightened One’, was born about 560 BC, the son of a small rajah in northeast India. His personal name was Siddhartha, and his family name Gautama. He and his family were Hindus by religion.

There was supposedly a prophecy given at the time of his birth by a sage at his father’s court. The prophecy said that the child would become a great kind if he stayed at home, but if he decided to leave home, he would become a savior for mankind. One day Siddhartha informed his father that he wished to see the world. This excursion would forever change his life, for it was during this journey that he saw ‘the four passing sights’: 

  1. The first troubling sight Siddhartha saw was that of a decrepit old man. When Siddhartha asked what had happened to this man, he was told that the man was old, as everyone some day would become.
  1. Later he met a sick man and was told that all people were liable to be sick and suffer pain like that individual.
  1. He then saw a funeral procession with a corpse on its way to cremation, the followers weeping bitterly. When he asked what that meant, Siddhartha was informed that it was the way of life, for sooner or later both prince and pauper would have to die.
  1. The last sight was that of a monk begging for food. The tranquil look on the beggar’s face convinced Siddhartha that this type of life was for him. Immediately he left the palace and his family in search of enlightenment. The former prince, now a beggar, spent his time wandering from place to place seeking wisdom. Unsatisfied by the truths taught in the Hindu scriptures, he became discouraged but continued on his quest. He tried asceticism but this gave him no peace. The fateful day in his life came while he was meditating beneath a fig tree.

Buddha’s Enlightenment

Deep in meditation, he reached the highest degree of God-consciousness, known as nirvana. He supposedly stayed under the fig tree for seven days. After that, the fig tree was called the bodhi, or the bo tree, the tree of wisdom. The truths he learned he would now impart to the world, no longer as Siddhartha Gautama, but as the Buddha, the Enlightened One. The Indian people, disillusioned with Hinduism, listened intently to Buddha’s teaching. By the time of Buddha’s death, at the age of 80, his teachings had become a strong force in India. 

Buddha made a diagnosis of suffering, to which Buddhists give the name of the Four Noble Truths. 

The Four Noble Truths 

  1. Everything in life is subject to suffering and frustration.
  2. The cause of this suffering and disease is desire – craving, lust, attachment to people and things, even to life itself.
  3. To escape from suffering, men must crush all desire and craving, and break all the chains of attachment.
  4. The way to do this is by following the Noble Eight-fold Path. This alone can lead to nirvana, the ultimate goal of all Buddhist teaching.

The Noble Eight-fold Path 

  1. Right belief: recognition and understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right intention: the disciple sets himself to the single-minded pursuit of the goal and makes this his aim.
  3. Right speech: watching one’s words and seeking to avoid deceptive and uncharitable speech, idle chatter and gossip.
  4. Right action: avoidance of wrongdoing; behavior to be motivated by selflessness and charity.
  5. Right livelihood: not following an occupation which would cause harm to other beings.
  6. Right effort: patient striving to prevent and eliminate evil impulses and to foster and develop good ones.
  7. Right mindfulness: seeking self-awareness through steady attention to thoughts, feelings and actions.
  8. Right concentration: combines with right effort and right mindfulness in the spiritual discipline which enables the disciple to overcome all that holds him back in his search for nirvana.

Buddhist Precepts 

There are five precepts taught by Buddhism that all Buddhists should follow: 

  1. Kill no living thing (including insects)
  2. Do not steal
  3. Do not commit adultery
  4. Tell no lies
  5. Do not drink intoxicants or take drugs

The two main divisions of Buddhism are Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism: 

Theravada // Mahayana

Man as an individual // Man as involved with others

Man stands alone (salvation by self-effort) // Man not alone (salvation by grace)

Key virtue: wisdom // Key virtue: compassion

Religion: a full-time job (primarily for monks) // Religion: relevant to life (primarily for laymen)

Buddha: a saint // Buddha: a savior

Shuns metaphysics // Elaborates metaphysics

Shuns ritual // Includes ritual

Confines prayer to meditation // Includes petitionary prayer 


A key concept in Buddhism is nirvana. There are different aspects of the concept of nirvana: 

  1. Nirvana is the negation of attachment and suffering.
  2. Nirvana is the one thing that is not caused by anything else.
  3. Nirvana as the Absolute Truth cannot be adequately expressed in words.
  4. However, the term (nirvana) implies that there is a goal to be reached and that this goal surpasses anything experienced in this world of conventional understanding.

Buddhist Scriptures 

In Theravada Buddhism there are three groups of writings considered to be sacred scripture, known as the ‘Three Baskets’, (Tripitaka): 

  1. The ‘discipline basket’ contains rules for the higher class of Buddhists.
  2. The ‘teaching basket’ contains the discourses of the Buddha.
  3. The ‘metaphysical basket’ contains Buddhist theology.

The total volume of these three groups of writings is about eleven times larger than the Bible.

In Mahayana Buddhism the scriptures are much more voluminous. There are no clear limits to the Mahayana ‘canon’. 

The Essence of Buddhism 

  1. To cease from all sin
  2. To get virtue
  3. To purify the heart

Buddhism and Christianity 

There are fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity that prevent reconciliation between the two faiths. 

  1. The Buddhist worldview is basically monistic. The existence of a personal creator and Lord is denied. The world operates by natural power and law, not divine command.
  2. Buddhism denies the existence of a personal God. There are those who deify the Buddha but along with him they worship other gods. The Scriptures make it clear that not only does a personal God exist, but he is to be the only object of worship.
  3. There is no such thing in Buddhism as sin against a supreme being. In Christianity sin is ultimately sin against God although sinful actions also affect man and his world. Accordingly man needs a savior to deliver him from his sins.
  4. According to Buddhist belief man is worthless, having only temporary existence. In Christianity man is of infinite worth, made in the image of God, and will exist eternally. Man’s body is a hindrance to the Buddhist while to the Christian it is an instrument to glorify God.
  5. Another problem with Buddhism is the many forms it takes. Consequently there is a wide variety of belief in the different sects with much that is contradictory.

With these and other differences, it can be seen readily that any harmonization of the two religions simply is not possible. 

Sharing the Gospel with Your Buddhist Friend 

  1. Make contact and make friends with a Buddhist, and seek to understand the form of Buddhism to which he adheres.
  2. Seek to understand how Buddhism affects your Buddhist friend’s everyday life, worldview, attitudes and values (popular Buddhism).
  3. Avoid dead-end discussion/arguments at a philosophical level. Seek to build bridges not barriers with your friend.
  4. Present your Buddhist friend with a Bible. Ask him, if he were to believe in the God you know personally, what sort of God he would want to believe in. Point him through Scripture verses to the character of God.
  5. Offer to study the Gospel of Mark with your Buddhist friend, especially passages of Jesus’ encounters with people. Ask him to prepare for subsequent studies by reading the passage, noting down questions, or things he does not understand, or things that impress him.
  6. Continue to pray for your Buddhist friend and to show him the love of Christ.

Dr. Lesley Francis, a New Zealander, has had a long association with the student movements of East Asia, and is the author of Winds of Change in China (OMF Books, 1985). 


Edward Conze, ‘Buddhism: The Mahayana’ in R C Zaehner (ed), A Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (London: Hutchinson, 3rd edn, 1977)

Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism (Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1951)

The World’s Religions: A Lion Handbook (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, paperback edn, 1988) 

April, 1st 2002



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