What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around, does it make a sound? And why are Buddhists so obsessed with the sound of stuff?…

Deep questions like these could be a part of your life, too as you join an estimated 500 million other Buddhists around the world in the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Neophytes on the road to wisdom and weary old travelers alike will benefit from a review of the basics, so assume the lotus position, and read on, grasshopper.

One of the nice things about Buddhism is that it generally doesn't take itself too seriously. Buddhists are a light-hearted, peace-loving group who haven't gone around burning astronomers, drowning weird old women, or drinking Kool-Aid (at least, not in the last 2000 years). Our point: understand that our use of humor in this SYW is not intended to insult anyone. If you are insulted, chug yourself a glass of Kool-Aid and get over it.

1. KNOW WHAT MAKES BUDDHISM DIFFERENT FROM OTHER RELIGIONS

There's a story told in Buddhist lore about a follower of another religion who went to the Buddha to try to convert him. The man was so impressed by the words of the Buddha that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. Buddha said to him, "Make a proper investigation first." Notice that the Buddha did not proselytize aggressively, but suggested that people should take it or leave it according to their own personal assessment without relying on hearsay or mere tradition. So study as broadly as you need to and make up your own mind. Keep this story in mind as you read about Buddhism; it strongly exemplifies its core values of achieving your own internal happiness instead of blindly following the words of others.

OK, so what is Buddhism? Is it a religion or a philosophy? It doesn't have a fixed, unquestionable ideology like major religions of faith, but there are definite elements of mysticism and spirituality. The most practical (and common) approach to understanding what Buddhism fundamentally is, is to consider who's doing the asking. If your Presbyterian relatives are wondering whether you've lost it and gone and joined a cult, and are rewriting their wills accordingly, then reassure them quietly that Buddhism is strictly a philosophy for rational, inquiring minds. When you're claiming tax breaks from the IRS for the shrine going up in the garage, you can definitely call it a religion. What could be simpler?

In Buddhism, there is no God, nor any gods or goddesses, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, demons, mythological beasts, familiars, pan-dimensional cyborgs, or talkative shrubbery. That's one thing that distinguishes it from other major religions, and that's also what seems to make it so appealing to the ultra-rational, scientifically trained Western mind. The only steadfast rule about Buddhism is that you accept the teachings of the Buddha (we'll get into these teachings later). The interesting difference is that rather than submitting to a Supreme Being in whom you must believe (lest ye face lightning bolts, fire and brimstone, an eternity spent with Courtney Love), you instead accept the teachings because they're supposed to make you happy. It says that you should follow its teaching because you want to, not because there are consequences if you don't.

As there are many different sects in Christianity and many sprinkles on a rainbow donut, so too are there many different factions of Buddhism. Not having a central thesis or any current core figure of authority (such as the Pope), Buddhism has become richly diversified. In some cases, the teachings of Buddha have become intertwined with local polytheistic traditions, as in Tibetan Buddhism. In these offshoots, supernatural beings, elaborate cosmologies, rituals, and other things you certainly wouldn't call strictly "philosophical" may appear.

For the sake of simplicity, what we're going to present in this SYW is a rather generic distillation of the common practices and teachings taken from the two main branches: The School of Elders (Theravada) and The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), one subdivision of which is the well-known Zen Buddhism. Just always keep in mind that when dealing with so large a subject as Buddhism, nothing is indisputable and there will always be an exception to the rule. As you delve further into the subject on your own, you'll encounter many variations and outright contradictions. Don't panic. All will become clear in time.

You may be confused, thinking "Wait, so how do you convert?" Just so that you understand where we're going, we'll give you the short answer: you become Buddhist when you say you're Buddhist. Knowing that, read on to realize what your are, as a Buddhist, expected to believe.

By the way, the following are all synonyms for the Buddha:

  • Siddharta Gautama
  • The Awakened One
  • The Blessed One
  • Shakyamuni
  • Tathagata
  • Great Seer
  • Shower of the Way
  • Worthy One