It’s not easy to answer the question “What do Buddhists believe?” because Buddhism is actually a family of religions that have developed and evolved in different parts of the world, over different historical periods. It’s like asking “What do monotheists believe?” The answer is going to be very different depending on whether we’re talking about Jews or Christians or Muslims, not to mention all the different schools and denominations within each of those groups.
We can say that every type of Buddhism traces its tenets and practices back to the teachings of the historical Buddha, an Indian prince who lived sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries BCE (scholars debate the precise period). The Buddha—the name he was later given means “awakened one”—had set out on a quest to find release from samsara, the cycle of suffering and rebirth. By attaining enlightenment, the Buddha found a lasting, unconditioned happiness. Not even illness, aging, or death could disturb it. He spent the rest of his life teaching people about the path of practice that could lead them to the same freedom.
The Buddha taught, and Buddhists to the present day believe, that dissatisfaction and suffering, illness, aging, and death are integral parts of life for any sentient being, but the suffering is created by our own attachment and clinging. We want things to be a certain way (and to remain that way), and when they don’t fall into place we continue to cling to our expectations and cause ourselves pain. Every one of our thoughts and actions has a consequence: it either creates further suffering for ourselves or alleviates it. This chain of cause and effect is known as karma.
It is important to understand that just as we create our own suffering through our own efforts, we can end it. The way out of that cycle is a path of practice through which we can develop ethical behavior, concentration, and wisdom. When we develop those attributes fully in ourselves, they can lead to awakening and release from suffering. Every single person has the capacity to make this happen.
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