Shakyamuni Buddha, painting by Aloka at the Nottingham Buddhist Centre
Shakyamuni Buddha, painting by Aloka at the Nottingham Buddhist Centre

What Is Buddhism | The Three Jewels

The Buddha

Buddha painting at the
Nottingham Buddhist Centre
Buddha painting at the Nottingham Buddhist Centre

The term 'Buddha' means one who is ‘awake’, fully awake to his potential and to the world around him. The Buddha was not a god or a prophet, he was a human being like all of us. Through his own efforts he gained Enlightenment.

Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born, in approximately 560 BCE. His father was the ruler of a small but prosperous state and it was predicted after Siddartha's birth that he would either become a great spiritual or secular leader. His father feared his son would later forsake his kingly duties and so provided Siddartha with a life of opulence and sheltered ease. Despite all this he was not happy. Against his father's wishes, Siddartha journeyed outside the palace one day and encountered what are called the Four Sights.

These sights, that of an old person, some one who is ill, a corpse, and a wandering sadhu or holy man, caused Siddartha to undergo a spiritual crisis. Responding to these sights he determined to find the truth about the human condition and left his father's house in search of teaching and practices that could provide him with answers.

He travelled for seven years, encountering many types of disciplines and doctrines, some of which were extreme and counterproductive. He became famous for certain ascetic practices and began to attract disciples but recognising that he had still not found the deepest realisation he abandoned asceticism. Travelling alone he reached Bodhgaya and whilst meditating under a tree, gained Enlightenment, or, as it is also known, Nirvana. Nirvana is characterised by profound compassion, wisdom and integrated energy. After his Enlightenment, he began to teach, guiding others along the path towards this liberation. The Buddha died at Kusinara at the age of eight-one after tirelessly working for the benefit of all.

The Dharma

The word 'Buddhism' is not how the teachings of the Buddha were originally known. The Buddha taught his 'Dharma' or the truth as he saw it, and what he taught became known as the 'Buddha-dharma', the teachings of the Buddha.

This body of teachings is what we in the West have come to call Buddhism. Buddhism is, essentially, all the teachings and practices developed by the Buddha and subsequent Enlightened disciples, that help the individual to become increasingly spiritually free, wise and compassionate, culminating ultimately in a profound state of knowledge known as Enlightenment.

Buddhism is the way to Enlightenment. It is the communication of the Enlightened individual to the non-Enlightened individual, the encouragement of the spiritually free individual to the individual who is not yet spiritually free. It is a universal teaching, accessible and relevant to all.

The Sangha

In Buddhism, the Sangha is the spiritual community of those who are following the same path towards the same goal. In other words, the Sangha is the body of people who follow the Path towards Enlightenment.

The Sangha originated when the first of the Buddha's followers, after hearing the Buddha teach, they committed themselves to him and his teaching. In time this group of disciples flourished and spread.

As Buddhism spread across Asia from its Indian roots, it encountered cultures with different social and religious forms. The Sangha adapted itself to prevailing conditions, often cohabiting with other established religious systems whilst continuing to live according to the teaching of the Buddha.

But why bother joining a group at all, albeit a spiritual one? Spiritual development could be said to consist of increasing self-knowledge. But we learn about ourselves best in relation to others. We clarify our ideas through discussion, simply through communication with others of a like-mind. It is for this reason that the Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.

The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha comprise what is often called 'The Three Jewels'.