The term “Buddhism” was coined by European scholars nearly three centuries ago to describe a pan-Asian religious, philosophical, and cultural tradition centered around the life and teachings of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, or “Enlightened One,” was a prince of the Sakya clan who live in India over twenty-five hundred years ago. Today the followers of the way of the Buddha most live in Asia, but significant numbers are in Europe and North America as well. Buddhism continues to attract followers, who are often drawn by the social and cultural aspects of the various sects that have arisen over time.
Siddhartha Gautama gave up his life as a prince and searched for enlightenment as to the true nature of existence. His teachings outline the Four Noble Truths: life is suffering; suffering arises from craving and attachment; attaining nirvana — the cessation of suffering — entails overcoming ignorance and attachment; and the way to reach nirvana is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. For the follower, the path begins with acceptance of the Triple Jewels: the Buddha, dharma (religious teachings), and sangha (the community of monks, nuns, saints, and laypersons).
Buddhism assumes that humans undergo cycles of birth and death. Since there is no soul, or atman, these cycles are series of new manifestations, rather than the reappearance of the same being. A Buddhist’s ultimate goal is to reach nirvana — freedom from desire and from the cycle of rebirth and suffering.