Buddhism 101 – a basic outline

©Fred H. Martinson. Note: diacritical marks have been removed for the names and terms in this outline.

Buddha statue at Sarnath Museum
Buddha statue at Sarnath Museum

Discussions of Buddhism often go into beliefs, ideas, and art in one of the three main types of Buddhism; sometimes it is clear which type is being discussed, and sometimes not. I am presenting several ideas about Buddhism based on these types. The types are both historical and temporal—there was a development, and they are also existent. They are Theravada, The Way of the Elders (the type developed in India from the time of The Buddha and still practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand); Mahayana, The Greater Vehicle (meaning greater than Theravada according to them, the type that developed in India and went to China, Korea and Japan); and Vajrayana, The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt, or Tantric Buddhism (the type that developed in Tibet and Mongolia).

I. Theravada: the way of the elders

Buddha – any being/person who has purified all defilements and developed all good qualities. The Buddha usually refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived 2,500 years ago.

Arhat – literally a worthy one, who has attained liberation and is free from cyclic existence.

Rebirth – the corollary of karma (one’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a given lifetime)—no immortal entity passes from life to life, but each life must be considered in terms of the karmic effect of the previous life and as a cause of the following life. It’s a reason to embrace equanimity.

Buddhism is a psychology more than a religion. The Buddha taught (in the 6th-5th centuries BCE; he is thought to have lived ca. 563-483 BCE) that all conditioned things (people, animals, nature and all things are interdependent) have three characteristics:

  • impermanence (anicca) – old age, sickness and death;
  • unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) – sometimes translated as suffering; and
  • selflessness or non-substantiality (anatta).

There are also the Three Fires: craving, aversion and delusion; these are in our minds constantly.

The main characterization of Buddhism usually starts with the second which is often referred to as the Four Noble Truths which can be called the essence of the Buddhas teaching:

  1. We have unsatisfactory experiences.
  2. They are caused due to our own desires (for certain outcomes, etc.).
  3. The unsatisfactory results we often experience can be stopped if we cease to want just our own selfish outcomes.
  4. How does one carry out the Four Noble Truths? There is an Eightfold Path to realize reality and to increase our good qualities; The Eightfold Path gives an outline. Those eight activities can be grouped into like categories:
    1. Ethical discipline
      • Right speech
      • Right activity
      • Right livelihood
    2. Meditative stabilization
      • Right effort
      • Right mindfulness
      • Right samadhi
    3. Wisdom
      • Right view
      • Right thought

Among the parts of the Eightfold Path, meditation is the one effort that relates directly to what the Buddha himself did to achieve enlightenment.  Today one of the most beloved of teachers of meditation is the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

II. Mahayana: greater vehicle

Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) – the first to teach the concept of emptiness (sunyata) of the Middle Way.

Bodhisattva – a being/person who has attained liberation—the state of having removed all disturbing attitudes and karma causing us to take rebirth in cyclic existence—and is thus free from cyclic existence. Examples: Avalokitesvara/ Guanyin/ Kannon/ Chenrezig, the being who observes/regards the cries of the world” or the bodhisattva who embodies the quality of compassion. The Dalai Lama is a manifestation of Chenrezig; Tara, the feminine aspect/form of Avalokitesvara, called a female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism; Kshitigarbha/ Dizang/ Jizo,  the bodhisattva who embodies the ability to guide travelers;  Manjusri, the bodhisattva who embodies the quality of wisdom; there are many other qualities given bodhisattva form.

Bodhicitta – altruistic intention; the mind dedicated to attaining enlightenment in order to be able to benefit all others most effectively. This is compassion in action.

III. Vajrayana: vehicle of the thunderbolt/tantric form

Shantideva (7-8th century India at the great University of Nalanda), A Guide to the Bodhisattvas Way of Life on bodhicitta:

May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed

May a rain of food and drink descend
To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger
And during the aeon of famine
May I myself change into food and drink

May I be a protector for those without one,
A guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge, a boat and a ship
for all those who wish to cross the water

Tsongkapa (1357-1419), founder of the Gelugpa school (“Yellow Hats) – a reformer and scholar who oversaw the establishment of the Tibet canon of scripture and who wrote the Lamrim chenmo (Great Discourse on the Stages of the Path). He was active in setting up the largest monasteries in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama – a position set up in the 14th century and by the 16th century making the head of the Gelugpa school the holder of the office. He is the spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetan people and an embodiment of Avalokitesvara/ Guanyin/ Kannon/ Chenrezig, the being who observes/regards the cries of the world.” He is still a member of the Gelugpa school (among 4 types of Tibetan Buddhism). The current holder of the White Lotus is Tenzin Gyatso (born in 1935).

Dzogchen the Great Perfection” – a particular aspect of the Nyingma school (Red Hats)

Tonglen: sending and taking replacing self-concern with concern for others



Khempo Tsultrim Gyamtso. The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjunas Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Shambhala, 2003.

Lama Surya Das. Awakening the Buddha Within. Broadway Books, 1997.

McDonald, Kathleen. How to Meditate. Wisdom, 1984.

Pema Chodron. The Wisdom of No Escape. Shambhala, 1991 (good chapter on tonglen).

Rhie, Marylin and Robert Thurman. Wisdom and Compassion. Abrams, 1991 (an expensive book full of color plates of Buddhist art).

Sharon Salzberg. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.  Shambhala, 1997.

Snow Lion newspaper and book catalog.

Southern Dharma Retreat Center, Hot Springs, NC for retreats.

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddhas Teaching.  Broadway Books, 1999 (quite detailed).

Thich Nhat Hanh. Being PeaceParallax Press, 1987.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Breathe! You are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Parallax Press, 1996.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace is Every Step. Bantam Books, 1992.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. Parallax Press, 2002 (a wonderful beginning!).

Thich Nhat Hanh. Transformation & Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Parallax Press, 1990.

Thubten Chodron. Buddhism for Beginners. Snow Lion, 2001.

Thubten Chodron. Open Heart, Clear Mind. Snow Lion, 1990 (perhaps best single book on Buddhism in our day).

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Tibetan Buddhism

Brauen, Martin. The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Shambhala, 1997.

Jackson, David and Janice. Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods & Materials. Snow Lion Publications, 1988.

Martinson, Fred H. The Dimensions of Mandala, Synthesis, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1997) 35-46.

Mullin, Glenn. The Mystical Arts of Tibet: Featuring Personal Sacred Objects of H.H. The Dalai Lama. Longstreet Press, 1996.

New-Sun-Self-Learning Book on the Art of Tibetan Painting. Tibetan Cultural and Religious Publication Centre, 2002.

Olschak, Blanche Christine with Geshe Thupten Wangyal. Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet. Shambhala, 1987.

Rawson, Phillip. Sacred Tibet. Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Singer, Jane Casey and Philip Denwood (ed.). Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style. Lawrence King & Alan Marcuson, 1997


Himalaya directed by Eric Valli (feature film). As the denizens of a Tibetan village prepare for their arduous annual trek to exchange salt for grain, the community’s allegiances are split between aging chieftain Tinle (Thilen Lhondup) and rebellious young Karma (Gurgon Kyap). Tinle tries to maintain his clout and preserve obedience to ancient customs when Karma challenges the old man’s power. Director Eric Valli’s mesmerizing tale received an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film.

Little Buddha directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (feature film). Keanu Reeves and Bridget Fonda star in this moving drama from Academy Award-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci. In a big American city, a boy and his family discover the story of a prince in a land of miracles. But the miracle becomes real when Tibetan monks appear, searching for their leader’s reincarnation … who they believe to be the boy. Suddenly, their worlds meet, leading the Americans on an extraordinary adventure.

Kundun (the title of the current Dalai Lama) directed by Martin Scorsese (feature film). A change of pace for director Martin Scorsese, this biopic about the life of the Dalai Lama was filmed with a cast of unknowns in Morocco when film crews were forbidden to enter Tibet. The Lama’s escape during the Chinese invasion, meetings with Chairman Mao and eventual exile in India are vividly depicted with Oscar-nominated cinematography (by Roger Deakins), music (by Philip Glass), costumes and art direction.

The Lost Treasures of Tibet (meaning the area of Mustang) from a Nova 2003 TV presentation.

Exploring the Mandala from Cornell University by Pema Losang Chogyen of Namgyal Monastery.