The background to the Buddhist belief system is very different from the Hebraic religions. The Buddhist faith begins with the belief in reincarnation – that beings are reborn as animals, humans and even gods. What we are reborn as is defined by our kamma / karma, our good and bad deeds and, more importantly, our good and bad intentions. With these concepts as a background, a Buddhist is best described as someone who takes the Three Refuges: in the Buddha (Gotama / Gautama), the Dhamma / Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and nuns). Thus the Dhamma / Dharma holds the key beliefs for Buddhists. When discussing the Dhamma / Dharma a good place to start is the Four Noble Truths. These are:
1. The belief that dukkha / duhkha (usually translated as suffering) exists – in negative events such as sickness and death, and also in things that are pleasing, because the pleasure will end.
2. The acceptance that the origin of dukkha / duhkha is craving. This keeps beings in samsara, the eternal cycle of rebirth and hence suffering.
3.The statement that the cessation of dukkha / duhkha does exist. This is normally defined as nibbana / nirvana.
4. A description of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha / duhkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddhist beliefs strongly affect religious practice. While the vinaya acts as a code for the sangha, the Noble Eightfold Path acts as a guide for both lay and monastic Buddhists alike – particularly ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, and ‘right livelihood’. Coupled with this, the belief that kamma / karma affects our rebirth means that Buddhists will try and do things that are kammically / karmically good, such as giving, while avoiding things that are kammically / karmically bad, for example harming other living beings.
The way Buddhist beliefs translate into life, with an attempt to lead a good ethical life being a priority for most Buddhists, is very similar to other religions. Compared with Christianity, for example, many similarities can be seen: respect for life, rejection of violence, emphasis on charity and good deeds. However, it is important to remember that Buddhist beliefs are based on a background of kamma / karma and reincarnation with gods being ‘on this side’ of salvation, and so also subject to death and rebirth.
Claims of religious truth are not often made in Buddhism. Instead, the Buddha taught that followers should investigate all claims for themselves. However, since most people are not far enough advanced on the Path to verify such teachings as Anatta / anatman, kamma / karma et al, initial faith in the authority of the Buddha, his Dhamma / Dharma and the Sangha (for example, the Three Refuges) is necessary.
Buddhism can be divided into 3 main groups: Theravada, Eastern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. While these groups share certain core beliefs, there are some differences in interpretation. The main difference is between the Mahayana (a kind of Buddhism adopted in Eastern and Northern Buddhism) is the belief that nirvana is not the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Instead everyone should aim to become a Bodhisattva and eventually a Buddha and help with the salvation of all beings. Theravadins, on the other hand, believes that, while the Bodhisattva path is the best possible goal, it is not for everyone, only the noble few. The majority of people should aim for nibbana / nirvana.