Buddha sits crosslegged under a tree, eyes closed. Learn the Buddhism definition & more!

Buddhism is practiced by over 500 million people worldwide and is the world's fourth largest religion. Buddhism is about 2,500 years old and began in the 6th century based on the teachings of the Buddha. While it began in India, within a few centuries Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Today, Buddhists live all around the world but are mainly concentrated in East and Southeast Asia. It is a religion centered on peace and tranquility and the importance of leading a moral and good life.

Student Activities for Buddhism

Essential Questions for Buddhism

  1. When and where did Buddhism originate?
  2. Who was the Buddha and what did he teach his followers?
  3. What do Buddhists believe and what holidays do they celebrate?
  4. What objects or symbols are important or sacred in Buddhism?
  5. Where are its followers today and how many people practice Buddhism throughout the world?
  6. How do Buddhists worship and who are its spiritual leaders?

What is Buddhism?

Siddhartha Gautama was born as a Hindu prince somewhere around 480 - 623 BCE (accounts vary). According to legend, Siddhartha's father heard a prophecy that his new baby would become a religious leader rather than taking his rightful place on the throne to succeed him. Because of this, the king hid any form of human suffering from his son. Siddhartha was surrounded by luxury and privilege and everyone in the palace was forbidden from discussing any type of sickness, suffering, or death. It is said that around the age of 29, Siddhartha was granted permission to venture outside the palace. On his trip, Siddhartha saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, which greatly disturbed him. He wondered what the purpose of life was if everyone would eventually be stricken with sickness, old age, and death.

As Siddhartha continued on his journey, he saw a monk who lived as an ascetic with no home or possessions and yet, this man was happy. This intrigued Siddhartha and it was then that he decided to give up his life as a prince to seek out the meaning of life and how to end suffering and find happiness. Siddhartha went on a quest to study from the land's greatest yoga and meditation masters. He practiced an extreme form of fasting and meditating for 6 years, living on nothing more than seeds that had blown into his lap. At the end of 6 years, Siddhartha realized that he had not found the answer to the meaning of life. In fact, he felt that his thoughts were even more clouded from the extreme starvation.

Siddhartha came to believe that the path to happiness lay somewhere in between the life of extreme luxury he had left behind and his current life of extreme poverty. He sat beneath a fig tree with heart shaped leaves and meditated for several days. Through his meditation, Siddhartha had an epiphany and became enlightened. He began to understand that the answer to life's suffering was to end desire. He believed that people suffer because they want things to be a certain way instead of accepting the fact that things are always changing. He believed that with this acceptance, one's fear of sickness, old age, and death would eventually disappear. He believed that without this fear, one could finally put an end to their own suffering and eventually achieve nirvana. Nirvana is a transcendent state where one has no suffering, desire, nor a sense of self. After reaching nirvana, one would be released from the cycle of reincarnation.

The Four Noble Truths

After this enlightenment, Siddhartha became the Buddha. He went out into the world to teach others what he had discovered. His followers were called the Sangha, a Buddhist community of monks, nuns, novices, and laity. Buddha established the Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth is that life is filled with suffering (also called dukkha) or dissatisfaction. Life will always be dissatisfying because people worry about the impermanence of life and that life is not living up to their expectations. People are stricken by the desire to keep things the same. They want to hold on to the best moments of their lives or their loved ones, when in fact, life is always changing.

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha is caused by desire and the fact that people cling to their desires: possessions, people, and life itself. People want things they don't have, and they want the good things in life they do have to never change. However, possessions are temporary and people grow and change and eventually grow old and die. Buddha taught that you can't desire permanence in an impermanent world. This desire will always lead to suffering. Buddha taught that in order to end suffering and have a happy life, a person must enjoy what they have without attachment and a person must not desire the things that they do not have.

The Third Noble Truth is that there is a way to end suffering. Buddha taught that since we are the cause of our own suffering, we must also be the solution. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we are able to control our reaction to what happens.

The Fourth Noble Truth is that by following the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, one can find an end to suffering.

Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way, is the way to change your mindset to achieve happiness. The Buddha believed that following the Eightfold Path would lead to happiness. He believed that if one could clear their mind of desire and the need to control the impermanence of life, then they would be able to enjoy each moment as it comes.

The Eight steps are

  1. right view: accepting the Four Noble Truths
  2. right thought: recognizing that your worst enemy cannot harm you more than your own thoughts and that you should fill your mind with positivity and compassion for yourself and others
  3. right speech: use positive words when you speak rather than negative words such as insults, gossip, and lies
  4. right action: act kindly and compassionately toward all living things and subscribe to a life of nonviolence or ahimsa
  5. right livelihood: avoid doing a job or work that causes harm to other living things and choose honesty and kindness
  6. right effort: put effort into opening your mind to good thoughts while pushing out negative thoughts
  7. right mindfulness: remaining in the present without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future while being careful not to judge others or yourself
  8. right concentration: using meditation to focus your mind and allow yourself to gain a greater insight into yourself, others and the world

Another fundamental belief in Buddhism is karma. Karma dictates that every action has a reaction, so your good deeds will beget good things in this life or the next, while your bad deeds will come back to haunt you later. Padmasambhava, the legendary Indian Buddhist mystic said that "if you want to know about your past life: look at your present body; if you want to know your future: look at your mind." Karma influences how you will be born after death but everyone has the power to change and make their lives better by focusing on doing good.

Samsara is another core belief of Buddhism. While reincarnation is the rebirth of a soul in another body, samsara is the entire cycle. Samsara is the continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth for all living things. When the Buddha reached enlightenment, he was freed from the cycle of samsara because he had achieved nirvana. The Eightfold Path is like 8 spokes on a wheel that spin all together. Desire and karma are the reason for the cycle to continue on and on and the only way to break the cycle is to end one's desire and, therefore, their suffering.

The Spread of Buddhism

After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he spent the next 45 years of his life traveling all over India teaching his beliefs. He died around the age of 80 and his followers, the Sangha, continued to spread his teachings of the right way of living or Dharma throughout India and Asia. While Buddhism began in India, it eventually declined and Hinduism continues to be India's most popular religion today. However, Buddhism remains prominent in much of East and Southeast Asia. There are dozens of different branches of Buddhism such as Theravada, which is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Another branch is Mahayana, which is popular in Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. A sect of Mahayana is Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle Buddhism), which many call Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism and was traditionally the leader of the Tibetan people. In the 1950s, China took over Tibet and now the Dalai Lama lives in exile in India. There are over 500 million Buddhists throughout the world today.

Buddhists, like most Asian traditions, follow a lunar calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon. Every month in the lunar calendar begins when there is a new moon and each month lasts 29-30 days. Each Buddhist year is about 10 days shorter than the Western year. The important days of the month for Buddhists are days when there is a full moon or a new moon.

The main Buddhist festival of the year is Buddha Day, Wesak, or Vesak which is a celebration of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death. Buddhist homes are decorated with colorful lanterns and flags. Buddhists visit their local temples for services and teachings, and give offerings to the monks. Another holiday is the Buddhist New Year. This is a time for meditation and self reflection and finding ways to improve oneself. It also includes cleaning and decorating the home and giving gifts to bring good fortune. For many Buddhists, the New Year is observed when the Chinese (Lunar) New Year occurs, however other Buddhists may celebrate on a different day and it is dependent on the country and the sect of Buddhism.

Dharma Day is celebrated by Theravada Buddhists on the full moon day of July. It marks the beginning of the Buddha's teaching. Soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, he went to find his disciples and taught them about his experience and his discovery of The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Dharma Day is centered around this. Parinirvana Day, or Nirvana Day, commemorates the day when the Buddha died and achieved Parinirvana, or complete Nirvana. It is said that when Buddha was 81 years old, he knew that the time had come for him to die so he lay down and died peacefully beneath the same Bodhi tree where he first reached enlightenment. This holiday is observed in February.

Buddhists worship in a Buddhist temple or monastery. Temples include a vihara, chaitya, wat, pagoda, and stupa. Stupas are dome-shaped structures erected as a Buddhist shrines that contain relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, and are used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.

Buddhists use a number of symbols and sacred objects. Japamala or Mala are prayer beads that are used in Buddhism as well as other religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. They usually have 108 beads which are used for prayer. They may also have 27 beads which are counted four times. Another sacred object in Buddhism are prayer wheels, which have a hollow cylinder that contains a tightly scrolled paper of a mantra or prayers. When the wheels are spun, the prayers sent out multiply. Other sacred objects include representations of the Buddha, prayer bells, conch shells, and singing bowls. The Om symbol, which represents the ultimate reality, consciousness, or Atman, is chanted in Buddhism as well as used in Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Buddhists believe that you should attempt to do no harm to any living thing. Many Buddhists are vegan or vegetarian because of this. Most Buddhists do not believe in or worship one God or many gods like in other religions, but instead follow the teachings of the Buddha and worship him as a form of respect. Buddhists believe in living a good and moral life and as the Dalai Lama says: “ ... believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. ... Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”

With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about Buddhism. They’ll become familiar with the environment, resources, technologies, religion, and culture of Buddhism and be able to demonstrate their knowledge in writing and illustrations.

Find more lesson plans and activities like these in our Social Studies Category!
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