Buddhist Beliefs Explained

Hello All, my name is Bill Savoie. We are a diverse UU congregation. We have humanists, spiritualists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Native Americans, did I miss anyone? As a Buddhist, I always feel a bit out of place when we discuss our belief systems. Buddhists have beliefs just like anyone else, but we treat them very differently than any other religion. A Buddhist treats a belief as one would a raft, it is used to get one to the other side, but it is not an end in itself. A Buddhist belief is just a temporary tool that is used because the person is not yet in perfect harmony. It is a practical solution to being stuck and isolated. It is certainly not something one can be proud of.

So what is this raft, that Buddhists use to get to the other side? The traditional starting beliefs are the Four Noble Truths, which are;

  1. Suffering exists

  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires

  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

Noble Eightfold Path

Three Qualities

Eightfold Path

Wisdom (panna)

Right View


Right Thought

Morality (sila)

Right Speech


Right Action


Right Livelihood

Meditation (samadhi)

Right Effort


Right Mindfulness


Right Contemplation

The Eightfold path connects with three qualities, Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation. Each of these three qualities then have paths connected with their effects. Wisdom has two paths. The first is Right View. Right view is the direct experience, rather than an indirect experience. It is your view and not something you have borrowed from others. The second path of Wisdom is the path of Right Thought. This is the non-dual experience where both sides can win and there will be no losers. The next noble eightfold path is connected with the quality of Morality and it has three more paths. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. These three paths integrate understanding into the interconnected web of all life. The last three paths are associated with the quality of Meditation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right contemplation. These achieve deep harmony where nothing is left out.

These belief’s are like a map that you would use in a strange city. They don’t have the kind of details that you can follow with your mind, they have the details you can follow with your heart. They teach you how to be your own authority. They point you into a recognition of your awareness and by following that, in time, to an awareness of awareness. You can start to rise above pettiness and reactivity, and at the same time you become less dependent and more self-sufficient. The eightfold path can be thought of as a circle, with each part connecting to all other parts. Wisdom is not disconnected from Morality, or Meditation. Progress in Buddhism is made by the whole person in relationship with all of life, it is not a conceptual resolution that you do, only in your head.

So with this map, where does one start? The “five precepts” are the basic training rules observed by all practicing Buddhist lay men and women, they are as follows:

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

These five precepts, outline a simple starting method, a place to begin. You may notice that they are not given as rules of absolute right vs. wrong, but as suggestions as to an orientation that can take place, so you can start your Buddhist practice. These precepts are often recited after reciting the formula for taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. Let me explain each these three terms.

The Buddha is the name given to person Siddhartha Gautama after he reached enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama was born around 567 B.C.E., in a small kingdom just below the Himalayan foothills. He reached enlightenment at the age of 35 and taught for another 45 years. The name of Buddha is used today to both recall the historical figure and to remind the living that this was a person just like ourselves. Buddhism as a religion existed for 500 years before anything was written down, so it has by necessity, a strong oral history. Buddhists today take refuge by repeating the name of the Buddha.

Dharma represents the discoveries of Buddha and the discoveries of other enlightened people. Dharma is not Dogma, but a raft designed to get you to the other side, as if you were crossing a river. Dharma is designed to fit to you and your personal needs, and then be discarded, because the end goal of Buddhism, is a state of non-attachment, called Nirvana, or Enlightenment. Buddhists have the goal to get beyond Buddhism, to become Enlightened. They learn to let go of their little private reality and embrace a larger shared reality. Since this is not something you can achieve as a “personal” effort, or something you can “own”, it must be approached in a way that doesn't earn it.

In normal living we are pulled along by our mind working on automatic, in Nirvana the automatic mind is stopped in it's tracks. We see directly how the mind works, so it can no longer work without our consent. The personal work that we can do towards Enlightenment is to take responsibility for the daemons inside us. We stand up to ourselves and we learn to see our dirty and hidden tricks that we blame on others. We work to see how we have isolated ourselves from others, how we have created opposition everywhere. This real work, does not earn our ego a shot of enlightenment, it opens the way, to our letting go of all dogma. Even the biggest dogma, the dogma of who we are.

Even this does not “earn” Enlightenment. Enlightenment comes as a grace beyond our personal control of power. The breakthrough experience of Enlightenment is by Grace, it is a gift, and one is forever changed after having tasted it. It is wonderful, and having discovered it, it can be found everywhere, in all people. It is always with us, just as we can't earn it, we can't get rid of it. Enlightenment does not make you special, it makes everything and everywhere special. It is called by Buddhists, as a turning about at the deepest possible level of consciousness. It can only be done by people who are not caught up in dogma, and who are willing to embrace change at the deepest possible level. Since the Dharma is a raft, it too must be discarded. Nothing can be held ridged and unchanging. It is only from the unborn, the unconditioned, the open state of being, can this reality be embraced enough to let go of all separateness and sustain Nirvana.

Sangha is the word for the community of Buddhists; those people seeking enlightenment by practicing the Dharma. Buddha said that the only way to realize the Dharma was in community, so the Sangha is an important part of this process. So Buddhists take refuge by a respectful repeating of this word “Sangha”.

Dhammapada, wrote sometime between 188-192

They go to many a refuge,
to mountains, forests,
parks, trees, and shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That's not the secure refuge,
that's not the highest refuge,
that's not the refuge,
having gone to which,
    you gain release
from all suffering and stress.

But when, having gone for refuge
to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha,
you see with right discernment
the four Noble Truths --
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
and the Noble Eightfold Path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
That's the secure refuge,
that, the highest refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering and stress.

Geoffrey DeGraff writes in his 2001 book “Refuge An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha”

The act of going for refuge marks the point where one commits oneself to taking the Dhamma, or the Buddha's teaching, as the primary guide to one's life. To understand why this commitment is called a "refuge," it's helpful to look at the history of the custom.

In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one's allegiance to a patron -- a powerful person or god -- submitting to the patron's directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return. In the early years of the Buddha's teaching career, his new followers adopted this custom to express their allegiance to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but in the Buddhist context this custom took on a new meaning.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion -- the Buddha is not a god -- and so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection. Still, one of the Buddha's central teachings is that human life is fraught with dangers -- from greed, anger, and delusion -- and so the concept of refuge is central to the path of practice, in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those dangers. Because the mind is the source both of the dangers and of release, there is a need for two levels of refuge: external refuges, which provide models and guidelines so that we can identify which qualities in the mind lead to danger and which to release; and internal refuges, i.e., the qualities leading to release that we develop in our own mind in imitation of our external models. The internal level is where true refuge is found. “

Geoffrey is telling us that using external beliefs helps us model internal states that we might be disconnected from. It provides a map to Nirvana, but it is, in itself, not Nirvana. A Buddhist belief is what you use when you feel isolated or stuck. It is not something you are proud of or you will want to argue with others over. Buddhist’s beliefs are simply tools that have temporary value for the person who uses them and are discarded by them after they provide their intended purpose. Because they map internal states, they point to places beyond language, they infer at best, and that is the best we can expect. Grace must be recognized, and this is why the Sangha plays such a big role in Buddhism. Our power to communicate depends on the experiences of others. We are part of the larger interconnected web. In our personal sangha, our personal enlightenment support group, we need people who can communicate and stay present as we dissolve our illusion of isolation. This act is beyond us and is this word I call Grace.

There are as many paths to Nirvana as there are Buddhists, because the path is not external, or even conceptual. It is not a belief, or a belief system. It is of a different dimension than mind. Once you see it you are changed forever, yet you know it has always been this way and that nothing has changed. Those who understand this have been there, they did not get that understanding from me, they had it before I started to speak. Buddhism respects the fact that, already, each of us has everything we need. Buddhism to me is a celebration of life and a celebration to utter freedom. Freedom from dogma, freedom from beliefs, freedom from fixed views, freedom from all opposition everywhere. When the illusion of suffering ends there is only Love.

There are many varieties of Buddhist practice, some are traditional ones, like those of Pema Chrodron from the Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia. She writes wonderful books that are easy for Western people to read and understand. Other varieties of Buddhism are so new that they are not yet recognized as even being Buddhist. I have practiced one of these new processes since 1968. It has the goal of Enlightenment, but it does that in a radical new way, and it does all of this in a compressed format taking only 3 days. It teaches only one goal, go for enlightenment.

This new path is called an “Enlightenment Intensive” and it has been used by some 100,000 people in the last 37 years. I have a website and you can find people offering this practice all over the world. Last year I attended an Invitation only Enlightenment Intensive in Switzerland for people who facilitate these events. Participants work in pairs for 40 minutes, all day long, and alternate between active partner and listening partner, while working on a question. The question can be, “Tell me who you are”, “Tell me what you are”, “Tell me what another is”, “Tell me what love is”, “Tell me what death is”, “Tell me what understanding is”, or “Tell me what life is.” You pick one and only one question for the full three days. We call the work “Draining the swamp” because it slowly drains off the charge in our minds and it slowly creates a deep harmony of integrated concentration. We serve vegetarian food and provide individual lodging for a sleep-in retreat. We don’t recommend couples attend together because we don’t want to activate old baggage, or try to ‘fix’ relationships, we want to just go for Enlightenment.

Last year we completed our 14-th Enlightenment Intensive in North Alabama. We rent the Alabama State Elk River Fishing Lodge which has room for 34 people. We are very isolated, so people can take long walks, yell if they wish, and become absorbed in their question. We don’t call it Buddhism, because Enlightenment is beyond Buddhism. Enlightenment is available to all. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, Spiritualists, Atheists, agnostics, Native Americans, or Buddhists can experience Enlightenment. The experience itself is below the level of words, so you can form many ways to explain it. But Enlightenment remains something that you must do by yourself in the company or relationship of others. Enlightenment strips away the illusion of an isolated self, and this relief creates great joy in all activities. I think it is the greatest gift you can give yourself. The door to this freedom opens inward. It is your door and only you can pull it open, and step through to the open dimension of living.

I go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga.