Buddhism: Nirvana, Reincarnation And The Four Noble Truths

We’ll talk about different types of Buddhism including Zen Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana...

Approximately 8% of the world's population is Buddhist.
Approximately 8% of the world's population is Buddhist.

Although Buddism is a religion that dates back to over 2,500 years ago, this spiritual belief is still one of the most popular. In the West, a few decades ago, interest in Buddhism started on an upward swing again. Now, in the Western hemisphere, there are many new followers of the Zen and Tibetan Buddhism traditions.

Here we explain Buddhism and its beliefs, philosophies, and teachings. Also, we'll break down this religion's origins and the similarities and differences between the different branches.

What is Buddhism?

This ancient religion ranks fourth on the list of most popular faiths in the world after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It's estimated that there are between 488 and 535 million Buddhists around the world, or, approximately 8% of the global population.

About half of this religion's believers live in China, followed by Thailand, Japan, Myanmar (or Burma), Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and other countries in South East Asia.

Also, Buddhism isn't just a religion -it's an entire way of living and philosophy that promotes certain morals. In Asian religions such as Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism -Dharma is a set of behavioral rules that help to balance and maintain social and cosmic order.

The term Buddhism comes from the word buddhi, which means "awakening" or "intelligence" in Sanscrit. The goal of this Eastern religion is to give its followers a sense of life purpose, the wisdom to understand the world, an idea of ethical behaviors, and to be more conscious of their actions and thoughts.

Buddhism's origins and Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, a man born in present-day Nepal in the 5th or 6th century BC. The details of his life are uncertain since his many bibliographical stories are controversial.

Later, Siddhartha would come to be known as Buddha, a wise student of the Vedas -religious texts that came from the Indian Subcontinent between 2 and 3 thousand years ago. The Vedas are also highly relevant to Hinduism as the holy books of this religion.

Buddha is not considered a god since this religion does not have gods. However, he is a person with superhuman traits since he reached enlightenment through meditation or Dhyana and passed on his teachings to a number of disciples.

Although his popularity declined in the Middle Ages, Buddhism still managed to spread to the rest of Asia and even Greece. After, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity took this religion's place in many countries where it was formerly the primary spiritual belief.

Schools of thought

Most Buddhists are followers of the Mahayana, Theravada, or Vajrayana traditions.  However, Zen, Tibetan, and Nichiren Buddhism are also major sects.

Buddhist monks near Angkor Wat, one of the most famous Buddhist temples.
Buddhist monks near Angkor Wat, one of the most famous Buddhist temples.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada is considered the most orthodox branch of this religion, which means that it is closest to the original Buddhist beliefs. Theravada is mainly practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and sometimes in China.

This sect promotes experience and knowledge, as well as the development of rationality, and prioritizes the role of the monks above ordinary people.


Mahayana is the most popular school of thought and is especially prominent in Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore.

This branch interprets Buddha's teachings more openly than Theravada and has changed over time. The core belief of Mahayana Buddism is that the well-being of all living things comes first.


This branch is also known as Mantrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Believers of these teachings search for transcendence in life, mainly through meditation.


Commonly followed by Western Buddhists, although unpopular in Asia (except for Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, India, and Nepal), the Tibetan school of thought is based on Vajrayana.

The renowned Dalai Lama, usually associated with Western Buddhists, is actually a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Lamas are a type of highly influential Buddhist monk that beyond religion even have political and economic power.

Zen Buddhism

Lastly, mostly practiced in Japan, Zen Buddhism is also noteworthy. As with the Tibetan version of this spiritual practice, this school of thought is prevalent in the West, but not nearly so much in Asia, proportionally speaking.

This is a subsect of Mahayana that emphasizes the role of meditation and first-hand experience in gaining knowledge. However, it doesn't focus as much on rational and verbal thought.

Beliefs, philosophy, and teachings

All of the Buddhist traditions share certain fundamental beliefs and philosophies. The main difference lies in how they explain Dharma or the way of understanding the world and promoting cosmic order.

The sacred scripture of Buddhists is the Tipitaka or the Pali Canon, the foundation of Theravada, and therefore the basis for all other schools of thought in this religion. However, later traditions have other books which are often contradictory and cause problems when it comes to defining Buddhist beliefs.

Dharma chakra (the wheel of dharma) is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism.
Dharmachakra (the wheel of dharma) is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism.

The three marks of existence (Tri-laksana)

This teaching describes the characteristics of the material world  that we perceive with our senses and that we often mistake for reality, according to Buddhism:

  • Impermanence (Anitya): everything, including life, changes, perishes, and then is reborn, constantly. Nothing is permanent, except beings that reach enlightenment (or Nirvana).

  • Non-self (Anatman): things and living beings do not have an essence, which means that the 'Self' and the soul do not exist.

  • Suffering or unsatisfactoriness (Duhkha): this term includes pain that comes from life and in death.

Four noble truths

There are four central Buddhist beliefs, promoted by those that have reached Nirvana:

  • Suffering and dissatisfaction (Duhkha) are inevitable.

  • Samudaya: Duhkha comes from desires.

  • Nirodha: Duhkha disappears when there are no desires.

  • Magga: following the Eightfold Path provides freedom from Duhkha.

Eightfold path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the route to Nirvana or the disappearance of suffering. Three main groups are formed from these eight concepts:

  • Wisdom (Panna): understanding the world and thinking in a correct manner.

  • Morality (Sila): speaking, acting, and making a living properly.

  • Meditation (Samadhi): making an effort, being present, and staying focused while training the mind.

Samsara, reincarnation, Nirvana, and Karma

Samsara is a term used in Buddhism to describe the cycle of continuous change in life both on an individual and cosmic level. All living beings are immersed in this cycle of death and rebirth until they reach liberation or Nirvana, that consists of acquiring a profound knowledge of the Earth (enlightenment) which stops suffering or Duhkha.

Each reincarnation happens in one of Samsara's six realms of rebirth: the realm of Devas (gods), Asura (demigods), Tiryakyoni (animal), Preta (hungry ghosts), and Naraka (hell). The number and characteristics of the different worlds vary depending on the school of thought followed.

The concept Karma (action) refers to the belief that your actions, words, and thoughts all have consequences in this life and in your next reincarnation. According to this religion, Karma partially determines life events, personality, and even the social class that you are born into, among other things.