FAQs about Buddhism

All you want to know about Buddism

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

This depends on how you define those terms. An important factor is the idea of faith. Buddha Shakyamuni famously cautioned his disciples: ‘Do not accept my teachings simply because I am called Buddha’. Time and time again he reminded his disciples not to accept his teachings out of blind faith, but to test them as thoroughly as they would examine gold. It is only on the basis of valid reasons and personal experience that we should accept the teachings of anyone, including Buddha himself. Having said this, faith is vital to Buddhist practice. The special function of faith is to induce virtuous aspirations. Without faith in a particular practice we shall have no wish to engage in it; and without such a wish we shall not put any effort into the practice and so we shall not accomplish any results. Faith is the root of all virtuous attainments. If we have faith in Buddha we shall develop the aspiration to become a Buddha, which will encourage us to practice the Mahayana paths continuously and joyfully.

What do Buddhists believe?

Two of the basic beliefs of Buddhism are the principles of rebirth and karma. There now follows a brief introduction to these topics taken from Geshe Kelsang’s book, Eight Steps to Happiness:

“The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, call ‘the very subtle mind’. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end, and it is this mind which, when completely purified, transforms into the omniscient mind of a Buddha.

Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Positive or virtuous actions sow the seeds of future happiness, and negative or non-virtuous actions sow the seeds of future suffering. This definite relationship between actions and their effects – virtue causing happiness and non-virtue causing suffering – is known as the ‘law of karma’. An understanding of the law of karma is the basis of Buddhist morality.

After we die our very subtle mind leaves our body and enters the intermediate state, or ‘bardo’ in Tibetan. In this subtle dream-like state we experience many different visions that arise from the karmic potentials that were activated at the time of our death. These visions may be pleasant or terrifying depending on the karma that ripens. Once these karmic seeds have fully ripened they impel us to take rebirth without choice.

It is important to understand that as ordinary samsaric beings we do not choose our rebirth but are reborn solely in accordance with our karma. If good karma ripens we are reborn in a fortunate state, as either a human or a god, but if negative karma ripens we are reborn in a lower state, as an animal, a hungry spirit or a hell being. It is as if we were blown to our future lives by the winds of our karma, sometimes ending up in higher rebirths, sometimes in lower rebirths.

This uninterrupted cycle of death and rebirth without choice is called ‘cyclic existence’, or ‘samsara’ in Sanskrit. Samsara is like a Ferris wheel, sometimes taking us up into the three fortunate realms, sometimes down into the three lower realms. The driving force of the wheel of samsara is our contaminated actions motivated by delusions, and the hub of the wheel is self-grasping ignorance. For as long as we remain on this wheel we will experience an unceasing cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, and we will have no opportunity to experience pure, lasting happiness. By practising the Buddhist path to liberation and enlightenment, however, we can destroy self-grasping, thereby liberating ourself from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth and attaining a state of perfect peace and freedom. We will then be in a position to help others to do the same.” Eight Steps to Happiness by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

Do Buddhists pray and if so, to whom?

Buddhists pray to Buddhas. They believe that Buddhas bestow blessings, transforming the minds of living beings from negative to positive states. For this reason, prayers form an important part of the Buddhist path to happiness. However, Buddhists do not believe in a creator God.

What is Kadampa Buddhism? How does it differ from other types of Buddhism?

Buddha’s teachings can be divided into the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, and the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle. In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are beginning to flourish in the West. Kadampa Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054). It was first established in Tibet, where it flourished for hundreds of years, and now it has spread throughout the world. There are currently around 800 Kadampa centres worldwide. Each centre practices Kadampa Buddhism in their own language and within their own society. Based on a special presentation of Buddha’s teachings known as ‘Lamrim’, Kadampa Buddhism sets out the complete path to enlightenment as explained by Buddha. Kadampa Buddhism is renowned for its accessibility; people of all backgrounds can easily understand and practice it. Kadampa Buddhism follows a lineage of teachings as passed down from Buddha Shakyamuni through various Teachers to Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa and finally our present Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

What relevance does Buddhism have today?

Although Buddhism first appeared in India over two and a half thousand years ago, it has a timeless and universal relevance. Buddha explained that all our problems arise from confused and negative states of mind. He taught methods for ridding the mind of these destructive states and thereby realizing true happiness and fulfilment. These methods are just as effective today as they were in Buddha’s time.

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