buddhist studies for secondary students

Unit Five: Experiencing Buddhism

The True Nature of Things

Buddhism, put simply, is a system designed to bring knowledge and understanding of the true nature of things. According to Buddhism, it is our ignorance of the true nature of things that leads to suffering, so the aim of the Buddhist system is to alleviate ignorance by revealing things as they really are. The goal is to achieve perfect clarity, called Nirvana, through stages of awareness, understanding, compassion and freedom from craving and desire.

The Dharma

Buddhism is not described as a religion, nor a philosophy or a law. The compassionate, moral and philosophical way of life told by the Buddha is called the Dharma or Dhamma and is the word used in Buddhism to mean Universal Truth. Dharma demands no blind faith, has no dogma, no ceremonies and has remained perfectly preserved for humanity in the written teachings and oral lessons passed from generation to generation by Buddha and His disciples. Ananda was the disciple specially gifted in hearing and preserving the Dharma, and it is through him that the Buddha’s teachings have been spread throughout the world.

The Soul

In Buddhist Teachings there is no unchanging or eternal soul created by God or by any Divine Essence. In this sense, another key Buddhist idea about rebirth does not mean the reincarnation of the same self into a new body after death, as Buddhists believe there is no real self either. Just as you cannot sit down quietly and then point to where your self is, or which part of you is ‘I’, there is no substantial soul either. Buddhists believe instead that there is a flow of consciousness, a stream running on karma, and all living beings are like water in this river.


The second noble truth taught by Buddha after his enlightenment is the truth of the cause of suffering. Desire, ill-will and ignorance are the causes of suffering, and a condition of life for all living beings. Samsara is the circle of suffering that is the destiny of all living beings until they achieve enlightenment and break the pattern of rebirth to experience the truth of existence.


Ideas about rebirth are at the root of most ancient religions and very central to all Buddhist thinking. The Buddha received three varieties of knowledge on the night of His enlightenment, one of these was direct knowledge of His own past lives. The Buddha’s chief disciples also achieved memory of their past lives, including their names and jobs. Buddhists teach that we carry ‘baggage’ from past lives in the form of likes and dislikes, talents, attitudes and even wisdom and special powers. It is possible to be reborn into any living being, and even into other spiritual and physical realms — it is the quality of karma gained in each life that determines the fortune of the next.


While all living beings experience the same truths about life, and share the same suffering in samsara, every living being is also completely unique. There are many differences between us, even plants and animals. There are differences in wealth, health, closeness to the sun and to water and all the circumstances of the way our lives unfold. These differences are caused by karma. Karma explains why some of us flourish, and others fail; why some are wealthy and others poor; why some are happy and others rarely so. Karma is all about action. It is the reflection of our actions, in this life and in previous incarnations.

Dependent Origination

Just as a seedling can only grow according to the conditions of soil, water and sunlight it is nurtured in, every living being is also limited or nourished by the conditions of their life and past lives. The twelve elements of dependent origination are ignorance, mental formation, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, old age and death. These conditions are like the soil in which the seed of the next life is planted and therefore determine the nature of that incarnation. Our habits in this life and previous lives can become our characters in future lives, with good and bad qualities. This is why awareness, meditation and reflection are critical in order to build on wisdom gained or ignorance abandoned.

The Three Universal Characteristics

This teaching lies at the heart of Buddhist understanding of wisdom. It relates to the characteristics, or traits, of existence which Buddha identified as impermanence, suffering and notself. Together these realities describe the universal nature of all existence and provide a key to knowledge and understanding which opens the way for all other Buddhist Teachings.


Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. It is a powerful force and should be practised sensibly. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’, meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘to develop’. Meditation is very important because even when we wish to make changes it is very difficult to control the thoughts and desires that make us think, act and experience the world as we do. By developing awareness and cultivating the energy needed to transform ingrained habits and attitudes, meditation is crucial to mental health and well-being. There are many types of meditation, the Buddha taught a range of ways in order to use meditation to tackle particular problems or develop particular skills. The most common are Mindfulness or Insight Meditation and Loving-kindness Meditation.


The endless cycle of life and death is a flux that can only be stopped by enlightenment, according to Buddhists. Enlightenment leads to Nirvana which means the end of all craving, the achievement of perfect non-attachment and of happiness. Nirvana is not a place or a heaven, it is a state of mind that is available to all living beings in this life. It is a way of living and being in the world that is free of suffering and rich in wisdom, happiness and compassion.

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Buddhist insights and practices are based on understanding the true nature of things. Buddhism is essentially the pursuit of Truth, known as the Dharma. Concepts such as ‘Karma’, ‘Notself’, ‘Dependent Arising’ can be realised through experiential knowing, by the practice of meditation or mental culture. Nirvana is the purifying and freeing of the mind of greed, hatred and ignorance.
Secondary Level Unit 5: Experiencing Buddhism

Multiple-Choice Questionnaire

Activity Box

Buddhist History & Culture: Buddhist Timelines, Scriptures, Women, Countries, Deities, Culture, Statistics.

The Meditation Class: Instructions in Insight and Loving-kindness meditation – showing techniques in sitting and walking.

eBook Library: Nine Maha (Great) Buddhist Crossword Puzzles.

Online Research Projects: Choose a topic from nine suggested research projects.

Buddhism in a Nutshell: An outline of the basic teachings