Buddhist wisdom arose from the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, who was born as a prince and eventually became a wisdom teacher that reached enlightenment through the practice of meditation. (The word Buddha means “enlightened one” or “one who is awake.”)
After his death, followers of the Buddha passed on his teachings orally for hundreds of years. Because of this, most Buddhist wisdom texts — of which there are many — frame the words with some form of “thus did I hear.”
To explore an example of Buddhism wisdom, read our selections from the Dhammapada.
Also read the story of the Buddha, which we’ve retold below:
The Story of the Buddha
Before he was known as the Buddha — a name meaning “the enlightened one” — Siddhartha Gautama was a prince born in a palace. His father gave him every material comfort he ever needed and protected him from knowing about pain, sickness, suffering, or death. However, as Siddhartha grew up, he felt restless. He yearned to see what was beyond the palace walls.
Worried that his son would leave, Siddhartha’s father ordered his servants to lock the gates and keep an eye on the prince.
But the prince found a way to sneak out, and he traveled to the city marketplace. There he saw the suffering of the world: a beggar, a person who was terribly ill, and someone who was on the verge of death. It all filled him with terrible sadness.
He returned to the palace, but he couldn’t forget all the suffering he’d seen. He longed to find a way to alleviate such pain. So he gave up his life of riches and comfort in the palace, and left to find answers.
Finding the Ascetics
In time, Siddhartha found a group of ascetics — religious observers who went for long periods without food or shelter and who dressed in rags. He tried their mode of living, starving himself so much that he was little more than skin and bones. But after years of practicing this way, he didn’t feel closer to finding the answers he sought. He decided to try another way.
The Bodhi Tree
At this time, a woman in a nearby village saw Siddhartha and gave him milk in a golden bowl. Feeling nourished, he walked until he came to a lake where white lotus flowers drifted gently in the water. Nearby he saw a fig tree and believed it to be the Bodhi (pronounced “bow-dee”), the tree of knowledge or awakening.
He made a cushion for himself and decided he would sit there until he attained supreme knowledge. In some versions of the tale, a temptor named Mara appeared and tried to distract Siddhartha with riches, self-doubt, and worldly pleasures. But Siddhartha resisted the temptations and stayed focused, eventually having the realization that suffering stems from craving something other than what is. He had reached enlightenment.
After that, he returned to his friends the ascetics and taught that we can decrease suffering by pursuing the middle way between luxury and asceticism.
He also taught the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.
The Four Noble Truths
- We experience pain in this world.
- Our pain comes when we crave for the present moment to be different than it is.
- We can stop suffering by ceasing to crave that the present moment be different than it is.
- The way to stop craving (and therefore suffering) is through the noble eightfold path.
The Noble Eightfold Path (Simplified)
- Right intention — Have the resolve to follow the path.
- Right Speech — Don’t lie or say cruel things.
- Right Conduct — Don’t kill, steal, or injure anyone.
- Right Livelihood — Don’t make money in ways that hurt others.
- Right Effort — Don’t be ruled by your senses, giving into any whim that arises.
- Right Mindfulness — Develop awareness of your body and mind.
- Right Consciousness — Develop concentration, awareness, and equanimity.
- Right View — Understand the consequences of actions (karma).
Classic Buddhist Tales
We’ve also retold some classic Buddhist tales below.
The Finger Pointing at the Moon (from the Shurangama Sutra)
Ananda was one of the Buddha’s followers. In Buddhism, the Dharma is generally interpreted as Buddhist teachings. In certain Buddhist circles, enlightenment is the process of realizing Dharma-nature or true reality.
The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”
“Not only does he lose the finger, but he also fails to recognize light and darkness. Why? He mistakes the substance of the finger for the bright nature of the moon, and so he does not understand the two natures of light and darkness. The same is true of you.”
The Mustard Seed
One day tragedy struck a village. A mother’s only son — so young, he was just learning how to walk — got sick and died.
In grief and denial, the mother took his body to the Buddha, begging him for medicine to cure her boy.
The Buddha answered, telling her that he needed a handful of mustard seeds. “I will cure your son,” he said, “if you obtain these mustard seeds from a home where no one has died.”
So the mother went door to door, searching for a home that had not seen death. Without fail, however, she couldn’t find such a place. Everyone she talked to had experienced the deep ache that comes when a loved one passes away.
At last she learned what the Buddha had been trying to teach her: that no one is free from dying. With that, she accepted her grief and the reality of her loss, painful though it was, as part of life.
Working Very Hard
A student found a teacher and said, “I will be a devoted student. Tell me how long it will take to master this practice.”
“Ten years,” the teacher replied.
“Ten years!” the eager student said. “But I promise to work hard. I’ll practice every day, for the entire day. If I do that, how long will it take?”
The teacher considered the student’s question thoughtfully and said, “20 years.”
It Will Pass
A student of meditation complained to his teacher about his practice. “Everything is going wrong!” he said. “I’m full of distractions, my legs ache, and I’m constantly sleepy.”
“It will pass,” said the teacher.
A week later, the same student returned to his teacher, excited about how well his practice was going. “Everything is wonderful!” he said. “I’m focused, aware, and full of peace.”
“It will pass,” the teacher said again.”
Cup of Tea
One day a Zen master was visited by a university professor who came to ask him about Zen.
The Zen master set a tea cup in front of the professor. Then he began to pour tea into it. He kept pouring, even after the cup was full, tea spilling all over the place.
The professor watched until he couldn’t help but speak out, telling the Zen master to stop pouring.
“Like this cup full of tea,” the Zen master said, “you are full of opinions. How can I show you what Zen is unless you first empty your cup?”
The Moon Cannot Be Stolen
A Zen master lived a simple life in a hut at the base of a mountain.
One night while he was out, a thief broke into his hut and was surprised to find nothing to steal.
Just then the Zen master returned.
“You’ve come a long way,” he said to the thief, “and you shouldn’t go away without something. Please, take my clothes as a gift.” With that, the Zen master handed him the clothes he’d just been wearing.
The thief took the clothes and slunk away.
The Zen master sat in his hut, staring at the moon through the window.
“That poor man,” he thought to himself. “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
Two Traveling Monks
Two monks were traveling together, a senior and a junior. They came to a river with a strong current where a young woman was waiting, unable to cross alone. She asks the monks if they would help her across the river. Without a word and in spite of the sacred vow he’d taken not to touch women, the older monk picks her up, crosses, and sets her down on the other side.
The younger monk joins them across the river and is aghast that the older monk has broken his vow but doesn’t say anything. An hour passes as they travel on. Then two hours. Then three.
Finally, the now quite agitated younger monk can stand it no longer: “Why did you carry that women when we took a vow as monks not to touch women?”
The older monk replies, “I set her down hours ago by the side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”
This is a work in progress, and we are regularly adding to it.
For more, see our growing wisdom library.