yes :) i have a minor in Asian studies, so i’ve studied Buddhism quite a bit (yet never enough!). being such a vast, diversified, ever-growing, and paradoxical tradition, there’s no way one can explain what Buddhism is, because it is so many aspects, hundreds of sects, and the nature of Buddhism is to morph and change… not to mention that i am hindered by the limitations of language (which is a pretty common cop-out in asian philosophies when something is too dense, unearthly, and beyond human grasp to explain) but i will try to shed some light for you! :)
Buddhism has its origins in India, one of the many results of early Vedic traditions. as it traveled eastward, Buddhism intermingled with the pre-existing traditions of each new area, making it accessible to new cultures it encountered by using their modes of thought and practices to express Buddhist values. this is one of the many reasons why Buddhism is so expansive and diverse.
Buddhism is not a religion, so the best way to describe it using western speech is “philosophy” or “life practice”. many asian lay people become confused when asked what “religion” they follow by western scholars or tourists, because a) the idea of religion comes from the west, and b) they do not live in a compartmentalized world like we do in the west, where we have a set time for worship, a set time for song, a set time for meditation, sit down, stand up, etc. asian philosophical practices are an intrinsic part of asian life, and aren’t separated from ordinary life. in addition, many asian cultures practice syncretic worship, where they draw from different traditions for different occasions. for example, someone may follow confucian values at work, be daoist at home, leave offerings for their ancestors on their way to town, visit a western-style church, and recite the Amida Buddha’s name at their deathbed. while there are contradictions between these philosophies, they can still exist in harmony. for example, someone may follow confucian values, but this philosophy doesn’t provide an explanation for the afterlife, so they will then turn to buddhism for guidance in the realm of death. then in turn, buddhism doesn’t provide explicit instructions on how to conduct yourself in public forums, so they will turn to confucianism for guidance on how to behave yourself socially. whereas in the western world, being christian automatically denies you access to other forms of practice, and we identify with our religion as a way of defining ourselves and our values, but these modes of thoughts don’t exist in the same way in eastern philosophies.
here are a few Buddhist beliefs that are pretty consistent throughout all of the sects:
1) life is suffering. even pleasure eventually leads to suffering, because everything we love and attach ourselves to will eventually die, change, or turn to dust.
2) everything is impermanent. so we should consciously exist exactly within the present moment, not attaching ourselves to anything.
3) compassion is key. (the only attachment Gautama Buddha ever had was his attachment to compassion.) but you have to first help yourself so you are able to help others. and in that vein…
4) …follow the middle path between extreme-asceticism and self-indulgence. at first, before Buddha became enlightened, he thought that the harsh path of asceticism (severe self-discipline and avoidance of all indulgence) would lead to his enlightenment, but he realized that he was so weak and deprived that he could not share his compassion with the world if he continued, and that it would only lead to death. (now, this is a point where some extreme sects diverge, as there are some that believe that Buddhist alcohol-bars and rap music help keep Buddhism relevant to modern times, and there are others that deprive themselves to the point of self-entombment)
5) there is no self. our concept of a self is impermanent, just like everything else. (often this concept is explained by the idea of a chair… when does a piece of wood stop becoming a tree and start becoming a chair? if you take away 3 legs, is it still a chair? what makes something a chair? our selves are as impermanent as these objects, as we are constantly giving and receiving in the universe. all imagined “separateness” is a hallucination or illusion.)
6) death is not the end, it just means rebirth. to escape this cycle of death and rebirth (and hence to escape suffering), one must become enlightened and achieve pari-nirvana. (nirvana is enlightenment on earth, pari-nirvana is ultimate escape from suffering, and no one really knows exactly what this entails, though there are theories. the reason why some bodhisattvas ~enlightened figures on the path to becoming a Buddha~ may stay in nirvana is because they feel compassion for others and want to help them reach enlightenment as well, while others believe that the sooner anyone can achieve full pari-nirvana, the better for all humanity)
7) good karmic merit earns you a good birth, bad karmic merit earns you a bad birth. but these births, even into heaven or hell, are impermanent. if you behave badly in heaven (which is very easy to do, because temptation is abundant in heaven), your good karmic merit will run out, and you could be reborn somewhere bad. but if you behave well there, you could always become a frog or a cat? (the Pureland sect of Japan tries to bypass the karmic cycle of death and life by ensuring their deceased a trip to the “Pureland”, a Buddhagarden of such shining wisdom that you will eventually find your way to final nirvana after living there)
8) Buddha is not God. There is no God. And there is not just one Buddha. All of the Buddhas are enlightened beings that act as examples of perfect behavior, and because they all started as human, everyone has Buddha potential. Whereas a God figure has ultimate control in most religions, the individual is divine in Buddhism. you have Buddha nature, and so do i, and we have the potential to become Buddhas, maybe in this lifetime, or maybe five lifetimes away.
9) our behavior directly affects everything around us, so we should be mindful of how we treat others and the world. but if we are good, we lift others up around us, like lifting a strand of a net. our personal enlightenment lifts up the world around us. (this is more “lesser vehicle” buddhism, i just really love this analogy)
My personal sect is Nichiren Buddhism mixed with my UPG’s. :)
I hope you found this informative/enjoyable! I tend to ramble!