Buddhism is a spiritual tradition founded in what is now known as Nepal somewhere around the 6th century BC. It is practiced by what is thought to be around 495 million people worldwide, with 18% of China's population being Buddhists. The other 4 countries with the highest Buddhist populations are Thailand, Burma, Japan and Sri Lanka. It has seen interest worldwide, with centers for its study available in Western Europe as well.
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. He was born in Nepal to a royal family and a life of privilege. One day, however he left the royal enclosure and encountered a sick man, and elderly man and a corpse. This contact with suffering chose to live as a monk in poverty, however neither this path of poverty nor his previous of luxury satisfied him so he decided to live with neither, called 'The Middle Way'. Buddhists believe that one day, seated under the Bodhi tree he became so absorbed in meditation he became enlightened and became known as the Buddha- the 'awakened' one. It is said that underneath the Bodhi tree he came to understand the four noble truths, Dukkha, the truth of suffering, Samudāya, the truth of the origin of suffering, Nirodha, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth to the path of cessation of suffering, Magga.
Buddhism has numerous schools of thought, but there are some fundamental principles. There is no belief in a personal God, that there is nothing ever fixed or permanent (and that a great deal of mankind' suffering stems from this), that the path to enlightenment, then nirvana is brought by the practice of meditation, wisdom and morality. Life and all sentient beings are subject to the three signs of existence or the tilakhana, impermanence, suffering and uncertainty.
The two largest schools of Buddhism include Theravada Buddhism, which is most prevalent in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It means 'the doctrine of the elders' meaning senior monks, and sees itself to being closest to the original teachings of the Buddha, not in a fundamentalist way, but for people to implement into their own lives. Followers are expected to abstain from evil and 'accumulate all that is good', ideally by partaking in a monastic life. Monks agree to a code of conduct, to refrain from harming living beings, taking that which is not freely given, sexual misconduct, wrong speech and intoxicating drink or drugs that might incite carelessness. Lay-people (non-monks) also follow these principles but adhere less strictly. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes growth through concentration and mediation (the two types being Vipassana and Samatha) and takes their teachings from a set of texts collected around the 3rd century BCE in India.
Mahayana Buddhism is a collection of Buddhist traditions that include Zen, Tibetan and Pure Land. Like Theravadan Buddhism, both emphasize freeing oneself from the cycle samsara, but the method and practices behind doing so can differ greatly. Bodhisattva is a path that is greatly discussed by the Mahayana and means a life of selflessness and liberation from suffering. It is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Most types of Buddhism do not seek to entice others into their faith, apart from the Nichiren.
Karma is a concept prevalent in many eastern religions, and Buddhism uses a farming metaphor to explain how sowing good or bad deeds will result in good or bad fruit (phala; or vipāka, meaning 'ripening'). Whilst later Buddhist teachings seem to differ to earlier ones, where it is said that often misfortune is due to things out of our control, through doing good deeds and acts that involve sympathy, compassion and generosity. Every action we take causes us to acquire good or bad karma, and bad karma leads to bad conditions when we are reincarnated. The ultimate goal is not to simply be reincarnated into a good life, but to escape the cycle and ascend into nirvana by eliminating ignorance and craving. Altruism features strongly in Buddhism, as it focuses on all beings equally and compassion. "Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and the need for them lies at the very core of our being"- the Dalai Lama.
Worshipping can be done at home or at a temple, and many monasteries offer basic retreats where people can meditate. Depending on what location or Buddhist tradition there are a multitude of holy days Buddhists observe: Dharma (celebrating Buddha's first sermon) and Sangha day are the most important, as well as Losar, Wesak and Parninirvana which celebrates Buddha's death, which occurred when he was 80 years old in meditation, having achieved enlightenment.
There are a variety of religious leaders and teachers in Buddhism who influence trajectory, change views and interpret and teach wisdom, however probably the most well-known and important is the head of Tibetan Buddhism (practiced in Tibet, parts of Russia and Mongolia amongst other places), the Dalai Lama. The role of the Dalai Lama has traditionally been as responsible for the governing of Tibet until the Chinese government took hold and caused an uprising in 1959. It is a relatively new tradition, with only 14 Dalai Lamas having existed so far, 2 of them being given the title posthumously. According to Buddhist belief, the current Dalai lama is a reincarnation of a lama from the past who decided to be reborn to continue his work, known as a tulku. A High Lama using various methods such as dreams or oracle lakes chooses them.