Buddhism is a thing largely misunderstood within western civilization. When I turned to Buddhism, many people believed I was about to meditate all day, get my head shaved and dress in orange robes. They told me I must not eat meat or kill insects anymore and that I was anyhow too temperamental to be a "real" Buddhist.
What we learn in school is: Buddhists search for enlightenment and try to get into the Nirvana, which is just, uhm, the big nothing. And there are long and boring texts that nobody really understands. And, of course, Karma. If you have accumulated too much bad Karma, you will be reborn as a toad. After hearing this, most people think they know what Buddhism is, which results in situations like the ones mentioned above.
I will tell you, without too many details, what Buddhism REALLY is.
The very basic idea of Buddhism is the concept of suffering. Everything in life is strongly connected to suffering. This is not only hunger or physical pain: you also suffer when you don't get what you want, you suffer when you are ill, offended,... the list can be extended ad infinitum. But also things considered "good" unevitably lead to suffering. If you eat a real delicious cookie, you will finally have eaten it up and then there is no more cookie, so you suffer from the LOSS of something good.
The main goal in Buddhism is to alleviate suffering for oneself and for others by acting in a way that won't hurt others and/or oneself. If someone offends you, you can react with aggression, which leads to suffering for both parties, or you can react with patience and politeness, which will considerably reduce the amount of suffering. To know that you haven't caused (too much) suffering is the only lasting joy, so Buddhists say.
Buddhists strive to understand the ways of suffering and avoiding it, so the religious aspect goes hand in hand with mental training and discipline. Meditation is a part of the training, it teaches you to let go of everything. If you don't stick to something, you will not be hurt when you lose it, if you don't crave for something, you will not suffer from not getting it, therefore suffering is reduced.
The thing about Karma is also misunderstood because many people mix it up with the Hindu type of Karma. In Buddhism, Karma is the relation between cause and effect. If, for instance, I lie to somebody, he may find it out in future and the effects will be suffering for me and maybe even others. If I do someone a favor, he may help me out when I need it. That is why Buddhists differenciate between beneficial and non-beneficial deeds. Through exercise, a Buddhist identifies what is beneficial and tries to avoid actions that are not beneficial.
The most important rule about Buddhism is: there are no rules, at least not for those not ordained. Everyone has to find things out for themselves, especially what they can account for and what not (e.g. eating meat - there is a great discussion whether it is beneficial to eat meat or not. Addressing this in detail, however, would lead too far here). Every teacher will tell you not to simply believe him but to question everything until you can prove it right or wrong.
Now what is "enlightenment"? As I said, Buddhists strive to understand things - people, causalities etc. in order to get rid of suffering. They try not to adhere to perishable things, and since everything is perishable, they try not to adhere at all. Which does not mean they foreswear every kind of pleasure. They enjoy it, keeping in mind that it will eventually end. The state of enlightenment is hard to describe, it is said to be a state of ultimate insight and wisdom, the end of all adherence and therefore incredible joy. A Buddha (i.e. an enlightened person) realizes that "everything is one", which, I admit, sounds very abstract. But once you get into it further, you may get a feeling for what it could mean.
Explaining Nirvana to beginners is a hard thing. I don't claim to fully understand it myself, but I will try and do my best. As I said, a Buddha has realized that everything is the same, everything is one. There is no distinction between me and you, between human, animal, plant and stone. And there is no difference between life and death. Once you realized that, you have two options: reincarnating after death, in order to help other beings to overcome their suffering, or not reincarnating, which means you stay in a state of "one-ness" where you aren't alive nor dead, and all suffering has ended. Whew, that's even more abstract than the enlightenment thing, huh?
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