Misconceptions about Buddhism

On the path to wisdom, there is much to learn, and a lot of things is taught in different traditions. If we go back to the Buddha’s teachings found in the Pali and Sanskrit languages, and set aside new ideas from the interpretive literature of different traditions, we can highlight these misconceptions that many people have:

  • Buddhism is a philosophy – not a religion

    No, Buddhism is a religion, but does not define religion as belief in a god. Buddhism is a training of the mind.

    Buddhism has a lot of philosophy in it, as advanced as the schools of philosophy that developed in Europe. But Buddhism is still a religion, unless you define religion as belief in a creator god. The Buddha’s teachings are a spiritual training that removes problems and suffering, and focused both on this life as a human being, a future new existence and the ultimate goal – full awakening.

  • Karma is destiny

    No, the word "karma" means "action", not "destiny".

    In Buddhism, karma is a conscious action, through thoughts, words and deeds. We all create karma every minute, and the karma we create affects us all the time. But all our actions – good or bad – come back to us, and are called the fruit of our actions. So life is made up of present actions, and the fruit of past actions. The future is not set in stone, the future is indefinite.

  • The most important Buddhist meditation is mindfulness

    No, mindfulness is just one of eight factors in the eightfold path of the Buddha's teachings.

    Mindfulness and meditation are two different things. The eightfold path includes ideas, intentions, ethics, effort, mindfulness and meditation – all of which are important for spiritual development.

  • Buddhism is just a variant of Hinduism

    No, Buddha lived in a society dominated by Hinduism, but is unique and different.

    Although Buddhism came from the same land as Hinduism, it is a separate tradition with unique teachings and practices. Buddha broke with key Hindu concepts, including the idea of an eternal soul (atman) and the caste system.

  • Buddhism worships demons or evil forces

    No, Buddhism cultivates positive qualities such as wisdom, freedom, kindness and compassion.

    Buddhism recognizes the existence of negative forces, but focuses on overcoming them by developing positive qualities such as kindness, compassion and wisdom, rather than cultivating evil.

  • Buddhists pray to Buddha

    No, Buddha is not a god, but a master who left behind a teaching for wisdom and awakening.

    The historical Buddha reached enlightenment himself, and the Buddha’s teachings are non-theistic. Buddha did not say that there are no gods, but that believing in them is an obstacle to awakening. Buddha is respected as a teacher, not prayed to as a god.

  • Buddhism started in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama is the top leader

    No, Buddhism started in India and Buddhism does not - and should not - have a single supreme leader.

    Buddhism started with Siddharta Gotama in India 2,500 years ago, and came to Tibet around 1000 AD, i.e. about 1,500 years after the Buddha’s death. Buddha instructed that no one should be the top leader of Buddhism – different Buddhist groups should exist independently, but in cooperation.

  • Buddhism is pessimistic and negative

    No, focusing on overcoming problems is positive.

    There will always be problems because there is so much we can’t control, and since we want happiness and don’t want problems, we have to learn to overcome problems and suffering – and then we are left with freedom and happiness.

  • Everyone who follows Buddha’s teachings is a vegetarian

    No, vegetarian food is encouraged in many environments, but is a private choice.

    While some choose to practice vegetarianism out of respect for all life, it is not a universal rule in all Buddhist traditions. Those with an ordination – bhikkhus or bhikkhunies – should eat the food they are given, whether it is meat or not. Buddha was not a vegetarian either. But a training rule in Buddhism is not to kill, so many traditions encourage vegetarian food.

  • All spiritual training, including Buddhism, are different paths to the same mountain top

    No, in Buddha's teachings, the mountain peak is defined differently from other religions.

    Many religions are about a God and going to heaven. The Buddha’s teachings are a training in which wisdom is developed that removes all suffering from the mind. When awakening is reached as a human being, almost all suffering in the mind ceases, and when the body of a fully awakened human being dies, all suffering ceases – which is called nirvana. But Buddha’s teachings can also be used to create a good rebirth.

  • The fat smiling statue is Buddha

    No, it's not Buddha, but a Chinese monk called Budai.

    This monk lived around the year 1000 AD – a happy, humorous and fat monk with an eccentric lifestyle – therefore often called “The Laughing Buddha”. His name was Qici, he was nicknamed Budai, and belonged to Chan Buddhism in China.

  • Buddhists do not believe in science or logic

    No, Buddhism is less about faith and more about wisdom through experience and analysis.

    Buddhism has a long tradition of rational thinking and encourages an exploration of truth based on inquiry and experience. Many Buddhist principles can match scientific findings. For example, the mindfulness movement in psychology comes from the teachings of Buddha.

  • Buddhism is a monotheistic religion

    No, Buddha's teachings do not include belief in an omnipotent creator.

    Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Hinduism or Islam. Instead, Buddhism focuses on the individual’s path to awakening and liberation through wisdom.

  • I do not exist, am not-self

    No, humans exist and live, and the idea of non-self (anatta) only points to the fact that there is no independent soul/ego/self that is permanent.

    Buddha taught that what we call “I” or “you” is a temporal state consisting of physical and mental components (body, thoughts, consciousness, perception, emotions, etc) – and all these components are impermanent and arise through cause-and-effect. Everything in a person exists, but nothing is permanent. Of course, pronouns such as I, you and you are still used as a convention.

  • About the author


    Spiritual Director DNBF

    Nitho is a Norwegian Buddhist bhikkhu, who after business school at NHH and a few years of work experience, traveled to Australia where he completed a 15-year full-time spiritual training. He now teaches retreats and Buddhist theory and practice in the Nordic countries, and is one of the leaders of the Buddhist Society of Norway – dnbf.org