The Three Jewels
Buddhists seek refuge in what are often referred to as the Three Jewels or Triple Gem. These are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the "noble" (Sanskrit: arya) Sangha or community of laypeople and monks who have become enlightened. While it is impossible to escape one's karma or the effects caused by previous thoughts, words and deeds, it is possible to avoid the suffering that comes from it by becoming enlightened. In this way, dharma offers a refuge. Dharma, used in the sense of the Buddha's teachings, provides a raft and is thus a temporary refuge while entering and crossing the river. However, the real refuge is on the other side of the river.
To one who is seeking to become enlightened, taking refuge constitutes a continuing commitment to pursuing enlightenment and following in the footsteps of the people who have followed the path to enlightenment before. It contains an element of confidence that enlightenment is in fact a refuge, a supreme resort. Many Buddhists take the refuges each day, sometimes more than once in order to remind themselves of what they are doing and to direct their resolve inwardly towards liberation.
Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these differing motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha's teachings without depending upon some form of syncresis that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate.
In the 11th century, Lamp for the Path by Atisha, and in the subsequent Lamrim tradition as elaborated by Tsongkhapa, the several motives for refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the "scope" of a practitioner:
Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve the lot of this life
Low scope is taking refuge to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms
Middle scope is taking refuge to achieve Nirvana
High scope is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood
Highest scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life.
The four noble truths
The Buddha taught that life was dissatisfactory because of craving, but that this condition was curable by following the eightfold path. This teaching is called the four noble truths:
Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
Marga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In order to fully understand the noble truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, Buddha recommended that a certain lifestyle or path be followed which consists of:
Sometimes in the Pali Canon the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages which the practitioner moves through, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, but it is more usual to view the stages of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development.
The Eightfold Path essentially consists of meditation, following the precepts, and cultivating the positive converse of the precepts (e.g. benefiting living beings is the converse of the first precept of harmlessness). The Path may also be thought of as a the way of developing sila, meaning mental and moral discipline.
The Five Precepts
Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Laypeople generally undertake five precepts. The five precepts are:
I undertake the precept to refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing).
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to carelessness.
In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy. Monks and nuns in most countries also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules.
The three marks of conditioned existence
According to the Buddhist tradition all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma Seals:
Anatta (Pali; Sanskrit: anatman): All beings have no self. In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called atman (that is, "soul" or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence. This concept and the related concept of Bra?man, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate atman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. The Buddha rejected the concept of atman, emphasizing not permanence but changeability. If the soul were permanent and unchanging--if all existence has its root something fixed--then change becomes philosophically difficult to account for (this is similar to Zeno's paradoxes). This problem was analyzed extensively by Nagarjuna.
Anicca (Pali; Sanskrit: anitya): All things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for its existence. Everything is in flux, and so conditions are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
Dukkha (Pali; Sanskrit: du?kha): because we fail to truly grasp the first two conditions, we suffer. We desire a lasting satisfaction, but look for it amongst constantly changing phenomena. We perceive a self, and act to enhance that self by pursuing pleasure, and seek to prolong pleasure when it too is fleeting.
It is by realizing (not merely understanding intellectually, but making real in one's experience) the three marks of conditioned existence that one develops Prajña, which is the antidote to the ignorance that lies at the root of all suffering.
Other principles and practices
Meditation or dhyana of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). Actions which result in positive retribution (happiness) are defined as skillful or good, while actions that produce negative results (suffering) are called unskillful or bad actions. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime.
Rebirth, which is closely related to the law of karma. An action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. The full realization of the absence of an eternal self or soul (the doctrine of anatta (Pali; Sanskrit: anatman) breaks this cycle of birth and death (sa?sara).
1 -[Buddhism : Origin & culture]
2 -[Buddhism : Buddha's life]
3 -[Buddhism : Principles of Buddhism]
4 -[Buddhism : The three vehicles]
5 -[Buddhism : Tripi?aka]