Buddhism Basics Quiz


By: Marie Hullett

6 Min Quiz

Image: Nicky Almasy/Moment/Getty Images

About This Quiz

While Buddhist traditions vary widely, most stem from the teachings of the original Buddha, Gautama Buddha. These spiritual practices aim to overcome suffering as well as the endless cycle of death and rebirth (which only leads to more suffering). When individuals attain Nirvana, they may finally break the cycle, thereby becoming fully liberated. 

Unlike other religions, Buddhists do not worship gods or deities, nor do they emphasize sin as a roadblock to faith. Instead, they believe that attachment prevents people from achieving enlightenment—thus, in order to attain Nirvana, one must free themselves of worldly ties. The lack of a god compels some people to refer to Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, but most can at least agree that it is a belief system and spiritual practice. 

More than 500 million people practice Buddhism, so even if you're not a follower or don't plan to become one, the religion is a major force in the world and definitely worth learning about. As an added bonus, Buddhists don't believe you will be doomed to hell if you opt not to follow. So, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and non-Buddhists alike: See how much you know about the belief system with the following quiz. Just waityou'll see how truly Buddha-ful it is. 

Even Buddha wasn't born enlightened. Do you know how old he was when he attained Nirvana?

The Buddha was born into a rich family and lived there until he was 29 years old. Then he left and went searching for spiritual enlightenment, leaving a young son and wife behind. For six years he learned from different teachers before developing his own method.


Buddha is more than just a name. Do you know what it means?

Buddha is an honorific title meaning "enlightened one." The original Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama. He was a monk and sage whose teachings Buddhism was founded on. Historians think he lived in ancient India at some point between 6th and 4th century B.C.


Buddhism ranks among the oldest religions in the world. Do you know approximately what time period it emerged?

The Buddha emerged in Northeastern India from an emerging tradition of wandering ascetics. This group rejected the Vedic teachings of India and was starting to form a new counterculture.


Named after a tree that Buddha sat under, what does Bodhi mean?

Bodhi shares a name with the tree which the Buddha sat beneath in meditation when he achieved his perfect realization and transcendent wisdom. This tree was located at Bodh Gaya, India. Today, there is a tree there which is supposedly a descendant of the original.


Like many other religions, Buddhism contains a lot of important symbolism. Which one of these symbols is part of the Buddhist tradition?

The lotus flower is an important spiritual metaphor in Buddhism. It represents human consciousness, which grows up out of the mud, through the murky water and emerges on the surface of the water in pristine condition. Water beads on its petals, representing detachment.


Speaking of symbols, which animal represents the Buddha?

Originally, in Asia, people revered the tiger as the king of the animal kingdom. Eventually, though, Africa's lion replaced the tiger. The Buddha's message was said to be like a lion's roar.


There are three fundamental teachings in Buddhism. Which of the following is one of them?

In Buddhism, there is an emphasis on impermanence: Nothing stays the same and everything changes. The universe is energy in constant flux. This realization helps Buddhists determine what to spend time doing or worrying about.


One down, two to go. What is the next fundamental component of Buddhism teachings?

When the Buddha was young, he was raised in a palace and the world was hidden from him. He snuck out and saw sickness, old age and poverty all around and realized that human fate is basically unsatisfactory. This motivated him to leave home in search of the meaning of life.


OK, now can you guess the final core teaching of Buddhism?

When Buddhists meditate, they perceive sensation, thinking and other phenomena of the mind, but eventually realize there is no "self" that they can grab onto. There is just the perception of experience and the experience of perception.


Buddhism is a very common religion in nations like China, Thailand and Japan. Can you guess how large Buddhism's following is?

Buddhism has about 360 million followers, which makes it the fourth largest religion worldwide. Christianity remains the largest religion in the world, followed by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.


Although they may have plenty in common, no two religions are alike. Which of these statements distinguishes Buddhism from many other religions?

The Buddha never wrote anything down, and his followers spread his teachings by word of mouth. Afterwards, the teachings spread across Asia and people began writing them down. There is no single Buddhism, but rather "Buddhisms," and each of the many traditions has its own assortment of texts.


No, we're not talking about the Seattle-area grunge band here. What does Nirvana mean in Buddhism?

Buddhists call Nirvana the "the blown out" state, like an extinguished candle or lamp, often comparing it to "a bucket with the bottom fallen out." They call it the end of illusion and the end of new karma, and many say it must be experienced firsthand to be grasped.


While theologians aren't certain where Buddha was born, what is the most common theory?

According to theologians, Buddha was born under a full moon amid a flourishing garden. As he entered the world, flower petals rained from the sky and the earth slowly shook.


Speaking of Buddha's birth, who brought him into this world?

Queen Maya dreamt of a baby white elephant that foretold that she would give birth to a great leader. As legend has it, she gave birth on a full moon. Today, Buddhists celebrate the birth during a week called Vesak, which typically takes place during the month of May.


You might notice that depictions of Buddha typically show him with short, curly hair. Do you know why?

Wealthy elite during Buddha's time would often wear a topknot, which is why theologians think he is often depicted with short hair. While there are many potential explanations for his short hair, it is often viewed as a component of asceticism.


Some of Buddhism's most essential teachings lie within the "Four Noble Truths." Do you know what they are?

Buddha's first teachings are called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha said that people fall into suffering through error, and that by practicing discipline they can overcome the unhappiness it inevitably brings.


In Buddhism, Dharma means "phenomena." What is another definition for this integral concept?

Dharma refers to the universal, unchanging facts of existence that apply to all individuals at all times. Buddhists also use the plural term, "dharmas," which refers to interrelated, empirical facts.


Like many other religions, Buddhism impacted societies and cultures across the globe. Which of these 20th Century American artistic movements were influenced by Buddhism?

Jack Kerouac wrote "The Dharma Bums," a novel often cited as a work that inspired the Beat and Hippie cultures. In the mid-20th century, Buddhist influences made their way into American culture through the works of artists on the West Coast, especially San Francisco.


While Buddhism originated in India, it has evolved a lot since then. What is the Japanese tradition of Buddhism called?

Zen emerged in Japan as an evolution of Chan, which prefigured it in China during the Tang Dynasty. Zen emphasizes meditation, assessment of life's true nature, and self-control. Its austerity and iconoclasm also make it a distinct iteration of Buddhism.


Sangha helps preserve Buddha's fundamental teachings. Do you know what this word means?

Buddhists highly value community. The Sangha consists of monks, nuns and other followers. In some traditions monks and nuns serve as mendicants, while the laity support them with alms.


Many religions exclude women from certain rituals and positions of authority. Can women achieve Nirvana in Buddhism, according to the original teachings?

While some later teachings of Buddhism theorize that women cannot achieve Nirvana, Buddha himself stated that women could indeed achieve enlightenment. Gautama Buddha ordained women as nuns soon after attaining enlightenment. The first Buddhist nun was his foster mother and aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami.


Buddhists often take their diets quite seriously, but it has nothing to do with their figures. Which is a dietary restriction for monks and nuns?

Monks and nuns maintain a strict vegetarian diet in order to help all living things. In some cases, Buddhist monks go to extreme lengths to avoid killing things, even allegedly going as far as to ensure they don't crush a single bug in their path.


The first Dalai Lama was born in 1391. Since then, there have been 13 more. Where was the Dalai Lama's traditional residence?

The Dalai Lama's traditional residence lies in Lhasa, Tibet at the Potala Palace. Ten successive Dalai Lamas inhabited it thereafter. At 12,300 feet above sea level, it's the highest palace in the world.


Chanting is an important feature of Buddhism. What is the sacred syllable related to this practice?

Om is said to be a mystical symbol which is written as "ॐ." It signifies the essence of the ultimate reality, which Buddhists consider to be the primordial sound. In the Sanskrit scripture the "Bhagavad Gita," Krishna describes himself to Arjuna as "the syllable Om."


Buddha wrote of the Noble Eightfold Path, which was though to lead to liberation. Which path in particular did Buddha ascribe to?

The path Buddha preached lied somewhere between self-indulgence and self-mortification. He thought that too much self-denial just weakened the body and mind, which wasn't useful. However, too much self-indulgence led to the same problem. Instead, he taught followers to seek the middle ground.


Even Buddha was a child at one point. When the Buddha was a boy, though, he was also a...

Buddha led a privileged life as a prince, which shielded him from the harsh realities of life. According to historical records, prophets sent his father a message that his son would either become a wealthy king or an excellent spiritual leader. His father preferred the first possibility and tried to guide his son toward the former life to no avail.


As mentioned before, Buddhists practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Which of the following is an aspect of this?

According to Buddha, speech serves as a form of action because it influences the future actions of others and of ourselves. True to Buddha form, he taught to say kind things and refrain from saying unkind things.


Meditation helps Buddhists hone their practice. In Japan, what is the name for sitting meditation?

Zazen serves as a central aspect of the spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. Monks spend a large portion of most days engaged in this practice, but even in Japanese workplaces many workers to take time out of their days for zazen.


Buddha died in Kushinagar, India. Do you know how old he was?

Though the details pertaining to his death remain vague, theologians agree that Buddha lived a long life. In some accounts, he predicted his own death and willed it. In others, he fell victim to food poisoning.


You may have noticed that monks and nuns sport shaved heads. Do you know why?

In the Buddhist scripture the "Vinaya Pitaka," the Buddha tells his followers that they should keep their hair short and cut it when it reaches a length of two fingers width, or at least every two months.


Buddhism arrived in China some time around the 3rd century B.C. Do you know which spiritual tradition was already established there at the time?

Buddhism evolved to accommodate many different cultures across southeast Asia. In China, it blended with existing Taoist traditions and assumed a different character than it had in India.


The arts are a key component of Zen, which a school of Mahayana Buddhism. Can you guess what is often featured in Zen paintings?

Zen Buddhists call the circle the "Ensō," which has served as a favorite subject of Zen painters. These artists believe that only one with a high degree of realization can execute a perfect circle. Often, the artists do not fully close these circles, but instead leave them incomplete, which symbolizes the fundamental incompleteness of life.


Buddhists lived in peace for quite a long time without overseas contact. Rumor has it that which European was the first to associate with them?

Alexander the Great first met with Buddhists during his Eastward military expansion. In India, he invited them to Alexandria and instructed them to bring their teachings and set up schools.


Even Buddha was compelled by the dark side at one point. Which demon tempted Buddha?

As the Buddha approached enlightenment, Mara threw every trick in the book his way to stop him from realizing his goal. Apparently, Mara tempted the Buddha with visions of attractive ladies who may or may not have been his daughters.


There are many statues of Buddha. In his depictions, if he is not standing the he is often seen doing what?

You can find giant statues of the reclining Buddha all over Asia. These statues represent Buddha just before he enters Parinirvana, which is what happens after the death of one who has attained enlightenment. At 600 feet long, the Winsein Tawya Buddha in Mawlamyine, Myanmar is the largest reclining Buddha.


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