Buddhism has around 376 million adherents throughout the world, with approximately 150,000 active Buddhists in the UK. This number is increasing all the time.

Buddhism started in India over 2,500 years ago. The essence of Buddhism is the attainment of enlightenment. It points to a way of life that avoids self-indulgence and self-denial. There is no supreme god or deity in Buddhism.

Buddha means 'enlightened'. Siddhattha Gotama, later to become the Buddha, lived in the 5th century BC and was a prince born into a rich family. He had an easy life, living in what is now Nepal. However, when he saw the suffering of old age, sickness and death, he decided to renounce his life in the palace and live among the holy men of the day in search of truth and enlightenment. His search took him six years, but he became enlightened whilst meditating under a Bodhi tree. Following this he dedicated his life to spreading the teaching. The Buddha is not considered a god by his followers.

Buddhists follow the Buddha's example. When they meditate, Buddhists focus on awakening to truth as the Buddha did. In Buddhist countries, there are many temples where people can make offerings of flowers and incense for the shrine and food for the monks. They may also have a shrine within the home. When entering a temple, Buddhists will take off their shoes, put their hands together and bow to the image of the Buddha. In their practice they may use prayer beads called malas.

The main Buddhist ceremonies are the Uposatha observance days when monastics and lay people renew their commitment to the teaching and practice. These are held on each quarter of the moon. The main Buddhist festival of the year is Wesak, the celebration of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death, except in Japanese Buddhism where these three events are observed on different days.

The main symbols of Buddhism:

The wheel of life which symbolises the cycle of life and rebirth. The Eightfold Path is also symbolised as a wheel with eight spokes representing the eight laws. Lotus flowers outside temple in Cambodia.The lotus flower symbolises purity and divine birth. The different colour lotus flowers have specific meanings: for example, the red lotus signifies the qualities of the heart while the purple lotus is the mystic lotus.

What is Meditation?

Buddhists believe that meditation is crucial to understanding the cause of suffering (the first noble truth). It is a way to clear the mind of worries and fears, and to see that suffering is caused by wanting something we cannot have (the second noble truth). Being free from wanting, wishing and desiring anything is what Buddhism refers to as the cessation of suffering (the third noble truth). To live in this way is the fourth noble truth (the Eightfold Path).

To meditate you need to find a quiet area where you can concentrate. There are lots of different ways of meditating. Some people sit on a cushion, with their legs crossed, focusing on the natural breathing. Others attend classes to learn different techniques and how to meditate for longer sessions.