December 8th is observed in the west as "Boddhi day" - the day that celebrates the waking up of the Buddha. On that day I wrote a short description of what Buddhism is and what "waking up" is for my friends on Facebook. It came out quite nice so I thought I'd share it here as well.
"Buddha" means the man who woke up. Gautama wasn't the first Buddha nor was he the last. In fact, in his teaching it is said that every single person has the capacity to wake up.
What exactly did he wake up from/to is a super debatable topic, but it is widely agreed that part of it has to do with a deep understanding of the dissatisfactory nature of our existence.
In other words, the Buddha came to understand what it is about life that has us always feeling that something isn't just as we want it, that there's always an itch to scratch, and he came to understand what it is that can alleviate this. The understandings of dissatisfaction and its alleviation are summarized in what is known as the "Four Noble Truths".
To get an idea of what kind of practical understanding of life Buddhism is concerned with, consider the misleading nature of possessions. Have you ever thought that you'll be much happier if only you were a millionaire? If so, that is, according to Buddhism, an illusion that leads to dissatisfaction. If you believe you need the millions to be happy, you feel dissatisfied with life when you don't have them. Then when you finally have them, you inevitably realize that they do not actually possess the power to keep you happy and you eventually go back to where you were without them. But now you also have the added dependency on those millions, so your regular dissatisfaction constantly threatens to get a lot worse if you ever lose those millions.
You can understand this example intellectually, but the illusion is built into our way of thinking, so intellectual understanding is not enough to dispel it. That is why the 4 noble truths aren't just "what is it that makes us suffer", but also "what can we do about it", which is the process of freeing oneself from illusions such as the one above, to the point where we suffer of no illusions anymore and we are finally, truly, awake.