the sixth century B.C., Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha
Gautama. A biography of Siddhartha Gautama was not
written during his lifetime and the earliest accounts of
life were not recorded until some three hundred years
after his death. Because there has been much debate
by historians on where to draw the line between history
and legend, the history probably contains much myth.
However, this is the history is accepted by most Buddhists
and forms a model for all Buddhists to live by.
Born around 563 B.C., Siddhartha Gautama was son to King
Suddhodana Gautama, a raja (or chieftain) of the Sakya
clan and family of the Kshatriya caste of ancient Bharata.
His father reigned over a small district in the Himalayas
between India and Nepal.
birth he received the name Siddhartha, meaning "he who has
accomplished his objectives", but was also called
Sakyamuni ("the wise sage of the Sakya clan"), Ghagavat
("blessed with happiness"), Tathagata ("the one who
has gone thus"), Jina ("the victorious"), and, probably
most common, the Buddha or "the enlightened one".
When Siddhartha was an infant, a sage visited the King's
court and prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a
great ruler like his father if he remained in the palace
or, if he went out into the world, he would become a
Buddha. The King believed that if Siddhartha was
exposed to any human misery, he would leave his home to
seek the truth. Therefore, he ordered his subjects
to shield Siddhartha from any form of evil or suffering.
age sixteen, Siddhartha won the hand of his cousin by
performing 12 feats in the art of archery. He may
have taken more wives during his life, but his cousin
Yashodara was his principle wife.
Despite his fathers attempts to keep him confined to the
palace, he ventured outside and observed a leper, a
corpse, and an ascetic. From these observations he
determined that happiness was an illusion. As soon
as his first son was born, assuring him that the royal
bloodline would be continued, Siddhartha left the kingdom
on a pilgrimage of inquiry and asceticism as a poor beggar
monk seeking truth.
For six or seven years, he sought communion with the
supreme cosmic spirit, first through the teachings of two
Brahmin hermits and then in the company of five monks.
However, despite his efforts, he didn't feel he had found
truth. At this point he discovered the importance of
what he called the Middle Way. Instead of denying
himself food or sleep as the other monks did, he ate solid
food and did not deny himself worldly things. This
angered the monks he was with, so Siddhartha moved on.
Gaya in northeast India, he sat at the foot of a fig tree
where Mara, the evil one, tried to thwart his becoming the
Buddha. After withstanding the temptations from
Mara, he received a revelation. He now felt he knew
the way to escape the cruel cycle of rebirth. He
claimed to have discovered the four noble truths (Pativedhanana),
and henceforth was the Buddha.
The Buddha was then faced with a choice. He could
retreat into solitude with his knowledge as the other
monks did when they felt they had reached spiritual truth,
or he could remain with the people and share his
knowledge. It is because he chose to stay with the
people that Buddhists feel Buddhism is based not only on
truth, but on compassion as well.
Two months later the Buddha gave his first sermon and
began the "Wheel of the Law", a symbol of the Buddhist
faith. For more than 40 years he dedicated himself
to the spread of this new religion. At age 80 a
blacksmith fed him a poisonous food and the Buddha became
extremely ill. He died at Kusinara in the district
of Gorakhpur. His last recorded words were "Decay is
inherent in all component things! Work out your own
salvation with diligence."
Dharma is an Indian term that is understood to mean simply
the law of life. Within Buddhism, the Dharma means
more specifically the teachings of Buddha.
Following Buddha's death his followers convened to create
a system of doctrines that they could all agree on.
These teachings were then handed down orally over future
generations through Buddhist monks. In 80 B.C.,
Buddhist scribes finally compiled the teachings of the
Buddha on paper, which became the Pali Canon, also called
the Tripitaka. The teachings contained rules for
conduct, methods for spiritual attainment, and the ethics
taught by the Buddha.
Contrary to Hinduism's caste system which required a
series of rebirths to move up through the different
castes, the Buddhists recruited disciples from all castes.
According to Buddha, nirvana, or deliverance from
suffering, is extended to everyone who strictly obeys the
laws of a monastic life. However, he did feel that
the caste system was important for the framework of a
temporal life. It was a step away from the strict
caste system of India.
The Buddha rejected subservience of any kind to a supreme
God and denied belief in an eternal self. While he
believed that karma would determine the kind of rebirth
and quality of life one would have at rebirth, he didn't
believe it was a self or soul that was reborn. He
taught instead that there is a rearrangement of the
elements of a person's identity, which are called "self".
In other words the new self is still comprised of the same
Where the Brahmins of India taught that nirvana was
attained when the soul becomes one with the Universal
soul, Buddha held that nirvana is actually the
termination of rebirths. That is, you finally get to
get off the wheel. You've reached Nirvana, you're
done, you cease to exist. It's hard to see where the
hope lies in this, but rebirth after rebirth could, I
suppose, make your complete elimination from existence
Buddha believed that we are temporal creations born to
lives of sorrow and suffering. This suffering is a
result of selfish desires that chain people to the wheel
of insubstantial impermanent things. Living
according to the Dharma will help one eliminate these
desires thus leading you to Nirvana. According to
Buddha, the way to deliverance is summed up in four noble
The universality of suffering - People discover
through rebirth, aging, and death that life is full of
sorrow. We suffer this sorrow until deliverance is
The origin of suffering - Suffering is caused by
the false desires of the senses that have been deceived
into clinging to the impermanent world. The quest
for immortality further aggravates human suffering.
The overcoming of suffering - If false desires
cause suffering, then the desires need to be suppressed,
abandoned, or rejected in order to nullify their
effects. Ignorance of the way of deliverance and
the delusion that there is a permanent self are the
primary cause of suffering.
The way leading to the suppression of suffering -
The noble eightfold path is a sacred path with eight
branches called right views of understanding, right
aspirations, right speech, right conduct or action,
right livelihood, right effort or endeavor, right mind
control or concentration, and right mindfulness.
These eight branches are not stages that can be lived
out in succession or isolation from one another.
They are different dimensions of a total way of life.
While Buddha did not deny the existence of gods, he taught
that the worship of gods obstructed one's quest for
nirvana. To him the gods inhabit the cosmos and are
impermanent like all of us, so they too must escape
rebirth through nirvana.
And how long will it take to follow these truths to
deliverance and reach this state of spiritual suicide?
According to the Buddha several lives are required to
attain it. He taught that the journey to nirvana is
long and difficult. And the reward for all your
efforts is inner peace and harmony with all beings right
before you reach Nirvana. And then.....nothing.
After the Buddha's first sermon he continued to preach
only to his followers, a group of wandering beggars,
rather than to the masses. These followers became
the first monastic order. This order of Buddhist
believers is known as the Sangha. In order to learn
the Dharma and become part of the Sangha, people were
required to become one of these beggar-monks.
Those joining the Sangha would have their head shaved to
symbolize renunciation of the worldly things, and would be
given a new name and a new robe before taking their vows.
After completing a period of time as a novice, the monk
would again be given a new name and a new robe.
Buddha taught the Middle-Way, so monks were taught to
reject worldly comforts, but they also rejected self
torture or mortification. The Buddha continually
warned his disciples against the sinister guile of women,
and women were not allowed in the Sangha. Indeed it
was very difficult for a woman to become a Buddhist during
Later Buddha did allow women to become a part of his
followers, but many restrictions were placed on the nuns
and they were subject to the authority of the monks at all
times. The Buddha is quoted as saying, "A nun,
though she be a hundred years old, must reverence a monk,
rise on meeting him, salute him with clasped hands and
honor him with her respects, although he may have been
received into the order only that day." Some today
argue that the Buddha was only communicating on a level
his followers could understand and he went against the
male chauvinism in his culture. It is interesting
that today, Buddha draws a strong following from women in
the feminist movement.
Followers who chose not to become members of the order
were still permitted to follow the Buddha's teachings
while living in the world, however they would not be able
to achieve nirvana or receive any of the higher fruits of
the Dharma, such as inner tranquility. How ever they
would receive another chance at rebirth and as a reward
for following the Buddha and supporting the Sangha, they
could be reborn as a beggar-monk thus allowing them to
reach nirvana in the next life.
After the Buddha's death, the Sangha continued to grow and
split into many groups. These groups each translated
the Dharma a little differently. These groups began
to form monasteries throughout India and Buddhism was
transformed from a group of wandering beggar-monks to
communities of Buddhist monasteries. From the 18
schools that formed out of these groups, three major
branches of Buddhism eventually formed; the Theravada (the
doctrine of the elders), the Mahayana (the Great Wheel),
and Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle). These groups
make up the Buddhist community and the Buddha, the Dharma,
and the Sanha are known as the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism.
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