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The Buddha


In 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.


At 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.


At 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.


At 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 parts.


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 sound appealing.


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 truths:


  1. The universality of suffering - People discover through rebirth, aging, and death that life is full of sorrow.  We suffer this sorrow until deliverance is achieved.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.



The Sangha

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 this time.


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.