The founder of the Buddhist religion also known as Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in the Sakya (Sakya) tribe in a Magadha speaking area of India (now in southern Nepal), so his name in that dialect (now called Pali) would have been Siddhattha Gotama. There are various traditions about when he was born, the Siamese giving it as 685 BCE, some Theravadins giving it as 623 BCE, Mahayanas giving it as 563 BCE, and scholars, such as Conze dating it as recently as 500 BCE. Theosophical sources give it as 643 BCE. All agree that it was on the full moon of the Indian spring month of Wesak (April/May). All agree that he lived 80 years. After his enlightenment, he was given the titles of Buddha (i.e., “Awakened” or “Enlightened”), Sakyamuni (Sk. Sakyamuni, i.e., “Sage of the Sakyas”), Jina (“Conqueror”), and Tathagata (lit. “Thus-Gone,” i.e., “one who has transcended ordinary existence”).
The traditional story of his life is probably familiar to most people, so it will only be summarized here. His father was a king, known as Suddhodana (Sk. Suddhodana); his mother’s name is usually given as Maya. According to those accounts, she conceived when she dreamed of a white elephant entering her side; white elephants being rare in India were considered auspicious. His mother died at or shortly after the boy’s birth and he was raised by an aunt. At the boy’s birth, astrologers predicted that he would grow up to be either a world conqueror or a world teacher. His father, in an effort to steer his son’s career along kingly lines, attempted to shield the boy from anything which would turn his mind to philosophizing about the nature of life. However, during a trip into the capitol city of Kapilavastu, Siddhartha witnessed a sick man shaking with fever, an old man hobbling along with a cane, and a corpse. These sights greatly troubled his mind, since his father had never informed him about such things. When he saw a holy man seated beneath a tree, he got down from his chariot and meditated similarly under the shade of a tree; he then decided that he had to leave the palace in search of an answer for the miseries of life (summarized as sickness, old age, and death). In the middle of the night on the full moon of Wesak, at the age of 29, he quietly left his beloved wife, Yasodhara (Sk. Yasodhara) and young son, Rahula, and set out into the forest in search of insight. He exchanged his princely robes with the clothing of a beggar and cut his long hair short with his sword, sending both hair and sword back to the palace with his devoted servant and charioteer, Channa, as an indication of his resolve.
He first studied separately with two brahmins but left them when that did not result in the insight he was seeking. He then joined a group of five naked ascetics and practiced severe austerities, ultimately realizing that that, too, did not result in insight. He then wandered alone to the town of Gaya (now known as Bodh Gaya, located in present day Bihar State) and sat beneath a pipal tree to meditate, attaining enlightenment (termed nibbana in Pali or nirvana in Sanskrit) at the age of 35 on the full moon of Wesak. The tree was subsequently known as the Bodhi (or Bo) Tree. It is said in the traditional accounts that in addition to insight into the nature of life and death, he attained knowledge of all his past incarnations. The Jataka Stories are considered by Buddhists to recount them, although it is more likely that those stories are just a revision of some of the animal fables which were extant in India at that time.
He then set out for the deer park at Sarnath (near Varanasi or Benares) and delivered his first sermon, called “Setting in Motion the Turning of the Wheel of the Law” (Dhammacakrapavattina in Pali or Dharmacakrapravartana in Sk.) to the five ascetics with whom he had lived for a time. They became his first converts. The Order of Buddhist monks (bhikkus, bhiksus lit. “beggars”) may be said to start with that event. He then wandered widely over that portion of India now known as Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh converting a large number of people with his sermons. Among them were his father, his aunt, his wife, his son, and his cousin Devadatta (who later left the Order and started a short-lived Order of his own). Since not everyone became a monk, the Buddha established a separate organization for laymen and lay-women. The rules for the monastic order are found in the Vinaya and a collection of his sermons is found in the Suttas (Sk. Sutras). After Buddha’s death, various ideas from the sermons were arranged together in what is termed the Abhidhamma (Sk. Abhidharma) literature. These three collections are known as the Tipitaka (Sk. Tripitaka) or “Three Baskets,” probably because they were kept at first in three separate wicker baskets.
There are questions about the accuracy of the life of Buddha partly because it is filled with some remarkable paranormal events and partly because it was not written down until the 2nd or 3rd cent. CE by a Buddhist monk named Asvaghosa in his Buddhacarita (lit. “Career of the Buddha”), in other words many centuries after Buddha’s death. Furthermore, archeological evidence indicates that Kapilavastu was not the wealthy city that Avaghosa makes it out to be. Historical accounts suggest that the area was under a kind of republican form of government rather than being a kingdom. In any event, it would seem that Siddharta was aware of ancient Indian religious ideas (such as are found in the Vedas and Upanisads) and rejected — or at the very least reformulated — them. For instance, he rejected the caste system and allowed men and women of any caste to join his Order as equals. He rejected the idea that elaborate rituals (such as were practiced by Vedic priests) had any value. He explicitly denied the existence of a permanent Self or atman, such as was taught in the Upanisads, stating that everything in the universe is in constant flux. He analyzed human nature into five basic psychic aspects — form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (samjña), habit patterns or character quirks (samskaras), and conditioned consciousness (vijñana) — instead of the bodies or vehicles of consciousness found in the Upanisads. And in place of an absolute, unchanging foundation for manifestation (i.e., the Hindu idea of Brahman), he substituted an interdependent causal chain (i.e., Dependent Co-Origination or Paticcasamuppada; Sk. Pratityasam-utpada). He also insisted that none of his ideas be accepted authoritatively, but all be examined logically and tested in one’s own experience. As the Buddhist scriptures put it, “Be a lamp unto yourself.”
In his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, Buddha set forth four noble truths which have served as the basic teaching for all branches of Buddhism ever since. 1. Life is dukkha (Sk. duhkha), usually translated “suffering” or “sorrowful,” but more literally meaning “insecure” (the basic element kha most probably being a corruption of stha, “stand” and the prefix duh — meaning “bad”). The metaphor is that of an improperly fitted wheel. That is, ordinary life is like driving a vehicle with a wheel that shimmies. 2. The cause of that insecurity (dukkha, Sk. duhkha) is desire or craving (tanha or trsna, thirst). It is because human life is dominated by such craving that we are never satisfied, hence are insecure and experience sorrow and suffering. 3. Craving can be overcome by its cessation (nirodha). Far from being pessimistic, as it is sometimes characterized, Buddhism is essentially an optimistic teaching that one can have a life of peace and serene joy in the midst of a world of insecurity and suffering. 4. This cessation can be achieved by following the eight-fold path (magga, marga) which includes right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right profound meditation (samadhi). These were intended to be a Middle Way between extreme intellectualism and extreme asceticism, both of which Buddha had experienced prior to his enlightenment, according to traditional accounts. But they were also intended to be a Middle Way between utter scepticism and blind belief.
It should be noted that right views did not entail metaphysical theories or elaborate cosmological speculation, both of which he felt were a waste of time and a distraction from the real need, which was to overcome the existential situation of insecurity. Whether the world was finite or infinite, for instance, was of no concern. His whole approach was that of a physician — perhaps we would say spiritual psychiatrist — and scholars have pointed out that it is no coincidence that medical ideas were developing in India during his time. He provided a therapy, not another theory.
The Buddha’s approach appealed to citizens of India’s growing urban population and burgeoning merchant class. The Buddhist sutras frequently mention both aristocratic and wealthy merchant converts, many of whom constructed buildings for the Order. Buddha’s ideas spread widely and rapidly both during his lifetime — perhaps partly as a result of his charismatic personality — and after his death. The Mauryan emperor Asoka (Sk. Asoka: c. 373-323 BCE) assisted the spread considerably by championing Buddhism and ruling his kingdom by non-violent Buddhist principles. He also sent his son, Mahendra, to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist missionary with a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree. The Kushana emperor Kanishka (2nd cent. CE) assisted in the spread of Buddhism to China (from which it also spread to Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, and Tibet). In more recent times, Buddhism has spread to Europe, the Americas, and Australia. For more information on this latter spread of Buddhism, especially to America, see Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: a narrative history of Buddhism in America (Shambhala, 1986).
If Buddha did not provide a metaphysical basis for his message, it would appear that his followers soon found a need to do so. THERAVADA Buddhist philosophers developed an elaborate theory of defining characteristics (laksanas) by means of which to analyze things, a tendency which the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (3rd cent. CE?) argued trenchantly against in his doctrine of Emptiness (sunyavada), essentially a defense of the impermanence doctrine. Unfortunately, Emptiness was subsequently misunderstood and reified into an absolute principle! As Buddhism spread to the rest of Asia, such speculative notions proliferated. MAHAYANA BUDDHISM, especially, developed a whole pantheon of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) to which prayers were addressed. TIBETAN BUDDHISM developed elaborate rituals and a method of chanting the scriptures accompanied with bells, gongs, horns and hand gestures. Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan introduced the idea that all one had to do was repeat the name of Amitabha Buddha a certain number of times to be guaranteed a place in a Western Paradise (Sukhavati, lit. “Happy Land”) after death where it would be easier to work toward enlightenment. Ch’an Buddhism and its Japanese counterpart, ZEN, at least in one of its sects, developed a technique called the k’ung-an (Jap. Koan) or “public case” which attempted to cause the disciple to transcend his rational mind, thus provide instant enlightenment.
While all these developments might be seen as departures from the original intent of the founder, at least some of them could also be interpreted as adaptations of Buddhism to the cultures to which the religion has spread. If one examines them closely and compassionately, one finds that there is still underlying all of them a basic doctrine which is essentially Buddhist. And it would seem, as a study of the lives of some Buddhists who practiced them indicates, they could be effective, resulting in nirvana or sambuddhi (Jap. Satori), “awakening,” for their practitioners. As some writers have pointed out, Buddha’s doctrines of impermanence and dependent co-origination are remarkably similar to contemporary scientific ideas, so although ancient, it is also quite modern. It should also be noted that both of the two founders of the Theosophical Society took the five vows (pansil, pancasila) of Buddhism, and that H. S. Olcott contributed significantly to its revival in Sri Lanka.
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