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Worldwide Locations

The Origins of Buddhism

A Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery, Seattle, WA. (Wonderlane/flickr)

A Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery, Seattle, WA. (Wonderlane/flickr)

Buddhism, founded in the late 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama (the "Buddha"), is an important religion in most of the countries of Asia. Buddhism has assumed many different forms, but in each case there has been an attempt to draw from the life experiences of the Buddha, his teachings, and the "spirit" or "essence" of histeachings (called dhamma or dharma) as models for the religious life. However, not until the writing of the Buddha Charita (life of the Buddha) by Ashvaghosa in the 1st or 2nd century C.E. do we have acomprehensive account of his life. The Buddha was born (ca. 563 B.C.E.) in a place called Lumbini near the Himalayan foothills, and he began teaching around Benares (at Sarnath). His erain general was one of spiritual, intellectual, and social ferment. This was the age when the Hindu ideal of renunciation of family and socia llife by holy persons seeking Truth first became widespread, and when the Upanishads were written. Both can be seen as moves away from the centrality of the Vedic fire sacrifice.

Siddhartha Gautama was the warrior son of a king and queen. According to legend, at his birth a soothsayer predicted that he might become a renouncer (withdrawing from the temporal life). To prevent this, his father provided him with many luxuries and pleasures. But, as a young man, he once went on a series of four chariot rides where he first saw the more severe forms of human suffering: old age, illness, and death (a corpse), as well as an ascetic renouncer. The contrast between his life and this human suffering made him realize that all the pleasures on earth where in fact transitory, and could only mask human suffering. Leaving his wife -- and new son ("Rahula" -- fetter) he took on several teachers and tried severe renunciation in the forest until the point of near-starvation. Finally, realizing that this too was only adding more suffering, he ate food and sat down beneath a tree to meditate. By morning (or some say six months later!) he had attained Nirvana (Enlightenment), which provided both the true answers to the causes of suffering and permanent release from it.

Now the Buddha ("the Enlightened or Awakened One") began to teach others these truths out of compassion for their suffering. The most important doctrines he taught included the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. His first Noble Truth is that life is suffering (dukkha). Life as we normally live it is full of the pleasures and pains of the body and mind; pleasures, he said, do not represent lasting happiness. They are inevitably tied in with suffering since we suffer from wanting them, wanting them to continue, and wanting pain to go so pleasure can come. The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by craving -- for sense pleasures and for things to be as they are not. We refuse to accept life as it is. The third Noble Truth, however, states that suffering has an end, and the fourth offers the means to that end: the Eight-Fold Path and the Middle Way. If one follows this combined path he or she will attain Nirvana, an indescribable state of all-knowing lucid awareness in which there is only peace and joy.

The Eight-Fold Path -- often pictorially represented by an eight-spoked wheel (the Wheel of Dhamma) includes: Right Views (the Four Noble Truths), Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood/Occupation, Right Endeavor, Right Mindfulness (total concentration in activity), and Right Concentration (meditation). TheEight-Fold Path is pervaded by the principle of the Middle Way, which characterizes the Buddha's life. The Middle Way represents a rejection of all extremes of thought, emotion, action, and lifestyle. Rather than either severe mortification of the body or a life of indulgence insense pleasures the Buddha advocated a moderate or "balanced" wandering life-style and the cultivation of mental and emotional equanimity through meditation and morality.