The History of Buddhism

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The religion of Buddhism originated in India around the 5th century B.C.E., much of it largely established by Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly referred to as the “Buddha”. Although this religion originated during the ancient world, it continues to grow and become more and more intertwined in our modern society and culture. Siddhartha Gautama was known to be a humble man of wisdom yet the religion he helped establish boasts close to 400 million followers today. The success of Buddhism can be largely attributed to the fact that it is a way of life, not a way of worship.

Siddhartha Gautama was born around 560 B.CE. in northern India, into a wealthy Hindu family. Siddhartha’s father was a powerful ruler of present-day Nepal and kept his son within the confines of the palace, in hopes that Siddhartha would follow his footsteps and become a great king one day. He was told that if Siddhartha experienced human suffering then he would become a sage instead of a king, therefore he took the outmost preventative measures and kept Siddhartha from being exposed to human suffering as best he could.

When he was in his 20s, Siddhartha left the palace to meet one of his subjects. Human suffering was revealed to him despite his father’s efforts. First he saw an old man, then a diseased man, then a decaying corpse. This depressed Siddhartha, as it was his first time being exposed to others in pain and he could not bear the thought of suffering being a part of his future or the future of those he loved. Amidst all of this, he came an ascetic, walking calmly among those who were distressed, with nothing but a compassionate demeanor upon his face filled with a sense of peaceful joy. Siddhartha became inspired by the disposition of the wise ascetic, and decided that he too, would learn the antidote to the suffering that life entailed. 

As Siddhartha left the palace of his royal family to join the other ascetics in the forest along the Ganges River, his parents begged him not to go. It is said that he did not tell his wife of his new quest, as she had just given birth to their first child. This departure must have been a great challenge for Siddhartha, leaving everything he knew and the comfortable life he was given to pursue the unknown. Many of us can relate to the feeling of being emotionally torn due to the pressure society puts on us to be “family-oriented” versus our own desire to explore the route of our own independence and individuality. In Siddhartha’s case, he was simply was not content living a sheltered, materialistic life within the walls of the palace and was haunted by the potential ailments that the future held for him and his family. He had a thirst that could only be quenched by finding a solution to his internal dilemmas.

Siddhartha lived the life of an ascetic for the next 6 years and gained five followers along the way. He was so dedicated to finding the answers to his questions he prolonged and doubled his efforts in hopes of finding what he was looking for. He did this by means of starvation, dehydration, and endurance of pain. When these extremes did not bring him answers, he came to the realization that life needs to be balanced and lived in moderation, and thus he called his newfound path the “Middle Way.” His followers saw this action as a desertion of his initial goal, and promptly left him. His action of branching off from the group despite the negative consequence of being deserted indicated the high value he placed in spiritual individuality. 

That evening, Siddhartha was so determined to find what he sought after that he vowed to meditate under a Bodhi tree until his questions were answered. He sat there for days and reflected on his life and his thoughts. Within his sitting, he had to overcome the threats of “Mara,” a supposed demon who opposed his path to enlightenment. With the help of the energy of the Earth, Siddhartha was able to dispel Mara, thus overcoming another obstacle that challenged his quest. Soon after he experienced enlightenment in its purest form, becoming known as the Buddha, or “Awakened One”. 

Within this awakening, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path became evident to him. The Four Noble Truths can be utilized to explain the reasons behind suffering, unsatisfactoriness, and anxiety, also referred to as “dukkha.” Dukka covers the aspects of illness, age, dying, and unwanted changes. The Buddha first experienced these feelings that emerged from the Dukkha on his first outing from the palace walls when he saw the aged man, the diseased man, and the decaying corpse. The first truth is recognize dukkha. The second is to find the source of dukkha, to recognize it as a craving created by ignorance. The third is the truth of cessation of dukkha and the fourth is the truth leading to the path of cessation of dukkha. The Buddha claimed that “with the fading away of ignorance, impulses cease; with the fading away of impulses, consciousness ceases; ...and finally birth, old age, death, grief, and sorrow will fade away. That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.” 

The Noble Eightfold Path can be used as a guide, presenting the interconnected conditions that can lead to the cessation of dukkha, or the Fourth Noble Truth. The Buddha believed that in order to achieve this cessation, one must have the right wisdom, they must obtain a greater perception of reality and have the intention of renunciation. The right ethical conduct was also necessary, meaning that one must be non-harmful and non-hurtful as far as speech, livelihood, and their actions. Lastly, he believed that the right concentration was needed, one must make an effort to improve, be aware without craving or aversion, and correctly mediate. Once one had absorbed and utilized these teachings they would supposedly reach “Nirvana,” meaning cessation, extinction, or liberation.

When he came across the five men who previously followed him he preached his first sermon - thus gaining his first five disciples. With these men he formed the first “Sangha”, or community of monks. These types of communities are still referred to as “Sanghas” today. Many religious societies before the Buddha were skeptical of those who held a different race, class, or sex other than their own - however the Buddha ignored such barriers and welcomed everyone who desired to follow him. He had naturally obtained a deeper tolerance for those who differed from him and reached out to them in an effort to help them become enlightened. For the next 80 years the Buddha traveled and put forth an effort to teach others about the path of enlightenment to reach the highest gift life can give: self-realization. When he died, he told his disciples that they should follow no leader.

The Buddha did not wish for others to worship him and most of his legacy was continued through the oral communication of his followers. The lack of written recordings makes it difficult to pinpoint certain things, such as when he passed away with complete accuracy. His way of life became one of the fastest growing religions in the world, as approximately 1.6 billion people today consider themselves “Buddhists” internationally. Buddhism as a religion is unique because although it is rapidly expanding across different countries, there has never been a war waged over it and it is against the principle of the religion to convert others.

Although Buddhism is said to have nearly originated up to 2,500 years ago, traces of its influence can be found throughout the world to this present day. Beliefs that relate to Buddhism such as “karma” can be noted frequently, as many of us may relate to it casually in forms of “what goes around comes around,” or muttering “karma,” when we suspect that something has happened in correspondence to a previous positive or negative action. Yoga and meditation are also continuations of the Buddha’s teachings and have even been prescribed by psychologists as means of centering oneself. Breathing exercises related to the type of meditation that the Buddha promoted are also now proved to be beneficial for people to relieve stress. Neither Kurt Cobain, your psychologist, nor your friend that muttered “karma” are likely all Buddhist, which goes to show that Buddhism has had an impact culturally in addition to its religious influence over the years. 

The reason that we often refer to Buddhism without it being part of a religious context is because Buddhist teachings target a broad variety of aspects related to human nature that are ongoing and apply to all generations, unlike many other religions. For example, Buddhist teachings target universal sensations applicable to everyone like stress and self-realization that will never become out-dated because they are part of humanity. Everyone can also likely agree that closing your eyes and taking a deep breath can relieve tension, another Buddhist influence. In contrast, religions like Christianity and Judaism are often readily dismissed by skeptics as impractical because they are essentially based on prophets that experienced supernatural events - such events like the angel that approached Abraham or Jesus descending from Heaven. What makes Buddhism unique in comparison is that it is not a religion based on a form of worship for a deity or supernatural experience like nearly every other religion today, it is about finding internal happiness, contentment, and acceptance for yourself and the world around you. 

Preeya MarsdenComment