Buddhism, founded in the late 6th century BC by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), is an important religion in most of the countries of Asia. Buddhism has come in many different forms, but in each form there has been an attempt to draw from the life experiences of the Buddha, his teachings, and the spirit or essence of his teachings (called dharma) as models for the religious life.
However, before the writing of the Buaciha Charija (life of the Buddha) by Ashvaghosa in the 1st or 2nd century AD, the members did not have a complete record of his life. The Buddha was born in North India (appx. 570 BC) at a place called Lumbini, near the Himalayan Foothills, and he began to teach around Benares (at Sarnath). His era in general was one of spiritual, intellectual, and social ferment. This was the time when the Hindu idea of giving up family and social life by holy people seeking Truth first became widespread. Siddhartha Gautama was the warrior son of a king and queen. According to the legend, at his birth, a person predicted that he might become a renouncer (withdrawing from the temporal life). To prevent this, his father gave him 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. The difference between his life and human suffering made him realize that all the pleasures on earth were short, or temporary, and could only hide human suffering. Leaving his wife and new son (Rahula Fetter), he took on several teachers and tried to meditate and worship in the forest until the point of near starvation. Finally, when he realized that this too was only adding more suffering, he ate food and sat down beneath a tree to meditate. By morning, he had attained Nirvana (enlightenment), which gave him the answers to the causes of suffering and permanent release from it. Now the Buddha began to teach others these truths out of understanding for their suffering.
The most important rules he taught included the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path. His first Noble Truth is that life is suffering (dukkha). The second Noble Truth is that craving for pleasures and for things to be as they are not causing suffering. The third Noble Truth, states that suffering has an end, and the fourth offers the means to that end which are the Eight-Fold Path and the Middle Way. If someone follows this combined path he or she will obtain Nirvana (Enlightenment), an indescribable state of all-knowing easily understood awareness in which there is only peace and joy. The Eight-fold Path, represented as a picture by an eight-spoked wheel (the Wheel of Dharma), 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).
After the Buddha’s death, his celibate followers slowly settled down into monasteries that were paid for by the married followers as gifts. The monks then taught the followers some of Buddha’s teachings. They also visited the Buddha’s birthplace; worshiped the tree under which he became enlightened (a bodhi tree), built Buddha-images in temples, and put the remains of his body in many burial mounds.
A famous king, named Ashoka, and his son helped to spread Buddhism through South India and in Sri Lanka, in the Third Century BC. The Buddha’s followers built many monastic schools. Around the First Century AD, a major split occurred within the Buddhist fold, between the Mahayana and Hinayana branches. Of the Hinayana branch of schools, only the Theravada school remains; it is currently found in Sri Lanka and all Southeast Asian countries. This school stresses the historical figure of Gautama Buddha, and the center of the monk’s lifestyle and practice (meditation). Theravada monks hold that the Buddha taught a law of anatta (no soul), when he spoke of the not long lasting of the human body and form, perception, sensations and feelings, consciousness, and volition. They believe that human beings continue to be reformed and reborn, and to collect karma (the effects of moral action on the person who is the cause of the action) until they reach Nirvana. The Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) branch of schools began about the First Century AD; Mahayanists are found today mostly in Korea, China, Japan, and Tibet. The three well-known schools are Pure Land, Chan or Len, and Tantra. Mahayana schools stress that worshipers can also be good Buddhists. The form of the historical Buddha was only one manifestation of Buddha Nature. Mahayana speaks of many past and also future Buddha’s, some of who are god-like and watch over Buddha-worlds or heavenly paradises. Especially important are bodhisattvas, who are people who have reached the point of Enlightenment, but turn around and take a vow to use their enlightenment, compassion, wisdom, and power to help release others from their suffering.
Buddhism became virtually extinct in India (approximately Twelfth Century AD), partly because of the ways of Hinduism, Muslim invasions, or too great a stress on the monk’s way of life. However, it is still practiced in China, Japan and in parts of Asia. As a religion, it has proved its possibility of living and practical spirituality in the countries of Asia in which it is followed. The many forms and practices that have been developed within the Buddhist fold have allowed many different types of people to become Buddhists.