Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world. It is also one of the most ancient. Buddhism has it origins in the person of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who seemed to have everything – a loving wife, an adorable infant son, and a kingdom he would someday inherit.
However, Siddhartha was not happy, because he had come into contact with all manner of human suffering, and saw how fickle fortune can be, and how even the wealthy and powerful still endure sickness, old age, and death. The Vedic Brahmanism of the time was not providing the answers he was seeking, so he left his wife, child, and kingdom, and turned to increasingly rigorous forms of asceticism – the practice of renouncing material possessions, physical pleasures, and most forms (even all forms) of food and drink. During this time he also studied with two masters of yogic meditation. After six years of this, Siddhartha realized that extreme deprivation wasn’t going to help him reach enlightenment any better than the posh life he had before.
At that point, he decided to get a bath, have a meal, and meditate in a comfortable spot under a sacred fig tree – now known as a Bodhi tree – vowing not to get up until he had attained enlightenment. Forty-nine days later (or after one night full of demons and temptations, depending on which early Buddhist text you read), he finally reached Nirvana (“blowing out,” “quenching,” release from the cycle of rebirth). He then became known as Gautama Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and simply Buddha.
What came to Buddha under the Bodhi tree was what would become the basic foundation of Buddhism – ending attachment to that which is impermanent, which produces karma (action driven by intention which leads to future consequences), which in turn keeps us caught in the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. This ending is accomplished by embracing The Four Noble Truths and The Eight-fold Path.
The Four Noble Truths
1. The Truth of Suffering: Life is full of that which upsets us, from natural disasters, to illness, to aggravating mothers-in-law.
2. The Cause of Suffering: Our reaction to events or circumstances, our interpretations and perceptions, and how we deal with it all. Our attachment to things or outcomes, our desire for life to be other than what it is
3. The End of Suffering: Letting it all go, relinquishing the attachment.
4. The Path that Frees us from Suffering (or how to actually manage to let it all go):Becoming aware of our illusions, our ways of thinking, the ruts we’re in, and our unrealistic expectations, which is made possible by following the Eightfold Path.
The Eight-fold Path
1. Right View: Acceptance of the fundamental teachings.
2. Right Resolve: Having a positive, constructive outlook. Freeing your mind from ill will, cruelty, and lust.
3. Right Speech: Constructive, productive, honest, sincere speech. Avoiding abusive, idle, or divisive speech.
4. Right Action: No intentional killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.
5. Right Livelihood: Avoiding professions that harm or cheat others, like slavery, trafficking, weapons dealing, shady business dealings, etc.
6. Right Effort: Avoiding distractions, overcoming laziness, lack of sleep (or avoiding being sleepy in the first place), checking your attitude at the door, etc.
7. Right Mindfulness: Being aware of what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing at all times.
8. Right Concentration: Cultivating clarity and heightened alertness of mind.
Buddha would spend the next forty-five years teaching others what he had learned. He formed a monastic community that eventually included women in his lifetime. He and his monks and nuns traveled all over Nepal and rest of the Indian subcontinent. Buddha died at age 80, sometime between 486 and 368 BCE, depending on whether you are using the corrected long chronology, modern scholar consensus, or the short (Indian) chronology.
After Gautama Buddha died, his monastic community chugged along quietly, writing things down and going about the business of establishing a religion. Historical evidence suggests that Buddhism was a minor but accepted religion, until the 3rd century BCE, when Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Emperor, took an interest. The Mauryan Empire at that time encompassed what are now the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and part of Iran.
When Emperor Ashoka saw the devastation caused by his annexation of Kalinga, he began to feel remorse, and became a follower of Buddhism. His royal patronage enabled Buddhism to spread more quickly all over the empire, down to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and even all the way to what is now Libya. This is due to the fact that this was the Hellenistic Period, when the empire of the late Alexander the Great was still in Greek hands, allowing Ashoka to sponsor Buddhist emissaries all over the Hellenistic world.
Around this time (150-100 BCE), Buddhism, which had several little offshoots by now, developed a major branch. This branch was known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism and, unlike the original Theravada, emphasized the Bodhisattva path, which seeks to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, and holds that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and can even be achieved by a layperson, not just a member of the monastic community.
By the 1st century CE, Buddhism had moved all the way up Central Asia and snaked over to China. Vajrayana Buddhism, also called Mantrayāna, Tantric, and Esoteric Buddhism, developed during the 4-6th century CE. It featured new practices such as the use of mantras, dharanis, mudras, and mandalas, as well as the visualization of deities and Buddhas, and developed a new class of literature, known as the Buddhist Tantras. Vajrayana is a variant that some consider to be a sub branch of Mahayana Buddhism, while others think it’s a completely separate branch. While Vietnam, Korea, and Southeast Asia had Buddhism several centuries earlier, it didn’t arrive in Japan until the 6th century CE. The 7th century saw Buddhism finally arrive in Tibet with a mixture of equal parts Mahayana and Vajrayana ending up as the dominant form. Tibet was a theocratic state, headed by its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Although India was the birthplace of Buddhism, Muslim incursions, and the growth of Hinduism – which had added the Buddha to their seemingly endless list of gods – cause it to all but disappear.
In the modern era, the colonization of Asian Buddhist countries by Western states weakened the traditional political structures that supported the Buddhist religion and subjected it to criticism and competition from the Christianity those states brought with them. Other significant pressures have come from communism, the growth of capitalism, large-scale wars, and regional conflicts. In 1950, a Chinese communist invasion forced Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama to feel the country, and eventually establish a Tibetan exile community at Dharamsala in India.
The Tibetan diaspora is also helping to spread Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, helped along by the popularity of the still-exiled 14th Dalai Lama, who has mastered the art of throwing gentle, elegant shade. Other forms of Buddhism have been finding homes in English-speaking countries since the 19th century, powered by intellectuals from the Theosophical Society, as well as, well-known Hollywood performers. From its humble beginnings, Buddhism has truly become a worldwide religion.
“History of Buddhism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Buddhism
“Gautama Buddha.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha
“Buddhism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism
Thorpe, Charley Linden. “Four Noble Truths.” 12, April 2017, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Four_Noble_Truths/
Violatti, Christian. “Siddhartha Gautama.” 9, December 2013, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Siddhartha_Gautama/
Violatti, Christian. “Buddhism.” 20, May 2014, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/buddhism/
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