What Is the History of Buddhism?

What Is the History of Buddhism?

What Is the History of Buddhism?

Buddhism is a faith that was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) more than 2,500 years ago in India.

With about 470 million followers, scholars consider Buddhism one of the major world religions. Its practice has historically been most prominent in East and Southeast Asia, but its influence is growing in the West.

Many Buddhist ideas and philosophies overlap with those of other faiths.

Who Was Buddha?

Buddha, born with the name Siddhartha Gautama, was a teacher, philosopher and spiritual leader who is considered the founder of Buddhism.

He lived and taught in the region around the border of modern-day Nepal and India sometime between the 6th to 4th century B.C. 

The name Buddha means "one who is awakened" or "the enlightened one." While scholars agree that Buddha did in fact exist, the specific dates and events of his life are still debated. 

According to the most widely known story of his life, after experimenting with different teachings for years, and finding none of them acceptable, Siddhartha Gautama spent a fateful night in deep meditation beneath a tree.

During his meditation, all of the answers he had been seeking became clear, and he achieved full awareness, thereby becoming Buddha.

Buddha Sculpture FAQs

Who Was The Buddha

A man who lived some 2,600 years ago and who revolutionised religious thought in India. This way of thought spread throughout the Eastern world and has now found its way to the West.

Can Buddhists Eat Meat?

Vegetarianism. Five ethical teachings govern how Buddhists live. One of the teachings prohibits taking the life of any person or animal.

On the other hand, other Buddhists consume meat and other animal products, as long as the animals aren't slaughtered specifically for them.

What Did Buddha Say About God?

Buddhism is a religion which does not include the belief in a creator deity, or any eternal divine personal being.

Buddhism's teachings say that there are divine beings called devas (sometimes translated as 'gods') and other Buddhist deities, heavens and rebirths in its doctrine of saṃsāra or cyclical rebirth.

Which Religion Came First In The World?

Hinduism is the world's oldest religion, according to many scholars, with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years.

Today, with about 900 million followers, Hinduism is the third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam.

Can Buddhist Drink Alcohol?

Despite the great variety of Buddhist traditions in different countries, Buddhism has generally not allowed alcohol intake since earliest times.

The production and consumption of alcohol was known in the regions in which Buddhism arose long before the time of the Buddha.

Buddhism History

When Gautama passed away around 483 B.C., his followers began to organize a religious movement.

Buddha’s teachings became the foundation for what would develop into Buddhism.

In the 3rd century B.C., Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Indian emperor, made Buddhism the state religion of India.

Buddhist monasteries were built, and missionary work was encouraged.

Over the next few centuries, Buddhism began to spread beyond India.

The thoughts and philosophies of Buddhists became diverse, with some followers interpreting ideas differently than others.

In the sixth century, the Huns invaded India and destroyed hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, but the intruders were eventually driven out of the country.

Islam began to spread quickly in the region during the Middle Ages, forcing Buddhism into the background.

A Human Endeavor

Among the founders of the world's major religions, the Buddha was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than an ordinary human being.

Other teachers were either God or directly inspired by God.

The Buddha was simply a human being and he claimed no inspiration from any God or external power. 

He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence.

A man and only a man can become a Buddha. Every man has within himself the potential of becoming a Buddha if he so willings it and works at it.

Nevertheless, the Buddha was such a perfect human that he came to be regarded in popular religion as super-human.

Man's position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny.

If the Buddha is to be called a "savior" at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the path to liberation, to Nirvana, the path we are invited to follow ourselves.

It is with this principle of individual responsibility that the Buddha offers freedom to his disciples.

This freedom of thought is unique in the history of religion and is necessary because, according to the Buddha, man's emancipation depends on his own realization of Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a God or any external power as a reward for his obedient behavior.

Life Of The Buddha

The main events of the Buddha's life are well known. He was born Siddhartha Gautama of the Shaka clan.

He is said to have had a miraculous birth, precocious childhood, and a princely upbringing. He married and had a son.

He encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a religious ascetic. He became aware of suffering and became convinced that his mission was to seek liberation for himself and others.

He renounced his princely life, spent six years studying doctrines and undergoing yogic austerities. He then gave up ascetic practices for normal life. 

He spent seven weeks in the shade of a Bodhi tree until, finally, one night toward dawn, enlightenment came.

Then he preached sermons and embarked on missionary travels for 45 years.

He affected the lives of thousands—high and low. At the age of 80 he experienced his parinirvana—extinction itself.

This is the most basic outline of his life and mission. The literature inspired by the Buddha's story is as varied as those who have told it in the last 2500 years.

To the first of his followers, and the tradition associated with Theravada Buddhism and figures like the great Emperor Ashoka, the Buddha was a man, not a God.

He was a teacher, not a savior. To this day the Theravada tradition prevails in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.

To those who, a few hundred years later, formed the Mahayana School, Buddha was a savior and often a God—a God concerned with man's sorrows above all else.

The Mahayana form of Buddhism is in Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam, Korea, China, and Japan. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is also known as Shakyamuni.

Siddhartha In The Real World

buddha-siddhartha

The prince reached adulthood with little experience of the world outside the palace walls, but one day he ventured out with a charioteer and was quickly confronted with the realities of human frailty: He saw a very old man, and Siddhartha's charioteer explained that all people grow old. 

Questions about all he had not experienced led him to take more journeys of exploration, and on these subsequent trips he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic.

The charioteer explained that the ascetic had renounced the world to seek release from the human fear of death and suffering. 

Siddhartha was overcome by these sights, and the next day, at age 29, he left his kingdom, his wife and his son to follow a more spiritual path, determined to find a way to relieve the universal suffering that he now understood to be one of the defining traits of humanity.

The Ascetic Life

For the next six years, Siddhartha lived an ascetic life, studying and meditating using the words of various religious teachers as his guide. 

He practiced his new way of life with a group of five ascetics, and his dedication to his quest was so stunning that the five ascetics became Siddhartha's followers.

When answers to his questions did not appear, however, he redoubled his efforts, enduring pain, fasting nearly to starvation and refusing water.

Whatever he tried, Siddhartha could not reach the level of insight he sought, until one day when a young girl offered him a bowl of rice.

As he accepted it, he suddenly realized that corporeal austerity was not the means to achieve inner liberation, and that living under harsh physical constraints was not helping him achieve spiritual release.

So he had his rice, drank water and bathed in the river. The five ascetics decided that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and would now follow the ways of the flesh, and they promptly left him. 

What Do We Know About The Historical Buddha?

The traditional story begins with Siddhartha Gautama’s birth in Lumbini, Nepal, in about 567 BCE.

He was the son of a king, raised in sheltered opulence. He married and had a son.

Prince Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old when his life changed. In carriage rides outside his palaces he first saw a sick person, then an old man, then a corpse.

This shook him to the core of his being; he realized that his privileged status would not protect him from sickness, old age, and death. When he saw a spiritual seeker — a mendicant “holy man” ―  the urge to seek peace of mind arose in him.

He Sat In Meditation Beneath “The Bodhi Tree” Until He Realized Enlightenment.

The prince renounced his worldly life and began a spiritual quest. He sought teachers and punished his body with ascetic practices such as extreme, prolonged fasts.

It was believed that punishing the body was the way to elevate the mind and that the door to wisdom was found at the edge of death. However, after six years of this, the prince felt only frustration.

Buddhism Beliefs

Some key Buddhism beliefs include:

  • Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they’re said to have experienced nirvana.
  • The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god. The word Buddha means “enlightened.”
  • The path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists often meditate because they believe it helps awaken truth.
  • There are many philosophies and interpretations within Buddhism, making it a tolerant and evolving religion.
  • Some scholars don’t recognize Buddhism as an organized religion, but rather, a “way of life” or a “spiritual tradition.”
  • Buddhism encourages its people to avoid self-indulgence but also self-denial.
  • Buddha’s most important teachings, known as The Four Noble Truths, are essential to understanding the religion.
  • Buddhists embrace the concepts of karma (the law of cause and effect) and reincarnation (the continuous cycle of rebirth).
  • Followers of Buddhism can worship in temples or in their own homes.
  • Buddhist monks, or bhikkhus, follow a strict code of conduct, which includes celibacy.
  • There is no single Buddhist symbol, but a number of images have evolved that represent Buddhist beliefs, including the lotus flower, the eight-spoked dharma wheel, the Bodhi tree and the swastika (an ancient symbol whose name means "well-being" or "good fortune" in Sanskrit). 

Founder Of Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism who later became known as “the Buddha,” lived during the 5th century B.C. 

Gautama was born into a wealthy family as a prince in present-day Nepal. Although he had an easy life, Gautama was moved by suffering in the world. 

He decided to give up his lavish lifestyle and endure poverty.

When this didn’t fulfill him, he promoted the idea of the “Middle Way,” which means existing between two extremes.

Thus, he sought a life without social indulgences but also without deprivation.

After six years of searching, Buddhists believe Gautama found enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. He spent the rest of his life teaching others about how to achieve this spiritual state.

Types Of Buddhism

buddhist-statue

Today, many forms of Buddhism exist around the world. The three main types that represent specific geographical areas include:

  • Theravada Buddhism: Prevalent in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Burma
  • Mahayana Buddhism: Prevalent in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam
  • Tibetan Buddhism: Prevalent in Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, and parts of Russia and northern India

Each of these types reveres certain texts and has slightly different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings.

There are also several subsects of Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism and Nirvana Buddhism.

Some forms of Buddhism incorporate ideas of other religions and philosophies, such as Taoism and Bon.

Dharma

Buddha’s teachings are known as “dharma.” He taught that wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity and compassion were important virtues.

Specifically, all Buddhists live by five moral precepts, which prohibit:

  • Killing living things
  • Taking what is not given
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Lying
  • Using drugs or alcohol

Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths, which Buddha taught, are:

  • The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  • The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  • The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  • The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

Collectively, these principles explain why humans hurt and how to overcome suffering.

Eightfold Path

The Buddha taught his followers that the end of suffering, as described in the fourth Noble Truths, could be achieved by following an Eightfold Path. 

In no particular order, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism teaches the following ideals for ethical conduct, mental disciple and achieving wisdom:

  • Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
  • Right thought (Samma sankappa)
  • Right speech (Samma vaca)
  • Right action (Samma kammanta)
  • Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)
  • Right effort (Samma vayama)
  • Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
  • Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

Buddhist Holy Book

Buddhists revere many sacred texts and scriptures. Some of the most important are:

  • Tipitaka: These texts, known as the “three baskets,” are thought to be the earliest collection of Buddhist writings.
  • Sutras: There are more than 2,000 sutras, which are sacred teachings embraced mainly by Mahayana Buddhists.
  • The Book of the Dead: This Tibetan text describes the stages of death in detail.

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is the leading monk in Tibetan Buddhism. Followers of the religion believe the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama that has agreed to be born again to help humanity.

There have been 14 Dalai Lamas throughout history.

The Dalai Lama also governed Tibet until the Chinese took control in 1959. The current Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, was born in 1935.

Buddhist Holidays

Every year, Buddhists celebrate Vesak, a festival that commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.

During each quarter of the moon, followers of Buddhism participate in a ceremony called Uposatha.

This observance allows Buddhists to renew their commitment to their teachings.

They also celebrate the Buddhist New Year and participate in several other yearly festivals.

The Buddha Emerges

That night, Siddhartha sat alone under the Bodhi tree, vowing to not get up until the truths he sought came to him, and he meditated until the sun came up the next day.

He remained there for several days, purifying his mind, seeing his entire life, and previous lives, in his thoughts. 

During this time, he had to overcome the threats of Mara, an evil demon, who challenged his right to become the Buddha.

When Mara attempted to claim the enlightened state as his own, Siddhartha touched his hand to the ground and asked the Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment, which it did, banishing Mara. 

And soon a picture began to form in his mind of all that occurred in the universe, and Siddhartha finally saw the answer to the questions of suffering that he had been seeking for so many years. In that moment of pure enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.

Teachings

Armed with his new knowledge, the Buddha was initially hesitant to teach, because what he now knew could not be communicated to others in words.

According to legend, it was then that the king of gods, Brahma, convinced Buddha to teach, and he got up from his spot under the Bodhi tree and set out to do just that.

About 100 miles away, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long, who had abandoned him on the eve of his enlightenment. Siddhartha encouraged them to follow a path of balance instead of one characterized by either aesthetic extremism or sensuous indulgence.

He called this path the Middle Way.

To them and others who had gathered, he preached his first sermon (henceforth known as Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma), in which he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which became the pillars of Buddhism. 

The ascetics then became his first disciples and formed the foundation of the Sangha, or community of monks.

Women were admitted to the Sangha, and all barriers of class, race, sex and previous background were ignored, with only the desire to reach enlightenment through the banishment of suffering and spiritual emptiness considered.

For the remainder of his years, Buddha traveled, preaching the Dharma (the name given to his teachings) in an effort to lead others along the path of enlightenment. 

Death

Buddha died around the age of 80, possibly of an illness from eating spoiled meat or other food. When he died, it is said that he told his disciples that they should follow no leader, but to "be your own light."

The Buddha is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in world history, and his teachings have affected everything from a variety of other faiths (as many find their origins in the words of the Buddha) to literature to philosophy, both within India and to the farthest reaches of the world.

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