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 his teachings (called dhamma or dharma) as models for the religious life. However, not until the writing of the Buaciha Charija (life of the Buddha) by Ashvaghosa in the 1st or 2nd century C.E. do we have a comprehensive account of his life. The Buddha was born in North India (ca. 563 B.C.E.) at a place called Lumbini near the Himalayan foothills, and he began teach in around Benares (at Sarnath). His era in general was one of spiritual, intellectual, and social ferment. This was the age when the Hindu ideal of renunciation of family and social life by holy persons seeking Truth first became widespread.
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 were 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 ("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 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...