General Essay on Buddhism
Life of the Buddha
Buddhism arose in northern India in the 6th century BCE. The historical founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama (c.560-480 BCE) was born in a village called Lumbini into a warrior tribe called the Sakyas (from where he derived the title Sakyamuni, meaning 'Sage of the Sakyas'). According to tradition Gautama's father, Suddhodana was the king of a small principality based on the town of Kapilavastu. His mother, Queen Maya, died seven days after Gautama's birth. Following the death of Maya, Suddhodana married Maya's sister, Prajapati, by whom Gautama was brought up in great luxury and sheltered from the harshness of the outside world.
At sixteen the prince married Yasodhara. Yasodhara bore him a son whom he called Rahula (meaning "chain" or "fetter"), a name that indicated Gautama's sense of dissatisfaction with his life of luxury. His apparent sense of dissatisfaction turned to disillusion when he saw three things from the window of his palace, each of which represented different forms human suffering: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, and a corpse.
So traumatised was Siddharta by his new found awareness of the transience of pleasure and the universality of suffering, that he decided to embark on a life dedicated to true knowledge. Inspired by the example of a mendicant monk, Siddharta abandoned his family and life as a prince, cut off his hair and adopted the lifestyle of a wanderer.
Siddharta began his spiritual quest under the guidance of two teachers who showed him how to reach very deep states of meditation (samadhi). This did not, however, lead to a sense of true knowledge or peace, and the practice of deep meditation was abandoned in favour of a life of extreme asceticism which he shared with five companions. But again, after five or six years, of self-mortification, Siddharta felt he had failed to achieve true insight and rejected such practices as dangerous and useless.
Resolved to continue his quest, Siddharta made his way to a deer park at Isipatana, near present day Benares. Here he sat beneath a tree meditating on death and rebirth. It was here that Siddharta attained a knowledge of the way things really are; it was through this knowledge that he acquired the title 'Buddha' (meaning 'awakened one'). This awakening was achieved during a night of meditation, which passed through various stages. In the first stage he saw each of his previous existences. In the second he surveyed the death and rebirth of all living beings and understood the law that governs the cycle of birth and death. In the third he identified the four noble truths: the universality of suffering, the cause of suffering through selfish desire, the solution to suffering and the way to overcome suffering. This final point is called the Noble Eightfold Path, this being eight steps consisting of wisdom (right views, right intention) ethics (right speech, right action, right livelihood), mental discipline (right...