The Story of Buddhism
The story of Buddhism might be said to have begun with a loss of innocence. Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of the Shakhya clan in India, had been raised in a life of royal ease, shielded from the misery and cruelties of the world outside the palace gates, distracted by sensual pleasures and luxurious living. But one day the fateful encounter with the real world occurred, and Siddhartha was shaken to the core. There in his own kingdom, not far from his gardens and delights, he encountered people suffering from sickness, old age and death; he brooded over these things, deeply disturbed that such was the fate of all beings. Then he encountered an ascetic holy man, a renunciate dedicated to liberation. The prince then undertook the great renunciation, forsaking his family, fortune and kingdom in pursuit of the path of liberation. The central, profound question that burned in Gautama was this: "How may suffering be ended?" (Eliade, p. 471-475; 'Mahapadana suttanta')
He became a wandering ascetic, practiced yogic disciplines and meditation, studied with various teachers, and attained high states of consciousness; but still he did not find the answer to his question. He practiced severe forms of asceticism, almost to the point of death by starvation, all without gain. Finally he sat under a bodhi tree, determined not to rise from meditation until he had gained the insight he sought. Not long after, he attained enlightenment; he became the Buddha -- the Awakened One. He had ascended through various stages of meditative awareness, he had seen all of his past lives, and he had seen directly into reality, into the nature of existence and the causes of suffering and rebirth. He pondered whether to try to teach these insights, so subtle and difficult to grasp to others; perhaps it would be futile. But finally he decided that at least some of the people would be able to understand; perhaps more importantly, they could be shown the path to arrive at these insights themselves. He gave his first sermon to a few disciples in the Deer park at Benares, and then continued to wander and teach for the next forty-five years, until his death at the age of eighty.
He was born in the 6th century BCE, a time of great turmoil and political change in India; many were unsatisfied with the Vedic religion, and new teachings had emerged, among them the Upanishads. The Buddha stood largely outside the Vedic tradition, criticizing many of its central teachings. Nevertheless, he had been influenced by that tradition and his teachings in turn would have a profound effect on later teachers in the Hindu tradition, such as Shankara; even in such Hindu classics as the Bhagavad Gita, some reaction can be seen to Buddhist teachings. But later centuries would see the Buddha's influence wane in India and instead spread to other Asian countries. Today Buddhism has spread throughout the world. Various sects have arisen as later teachers have...