Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (563 – 483 BCE) who–through a period of exploration–became The Buddha, or Awakened One. He lived in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent. His father, Shuddodana, was the local king from the Sakya clan and Siddhartha would later become known by the title Shakyamuni, or Sage of the Sakyas. The Sakya were Kshatriyas—the second highest class of warrior—they did not regard Brahmans—the highest priestly class—as in any way superior. Shuddodana protected his son from anything ugly or unhealthy by building a series of palaces populated with young, healthy, and handsome women and men. Anyone who did not fit this description was removed. Siddhartha was so content that he did not ask such questions as why do people suffer? Why do people die? Or what is the purpose of life?
At 29 Shuddodana allowed Siddhartha to leave the palaces, but had the city purged of the old and infirm, so that his son would think life outside the palace, the same as life within. But, Siddhartha wondered from the chosen path and saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a religious ascetic. He asked his charioteer about each of these individuals. The charioteer replied that such things were universal, and that Siddhartha would one day experience such things.
Siddhartha renounced his life of privilege to discover the causes of suffering, and it is from that journey that his teachings sprang. These teachings describe the true origins of suffering, and how to overcome them. With this understanding the individual can achieve nirvana. Nirvana is a transcendent state in which there is no suffering, and the subject is released from the effects of karma (the sum of a person’s actions) and samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). Nirvana represents the final goal of Buddhism.
Buddhism is broadly categorized into two major branches: The Theravada and the Mahayana schools. The Theravada school is known as The Ancient Teaching, and is considered the oldest surviving Buddhist school. Theravada practice puts importance on monastic life. Religious attainment is an exclusive domain of the bhikkhus (religious renunciants). The arhat (monk) is a person who successfully follows the historical Buddha’s teachings. In this practice, it may take many lifetimes before nirvana is attained.
The Mahayana school has a large religious and philosophical structure. Unlike the Theravada school, Mahayana teaches that liberation is universal and not exclusive to religious renunciants. It says that pursuing the release from suffering and attainment of nirvana is too narrow an aspiration because it lacks the motivation to liberate others. In the Mahayana school emphasis is on becoming a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone that gains enlightened (bodhi) existence (sattva), but rejects nirvana for teaching others. The bodhisattva has a considerable degree of understanding and uses their wisdom to help others free themselves. Shakyamuni abandoned practices of asceticism or self-indulgence that were popular paths to enlightenment for his day. Instead, he opted for a middle way, or a path of moderation, whose defining characteristic was meditation. His teachings are summarized in The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path.
The Four Noble Truths:
- The truth of suffering teaches that life and everything in it is suffering. From birth through death beings are in contact with what they dislike and separated from what they desire.
- The truth of the cause of suffering teaches that suffering is caused by selfish craving. Discomfort and suffering are not the same thing. We suffer in the mind from our attachments to things and
- The truth to the end of suffering teaches that selfish craving can be overcome with the realization that suffering begins and ends in
- The true path to end suffering teaches us to live in a harmless way by following the Eightfold Noble Path.
The Eightfold Noble Path:
- Right Understanding: Understanding the origin of suffering and its extinction as outlined in the Four Noble Truths.
- Right Thought: Be free from attachment, ill will, views and opinions. One should direct the mind towards benevolence and kindness.
- Right Speech: To abstain from lying, gossiping, and speaking unnecessarily or harshly.
- Right Action: To abstain from killing, stealing, and immorality.
- Right Livelihood: To maintain one’s livelihood without harming living beings.
- Right Effort: To remain aware and unattached in all circumstances.
- Right Mindfulness: Be aware of all that one does in speech, action, and thought.
- Right Concentration: Be free from mental disturbances such as worry, anxiety, or envy. To be at one with life in this moment.
Upon hearing of the enlightenment, his father, King Shuddodana, dispatched royal delegations to ask the Buddha to return home. Nine delegations were sent, but each joined the sangha and became arahats, and none conveyed the king’s message. Finally, with the tenth delegation—lead by Kaludayi, a childhood friend—the Buddha agreed and embarked on a two month journey to his boyhood home, preaching the dharma along the way. When the Buddha arrived at the royal palace, they had prepared a midday meal. However, no invitation had come to the Buddha to join the meal. So, the sangha set about begging for food in Kapilavastu. Hearing this, Shuddodana hastened to approach the Buddha, stating “Ours is the warrior lineage of Mahamassata, and not a single warrior has gone seeking alms,” whereto the Buddha replied:
“That is not the custom of your royal lineage. But, it is the custom of my Buddha lineage. Several thousands of Buddhas have gone by seeking alms.”
When the Buddha was 80 years of age he announced that he would soon enter the final state—abandoning his earthly body. The Buddha ate his last meal, which—according to different translations—was either a mushroom delicacy or soft pork, which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda. The Buddha told his disciples to follow no leader, but to follow his teachings—the dharma.