Origins of Buddhism

The practice of Buddhism is prevalent in most places across the world. Buddhism came into being twenty five centuries ago and has an estimated global following of around 470 million adherents. Buddhism is unique from most prominent religious orders and practices by virtue of its approach in seeking divinity. For instance, Buddhists do not ascribe to any particular god or deity but instead emphasize an individual’s focus on the self to attain enlightenment and liberation (from the cycles of life and death). In other words, the Buddhist practice emphasizes more on meditation as a path to attain enlightenment or divinity.

Of course it incorporates other elements like the four noble truths and the eightfold path as well as others to supplement its mediation practice; but the key emphasis is on mediation as a path to attain liberation from the cycles of life and death. In spite of its approach in seeking divinity through a unique approach, most Buddhist practices and underlying beliefs overlap with those of other religions.

The Narrative
Siddhartha Gautama otherwise commonly referred to as The Buddha is the founder of Buddhism; he was born around 567 BCE in Lumbini, Nepal. As per historical texts, The Buddha was born in royalty and affluence; his father Suddhodana, was the chief of the Shakya clan, a tribe of rice farmers living on the periphery of the eastern Indian sub-continent.

The Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi, was also of royal lineage; legend has it that prior to The Buddha’s birth, Mayadevi had a dream that a white elephant with six white tusks penetrated through her body from the right side. It is believed that the Buddha was born on a full moon day. During his birth celebrations, Asita the hermit seer travelled all the way from his dwellings in the mountains to join the tribe for celebrations. Upon his arrival, Asita analyzed the newborn baby following which he announced that he would either be a great spiritual leader or a great king.

Not much is known of The Buddha’s life as a child but there are sources which indicate that his father Suddhodana tried as much as possible to shield him from life outside the royalty. Suddhodana was apprehensive that his son somehow might divert from his intended path of a military Shakya prince, to probably that of a wandering ascetic. Suddhodana therefore, put all measures in place to ensure the young Gautama Buddha stayed firm on his intended path. Thus Gautama was raised in a lavish life of opulence sheltered from the daily realities of life; he was surrounded by athletic companions, Brahmin tutors (to whom his studies were restricted under), fascinating girls, and the unending pleasure of music and dance. When he was sixteen years, the young Gautama married his cousin Yasodhara with whom he had a son named Rahula.

In the ensuing years though, The Buddha’s outlook as regards to the definition of life was completely changed; in one of his chariot rides outside the royal household he came across a sick person, then an old man, then a corpse. He became deeply perturbed by these images, in his ignorance he never knew that such things could exist; he never knew that one could be grossly sick, or old, or even die. Upon further inquest he was made aware that not even his royal status could shield him from such conditions if and when the time came. This flipped things around for him; he gradually but deeply developed a desire to know the existential nature of life.

In another of his chariot rides he came across an ascetic (a spiritual seeker) dressed in torn rags but seated in very calm and dignified demeanor. Upon inquiry from his servants as to whom the man was and why despite being dressed in a ragged manner seemed serene, his servants replied that he was a wandering ascetic who although begs occasionally for alms, leads a life of austerity free from envy and passion. This moment inspired Gautama to be a spiritual seeker himself in an effort to ascertain the truth or knowledge of the ultimate goal in life. With this in mind, The Buddha renounced the life of royalty and affluence against the wishes of his parents and in its place, began a journey of spiritual quest.

The Buddha sought spiritual masters to help him in his quest and completely adopted the ascetic way of life. He took up extreme spiritual practices like seclusion and prolonged fasts punishing his body in the process. It was believed in that time that true wisdom could only be found at the edge of death and that the mind could only be elevated by adopting such extreme ascetic practices.

After several years of indulging in severe ascetic practices, The Buddha could still not find the spiritual enlightenment he was seeking. His frustration only grew further. Ultimately he came to a realization that what he was seeking could not be found through ascetic practices but only through mental discipline. The Buddha discarded ascetic practices which he had adopted over the years and set on mentally disciplining himself if only this could give him the answers he was seeking.

At one point in his spiritual journey, The Buddha sat beneath the now commonly known “Bodhisattva Tree” He re-affirmed his spiritual quest through a declaration to self that he would sit and meditate beneath the tree however long it took until he attains the answers he was seeking. For several days he sat in a meditative stance under the tree which ultimately led him to what he was seeking, a state of realization or “enlightenment.” From that point he came to be known as The Buddha.

After attaining enlightenment, The Buddha committed the rest of his life to teaching others the path of awakening. Initially he was somehow skeptical and hesitant on if he should teach and whether his message would be accepted; god Brahma Sahampati however convinced him to go ahead and teach as some people he argued, would be receptive to his message.

With assurance from god Brahma Sahampati, The Buddha began teaching delivering his first sermon at Benares also known as the “Benares Sermon.” The Buddha then went from one village to another preaching about Buddhist principles like “the four noble paths” and the “eightfold path” attracting converts and disciples alike in the process. The Buddha founded the original order of Buddhist monks and nuns many of whom went ahead to become great spiritual teachers in their own rights. The Buddha passed on from old age around 483 BCE in Kushinagar, Northern India.

Influences
There are accounts which reveal that the Buddha was such an effective communicator, so eloquent in his teachings that there are incidences of Brahmin scholars converting to Buddhism; one of these instances is that of Uruvela Kasapa, a prominent Brahmin scholar who converted to become one of Gautama’s foremost disciples. It is noted that even in temples that Gautama is worshipped today one cannot miss the image of Kasapa next to the Buddha’s image.
Another unique trait of the Buddhism trait seeing that it originated from Hinduism is that it has no distinction of castes.

The Buddha taught and received members in his order from all walks of life irrespective of their caste; this is one of the factors that led to the rapid growth of disciples of the Buddhist order in its initial stages, it developed mass appeal from far and wide, from the elite class to the outright downtrodden.

Buddhism, like many other established religions, has also had its fair share of influence not only on the society but on other religious establishments as well. There are scholars who argue that even though Hindu Vedas were composed way earlier before Buddhism was founded, there is a high likeliness that Buddhism might have had some influence on Hinduism; it is argued that Brahmanism which is based on Vedic teachings might have had some of its ideologies refined by Buddhism. Like for instance the concept of karma and re-incarnation were fully developed following The Buddha’s teachings.

Other religions like Sikhism came into being in the 15th century. The fact that Sikhism which came about later than Buddhism shares some ideals or rather borrows these ideals; like the rejection of the caste system, emphasis on moral living, and banishing rituals in their practice shows to a greater extent how influential Buddhism has been on other religions. Then there is the Lingbao School of Taoism which has factored in major elements of Buddhism like reincarnation and formation of monasteries into its practice.

These are just but a few examples of the extent to which Buddhism has exerted its influence on the society at large since its inception. Buddhism from its very beginning has not just been a religious faith; it is a philosophy and way of life.

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