history and philosophy of Buddhism

Buddhism : History and Philosophy

The Founder of Buddhism 

Buddhism was founded by Shakyamuni Buddha (or Gautama Buddha), born in the late 6th century BC in a royal family, in Lumbini (originally North India, but now part of Nepal). According to the legend, it was predicted at his birth that he might become a renouncer (withdrawing from temporal life). His father provided him with many luxuries and pleasures in order to prevent this. But one day the young Shakyamuni ventured outside the grounds of the palace in which he grew up and saw some more severe forms of human suffering: old age, illness, death as well as ascetic renouncer. Witnessing this he realised that pleasures on Earth are temporary and only mask human suffering.

At the age of 29 he retired to the forest where he followed a spiritual life of meditation. After 6 years following an ascetic life he decided that a Middle Way between mortification and indulgence of the body will provide the best hope of achieving enlightenment. So Buddha encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.

buddha under the bodhi tree

Buddha managed to purify his mind, conquering all destructions and temptations by the Devaputra Mara, the chief of all the demons (maras) in this world.

Motivated by love and compassion the Buddha’s aim was to help others find lasting peace or Nirvana. He began to teach others with his most important doctrines being the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path.

The Four Noble Truths
1. Life is Suffering (dukkha)

Pleasures of the mind and body do not represent lasting happiness. They are inevitably tied in with suffering since we suffer from wanting them, wanting them to continue and wanting the pain to go so pleasure can come

2. 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

3. Suffering has an End 

Overcoming cravings and attachment to desires

4. There is a Path Out of Suffering

The end of suffering can be achieved through the Middle Way and the Eight-Fold Path (The Wheel of Dharma)

The Steps of The Eight-Fold Path
1. Right Understanding

Understand the Law of Cause and Effect and the Four Noble Truths

2. Right Attitude

Not harbouring thoughts of greed and anger

3. Right Speech

Avoiding lying, gossip, harsh speech, or tale-telling

4. Right Action

Not to destroy any life, not to steal or commit adultery

5. Right Livelihood

Avoiding occupations that bring harm to oneself and others

6. Right Effort

Earnestly doing one’s best in the right direction

7. Right Mindfulness

Always being aware and attentive

8. Right Concentration

Making the mind steady and calm in order to realise the true nature of things

the wheel of dharma

The wheel symbolizes the Wheel of Buddhist Law , the endless cycle of birth and re-birth. Modern wheels often have eight spokes symbolizing the Eight-Fold Path.

The Path is specifically aimed at developing behaviour, mind and knowledge and the eight steps are divided into three ways of practice.

1. Good Conduct 
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
2. Mental Development 
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration
3. Wisdom
  • Right Attitude
  • Right Understanding
The Spread of Buddhism 

After Buddha’s death his teachings continued to be taught by his followers who gradually settled down in monasteries in North India.

Buddhism also became better known due to the enthusiastic support of a king named Asoka in the 3rd century BC. His inscriptions carved on pillars and rocks throughout his realm are an evidence of both the spread of Buddhism and his own support of the Buddha’s principles. During his reign and with his encouragement Buddhism spread to South India and Sri Lanka.

Different Buddhism Branches and Distribution Across Asia 

About 1st century AD a major split occurred within the Buddhist fold – that between Mahayana and Theravada branches.

Mahayana means Great Vehicle. Its adherents argue that this form of Buddhism can carry a greater number of people towards the truth than Theravada Buddhism, which they dismiss as Hinayana- the Lesser Vehicle.

The main distinction between these two branches is that in Theravada the Buddha is a historical figure who by his example shows the way towards Nirvana. The cult is essentially a human system of self-discipline with no face of God.

Theravada prevails in the south of Asia, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Vipassana is the most commonly known practice of Theravada Buddhism. Generally the Theravada form is considered to be the older of the two forms of Buddhism. It uses meditation and concentration methods.

In Mahayana the historical Buddha Gautama becomes the latest in a long line of past Buddhas who exist in some place beyond this world from which they can offer support. Also in that place are the Bodhisattvas who have yet to begin the final human life in which they will attain enlightenment as Buddha.

Mahayana prevails in Tibet, China and Japan and adjacent countries. This type of Buddhism includes Chan (in China) and Zen (in Japan) – both derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘meditation’. Zen, reaching Japan from China in the 12th century, lays great emphases on intuition or finding the truth within oneself, but also stresses the importance of discipline. Other forms of Mahayana Buddhism include Buddhist Tantra, Vajrayana and Dzog Chen.

The Mahayana tradition, particularly in its Tantric forms, uses breathing exercises, mantras, visualisations and deities much like the Yoga tradition.

Buddhism and Hinduism 

Buddhism grew up in a cultural base of Hinduism. For this reason Indian and Tibetan Buddhism have included Ayurvedic medicine, Hindu astrology, Sanskrit, the same rules of iconography and the same forms of temple worship, and other common factors as the Hindu tradition.

A number of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, like Ganesha and Sarasvati, appear in the Buddhist tradition. Some figures like the Goddess (Bodhisattva) Tara appear in both. Nepal has remained as one region of the Indian subcontinent in which these religions continued, though Nepal has a Hindu majority, a Hindu king and is officially a Hindu state.

The Boddhisattva Tara

The Bodhisattva Tara, a manifestation of compassion; also associated with liberation from fear and protection from material threats.

Mind and Self

Buddhism generally does not accept the idea of Self (Atma or Purusha) and emphasises the non-Self (Anatman). It says that there is no Self in anything and therefore the Self is just a fiction of the mind. Whatever we point out as the Self, the Buddhists state is merely some impression, thought or feeling, but no such homogeneous entity like Self can be found anywhere.

However, a number of Buddhist traditions such as Chan and Zen have used terms such as Self-mind, one’s original nature, the original nature of consciousness or one’s original face.

Buddhism defines reality in terms of mind and often refers to ultimate truth as the One Mind or original nature of the mind.

God or The Creator 

Buddhism sees no need for any creator or God and considers that living beings arise through karma alone. The Dalai Lama noted that Buddha is similar to God in omniscience but is not a creator of the universe.

Yet some modern Buddhist teachers use the term God and make it equivalent to the Buddha-nature. There is also the figure of the Adi-Buddha or primordial Buddha in some Buddhist traditions who resembles God. The Buddha appears as God not in the sense of a theological entity but as a Divine potential inherent in living beings, and is similarly looked upon as a great being who is prayed to for forgiveness of misdeeds.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not forms of God, nevertheless they can be prayed to, to provide grace and protection. For example the Bodhisattva Tara was thought to save those in calamities. Worship of various Bodhisattvas is called Deity Yoga in the Tibetan tradition.

Buddhism Today

Buddhism in its various forms remains the most widespread of the ancient religions in east Asia. The greatest concentration is in the historic lands of Theravada Buddhism – Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.

Buddhists still practising in the Mahayana regions (China, Tibet and Mongolia) have suffered greatly from the atheist creed of communism. In Japan majority still adheres to various forms of Buddhism.

During the 20th century the faith has began to spread to new regions. There is now a significant minority in the United States and Europe.

 

Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama

 

References:

The information material has been extracted (and in some instances directly quoted) from :

1.  About Buddhism – History of Buddhism – http://www.aboutbuddhism.org/history-of-buddhism.htm/

2. Asia Society – The Origins of Buddhism – http://asiasociety.org/origins-buddhism?page=0,1

3.  History World – History of Buddhism – http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab77

4. American Institute of Vedic Studies – Yoga and Buddhism: Similarities and Differences – http://vedanet.com/2012/06/13/yoga-and-buddhism-similarities-and-differences/

5. Buddhanet (Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc) –  The Four Noble Truths – http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s06.htm

6. Buddhanet (Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc)- Buddhist Studies: Buddhist Pilgrimagehttp://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/buddha.htm

 

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