Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Buddha and Buddhism

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Young Siddhartha

The Life of the Buddha[edit]

Tradition holds that the Buddha lived from 563 to 483 BCE, however scholars hold that he might have lived as much as a century later. As with any figure so intertwined with philosophical or spiritual implications, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate myth and legend from historical fact about the life of the Buddha. He was born to the Shakya clan, however the details of his conception and birth are the things of legend. Allegedly, his mother, Maya, conceived him when she dreamt of a white elephant entering her through her right side. As for the birthing, Maya stood upright, holding a tree, as the Buddha came out of his mother's side fully formed and ready to take steps. It was prophesied that he would either become a great king or religious teacher and thus given the name of Siddhartha ("He who acheieves his goal"). His father, fearing that he might take to becoming a religious teacher, sheltered his son from the harsh realities of life.

Poverty, disease and old age were unknown to the young Siddhartha as he grew up in comfort and luxury of a secluded palace. It was not until the age of twenty-nine, while taking a ride in his chariot, that Siddhartha first saw an old person, a sick person and a dead person. On yet another chariot ride, Siddhartha met a wanderind ascetic holy man who inspired Siddhartha to follow a similar path to avoid the sufferings of the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Knowing that his father would attempt to stop him, Siddhartha left in the middle of the night, leaving all his worldly possessions to begin a six year period of time living as an ascetic. As an ascetic, he attempted to conquer the innate desires for food, sex and comfort by engaging in various means of meditation and deprivation. This strict asceticism brought Siddhartha to the brink of death by starvation until he accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl. Once he ate the rice, he realized that starvation and physical deprivations were not the means by which spiritual fulfillment was achieved. At Bodh Gaya (the place of enlightenment), Siddhartha spent the entire night deep in meditation. In his trance, he defeated the forces of the demon Mara and acheived enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. Henceforth, Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, the 'enlightened one".

The Buddha continued to sit and meditate for weeks following his enlightenment. Seven weeks later, he got up at last and decided that he would teach others his philosophy of "The Middle Way." It was a middle way between the extremes of luxury during the first part of his life and the asceticism of the second part. After giving his first sermon, the Buddha found many disciples and began wandering northeastern India for forty-five years to spread his teachings. It is important to note that the Buddha only presented himself as a teacher of a philosophy and not as a god or an object of worship. However, legend holds that the Buddha performed several miracles in his lifetime. At the age of eighty, the Buddha died, his body cremated and the remains scattered across India and placed in burial mounds, or stupas, which would become pilgrimage sites.

Buddhism[edit]

Kamakura Buddha reflecting Japanese Buddhist art

Basic Concepts[edit]

Buddha (awakened one)

"Buddha" is a title of honor that refers to the enduring experience of enlightenment (awakening). A Buddha is a being who has reached full enlightenment. He has achieved nirvana and is therefore bound no longer at the cycle of reincarnation (samsara).

Dharma

"Dharma" are the teachings of Buddha. Base of the Dharma are the "Four Noble Truths":

1. Life involves suffering.

2. The causes of suffering are attachment to worldly pleasures, rejection of unpleasant situations and ignorance of the deeper meaning of life (enlightenment).

3. The causes can be resolved, and suffering can end.

4. The way to overcome suffering is the Eightfold Path (right thinking, right action, right meditation, Samādhi).

Meditation

We can summarize the essence of Buddhism in cognitive work and meditation. There are four main meditation stages:

1. Sitting or going and calming thoughts by thinking.

2. Calming thoughts only through sitting or going.

3. Happiness appears by its own while sitting or going.

4. Suddenly the ego dissolves and you live in the light (Nirvana, Unity). The fourth stage of meditation is difficult to achieve for an untrained person. It is caused by grace (by itself). The more comprehensive a man is walking the spiritual path, the sooner he can live in the light (Nirvana).

Buddhist Sects

Today there are three main sects of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetian Vajrayana) and many sub-forms (for example, the Amitabha Buddhism and Zen Buddhism).

1. The Theravada Buddhism focuses on the original teachings of Buddha. It focuses on one's own enlightenment. The main goal is to be a saint (arhat) and to live in the Nirvana.

2. The Mahayana Buddhism's main goal is not the own enlightenment, but the happiness of all beings. A Mahayana Buddhist does not see himself separated from his fellow beings, but as part of the world. He wants all beings to be happy. He wants a happy world. He works as a Bodhisattva for the enlightenment of all beings.

3. Vajrayana is also known as Tantric Buddhism. Its main scriptures are called Tantras.