The historical Buddha was born 2,500 years ago near the border of Nepal and India. He was a prince. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of a small kingdom. His mother, Maya, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, his real name, in Lumbini, a forest en route to her family home. Without any more reason to go she turned back and returned to Kapilavastu, the capital.
Soothsayers had predicted that he would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. King Suddhodana, worried that his son would not ascend the throne, gave Siddhartha every comfort possible to ensure he would be groomed to become the next king.
At the age of 28, having married and awaiting the birth of his child, Siddhartha had decided to venture outside into the world to see his kingdom. There, he saw for the first time sickness, old age, and death. He also saw the serenity of an ascetic among this reality.
Deciding to search for this happiness he left his family and duties. Now known as Shakyamuni, The Sage of the Shakya Clan, he sought the best teachers of the time, mastered their teachings. But he did not find the happiness he had seen in that ascetic he had met on that fateful trip. Deciding that that extreme asceticism is no better than decadence he changed his approach and followed a more moderate practice – The Middle Way. After intense meditation, he became fully enlightened and found the happiness that he had sought.
At age 35 now known as Buddha, The Enlightened One, he spent the next forty-five years teaching the way which brings about liberation from suffering (enlightenment).
Upon discovering the way to liberation from suffering the Buddha went to his former companions who had abandoned him. Noticing his changed disposition they listened and realized that he had reached their common goal.
He taught them that everything without exception is impermanent, that to understand otherwise is the cause of suffering, and that the most expedient way to liberation is to accept the impermanence of the self (non-self).
The Buddha summarised it (The Four Noble Truths) in this way:
- life is suffering,
- it is cause by our desires (thirst),
- to cease suffering one must detach from desires, and
- the way to do it (The Eightfold Path) is by having correct
He also taught the nature our personality (skandha) and explained what the chain of rebirth (paticca-samuppada) is in detail so that we can deal with it practically. He taught that we must end rebirth (samsara) and not to perpetuate it by sowing the seeds (karma) that bring about further becoming, and he showed that a careful moderate lifestyle will quell future becoming.
He taught this one teaching (Dharma) for forty-five years until he died from accidental food poisoning.
Today, as a religion, Buddhism is practiced by venerating the Three Jewels of the Buddha (the founder), the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (community).
Just before the Buddha’s passing, he told his followers that everything he knows has been taught to them. However, he taught them orally, that is, he left no writings behind. While his followers did their best to continue the oral tradition of the teaching (an expression of impermanence) they eventually decided to put what he taught down in writing.
The written teachings became known as the Tripitaka or ‘three baskets’. The baskets consisted of rules of the community (sangha) are called the jataka. The “actual” words of the Buddha were called the sutras. And the commentaries are called the abhidharma. These were confirmed and laid down over several “councils”. The most important writings are the sutras. The Pali Canon consists of five divisions. They are 1) the long discourses (Digha Nikaya), 2) middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), 3) the connected discourses, 4) the numerical discourses, and 5) the miscellaneous collections. In these, we get a sense of the time of the Buddha, the culture and society to which he belonged. Sometimes these are the only written records we have of this place and period.
The Pali Canon, being the oldest collection, is considered the most authentic. But these are not the only writings. From around the 1st Century CE, we see a new set of writings appear, those in Sanskrit – Mahayana sutras. These were developed in the North-West of the Indian sub-continent in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Different from the Pali they were less concerned with the Historical Buddha than with the spiritual or Transcendental Buddha. The settings for his discourses in these are generally in celestial realms and concern deeper more abstract aspects of Buddhism. Furthermore, they develop upon the earlier teachings in ways that are beyond the contents in the Pali Canon.
Eventually, this led to the main divergence of Theravada (also derogatorily called “Hinayana”) and Mahayana Buddhism. The Theravada stresses the arhat ideal, which sees striving for one’s own enlightenment is important. Whereas the Mahayana chooses to stress helping others (the Bodhidharma ideal) to reach enlightenment. The Mahayana also uses emptiness over the term non-self where the nature of impermanence is extended to everything (though I do not think the Buddha had meant to limit the non-self to just beings).
Eventually, the various Buddhist schools developed their own texts. For example, the Dhammapada is popular with Theravadins. The Japanese Jodo Shin Buddhism takes the Tannisho by Shiran as an important exposition of their position. And Zen Buddhism has its Mumonkan (koans), art (Sengai and Enku), poetry (Basho, Buson, and Issa) and commentaries (Dogen and Hakuin). The abundance and variety of writing in Buddhism cannot be stressed more.