56 Buddhism

Origins of Buddhism

Hinduism (Sanatan Dharma, “Eternal Order”) was the dominant faith in India in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when a wave of religious and philosophical reform swept the land. According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini (modern-day Nepal) and grew up, the son of a king. After a seer predicted he would either become a great king, or spiritual leader if he were to witness suffering or death, his father shielded from any of the harsh realities of existence. He married, had a son, and was groomed to succeed his father as king. One day, however (or, in some versions, over a succession of days), his coachman drove him out of the compound where he had spent his first 29 years and he encountered what are known as the Four Signs:

  • An aged man
  • A sick man
  • A dead man
  • An ascetic

With the first three, he asked his driver, “Am I, too, subject to this?”, and the coachman assured him that everyone aged, everyone grew sick at one point or another, and everyone died. Siddhartha became upset as he understood that everyone he loved, all his fine things, would be lost and that he, himself, would one day be as well.

The Buddha seated in meditation, one hand on his lap, the other pendant in a gesture known as earth-witness, which represents unshakability or steadfastness when being subject to the demons' temptations.
Copper statue of the seated Buddha by Christian Violatti is license under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

When he saw the ascetic, a shaven-headed man in a yellow robe, smiling by the side of the road, he asked why he was not like other men. The ascetic explained he was pursuing a peaceful life of reflection, compassion, and non-attachment. Shortly after this encounter, Siddhartha left his wealth, position, and family to follow the ascetic’s example.(14)

He at first sought out a famous teacher from whom he learned meditation techniques, but these did not free him from worry or suffering. A second teacher taught him how to suppress his desires and suspend awareness, but this was no solution either as it was not a permanent state of mind. He tried to live as the other ascetics lived, practicing what was most likely Jain discipline, but even this was not enough for him. At last, he decided to refuse the needs of the body by starving himself, eating only a grain of rice a day, until he was so emaciated that he was unrecognizable.

According to one version of the legend, at this point, he either stumbled into a river and received a revelation of the middle way. In the other version of the story, a milkmaid named Sujata comes upon him in the woods near her village and offers him some rice milk, which he accepts, and so ends his period of strict asceticism as he glimpses the idea of a “middle way”

He understood, in a flash of illumination, that humans suffered because they insisted on permanence in a world of constant change. People maintained an identity which they called their “self” and which would not change, maintained clothing and objects they thought of as “theirs”, and maintained relationships with others which they believed would last forever – but none of this was true; the nature of life, all of life, was change and the way to escape suffering was to recognize this and act on it. At this moment he became the Buddha (“awakened one” or “enlightened one”) and was freed from ignorance and illusion.

A grey schist relief panel from Gandhara depicting Buddha eating with monks, 1st-4th century CE.
A relief depicting the Buddha eating with monks by Mark Cartwright is license under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Having attained complete enlightenment, recognizing the interdependent and transient nature of all things, he recognized that he could now live however he pleased without suffering and could do whatever he wanted. He hesitated to teach what he had learned to others because he felt they would just reject him but was finally convinced that he had to try and so preached his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath at which he first described the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which led one from illusion and suffering to enlightenment and joy.(14)

Buddhist Philosophy

As noted, what started Siddhartha on his quest was the realization that he would lose everything that he loved, and this would cause him suffering. From this realization, he understood that life was suffering. One suffered at birth (as did one’s mother) and suffered then throughout one’s life by craving what one did not have, fearing for the loss of what one did have, mourning the loss of what one once had, and finally dying and losing everything only to be reincarnated to repeat the process.

In order for life to be anything other than suffering, one had to find a way to live it without the desire to possess and hold it in a fixed form; one had to let go of the things of life while still being able to appreciate them for the value they had. After attaining enlightenment, he phrased his belief on the nature of life in his Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering
  • The cause of suffering is craving
  • The end of suffering comes with an end to craving
  • There is a path which leads one away from craving and suffering

The four truths are called “noble” from the original arya meaning the same but also “worthy of respect” and suggesting “worth heeding”. The path alluded to in the fourth of the truths is The Eightfold Path which serves as a guide to live one’s life without the kind of attachment that guarantees suffering:

  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Scholar John M. Koller points out the first three have to do with wisdom, the next two with conduct, and the last three with mental discipline. He continues:

The Noble Eightfold Path should not be thought of as a set of eight sequential steps, with perfection at one step required before advancing to the next. Rather, these eight components of the path should be thought of as guiding norms of right living that should be followed more or less simultaneously, for the aim of the path is to achieve a completely integrated life of the highest order…Wisdom is seeing things as they really are, as interrelated and constantly changing processes…moral conduct is to purify one’s motives, speech, and action, thereby stopping the inflow of additional cravings…mental discipline works to attain insight and to eliminate the bad dispositions and habits built up on the basis of past ignorance and craving.[1]

By recognizing the Four Noble Truths and following the precepts of the Eightfold Path, one is freed from the Wheel of Becoming which is a symbolic illustration of existence. In the hub of the wheel sit ignorance, craving, and aversion which drive it. Between the hub and the rim of the wheel are six states of existence: human, animal, ghosts, demons, deities, and hell-beings. Along the rim of the wheel are depicted the conditions which cause suffering: birth, body-mind, consciousness, contact, feeling, thirst, grasping, volition, and so on.

By recognizing that these conditions cause suffering one can avoid it by disciplining one’s self through the Eightfold Path so that one is no longer driven by ignorance, craving, and aversion and is free of the wheel of samsara which binds one to continual rebirth, suffering, and death. In adhering to this discipline, one could live in one’s life but not be controlled and suffer by one’s attachment to the things of that life and, when one died, one was not reborn but attained the liberation of the spiritual state of nirvana. This, then, is the “middle way” Buddha found between slavish attachment to material goods and personal relationships and the extreme asceticism practiced by the Jains of his time.

He called his teachings the Dharma which, in this case, means “cosmic law” as opposed to Hinduism which defines the same term as “duty”. One could, however, interpret Buddha’s Dharma as “duty” in that he believed one had a duty to one’s self to take responsibility for one’s life, that each individual was finally responsible for how much they wanted to suffer – or not, and that everyone, finally, could be in control of their lives. He discounted a belief in a creator god as irrelevant to the lives of human beings and a contributor to suffering in that one cannot possibly know God’s will and believing that one can only leads to frustration, disappointment, and pain. No god is required in order to follow the Eightfold Path; all one needs is the commitment to taking full responsibility for one’s own actions and their consequences.(14)

stone statue of the Dharmachakra (Skt: wheel of the law with eight spokes) represents the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration).
Relief of eight-spoked Dharma wheel, symbolizing the Eightfold path by saamiblog is license under CC BY-SA

Legacy of Buddhism

Buddhism continued as a minor philosophical school of thought in India until the reign of Ashoka the Great who, after the Kalinga War (c. 260 BCE), renounced violence and embraced Buddhism. Ashoka spread the Dharma of the Buddha throughout India under the name dhamma which equates to “mercy, charity, truthfulness, and purity” (Keay, 95). He had the Buddha’s remains disinterred and reinterred in 84,000 stupas all through the country along with edicts encouraging the Buddhist vision. He also sent missionaries to other countries—Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Greece among them—to spread Buddha’s message.(14)

  1. Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies. Prentice Hall, 2007.


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Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century Copyright © by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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