History And Background
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century BC. Siddhartha was born a Hindu and grew up in a very privileged and wealthy lifestyle, sheltered by his father from the pain and poverty of the surrounding society of India.
According to tradition, on a pleasure trip outside his palace, Gautama briefly encountered various forms of suffering: old age; sickness; death; the poverty of an ascetic monk begging for money. This experience so upset him that he abandoned his wife and newborn son, and went off in search of the answer to the meaning of existence.
After six years, Gautama concluded that neither a life of luxury and plenty, nor a life of extreme poverty, hunger and asceticism, could lead to spiritual fulfillment and freedom. At one point, so faint from hunger he could hardly move, he sat under a tree. He vowed to not move until he received enlightenment as to how to achieve spiritual freedom.
Traditions vary as to whether it took one day or 49 days. But as Gautama resisted the temptations of Mara (“the evil one”) to give up his pursuit of enlightenment, he, according to tradition, reached a highly -exalted state of consciousness or “enlightenment “. At this point, Siddhartha Gautama became known as the “Buddha” – or “enlightened one”.
After having this life-changing experience, Buddha began to expound his new teaching, which he called the “middle way”. Soon he founded his own order of followers called the Sangha.
Buddha died approximately 45 years later, possibly from food poisoning. Today there are an estimated 600 million Buddhists worldwide.
The Teachings Of Buddhism
The middle way teaching was so named because of Buddha’s rejection of the extremes of asceticism on one side and the pursuit of a sensual lifestyle on the other. This middle way consists of “four noble truths” and the “eight-fold path to enlightenment ”.
The four noble truths (the “Middle Way”) according to Buddha are:
- Suffering is universal – even after death – because of the endless cycle of death, rebirth, suffering and death on samsara (“the wheel of life” already described in the section on Hinduism). The state of nirvana is the release from this cycle.
- The cause of suffering is selfish desire; attachment to this life results from ignorance of the nature of reality, which is impermanent.
- To eliminate suffering, one must eliminate all desire.
- To eliminate all desire and craving, one must follow the “eight-fold path to enlightenment “.
The eight-fold path teaching of Buddhism represents eight ways of “right living” that supposedly eliminate all desires. One must have:
- right understanding or viewpoint;
- right thought;
- right speech;
- right behavior ;
- right occupation or livelihood ;
- right effort;
- right awareness ;
- right meditation .
These eight concepts, according to Buddhism, are not to be approached in sequence rather they are all to be practiced simultaneously. However, the first two concepts – right understanding and right thought – form a foundation for the other six concepts.
Along with the middle way and eight-fold path, there are a number of ethical teachings regarding behavior. Many of these resemble portions of the Ten Commandments (Exo 20: 1-17). These moral precepts of Buddhism forbid stealing, killing (of any life form), immoral sexual behavior, and lying. This moral code is known as sila. It is accompanied by mental discipline and samadhi, a deep state of consciousness or trance in which a person loses all sense of personal identity.