Siddhartha’s enlightenment and the spread of his teaching
... these discourses (of the Buddha) unconsciously portray for us the first distinct character of India’s history: a man of strong will, authoritative and proud, but of gentle manner and speech, and of infinite benevolence. He claimed enlightenment but not inspiration; he never pretended that a god was speaking through him. In controversy he was more patient and considerate than any other of the great teachers of mankind. . .. Like Lao-tze and Christ he wished to return good for evil, love for hate; and he remained silent under misunderstanding and abuse . ... Unlike most saints, Buddha had a sense of humor, and knew that metaphysics without laughter is immodesty.
-Will Durant (1885-1981), American historian
and Pulitzer Prize winner
Many auspicious signs greeted Prince Siddhartha, who was born to the royal couple of Kapilavastu in the sixth century B.C.E. Rainbows appeared in the sky, animals were at peace, and there was great happiness throughout the land. Before Siddhartha’s birth, his mother had many auspicious dreams, and the child was indeed remarkable. As a newborn infant, he took seven steps and declared this was his last rebirth.
From the beginning, Prince Siddhartha excelled in intellectual and athletic pursuits. Prohibited by his father from venturing beyond the palace gates, he led a very sheltered life. He married, had a child, and spent his time enjoying the delights of royal life.
But the prince was interested in how, people lived, and so unbeknownst to his parents, he left the palace with his charioteer on several occasions. To his horror, he came across unexpected sights: a sick person, an old person and a corpse. His charioteer explained to the shocked prince that sickness, aging and death come to everyone without choice.
On another visit Prince Siddhartha saw a wandering mendicant. He learned that this penniless holy person was seeking true understanding of life and liberation from its difficulties. After these experiences, the prince began to reconsider the purpose of his own life.
Siddhartha began to feel restless among the palace pleasures and desired to find a solution to life’s problems, answers to his questions about life and death. Unable to tolerate the meaningless frivolity of palace life any more, he decided to dedicate his life to spiritual pursuits. One night he left the palace, and shedding his royal clothes and ornaments, became a mendicant.
Although he studied with the greatest meditation masters of that time and accomplished all they taught, he still hadn’t discovered the nature of reality, nor found his way out of cyclic existence. Then, for six agonizing years, he sought realizations through asceticism. Finally understanding that torturing the body doesn’t purify the mind, he abandoned this practice. Then, sitting under a Bodhi tree in the village of Bodh Gaya in northern India, he vowed not to arise until he had attained full enlightenment.
Many forces, internal and external, tried to distract him from his meditation. But at dawn of the full moon in the fourth lunar month, he succeeded in freeing his mind from all obscurations and developing all of his potential. He became a fully enlightened Buddha.
For forty-five years, the Buddha then taught all over northern India and what is today part of Nepal. Men and women wished to take ordination from him, and thus the sangha communities of monks and nuns began. Laymen and women also studied with the Buddha and took the five lay precepts (not to kill, steal, have unwise sexual relations, lie or take intoxicants). The lay followers donated parks so the sangha would have dwelling places and supplied the monks and nuns with their food, clothing and medicine. The sangha lived simply, practiced well and taught the Dharma.
After several years, the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu to teach the Dharma to his family. His son became a monk and his aunt, who had raised him after his mother’s death, became the first nun. His wife and son entered the sangha. His father the king and the rest of’ the kingdom also followed the Buddha’s teachings.
In many ways, the Buddha changed Indian society. He discouraged excessive ritual and encouraged people to understand the ceremonies they participate in. Indian society was enmeshed in the prejudice of the caste system, but the Buddha prohibited the caste system among his followers. In Indian society, women were kept at home and given little freedom. However, the Buddha acknowledged women’s ability to attain liberation and encouraged them to assume “the homeless life” of a nun. He encouraged the sangha to operate in a democratic way, creating a model that ultimately changed the manner of even the secular government at that time.
The Buddha’s life and his philosophy have influenced the world ever since. It led Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to freedom from British colonialism, to say:
“I have no hesitation in declaring that I owe a great deal to the inspiration that I have derived from the life of the Enlightened One... His love, his boundless love went out as much to the lower animal, to the lowest life as to human beings. And he insisted upon purity of life. “
The spread of buddhism
Shortly after the Buddha’s passing away, or parinirvana, five hundred arhats met and recited the Buddhas’ discourses to preserve and systematize them. These sutras were memorized and passed down orally for centuries, until they were written down in Ceylon around the second century B.C.E, forming the Pali Canon of the Theravada tradition.
The Buddha gave other teachings during his lifetime that were passed down privately from teacher to disciple in the early centuries after his passing away. It’s said that some of these teachings, the Prajna-paramita Sutras, were hidden until the circumstances were ripe for them to spread. Centuries later, the sage Nagarjuna revived them. These Mahayana sutras, written in Sanskrit, began to appear in the first century B.C.E., and rapidly became popular.
In the sixth century the tantras, another group of Buddha’s teachings, appeared in writing. According to the Vajrayana tradition, these teachings were given by the Buddha during his lifetime. Because they were too advanced to be taught to public audiences, they were passed down quietly from master to disciple for centuries or taken to other places for protection.
After the Buddha’s passing, his teachings spread rapidly across India to present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Remains of this great Buddhist civilization can be seen at the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India, with their elaborate sculpture and painting, and at Bamiyan in Afghanistan where huge Buddha images were carved into the sides of a mountain. Buddhist monastic universities were established in India and were the center of intellectual thought for centuries. The ruins of Nalanda, the foremost of these, can be seen in Bihar today.
Active practice of Buddha’s teachings disappeared from Indian culture after the twelfth century when Buddhism was virtually destroyed by Muslim invaders. However, the Buddhist influence on Indian culture remained, and there has been a resurgence of active Buddhist practice in recent years. Many Indian “untouchables” have become Buddhist. The group of 500,000 who converted in 1956 has now swelled to nearly six million...
India was the root from which Buddhism spread all over Asia. In the third century B.C.E. King Ashoka sent missionaries to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where Buddhism took root. From both Ceylon and India, Buddhism spread to Thailand and Burma and down the Southeast Asian peninsula. The teachings went there in waves, first the Theravada, then Mahayana and finally Vajrayana. By the seventh century, Buddhism reached Indonesia, where the famous Borobudur Stupa was built.
In most of Southeast Asia-Thailand, Burma and Cambodia-the Theravada tradition became dominant and continues to be so. However in Vietnam, Theravada, Ch’an (Zen) and Pure Land traditions are found. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Buddhism diminished after the Muslim invasions of the fourteenth century. However, Chinese immigrants to Malaysia in the last century brought Buddhism with them, and several Buddhist traditions are present in modern Malaysia and Singapore. Small groups of Buddhists remain in Indonesia.
Around the third century B.C.E. Buddhism spread to the Central Asian kingdoms and was carried along the silk route. It came to China from Central Asia and also from India by sea. Chinese pilgrims went to India and brought back many scriptures which were translated into Chinese. By the fourth century C.E. Buddhism was strong in China.
Many sutras were brought to China by different people over the centuries, but they weren’t systematized. Therefore after a while some confusion arose about how to harmonize seeming discrepancies among sutras and about how to practice what was contained in this vast amount of literature. To resolve this difficulty, small groups arose, each led by a prominent monk. Each group took as its focal point a particular sutra or group of sutras. Thus various Buddhist traditions developed in China. Pure Land and Ch’an (Zen) became the most popular. The earliest Buddhist schools as well as the later Vajrayana teachings also traveled to China, but they weren’t widespread.
From China, these various traditions spread to Korea beginning in the fourth century. From there, they went to Japan, where Buddhism was well established by the ninth century. Several Buddhist traditions now exist in Japan: Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren and Shingon, which is a tantric tradition. From China, Buddhism also spread southward into Vietnam.
Buddhism initially entered Tibet in the seventh century from Nepal and China. Padmasambhava, the great Indian yogi, came to Tibet in the ninth century and Buddhism spread rapidly. After a famous debate between the Indian sage Kamalasila and a Chinese proponent of Ch’an, the Tibetans turned to India as their source for Buddhism. Four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism arose, mostly due to different lineages of teachings. Their manner of practice is similar. From Tibet, Buddhism spread to Mongolia, North China and parts of the Soviet Union, as well as throughout the Himalayan region.
Although King Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Greece in the third century B.C.E., Buddhism didn’t really become known to the West until the last century.
Interestingly, there seem to be indications that the “lost years” of Jesus’ early life were spent in India. A scripture was found in a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, north India, telling of a young man who studied there and later returned to his own country. The dates and description in the text were similar to that of Jesus’ life, but more historical research is needed before any conclusion can be drawn. However, there’s a striking resemblance between Jesus’ teachings on love and compassion and those of the Buddha.
In the nineteenth century some Western intellectuals became interested in Buddhist teachings and Buddhist philosophy began to be taught in the universities. In recent years Westerners have shown an increased interest in Buddhism, and now all major Buddhist traditions have temples and centers in most Western countries.
Buddhism has inspired many people in the West spiritually and intellectually. People in modern Western societies appreciate the meditation techniques the Buddha taught for calming the mind. They’re inspired by Buddhism’s clear instructions on how to develop love and compassion. Intellectually, people are stimulated by Buddhism’s logical and open-minded approach.
In addition, the Buddhist approach is similar to the scientific method and its world view is harmonious with scientific discoveries. Erich Fromm, the German-American psychoanalyst and social philosopher said:
Paradoxically, Eastern religious thought turns out to be more congenial to Western rational thought than does Western religious thought itself.
The eminent British judge, Christmas Humphreys, commented:
“Buddhism ...is a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life which is reasonable, practical and all-embracing. For 2,500 years it has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one-third of mankind. It appeals to those in search of truth because it has no dogmas, satisfies the reason and the heart alike, insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for other points of view, embraces science, religion, philosophy, psychology, mysticism, ethics and art, and points to man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny.”