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Buddhist History And Overview

The life of Siddhartha Gautama. Although precise dates for Siddhartha Gautama's life are disputed, most scholars accept 560–480 B.C.E. as rough approximations. Siddhartha was the son of a local ruler of the Sakyas clan, located on the Indian-Nepalese border. At his birth, it was prophesied that he would fulfill one of two destinies. Either he would become a great conqueror and unite all of India into one kingdom, or he would assume a religious vocation and become a world redeemer. Siddhartha's father preferred the destiny of a great conqueror and encouraged his son toward this destiny by surrounding him with worldly pleasures and shielding him from all of life's suffering.

Siddhartha grew up in luxury, married a beautiful princess, and fathered a son. Then, in his late twenties, on three successive trips into the city, Siddhartha saw an elderly man, a diseased person, and a corpse. Shocked by life's afflictions, Siddhartha fell into despair until a fourth excursion into the city when he encountered a monk seeking enlightenment. These confrontations with old age, disease, death, and the monastic life are known as the Four Passing Sights. They culminated in the Great Going Forth, a night in Siddhartha's twenty-ninth year when he abandoned his princely and family life for the religious pursuit of enlightenment.

Siddhartha spent the next six years seeking to understand suffering and the nature of existence. Initially, he studied under two prominent Hindu sages. After extensive learning from these teachers, he joined a band of wandering ascetics and assumed practices of extreme self-mortification, depriving his body of food and comfort. After reaching the point of death, yet without achieving enlightenment, he abandoned his companions and seated himself beneath a pipal tree to meditate, vowing not to rise until attaining enlightenment. For forty-nine days, Mara, an evil deity embodying death and desire, tempted Siddhartha to abandon his quest. Resisting all temptations, Siddhartha conquered Mara and awoke to the true nature and meaning of life. For the next forty-five years, until his death at the age of eighty, he taught others the path to enlightenment.

Basic Buddhist teachings. Buddhism's basic teachings are properly understood in light of several prevailing Hindu beliefs, that is, samsara, karma, and nirvana. Samsara is the Wheel of Life and refers to the cyclical stages of existence that are characteristic of reincarnation or transmigration: birth-death-rebirth. Integral to samsara is the role of karma, or the consequences of one's deeds and actions. Committing good acts merits one good karma that results in a higher rebirth in the realms of existence. Committing evil acts, however, accrues bad karma and subjects one to rebirth in a lower level of existence. Six realms of existence compose samsara. The three higher realms are the realms of the devas (gods), of the asuras (jealous gods), and of humans. The three lower realms are the realms of animals, of the pretas (hungry ghosts), and of hell. Of these six realms, only the human realm offers the possibility of achieving nirvana and escaping the continuous cycle of rebirths. Nirvana is the extinction of all desire and corresponds to the liberation of the individual from the Three Marks of Existence: suffering, impermanence, and the doctrine of no-self. Achieving nirvana is the Buddhist goal.

Siddhartha preached his first sermon at Deer Park near Benares (Sarnath). Known as the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (Dharma is the Sanskrit word for truth or law and refers to the Buddha's teachings), the Buddha proclaimed to his former band of ascetics the Four Noble Truths: The Truth of Suffering, The Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering.

The First Noble Truth is the Buddha's observation that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha). This should not be mistaken as a pessimistic interpretation of life; rather it displays a realistic awareness that life is filled with sorrow. Sorrow results from life's impermanence (anicca). Life is transitory, continually traversing the processes of change and becoming. Since humans are trapped in the continual cycle of birth-death-rebirth, the Buddha taught the doctrine of no-self (anatta), meaning that there is no abiding, enduring essence, such as a self or a soul, inherent in human existence. Instead of a permanent self or essence, human beings consist of five aggregates: (1) matter or form, (2) sensation or feeling, (3) perception, (4) mental formations, and (5) consciousness.

The Second Noble Truth identifies the origin or cause of suffering. Suffering is the result of human cravings or desires for fulfillment and contentment. These desires give rise to suffering not because the desires are evil, but because of life's impermanence, they are never sated. Although humans do experience moments of happiness or pleasure, these moments are necessarily fleeting, leaving people mired in a continual state of desire and suffering.

The first two Noble Truths describe and diagnose life. The Third Noble Truth prescribes a cure for life's dis-ease. To overcome suffering and desire, one must control and ultimately eliminate all cravings and attachments to worldly matters. The extinction of cravings or desires produces a state free from attachments to the world and therefore free from suffering. This state is nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth, also known as the Middle Way, teaches one how to extinguish desire and achieve enlightenment by avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence (hedonism) and self-mortification (asceticism). Traveling the Middle Way requires practicing the Eightfold Path. This path consists of eight practices that one must master to awaken to the true nature of the world and enter nirvana. These practices are organized into three categories: (1) wisdom, which includes the practices of right view/understanding and right intention/thought; (2) ethical conduct, which includes right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right diligence/effort; and (3) mental discipline, which includes right mindfulness and right concentration. These categories are interdependent, requiring one to practice wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline simultaneously. By deliberately engaging in these practices, one travels the Path of Liberation to nirvana.

Development and diversity of Buddhist traditions. Following the Buddha's death, a council was called at Rajagrha to codify his teachings. Five hundred monks attended the meeting. The council produced two authoritative, oral traditions of the Buddha's teachings, the Vinaya and the Sutta. The Vinaya described disciplines and rules for the monastic life, and the Sutta contained the Buddha's basic teachings. Over the course of the next several centuries, several other great councils were held. Each council addressed the gradual development of diverging ideological interpretations and religious practices within Buddhism. The result was a process of fragmentation that eventually produced eighteen different Buddhist schools. One of the first, and most prominent, schools to emerge was the conservative school of Theravada (Way of the Elders). Theravada contains the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Tipitaka (The Three Baskets). The elements of the Pali canon are the Vinaya (monastic codes), Sutta (basic teachings), and Abhidhamma (philosophical doctrines).

Theravada Buddhism emphasized the monastic lifestyle. The Theravada ideal was the arhat, an accomplished monk who achieved nirvana through wisdom, meditation, and self-effort. Within this tradition, the laity's primary purpose was to provide for the physical and material needs of the monastics. This arrangement produced a symbiotic relationship in which monastics carried on the Buddha's spiritual work while the laity supported the religious community. Theravada Buddhism flourished in India, reaching its zenith under the patronage of King Ashoka in the third century B.C.E. During Ashoka's reign, Buddhist missionaries introduced Theravada to Sri Lanka. Eventually, Theravada Buddhism spread throughout all of Southeast Asia. It remains the dominant Buddhist tradition in these countries. Geographically, it is designated Southern Buddhism.

The second major Buddhist tradition is the more diverse and liberal Mahayana (Great Vehicle). Mahayana developed in India in the first century B.C.E. Its adherents, competing with Theravada Buddhism for legitimacy, pejoratively dubbed the Theravada tradition, Hinayana, meaning the Lesser Vehicle. For the Mahayana, the ideal Buddhist was the bodhisattva, one who, having reached nirvana, chooses to return to the world to assist others on the path to enlightenment. The example of the bodhisattva promotes compassionate actions toward others. Eventually, both the Buddha and the bodhisattva came to be regarded as beings worthy of devotion. The bodhisattva model of compassion toward others and the development of acts of devotion towards the Buddha and the bodhisattvas empowered the laity to work towards nirvana through acts of compassion and devotion.

The Mahayana tradition spread from India northward and eastward into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. Geographically, this tradition is known as Northern Buddhism. As it encountered new cultures and pre-existing religious and philosophical traditions, such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto, it generated several different forms of Mahayana. This religious diversity produced a vast quantity of sacred texts recognized by various Mahayana schools. Three of the more well-known Mahayana schools are Pure Land Buddhism, Chinese Ch'an or Japanese Zen Buddhism, and Tibetan Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Amongst Western Europeans and North Americans, Ch'an/Zen and Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism are more commonly known and practiced.

Originating in China in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., Pure Land Buddhism differed from other Buddhist schools by emphasizing faith as the means of entering the Pure Land, a "salvific paradise," or "paradise of salvation" where one could be saved and free from suffering. Ch'an or Zen Buddhism developed in China and Japan in the sixth century C.E. and sought enlightenment through practicing seated meditation (zazen) on paradoxical problems (koan) under a master's guidance (sanzen). Often considered a third Buddhist tradition, Vajrayana (Thunderbolt or Diamond Vehicle) or Tantric Buddhism developed in India and Sri Lanka in the seventh century C.E. and spread into Tibet. Vajrayana is also known as Esoteric Buddhism because it claims it originated with secret teachings of the Buddha that were passed down orally. Vajrayana teaches rapid and sudden enlightenment by using all of the body's latent energy. This is accomplished through the use of carefully choreographed body movements and posturing (mudras), repetitive recitation of chants and formulas (mantras), and meditation on religious icons and symbols (mandalas). The use of these methods earned this school yet another name, Mantrayana (Vehicle of the Sacred Formula).

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