This religion was founded by Gotama who lived from about 566 to 486 BC in north-eastern India.
He was born a prince and his father was determined to keep him from life’s painful experiences. So he was brought up in sheltered surroundings.
However, the female attendants began to tell him about the delightful groves near the city, so the young prince decided to make a journey outside the palace. In spite of the king’s runners, Gotama saw three sights – a diseased man, an old man and a corpse. "Verily this world has fallen upon trouble – one is born, and grows old, and dies, and falls from one state, and springs up in another. And from this suffering, moreover, no one knows of any way of escape, even from decay and death. O, when shall a way of escape from this suffering be made known – from decay and death?"
Later he saw a religious beggar and decided to set out on a homeless life. According to the story, he returned to the palace, reflecting on what he had seen, then left without bidding anyone farewell. He was seeking freedom from the wheel of rebirth and, since desire causes both suffering and rebirth, his renunciation of his status as a prince and as husband and father (he was married at the time) was necessary if he was to achieve enlightenment.
After several fruitless attempts, he finally reached enlightenment under a Bo-tree, becoming "the Buddha" (the enlightened one). Aware that he was now living his last existence on earth, he determined not to enter Nirvana directly, but to proclaim the dharma (law) that he had discovered. His first disciples were five beggars and his preaching continued for the next forty years. He founded monasteries for both men and women.
Buddhist teaching rests on four "excellent truths": all existence involves suffering; suffering is caused by desire; suffering can be ended if desire can be conquered; and there is an eightfold path to the conquering of desire.
The path consists of right views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. To this is added an elaborate monastic discipline.
The Classical Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka, the three baskets) are written in Pali, a dialect of Sanskrit.
The great historical division among Buddhists is between the conservative or Theravada (way of elders) school and the comprehensive or Mahayana (great vehicle) school. Theravada – also called Hinayana (little vehicle) because its opponents maintained that it offered salvation only to monks – is strongest in the South (Ceylon, etc.), Mahayana in the North (formerly Tibet and China, now mainly Japan). Theravada is atheistic in principle; Mahayana has sometimes tended to reckon the Buddha as a saviour-god.
Buddhism acknowledges the reality of neither God nor the soul; all is constant flux, and personality is an illusion. The doctrine of rebirth is assumed. Buddhism in its various forms (Zen, etc.) has seemed attractive to quite a number of people in the West.
© Peter J Blackburn, 1991,1999. This material was originally prepared for Antioch School. Permission is given for the printing and use of this material by congregations and individuals.