Buddhism is based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, or Enlightened One. Born (circa 563 BC) a Hindu and raised as a prince of a small kingdom in Kapilavastu in Nepal, Gautama abdicated at 29 to lead an ascetic life and to practice Yoga. After doing so for six years he adopted a middle path between indulgence and self-denial, meditated, and eventually attained enlightenment. He then preached in various places, and subsequently formed a community of disciples.
Buddha is thought to have been a contemporary of the Jain founder Mahavira, and some scholars have suggested that they may have shared a common ascetic teacher, or guru. Buddhism and Jainism share many common themes and practices, including an emphasis on nonviolence and a belief that one achieves liberation through the renunciation of worldly ties which bind individuals to illusion through the process of karma, the accumulation of good and bad merit.
While Buddha retained some of the philosophical and cosmological structures of traditional Hinduism, like reincarnation and polytheism, he rejected other Hindu beliefs and practices, particularly the veracity of the Vedas, animal sacrifice, and the caste system. The Buddha's use of Hindu philosophical and cosmological terms should not be viewed as his religious endorsement of such views. To the contrary, Buddha explicitly made such ideas subservient to his fundamental teaching of the truth, or Dharma. Any person who finds such ideas an obstacle to understanding the Dharma is urged to renounce them.
The foundation of the Dharma is the “Four Noble Truths”: (1) that life is suffering, (2) caused by ignorance, (3) to be overcome by wisdom and compassion, (4) achievable by following the “Noble Eightfold Path.” The "Eightfold Path" espouses right (1) views, (2) intention, (3) speech, (4) action, (5) livelihood, (6) effort, (7) right-mindedness, and (8) contemplation. In turn, these are often grouped into three categories: wisdom, morality and concentration.
Any sentient being can, though its own efforts, become a Buddha. Buddhist mythology includes countless Buddhas, each presiding over their own universe in the past and future.
Records of Buddha’s actual teachings were not written until around the first century BCE, several hundred years after his death. During the intervening years, the unity of Buddha’s teachings was maintained by councils of monks who met (four times in five hundred years) to agree upon proper monastic discipline and what should be taught. Disagreements in early years led to eighteen schools of thought and caused many splits. Today two main forms survive, Theravada (which holds Buddha to be mortal), and Mahayana (which holds Buddha to exist in three forms, one immortal).
Generally speaking, Buddhists believe that individuals are composed of five, constantly changing “bundles,” which are comprised of feelings, perceptions, predispositions, consciousness, and the material body. Since this constant bundle-changing precludes the possibility of a soul (atman), the causal reincarnation link is attributed to ignorance, thoughts and sensations. Buddhists also believe in karma, whereby each act has an ethical consequence that brings punishment or reward during life, and which can determine the outcome of reincarnation. Being charitable, non-materialistic and unselfishly kind, having compassion for all, supporting the monasteries, not killing or stealing, avoiding alcohol and harmful language and not sexually misbehaving are considered to be correct behaviours. Reincarnation can only be halted through attaining the enlightened state of Nirvana.
Theravada Buddhism is most widespread in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and is returning, via the Untouchable caste, to India. Mahayana Buddhism is dominant (in a variety of forms) in the rest of the Buddhist world, principally China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Theravada claims to be perpetuating the true teachings and practices of Siddhartha Gautama, and traces its descent from the original monastic community. The Theravadin ideal is to become an arhat, i.e., in a disciplined manner, attempt to manipulate their dharmas (a complexity of transient aspects that comprise the human existence) in order to suspend karma and thereby achieve Nirvana. Only monks can attain Nirvana, but the laity may hope to be reborn as monks after many reincarnations. Women and laity enjoy only limited participation in the monastic life.
Mahayana doctrine (originating between the second century BC and the first century Ad) holds that Buddha has a triple body-form: essence, bliss and transformation. “Essence” represents the absolute, which manifests itself in heavenly form as communal “bliss,” and which appears on Earth as “transformation.” (Siddhartha Gautama is held to have been such a transformation.) Mahayana Buddhism teaches that the true nature of all things is emptiness, and that this concept can be used in meditation.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that any individual can attempt to reach the stage of perfect enlightenment (bodhisattva). Of those reaching this state, some then choose to delay their entry into Nirvana in order to transfer merit to others through acts of compassion and loving kindness. (Mahayanists therefore consider the bodhisattva state to be higher than that of the Theravadin's arhat—who have more care for themselves than they do for others. As a result Mahayanists can revere bodhisattvas as deities during their lifetime.)
- Now considered to have lived from 448-368 BCE (formerly thought to be 563-483 BC).