Introduction to Buddhism

Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

The historical founder of Buddhism is also known as Gotama, Siddhartha Gautama, Sakyamuni (‘sage of the Sakya clan’) or Bhagavan Buddhadeva. The six Buddhas (‘enlightened ones’) traditionally believed by the Theravadins to have preceded him are: Vipassin, Sikhin, Vessabhu, Kaku-sandha, Konagamana and Kassapa. The Buddha who is still to come to redeem mankind is Metteyya (Maitreya).

Do not seek to know Buddha by his form or attributes; for neither the form nor the attributes are the real Buddha. The true Buddha is enlightenment itself. The true way to know Buddha is to realize enlightenment,’ so goes the Avatamsaka Sutra (1). Traditionally, Buddha’s body is said to have three aspects: dharma-kaya or aspect of essence; sambhoga-kaya, or aspect of potentiality; and nirmana-kaya, or aspect of manifestation. Dharma-kaya forms the substratum of dharma, virtue and truth and permeates the entire universe. Sambhoga-kaya denotes the nature of Buddha characterized by wisdom and compassion. It manifests through the ‘symbols of birth and death. Nirmana-kaya signifies the physical birth of Buddha for the redemption of humanity (2).

Buddha’s Life
Indian society in the sixth century BCE was riddled with rituals superstitions and caste distinctions. Religion had become expensive and complicated, and the common man resented the dominance by the priestly classes, the performance of sacrificial rites self-torture and expensive yajnas. Monotheism of the crudest type-fetishism, from anthropomorphic deism to transcendental dualism-was rampant. So was materialism, from sensualism to transcendental nihilism (3). In this milieu, Buddha appeared in order to free Indian society from the metaphysical jargon of intellectuals the religious dogmas of priests and the authority of the upper castes. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta says in this context: The fact that Buddha appears and disappears can be explained by causality: namely when causes and conditions are not propitious, Buddha seems to disappear from the world.

Buddha was born as Siddattha Gotama to King Suddhodana, chief of the Sakya clan, and Queen Mahamaya of the Koliya clan, on the full-moon day of Visakha in the Lumbini grove (Kapilavatthu; modern Rumindei, Nepal Terai) in about 566 BCE. Much before his birth the queen had a dream that she would have a son having divine traits. Court astrologers predicted the same. When the child was born, thirty-two auspicious marks (mahavyanjanas) were found on his body  which included, among others, long ears and arms, webbed hands, pendant earlobes, a tuft of hair between the eyebrows, a mole on the right side of the breast and signs of the wheel (cakka) and lotus (kamala) on the palms and soles. The sacred tree, udumbara (ficus glomerata), which it is believed puts forth a unique blossom when a Buddha is born flowered again. This confirmed that he was no ordinary child and would bring deliverance to the whole world. A Brahmin priest who visited the palace to see the child predicted that he might renounce family life. Alarmed by this, the king tried to ensure that his son remained engrossed in the pleasures of the world.

The child Buddha was brought up by Pajapati Gotami, the second wife of Suddhodana, as his mother had died within a few days of his birth. He was a prodigy and impressed everyone in the palace with his in sightful queries. Buddhist biographies (second century CE) like the Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara mention that even though the prince grew up in an atmosphere of luxury he remained impervious to worldly things. He was married to Yasodhara a beautiful Sakya princess at the young age of sixteen or seventeen (according to Pali canonical texts) and had a son named Rahula. But nothing could tie him down to mundane pursuits.

Buddhist chroniclers refer to the Four Great Signs, which influenced him greatly. While accompanying his charioteer Canna, he came across some heart-rending scenes of misery, agony, disease and death, and realized that the world was full of sorrow and suffering, and that he would one day meet the same fate as others (4). In order to explore the misery of human life and find a lasting solution to it, he decided to leave home at the age of twenty-nine. One night, when his wife and son were fast asleep he slipped out of the palace and reached Vesali where he became a disciple of Alara Kalama (also known as Arada Kalama) a scholar of the Sankhya school of philosophy. Alara introduced him to the philosophy of the Upanishads and also taught him the techniques of meditation. But his quest for the ultimate Reality could not be fulfilled, and he left him with five Brahmin ascetics. Thereafter he proceeded towards Rajagaha (Rajgir) and studied more scriptures under the guidance of Uddaka Ramaputta. For about six years he practiced the severest austerity and penance in the Uruvela forest (near modern Bodh Gaya, Bihar, on the banks of the Neranjara River) but did not find peace Ultimately abandoning the path of self-mortification he sat under a banyan tree in Gaya in deep meditation and gained enlightenment (sambodhi). Hereafter he became known as Buddha or the Enlightened One; the banyan tree came to be called the Bodhi tree and the place Gaya became famous as Bodh Gaya.

In order to share his divine Knowledge with people, Buddha went to Migadaya or Jetavana (Deer Park) at Isipatana (Sarnath) near Varanasi. His first sermon, which is popularly called the Dhammacakka Pavattana Sutta, or the ideological thread which sets in motion the wheel of dharma (dharma), was given to the five ascetics-Assaji, Upali, Moggallana, Sariputta and Aananda-who had left him when he finally realized the futility of harsh austerities. They now became his disciples. Buddha preached most of his sermons at Savatthi and won many adherents to his new faith including the rich trader Anathapindika, who provided financial backing to the Buddhist order (sangha). He also visited Mathura, Rajagaha, Pataliputta (Patna) and other places to deliver his message. Kings like Bimbisara and Ajatasattu (of Magadha), Udena (of Kosambi) and Pasenadi (of Kosala) found solace in the Middle Path preached by him. His son and foster-mother accepted him as guru when he visited Kapilavatthu.

Buddha passed away on a Visakha Punnama (full moon) day after a brief illness around 483 BCE. He was cremated by the Mallas and his mortal remains came to be divided among eight claimants, namely the Mallas of Kusinara and Pava, Sakyas of Kapilavatthu, Koliyas of Ramagama, Licchavis of Vesali, Bulis of Allakappa two Brahmins of Vethadipaka, Ajatasattu of Magadha and Moriyas of Pipphilivana. Reliquary monuments called stupas were raised over them to denote his eternal presence.

His Teachings
Buddha’s discourse shows that he possessed penetrating intelligence, which often manifested in the Socratic form of questions, parables and sutras. He taught in accordance with the capacity of his listeners (upayakausalya). Once he was rebuked by a house holder when he approached him for alms. Without getting angry he asked: Friend if a householder gives food to a beggar but the beggar refuses to accept it, to whom does the food belong? To the householder, of course, came the reply. Buddha then remarked: ‘If I refuse to accept your abuse and ill will, it returns to you does it not?

Buddha taught his disciples to be free from the bondage of desire, the lusts of the flesh the shackles of selfishness and the urges of the lower self. He decried the shallowness of intellectuals and admonished his disciples to stay away from the pedagogy of theorists, which did not lead one anywhere.

The Four Noble Truths
His teachings were based on the Fourfold Noble Truths. First, the Truth of suffering (dukkha), which manifests through events of birth and death, sickness and separation and vain struggles to find peace in worldly objects. Old age is suffering, illness is suffering being in contact with that which one dislikes is suffering being separated from that which one likes is suffering, failure to realize one’s desires is suffering (5). Second, the Truth of the Cause of Suffering (dukkha samudaya), which lies in the urges of the human body and the delusions of human passions. It is the thirst for being that leads from birth to birth… the thirst for pleasure, the thirst for power…(1.6.20) Third, the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (dukkha nirodha), which is possible if one can annihilate desire. The extinction of this thirst (should be made) by complete annihilation of desire, letting it go, expelling it, separating oneself from it, giving it no room. (1.6.21) And finally, the Truth of the Eightfold Noble Path (atthanga magga) to the cessation of the Cause of Suffering (dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada). This consists of samma ditthi (right view), samma sankappa (right intention), samma vaca (right speech), samma kammanto (right action), samma ajivo (right livelihood), samma vayamo (right effort), samma sati (right mindfulness) and samma samadhi (right concentration. There is no suffering for him who has finished his journey and abandoned grief, who has freed himself on all sides and thrown off all fetters.

Dependent Origination (Paticca Samuppada)
Ignorance about the Four Noble Truths leads to avijja, which is the cause of one’s entanglement in worldly activities. Buddha explained it thus: Avijja gives rise to predispositions (sankhara), which result in consciousness (vinnana). From vinnana spring separate being as name and form (nama-rupa), which give rise to the six seats of the senses (salayatana). This is followed by contact (phassa), which generates sensation (vedana). From vedana springs craving (tanha) giving rise to grasping (upadana). From upadana emerges becoming (bhava). From bhava rises birth (jati), which leads to disease, depression old age and death (jara-marana). The Dhammapada says in this context: Laziness is the ruin of homes; idleness is the ruin of beauty; negligence is the ruin of the watchful; unchastity is a stain on a woman; miserliness is a stain on the donor; to do evil is a stain in this and other worlds. But greater than all these stains, ignorance is the worst of all. (241.3)

The doctrine of karma is an essential part of the gospel of Buddha. The present is determined by past actions and the future by the present. Each individual can make or mar his destiny depending on his actions. All karmas are rooted in will and can be destroyed only through will. Karmas are of two types, sasava and anasava; the former associated with passion, produce effects both good and bad and the later undefiled by passions are implied in the Four Noble Truths. Karmas relate to body (kaya kamma), speech (vaci kamma) and mind (mano kamma). The quality of the karmas determines their disposition. A popular verse often ascribed to Buddhas says: Na pranasyanti karmani kalpa-koti-satairapi; Samagrim prapya kalam ca phalanti khalu dehinam. Karmas do not perish even after the lapse of a million years. They fructify without fail when time and environment are suitable.

Buddha likened the world to a bubble of water’, to the gossamer web of a spider’, to ‘the defilement in a dirty jar’, and so on. The Vajrachhedika Sutra says: ‘Stars darkness a lamp, a phantom, dew, a bubble, a dream, a flash of lightning and a cloud-thus should we look upon the world.’ Given the conditions, the human mind should be disciplined in a manner that it can be tuned to spiritual development. But the mind, like an ape, is forever jumping about, not ceasing even for a moment’. To contain it and gain enlightenment, one needs to open the sluice gates of one’s being to the fragrant incense of faith’.

The Middle Path (Majjhima Patipada)
Buddha asked people to shun the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture and follow the Middle Path. He laid emphasis on such human virtues as dana (charity or benevolence), sila (oral goodness), Khanti (patience or forbearance), viriya (fortitude) and panna (knowledge). He regarded ahimsa (non-violence), metta (loving friendship), karuna (compassion), mudita (cheerfulness) and upekha (non-attachment) as the means to righteous living. Hated must be conquered by love, evil by goodness and greed by liberality. The real treasure of man is laid up through piety, temperance and self-control. The ten ethical precepts of Buddha are: be merciful do not kill; do not steal; do not commit adultery; do not tell lies; do not slander; do not speak harshly to anyone; do not engage in idle talk; do not keep an eye on others’ wealth; do not hate; and think righteously.

Buddha preached nibbana (perfect tranquility) as the summum bonum of the life of man. Salvation was not a matter of a shaven crown or ritualistic acts. One could attain it not by propitiating deities but by righteous deeds marked by restraint. Restraint in the eye is good, good is restraint in the ear; in the nose restraint is good, good is restraint in the tongue. In the body restraint is good, good is restraint in speech; in though restraint is good, good is restraint in all things. (360-1) Nibbana is the perfect state in which all-human defilements; passions and cravings are completely extinguished. By strictly following the various Buddhistic disciplines one can move from the ephemeral world to the world of permanence, of enlightenment. This is called paramita, or crossing over to the other shore’. None can otherwise accomplish the five following things: to cease growing old, to cease being sick, to cease dying to deny extinction and to deny exhaustion. The four eternal truths, an understanding of which prepares the stage for nibbana, are: All living beings rise from ignorance; All objects of desire are impermanent; all phenomena are transitory; Nothing in the world is ‘mine’.

Rational Religion
Buddha denounced the religious basis of caste, ridiculed the claims of members of the priestly class as mediators between God and man, and maintained silence over the existence of God. But he believed in rebirth. In his philosophy there was no place for heaven or hell, worship or ritual, dry theology and metaphysics. He exhorted his disciples to attain the supreme state through self-purification. ‘Better than sovereignty over the earth, better than going to heaven, better than lordship over all worlds is the reward of the first step in holiness. (178) Besides he wanted people to keep an unprejudiced mind and weigh everything on the scales of reason. Do not believe in what you have heard, do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations; do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many;… Have deliberation and analyse, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it, he said.’ (7).

The Sangha
Buddha founded the sangha (‘religious order’) of his disciples to propagate his faith. Initially he was not inclined to admit women but gradually changed his mind due to the insistence of his chief disciple Ananda and his foster-mother. The sangha comprised of monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunis), male householders (upasakas) and female householders (upasikas). Run on democratic lines, the sangha had a strict code of conduct for monks and nuns. The criterion for joining the sangha was a threefold declaration: ‘Buddham saranam gacchami; Sangham saranam gacchami; Dhammam saranam gacchami. I take refuge in Buddha; I take refuge in the sangha; I take refuge in the dhamma.’ Among the first to join the order of bhikkhunis was his wife Yasodhara.

In his last words to his disciples, Buddha advised them to have faith in themselves (attasarano), to be their own lamps (attadipo), and to work out their own salvation. The true Buddha is not a human body - it is Enlightenment. A human body must vanish, but the Wisdom of Enlightenment will exist forever in the truth of the Dharma, and in the practice of the Dharma. He who sees merely my body does not truly see me. Only he who accepts my teaching truly sees me. After my death, the Dharma shall be your teacher. Follow the Dharma and you will be true to me. (8).

Buddhism spread at a rapid speed because of the simplicity of its teachings and the magnetic personality of its founder. The gospel was preached in Pali the language of the common people, rather than in Sanskrit. Efforts of the Buddhist sangha coupled with royal patronage under Ashoka, Kanishka and Harsha contributed to its phenomenal growth.

Buddhism penetrated into the Greek world long before the advent of Jesus Christ. Ashoka’s edicts and inscriptions show that the message of Sakyamuni was carried to Burma, Nepal, Ceylon, Egypt, Syria Macedonia and many other countries. Some scholars have even argued that Christianity is an offshoot of Buddhism.

Buddhism exercised a reformatory influence on Hindusim. By breaking down social barriers and clearing the spiritual atmosphere of superstition and obscurantism, it did useful service to humanity as a whole. Its contribution to Hinduism includes image worship, the monastic system, vegetarianism and the theory of ahimsa. Buddhist writing on logic epistemology, psychology and metaphysics have come to form an invaluable treasure of Indian literature. Buddhism has sometimes been described as a child of Hinduism, a daughter in many respect more beautiful than the mother’. Buddha is regarded as the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and worshipped in temples.

The decline of the Buddhist sangha, the revival of brahminical Hinduism, the division of the Buddhist church into Hinayana and Mahayana, the loss of royal patronage, and the invasion of the Huns and Muslims struck a deadly blow to the religion of Buddha in the land of its birth. The legacy however, continues to live and a Buddhist renaissance seems to be in the offing.

1. Avatamsaka Sutra, 5.
2. Suvarnaprabhasottamaraja Sutra.
3. H Dharmapala’s address at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, 1893.
4. Anguttara Nikaya, 1.145.
5. Vinaya Mahavagga, 1.6.19.
6. Dhammapada, 90.
7. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1-      
     8, 1989;9,1997), 4.216-7.
8. The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966), 13-4.

Also read –
1. ‘Why did Buddhism vanish from India’ section Issues and Insights.