Sacred and spiritual - Buddhism

The philosophy of Buddhism originated in the life of the historical Buddha, about 2500 years ago. His given name was Siddhartha and his life is surrounded with legend. He was born into the Sakya tribe on the Nepal-India border.


The narrative of his life has certain constants: he was born to Queen Maya in c.556 BC in a grove of sal trees (Shorea robusta) at Lumbini (in Nepal). At the age of 29 he renounced the material world and followed various spiritual teachers and wandered seeking the truth, practising austerities and meditating. At the age of 35, seated meditating under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) in Bodhgaya, he achieved enlightenment.

Photograph of the sacred Bo-Tree at Anarajapoora, 1882
Image: The sacred Bo-Tree of Anarajapoora is said to have been planted more than 200 years before the birth of Christ.
Thenceforth he set the wheel of doctrine or dharma turning with his first sermon at Sarnath. He spent the next 45 years as a spiritual teacher (an area covered by modern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India). He had numerous followers when he died aged 80 at Kushinara. His body was cremated and his relics had commemorative mounds erected over them. This led to the tradition of the Buddhist stupa, an integral feature of the religion.

Growth of a religion

Buddhism grew into a multitude of sects and philosophies. Its growth was facilitated when the Emperor Ashoka (reigned 269-232 BC) converted to it and actively promoted the spread of Buddha's teachings. It was a dominant force in the sub-continent. It was here that the architecture of the stupa was launched and the first images of Buddha and Buddhist symbols and iconography were first developed.

Core beliefs

The core of beliefs forming the basis of Buddhism centre on the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. The existence of suffering (dukkha), the causes of suffering (attachment to desire), the cessation of suffering and the right path to the cessation of suffering are the Truths.

The Path is constructed of right views, right resolve, right action, right livelihood, right speech, right mindfulness, right meditation and right effort and helps in extinguishing desire from which all suffering is born and attaining nirvana or supreme bliss (non-existence).

Within these core beliefs, Buddhism split into the main sects of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism . Theravada Buddhism or Teaching of the Elders is the earliest form which is closest to the original teachings and maintains as its canon the three texts or the Tripataka (Three Baskets), originally collated in Pali in about the first century BC. It emphasises meditation and the monastic life. Mahayana Buddhism or Great Vehicle developed a theory of hierarchies of Buddhahood. At the top was Buddhahood itself which was preceded by the Bodhisattvas (beings of wisdom), spiritual saviours who held back from attaining complete Buddhahood to guide and protect others. It became more of a religion than a philosophy with the worship of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The canon of Mahayana consists of many sutras or texts such as the Prajnyaparamita, the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra.

The third major Buddhist tradition is Vajrayana or Vehicle of the Thunderbolt which emphasises ritual and techniques to attain union with the cosmic Buddhas and has many esoteric elements. Its sacred texts are called tantras and mandalas or cosmic diagrams are also integral to it. In this tradition the Bodhisattvas have consorts or Taras.

Although a dominant force in much of Asia and the chief religion of Sri Lanka in South Asia, Buddhism ceased to be an organised religion in the sub-continent and declined rapidly from the 12th century. Scholars debate the reasons for its decline; some major factors appear to be Muslim invasions in the course of which major monasteries were destroyed, and the active rallying of Brahmanical Hinduism to quell its power.

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