The origins of Buddhism
Buddhism started with the Buddha. The word ‘Buddha’ is not a name but a title, meaning ‘one who is awake’ — in the sense of having ‘woken up’ to Reality.
The Buddha’s original name was Siddhartha Gautama, often spelled Siddhattha Gotama. According to tradition, he was born some 2,500 years ago to a ruling clan known as the Shakyas.
In Siddhartha’s time, Northern India was familiar with the Ionian/Greek culture: “In the year of the Buddha’s birth, 480 BCE, there were Indian soldiers from Gandhara fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place 150 miles north-west of Athens. The expansionist Persian empire thus brought Indian and European peoples into contact at the time of the Buddha. There is a passage in the Pāli canon where the Buddha explicitly mentions Greek communities and their form of social organization, which he compares to that of the caste-system in India.”
(Stephen Batchelor, A Buddhist Voice for Europe, EBU AGM, 2010)
Siddhartha is said to have had a privileged upbringing in a wealthy environment. His father put great effort into Gautama’s education, wishing for him a worldly career. But, repeatedly bewildered by existential suffering, such as sickness, old age and death, Siddhartha realised that political skill and influence were of limited help in facing the suffering to which all sentient beings are subject.
Leaving home, he became a Sramana (also spelled sarmana or samana), a wandering mendicant monk. In his search for spiritual liberation, Siddhartha joined several yogis who practised extreme asceticism, believing that one could free the soul by denying the flesh. We are told he trained for several years with a series of teachers, and practised austerities so determinedly that he almost starved to death.
Buddhahood and the Middle Way
At that point, Siddhartha realised extreme asceticism was an obstacle rather than a way to liberation; despite his huge efforts, true understanding seemed as far away as ever. Looking into his own heart and mind, Siddhartha decided to trust his intuition; to learn from direct experience. He explored new paths and ultimately discerned the Middle Way, a path of balance between opposing extreme views and attitudes.
Through meditation he reached his goal. Meditating under a Peepul tree (Ficus religiosa) in Sambodhi (modern-day Bodh Gaya in the state of Bihar, India), he is believed to have transcended the greed, hatred and delusion he later taught were the three causes of suffering, realising Buddhahood; the condition of an “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”.
Some months after reaching Enlightenment, he began a period of teaching lasting more than 40 years, until the end of his life, at the age of 80.
Often referred to as Buddha Shakyamuni (the ‘wise man of the Shakyas’), he always taught from personal experience, passing on his knowledge in fresh ways accessible to his various kinds of listener.
The Buddha did not claim to be a god or a prophet, or that the realisation of Buddhahood was reserved for men, or for any particular race, caste or culture. He was a human being; he lived the life of a human being, subject to the same laws of life as we all are.
By his example he demonstrated that any person, regardless of ethnicity, birth status, gender, language, sexual orientation, social background or culture, possesses the potential for full realisation of Enlightenment, which can be reached through proper training of the mind. He showed that every one of us can overcome ignorance as to our own nature and that of the world around us, overcoming our own limitations and finally reaching Buddhahood. All we have to do is to follow the ‘Middle way’ he himself walked.
The Buddha repeatedly advised his disciples to check his teachings against their own experience, warning them never to trust his teachings just because he taught them.
He did not teach in order to make people dependent on him, but to make them realise their own boundless potential and inner freedom.
There are many different Buddhist traditions, with varying teachings, styles and practices. All promote the development of clear insight and a calm, compassionate mind. The Buddha showed us a path that everybody can walk.