What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is an ancient spiritual tradition based on the teachings of the original Buddha, the title given to the Indian spiritual seeker Siddhartha Gautama after he attained enlightenment more than 2,600 years ago. The Buddha’s best-known teachings, the four noble truths and the eightfold path, describe the nature of human suffering and a way to liberate oneself from the existential pains of life to reach enlightenment.
These teachings spread from India throughout Asia and eventually the rest of the world. While the broader Buddhist family includes many different schools with their own beliefs and practices, these various traditions share the foundation that one can come to understand the truth of existence by being a good human and living an ethical life dedicated to spiritual growth.
Who was the Buddha?
The Buddha was a real person who lived in India. However, the term has come to refer to more than just this historical man.
The historical Buddha was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived more than 2,600 years ago in an area that today is part of northern India and Nepal. He was born into a warrior clan known as the Shakya, which is why he is often called Shakyamuni, “Sage of the Shakyas” Buddha.
According to legend, shortly after Siddhartha’s birth a sage prophesied that he would grow up to be either a great king or a renowned spiritual leader. His father, the king, did everything in his power to ensure that his son and heir would have no reason to pursue religious life, showering him with every privilege and luxury and sheltering him from the harsh realities of the world outside the palace.
The prince married and later had a son, but he became extremely dissatisfied and at the age of 29 ventured beyond the palace walls on a series of carriage rides that would change the course of his life. On the first trip, he saw a sick man; on the second, an old man; and on the third, a corpse. These were his first encounters with the inevitable suffering experienced by all human beings, no matter how highborn, and the knowledge was devastating. On his fourth carriage ride, Siddhartha saw a mendicant spiritual seeker and had a revelation: there might be a way out of suffering, and the possibility lay in the religious life.
Shortly after, Siddhartha left the palace to set out on a religious quest. He studied with two renowned spiritual teachers and then embarked on a journey with six companions, meditating and taking up severe ascetic practices such as prolonged fasting, that nearly killed him.
Subsequently, he had another realization: the way out of samsara - the cycle of birth, suffering, and death - lay neither in indulgence nor in extreme physical denial. There was a “middle way” to end suffering, through training the mind. The former prince resolved to meditate under a Bodhi tree, in a town called Bodhgaya, until he had discovered the answer to his quest. After 49 days, he had a series of insights into the nature of reality and became enlightened. For the next 45 years until his death, he was known as the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) and taught the path to liberation that he had realized.
How did Buddha get enlightened? And what does that mean, anyway?
After the Buddha became a spiritual seeker, he spent six years practicing with different teachers and subjecting himself to extreme austerities until he came to the realization that what he was doing wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go. Lasting freedom from suffering still eluded him.
According to the early Buddhist scriptures, it was then that the he remembered an experience he had had as a boy, when he had spontaneously entered into a deep and joyful meditative state. It occurred to him that the same kind of meditative state might help him gain the insight he was looking for.
At the age of 35 he vowed to sit in meditation, without getting up, until he had discovered ultimate freedom. There he remained, in the shade of a large Bodhi tree, for seven weeks.
On the 49th day, according to legend, the Buddha entered into a state of concentration so deep and clear he began to see the nature of his mind and that of the universe. During three phases or “watches” of the night, he apprehended how suffering and unhappiness are caused by our actions, and by our clinging to an illusory sense of self. And he understood how to let go of all that.
When the morning broke, the man who had been Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the Shakya tribe, was now the Buddha..
The Buddha would spend the next 45 years of his life sharing the path of practice that leads to awakening so that others could work to attain the same state of enlightenment—freedom from suffering and from the cycle of birth and death—that he had achieved.