Buddhism for the Beginner - Part 2
Who were the Buddha’s first disciples?
According to history, the first people the Buddha taught were the five spiritual seekers who had been his companions and who practiced the form of extreme self-denial that he himself later abandoned. When they first encountered the Buddha after his enlightenment, in a place called Deer Park in Benares, India, they made a pact to not to show him any deference—they considered him a failure who had returned to a life of luxury.
However, when they looked closer, the five ascetics realized that he had become a different calibre of being. They found him noble, wise, and beyond all suffering. He taught them that the means to awakening wasn’t indulgence or denial but a path in-between - the Middle Way. He then taught them his foundational insights - the four noble truths and the eightfold path leading to enlightenment. And thus was born the sangha, the first community of followers.
Over the next 45 years, thousands of people from all walks of life became the his students; from beggars to kings, from murderers to Brahmin priests. Many decided to abandon the householder life and join the monastic community that arose around him. Among them were all the members of his family, including his wife, son, and father.
Religious texts tell us that in the earliest days of the monastic community, the Buddha did not ordain women although this hasn’t been verified. The story goes that between the exhortations of his stepmother, Mahapajapati (and 500 women who accompanied her), and the influence of his disciple Ananda, the Buddha created the first order of Buddhist nuns. Texts known as the verses of the elder monks and nuns (the Therigatha and the Theragatha, respectively), tell the stories of many of the Buddha’s students, showing the vast variety of people who became his followers and were able to reach enlightenment by practicing the path he taught.
What happened after the Buddha died?
At the age of 80, after 45 years of teaching, the Buddha died, surrounded by a large group of his disciples. That event is known as the parinirvana - a term that refers to the death of someone who has attained nirvana or enlightenment during their lifetime and will not be reborn again. They are freed from the cycle of birth and death and all the suffering that entails.
According to the Pali Canon, which contains some of the earliest written records of the Buddha’s life and teachings, about three months after the Buddha’s parinirvana, 500 of his senior monks met to discuss how their teacher’s wisdom and the rules he developed to guide the monastic community (the Vinaya) would be preserved. This became known as the first Buddhist council.
Some 70 years after his death, a second council was held to come to terms around a set of ten disputed rules for monks and nuns. It is widely believed that this was the first schism in the Buddhist monastic community, or sangha, and two branches were formed then - one that wanted to uphold all the rules of the Vinaya, and another that wanted to relax some of them.
A third council is said to have taken place – although this is in dispute - during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism and was a powerful supporter and influencer on the spread of the religion across the subcontinent. The council was intended to rid the sangha of corruption and heretical monks. Crucial components of the Buddhist scriptures are said to have been formalised at this meeting, too.
The third council was also believed to have been the genesis of teaching missions sponsored by Ashoka, where learned monks and nuns who could recite the Buddha’s teachings by heart were encouraged to act as emissaries to other lands and offer the Buddha’s dharma.
These emissaries took Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Burma, China and elsewhere. In the successive centuries, Buddhism spread further into East and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas and became a prominent world religion.
Are there other Buddhas?
In Buddhist scriptures, legends, and art, we see many buddhas besides the one we probably think of as the Buddha. The term buddha means “awake” or “awakened,” so it can refer to any number of beings that are believed to be fully enlightened, not just the historical Buddha. It can also refer to an archetype or idea of an enlightened being.
That said, scriptures from early Indian Buddhism talk about five buddhas that have existed during the current cosmological era or kalpa - a term that means an aeon, or the period from the origination to the end of the present world. The Buddha we know about, Shakyamuni Buddha, was the fourth of this group. The fifth is known as Maitreya, or the Buddha of the future.
In Theravada Buddhism, the tradition practiced mainly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, people pay homage to 29 buddhas, most of whom existed during other kalpas, according to the scriptures.
The Mahayana Buddhist schools of East Asia and Tibet know countless buddhas and bodhisattvas -awakened beings who keep reincarnating in this world in order to help others reach awakening. We see them in artworks, and their legends populate scriptures and Buddhist stories.