BUDDHISMSiddartha Gautama: c.430 BC

At the age of twenty-nine Siddhartha Gautama, prince of a ruling house in Nepal, abandons the luxuries of home, and the affections of a wife and a young son, to become a wandering ascetic. He is following a pattern not uncommon in India at this time, when the rigidities of a priest-dominated Hinduism are causing many to seek a more personal religion. Only a few years previously, in a nearby district, a young man by the name of Vardhamana has done exactly the same – with lasting results in the form of Jainism. (The conventional dates for both men, revised by modern scholarship, have been a century earlier.)

Gautama differs from Vardhamana in one crucial respect. He discovers that asceticism is almost as unsatisfactory as luxury.

According to the traditional account (first written down in the 3rd century BC) Gautama follows an ascetic life for six years before deciding that a middle path between mortification and indulgence of the body will provide the best hope of achieving enlightenment.

He resolves to meditate, in moderate comfort, until he sees the light of truth. One evening he sits under a pipal tree at Buddh Gaya, a village in Bihar. By dawn he is literally buddha, an ‘enlightened one’. Like any other religious leader he begins to gather disciples. He becomes known to his followers as the Buddha.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path: c.424 BC

Gautama preaches his first sermon at Sarnath, about 5 miles (8km) north of the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi. In this sermon, still a definitive text for all Buddhists, he proposes a path to enlightenment very different from the elaborate ceremonies and colourful myth attached to the Hindu deities.

Gautama’s message is plain to the point of bluntness, at any rate when reduced to a simple list – as it usually is in primers on . He states that enlightenment can be achieved by understanding Four Noble Truths; and that the pain of life, with which the Noble Truths are concerned, can be avoided by following an Eightfold Path.

The four Noble Truths are that pain is inextricably part of mankind’s everyday life; that our cravings of all kinds are the cause of this pain; that the way off this treadmill is to free oneself of these cravings; and that this can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path.

The Path enjoins the to a virtuous life by urging on him the ‘right’ course of action in eight contexts. Many of these are moral evils to be avoided (as in the Jewish Commandments). But the eighth step, ‘Right Concentration’, goes to the heart of the ideal.

Right Concentration is described in Buddhist scripture as concentrating on a single object, so as to induce a special state of consciousness through deep meditation. In this way the Buddhist hopes to achieve complete purity of thought, leading ideally to nirvana.

Nirvana means ‘blowing out’, as of a flame. It is common to Hinduism and Jainism as well as Buddhism. But in the two older religions it leads to moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth, total extinction. In Buddhism it is a blissful transcendent state which can be achieved either in life or after death – and which is achieved by anyone who becomes Buddha.

The spread of Buddhism: c.380-250 BC

By the time of his death, at about the age of eighty, the Buddha’s followers are established as communities of monks in northern India. Wandering through villages and towns with their begging bowls, eager to describe the path to the truth, they are familiar figures. But so are many other such groups, including the Jains.

The advance of the Buddhists beyond the others is largely due to the enthusiastic support of a king of the 3rd century BC. Asoka rules over much of the Indian subcontinent. His inscriptions, carved on pillars and rocks throughout his realm, bear witness both to the spread of Buddhism and to his own benevolent support of the Buddha’s principles.

During Asoka’s reign, and with his encouragement, Buddhism spreads to south India and into Sri Lanka. The latter has remained to this day a stronghold of the earliest form of Buddhism, known as Theravada (meaning the ‘school of elders’).

By the time of Asoka there is already a rival tendency within Buddhism, involving an elaboration of the Buddha’s essentially simple message of personal salvation. The difference is similar to that between Protestants and Catholics at the time of the Reformation in Christianity. Compared to the puritan standards of Theravada Buddhism, the other sect – which later becomes known as Mahayana – introduces a catholic profusion of Buddhist saints.

Mahayana and Theravada

Mahayana means the Great Vehicle. Its adherents argue that this form of Buddhism can carry a greater number of people towards the truth than Theravada Buddhism, which they dismiss as Hinayana – the little vehicle.

The main distinction is that in Theravada the Buddha is a historical figure who by his example shows the way towards nirvana; the cult is essentially a human system of self-discipline, with no trace of a god. In the younger but larger sect there is still no god, but there are a great many supernatural beings.

In Mahayana the historical Buddha, Gautama, becomes the latest in a long line of past Buddhas. They exist in some place beyond this world, from which they can offer support. Also in that place are the Bodhisattvas, who have yet to begin the final human life in which they will attain enlightenment as Buddha. They too can help mortals who show them devotion.

In Theravada the nearest approach to worship is the veneration of relics of the historical Buddha, whose hair or tooth is made the central feature of a temple. In Mahayana, with its many semi-divine figures, there is opportunity for more varied, more popular and more superstitious forms of worship. It is well suited to become what it claims to be – the greater vehicle.

A religion for east : from the 1st century AD

Buddhism is the first of the world religions to expand from its place of origin. It does so by two distinct routes.

Theravada Buddhism is carried eastwards into southeast Asia, in an upsurge of Indian trade from the 1st century AD. The merchants and sailors are either Buddhist or Hindu, and missionaries take advantage of the new opportunities for travel. As a result the kingdoms of southeast Asia, much influenced by the more advanced civilization of India, variously adopt Buddhist and Hindu religious practices. Which of the two prevails is often the result of the preference of a ruling dynasty. The areas which eventually choose Buddhism are Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Mahayana Buddhism travels by a land route. In the 2nd century AD northern India and Afghanistan are ruled by the Kushan dynasty, one of whose kings, Kanishka, is a devotee of this form of Buddhism. His encouragement of it has special significance, since his kingdom occupies a central position on the Silk Road – at one of its busiest times, when its caravans effectively link China with Rome.

The western influence on the Kushan region (also known as Gandhara) is seen in the famous style of sculpture which portrays Buddhist figures with the realism of Greece and Rome. Eastwards from Gandhara the trade route is soon dignified with spectacular Buddhist centres, such as Yün-kang.

Buddhism is well established in China by the 2nd century AD and coexists there, with varying fortunes, alongside China’s indigenous religions – Daoism and Confucianism. By the 6th century its influence has spread through Korea to Japan. Here too it coexists, in a shifting pattern, with the earlier Japanese religion, Shinto.

The region which develops the most distinctive form of Buddhism lies between India and China, and receives its first Buddhist influences from both directions in the 7th century. This is Tibet. It will evolve an element of Buddhism unique to itself – that of a succession of reincarnating lamas, with the Dalai Lama as the senior line.

In India Buddhism flourishes alongside Hinduism for many years, but from about the 8th century it declines (though Theravada Buddhism finds a lasting home in Sri Lanka). The Mahayana version of the faith becomes gradually submerged by the older and more vigorous Hinduism. It has perhaps been too willing to accomodate new themes, influenced by India’s bustling inclination to worship everything.

A weakened Buddhism proves no match for the arrival in northern India in the 10th century of rulers professing another vigorous faith, Islam. Buddhism becomes no more than a faint devotional presence at a few classic shrines. It is the only world religion to have withered in its birthplace.

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