Early Years and History of Buddhism

Introduction

Buddhism is a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (meaning “the awakened one” in Sanskrit and Pāli). The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance (avidyā) by way of understanding and seeing dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and eliminating craving (taṇhā), and thus attain the highest happiness, nirvāņa.

Two major branches of Buddhism are generally recognized:

Theravada (“The School of the Elders”)

Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar etc.).

Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”)

Mahayana is found throughout East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan etc.) and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, and Tiantai (Tendai).

In some classifications, Vajrayana —practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and adjacent parts of China and Russia—is recognized as a third branch, while others classify it as a part of Mahayana.

While Buddhism remains most popular within Asia, both branches are now found throughout the world. Estimates of Buddhists worldwide vary significantly depending on the way Buddhist adherence is defined. Conservative estimates are between 350 and 750 million. Higher estimates are between 1.2 and 1.7 billion. It is also recognized as one of the fastest growing religions in the world. (19)

The Three Jewels

Buddhist schools vary on the exact nature of the path to liberation, the importance and canonicity of various teachings and scriptures, and especially their respective practices. The foundations of Buddhist tradition and practice are the Three Jewels :

  • The Buddha
  • The Dharma (the teachings)
  • The Sangha (the community)

Taking “refuge in the triple gem” has traditionally been a declaration and commitment to being on the Buddhist path, and in general distinguishes a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist.

Other practices may include following ethical precepts; support of the monastic community; renouncing conventional living and becoming a monastic; the development of mindfulness and practice of meditation; cultivation of higher wisdom and discernment; study of scriptures; devotional practices; ceremonies; and in the Mahayana tradition, invocation of buddhas and bodhisattvas. (19)

Early Years of the Buddha and the Four Sights

There is no agreement on when Siddhartha was born. This is still a question mark both in scholarship and Buddhist tradition. Several dates have been proposed, but the many contradictions and inaccuracies in the different chronologies and dating systems make it impossible to come up with a satisfactory answer free of controversy.

Modern scholarship agrees that the Buddha passed away at some point between 410 and 370 BCE, about 140-100 years before the time of Indian Emperor Ashoka’s reign (268-232 BCE). Both scholars and Buddhist tradition agree that the Buddha lived for 80 years. More exactness on this matter seems impossible.

Siddhartha’s caste was the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste). He belonged to the Sahkya clan and was born in the Gautama family. Because of this, he became to be known as Shakyamuni “sage of the Shakya clan”, which is the most common name used in the Mahayana literature to refer to the Buddha. His father was named Śuddhodana and his mother, Maya. (20)

According to this narrative, shortly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer visited the young prince’s father and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls.

Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of:

  1. The suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man
  2. A sick man
  3. A corpse
  4. An ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world

These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest. (19)

Historical Context

After leaving Kapilavastu, Siddhartha practiced the yoga discipline under the direction of two of the leading masters of that time: Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Siddhartha did not get the results he expected, so he left the masters, engaged in extreme asceticism, and five followers joined him. For a period of six years Siddhartha tried to attain his goal but was unsuccessful. After realizing that asceticism was not the way to attain the results he was looking for, he gave up this way of life. (21)

After eating a meal and taking a bath, Siddhartha sat down under a tree of the species ficus religiosa, where he finally attained Nirvana (perfect enlightenment) and became known as the Buddha.

Soon after this, the Buddha delivered his first sermon in a place named Sarnath, also known as the “deer park,” near the city of Varanasi. This was a key moment in the Buddhist tradition, traditionally known as the moment when the Buddha “set in motion the wheel of the law. ” The Buddha explained the middle way between asceticism and a life of luxury, the four noble truths (suffering, its origin, how to end it, and the eightfold path or the path leading to the extinction of suffering), and the impersonality of all beings.

The Buddha’s first disciples joined him around this time, and the Buddhist monastic community, known as Sangha, was established. Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana were the two chief disciples of the Buddha. Mahakasyapa was also an important disciple who became the convener of the First Buddhist Council. From Kapilavastu and Sravasti in the north, to Varanasi, Nalanda and many other areas in the Ganges basin, the Buddha preached his vision for about 45 years. During his career he visited his hometown, met his father, his foster mother and even his son, who joined the Sangha along with other members of the Shakya clan. Upali, another disciple of the Buddha, joined the Sangha around this time: he was a Shakya and regarded as the most competent monk in matters of monastic discipline. Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha, also became a monk; he accompanied the Buddha during the last stage of his life and persuaded him to admit women into the Sangha, thus establishing the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the female Buddhist monastic community.

During his career, some kings and other rulers are described as followers of the Buddha. The Buddha’s adversary is reported to be Davadatta, his own cousin, who became a follower of the Buddha and turned out to be responsible for a schism of the Sangha, and he even tried to kill the Buddha.

The last days of the Buddha are described in detail in an ancient text named Mahaparinirvana Sutra. We are told that the Buddha visited Vaishali, where he fell ill and nearly died. Some accounts say that here the Buddha delivered his last sermon. After recovering, the Buddha travelled to Kushinagar. On his way, he accepted a meal from a smith named Cunda, which made him sick and led to his death. Once he reached Kushinagar, he encouraged his disciples to continue their activity one last time and he finally passed away. (21)

Forming of Two Separate Buddhist Lines

About a century after the death of Buddha, during the Second Buddhist Council, we find the first major schism ever recorded in Buddhism: The Mahasanghika School.

Many different schools of Buddhism had developed at that time. Buddhist tradition speaks about 18 schools of early Buddhism, although we know that there were more than that, probably around 25.

A Buddhist school named Sthaviravada (in Sanskrit “ school of the elders ”) was the most powerful of the early schools of Buddhism. Traditionally, it is held that the Mahasanghika School came into existence as a result of a dispute over monastic practice. They also seem to have emphasized the supramundane nature of the Buddha, so they were accused of preaching that the Buddha had the attributes of a god. As a result of the conflict over monastic discipline, coupled with their controversial views on the nature of the Buddha, the Mahasanghikas were expelled, thus forming two separate Buddhist lines: the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika .

During the course of several centuries, both the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika schools underwent many transformations, originating different schools.

  • The Theravada School, which still exists in our day, emerged from the Sthaviravada line, and is the dominant form of Buddhism in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
  • The Mahasanghika School eventually disappeared as an ordination tradition.
  • During the 1st century CE, while the oldest Buddhist groups were growing in south and south-east Asia, a new Buddhist school named Mahayana (“ Great Vehicle ”) originated in northern India. This school had a more adaptable approach and was open to doctrinal innovations.
  • Mahayama Buddhism is today the dominant form of Buddhism in Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, and Vietnam. (20)