Buddhism is a world religion that began on the Indian subcontinent, but unlike Hinduism, Buddhism spread to many faraway lands. While Hinduism does not have a single founder, we can trace Buddhism back 2500 years to Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who lived in Shakya, a small kingdom at the foothills of the Himalayas in present day Nepal.
A legend says that before Siddhartha was born, a holy man told his father, King Suddhodana, that if Siddhartha remained in his father’s palace, he would become a great king, but if he learned of the suffering of the outside world, Siddhartha would become a great teacher.
Because Suddhodana wanted Siddhartha to one day rule his kingdom, he shielded his son from anything unpleasant or disturbing.
Siddhartha was raised in luxury. Palace gardeners picked flowers soon after they blossomed so the young prince would never see death. When Siddhartha rode from the palace, guards cleared beggars and sick people from the streets before his chariot approached.
One day, Siddhartha saw two old men who had wandered into the path of his chariot; as the curious prince pursued these men he came across some people who were very ill. Then, he saw a funeral procession, and for the first time in his life, the prince encountered death. His chariot driver broke the news to Siddhartha that all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.
The prince was confused by what he had seen, so one night he put on a simple robe and secretly left his father’s palace. As Siddhartha wandered the streets, he encountered an ascetic—a holy man who had given up all comforts and pleasures. Siddhartha observed that his new acquaintance was at peace, though he owned nothing.
The young prince left his palace and lived with Hindu gurus as an ascetic. He prayed and fasted. To fast is to eat little or no food. Siddhartha fasted so strictly that he became very weak. This made the prince realize that self-denial was not the path to truth.
Finally, Siddhartha sat down under a bodhi tree to meditate. To meditate is to calm your mind, often by focusing on a particular object. After many days and nights of contemplation, he reached enlightenment—a state of heightened wisdom.
The Buddha taught his followers to seek balance in their lives. The path to happiness is neither through indulgence nor denial, he said, but a “middle way." Siddhartha taught that by putting aside one’s own selfish desires, one can escape the cycle of death and rebirth to reach Nirvana.
Siddhartha realized that by putting aside one’s own selfish desires, a person can escape the cycle of death and rebirth to reach a state of peace and happiness called Nirvana.
Siddhartha told other people of his enlightenment and he became well known for his teaching. He taught his followers to seek balance in their lives. The path to happiness is neither through indulgence nor denial, he said, but a “middle way."
Siddhartha’s students called him “the Buddha," which means “the Enlightened One," and the followers of Siddhartha’s teachings are called Buddhists.
The Buddha did not want his teachings to replace other religions, though today over three hundred million Buddhists in all parts of the world adhere to his philosophy. His ideas traveled to China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Buddhism lost most of its influence on the Indian subcontinent by the eighth century, partly because its ideas were absorbed into Hinduism, and partly due to the rise of Islam. Buddhism is a major religious and moral force in the world, but it has been all but unknown in its homeland for over one thousand years.
Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-c.483bce) was a sage who lived and taught mostly in eastern India. His teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. His followers called Siddhartha the Buddha, a term that means "the enlightened one."
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Upon reaching enlightenment, Siddhartha realized what Buddhists now call the Four Noble Truths:
1. There will always be suffering in life.
2. The cause of suffering comes from our desire to continually search for something outside ourselves.
3. The way to end suffering is to overcome selfish desires.
4. The way to overcome selfish desires is to follow the eightfold path.
The dharmachakra, also known as the dharma wheel, is one of the primary icons of Buddhism. The dharmachakra represents the cycle of death and rebirth. The spokes of the dharmachakra represent the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism
Right View—Accept the world as it is and not as you want it to be.
Right Intention—Be motivated by good will, kindness, and empathy rather than anger, resentment, or greed.
Right Speech—Strive for your word to be helpful; do not lie or gossip.
Right Conduct—Be aware of your behavior and always work to be better.
Right Livelihood—Choose a career that results in joy rather than suffering.
Right Effort—Avoid anger, jealousy and other negative thoughts
Right Mindfulness—Be aware and control your thoughts and emotions so your thoughts and emotions do not control you.
Right Meditation—Focus your mind and body so that you can find the path to enlightenment.