Buddha is a Buddhist term to describe someone who has reached enlightenment. This term is most commonly used to describe Gautama Buddha or the Buddha. Gautama Buddha was born with the name Siddhartha Gautama in a town called Lumbini that is in, what is now Nepal. He spent his childhood in a town called Kapilavastu where his family was of the ruling class. Before Siddhartha was born, his mother, the queen, had a strange dream.
She decided to have her dream interpreted. The interpreter told her that her dream meant that she would soon give birth to a boy that would grow up to be either a great ruler or a great holy man. One week after Siddhartha’s birth his mother died suddenly without explanation. As Siddhartha grew up, his father, King Suddhodana, shielded him from the horrors and sadness of the world. He did not want him to be exposed to aging death or sickness.
Siddhartha lived a luxurious life where all his needs were filled and anything he desired was at his fingertips. Siddhartha’s father married him to his cousin when he was just sixteen. They fell madly in love and soon had a son together. After living in his kingdom for 29 years, Siddhartha was finally exposed to the horrors of the outside world. It all started with what is known as the four encounters which are when Buddha sees, first a man who is old and he realizes that he will one day grow old too; next he sees a man who is sick and realizes that everyone gets sick at some point; then he sees his first corpse and realizes the permanents and inevitability of death; last he sees a holy man in search for an answer to all the suffering of the world.
Being upset about his recent discoveries, the Buddha decides to leave his family and life of luxury behind and adopt the life of a mendicant. A mendicant is somebody who survives only on charity and donations from others. Buddha began practicing yoga and meditation and mastered the practices, but he never felt satisfied and had to keep moving forward. This new lifestyle began Siddharth’s journey to enlightenment which would eventually lead him to create Buddhism.
As the Buddha kept practicing meditation, abstinence and even fasting, he realized that this was unnecessary to reach enlightenment. Siddhartha than discovered what is called the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea of not abstaining completely from life’s pleasures but also not over indulging. After discovering the Middle Way, the Buddha set out to reach full enlightenment. He decided to sit under a tree and meditate until he reached nirvana. This took 49 days. On the 49th day, he has gained true enlightenment and gains the name the Buddha. This meant that he would no longer go through the suffering of rebirth and continuous lives.
After reaching true enlightenment and figuring out the Dharma, which in Buddhism means cosmic rules, Gautama had to figure out what to do next. To most, it seems obvious that he should teach his new findings, but the Buddha was unsure about this idea. He worried that the people of this world were too wrapped up in the vices of life to truly understand the Dharma. Gautama was eventually convinced by what is described as a heavenly king to spread the word of his enlightenment. At this point, Buddha gathered a group of men who believed in his teachings to help spread his word. They spread his word through Northern India and it took off quite well between all Indian casts. Buddha traveled through much of India himself to spread his teachings. He did this until he was about 80 years old, which was when he died from food poisoning.
As the word of Buddha spread, communities started to form around his teachings. These communities were mostly made up of monks that were called bhikkhus. The monks dressed in robes and spent much of their time meditating. These communities of bhikkhus popped up all over India, but they were still abundantly overruled by the prominent religion that had held India for years, Hinduism. The hold of Hinduism would soon shift though thanks to a new empire.
Beginning in 320 B.C.E., the Mauryan empire started to develop. The empire grew massively thanks too many gruesome wars. The horror these wars brought upon the people of India started to eat at one of the Mauryan kings, Ashoka. His appall at the atrocities that took place during these battles led him to convert to Buddhism. This conversion was what changed the way India was ruled. Soon the king decided to take a non-violent approach to ruling and began to use Buddhist teachings in his decisions of ruling the land.
Asoka contributed a great deal to the spread of Buddhism. He converted many people living near the Mauryan empire by having monks got to nearby territories and spread the word of Buddha. India readily adapted to Buddhism because many had grown tired of Hindu traditions. At this time Hindu’s enforced the caste system which was essentially a ranking of status amongst the community. The caste system had worked for a long time in India, but as time went on people grew tired of the division it caused between the wealthy and the poor. This division left many doubting their faith to Hinduism and looking for something that had spiritually more to offer. Asoka continued to send monks teaching Buddhism to many different countries such as Malaysia, Burma, Greece, Sri Lanka, Syria, Cambodia, Laos, Macedonia, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Asoka also developed the Third Buddhist Council to help keep corrupt monks out of power.
As Buddhism kept spreading, Buddhist schools started coming up around the world. Mahayana was the first style of Buddhist school to come about and was the first altered branch of Buddhism. Mahayana style Buddhism allowed for people who had to continue to work to provide for their family, to still be able to practice Buddhism. Its ideas were centered around practicing Buddhism in day to day tasks and maintaining a Buddhist practice while working and going through life’s motions.
As these schools gain popularity, the spread of Buddhism starts making its way on the silk road. This lets Buddhism into countries like China and Vietnam. Trading also allowed for the further spread of Buddhism and is how Buddhism spread to Indonesia. China began really adapting to Buddhist tradition. Buddhism began mixing slightly with Taoism and a branch of Buddhism called Chan was born. Chan spread through Korea and eventually developed the name Seon. With these new forms of Buddhism came new types of Buddhist schools. Soon there was a split between the main two styles of schools, the Mahayana and the Hinayana. This division left the Hinayana style nearly gone.
From Pakistan, Buddhism was able to spread to Japan. Japan did not take to Buddhism very rapidly, but the spread of Buddhism persisted to grow. China and Japan both were greatly influenced by Buddhism, but Tibet was where Buddhism really flourished. The king of Tibet, Songtsen, married two Buddhist women and through this was able to learn about Buddhism. His interest in Buddhism leads him to build two Buddhist temples and began requesting Buddhist books to be translated into the Tibetan language. Buddhism continued to flourish in Tibet and eventually became the national religion.
Europe had heard of Buddhism as early as the third century B.C.E. from Alexander the Great, but it did not become a well-known religion until the end of the 19th century. It began gaining slight popularity after philosophers started writing about it. Buddhism was brought to the United States through Chinese railroad workers. As they built the continental railroad across the U.S., they created Buddhist Temples throughout the country. Later the Japanese introduced Buddhism to Hawaii and California. A Japanese author named D.T. Suzuki boosted the spread of Buddhism by meeting with philosophers from America. D.T. Suzuki played a big role in spreading Buddhism in America.
Buddhism’s hold throughout the world has fluctuated over the years. Buddhism is nearly nonexistent in India today. It is believed that the stronghold of Hinduism and the invasions by Muslims are to blame for the near wipeout of the Buddhist religion in India. China, on the other hand, is still primarily Buddhist and Buddhism has continued to prove successful today in many Asian countries. It is estimated that there are around 500 million practicing Buddhists today and around half of that number are living in China. Buddhism has evolved into its own subtype in the west, just as it had when it reached other areas of the world. It is expected that Buddhism will continue to evolve as time goes on.
The importance of Buddha’s journey is something that has reached people for thousands of years and still touches people today. The idea of leaving a life of comfort and luxury to find meaning in the world is something that crosses most people’s minds as they journey through life and gives an easy relatability to Buddhist ideas. While only around five percent of the world population is Buddhist today, Buddhist practices and ideas seem to be creeping their way into the modern world and even into other religions. The Buddha and his journey give us a story that we can all find importance in, in one way or another.
Humphreys, C. (1997). A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary.
LIU, X. (2011). A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam. Journal of World History, 22(1), 55-81. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/23011678
Madhyamakavatara, C., & Mipham, J. (2004). Introduction to the Middle Way (Padmakara, Trans.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Peacocke, J., & Berry, P. (1992). Symposium on Buddhism and modern Western thought. Asian Philosophy, 2(2), 211. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.simpsonulibrary.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9706053075&site=ehost-live
The Buddha: A film by David Grubin [Video file]. (2010). Retrieved November 18, 2018, from https://digital.films.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=1027
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