Buddhism can be a complicated religion to explain in terms of history for a few reasons. It’s incredibly old, originating somewhere in the range of 500 years BCE, or Before the Common Era. Even before this though, Buddhism has roots in a variety of belief sets that parallel what is now known as Jainism. India put its main focus on tradition, based on texts called the Vedas, which were ancient Sanskrit texts which informed their beliefs and made up a foundation for the Hinduism faith. There was a bit of division, as a man named Siddhartha Gautama began to teach a shift from this normal way of being, based on discipline and abstaining from indulgences. See, he was a bit sheltered, and as he discovered more about the world, he began to teach on the lessons he’s learned.
There were a people typically called Sramanas, who were religious leaders, though these Sramanas would focus on very different things, such as some focusing on non-violence or some focusing on vegetarianism. Siddhartha Gautama was one of these Sramanas, but didn’t teach the sort of extreme discipline that others might have been teaching, he instead taught a middle way, eventually becoming fully formed as what is now known as the Eightfold Path, eight practices that he taught would lead to liberation, or as he called it, nirvana.
He was later given the title of Gautama Buddha, though Buddha is a title that many other people have been given, many times long after they’ve passed. Before we dive into these eight practices to achieve enlightenment, let’s zoom out at look at the four core beliefs of Buddhism, called the Four Noble Truths, which Siddhartha discovered as he began to see more about the real world outside of his sheltered life. The first truth is that suffering exists, it is birth, it is aging, it is illness and death.
Pain is everywhere. The second truth acknowledges the origin of this pain, that there is a craving for this pain, such as a craving for sensual pleasures, craving material goods, we desire even though we know it is painful. The third truth is the end of suffering, it is that this craving can be stopped and you can be free from it. The fourth truth is how to be rid of this suffering, which points to the noble eightfold path, the eight practices that can help to end this cycle of pain and suffering. Let’s look at what these eight practices are in the Eightfold Path. It begins with the Right View, meaning that our actions have consequences, death is not the end, and there are consequences after death. Buddhism focuses on a cycle of rebirth, called samsara.
This cycle of rebirth is painful, which is why people want to eventually earn liberation from the cycle. They believe this reincarnation might put you into another human body or perhaps an animal or even a spirit, there are many ways you might return to this Earth. The second practice is the Right Resolve, to give up the world and live your life in dedication to following this path. You should focus on loving others, abstinence from sensuality, and a life of compassion. The third practice is Right Speech. Don’t lie, don’t be rude, no gossiping. Right Conduct means not to injure or kill others, not taking what’s not yours, and no material desires, including sexual acts. The fifth practice is the Right Livelihood, that you would possess only what is essential to sustain life. How you make a living should also be ethical and compassionate.
Number six is Right Effort, that you should foresee your mental state and stop impure and negative thoughts, which includes ill will towards others, worry, and doubt. You want to focus on meditating and focusing on stopping these thoughts before they arise. Right Mindfulness follows. Not only preemptively stop negative thoughts, but focus on what you are thinking. Be always aware of your thoughts and actions, try to be aware of reality and your own impermanence. The eighth practice is Right Concentration, or called Right Samadhi, is a culmination of the other traits. You have lived your life morally, been in the right mindset, able to stop negative thoughts and focus fully, resulting in a very powerful state of meditation. By acknowledging the four noble truths and following the eightfold path, there is a state called nirvana, which results at the end of your constant rebirth and the pain that comes with it.
Now, nirvana is going to be difficult to explain, because when you achieve nirvana, is the extinction of your physical life, so there’s no one that has experienced it that can really explain it to you. And even Buddhists often disagree with what attaining nirvana means and looks like, so you might run across different definitions. I’m going to introduce a term here called Bodhisattva, which is someone who has nearly attained nirvana but has chosen to remain here and delay nirvana, to help others achieve it. Now, to prove why this is complicated. There are others called Arhats, typically often monks who have chosen a solitary path, so they’ve already achieved enlightenment through nirvana. So you can understand why this is a bit confusing and why people might disagree on what enlightenment truly looks like. So, back to the Gautama Buddha.
He taught these lessons and helped others to understand enlightenment and how to achieve it. For a long time, these lessons were an oral tradition, meaning they were just passed on by spoken word until people started to transcribe his lessons almost 400 years later. Because of this lack of written text, Buddha’s personal life and even what years he lived, are constantly debated. His lessons originally centered out of India and what is now Nepal, though Buddhism has spread across the world. Interestingly, Buddhism has actually declined in India, only .7% of the population. There are countries however where Buddhism is the national religion, such as Cambodia and Thailand, where over 90% of its residents are Buddhist.
By pure number, most Buddhists reside in China, with over 185 million, but that’s only 16% of China’s total population. Buddhism is also the primary religion in Tibet or the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. This Tibetan Buddhism has evolved and changed a bit from other forms of Buddhism, influenced by the religions in that region before Buddhism spread there. Now, let me talk about a figure you probably know something of, the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is the head of one of its schools of Tibetan Buddhism and is a symbol for unifying the Tibetan region. It’s an old tradition, started in the early 1400s. The people of Tibet believe that an ancient bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara is reincarnated and acts as a benevolent watcher over Tibet.
For context, Avalokitsevara is one of these bodhisattvas that held back enlightenment to help others, and is now believed to be reincarnated, looking out for those suffering in this world and returns to help alleviate this pain. The fourteenth Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, a religious name given to him once he took the mantle. Since they believe this is reincarnation, when a Dalai Lama dies, they begin to seek out his replacement, usually relying on visions or clues to tell them where the child is. The current Dalai Lama was found when he was only a few years ago and announced as the new Dalai Lama when he was only five and given full duties at 15. Now, I’m not going to go too in-depth here, but there was an uprising of Tibetans against China, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet, where he fled to India.
China is still angry about this and the Tibetan’s dedication to the Dalai Lama, they can still be arrested if seen with photos of him for example. The current Dalai Lama now tours the world, speaking of Tibet’s struggles and advocating for peace. So that is just a short summary, again, it’s very superficial. This is meant for people who maybe don’t know anything to get an idea of what they believe in. It doesn’t cover the nuance of how they perform these practices, the complicated nuances between various branches of Buddhism, or all the various terms and positions included in the religion. If you found this interesting, share this short story of Buddhism with your friends