The origins of Buddhism

How Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment under a tree finding total freedom, liberating his mind f

The Buddha was a man, not a god. His name was Siddhartha Gautama and he was born approximately 480 BCE in Kapilavatthu on the borders of present-day Nepal and India. His father was a nobleman, the ruler of a minor kingdom, and so Siddhartha was well provided for. Worldly pleasures, however, didn’t have much meaning for him. Right from his early years, he was intrigued by the mysteries of existence and the purpose of life, and asked such questions as: What is life for? Are beings born just to die?

At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha left home to search for the answers to these questions. For six years he wandered India, learning from the various holy men he met along the way and learnt various forms of meditation and how to perform particular rituals. He gradually acquired a reputation of being a great ascetic, especially when he embarked upon the extreme practice of reducing his diet to just one grain of rice a day.

Naturally, he began to starve, but to no avail, and one day realised that extreme practices like these were not the way to bring insights regarding the true nature of existence. He then gave up this pointless practice and ate a nourishing meal. Now he knew without doubt that religious rituals and ascetic practices did not lead to insight into truth.

Instead of giving up and going home, however, his determination to find truth increased and he decided to investigate the mystery of mysteries—the mind itself.

Siddhartha then made his way to a tree, sat beneath it and with his back straight and legs crossed, made a vow: To find truth now, or never to rise from this spot again. His determination was great and he called upon the earth to bear witness by touching it with his hand (this earth-touching pose can be seen replicated in thousands of Buddhist statues around the world). Putting aside all the techniques he had learned, Siddhartha focused his mind, let it become clear and aware, and meditated into the night.

One by one the passions started to arise—lust, hatred, greed, pride, self-righteousness and all the hopes, fears and emotions possible for a human being. Keeping his mind focused, he recognised that none of these mental states was fundamentally real, they were all fleeting, impermanent, none was essentially true, every one of them arose and disappeared from consciousness.

Then the insights began to arise. He saw how one thing gave rise to another (karma). He recognised the delusion of time, the reality of the moment, observed impermanence (that everything which arises is subject to change and decay), and woke up to something he had not previously noticed, something which is not formed, which is not a thing, and which does not decay, and which he later referred to as the unformed, unborn, deathlessness (nirvana). He also saw into the truth of sorrow and realised that it cannot be laid aside until all forms of desire, yearning and grasping are laid aside.

As night gave way to day, a supreme breakthrough came for Siddhartha. He awoke to ultimate truth. Gone was the delusion of self, of a separate being apart from other beings, now he was Buddha, the Awakened One, no longer confused by the deceptions of the material or mental world. Within his own mind, his own being, he discovered the total freedom from all conditions. This was the liberation of mind from ignorance and sorrow.

Siddhartha, the Buddha, informed fellow seekers of his findings and began to attract followers. He continued to live a frugal life, having no intention of going back to a worldly existence, instead meditating and teaching until he died forty-five years later in his eighties.

By the time of his passing, a large community of monks and nuns had formed and become a strong movement which lasted for well over a thousand years in India, at which time it all but disappeared from this, the land of its origin. In the meantime, however, the teachings had spread to Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan, Burma, Thailand, various parts of Southeast Asia and Tibet.

It didn’t really appear in the West until the nineteenth century when the early translations of Buddhist texts were made, and it only started to become a living practice in Europe and America about a century ago.

From those early beginnings the popularity of Buddhism grew in the West during the 1960s and has since flourished. Buddhist temples and centres of all kinds now exist almost everywhere in Europe and America, and vast numbers of books, magazines and articles have been published, so that these days there is no shortage of information for those interested in finding the truth of the Buddha’s teaching for themselves.

Because Buddhism is based on a personal journey, an inner journey for each individual, as it enters new lands, it often changes and adapts to the ways of each culture. This is why Tibetan Buddhism appears to be vastly different from, say, Thai Buddhism, or Japanese Zen seems so different from that form of Buddhism practised in Burma. Basically, however, the Buddha’s teachings are central to each tradition. Get beyond the style of ceremonies, colour of robes, variations on the minor rules of the monastic order and techniques of meditation, get to the very core of what they are aiming for, and it will be the original Buddha’s teaching.

Diana St Ruth has been a practising Buddhist since the early 1960s. A director of the Buddhist Publishing Group since 1983, she lived in a Buddhist Community in Devon from 1989-1993 and is the editor of Buddhism Now. She is also the author of several books on Buddhism.
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.