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.
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories