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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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