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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.