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.