Buddhism originated during the Iron Age of India in about 1000 BCE. Towns and trade were growing, and humanity was developing more intellectual ideas. There was a large movement that caused the creation of several Indian religions that derived themselves from the historical Vedic religion, such as Jainism and Buddhism.
The religion was officially formed in the 6th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, who is more commonly referred to as the “Buddha.” The religion mainly focuses on his teachings and models for religious life, although there wasn’t a comprehensive account of his life until the 1st or 2nd century C.E., almost 800 years later by Buddha Charita. The Buddha was the son of a king and queen, but after seeing the immense suffering of humanity as a young man, he discovered that the material pleasures of life could only mask suffering.
He left his wife and son and tried to go through severe renunciation until he nearly starved to death. After realizing that this only contributed more suffering to the world, he ate and meditated. Some say that he achieved “Nirvana” or enlightenment by the morning, while others say that he obtained it six months later. After, he began to teach others about the truths of compassion to others for their suffering. Some of these doctrines included the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path.
Once he died, his followers created monasteries and taught others about the Buddha’s teachings. They started pilgrimages to his birthplace, worshipping the tree where he became enlightened and created Buddha images in temples. Eventually, Buddhism spread through India and into Sri Lanka. Due to the fact that he never named a successor or gave his opinion on matters such as the soul, many different schools of thought developed.
Around the first century, a split occurred to create the Mahayana and Hinayana branches. Hinayana Buddhists stressed the historical life of the Buddha and a monk lifestyle of meditation. The Mahayana Buddhists use several texts about how to be good Buddhists, but also state that there are other paths to Nirvana. They believe that humanity originates from the Source of all Existence, which is also Enlightenment potential.
Buddhism started to die out in India around the twelfth century due to Muslim invasions and the spread of Hinduism. With that being said, there are still 500 million followers of Buddhism.
Buddhists are taught mainly to show compassion to all of humanity and the animal kingdom. They believe that the Buddha taught that ignorance and desire cause rebirth, which causes sorrow. Contrary to other religions, they believe that people understanding that rebirth isn’t necessary and that an end will stop sorrow is how one can find peace. This can also be found through adopting altruism, development of intelligence, wisdom in thought, and destruction of desire for personal pleasures. Losing the desire to live and rather perfecting oneself as an individual through meditation creates the highest state of peace, called Nirvana.
The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, which are the miseries of existence, the cause of productive misery, which is the continuous desire of satisfaction, the destruction of that desire, and the means of obtaining this destruction of desire. He pointed out that this can be done using the Eightfold Path: Right Belief, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Exertion, Right Remembrance, and Right Meditation.
After completing this, it can lead to spiritual enlightenment. They believe an individual like this ceases all sin to receive virtue and purify the heart.
They also believe that the universe contains “karma,” meaning that an individual’s merits and demerits in the past determine their condition in the present time, creating an idea of free will. To obtain good karma or not risk losing it, Buddhists are told to not kill, not steal, not indulge in forbidden sexual pleasure, not lie, and not intake intoxicating drugs or alcohol. Buddhists are also told not to agree blindly with anything written in texts, scriptures, or said to them by a sage.
The basic practices of Buddhism revolve around accepting the Four Noble Truths and following the Eight-Fold Path. Therefore, Buddhists refrain from killing, lying, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants. Members of their monasteries also refrain from eating at improper times, viewing secular entertainments, using garlands, perfumes, or other bodily adornments, sleeping in high and wide beds, and receiving money. They also follow rules known as the Patimoksa.
Buddhism also has many traditions. The first includes meditation. This shows respect to the Buddha, and sometimes they give gifts to statues of the Buddha. There are also many holidays. The first holiday is called Uposatha and includes fasting days for Buddhist monks and laypersons. It includes the repetition of the precepts, offering flowers to the Buddha image, reciting Pali suttas, meditation, and a sermon given by a monk. They also celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and entrance into Nirvana of the Buddha, although these aren’t all celebrated on the same days throughout different countries.
At the beginning and end of the rainy season from July to October, there are two major festivals held. This season is called a Vassa, and the end of it is filled with celebration and presenting gifts to monks. There is also a robe-offering ceremony where gifts are given to an entire monastery. There is also a public feast and display of the robes. A “great robe” is also produced by many people within one night by hand. This commemorates the Buddha’s mother.
A well-known festival called All Souls Festival is also held. Chinese worshippers will create paper boats that are burned during the evening. It is meant to remember the dead and to free those who are suffering as hell-beings so they may ascend to heaven. Monks will also light lanterns, recite sacred verses, and make offerings of fruit. When this ceremony is conducted in Japan, two altars are created: one for offerings to the spirits of dead ancestors and one to make offerings to the souls of the dead who have no peace.
Buddhists may also celebrate New Year’s and harvest festivals. Some people have parades through the streets for New Year’s. People might also visit Buddhist sanctuaries, where monks are given food and other gifts. Sometimes, there are exorcism ceremonies conducted on individuals or whole communities. They ward off droughts, epidemics, or hail during the following year. Fireworks might also be present to create an atmosphere of hopefulness.
If a Buddhist wishes to become a monk, they must do so before the age of 20. This requires shaving their hair and beard and wearing yellow robes. They will bow to the senior monk, make a petition for admittance, and repeat the Triple Refuge three times, which states, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dhamma, I take refuge in the sangha.” They also repeat the 10 monk precepts and are questioned about whether anything would prevent their admission. Some groups of Buddhists provide a more complex consecration ceremony for new monks.
When a Buddhist monk is buried, normally their body is cremated and buried, where a stupa is built over them. Sometimes texts are read to a dying person to prepare their mind for death.
The holy text in Buddhism is called the Tripitaka or the Pali canon. These texts were collected by the Council of Monks of the Theravada school and the Mahayana school based on stories about the Buddha’s teachings.
The Tripitaka (three baskets of wisdom) is split into three sections: the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), which is a rulebook for monks and nuns, the Sutta Pitaka (Teaching Basket), which are the experiences of the Buddha, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Higher Doctrine Basket), which explains the teachings of the Buddha.
There are also three different types of other scriptures: sutras, or discourses, vinayas that discuss the rules of monastic discipline, and Abhidharma, which are analytical texts. Many Mahayana sutras have been written and translated through Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.
Some other groups of Buddhists have separate non-canonical texts, such as the Path of Purification, or a book of Theravada teachings that are similar to the Pali canon. There is also a book called the Blue Cliff Record, which includes accounts of Zen master’s lives and teachings.
Buddhists worship in a temple or a Buddhist monastery. The structure of a temple may differ depending on the region and language of the area. They represent a pure environment of a Buddha, and are designed to inspire peace. Many temples are designed to symbolize the elements of fire, air, earth, water, and wisdom.