Thousands of Buddhists are marching worldwide in solidarity with the current protests in Buddhist Tibet. With 365 million followers, over 6 per cent of the world’s population claim to be Buddhists. It is the fourth largest religion in the world behind only Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Established in India in the sixth century it spread out across south, east and south-east Asia before emerging as a truly international movement in the 20th century. Arguably not even a religion, Buddhism is certainly a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development that dates back almost 2,500 years.
The first external evidence about the existence of Buddhism comes from inscriptions made by King Asoka who ruled the Mauryan state of North India from 269 BCE to 232 BCE. This was some two hundred years after the death of the Buddha himself. The majority of what we know about the life of Siddartha Gautama comes from the voluminous Buddhist scriptures written in various Asian languages. The most useful of these texts were written in Pali, an extinct north Indian dialect which was close to Magadhan, the language most likely spoken by Gautama.
These traditions began to be preserved shortly after his death. Itinerant Buddhist monks wandered around the cities of the Gangetic Plain and taught Buddha’s message of enlightenment and freedom from suffering. During the impassable monsoon rains, the monks retreated to their settlements where they discussed doctrine and practice. Eventually some began to collect their testimony of Gautama and formalised it into songs, discourses and rules of their orders in formulaic and repetitive style. Several monks were assigned the role of committing anthologies to memory.
After a hundred years, these discourses became formalised as the Pali Canon. They covered the Buddha’s sermons, stories about his life, suttas about the Eightfold Path and the makeup of human personality, anthologies of his epigrams and poems, and the Book of Monastic Discipline which codified the rules of the Buddhist Order of monks. They paid more attention to the philosophies of the Buddha than the key dates of his life, which remain frustrating vague for modern scholars. These Pali texts became the provenance of Theravada Buddhism which stressed the importance of yoga and honoured monks who became “Arahants”, accomplished ones who had achieved enlightenment like the Buddha himself.
Siddharta Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE in Kapilavatthu in the foothills of the Himalayas. His father was one of the leading men of the town and showered his son with every pleasure he could desire. But young Siddharta felt suffocated by his lifestyle and took to the road at the age of 29, leaving behind a wife and son of his own. India was undergoing an economic transformation at the time with power transferring from the priestly caste to the merchants. Gautama believed that family life was not conducive to spirituality and he joined the thousands of mendicants, mostly men, who settled in the forests near the plain in a search for “brahmacariya” (the holy life).
Gautama’s Holy Grail was Nibbana or Nirvana (“blowing out”); a deathless, sorrowless and incorrupt place where it was possible to extinguish life’s passions, attachments and delusions. It was also an attempt to deal with the North Indian belief of karma, the endless cycle of death and re-birth. Gautama was preoccupied especially with the horror of re-death and Nirvana, like many other theories of the day offered a way to extricate people from this endless cycle.
Gautama travelled to the Kingdom of Magadha, in modern Bihar south of the Ganges. There he came to the attention of King Bimbisara who was apparently so impressed by the young almsman, he offered to make him his heir. But Gautama instead set off in search of a teacher to guide him through his spiritual apprenticeship. He found what he wanted in Vesali, the capital of the Videha Republic. The school here, under Alara Kalama taught that ignorance not desire was at the root of human problems and suffering derived from lack of understanding of the true Self.
Gautama mastered the essentials of Kalama’s path by using the disciplines of yoga. The word is derived from the verb “yuj” meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind together’. Yoga was an ancient Indian tradition which cultivates a different mode of consciousness. Gautama used it to train his mind into a state that lay beyond error and illusion. This required the young monk to practice five prohibitions to bring his mind under control. They forbade him to steal, lie, take intoxicants, kill or harm, or have sex. He practiced ‘asana’ the physical cross-legged posture characteristic of yoga where he learned to cut the link between mind and senses by refusing to move. Once he entered a trace, he moved through a succession of stages until he reached the third ayatana – blissful ‘nothingness’.
But Gautama remained dissatisfied he had not found a truly unconditioned and uncreated self. He tried asceticism which proved as fruitless as yoga. Eventually he gave himself up to a childhood memory of sitting under a rose-apple tree when he had gained an ecstatic moment. He wondered if this was the way to enlightenment. He began to notice the ebb and flow of his feelings and sensations and took note of sensual desire when it happened. He became supremely aware of himself and took on as he called it, a state of mindfulness. This purification process took many years. One day around the year of 528 BCE he was walking by the Neranjara River where he spotted a pleasant grove for meditation. He sat there and took up the asana position determined not to move until he achieved enlightenment. It was here he became a Buddha. The word Buddha meant the Enlightened or Awakened One. This spot, now known as Bodh Gaya is an important site of Buddhist pilgrimage.
The rest of the Buddha’s life was spent helping others achieve the same state. But he did not preach. He became known as Sakyamuni the Silent One from the Republic of Sakka because his knowledge was ineffable and could not be described in words. He had no doctrine, no theology, no theory about root cause and no definition about ultimate reality. What was important to him was ‘letting go’, his purpose was to enable people transcend pain and attain the peace of Nirvana. Buddha lived a long life and died an old man in an obscure town. But a Buddhist has no time to think of himself, even on his deathbed. To the last he taught. His final advice to the monks that followed him was “All individual things pass away. Seek your liberation with diligence”.