This libguide cannot do justice to the complex belief system of Buddhism as it has evolved over the 2,600 years since its founding in India by Siddhartha Gautama, a man of noble birth who lived near the Indian-Nepalese border. He is believed to have been born around 566 BCE and died around 480 CBE. He was the son of a king and lived a life of luxury and pleasure with a young wife and a son. He spent his time hunting and enjoying the privileges of his noble birth and high station in life. However he soon became bored with this lifestyle, especially when he and his trusted aide saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. He realized that he, too, would grow old, become sick and eventually die. Suffering is universal, a part of life. Siddhartha decided to renounce his entire lifestyle, leave his wife and child--after assuring they would not lack for anything- and become a monk, depriving himself of wordly possessions in the hope of understanding how to alleviate suffering--an inherent part of life. This decision, made when he was 29, is called "The Geat Renunciation."
Siddhartha then travelled throughout northern India as a monk. Hinduism, with its rigid caste system, did not appeal to him. The traditional story may not be exactly true, but around 528 BCE, while sitting under a bo tree, he experienced "The Great Enlightenment",which revealed the way of salvation from suffering. The text of his first sermon is perserved.
Along with five disciples, the Buddha taught his doctrines and established monastic communities, admitting anyone regardless of caste. He converted his father, wife and other members of his family After 45 years of preaching, he died at the age of 80. He was known for his great wisdom, compassion and character.
Over the many years, Buddhism has become a complex religion, with somewhat different schools of thought. Some may say that it is a philosophy and not a religion. All Buddhists, however, seek comfort in the Buddha, his teachings ( the dharma) and the communities he founded. Because of his meditation and constant questioning, the Buddha broke the cycle of rebirth ( and suffering) and attained nirvana ( enlightenment). He discovered the Four Noble Truths: suffering is part of life, there are causes of suffering, e.g. ignorance, selfishness ( excessive ego), there is a state of transcendence of suffering, and there is a path that leads to that state.
Unlike Western religions, the Buddha believed that existence was a cycle of death and rebirth. One's previous life determines the nature of the next life. Good deeds will lead to a rebirth of a wise person or even a divine being. Evil deeds may lead to a sickly life or even hell. These cycles of rebirth will always lead to suffering. One can transcend the cycle by following "The Middle Way" and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Middle Way calls for moderation in all things, the Eightfold Path includes, among other things, the avoidance of evil, saying nothing to hurt others, controlling thoughts and feelings and holding a job that does not hurt others. Meditation is important, but not all Buddists constantly meditate.
There are different traditions and schools within Buddhism. For example there is the Mahayana ( "great vehicle") Followers of this school live mostly in Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Tibet. There are other traditions that follow various sacred texts. Meditation, good behavior, kindness, study and prayer are central to all of these traditions. Anyone interested in Buddhism can consult books and listen to teachers. By doing so, one will gain a deeper understanding of this religion ( or philosophy) and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of oneself and how to deal with the suffering that is a part of life and that we all experience.