by Cristian Violatti
published on 10 February 2013

Buddhism, along with Jainism and Charvaka, is considered part of the heterodox systems (also refereed to as heresies) of Indian philosophy. The teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha “he who is awake”), member of the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste) are the foundation of Buddhism.

By 600 BCE, there was a growing religious controversy in India. The traditional religious order was being challenged by a number of new philosophical schools that were not in line with the orthodox religious views. In some places revolts took place against the orthodox Indian religion, rejecting the complex growth and involved sacrificial fees in addition to its philosophy, theology and metaphysics. Skeptic, nihilist, atheist and materialist schools were running wild in India, undermining the reputation and authority of the priestly class, leading to a temporary religious anarchy which contributed to the development of new religions. By the time the Buddha was born, the intellectual decay of the old Brahamanic orthodoxy had begotten a strong skepticism and moral vacuum.

Traditionaly, the origin of Buddhism was believed to be 6th century BCE. Today scholar concensus is that Buddhism originated in the 5th century BCE, and it slowly gained a wide acceptance. By the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism became the state religion in India but later it disappeared from India, becoming predominant in China and other Eastern nations. It could also be said that Buddhism did not really disappear from India, it was absorbed by Hinduism, a tradition that considered the Buddha merely as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu. Thus the Buddha became part of the pantheon of innumerable Hinduist deities.

Buddhism is largely practised as a dogma free and anti-caste religion. As a result of geographical expansion coupled with a tolerant spirit and its roughly 2.5 millennia of history, Buddhism today encompasses a number of different traditions, beliefs and practices. Today, the four major Buddhist branches are Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism. This classification is simply one of the many we find in academic literature and by no means is it set in stone. Some scholars, for example, may include Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism as part of the Mahayana branch.

Since its origin, a number of Buddhist councils have taken place in order to fix the canonical Buddhist literature and meeting questions of discipline. The first was a seven-month session following the Buddha’s death and it took place in Rajagha with 500 monks attending. The second was a century later, lasted 18 months and  was held in Vesali with 700 monks attending. The third was around a century and a half later and lasted nine months, this time in Pataliputta with 1000 monks attending. The Northern Buddhists added a fourth council, in Kashmir around 70 CE, in order to establish the Mahayana doctrine.

A non theistic religion - The Ego as an illusion

Very few things could sound more contradictory to the western mind than the idea of a religion with no god. The Buddha was not concerned with satisfying human curiosity related to metaphysical speculations. Topics like the existence of god, afterlife or creation stories were ignored by the Buddha.

The Buddhist approach is not spiritual, but psychological and yet it has spiritual implications, since it inspires us with goodwill towards all creatures and constant willingness to help others. It focuses on the nature of human suffering and how to end it. The idea of god plays no role in Buddhism. In some religions, sin is the origin of human suffering. In Buddhism there is no sin, the root-cause of human suffering is avidyā “ignorance”.

Buddhism does not require faith or belief. Faith could be understood as believing something which is unsupported by evidence. But Buddhism claims that ignorance is what causes suffering: the only way to overcome this ignorance is by understanding, faith has no use. Belief, as understood by other religions, is not necessary in Buddhism.

The question of belief arises when there is no seeing - seeing in every sense of the word. The moment you see, the question of belief disappears. If I tell you that I have a gem hidden in the folded palm of my hand, the question of belief  arises because you do not see it yourself. But if I unclench my fist and show you the gem, then you see it for yourself, and the question of belief does not arise. So the phrase in ancient Buddhist texts reads 'Realizing, as one sees a gem in the palm'
(Rahula W., 9)

The Buddha did not agree with moral and psychological individualism. We are not separate beings and powers, but passing ripples of the stream of life. When we see ourselves as part of the whole, our personal disappointments and defeats, even our death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before: they simply dissolve in the amplitude of existence. There is no ego in Buddhism: the idea that we are separate is an illusion. 

The fictions of mind, the fantasies which have been mistaken for the genuine reality remain to colour the vision in ways that obscure it. These are deeply ingrained habits of perception, insisting that somewhere there is a fundamental distinction between 'I' and 'it', between subject and object, between the poles of every duality.
(Tarthand Tulku, 125)

The Four Noble Truths

These are the most important element of Buddhist teachings. The Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path for the first time to a group of disciples. The place he chose was the Deer Park near the city of Varanasi on the Ganges.

1. Dukkha. The term is generally translated as “all life is suffering”. The idea can be easily understood in terms of painful situations like death, illness, abuse, poverty and so forth. But suffering also arises from good things because nothing is permanent, everything is changing and whatever gives us happiness will sooner or later come to an end. It seems that all pleasures are temporary and the more we enjoy them, the more we will miss them when they end. “Nothing lasts forever”, is one of the great insights of the Buddha.

2. The cause of suffering is desire. Suffering comes from desire, also referred to as “thirst” or greed. Our desires will always exceed our resources and leave us unhappy and unsatisfied. All suffering originates in desire but not all desire generates suffering: only the selfish desire, that is desire directed to the advantage of the part rather than to the good of the whole.

3. By stopping desire, suffering also stops. The idea is not to get too attached to material goods, places, ideas or even people. Non-attachment to anything is the main idea behind the third noble truth. It does not mean we do not have to love our family and friends, it simply means that since all things changes, if we become attached to them too much, we will suffer at some point. After all we will all get old, decay and die: this is a natural cycle, and there is nothing wrong with it, it is just the way it is. The problem comes when, by becoming too attached, we do not accept the changes and then suffering comes.

4. By following the Eightfold Path, desire stops. The Eightfold path says: right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddhist scriptures

Like Pythagoras, Jesus, Confucius and many other great minds of antiquity, the Buddha was an oral teacher. He did not leave a written account of his ideas. He summarized his doctrine in sutras “threads” designed to prompt the memory. This was probably the best alternative in a context where the majority of the population was illiterate. The Buddhist sutras contain many stories, parables and instructions attributed to the Buddha. There are many other Buddhist scriptures. The largest of all early Buddhist texts is the Pali Canon (committed into writing in 29 BCE), a very complex collection of scriptures containing rules for nuns and monks, discourses of the Buddha and his disciples and also some philosophical topics. The body of Buddhist texts is really large and different Buddhist schools will focus on different texts according to their own approach.

Some scholars believe that if all Buddhist texts were lost, we would need nothing more than the Dhammapada to follow the way of the Buddha. The Dhammapada is a collection of practical verses, gathered not certainly but probably from direct disciples of the Buddha. It has a poetical style and it is arranged by theme: anger, greed, fear, happiness and thought. In the oral tradition of the 6th century BCE it must have been the equivalent of a handbook. Its message is mainly concerned with morals. Here is an example of its verses:

Those who recite many scriptures but fail to practice their teachings are like cowherd counting another’s cows. They do not share the joys of the spiritual life. But those who know few scriptures yet practice their teachings, overcoming all lust, hatred and delusion, live with a pure mind in the highest wisdom. They stand without external supports and share in the joys of spiritual life.
(Dhammapda, 1.19-20)

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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Visual Timeline
  • c. 490 BCE - c. 410 BCE
    The life of Siddhartha Gautama according to modern scholar consensus.
  • 448 BCE - 368 BCE
    The life of Siddhartha Gautama according to the Short chronology (Indian chronology).
  • 386 BCE
    Second Buddhist council held at Vaishali, according to the Corrected Long Chronology. Emergence of the Mahasanghika school.
  • 268 BCE
    Second Buddhist council held at Vaishali, according to the Short Chronology. Emergence of the Mahasanghika school.
  • c. 100 BCE
    Buddhist sutras began to be written down in Pali.
  • 148 CE
    An Shigao is the first Buddhist translator mentioned in Chinese sources who established a translation centre in the Chinese imperial capital, Luoyang.
  • c. 200 CE
    The Buddhist Lotus Sutra is written down in Pali language.
  • c. 200 CE - c. 400 CE
    The Buddhist Nirvana Sutra is written down in Pali language.
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