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Religion Library: Buddhism

Beginnings

Written by: Julia Hardy


KEY CONCEPTS IN THIS SECTION:

Founder: Siddhartha Gautama (c. 5th century B.C.E.)

Origin: India

Spiritual teaching: Four Noble Truths: 1) human life is full of suffering; 2) suffering stems from cravings for pleasure and avoidance of pain; 3) suffering can be eradicated; 4) the path of freedom from suffering is the path of enlightenment

Followers: the sangha, a community of monks

Ethical guidelines: not to take human life, not to lie, not to steal, not to use intoxicants, not to engage in illicit sexual behavior

First Buddhist ruler: Ashoka


Buddhism evolved from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who was born in the 5th century B.C.E. (some scholars have argued for the 4th century B.C.E.) in the Indian state of Kapilavastu, now part of Nepal. Born a prince, the young man who would become the Buddha renounced a life of wealth and power, according to Buddhist texts, to become a spiritual seeker.

After years of wandering and asceticism he became enlightened — that is, he had a realization about his own true nature. He saw that his own thinking was the only obstacle preventing the spiritual understanding he had been seeking.That obstacle was removed when he realized that his sense of himself as a separate and isolated individual was an illusion. He thus escaped from desire and suffering, and was called "The Buddha," or the Awakened One.

In a deer park in the small town of Sarnath, outside modern Banaras, the Buddha preached his first sermon, in which he outlined four interrelated spiritual truths, often called the Four Noble Truths. These were: 1) that suffering is characteristic of human existence; 2) that suffering is caused by longing for pleasure and avoidance of pain; 3) that it is not necessary to suffer; and 4) that there is a path to end suffering. His sermons moved many who heard him speak and he began to gather disciples. These followers became the first sangha, or community of monks.

At first, only men followed the Buddha as monks. Later, women were also allowed to become nuns, but with many restrictions reflecting the social customs of the time. According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha objected to this at first, but was persuaded by his disciple Ananda to admit women. Some of the early texts also suggested that women could not become enlightened, but must first be reborn as men. Feminist scholars of Buddhism believe that these stories are later additions to the texts that reflect attitudes toward women in those times.

Some early Buddhist texts mention both men and women who, like the Buddha, became enlightened. The earliest disciples, called arhat, also attained enlightenment and were sent by the Buddha to wander and teach on their own. Soon there were many new converts and the new religion rapidly gained large numbers of followers.

 

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