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Introduction to Buddhism

Life Of The Buddha

The Hondo (Prayer Hall)

Over 2,500 years ago, in the shadows of the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains, Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha was born. He was born as the prince of the Sakya Kingdom. Soon after Siddhartha’s birth, his mother, Queen Maya, passed away, leaving his Aunt Prajapati and his father, King Suddhodana to raise him. The prince was raised with tender-loving care. From his birth, he was given an abundance of material luxuries. He was taught and trained by the best educators of the time.

In spite of the fact that Siddhartha’s material wants were fulfilled, the prince became increasingly meditative and detached from his material surroundings. His sensitivity to life grew and he became distressed by the paradox of existence itself. However, it was when he saw four visions of an aged man in agony; a man infested with disease; a corpse followed by weeping mourners; and a serene peaceful mendicant, that he resolved to leave the comfort of his surroundings in search of Truth and Enlightenment. He was then twenty-nine years old.

On one moonlit night with his horse, Kanthaka, and his personal servant Channa, he slipped out of his castle, leaving behind his wife Yasodhara, his son Rahula and his father’s kingdom. He renounced his princely position and all of his privileges and became a simple mendicant, a seeker in search of the True Reality.

The scriptures tell us that Siddhartha traveled eastward seeking the guidance of two noted sages, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, in the hopes of finding deliverance through their guidance. However, he found their knowledge and their teachings to be inadequate for the supreme enlightenment. He then wandered onto a place called Uruvilva where he practiced rigorous self-mortification in the hopes of emancipation from the world of Samsara (undulation of life). For six long years he diligently practiced various forms of asceticism but to no avail. At the end, he found himself only in utter confusion and physical exhaustion.

Not discouraged by his failure in ascetic practices, he then resolved to follow his inner instinct by meditating cross-legged under a tree, which later became known as the Bodhi tree. He said “though [my] skin, sinew and bone may dry up as it will, my flesh and blood may dry in my body, but without attaining complete enlightenment I will not leave this seat.”

Many were the nights of torment by Mara, the inner temptations and doubts, but he pressed on, overcoming Mara and its temptations. It is said that Siddhartha gradually entered into first, second, third and the final dhyana until his consciousness merged into the ultimate consciousness of True Reality. The revelation of the True Reality took place and he became the Perfectly Awakened One, the Buddha.

With triumphant voice he cried out:

I ran my course unceasingly seeking the maker of the House painful in birth again and again. House builder! I behold thee now, again a house thou shalt not build; all the rafters are broken now, the ridge-pole also is destroyed. My mind, its elements dissolved.

He was then thirty-five years old.

For several days after his awakening, he contemplated at the foot of the Bodhi tree in deep meditation. But soon, out of compassion for all sentient beings, he proclaimed the difficult task of revealing the Buddha Dharma [the teachings]. At the deer park in Baranasi [now Sarnath], the Buddha delivered his first instruction to his former friends, the five ascetics. He laid down to them the basic doctrine of the middle way. This first address of the Buddha is called “The setting in motion of the wheel of truth.” It also was the time when the Order of the Sangha was established.

For 45 years, the Enlightened One journeyed from place to place along the River Ganges, teaching many paths to the ultimate emancipation from the world of Duhkha. These teachings included his instructions to his father, King Suddhodana, his wife Yasodhara, and his son Rahula, and the rest of the Sakya Kingdom. They all became the members of the Sangha, the Buddhist Order, the followers of the Buddha Dharma.

The Sangha that began with five ascetics eventually grew into thousands. With the central theme of seeing the universe “as it is,” the Buddha encouraged his disciples to spread the Buddha Dharma in the spirit of universal love and compassion. Today, about one-fifth of the world’s population, more than a billion people, follow the teachings of the Buddha.

He was 80 years of age when he passed into Parinirvana. Surrounded by his beloved disciples and friends, he laid himself at the sal grove of Malla at Kusinagara and the Buddha gave his final instruction:

My disciples, my last moment has come, but do not forget that death is only the end of the physical body. The body was born from parents and was nourished by food; just as inevitable are sickness and death. But the true Buddha is not a human body, it is Enlightenment. A human body must die, but the wisdom of Enlightenment will exist forever in the truth of the Dharma, and in the practice of the Dharma. He who sees merely my body does not truly see me. Only he who accepts my teaching truly sees me.

After my death, the Dharma shall be your teacher. Follow the Dharma and you will be true to me. My dear disciples, this is the end. In a moment I shall be passing into Nirvana; make my teachings your light. Work out your salvation with diligence. This is my instruction.

Thus after 45 years of enlightened life, the Perfectly Awakened One, the Sage of Sakya Kingdom, peacefully entered into the realm beyond our understanding, the realm of Dharmakaya. Soon after the Buddha’s four councils were held to preserve the teachings of the Buddha in purest form. Recorded in Pali and Sanskrit languages, the teachings were preserved in voluminous compilation of writings called Tripitaka [The Three Baskets], which consisted of 100 volumes of 1000 pages each. The completion of these texts were undertaken at the Third Council which were sponsored by the great Buddhist King Asoka. Under the leadership of Thera Tissa with 1000 Bhiksu, this task was done.

As the term Tripitaka suggest, it consisted of three component parts called Sutra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and the Abhidharma Pitaka.

The Sutra Pitaka contains the actual words of the Buddha instructing ways and means for his disciplines to attain Buddhahood. The Vinaya Pitaka contains rules and regulations for monks and nuns, as well as lay members of Sangha [Buddhist Order]. The Abhidharma Pitaka contains commentaries and metaphysical explanations in detail of what the Buddha’s teachings meant.

From the original writing, the Tripitaka has been translated many times into the languages of Asia, but the most complete set of Tripitaka in existence today is called Taisho Daizo Kyo, which was compiled by a group of scholars headed by Dr. J. Takakusu. With the teachings of the Buddha rapidly expanding into western countries, Buddhist scholars are making great efforts to translate the teachings into English as well as into other European languages.

The Teachings

Based on the spiritual experiences of Siddhartha Gautama, the Perfectly Enlightened One, the teachings of Buddha-Dharma was founded. At Baranasi, the Buddha deliver his famous first discourse to five ascetics revealing the Fourfold Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Paths.

The Four Noble Truths state:

  1. Dukkha: suffering – illness, pain, anguish, dissatisfaction, conflict, friction and other forms of disharmony – is everywhere.
  2. Samudaya: the cause of suffering is attributable to craving or “thirst” and illusions created by self-centeredness.
  3. Nirodha: the cessation of suffering occurs when the causes and conditions of suffering are removed. This state is called Nirvana, the state of True Reality.
  4. Marga: the path the leads to the cessation of suffering.

This path is popularly called the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of eight steps: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.

Guided by the Spirit of Compassion, the Buddha delivered many discourses during his 45 years of enlightened life. He instructed many ways to attain Buddhahood to thousands of his followers. Fulfilling the spiritual needs of the people, the Buddha always reminded them that his instructions were like fingers pointing to the moon. He stressed that his followers look beyond his instructions to attain the True Reality, the reality which he realized and which he wanted all to experience.

Out of these teachings left behind by the Buddha, many unique characteristics of Buddhism arose. One of them is the principle of causal origination (Pratitya-Samutpada). This principle expresses that nothing can exist by itself. Every existence is the accumulation of numerous causes and conditions. It teaches that thse causes and conditions are temporary and in constant change. Such being the case, when one of these causes or conditions changes, the existence itself will change affecting the entire universe however minute the effect may be. Since Mahayana Buddhism regards these causes and conditions as one aspect of eternal life force in motion, the principle further accepts these causes and conditions to be mutually permeating.

With this principle of causal origination as the background of his teachings, the Buddha proclaimed his famous statement of impermanence of all existing things.

Deriving from the above principle of causality, another unique characteristic of Buddha’s teachings arose. It is the denial of a permanent individual soul. Although Buddhism acknowledges the existence of temporary self, it flatly denies the existence of a permanent soul in a person. It points out that human beings, like other existing things, are also the accumulation of series of causes and conditions. The teaching does not make any exception to the principle of causal origination.

In place of recognizing the existence of a permanent individual soul, Buddhism explains the continuity of human life by the teaching of karma. This teaching basically explains that all acts of an individual, whether they are revealed or not, remain in the person as accumulated latent energy. When the person dies, it is this total latent energy that formulates another life.

Another important characteristic of Buddhism is the affirmation of the state beyond the relative impermanent world of causality. This state is called Nirvana, Dharmakaya, Pure Land, Thusness, Suchness, “As Isness,” etc. Whatever expression this state is called, the state of True Reality goes beyond our relative understanding and imagination. It is the state, which transcends the understanding of the ordinary world of duality, the world of subject-object split. And yet, this True Reality is also recognized as an all-inclusive state identifying itself with all existence. This leaves no room for it to be considered as a separate reality.

Such being the nature of the True Reality it then becomes possible for a person to merge with the Ultimate by transcending the world of subject-object split by negating the position of self-centeredness.

During the 45 years of his enlightened life, the Buddha devoted his entire teachings toward instructing his disciples to become aware of the impermanence of the mundane world and directing them in ways to merge and be united with the True Reality, the realm where relative terms and thinking no longer apply.

Although the teachings of the Buddha are all intertwined, they can be categorized superficially into four ways. First is the way of practice where seekers try to eliminate self-centeredness through a series of actual physical and spiritual activities, such as walking and chanting practices and fasting, etc. This way is represented by such sects as Tendai, Kegon and Jitsu.

Second is the way to achieve the state of selflessness through a series of meditations in order to attain True Reality. Even though the majority of Buddhist sects practice meditation, in the West it is most commonly represented by the sects of Zen Buddhism.

Third is the way of mysticism. By the prescribed mystical rituals of body (mudra), speech (dharani) and thought (yoga), seekers try to realize unification with True Reality. This method is represented by esoteric Buddhism in the West.

Fourth is the way of the Other Power. By recognizing the nature of the True Reality to be infinite compassion and wisdom, this path find release from bondage of self-centeredness by complete surrendering of self to the True Reality, which is identified as Amida Buddha. The path, furthermore, considers the entire process of surrendering as well as unification to Amida Buddha as the absolute working of the Buddha. Hence, the term Other Power is used. This path is very popular among the lay people of Asian countries, particularly in China and Japan. In North America this path is represented by the True Pure Land sects.

Teachings of the Buddha which began 2500 years ago with five mendicants at Baranasi eventually became the foundation for established orders called The Buddhist Sangha which attracted thousands of people. As Buddhism flourished eastward with the spirit of universal love and compassion, it brought peace and comfort to the people of many countries. Without coercion or force of arms, the gentle teachings of the Buddha expanded into many countries, until today the estimated members of the Sangha number well over one-fifth of the world’s population.

I go the Buddha for guidance

I go the Dharma for guidance

I go to the Sangha for guidance

— Taking refuge. See more pledges →