Buddhism began in the late sixth century BCE in the Ganges river valley of India. Although included in the category “religion” it is unique among the major faiths in a few respects. First, rather than speculating about the divine, Buddhism restricts itself to the human, focusing on the challenges of earthly life and offering advice on how to overcome them. Second, Buddhism is non-hierarchical — anyone can become a “buddha” (i.e. an enlightened one) simply by following its tenets, regardless of class or rank.
Buddhism’s pragmatic, egalitarian creed stems from the life experiences of the original Buddha, who was born into a wealthy clan family as Siddhartha Gautama. As the story goes, Siddhartha spent his youth ensconced in his father’s palace where he lived a life of comfort and security away from the misery of the world. However, after sneaking beyond the palace walls and witnessing the poverty, sickness, and death of the real world, he repudiated his royal status, finding wealth and power pointless in the face of inevitable mortality. He then abandoned his family, including his wife and children, and undertook a life of renunciation.
For the next six years Siddhartha lived as an ascetic, striving to overcome life’s suffering by renouncing desire. In this endeavor, he took extreme measures: some accounts claim that for a time he ate only a single grain of rice a day. But for all his efforts, Siddhartha remained unchanged. Forlorn, he went to sit under a Bodhi tree and meditate.
It was there, in the midst of spiritual defeat, that the Buddha found enlightenment. There are many versions of the legend. One tells that Siddhartha had an epiphany after overhearing a lute player tune their strings. It dawned on Siddhartha that just as the instrument only plays properly when its strings are neither too tight nor too loose, the human being only achieves harmony when it strikes a balance between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. With this realization, the Buddha ended his ascetic lifestyle and adopted what came to be known as the Middle Way. He preached this doctrine until 483 BCE, when, having reached nirvana (an extinguishing of desire), he passed from this world and liberated himself from samsara: the cycle of rebirth, life, and death.
The Buddha’s followers continued his work, gradually systematizing his thought and promoting the Three Jewels of Buddhism — sangha, the community; dharma, the teachings; and buddha, the enlightened one, or teacher — throughout the region.
Two hundred years after the Buddha’s passing, the Indian empire made Buddhism India’s religion. In the following centuries, Buddhism migrated to Europe, Eastern Asia, and beyond, branching off into distinct schools such as Theravada (which prioritizes personal enlightenment) and Mahayana (which encourages the enlightenment of all beings). Today, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, containing over half a billion followers.
Buddhist doctrine, which spans thousands of texts, is neatly summarized in its Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering.
- The root of suffering is desire.
- Suffering is overcome by eliminating desire.
- The Noble Eightfold Path is the method of eliminating desire.
The Buddha recognized that all human beings experience mental anguish by the very fact of being alive. He attributed this inevitable suffering to our innate desire for fleeting states of being such as pleasure and beauty and elusive possessions such as wealth and status. When we fail to obtain these things, we suffer. And even if we do manage to temporarily obtain them, we soon become unsatisfied with what we have and desire more, as well as fearful of losing what we have. According to the Buddha, this craving and clinging is born of ignorance of the impermanent nature of reality. By failing to recognize that all things eventually change and decay, we irrationally crave and cling on to what we are bound to lose.
Buddhism’s project is thus to transcend suffering by cultivating an understanding and acceptance of reality’s impermanence. To do this, one must follow the Eightfold Path, which consists of eight practices:
- Right view: internalizing the nature of life and the world as displayed in the Four Noble Truths.
- Right thought: embracing an attitude of peace, love, and detachment and resisting violent, hateful, and clinging behaviors.
- Right speech: talking in an honest, charitable, gentle, useful manner and avoiding lies, slander, aggression, and idle chatter.
- Right action: behaving morally, compassionately, and temperately; abstaining from theft, murder, corruption, and promiscuity.
- Right livelihood: earning a principled living without facilitating war, causing sickness, cheating people, or killing animals.
- Right effort: eschewing evil, unwholesome states of mind and nurturing good, wholesome ones.
- Right mindfulness: fostering an awareness of one’s physical, mental, and emotional states, including how they arise and dissipate, via breathing and other meditative techniques.
- Right concentration: achieving a “single-pointed” focus in which disturbances are kept out and one’s entire being is directed toward maintaining equanimity (even-keeled calmness in response to life’s difficulties).
By cultivating oneself in these eight ways, any human being, whether a prince or peasant, may attain Buddhahood. Of course, there are many further details to the dharma that can be investigated overtime. That being said, according to the Dhammapada, unread doers are far better than well-read don’ters:
“If he recites many teachings, but — heedless man — doesn’t do what they say, like a cowherd counting the cattle of others, he has no share in the contemplative life. If he recites next to nothing but follows the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma; abandoning passion, aversion, delusion; alert, his mind well released,not clinging either here or hereafter: he has his share in the contemplative life.”
Indeed, as any Buddhist will tell you, the wise opt for quality over quantity:
“Better than a thousand useless words is one useful word, hearing which one attains peace.”