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Buddhism is a philosophy, a system of techniques for psychological integration and social healing, and certainly for millions of people -- perhaps as many as a fifth of the world's population -- a religion.  It is any or all of these things.  It is also the name given to the teachings of a historic person known as the Buddha, Sanskrit for "Enlightened" or "Awakened" One.

The word buddha is made of the Sanskrit root budh, meaning aware, know. A buddha is one who has or holds awakened-ness/awareness; one who knows -- whose mind is completely unclouded.  Also, the state of knowing -- of being fully awake as is experienced by a buddha -- is termed bodhi and it is correctly translated as awakening

One of the first biographies was the 28-chapter Buddhacharitra (Acts, or Deeds of Buddha) by the Sanskrit poet, Ashvaghosha -- 1st century  CE, some 500 years or more after the death of the Buddha.   

The Founder

According to most western historians, Siddhartha Gautama was born in a north Indian region within view of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal, in or around the year 563 of the era before this contemporary one, ie. 563 BCE.   (See below)

That date is not accepted by all denominations or schools. Atisha Dipankara, the great 10th-century Buddhist scholar, placed the events much earlier, about 2100 BCE.  The Kalachakra tradition places the date at around 900 BCE.  



The Prediction

He was a prince of the Shakya clan before whose birth a prediction was made that unless he was prevented from seeing the hardships of life as experienced by ordinary people, he would not grow up to be the world ruler his father had hoped.  Therefore, he was confined to the palace grounds even after he himself had fathered a son.

Care was taken to ensure that he be exposed only to what was good and beautiful.  However, some say that one morning he awoke to see the still-sleeping women in their usual awkward drooling attitudes and was disgusted by the sight.  This set him to thinking about what else he might not have noticed about life.

With his devoted driver, by horse and chariot he managed to elude the palace guards and to ride through the streets of Kapilavastu.  There, he was shocked by the sight of a person disabled by advanced age, a person suffering from a serious illness and a corpse being carried to the cremation grounds followed by a group of weeping mourners.  

Later, he noticed a poor wanderer in simple cotton garb who seemed peaceful and happy in the midst of the city chaos. Tibetan tradition holds that it was a deva, a god manifesting as a renunciate or monk. 

Realizing that he had been deceived, he determined to discover the truth about human existence.  He left his family; his wives, Yasodhara and Gopa, and the other ladies of the court.  He left his friends and his son, Rahula, and set out into the world.  

Following the example of the monk he had noticed, he cut off his long hair with his ornate sword and left everything behind, including his horse and his faithful attendant.  Wearing tattered clothing, carrying only a water pot and staff, he set off to discover what it was that lay behind the contented smile of the ascetic.

He studied the principles of Indian philosophy with renowned teachers for a few years.  Not finding satisfying answers, he left them to study the methods of traditional yoga with a small group of fellow ascetics. Two of their names are given as Harada Kalama and Udraka Ramputra. 

Now almost a skeleton -- very thin and weak from abstaining from food -- he set off to find a tranquil spot in which to work on the problem.  From a passing milkmaid, Sujata, he accepted an offering of payas or milk-rice to break his long fast.  It was now six years since he had left his home and family. He said goodbye to his friends, five disciples who now left him in disgust, and went away to Rishipatan (modern Sarnath).

After regaining some strength, Gautama, as he had been called (after his clan affiliation) and came to the place where he determined to solve the problems of existence.

There he made the vow not to stir from beneath a tree until he had discovered the means to alleviate suffering, and he went into a deeply concentrated state of meditation. Today the town is called Bodh-gaya, but the exact place is referred to as Thunderbolt Seat or in Sanskrit, vajr'asana (Tib. dorje den.)

There is a tradition that Buddha Shakyamuni was not certain whether or not he ought to keep his knowledge to himself.  It is said that for the whole first week, he pondered the tree itself, and its form and nature may have been what persuaded him to spread his knowledge.

For another week he walked to and fro engrossed in his thoughts.  On the third week he walked clockwise in meditative concentration around the site, and returned to sit in meditation some more. 

Legend has it that Muchalinda, king of serpents, spread his several hoods to act as an elaborate umbrella to shelter him from rain and sun while he sat lost in meditation. 

It is also said that the Adversary, Mara appeared to him and tried to tempt him back to a worldly life of influence and power.  Mara caused his gorgeous offspring to manifest in an attempt to lure Siddhartha to return to a life of indulgence in sensory pleasures.  When the crucial moment arrived, the very Earth was called to testify to Gautama's worthiness.  It was at that moment that the Enlightenment occurred.

After His Awakening, He is reported to have said, "What I realized is like ambrosia.  But I am not going to explain it, for nobody will understand it."  And so He sat silently in a perfectly balanced state of awareness for 7 days until the gods Indra and Brahma intervened.  They  begged Him to teach others, to "turn the Wheel of Dharma" for the sake of other beings.

At last, he got up and walked to Rishipatan to find his five former companions.  Then at what is now Sarnath near Varanasi, he delivered his first sermon that is described as the initial Turning of the Wheel of the Law (Skt. dharma-chakra-pravartana).

At Rajgriha, his two greatest disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were converted. Other important disciples were his cousins, Ananda and Devadatta.  Anuruddha and Upali were the names of two others, but he soon acquired followers in the thousands.

For over 40 years he traveled around and taught, settling down only during the rains each winter.  At the age of 80, Buddha attained Maha-parinirvana (great death without any necessity for rebirth -- this is where we get the term Tathagatha meaning 'gone that way') at Kushinagar which is today near Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh.  That was around 440 BCE.  

The Buddha's last words are reputed to be, "All things which are made of parts eventually come apart.  Be mindful, and achieve the Awakened state!" 


After his cremation what remained "were only the bones," but the words have an additional meaning according to the commentary.  The Sanskrit word for relics of enlightened beings or "the indestructible substance that remains un-burnt in the ashes of Buddhas and Arahants" is sharira.  They are of two types.  Digha Commentary II, 604 tells us that seven great relics remained un-burnt:  four canine teeth, two collarbones and the frontal bone, but along with these were other dhatu found scattered among the ashes of the pyre that were about the size of mustard seeds.  These small pearl-like objects are called ringsel, in Tibetan.  They were distributed among his closest friends and  patrons.   

The most famous relic is the sacred tooth in the care of the temple in Kandy, Shri Lanka.  A hair that was "re-discovered" in 1956, is preserved at Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Myanmar (Burma,) and purportedly, there is a bone fragment in Beijing, the Chinese capital.

Another holy relic is housed at the Patna Museum in the Indian state of Bihar, which consists of a soapstone casket containing ashes, a punched copper coin and a tiny leaf made of gold. When found by archaeologist A. S. Altekar in 1956, it also contained a small conch shell and two glass beads.  

The casket was discovered during excavations of Vaishali, inside a mud stupa that had been encased in brick.  It is thought to be the one built by the Licchavi rulers to house their share of the Buddha's remains.  The shrine had already been opened long ago, and was renovated and enlarged more than once, notably in the 1st century CE.   It was displayed to the general public in Bodhgaya during the Buddha Mahasattva of 1998-99.  


Here is the mantra that praises Buddha as a great sage or wisdom-holder: 

Om, Muni Muni Maha Muniye. Swaha



The Buddhavamsa, part of the Pali canon called the Tipitaka or Three Baskets, chronicles the lives of 24 Buddhas who preceded Gautama. Tibetan Buddhists also believe that Shakyamuni was one of a series of buddhas of this eon, and that there will be another after him called Maitreya.

. . . prior to this rebirth in India around 2500 years ago, there was a time when He was in hell and "manifested the appearance of becoming Enlightened."  Apparently, Lord Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened in reliance upon the practice of Green Tara, who was Enlightened before Shakyamuni! 

Before Lord Shakyamuni Buddha, of the countless Buddhas, there were six others in the previous six ages prior to our current one.  In the prayer May the Doctrine Flourish! in the Shakyamuni Puja, the following praises appear: 

Homage to the seven Buddha Heroes: Vipasyin, Sikhin and Visvabhu, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa and Gautam Sakyamuni!

There is the legend of how once Shakyamuni as a boy in a previous life lay down over a mud puddle so that Lord Kashyapa Buddha, could cross over it with His entourage of monks without getting soiled. At that time, Lord Kasyapa prophesied that this boy would become the next Buddha, Shakyamuni. 

On a trip to Nepal in 1996, we visited a stupa of Lord Kashyapa which is on a mountain (scary bus ride, said many mantras!) near Swayambunath Stupa.  It is one of the most powerful places I have ever been to visit. 

~ Tenzin Sherab,  a Gelugpa monk,  to the Kagyu email list 

One school of ancient Buddhism, the Sthaviravadins, holds that there were 25 prior buddhas.  The cult of the previous buddha, Dipankara Buddha, is popular in Nepal especially among merchants.  According to predictions, the two to follow are Maitreya and then, Simha.

A Thousand Buddhas

The Bhadrakalpika Sutra (or, Scripture of the Fortunate Eon) tells how, in this eon when beings are so  fortunate as to have buddhas appear, there are and will be 1,000 Buddhas.

"A cave of the Thousand-Buddha is the name of the world-renowned grottoes at Tun-huang (China).  A native of Tun-huang, Dharmaraksha by name, who live between third and fourth century A.D. had translated the Bhadra-Kalpika-sutra in Chinese which is devoted to Thousand Buddhas. Vidyakarasimha and Dpal-dbyans translated the text into Tibetan.

The Thousand Buddhas bless the present world of Bhadra-kalpa. There is a legend pertaining to the Thousand Buddhas, endless ages ago there lived a great king called Kuang-te who insisted on all his subjects studying the Vedas. Among his scholars were a thousand schoolboys. One of them chanced to hear of the "Three Treasures" (Tripitaka) of Buddhism and asked a certain monk what these Treasures might be. So soon as the Treasures had been named not only the questioner but also all the other 999 schoolboys, with flowers and incense in their hands, followed the monk to his convent and there fell down before the image of Buddha.  It is [these]  thousand schoolboys who were reborn as the Thousand Buddhas. A festival of Buddha names is popular in Japan. "

~  Dr. Shailendra K. Verma, "Emergence and Evolution of the Buddha Image (From its inception to 8th century A.D.)" a doctoral thesis.  At

Previous Buddhas

The Buddha's prior existence is recounted in Jataka Tales, 547 stories in which he is described as having previously taken birth as a variety of different beings, often animals.  One of these was the stag in the herd of royal deer in the park outside Benares.  Another was as Prince Vesantara.

In The Awakening of Faith, another of the epics attributed to Ashvaghosha (1st century CE)  Buddha Shakyamuni is seen as manifesting in eight different ways "for the benefit of all sentient beings."  These are: (1) the descent from the Tushita heaven (2) the entrance into a human womb  (3) the stay in the womb (4) the unusual way of being born at Lumbini (5) the renunciation  (6) the attainment  (7) the turning of the wheel of the Dharma, ie. preaching the doctrine  (8) the entrance into nirvana.

The Twelve Deeds

In Tibetan, the hagiography or sacred biography is called Dzad pa chu nyi and it encompasses 12 events:  

1. As a bodhisattva in a pureland [a heaven] known as Tushita (abode of contentment,) the Buddha of our age was named Shvetaketu (White Banner.) Witnessing the darkness and suffering of beings, he resolved to take human birth and descended to earth.   As depicted in that form, he holds a white lotus that stands for the purity of his nature and of his intent.

He particularly chose to take the form as a son of a king, rather than as a scion of someone of the higher rank of priest.  His father's name, Shudhodana, is an epithet indicative of his role as donor.  

2. His mother, Mahamaya, also referred to as Mayadevi, dreamt that an unusual white elephant entered her body through her side, and so she knew to expect an extraordinary child.  

3. After the usual ten lunar months had passed, he was born while his mother was on her way to her own mother's home to give birth, as was the custom.  He emerged from his mother's body as she held on to a tree branch in the Lumbini garden, where the gods, Indra and Brahma, observed the events.  Immediately he was able to take seven steps and lotuses sprang from his footprints.  He could also speak right away, saying as he pointed up and then down, "In the worlds above or worlds below, there is no one like me."

4.  As a youth, he was named Siddhartha (Accomplisher of Aims) Gautama (cow clan designation.)  He was instructed in and mastered all the arts of war including riding, and archery at which he especially excelled.  He won the hand of beautiful princess, Gopa, in contests of skill.

While his cousin, Devadatta, demonstrated his strength by killing an elephant with his bare hands, Siddhartha picked up the huge corpse and tossed it over the city walls where it came to life again. 

5.  He was also skilled in other worldly ways.  He was a devoted son, and performed the usual royal duties.  These ranged from the judging of disputes to pleasing the ladies. 

6.  Despite the fact that he was purposely shielded from the sad realities of life, he encountered old age, sickness and death.   Finally he met a wandering ascetic.  Tibetan tradition has it that this occurred out in the woods when he had managed to elude his guardians, and the beggar was none other than a deva descended from one of the heavens to encourage the progress of the Bodhisattva. 

7.  He decided to leave home and renounce the worldly life.  When his father tried to discourage him,  Siddhartha asked if his parent could guarantee that he would never die, nor ever fall ill; that he would stay young and never become poor.  With that, Gautama left the palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his sleeping wife and new son.  

Following ascetic tradition, as a sign of renunciation he removed his headdress and cut off his royal topknot.  When he tossed them away, legend has it that he said, "If I am to become a Buddha, let them stay in the air, but if not, let them fall to the ground."  They rose for a distance of one league before the king of the gods, Indra with his thousand eyes, noticed and caught them in a jewelled casket.

8.  He spent six years practicing various austerities.  At one hermitage, he joined five others in a discipline that entailed a progressively severe fast.  Nearing the end of it, he resembled a skeleton.  Feeling his spine through his belly, he realized the futility of such practices and decided to quit. 

9.  Seeing that deprivation is merely the other side of luxury, he determined that the  Middle Way between extremes was the road to enlightenment, and left the hermitage.    After bathing in a stream, he met a village girl named Sujata who offered him a bowl of kheer (sweet creamed rice.) This first meal restored his health and energy. 

(Another tradition is that Gautama also looked for confirmation from the natural world regarding his quest for enlightenment.  He put his begging bowl into the running stream asking that the river signal the outcome of his intent.  When he let go of the vessel, the bowl moved up-river against the current.

In selecting a seat for a determined meditation on the problem of existence, he tried different sides of the tree.  As he sat down on the eastern side, the whole earth is said to have rocked.

Through all types of weather, he sat in thought and meditation.  It is said that when the rains began, the naga-king rose up out of the ground to shelter him with his nine hooded heads.)

10. Determined not to give up until he had achieved his goal, he was beset by inner and outer conflicts with the appearance of Mara.  The first attack was by the three children whose names stand for Desire (the future), Fulfillment (the present), and Regret (the past.) At that stage, we can think of Mara as Death in the form of The Now-killer.   But having already had much practice with self-mastery, Gautama did not succumb. 

Then Mara assailed him in a more subtle and deadly way generating an army of doubts and anxieties in the form of wrathful, hideous creatures.   

When his worthiness as a saviour was questioned, the Earth itself (the goddess, Prithvi) bore witness to his merit.  

In the early morning hours, the quest of the resolute Gautama was fulfilled. He awoke, that is he had become Buddha, the Enlightened, the Awakened One.  Many traditions say that at the moment of his Awakening, he radiated an aura of light.  Flowers rained from the heavens, along with other wondrous events.

11.    Once he decides to share his achievement by teaching, he is called "Sage of the Shakyas," or Shakyamuni.  

A legend says that after hearing his first discourse, each of his five former companions offered him their bowl in tribute to his achievement.  In order that no one be offended, all the vessels blended into a single one in his hands.  This can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the worthiness of the yogic or tantric traditions at the service of the goal of universal liberation.

11.  Remembering the kindness of his mother, after his enlightenment Buddha ascended  to the Trayatrimsa heaven (heaven of the 33, ie. the number of Vedic gods.) In three strides Buddha reached the heaven, where seated on the throne of Indra, he taught them all for a period of months.   It is said that Vishvakarman, Indra's own architect, constructed the ladder by means of which Shakyamuni returned to earth.  

This episode clearly indicates an important aspect of the Bodhisattva Commitment which is not limited to helping earthly beings. 

12.  After a long life devoted to teaching, during which he traveled far and wide bringing thousands of people to the way of ultimate happiness, the Buddha passed away.  He did not merely die, but his passing is known as Parinirvana (Beyond Extinction.)

In his eightieth year, during the time of a full moon, in a grove near the city of Kushinagara, he asked his disciples to set up a couch for him.  There, lying on his right side facing west, his head supported by his hand, he clearly knew that death was approaching.  Towards midnight, having experienced all the levels of meditation in sequence, he left all existence.

He left behind 84,000 different methods and means by which we also can escape the bonds of the eternal round of existence that is known as samsara.

Enlightenment or Awakening: which word is best?

Patrick Kearney (Professor at Queensland U., Australia): 

"I have never been able to find any PÔli or Sanskrit word which corresponds to the English word "enlightenment." This word was selected some time late last century by English translators as a label for the goal of Buddhist practice because of its resonance with the 18th century ideal of the Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment was a movement which idealised progress, science and reason -- the "light" in "Enlightenment" refers to the light of reason.

In Victorian Britain, sympathetic English scholars wanted to present Buddhism in as favourable a light as possible, and they did so by portraying the Buddha as the perfect Victorian gentleman. He was presented as rejecting the priestly mumbo-jumbo of the brahmins (who for the Victorian English corresponded to the Roman Catholic clergy) in favour of a religion of reason and morality (Almond 70-74).  The only thing that spoiled this picture was undeniable evidence in the Buddhist texts that the Buddha taught and practiced some kind of bizarre self-hypnosis or cultivation of trance states -- what we today call meditation. The word "enlightenment" referred to a state of enlightened reason attained by the Buddha which, however, existed only in the imagination of Victorian scholars. Unfortunately the word has stuck, and with it the confusion."

Due to that obsolete and misleading terminology, people often get the notion that Buddhism is a purely philosophical or rational approach to life.  They think that understanding the problem of existence is the main objective of Buddhism.  They therefore come only to believe that knowing the Four Noble Truths and seeing the virtue of the Middle Way with its eightfold Path comprises the entire teaching of the Buddha.  

Those people, who usually have not yet encountered an experienced practitioner who is able to transmit the wealth and skill of the Buddha's teaching, think that if there is anything further, it merely commentary.  Or they are convinced that some corrupting influence of other, decadent systems have had some influence.   

Therefore it may be helpful to remind yourself when reading some of the older translations or commentaries that what the Buddha achieved was a completely Awakened State which by means of his example and teachings, it is also possible for others to attain.

What was going on elsewhere?

A 6th-century (BCE) date for the life of the Buddha is by no means certain.  However if we accept it as likely, we get a glimpse of the ancient world at a time of great change.

The period between 800 and 400 BCE was the time of the Hallstatt civilization in Europe when various Celtic tribes began to dominate Gaul (France + Germany) and the Alpine region as far as western Hungary, with incursions into Britain. This was also the time of the Greek civilization in which the various deities such as Athena, Apollo and Dionysos were worshipped, and the Iliad was being retold. 

The Buddha grew to manhood during the reigns of Persian emperors, Cambyses I and Cyrus the Great a.k.a. Koresh (557-530.)  The leaders of the Jewish community were permitted to return from the Babylonian Captivity in 538 BCE (when prophets Ezra and Nehemiah were alive.)   They had been taken there when Jerusalem fell in 586 BCE during the time of prophet Ezekiel. His prediction of a  70-year captivity was considered fulfilled on the completion of the new Temple in 516 BCE. 

During the reign of the next Persian ruler, Cambyses II (530-522,) Egypt became part of the Persian empire.  Darius I [Daryush] (521-485) was the Persian who later conquered Thrace [a Balkan state,] attacked Greece and invaded parts of India.  

Far to the west, after decades of hostilities with Assyrians, Kimmerians, Medes and Scythians, lay the remains of the ancient kingdom of Urartu which 200 years before comprised north-western Iran, the Caucasus, and northern Syria.  (Mount Ararat on which, according to the Old Testament, Noah's ark came to rest is within its borders.)  Urartu under Sardur IV was annihilated by the Scythian invasion of 585 BCE.  It had been a state of powerful warriors who were farmers in peacetime; their monarchs were priest-kings.

Three generations earlier in Phrygia, King Midas, who is reputed to have donated his seat of judgment to the Pythia's temple at Delphi, committed suicide after his defeat by Kimmerians in 685 BCE.  At Gordion, not far from today's Ankara in Turkey, his people built a tumulus 53 meters high and 300 meters wide for his grave.  The skeleton discovered inside reveals that he was 1.59m tall, and around 60 years old.  Ironically, there was brass but no gold.

China was experiencing a period of dissolution of power.  The sixth century BCE is known as the Eastern Zhou and the first of its sub-periods, from 770 to 476 BCE is called the Spring and Autumn Period which was followed by the infamous era of Warring States. 

The Buddhist Councils 

The First Buddhist Council (Skt.: sanghiti) was held in Rajagriha after the demise of Lord Buddha.  It was sponsored by King Ajatasatru in order to take measures to collect and preserve the Teachings.  This is the origin of the Tripitaka (Three Baskets) of scripture.  The Second Buddhist Council was held one hundred years later, at Vaishali during the reign of King Kalashoka.  The Third was held in Pataliputra about 150 years after that, during the reign of the Mauryan king, Ashoka.

Over 7 or 8 generations, the Teachings had begun to spread and various types of sects emerged.  Those who considered the commentaries and the Mahayana approach to be ultimate arranged a Great Buddhist Council in Purushpura ( or possibly, Jalandhar) that was sponsored by the regional emperor, a north Afghan, King Kanishka.  It is called by Theravadins, the council of heretical monks.  This meeting saw the origin of the Sanskrit scriptures which incorporate fundamental Mahayana principles.  The work of this meeting produced a canon that incorporates works by scholars such as Ashvaghosha, Parshva, Vasumitra and others.

With the patronage of the Emperor, Mahayana Buddhism was broadcast from India and Central Asia to China, and then to Korea and Japan. It reached as far to the south-east as Java and Borneo.  The great Buddhist centre of Nalanda was established at which Nagarjuna developed his madhyamaka views, and by 1, 000 years after Buddha Shakyamuni's passing, it had become the great University of Nalanda where it is estimated that at one time there were 10 thousand monks studying not only the scriptures and commentaries, but also yoga, philosophy, logic, grammar, law, astrology, medicine and alchemy.  It endured until 1200 CE (1750 B.E.) when it, along with Odantapura upon which Tibet's was modeled, were sacked by the forces of Ikhtiyar-ud-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji when he invaded Bihar. 

Modern Times

In 1885, a flag was conceived in Ceylon (today called Sri Lanka) by Henry S. Olcott as a rallying symbol for Buddhists of the world.  It was revised and first used in 1950.

In 1966, a World Buddhist Sangha Council took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka to ". . .  bring together the world Buddhist Sangha, facilitate the teaching and practice of Buddha Dharma and contribute to the realisation of peace and harmony in the world community for the benefit of all sentient beings."  In 2000, in Taiwan, it met again, in what is called the Seventh Council.  It is not certain that the modern councils are recognized by all Buddhist communities.


date:  Mathieu Ricard collected the date of Buddha's lifetime according to the various scholars and traditions.  They are:   961-881 BCE (according to But÷n,) 624-544 (Theravadin tradition,) 403-483 (based on "dotted record" of Vinaya texts, 569-489 if -- as one tradition has it --  King Ashoka reigned 100 years after the Buddha's passing, 463-383 according to calculations of Japanese scholars, and from 451-371 BCE, according to another tradition that says King Ashoka reigned 218 years after the Buddha passed away.

Gordion is the place famous for the complicated knot which centuries later, Alexander of Macedon was said to have cut instead of unravelling. 

skeleton: It may be that the emaciated figure is only an artistic convention that is used to identify a yogin.

Shakya-muni:  From the Greeks, we know the people of the Buddha's ancestors as Skythia, or Scythians. The usual translation of the epithet, Shakyamuni, is Sakya the Sage, but the literal translation is Sakya the Silent


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