It was somewhere between 600 and 500 BCE that the person who would be known as Buddha was born. He was originally known as Siddhattha Gautama, and was born in a part of northern India bordering on what is now modern day Nepal. Until the age of 29, he seems to have lived a life typical of idle aristocracy for that time.
Then, according to legend, he became dissatisfied, feeling that there was something missing. Unable to get a satisfactory answer, he then left his aristocratic life in search of that answer. After much searching and examination, one day the answer seems to have just hit him. Apparently, at the time it struck, he had just sat down to eat under a tree. It is said that he sat there all day and all night in profound thought, and that afterward, the vision was complete and ready to be imparted to the world.
Unfortunately, it appears that very little, if anything, was written down. Still the core teachings of Buddha have managed to survive and spread in the form of Buddhism.
The central message seems to be that suffering is the result of cravings, that the three principle ones are:
- The desire to gratify the senses.
- The desire for immortality.
- The desire for prosperity and worldliness.
Until one can overcome these cravings, serenity will remain out of reach.
Early Buddhism did not grow in isolation. Rather it developed in the ongoing context of Hinduism in general, and Brahminism in particular. While the 'caste system' associated with Hinduism had already come into existence, the Brahmins were not yet at the top of the caste system, and were still trying to achieve overall domination of Indian life.
Meanwhile the men who were becoming clan leaders and Kings were typically non-Brahmin and unwilling to submit to Brahmin leadership. The result was that many rulers would adopt Buddhism as a means of holding off the influence of the Brahmins.
It was in this context that the First Buddhist Council was held after the death of Buddha under the sponsorship of King Ajatasatru of the Magadha Empire. The intent at the time, was to record all of Buddha's sayings, and establish rules for monastic life. This became the basis for the Pali Canon, which is probably the central authority for what Buddhism is.
Around 383 BCE, the Second Buddhist Council was convened by King Kalasoka to resolve differences between a movement known as the Mahasanghikas and the traditionalists.
Considered one of the greatest Monarchs in history, his empire extended from Afghanistan to what is now the province of Madras. The central turning point of his career seems to have been the conquest of Kalinga, in the eastern part of present day India. The effort was both successful and brutal. Dismayed by the horrors he had brought about, Asoka converted to Buddhism and renounced warfare.
From that time on, Asoka became a force for spreading the progation of Buddhism far and wide. In the process, he organised the digging the digging of wells and the planting of shade trees. He founded hospitals and public gardens. And he sent missionaries to spread the teachings as places as far west as Egypt, and as far east as China.
It was in 250 BCE that he convened the Third Buddhist Council for the purpose of reconciling the different schools of the time, as well as to purify the practice of the faith. It was also at this time that the Pali Canon was fully formalize, as the Tipitaka.
Established in 185 BCE, it began with the murder of the last Buddhist King, King Brhadrata. After which Pusyamitra Sunga took the crown and ruled as a Brahmin. An Orthodox Brahmin, he and his successors showed a hostility towards Buddhism and sought to remove its presence from all of India. It would however, be another eleven centuries before Buddhism would cease to be a force in India. And by then, it was all over East Asia.
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