Calmly contemplate this: 360 million people identify as Buddhist; this 5th largest religion was founded 528 BCE by a Nepali Prince named Siddhartha Gautama.
Buddhism, the non-deist belief system which has given the world the concept of dana, or generosity, and dharma, the truth, connects Buddhist individuals and communities worldwide in a legacy of compassion and selflessness.
Buddha granted the world the gift of a detailed analysis of human suffering and a method of liberating humanity from that suffering. Read on…
Prince Siddhartha was born in 563 BCE in a village located on Indo-Nepal border, about 250 km southwest of Kathmandu. His parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya, fiercly protected their son from any distress that could affect his happiness. The child was thus confined and sheltered within the walls of the palace. Disobeying his parents one day, Siddhartha ran away with his charioteer Channa to experience the world outside. It was during this excursion that he encountered for the first time an old man, a very sick person, a corpse and finally a wandering ascetic.
Siddhartha had never been allowed to see the aged, the sick, or the dead, and as a result, these encounters troubled him deeply. Returning to the palace, he experienced a profound personal and spiritual crisis. How was it possible for him to enjoy life when there seems to be no escape from suffering, misery, sadness, and ultimately personal extinction?
Rejecting his princely life of luxury and wealth, Siddhartha left the palace, never to return. At the age of 29, he began his spiritual quest as an ascetic, searching for the supreme truth and for an answer for how to put an end to human suffering. After six years of intense privation, he stopped his extreme asceticism as a means of attaining absolute truth.
Regaining his health once again, Siddhartha sat beneath a bodhi tree in deep meditation, determined not to leave until he attained supreme enlightenment. In the early hours of the morning of the full moon of May in 528 BCE, enlightenment was attained.
Soon Siddhartha was recognized as an extraordinary being. He denied being a god, a reincarnation of a god, or a wizard to all who asked, “So what are you?” Siddhartha would simply reply, “I am awake.”
Buddha literally means “The Awakened One.” The Buddha died in 483 BCE.
Dharma – The gifts
Siddhartha Gautama never intended to establish a new religion, and he never taught Buddhism. All the Buddha ever sought was a way to relieve suffering, and all the Buddha ever taught was how to awaken. Just as a Western cliché affirms that, “Knowledge is power”, a common Zen aphorism states, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The more we understand about suffering, the less we suffer.
With his enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree, Buddha set in motion the wheel of Dharma, or the truth, the teaching or the way. Integral to the Dharma, and foundational to all Buddhist belief, are the “Four Noble Truths”:
- Suffering is universal.
- Suffering (not pain) exists because of our attachments, greed, and self-centeredness.
- Egocentrism, possessiveness and greed can be understood, overcome and rooted out.
- This rooting out can be accomplished by following a simple, reasonable Eightfold Path of behavior in thought, word and deed.
In setting forth the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha explained the essential character of suffering and liberation from such suffering would be contained in the Eightfold Path he described. You see, to the Buddha, all of humanity was “sick”…
If the Four Noble Truths were his diagnosis of the suffering that afflicted the world, then the Eightfold Path was the remedy or cure.
The Eightfold Path:
- Right Understanding – Understand that the world is conditional and impermanent.
- Right Intention – Remember that, “You are what you think”.
- Right Speech – Speak honestly, compassionately and well of others.
- Right Action – Behave selflessly, constructively and harmlessly to all living things.
- Right Livelihood – Choose a livelihood that enables you to follow the Way.
- Right Effort – Use discipline and control to overcome difficulties.
- Right Mindfulness – Be present in the moment.
- Right Concentration – Develop the focused and calm state found in meditation.
Compassion compelled the Buddha first to explore in depth the causes of human suffering and then offer a method of liberation from that suffering. Its compassion that drives us today to give by way of charity. Give for the good of others; relieve their misery. Give with generosity. Such mindful acts will relieve your own suffering too.