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Buddhism has captured the hearts and imaginations of seekers of spiritual understanding across the world. Some 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the royal Shakya Clan of Nepal, meditated under the bodhi tree (a type of fig tree) in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya (in eastern India) and attained enlightenment. Today, thousands of pilgrims still travel to this sacred town.
A Special Destiny
‘Buddha’ means ‘the awakened one’ and this is the title Siddhartha was known by after his enlightenment. His was a miraculous birth, heralded by an auspicious dream the queen mother Mahamaya had. Siddhartha was a unique infant, and was able to speak to his mother soon after he was born. He told her that his calling was to liberate mankind from suffering.
When Siddhartha turned 16, he won the heart and hand of the beautiful princess Yashodhara in a competition of physical strength and strategy against her many suitors. Although he lived a life of pleasure and luxury in the palace, he knew there was something far more meaningful to seek out. On seeing the suffering of fellow human beings he renounced the royal life and set out to find answers to life’s most important question: what is the purpose of all life?
Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree
Reaching the town of Bodh Gaya in what is today the state of Bihar (India), Siddhartha decided to meditate until he found the answers he sought, and to this end, he sat under a bodhi tree. He had a vision of all his previous lives , battled with the demons who threatened his meditation and, finally, many days later, on a full moon night, he discovered the Truth that liberates and became the Buddha.
At first, it seemed to the Buddha that no one would understand the Truth, but Brahma, the King of the gods (in the Hindu pantheon), persuaded him to teach what he had learned, and the Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath near Varanasi (in north India). During the sermon he explained the basic tenets of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Popularity of Buddhism
Buddhism spread quickly throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and by around 520 to 550 AD had reached Japan. Buddhism came to America in the 19th century and influenced prominent personalities like Emerson, Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, and Eric Fromm. In Europe, great thinkers such as Jung, Heidigger, and Toynbee were impressed by Buddhism. A large number of American intellectuals have taken to Buddhism in their search for ways to tame the “monsters of the mind” so easily created by material excesses. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist is to accept responsibility for his own circumstances and to understand how he himself creates illusion and suffering.
The Philosophy of Buddhism
Buddhist philosophy accepts the inevitability of disease, death, and emotional pain in a human’s life. The cause of human suffering is attributed to the attachment to things that have shape and form. The antidote offered is simple – to cure suffering, free yourself from attachment. Practical ways to end suffering has been prescribed through eight pursuits – right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right view, right intention, right mindfulness, and right effort.
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