Buddhism is a religion and philosophy focusing on the teachings of the Buddha S'a-kyamuni (Siddha-rtha Gautama), who probably lived in the 5th century BCE. Buddhism spread throughout the ancient Indian sub-continent in the five centuries following the Buddha's death, and propagated into Central, Southeast, and East Asia over the next two millennia. Today, Buddhism is divided primarily into three traditions: Therava-da (Sanskrit: Sthavirava-da), Maha-ya-na, and Vajraya-na. Buddhism continues to attract followers worldwide, and, with around 350 million followers, it is considered a major world religion.
A Buddha is considered to be a person who discovers the true nature of reality through years of study, investigation of the various religious practices of his time, and meditation. This transformational discovery is called bodhi or "enlightenment". Any person who has, without the instruction of others, become awakened to the principles of the Dharma, is called a Buddha. S'a-kyamuni is said to have been only the latest of many of these; there were other Buddhas before him and there will be others in the future. According to the Buddha, any person can follow his example and become enlightened through the study of his words and putting them into practice, by leading a virtuous, moral life, and purifying his mind. In general, the aim of Buddhist practice is to end all kinds of suffering in life. To achieve this state, adherents seek to purify and train the mind by following the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way, and eventually to gain true knowledge of reality and thus attain liberation:
The history of Buddhism spans from the 6th century BCE to the present, starting with the birth of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. This makes it one of the oldest religions practiced today. Throughout this period, the religion evolved as it encountered various countries and cultures, adding to its original Indian foundation Hellenistic as well as Central Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian cultural elements. In the process, its geographical extent became considerable so as to affect at one time or another most of the Asian continent. The history of Buddhism is also characterized by the development of numerous movements and schisms, foremost among them the Theravada, Maha-ya-na and Vajrayana traditions, punctuated by contrasting periods of expansion and retreat.
Gautama the Buddha
According to all Buddhist traditions, the Buddha of the present age, called Siddha-rtha (Sanskrit) or Siddhattha (Pa-li) of the Gautama (Pa-li: Gotama) gotra or clan, was born in the grove of Lumbini- near the town of Kapilavastu (Pa-li: Kapilavatthu), the capital of the kingdom (maha-janapada) of the S'a-kyas (Pa-li: Sakyas). Lumbini- and the S'a-kya realm were known to have been in the north, adjacent to the kingdom of Kos'ala and the republic of the Koliyas along the Ganges, separated from Koliya by the river Rohin.i-. The exact location of Lumbini- is fixed in what is now south central Nepal by a pillar inscription of King As'oka from the 3rd century BCE commemorating the Buddha's birth. Despite weighty evidence for this location, Mr. Chandrabhanu Patel of the Orissa Museum has claimed that the birthplace was actually in Orissa state, hundreds of miles to the southeast.
Siddha-rtha's father was S'uddhodana, then the chieftain (ra-ja-) of the S'a-kyas. Traditions state that the Buddha's mother died at his birth or a few days later. The legend says that the seer Asita predicted shortly after his birth that Siddha-rtha would become either a great king or a great holy man; because of this, the king tried to make sure that Siddha-rtha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life, as that might drive him away from a spiritual path. Nevertheless, at the age of 29, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights led him to the realization that birth, old age, sickness and death come to everyone. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his privileges, rank, caste, and his wife and child, to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problems of birth, old age, pain, sickness, and death.
Siddha-rtha pursued the path of the s'raman.a and meditation with two Brahmin hermits, and, although he quickly achieved high levels of meditative consciousness (dhya-na, Pa-li jha-na), he was still not satisfied with the results. Siddha-rtha then began his training in the ascetic life and practicing vigorous techniques of physical and mental austerity. Siddha-rtha proved quite adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his questions. Leaving behind established teachers, he and a small group of close companions set out to take their austerities even further. After six years of ascetism, and nearly starving himself to death without any profit, Siddha-rtha began to reconsider his path. He then remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing; he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which he felt a blissful and refreshing feeling and time seemed to stand still.
After discarding asceticism and concentrating on meditation, Siddha-rtha discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way – a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. To strengthen his body, he accepted a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd. Then, sitting under a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. At the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. He preached his first sermon in Sarnath a place very near Va-ra-n.asi- (Benares) in North India.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, Buddha Gautama traveled in the Gangetic Plain of northeastern India, teaching his doctrine and discipline to all – from nobles to outcaste street sweepers, including adherents of many different schools and teachers. The Buddha founded the two san.ghas (monastic communities) of monks and of nuns, which continued to expound his teaching after his death.