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Early Buddhism, starting with the life of Gautama Buddha, and a sketch of its branches


Gandhara Buddha circa 1900 years ago, courtesy of wikimedia commons

The dates of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life were thought to be c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE (Before the Common Era, or Before Christ), but more recently, a later date has been estimated.  Dates of 480 to 400 BCE have been given based on archaeological evidence, but these are certainly not universally accepted.  A shrine described in 2013 in a National Geographic article was dated to around 550 BCE at Lumbini, Nepal at the traditional site of the Buddha’s birth.  The original shrine consisted of a wooden structure found beneath the modern brick buildings.  Nepalese authorities even dated the Buddha’s birth to 623 BCE.

The shrine may have been related to pre-Buddhist worship, however.  Traditions of tree worship go back to perhaps 1000 BCE, when the site may have been first cultivated.  The Buddha’s mother was said to have grasped a tree at the moment of his birth, providing continuity with previous tree veneration.  The Buddha was born into the Shakya tribe, which was “non-Vedic” or “non-Aryan” (not part of the tradition that includes a large body of religious texts including the Rig Veda– origins of Hinduism.)  The Shakyas included among their traditions the idea of tree-worship.

There are two important schools of thought that were prevalent at the time of the Buddha: that represented by the Vedic scriptures or Brahmanism and that of the “sramanas”, or those who toiled in the quest for enlightenment.  Two sramanas are identified as teachers of the Buddha: Udraka Rāmaputra (“son of Rama”) and Ārāḍa Kālāpa — both names are given in the Sanskrit version here.  The first teacher, Arada Kalapa, taught “dhyana”, which is, according to Wikipedia, meant to “withdraw the mind from the automatic responses to sense-impressions, and leading to a ‘state of perfect equanimity and awareness'” or also to attain “‘concentration,’ a state of one-pointed absorption in which there is a diminished awareness of the surroundings.”

The second teacher, Udraka Ramaputra, taught another form of meditation that is known as the “immaterial attainments” or “formless realm.”  There is no adequate information in Wikipedia as to these teachings.  It does state that the Buddha was recognized by Udraka Ramaputra as having “already attained” the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” so it is unclear to me what he taught the Buddha.  From “He found that Uddaka could not teach him how to stop suffering, old age and death either, and he had never heard of anyone who could solve these problems.”

A fuller biography of “Shakyamuni Buddha” (“sage of the Shakyas”) is available here.  An excerpt describing the ascetic practices and the Buddha’s study under the two teachers is here.  The excerpt tells how the Buddha starved himself nearly to death and was revived after he was given a bowl of rice cooked in milk.  The five ascetics who accompanied him were apparently turned off by his revival and the fact that he had given up the practice of asceticism.

It is at this point that the Buddha realized, apparently, that he could not learn the secret of life (or how to stop suffering) through ascetic practices and turned to the “middle way.”  He is said to have sat meditating until he remembered an experience that he had as a child– a spontaneous enlightenment.  He decided then that meditation or “dhyana” was the path to enlightenment.

I am struck by the legendary nature of all the stories about the life of Buddha.  There are similar legends surrounding the life of Moses and Jesus.  It is difficult to separate the legendary from the real, and I profess considerable skepticism about the details of all the life stories.  The existence of actual people behind these legends is probable but not always certain.

Buddhism draws on pre-Buddhist thought in several respects.  The idea of karma, that is, that actions have remote consequences, was already established.  The theme of rebirth, or being born again, repeatedly, into another body, was also well understood.  Jainism, which apparently predates Buddhism, taught that we are trapped in a cycle of rebirth and that we should try to get out of it through practicing non-harm and achieving enlightenment through meditation and self-denial.  Asceticism was a practice of the Jains.

Buddhism rejects total asceticism and emphasizes ethical behavior, the practice of loving-kindness or compassion, and treating all living beings as well as humans.  There are no gods central to Buddhism, although there are many peripheral god-like beings.

Buddhism rejects many Brahmanical doctrines, first, the idea that the Vedas were divinely inspired texts.  The Buddha also criticised ritual bathing, animal sacrifice, and the secret mantras (which is ironic given the later development of Vajrayana– see below.)  He held that all his teachings had to be presented openly to everyone.  He also rejected divination, fortune-telling, astrology, and the idea that people were born to be superior or inferior (the caste system as it is now known.)  The Buddha held that a person is superior only to the extent that he or she behaves in an appropriate fashion.

There are now several varieties of Buddhism, which developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s death.  Theravada Buddhism is the oldest and most conservative form.  Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism is a later form and one of the two main forms now recognized.  In Mahayana Buddhism, it is said that “enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime” even by a layperson.

Vajrayana Buddhism is a variant which is currently practiced by a small number of adherents, particularly in Tibet; it is also called esoteric Buddhism.  “Vajra” is a mythical weapon that is used as a ritual object.  It involves esoteric transmission– that is, directly from teacher to student in a secret ritual.

Tantric rites are included, which are secret rituals associated with taboos.  The Vajrayana Buddhist uses mantras (sacred utterances or words), chants, symbolic gestures or poses, mandalas (geometric figures used to concentrate the mind), and visualizations.  This form of Buddhism is highly complex and full of symbolism understood only by the adept.

The variants of Buddhism after Theravada are “Great Vehicle”, “Lesser Vehicle”, and “Diamond (or Thunderbolt) Vehicle”– Mahayana, Hinayana, and Vajrayana respectively.


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