Born an Indian prince lavished in luxury, Gautama became deeply unsatisfied with worldly life. Upon being escorted by his attenant Channa, he came across four sights: an old crippled man, diseased man, a decaying corpse, and finally a mendicant (austere monk). At the age of 29, with the disgust of knowing his fate was in the first three sights, he chose the robes of a mendicant monk and headed for the forests of ancient India for spiritual discipline. During 6 years of various intensive practices that almost brought his death, Siddhartha found the Middle Way, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Through this Way, he meditated under the Bodhi tree, vowing not to leave the position until he found Truth. At 35, he attained Enlightenment and became known as Gautama Buddha, or simply "The Buddha". For 45 years, he would teach the doctrine and discipline now known as Buddhism. He emphasized that he was not a God but that the position of Buddhahood is reserved for the human, who possesses the greatest potential for Enlightenment. Explained by Gautama Buddha, he also stated that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine; distant gods and God are subjected to karma themselves in decaying heavens. The Buddha is solely a guide and teacher for those sentient beings who must tread the path themselves, attain spiritual Awakening, and see truth and reality as it is. The Buddhist system of insight, thought and meditation practice was not divinely-revealed, but rather, the understanding of the true nature of the human mind which could be rediscovered by anyone for themselves. Penetration of this reality accompanies the shocking truth that ignorance can be eliminated.
A Buddha, (lit. fully Enlightened one, Awakened one) must be understood as an appellative and exemplar. This being, by this own will, is responsible for rediscovering and disclosing the Dharma (i.e., Truth, the nature of reality, of the mind, of the affliction of the human condition and the correct "path" to liberation). Gautama stated that the Awakening bliss of Enlightenment that he attained under the Bodhi tree is available for all beings. Man has the ability -- not after death, but in this very lifetime -- to achieve Nirvana, a blissful state beyond pain and pleasure where one is never again to be reborn in the repeated cycle of birth, sickness, old age, and death.
The foundation of Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths. Liberation from suffering, the fundamental practice of Buddhism, is described in the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of three categories: wisdom, morality and concentration. Buddhism faith is centered around three precious jewels called the Triple Gem. They are the Buddha (teacher), the Dhamma (teachings) and the Sangha (taught). What makes an individual Buddhist is taking refuge in this triad, but also willingly undertaking Panca-Sila, the Five Precepts.
The Five Precepts
Theravada ("Way of the Elders") emphasizes firstly the way of the Arahant. Sometimes erronesously called Hinayana (The "Small Group" or "-Vehicle"; hina is "small" as opposite to "great" -- "small" as opposite to "big" is culla), though that name is not only pejorative, but in this case also historically wrong. This school is most common in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indochina.
Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") emphasizes firstly the way of the Bodhisattva ideal. It is found in China, Japan, Korea, and. Zen is one of the better-known Mahayana subdivisions. The most popular subdivision of Mahayana is the various Pure Land sects, though it has received little attention in the West so far. When some early Mahayanists polemized against "Hinayana", they didn't mean the Pali based Theravada, with which they had no contact at the time; they meant some early, non-Mahayana but Sanskrit based and now long since extinct schools, such as the Sarvastivada.
Different branches of Buddhism emphasize different scriptures, but all recognize one of the Tripitakas as fundamental (the Pali Tipitaka for Theravada; for Mahayana, the Chinese or Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit Tripitaka). Mahayana Buddhism has a large number of additional scriptures, called sutras, which sects may emphasize differently according to their chosen practice.
Three months after the passing of Gautama, The First Council was held by the Sangha. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught occurred so the teachings were divided into various parts and assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.
By the Second Council, one hundred years later, the teachings were not in question but the Vinaya[?] rules of monks were. Some sought to amend or modify minor rules, an action permissible by the Buddha. The orthodox monks, later known as of the Theravada, said that nothing should be changed (in order to prevent anarchy and to maintain the pristine form) while others insisted on modifying some rules. The seemingly trivial dispute was over the Ten Points, which include the storing of salt in a horn, the use of rugs of improper size, and the use of gold and silver. Finally, a group of monks called the Vajjians, left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika -- the Great Community, and made the the modifications. Between the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared (in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law) and by the 2nd century AD[?], Mahayana, formally an offshoot of the Mahasanghika, became clearly defined with the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu.
In the 3rd century BC the Third Council occurred, where small sects came to question the Vinaya[?], and now, the teachings. President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council and the Tipitaka was thus brought to Sri Lanka by the son of Asoka, Ven. Mahinda. It would be this tradition to first put the dhamma into print.
Around this time, Buddhism spread from India through successive waves of merchants and pilgrims. It reached as far as Arabia to the west, and eastward to southeast Asia (where the first records of Buddhism date from around 400AD), as well as China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea.
Vajrayana (the way of Tantra) also evolved at this stage, climbing from India in to Tibet around 600 AD, where it initially coexisted with native belief systems (see Bön) but later came to largely supplant or absorb them.
At one time, the northern fringe of East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang in western China) adhered to the Theravada school, however Buddhists in the region were supplanted by the rise of Islam around 1000AD.
See also: Timeline of Buddhism
Important Mahayana sutras include:
In Hinduism, Gautama is recognized as the 9th incarnation of Vishnu and in the religion of Shintoism, he is seen as a Kami. The religion of Baha'i Faith states he is a manifestation of God. In Christianity, Gautama is thought to have been sanctified as Saint Josaphat.
According to statistics from adherents.com (http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents), estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with most around 350 million.
The rise, expansion, spread and decline of Buddhism in India... (to be written)
In Northern Asia, Mahayana remains dominant in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam. Theravada dominates Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian nation to remain Mahayana dominated, due largely to the proximity and cultural influence of China (see also: Confucianism).
In the later half of the 1800s, Buddhism came to be known in the West. Great European colonial empires brought ancient cultures of India and China to the attention of Europeans. Subsequently, on the East coast of America, intellectuals would soon read about Buddhism by the books of those Europeans. Henry Thoreau[?] would translate a French copy of a Buddhist Sutra into English. The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States of America were the Chinese immigrants. Proving to be cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they later established temples along the rail lines. Scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions.
By unsatisfactoriness, the Hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s would stumble upon Buddhism. When the excitment of recreational drugs like marijuana and LSD wore off, hippies became naturally open to the idea of the lasting high of Nirvana. Celebrities soon traveled to the East in pursuit of this foreign philosophy and the trend and interest grew; popularizing Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies back home in America.
In the 1990s, Buddhism became the fastest growing religion in Australia, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs (see Christianity).
Buddhism and Science Buddhism has been lauded by scientists such as Albert Einstein, who stated that "Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity".
Modern scientific theories, such as those of Rogerian Pyschology, show strong parallels with Buddhist thought.
See also: Bodh Gaya -- Buddhism in China -- Buddhist philosophy -- Buddhist Sculpture[?] -- Dalai Lama-- Eastern philosophy -- List of Buddhists -- List of Buddhist terms and concepts -- Middle way -- Monasteries -- Nichiren Buddhism -- Om -- Pure Land -- -- Tibetan Buddhism -- Timeline of Buddhism -- Universal Vehiclism -- Zen