Buddhism is a dharmic, non-theistic religion, which refers to the teachings of “The Awakened One”, named for Siddhartha Guatama. The history of Buddhism is the story of one man’s spiritual journey to Enlightenment, and of the teachings and ways of living that developed from it. By finding the path to Enlightenment, Siddhartha was led from the pain of suffering and rebirth towards the path of Enlightenment and became known as the Buddha.

History and Development

Siddhartha Gautama was born around the year 580 BCE in the village of Lumbini in Nepal. He was born into a royal family, and his privileged life insulated him from the sufferings of life; sufferings such as sickness, age and death. One day, after growing up, marrying and having a child, Siddhartha went outside the royal enclosure where he lived. When he went outside he saw – each for the first time – an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. This greatly disturbed him, and he learned that sickness, age, and death were the inevitable fate of human beings – a fate no-one could avoid.

Siddhartha had seen a monk, and he decided this was a sign that he should leave his protected royal life and live as a homeless holy man. Siddhartha's travels showed him much more of the suffering of the world. He searched for a way to escape the inevitability of death, old age and pain first by studying with religious men. This didn't provide him with an answer.

Siddhartha encountered an Indian ascetic who encouraged him to follow a life of extreme self-denial and discipline. The Buddha also practised meditation but concluded that in themselves, the highest meditative states were not enough. Siddhartha followed this life of extreme asceticism for six years, but this did not satisfy him either; he still had not escaped from the world of suffering. He abandoned the strict lifestyle of self-denial and asceticism, but did not return to the pampered luxury of his early life. Instead, he pursued the Middle Way, which is just what it sounds like; neither luxury nor poverty.

One day, seated beneath the Bodhi tree (the Tree of Awakening) Siddhartha became deeply absorbed in meditation, and reflected on his experience of life, determined to penetrate its truth. He finally achieved Enlightenment and became the Buddha. The Mahabodhi Temple at the site of Buddha's enlightenment is now a pilgrimage site. Buddhist legend tells that at first the Buddha was happy to dwell within this state, but Brahma, king of the gods, asked, on behalf of the whole world, that he should share his understanding with others. Buddha set in motion the wheel of teaching: rather than worshipping one god or gods, Buddhism centres around the timeless importance of the teaching, or the dharma. For the next 45 years of his life the Buddha taught many disciples, who became Arahants or ‘noble ones’, who had attained Enlightenment for themselves.

The Four Noble Truths are part of the teachings of Buddha. This doctrine expresses that in life there exists sorrow and suffering that is caused by desire and can be cured or ceased by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which were called Catvary Aryasatyani (Four Noble Truths), and are decreed as follows:
1. Suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
2. The Cause of Suffering: The desire which leads to renewed existence (or rebirth; the cycle of samsara)
3. The Cessation of Suffering: The cessation of desire.
4. The Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering: The Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth part of the Four Noble Truths, which is the way to cessation of suffering. This doctrine is divided into three sections: Sila (concerning the control of immoral physical actions of the body), Samadhi (concerning developing mastery over one’s ‘Conscious’ mind), and Panna (concerning the purification of the ‘Unconscious’ mind). 


Given the common association of Buddhism with the meditating monk, it would be easy to assume that Buddhism emphasizes practice over belief. In reality, however, Buddhism centres on correct understanding of human nature and ultimate reality. The Buddha was, after all, called the "Enlightened One." He taught that the way to eliminate suffering began with understanding the true nature of the world. However, the Buddha considered knowledge important only insofar as it remains practical. He rejected speculation about such matters as God, the nature of the universe, and the afterlife, urging his followers to focus instead on the Four Noble Truths by which they can free themselves from suffering.

In the 2,590 years since the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree, Buddhism has spread over many countries, split into numerous sects, and adopted a wide variety of beliefs, practices, rituals and customs. However, an essential unity centred around the teachings of the Buddha underlies these differences. In 1966, a leading monk from both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions met in Sri Lanka with the goal of bridging the differences between the two groups and identifying the essential points of agreement. The World Buddhist Sangha Council, as they called themselves, unanimously approved the following “Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and Mahayana”:

1. The Buddha is our only Master.

2. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

3. We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God.

4. Following the example of the Buddha, who is the embodiment of Great Compassion (mahaa-karunaa) and Great Wisdom (mahaa-prajnaa), we consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth.

5. We accept the Four Noble Truths, nameley Dukkha, the Arising of Dukkha, the Cessation of Dukkha, and the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha; and the universal law of cause and effect as taught in the pratiitya-samutpaada (Conditioned Genesis or Dependent Origination).

6. We understand, according to the teaching of the Buddha, that all conditioned things (samskaara) are impermanent (anitya) and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anaatma).

7. We accept the Thirty-seven Qualities conducive to Enlightenment (bodhipaksa-dharma) as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.

8. There are three ways of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment, according to the ability and capacity of each individual: namely as a disciple (sraavaka), as a Pratyeka-Buddha and as a Samyak-sam-Buddha (perfectly and Fully Enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a Samyak-sam-Buddha in order to save others.

9. We admit that in different countries there are differences with regard to the life of Buddhist monks, popular Buddhist beliefs and practices, rites and ceremonies, customs and habits. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism Today

According to the 2001 census there are 151,816 Buddhists in Britain. However, that does not take into account those who regard themselves as Buddhists as well as Christians, or Jews, or Taoists, or anything else. The census form made no provision for such people to be counted. There are also those who refuse to label themselves as 'Buddhists' because it runs counter to the principle of selflessness or egolessness. They prefer to think of themselves as free spirits. Irrespective of how many Buddhists there are in Britain today, there is unquestionably a growing interest.

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