The history of Buddhism

The life of Shakyamuni

In northern India, around 2500 years ago, a prince called Shakyamuni was born to the tribe of the Shakyas, in a city called Kapilavastu. His mother, Maya, died shortly after his birth. Raised as a noble, he enjoyed an affluent youth, during which time he married Yashodhara, who bore him a son, Rahula.

But at the age of 19, he began to realise there was a world outside of his privileged existence. The story of the Four Meetings relates how at the four gates of the city in which he lived, Shakyamuni encountered on different occasions a sage, a sick person, an old man, and a corpse. These encounters opened his eyes to human suffering, specifically the Four Sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death.

Resolving to find some means of overcoming these sufferings, common to all humanity, he left his princely life, first studying under two masters of yogic meditation, then turning to a life of self-denial, torturing himself through fasting, exposure and various ordeals. But although he surpassed all others in these practices, he was not satisfied.

Shakyamuni’s enlightenment

One day, when he was about 30, he broke his fast, and rested and meditated under a pipal tree near the town of Gaya. There he achieved enlightenment, realising the insights he sought. “Shakyamuni awoke to the fundamental nature of life, recognising that beneath the flux, there is an eternal law of life, at one with his own life, and with the lives of all things”, as US member Laurie Spitz writes.

For the next fifty years, he endured persecution and hardship whilst preaching his enlightenment to a growing body of disciples. For the first forty two years, realising that people were not ready for his highest teaching, he taught mainly by responding to questions and in so doing prepared them with various provisional and intermediate teachings, for his ultimate teaching.

These provisional teachings, often involving difficult ascetic practices, each revealed only parts of the truth he was awakened to. For example, while the potential for enlightenment was recognised, they also held that women, evil people and intellectuals could not achieve it. Practices based on these early teachings, have survived till today, which explains the many different faces of Buddhism.

The Lotus Sutra

For the last eight years of his life, Shakyamuni taught his highest teaching, a teaching that was to be recorded after his death as the Lotus Sutra. It is considered his highest teaching because it said that all human beings, without exception, could attain enlightenment and overcome their evil karma to become Buddhas.

In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni revealed that his enlightenment had not come to him at the age of thirty, as he had taught up till then, but had been achieved aeons before and that, as an enlightened being, he had taken on many different incarnations. This was his way of showing that all people can attain enlightenment. He predicted three Ages of the Law, or phases through which Buddhism would pass, saying that it would go into decline, only to be restored two thousand years after his death.

Shakyamuni died near Kushinagara at the age of eighty.

The spread of Buddhism

After his death, Buddhism evolved into two streams, called Mahayana and ‘Hinayana’. The Hinayana stream tended to concentrate on individual salvation through the extinction of desires, whereas the Mahayana stream, which became distinct around the first century AD, emphasized the importance of assisting others towards enlightenment. (Hinayana is considered by some to be a pejorative or dismissive term, which is not our intention; other terms for Hinayana include “early Buddhism”, “eighteen schools Buddhism” or “Nikaya Buddhism” — none of them wholly satisfactory to scholars.)

Hinayana became the dominant school in Sri Lanka and South East Asia; Mahayana spread north and east through China and Japan, its vitality assured by the work of several great scholars. In India, Nagarjuna organised the theoretical basis of Mahayana Buddhism, founding eight schools, of which one, the Tendai sect, leads directly to the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin. In the fourth century, Kumarajiva translated into Chinese what is still considered the authoritative version of the Lotus Sutra.

A thousand years after Shakyamuni’s death, China had become the most dynamic centre of Buddhism. T’ien T’ai (538-597) did much to restore the authority of the Lotus Sutra, defeating the scholars of other sects in debate, and founding the T’ien T’ai school of Buddhism. These teachings, the practice of which still demanded rigorous meditation and scholarship, were taken to Japan by Dengyo (767-822), where they formed the basis for understanding the Lotus Sutra’s importance.

Unfortunately, most forms of Buddhist practice could still only be practised by a small elite. It was left to Nichiren Daishonin, nearly two thousand years after Shakyamuni’s death, to finally evolve a form of practice which, though firmly based on the Lotus Sutra, was easily accessible to ordinary people.