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History of the Buddha

Though this depiction might be accurate for one point of the Buddha’s life, at other times he found himself leading the life of an ascetic (denying himself material possessions).

The Buddha is often depicted as a round, bald man, laughing and holding food. In 563 B.C. in northern India, a royal couple gave birth to a son they named Siddartha Guatama. He lived a life of luxury, enjoying three palaces, a wife, and a son. According to legend, after seeing four people alongside a road, ill or dead, he began to ponder suffering. Kissing his family goodbye, he set out to find a way to eliminate suffering. After studying Hinduism, he began to live the life of an ascetic. At one point, he was eating only one grain of rice a day. Skinny and weak, he realized extreme asceticism would not relieve his suffering either.

One day he began meditating under a tree in Bodh Gaya, India. There he achieved a “Great Awakening,” where it is said the earth shook and he was moved into a state of bliss, suddenly understanding the universe and its cycle of suffering. Once able to eliminate what led to his suffering, he became “enlightened” or freed from the cycle of death. In that state, he took the name of “Buddha” (“enlightened one”) and began a ministry that lasted 45 years until his death at the age of 80.

Buddha gained a following soon after his enlightenment. Today, that following has grown to 365 million people, making Buddhism the fourth largest religion in the world (after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism).


Most Buddhist beliefs can be found in the three sacred texts of the Tripitaka (for you Christians, the Tripitaka is 11 times the size of the Bible).

Many Buddhist beliefs stem from four ideas Buddha obtained during his own path to enlightenment; these are called the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by attachment or desire for something.
  3. One can end suffering by overcoming craving, thus reaching nirvana.
  4.  One must follow an eight-fold path in order to achieve nirvana or enlightenment.

 The Eight-Fold Path is a treatment path that requires discipline:

  1. Right belief
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right behavior
  5. Right occupation (choosing a livelihood that allows you to seek enlightenment)
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness (being aware of what you want to achieve)
  8. Right concentration

 Other beliefs include the following:

  • Rebirth: Your “self” is reborn, or reincarnated, into a new person after your death.
  • God: There is no higher power. Each person must find relief from suffering on her own.
  • Karma: Good actions create good consequences, and bad actions cause negative consequences.

Divisions and developments

Buddhist beliefs differ depending on which division of Buddhism you follow.

Theravada Buddhism is mostly found in Southeast Asia. It is mainly restricted to monks who wear robes and shave their heads. Some consider it to be more conservative, focusing on discipline, strict rules, and asceticism (denying themselves life’s pleasures, just as Guatama Buddha did). Mahayana Buddhism is found mostly in Northern Asia and is open to all people. Its followers believe in compassion and devotion to the Buddha. Here, Guatama Buddha is seen as more divine and may be worshipped in some way. In Vajrayana Buddhism, chanting and rituals seem to be the most important practices, and some Vajrayana Buddhists believe in a spirit world.

As Buddhism spread through different parts of Asia, it took on some of the cultural practices of those countries, creating further divisions. Zen Buddhism traces its roots to China and Japan; it focuses on discipline and meditation and suggests that anyone could obtain enlightenment suddenly, out of nowhere. Tibetan Buddhism developed in India and Tibet. Its leader is called the Dalai Lama (“wisdom teacher”) and serves as both Tibet’s head of state and as its spiritual leader. However, it is important to note that Tibet is under Chinese rule and that, after attempting to overthrow the Chinese government in 1959, the Dalai Lama was exiled to Dharamsala, India, where he still lives today.

To learn more about the Dalai Lama, visit

Find news and holiday information related to Buddhism on

Created by Religion Transcends, 2009. Portions of this overview are taken from an article written by Religion Transcends writer Jackie Walker for Relate magazine. Most information is general knowledge. You must seek permission to reuse this wording.

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