Beginnings of Buddhism
Buddhism is the teachings of Shakyamuni, who was born a prince of the Shakya clan in north-eastern India around 2,500 years ago. In his youth, he was deeply distressed and troubled by the eternal and unavoidable problems of humanity such as ageing, illness and life and death. He thought deeply about these existential issues and when he was 29 years old renounced his everyday life to seek a way to liberate all people from suffering.
In Shakyamuni’s time, the dominance of the priestly caste (spiritual, religious or social leaders in tribal and nomadic societies) was in decline and instead newly emerging classes of royal families, merchants and artisans were rising to power and becoming prosperous in the area around the middle reaches of the Ganges. In that shifting society, where established value systems were being questioned, various types of thinkers and philosophers appeared who harboured doubts about traditional religious thought and practices. Among them were those who embraced such philosophies as nihilism, materialism, determinism and scepticism, and so India was flooded with competing schools of religious and philosophical thought.
With an open but critical mind, Shakyamuni studied these philosophies, sometimes practising and either adopting or rejecting them. After he renounced a secular life, his search for truth continued for six years. At 35, as he sat meditating under a bodhi tree (since known as the tree of awakening), he attained enlightenment, what is known as the Supreme Perfect Awakening. He started to understand that the cosmic law and order permeates all things and all phenomena in the universe (also known as the Dharma), including our own human nature and characteristics.
Following his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha expounded teachings based on the Dharma initially at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India, to five ascetics (those who avoid physical pleasures) who had been his fellow truth-seekers. And so began his 45-year teaching ministry throughout north-central India. He brought many people to awakening before his death aged 80.
Shakyamuni trusted his disciples to lead their groups of followers and never asked that they integrate his teachings. Since his only purpose was to liberate people from suffering, he expounded the Dharma to them in various ways, according to their ability and level of understanding, and according to time and place. It has been impossible to compile Shakyamuni’s teachings systematically during his lifetime.
To learn more about Shakyamuni Buddha, we recommend Shakyamuni Buddha: A Narrative Biography.