But its founder Siddhartha Gautama never intended his philosophy of life to involve deities or idols, nor did he intend his lessons to be followed as a religion.
Siddhartha did not believe in God worship; he was an atheist. You could also say he was anti-establishment. It was the disillusion he had with his own background that compelled him to seek alternate solutions that would alleviate the suffering of the common man.
After almost starving himself to death and meditating constantly, Siddhartha found the path to the Truth. It came from within. The focus of Buddhism therefore is to observe the self and find the truth from the inside. It is not a belief in some external force.
Yet modern day Buddhism has become an organised religion with all the trappings of dogmas and righteous behaviour. Although Buddhist monks observe the self, they are still bound by the restrictions of rules and beliefs ordained to them by the organised authority.
This is not what Siddhartha Buddha had in mind. What’s more, his followers have betrayed his wishes by reproducing his image to be served as an idol – something early Buddhists expressed was sacrilegious.
Today however, images of Buddha are found in abundance, carved out of mountain rocks and sculptured from various stones and metals. Indeed, Buddhism boasts some of the tallest statues in the world – 17 of which measure well over 100 ft.
Is this not a demonstration of engineering prowess rulers and organised authorities have engaged in for centuries to declare their supremacy? Buddhism has fallen under the spell of rulers, and just like any other spiritual belief system is probably corrupted.
Tibetan Buddhism for example, has introduced a whole host of new symbolism. Symbols of course hide the deeper meaning so that only the learned and practicing initiates understand the core truth of the lesson.
However, that does not mean you cannot practice and learn Buddhism on your own. After all, the original lessons of the Buddha’s was to understand the conditioning of human nature – to learn about yourself through self-observation.
The early life of Prince Siddhartha
Despite being the warrior prince of a King and Queen, not much is known about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. According to biography.com, he lived sometime between the 6th and 4th Century BCE although the most widely accepted date for his birth is 623BCE.
It is not unusual for scholars to disagree on historical accounts that have been fabricated over centuries, but what they do agree on is Prince Siddhartha was born in Lumbini, Nepal. A pillar erected by King Asoka of India attests to this.
It doesn’t matter to scholars that the monument was planted in the grounds of Lumbini some seven centuries after the life of the Buddha, a King said Prince Siddhartha was born there, so it must be true!
Most of what we know about the Buddha’s life is through legend. It is said that a Holy Man prophesied the young Prince would become a world leader or a spiritual leader. Hoping his son would follow in his footsteps and expand his empire, King Suddhodana shielded Siddhartha from the outside world.
The prince’s early years were spent in luxury within the palace complex, but at the age of 29, Siddhartha wanted to know more about the people he would one day rule over. Boarding his chariot he ventured into the nearby village and was disgraced by what he found.
The discoveries which had the most profound effect on the prince, were an old man, a dying man, a corpse and a mendicant monk who had renounced the material world to seek freedom.
The prince came to realise there was too much suffering and human frailty in the world, and concluded it was his responsibility to find a solution. But it would not be by means of rulership.
Leaving behind him a wife and a young son, Siddhartha abandoned his future kingdom in the south of Nepal and travelled through east and north India.
On his journey, the prince was adopted by two Indian ascetics who encouraged him to forgo material possessions and live an extreme life of self-discipline and denial.
The prince followed a life of extreme asceticism for six years believing this was the means to acquiring wisdom. He was supported by five friends, Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji, who had also forsaken the riches of the kingdom in search of redemption.
Siddhartha and his five friends were deeply absorbed in meditation and fasting, living off water and just one grain of rice a day. But no matter what methods he practices, the prince was still not satisfied he had freed himself of universal suffering, sickness and fear of death.
The legends confess that one day, having almost starved himself to death, the prince accepted a bowl of rice offered to him by a young girl. After eating, the prince realised that neither poverty nor luxury is a means to the end of suffering. What is required is balance.
Siddhartha then meditated under a Peepal Tree for seven days with the intention of reflecting on his life and penetrating the truth. The legends claim he fought of many demons before finally achieving enlightenment and becoming the Buddha.
The Peepal Tree has since become known as the Bodhi Tree, the tree of awakening, and has been adopted as a symbol by the Buddhist religion. Yet even this significant fact has become distorted over the years, much to the chagrin of some Buddhist monks it would seem.
Misinformation has a habit of creeping into public consciousness and you will often read in the media that Siddhartha attained nirvana sitting under a Banyan Tree.
The Banyan and the Bodhi are two completely different trees, although they are both fig trees and their leaves are fairly similar. The actual Peepal Tree the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment is located in the Mahabodhi Temple complex in eastern India.
Teachings of the Buddha
After achieving nirvana, legend states the Buddha was visited by the Hindu God, Brahma who requested the Prince to travel and preach what he had learned so that others could also relieve themselves of suffering.
Seven weeks later, the Buddha travelled to Isipatana in the north of India where he knew his five former companions were continuing to seek enlightenment through asceticism.
It was in the deer park of Isipatana that the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon – to his five ascetic friends. Now modern day Sarnath, the spot and occasion is marked by a large brick stupa.
Buddha called his revelation ‘The Middle Way.’ Essentially this means living a balanced and moderate lifestyle which he outlined in the dharma of the eightfold path.
The Middle Way is another name for Buddhism and guides initiates towards enlightenment by helping them to understand human nature. The process of exploring is not to believe in teachings, not to hold fixed ideals and not to base anything on wishful thinking.
At the heart of the Middle Way is the Noble eight-fold path which is symbolised by the Dharma Wheel. Essentially, “the path” teaches initiates to live in the right way and to free yourself of delusions that cloud the mind and create anguish.
The purpose of the Buddhist is to understand human nature and to repair the wounds inflicted by social conditioning. The Buddha observed this in the four noble truths; the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to end suffering.
The ultimate aim of the Buddhist is to reach enlightenment which is attained through core doctrines known as the three jewels; the Buddha – to awaken from ignorance, Dharma – to become aware of the reality that binds us to suffering, and Sangha – evolving consciousness and teaching others.
So Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion, although, like everything else in history is cloaked in mystery, corrupted by the authorities and disputed by so-called experts.
Essentially, Buddhism promotes self-knowledge and provides the tools to live a happy, fulfilling life. So my advice is to start with self-observation through meditation and take it from there.