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Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion with an estimated 350 million followers spanning the globe. It’s long history has been impacted the leaders and cultures of various regions as it spread. Let’s examine the history and beliefs of Buddhism as it grew to the large following it has today.

Origins of Buddhism

Though there is debate about the exact century of origin, the Buddhist faith can be traced back to between the 4th and 6th century BCE. It was during this time that the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, lived and built a following through his teachings.Siddhartha Gautama was the son of royalty and lived a privileged life.

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When he was exposed to the suffering of the world, he knew he must seek an answer to end this suffering. Shedding his worldly possessions, and his family, Siddhartha Gautama set out on his journey. Along that journey he attained enlightenment, a transcending of this world to a knowing of the truth. Siddhartha Gautama came to be known as ‘Buddha‘ and taught what would become the principles of the faith for thirty five years before dying at the age of 80.

Chinese Portrait of Siddhartha Gautama
Chinese Portrait of Siddhartha Gautama

Buddhist Beliefs

As with many religions, Buddhism has various branches that hold different tenets of the faith.

However, there are two teachings from Buddha that are widely held as the foundation for the faith. We’ll look at these two teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.The Four Noble Truths, quite often noted as a summary of the Buddhist teachings, is identified as the first sermon delivered by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. By meditating and coming to internalize these truths, Buddhists move closer to peace and enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. There is an end to this suffering
  4. There is a distinct path to this end

The path that is described in the Four Noble Truths is the Eightfold Path, the other core beliefs of Buddhism we’ll be examining. While described as a single path, Buddha was careful to caution that there is no one path that will work for everyone.

The components of the path are the same for everyone, but how people chose to apply these steps define their individual journey. The eight pieces of the path are:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Action
  3. Right Attitude
  4. Right Livelihood or Vocation
  5. Right Speech
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Some Buddhist traditions are hesitant to use of the word ‘right.’ Use of the word can imply that there is one right way to do these things.

Again, this set of teachings is designed to be a path that individuals apply in a way that works for them.

Tibetan Dharma Wheel depicting the Eightfold Path as the eight spokes
Dharma Wheel depicting the Eightfold Path

In addition to these two key teachings, Buddhists believe that you must live by the Middle Way to know these truths and become enlightened. The Middle Way is simply living in a way that allows you to avoid the extremes in life. By living this way, Buddhists believe that one can avoid suffering because you are neither living recklessly or in an overly cautious way.

The Spread of Buddhism

Having solidified his teachings and delivered them to his followers, Buddha formed the foundation for the faith prior to his death. Upon his death, Buddha reminded his followers that Buddhism is not based on a god or a single leader, rather the teachings serve as the guide to the faithful. After his death, his followers continued preaching and building the Buddhist faith.The first major expansion of Buddhism happened around 380-250 BCE when the Indian King, Asoka, supported and spread the ideals of the religion. Several hundred years later, Buddhism would become the first world religion to spread from its origin.

This expansion also saw the division of Buddhism into three major sects.Around the 1st century CE, Theravada Buddhism spread into Southeast Asia through the Indian trade routes. Theravada Buddhism is also known as ‘The Doctrine of the Elders,’ and it treats Buddha as a historic figure who demonstrates the path to nirvana through his actions.In the 2nd century CE, Mahayana Buddhism spread through the Kushan dynasty into Northern India and Afghanistan. The trade along the Silk Road helped this form of Buddhism spread west. Mahayana Buddhism holds the belief that there are enlightened people living among us who have put off their own nirvana until all beings can attain it.Around the 5th century CE, the third sect of Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, formed in Tibet, Nepal, India, and China.

Vajrayana Buddhism centers its teachings on the practices leading to nirvana.Though these are the three major sects of Buddhism, as it has spread, the faith has transformed to adapt to the cultural beliefs of the different world regions. It has also grown and diminished, as many faiths do, in response to the politics of the region. For example, the numbers of practicing Buddhists rapidly declined in China and in Tibet during the 20th century as the Cultural Revolution imposed the Communist beliefs on the people. However, many millions of Chinese still practice forms of Buddhism today.

Buddhism Distribution Map by percentage of population
Map of Buddhism by percentage of population

Lesson Summary

Buddhism traces its ancient roots to the birth of its founder Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha as he came to be known.

The religion centers its beliefs around the search to end human suffering and come into the ultimate truth, known as enlightenment and finally achieve nirvana, peace. Buddhism today has an estimated 350 million followers worldwide who practice one of the three major branches, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. It remains one of the largest world religions.

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