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The Buddha Shakyamuni, 1700–1800. Mongolia. Gilt bronze. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Betty and Jack Bogart, 1994.131.Understanding Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions, and has deeply influenced the character and evolution of Asian civilization over the past 2,500 years. It is based on the teachings of a historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived around the fifth century B.C.E. As it moved across Asia, Buddhism absorbed indigenous beliefs and incorporated a wide range of imagery, both local and foreign, into its art and religious practices. Buddhism continues to evolve as a religion in many parts of the world.

Buddhism is a complex subject, a philosophy that has evolved in many different ways and various regions of Asia, and is still a living faith today. Providing simple definitions for the beliefs and art historical developments of Buddhism is therefore difficult, because so many variations occur. The student of Buddhism should be aware of these variations and points of view. Here we provide a very general overview as a foundation for looking at historical Buddhist arts, focused on the art of India.

Who was the historical Buddha?

The historical Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha Gautama, was born around the 6th century B.C.E. into royalty at Kapilavastu, which lay in the foothills of the Himalayas near the present day Nepalese-Indian border. For most of his youth, the prince led a sheltered existence within the palace, where he enjoyed court life, married a princess, and had a son. Venturing forth from the palace, he finally witnessed disturbing sights he had never before experienced: sickness, old age, death, and a mendicant ascetic. Deeply unsettled by what he had seen, the prince finally renounced his worldy life, and set out on a quest for truth, to confront human suffering and the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Along with other thinkers who lived during this era, the Buddha was also troubled by the caste system, which denied many the possibility of salvation, as well as by the exclusivity and abuses of the brahman priestly caste who controlled religious practices at that time.

What did the historical Buddha preach?

The Buddha sought to find an end to human suffering. He first engaged in extreme austerities as practiced by mendicants and ascetics of his time. After several years of these practices, Siddhartha concluded that this extreme path was not the correct route to perfect understanding (enlightenment). Rather, he proposed that a middle way between extreme austerity and extreme indulgence was the path to wisdom and freedom from suffering. The Buddha declared that he would meditate under a banyan tree until he achieved enlightenment. This phenomenal event occurred at Bodh Gaya in the contemporary state of Bihar, which is one of Buddhism’s great pilgrimage sites.

As a result of his attainment of enlightenment, the prince Siddhartha Gautama was now truly the Buddha, the Enlightened One. He was also commonly referred to as Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakya clan. The Buddha distilled the principles of enlightenment into a doctrine known as The Four Noble Truths. These are:

  • Life is suffering.
  • Suffering is caused by desire, and by clinging to the notion of self.
  • It is possible to end suffering. To end the suffering caused by desire and ego, one must eliminate the cause.
  • Suffering can be ended by following the Noble Eightfold Path, a set of resolutions characterized by aconcern for morality, concentration, moderation, positive action, and wisdom.

Though it evades easy definition, and it varies according to the particular branch of Buddhism, the ultimate goal of most Buddhists is to reach nirvana, a state of bliss in which human desire, ego, and suffering are extinguished.

How did Buddhism begin?

As a collective faith, Buddhism first developed in northeastern India with the historical Buddha’s own followers, who formed a community of monks and laypersons during his lifetime. Those wishing to join the monastic order renounced family and worldly ties, and proclaimed their faith in the “three jewels”: the Buddha, the doctrine (dharma), and the monastic community (sangha).

After the Buddha’s death, concerns arose regarding the interpretation and survival of the order and doctrine. A first council established a set of beliefs on the basis of those surviving monks who could remember what the Buddha had said. Subsequent councils added to these sayings. Debates arose over the apparent contradiction between no-self and rebirth (how could one be reborn if there was no self?), and over the questions of who could be enlightened and whether enlightenment was gradual or spontaneous. By the beginning of first millennium, there were approximately eighteen different schools of Buddhism in India.