Foundations and Transformations of Buddhism: An Overview
John M. Koller

Buddhism in India : Beginnings and Spread

The Buddhist tradition began in India, in approximately 528 BCE, with the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama (563 - 483 BCE). (Note: Some scholars have recently called the dates of the Buddha's life into question. The dates given here are the traditional ones; some scholars are pushing the date of the Buddha's life up 80 or more years arguing that he died as late as 400 or 350 BCE.) After his enlightenment he was known as the Buddha (the “Enlightened One”) because he had awakened to the truth of suffering , its causes, and the way to eliminate suffering by removing its causes. His way of understanding and overcoming suffering, presented in the Buddha's first teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath, caught on quickly. Within a few hundred years, especially under the patronage of King Ashoka (who ruled 269 -232 BCE), Buddhism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Ashoka provided the model for later Buddhist missionary efforts that successfully spread Buddhism throughout all of Asia by 700 CE.

Although the oldest available written Buddhist texts are relatively late, tradition assures us that the texts known as Nikayas contain an early and reliable record of the Buddha's actual teachings, for immediately after the Buddha's death a council of monks was called in order to recall and collect his teachings. These basic Buddhist texts probably reflect the experience and vision of the historical Buddha, as understood by his followers, as he engaged in his own quest for freedom from the restrictions and sufferings experienced in life.

In the historical development of Buddhist thought there was continuous interaction both with the older visions of life and meditative traditions that had influenced the Buddha and with other new visions and ways of life. These interactions provided much of the stimulus for the analysis and reasoning that shaped the various Buddhist traditions. It was natural that questions of interpretation and orthodoxy should arise after the Buddha's death, because during his lifetime he established neither criteria for interpreting his teachings nor for defining orthodoxy in the practice of these teachings. Even on his deathbed, in about 483 BCE, he refused to appoint a leader to succeed him. Instead, he advised the assembled monks, “let the teaching (dharma) be your teacher,” and “be diligent in your efforts.”

It was natural for the Buddha's followers to emphasize those aspects of the Buddha's teachings that they found most helpful. They also interpreted the Buddha's teachings in different ways, following their own experiences and reflections. So it is not surprising that despite general agreement on the central teachings and main practices, many different versions of the teachings and practice developed.

It should also be emphasized, however, that despite their differences, monks from the different traditions often lived together in the same monastery and engaged in the same practices during the early centuries. What the monks had in common far outweighed the differences among the traditions with which they were affiliated.

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