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

India at the Time of the Buddha

The teachings of the Buddha challenged the prevailing views about the nature of existence and the way to overcome suffering, going against the grain of cherished cultural traditions of thought and practice. What was India like twenty-five hundred years ago, during the Buddha's lifetime? The answer to this question will provide a sense of the various influences that shaped the Buddha's life and teachings. Overall, India was one of the world's great civilizations at this time. It was a civilization with a rich culture, advanced science and technology, sophisticated intellectual traditions, and flourishing industry and trade. India was undergoing major social transformation, including a shift from an agrarian way of life to a more urban one, which led many to question old ideas and institutions. There is no doubt that the Buddha grew up in intellectually exciting times, with stimulating discussions about new ideas an important part of daily life.

From a religious perspective, new ways of faith and practice challenged the older, established religions. A main concern dominating Indian thought and practice at the time of the Buddha was the question of suffering and death. Among the prevailing traditions at the time, the life cycle was seen as an unending series of deaths and rebirths. Although the Buddha's solution to the problem of suffering was unique, most religious seekers at the time of the Buddha were engaged in the search for a way to obtain freedom from suffering and repeated death.

Philosophically, the quest for liberation from suffering and death had led to reflection on the nature of self, action, and knowledge, resulting in an atmosphere that encouraged critical discussion, producing a great variety of philosophical views. What most of these views had in common was a tendency to seek an absolute ground of self and reality, an unchangeable foundation of truth and certainty. There was a sense that a unified, unchanging self — a self beyond the ever-changing mental and physical processes ordinarily experienced as self — was needed to account for human experience and to guarantee release from suffering. There was also a sense that an independent, permanent reality — a reality beyond the conditioned flux ordinarily experienced as reality — was needed to account for the objectivity of the world. Without any absolute self or reality it was feared that there would be no ground for truth or values. And without truth or values life would be meaningless and liberation from suffering impossible. Thus, for most thinkers at the time of the Buddha, the choice appeared to be to either accept that self and reality were grounded in some absolute reality, beyond suffering and death, or else admit that the problem of suffering and death has no solution. The Buddha was unique among Indian thinkers in seeing a middle way that would solve the problem of suffering and death without postulating any absolutes. Thus, although the Buddha's quest belongs to a tradition of wandering truth-seekers already hundreds of years old at this time, the Buddha's way of appropriating these techniques, his way of integrating them with virtuous living and wisdom, and his vision of existence as interdependently arising were genuinely new.

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