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One day, as he sat in meditation under a bodhi tree, he became the "enlightened one". The "enlightenment" took place in Gautama's thirty-sixth year. His death occurred around the age of eighty. His day was divided between itinerant preaching in the morning and receiving visitors for discussion at night, with the afternoons reserved for private meditation. He gathered a number of followers. He was strongly opposed by the Brahmins for teaching that gifts to the Buddhist order were of more merit than the sacrifices, which Hindus practiced.
Shortly before his death, Gautama assembled the members of his order, and gave final instructions.
"Be lamps to yourselves," he bade them. "Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves."
"In the Dharma or teaching, the master did not discard the substructure of primitive Hinduism, but rather built upon it. He seems not to have doubted the existence of gods and of evil spirits. His concern was uniquely with deliverance."2
To obtain liberation the disciple must put into practice the "Four Noble Truths".
"They are, in sequence, that existence involves suffering, that the cause-of suffering is desire and the clinging to existence, that the way to escape from suffering and existence is to be rid of these desires, and to be delivered one must follow the eightfold path mapped out by the enlightened one."
"Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation, and it is only on this premise that his accent on suffering can be understood." 4Buddha denied there was a soul. "The self-denial he advocated was literal, a denial of self-hood with its mirage of an individual and personal soul."5
"The founder of Buddhism postulated that life is a stream of becoming. There is nothing permanent in the empirical self." "Throughout life all his sermons, exhortations, and counseling had only one theme, Nirvana. Yet the important question for him was not, 'What is Nirvana?' but, 'How is Nirvana attained?' "2
"The way that leads to the extinction of suffering is the holy eightfold path, namely right understanding, right-mindedness, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right attentiveness, and right concentration."
"Original or 'authentic' Buddhism is accurately called atheistic, not as though the gods of Hinduism or Brahman were explicitly denied, but because nowhere in his 'religion' did Gautama provide that a transcendent deity should be invoked or even that his existence should be formally acknowledged."
Buddhism in India
Buddhism flourished during the reign of King Ashoka (274 - 232 B.C.).
"In the 2nd cent. before Christ King Kanishka sponsored a fourth religious council at Kashmir, at which the Sanskrit canon of the scriptures is said to have been fixed. This fixation was demanded by the new schism that broke between two radically different concepts of Buddhism, to become known as Mahayana (great vehicle) and Hinayana (small vehicle)."
"Kanishka promoted other changes. The relics of Buddhist saints came to be worshipped, images of Buddha were made objects of popular veneration, monasteries were opened to temporary residents and students who were taught secular subjects, and, in general, Buddhism was further transformed from an exotic cult to a religion of the many.
"Until the rise of the Gupta dynasty aroi~ind 320 A.D., Buddhism fairly held its own in India. But under the Guptas Hinduism became dominant. In spite of several brilliant representatives, the Buddhist religion declined on Indian soil -partly by absorption into the Hindu tradition which made Buddha an incarnation of its god Vishnu, partly by the Moslem invasion which was intolerant of Buddhist anthropocentrism, and partly by the exportation of the valid Buddhist spirit into Tibet, Mongolia, China, Java, and Japan." "Two types of Buddhism are easily recognized: the Mahayana in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and Nepal; the Hinayana in Thailand, Burma, Ceylon, Cambodia, India and Indonesia."2
"Mahayana introduced the idea of a deity into the religion, both on a speculative level which belongs more to philosophy, and in a popular way that was more like the polytheism of the masses."
"For the purposes of popular religion, Buddha became the supreme deity, much as Krishna was for the average Hindu... There are many 'bodhisatvas" ('bodhi' enlightenment) or noble persons in past ages who trod the path of the Buddha1 and became eligible to attain to Buddhahood. But they stopped at the bodhisatva stage and did not take the final step out of compassion for a suffering humanity." They are compassionate celestial beings.
"If the suffering of many is brought to an end by the suffering of one, the one should foster this suffering in himself by means of compassion. Have one passion only: the good of others. All who are unhappy, are unhappy from having sought their own happiness. All who are happy, are happy from 'having sought the happiness of others. You must exchange your well-being for the miseries of others." "Gradually the historical Buddha faded away, leaving the Buddha as an expression of Dharma (the ultimate void) as the only reality." "Without denying the historical Buddha, not only Mahayana, but all forms of Buddhism see in him only the manifestation of a type, and one of a series of Buddhas who appear on earth throughout the ages."
"With the help of numerous bodhisatvas and Buddhas, polytheism, belief in demons, and other alien ideas could be readily assimilated to Buddhism. The gods and demons of other peoples were declared to be incarnations or duplicates of the Buddhist pantheon."1
"Hinayana professes to follow the basic principles of the Pali canon and, by this standard, may be identified with primitive Buddhism. Certainly its emphasis on the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path places it nearer to the original teachings of Gautama than Mahayana whose express purpose was to reinterpret the Buddha's esoteric doctrine in order to make it universally acceptable." "The issue between the two systems runs deeper than the familiar difference between the active and contemplative life in Western religious thought. It implies a radical dichotomy between two contradictory moral philosophies:
Mahayana admits a personal deity (or deities) and therefore allows for the concept of social justice and charity under obedience to a higher power. Hinayana denies any god outside and above man and so logically concerns itself only with self, which it seeks to spare the trial of continuous rebirth by Nirvana annihilation."
Man seeks liberation, freedom, and salvation, "Nirvana". Whether one believes in rebirth, or purgatory, or hell or in some form of suffering here or hereafter, to escape from suffering is a universal aspiration. Buddhism while avoiding speculation provides a practical discipline.