Though the other divisions of Buddhism have altered their practices to accommodate the needs of a wider range of people, Theravada has remained virtually the same as it was at its founding. Theravada Buddhism is the original and most popular form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Theravada remains closest to the original teachings of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha Gautama is the original founder of all forms of Buddhism. He was born in present day Nepal around 563 B. C. E. He was a prince of the Shakyas clan, and likely heir to his father’s throne.
He was named “Siddhartha” which means "he who has attained his goals. " Being the prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war and grew up to be a strong and handsome young man. When he was at the age of sixteen, he fought and defeated his competitors in a variety of sports, which won him the hand of the beautiful princess Yashodhara, who was also sixteen years old at the time. He continued living in the luxury of his palaces. Soon, however, he grew restless and began to wonder what happens outside the palace. He eventually insisted to be permitted to come out of the palace so he can see his people and his lands.
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For fear of the prince leading a religious life, the king ordered that only young and healthy people should greet the prince so that he will not see the kind of suffering. However, even with the king’s careful orders, he still caught sight of a couple of old men, who accidentally wandered near the parade route, at Kapilavatthu, the capital. Curious of who these people were, he chased after them. He then came to a place where some people are desperately ill and even came across a funeral ceremony by the side of the river, seeing death for the first time in his life.
Siddhartha saw four sights: a sick man, a poor man, a beggar, and a corpse. When he caught sight of these, his heart soon filled with vast loneliness for the suffering that humanity has to go through. He then asked his friend and squire Chandaka what those things meant. Chandaka told him that all of us grow old, sick and eventually, die, saying that these truths should have been told to him before. (Boeree, 1999). He said upon seeing these realities: “When ignorant people see someone who is old, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be old some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.
After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with youth anymore. When ignorant people see someone who is sick, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be sick some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people. After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with health anymore. When ignorant people see someone who is dead, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be dead some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people. After than, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with life anymore. ”
He also saw an ascetic or a monk who has abandoned all the pleasures and cravings of the flesh. What struck Siddhartha the most is the peaceful expression on the monk’s face, which left a deep impression on him. Going back to the palace after this and despite having what appeared to be the perfect life of luxury, Siddhartha became very discontent with the material world and decided to leave his family. He realized that he could no longer live happy with the thought that, even with all their luxury, there would still come a time that he will suffer and die.
With these thoughts, he soon wondered what he may do so that he can overcome suffering, more than anything else. He left his privileged life as a prince and ran away to the forest in search of spiritual understanding. For a while, he studied with two well-known gurus of that time but soon found that their practice is not enough to answer his question. That was when he began to follow the practices of a group of five ascetics: austerities and self-mortifications. For six years, he practiced with utmost sincerity and intensity that the five ascetics became his followers before long. However, he still did not find the answers he was looking for.
He decided to double his efforts by refusing food and water until he was in a state of near death. One day, Sujata, a peasant girl saw this starving monk. She took pity on him and offered him to eat some of her milk-rice. Soon, he realized that self-mortification still do not help him answer his questions. He decided to carry out a practice that will be middle way between the extremes of luxurious and self-mortification life. For many days, Siddhartha sat beneath a particular fig tree, called the bodhi tree, in the town of Bodh Gaya, vowing that he will never stand up until he found the answers to the problem of suffering.
At first, he deeply concentrated in clearing his mind from all distractions, and later on, in mindless meditation. They said that he started to recall all his previous lives, and see everything that was going on in the entire universe. He became the Buddha, meaning “he who is awake”, with the rising of the morning star on the full moon of May, when he finally found the answers he was looking for (Hooker, 1996). He spent the next forty five years teaching others about the path to enlightenment. After an exhaustive ministry he died around 483 B. C. E. During his life, none of Siddhartha Gautama's teachings were ever written down.
During the following 100 years after his death, Buddhism spread throughout India and Sri Lanka. A group of Buddhist monks held a council in the Capital city of Patna, during the third century B. C. E. , to come to a consensus on what the original teachings of Siddhartha were. When the council came to agreement about Siddhartha's true original teachings, the teachings became the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism has not deviated from this doctrine since. Theravada Buddhism's main goal is for the individual practitioner to reach Nirvana.
But when Asoka, the great Mauryan emperor converted to Buddhism in the third century BC, the young and insignificant religion soon spread profusely throughout India and was carried across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka. Just like rumors change as they are spread from person to person, Buddhism was slightly altered over time. The original form Theravada Buddhism, held its ground in Sri Lanka as the Buddhists of Sri Lanka maintained a form that was most similar to the original form of Siddhartha's teachings. On the other hand, the rest of India, then the world in general later on, Buddhism fragmented into a million sects and versions.
Theravada Buddhism requires intensive meditation. To follow his form of Buddhism requires the practitioner to devote a lifetime to its practice, thus making it difficult or even imposable for the average modern person to commit to such an undertaking. Despite the extreme demands of Theravada Buddhism, it is gaining popularity in Singapore, Australia as well as other parts of the western world. There are over 100 million Theravada Buddhists worldwide. Theravada has had less success spreading than other forms of Buddhism. Forms of Buddhism such as Zen are much more user friendly and are less demanding. Theravada Buddhism might not be the most popular, but it remains true to teachings of the genius who founded the religion. Just as well, Buddhism is in fact, a way of life.
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