Eventually Siddhartha sat beneath a pipal tree, where he vowed not to arise until he found the truth. But find it he did, and arose enlightened after 49 days of meditation, writing down what he learned—writings that became the basis for Buddhism.
Most modern scholars agree that the historical Buddha was alive between about 563 to 483 BCE. That means that the teachings of Buddhism have been passed down for over 2,500 years.
To give you an idea of how ancient this is, let’s look at what else happened around the time period in which the Buddha was alive.
Around this time, the contemporary English city of London found its origins amidst marshy waters near the River Thames, in the form of a few dozen huts and a small river landing built by the Celtic king, Belin. The catapult had also just been invented by the Greeks, and war was breaking out between Sparta and the city-state of Elis. Jesus, founder of Christianity, wouldn’t be born for hundreds of years.
With this in perspective, it’s hard not to be surprised at how long the Buddha’s teachings have been transmitted from teacher to teacher.
There is no single holy book.
Unlike the other major world religions, Buddhism has no single holy book from which all of its teachings come. Instead, there is a vast number of texts and teachings, but few that are accepted as authentic and authoritative.
Buddhist scriptures are called sutras, which means “thread”. This title indicates that the work is a sermon given by the Buddha, or by one of his disciples—many, however, have other origins.
There is a multitude of sutras, ranging in size from a few lines to that of a large tome. And beyond this, there are countless fables, rules for monks and nuns, and commentaries.
To complicate matters, Buddhism split into two major schools around 2,000 years ago, becoming what are known today as Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhist scriptures are divided into canons for each of these schools. And, to go even further, the Mahayana canon is split between the Chinese canon and the Tibetan canon.
Sound a little overwhelming? It is. Better get reading now!
There’s no Buddhist god.
One major difference between Buddhism and other major religions is the lack of a central deity.
Siddhartha was just a man, albeit an enlightened one, and made no claims to divinity at all. Buddhists follow his teachings and try to live as he did, but they do not worship him.
Interestingly, the Buddha, in contrast to the gods of other faiths, encourages Buddhists to not take his word for anything, but rather to go find out what work for themselves—it’s all about exploring beliefs, understanding them, and testing those beliefs against experience.
The Buddha, himself, explains this best, when he writes, “Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘This is our Teacher’. But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up… and when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, and that the wise believe them to be so, then accept them and follow them.”
This is Buddhism—it’s more about practice than merely holding a certain set of dogmatic beliefs.
It’s closer to psychology than religion.
One fact about Buddhism fact that will surprise you the most is that it is closer to psychology than religion—it’s really quite practical.
The Buddha could be seen as an early psychologist, teaching his disciples the idea of acceptance—that the world is a certain way, and that wishful thinking only leads to sorrow.
One of the principal ideas of Buddhism is that suffering comes from craving—mainly, from wishing things were different than they are. We all wish that sickness didn’t take hold of our bodies. We want money, friends, and lovers. We want success and fame. We want and we want, and when the world doesn’t align with those wants, we suffer.
But Siddhartha, in his enlightenment, recognized the futility of this.
Buddhism fosters a mindset that helps adherents accept the world as it really is, and to abolish destructive cravings that lead to anger, sorrow, and suffering.