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14.9: Historical Description of Buddhism

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    Siddhattha Gotama

    Siddhattha Gotama is recognized as the Buddha, but this is technically incorrect. Anyone can be a Buddha, there were many before Gotama Buddha, many after, and more to come. Indeed, Siddhattha Gotama had lived many lives before he was born into that earthly identity (if, of course, you believe in such things), and this had an important impact on his life. According to legend, Dipankara Buddha foretold that Siddhattha Gotama would be born as a prince in the kingdom of the Shakyas (so he is also referred to as Prince Shakyamuni and as Shakyamuni Buddha), and that in that lifetime he would become a Buddha. Sometime around the fifth or sixth century B.C., Prince Shakyamuni was born. Not wanting his son to leave the kingdom, the king indulged his son with every sensual pleasure known to man. The king also protected his son from knowing the unpleasant realities of life (disease, death, etc.). However, the prince’s destiny was set. Prince Shakyamuni decided he wanted to see the kingdom. In order to prevent the prince from seeing the reality of life, the king ordered that everything in the city should be cleaned and decorated and everyone should be on their best behavior. However, four heavenly beings appeared to Prince Shakyamuni: the first as someone suffering the ravages of old age, the second as someone stricken with disease, the third as a corpse, and the fourth as a wandering monk. These visitors made a profound impression on the young prince, who left his wife, child, and home to seek enlightenment.

    Living in India, the path to spiritual enlightenment that he followed was to become a yogi. He studied meditation, he became an accomplished ascetic (it is said he lived for a time on one grain of rice a day), but he failed to achieve anything satisfying. So finally he had a nice lunch and sat down under a Bodhi tree, vowing to remain seated until he achieved enlightenment. Finally, he was “awakened,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha. In his first sermon, Gotama Buddha revealed the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, the latter also being known as the Eightfold Path. Those who have followed his teachings have come to be known as Buddhists. For more on the life of the Buddha, an excellent chapter has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The sayings of the Buddha have also been collected, and are readily available (e.g., see Byrom, 1993). In his own words, we can see the relationship between Buddhism and psychology, and how these teachings were meant to guide people toward a healthy and happy life. In the teaching entitled “Choices,” the Buddha says:

    We are what we think.

    All that we are arises with our thoughts.

    With our thoughts we make the world.

    Speak or act with a pure mind

    And happiness will follow you

    As your shadow, unshakable. (pgs. 1-2)


    Bodhidharma (c. 440-528) is recognized as the monk responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism from India into China. He was also present during the construction of the Shaolin Temple, and was one of the first monks there. During his time at Shaolin Temple he is most famous for spending nine years in meditation, staring at the wall of a cave. He is also credited with developing kung-fu, the well-known martial arts technique, so that the temple monks could protect themselves from bandits. Although Bodhidharma may have spent a great deal of time in meditation, his Zen teaching was based more on a sword of wisdom (Red Pine, 1987). Some of the strange practices in Zen that we will examine in this chapter can be described as almost surprising people into enlightenment. Of course, many years of practice and discipline are necessary in order to be ready for this enlightenment. Some of Bodhidharma’s writings are still available to us today (e.g., Red Pine, 1987), and in his own words (translated, of course) we can get a glimpse of just how strange a Zen understanding of the truth can be:

    If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both. Those who don’t understand, don’t understand understanding. And those who understand, understand not understanding. People capable of true vision know that the mind is empty. They transcend both understanding and not understanding. The absence of both understanding and not understanding is true understanding. (pg. 55)

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama

    Unlike the historical figures Gotama Buddha and Bodhidharma, the Dalai Lama is alive today. Although his home is Tibet, where he was born in 1935, he lives in exile in India. He is believed to be the 14th Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas, the first of whom is believed to have been the reincarnation of a boy who lived during the time of Gotama Buddha. That boy was an incarnation of Chenrezig (also known as Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a Bodhisattva is like a Buddha – see below), and the Dalai Lamas have served for over 650 years as the religious leader of the Tibetan people. Due to political circumstances in Tibet today, it is unclear what may happen to Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself does not know whether he will be the last of the Dalai Lamas, but he hopes that choice will someday be made by a free and democratic Tibetan society (Dalai Lama, 2002).

    Placing Buddhism in Context: The First Psychology?

    Both Buddhism and Yoga share roots in ancient traditions among the Vedic people. Siddhattha Gotama was a yogi seeking enlightenment, and it was his followers who established Buddhism as the practice of his new path: the Middle Way. Since most people think of Buddhism and Yoga as separate, it makes things easier to treat them separately.

    Buddhism is as old as the Yoga of Patanjali, perhaps even older, and like Yoga had a profound influence on some well-known personality theorists (such as Rogers and Fromm). Since Yoga is usually thought of as a form of exercise in America, because of the popularity of Hatha Yoga, when people think of meditation they often think first of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, and Zen has been the most popular and best-known form of Buddhism in America, largely due to the arrival of D. T. Suzuki in 1897.

    There are two major schools of Buddhism in the world today. The Theravada tradition is most popular in southeast Asia. It emphasizes self-discipline and seeking nirvana. The Mahayana tradition is most popular in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. The Mahayana tradition emphasizes compassion, and is the school within which Zen developed. Tibetan Buddhism, which also developed within the Mahayana tradition, enjoys something of a celebrity status due to the renown of the Dalai Lama, who is recognized as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

    In many ways one can find connections between Buddhism and psychology today. As an interesting example, the well-known author and spiritual leader Jack Kornfield became a Thai Buddhist monk before returning to the United States and becoming a clinical psychologist. Many of the books comparing Eastern philosophy to Western psychology have focused on Zen Buddhism. Zen emphasizes meditation, which in one form or another has become a common element of many types of psychotherapy, particularly in humanistic and cognitive approaches. Since Buddhism shares the same tradition as Yoga, it would make no sense to say that Buddhism has influenced psychology more than Yoga. They are fundamentally the same, and their influence continues to grow.

    This page titled 14.9: Historical Description of Buddhism is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.