Into the Light
As with Jesus and Christianity, the Buddha lived as a human long before others created a religion in his name. Both of these great spiritualists had followings of devout people eager to learn their heroes' secrets, but the Christian scriptures weren't codified until at least 70, and likely 100, years after Jesus of Nazareth suffocated on a cross. Siddhartha Gautama also had a group of students willing to go to any lengths to acquire the enlightenment he had attained.
Prince Siddhartha was born to wealth in a garden village called Lumbini just inside of what is now Nepal about six centuries before Jesus. Siddhartha left his wife and children to partake in what would now be considered a vision quest. He attempted to attain enlightenment various ways, most notably through asceticism. After some years of surviving on little more than a handful of rice each day, he decided that such extremes were getting him nowhere. Finally, he settled on a truth shared by almost all people of true wisdom and sincere spirituality: moderation was the key to enlightenment. (Legend has it that he finally figured out the Great Truth while sitting beneath a Bodhi tree in 535 BCE and was renamed Lord Buddha.) After his death a council was formed to interpret and codify his teachings; it is believed that the earliest written texts based on these teachings were penned about 250 years later.
Essentially, the Great Truth came down to this: All life is suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. Eliminate desire and eliminate suffering. This concept is more fully examined in the Four Noble Truths. Having enjoyed great material wealth, the future Buddha reportedly realized on his first brush with skid row that lust, hatred, delusion, and other evils had to be eliminated to justify living only to die.
These and other teachings endlessly reinterpreted led to the formation of three schools: Theravada (or Southern) Buddhism, which spread across Southeast Asia in the Thirteenth Century; Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in parts of China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia; and Vajrayana (or Tibetan Buddhism), which existed in the isolation of Tibet until 1949 when China conquered that nation and forced the Tibetan followers of the Dalai Lama to flee to the northern part of India.
Today there are many sects of Buddhism, but all rely on meditation and all believe in the eternal light that allows for reincarnation. The Dalai Lama is said to be a reincarnation of the leader of Buddhism, and when he passes into the light another incarnation will take his place. No matter what one thinks of the fourth largest religion in the world, you have to give some consideration to the famous comment of Albert Einstein: "Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity."
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