Buddha (6th–5th century BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

The title of Buddha is usually given to the historical founder of the Buddhist religion, Siddhārtha Gautama, although it has been applied to other historical figures, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and to many who may be mythological. The religion which he founded was enormously successful and for a long period was probably the most widespread world religion. It is sometimes argued that it is not so much a religion as a kind of philosophy. Indeed, Buddhism bears close comparison with some of the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic world in this respect. The Buddha himself does not seem to have known the concept of a transcendent God and most schools of Buddhism have repudiated it on the grounds, among others, that it undermines personal responsibility for action. Buddhism could be considered as a kind of ‘metareligion’, open to many religious practices and tolerating others, but not identifiable with religious activity as such – more a kind of philosophical structuring of religion together with a methodology for self-development. Associated with this latter is an elaborate and sophisticated account of mental states and the functioning of consciousness. Characteristic of earlier Buddhist thought is a positive emphasis upon balanced states and a strong rejection of any form of underlying substance and most types of changelessness.

The date when the Buddha, or Siddhārtha Gautama, lived is not certain. For some time most scholars thought that the main period of his activity was in the late sixth century bc, but many believe it more likely that he died close to the end of the fifth century bc, making him a near contemporary of Socrates. Varied information about his life has been preserved, although it is difficult to differentiate between accurate biography and later legend. Scholars are divided on this issue.

It is known that he was born in a noble family among a people called the Sākyas who dwelt near the present-day borders of India and Nepal. After marriage and the birth of a son he experienced some kind of existential crisis. Extant literature presents him as perceptive to the sickness, old age and mortality inherent in life and perceiving the possibility of a solution to such problems. So he went forth ultimately ‘for the welfare and benefit of the manyfolk’ (as many early Buddhist texts put it) and took up the wandering lifestyle of a homeless religious mendicant. He studied under various spiritual teachers and then, seeking to go beyond what he had learned from them, he adopted, together with a group of companions, the common Indian practice of severe asceticism for around six years. He rejected this method as ineffectual and returned to more moderate practices at which point he achieved the spiritual breakthrough that made him a buddha. The remainder of his life was spent teaching the way he had found, or rather rediscovered, to his disciples.

This way is often characterized as the ‘Middle Way’ between the extremes of pursuing sensual pleasures and suffering torment as a means of self-purification and applies both to spiritual praxis and intellectual understanding. The Middle Way also seeks to avoid the extremes of ‘eternalism’ and ‘annihilationalism’. These are terms for commitment as a result of a psychological bias – either towards the belief that there is an unchanging immortal soul that survives death or that death is the final end and there is no continuity after the destruction of the body. Similarly any suggestion that the soul or life principle (jīva) is identical to, or completely distinct from the body is avoided. Preferences with regard to the universe were also considered to be the result of psychological bias, for example, whether or not it is eternal in time, and whether it is finite or infinite in space.

With regard to practice, the Buddha especially advocated the development of the meditation states known as jhānas (dhyāna). Since these were characterized by a pleasant state of mind, they contrasted with the painful methods of practice widespread in the Indian religion of the day. These states also placed a stress on clarity and conscious awareness, as distinct from the apparent valuation of unconscious trance-like states in pre-Buddhist Indian religion. This emphasis led to the development of methods of study and practice which strongly asserted the importance of insight and understanding (prajñā). For most later forms of Buddhism and probably for the Buddha himself, the actual goal of Buddhist meditation represented an awakening which permanently integrated both the meditative states of the jhānas and a high development of understanding. It is this which is referred to in the early texts as acquiring the ‘vision of truth’ or ‘dhamma eye’ and is seen as the basis for the awakening or bodhi, taught by the Buddha, or Awakened One.

According to early Buddhists, the Buddha presented his teaching on two levels. At an introductory stage he put forward a simple model of the good life, advocating both the practice of generosity and moral restraint. This was probably linked to a picture of the world as one where living beings were reborn in a series of after-death destinies, including rebirth as a human being or animal (see Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of). Such a view appears to have been already widely known, even by the Greeks of that time. Living such a life was seen as creating conditions for a better mental state, capable of understanding more profound truths. For the Buddha these more advanced truths were his higher teaching and were referred to as the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha probably rejected monism. Early on his followers developed a type of process philosophy which emphasized the universality of change in ordinary experience and rejected the idea that there was any kind of fixed essence behind things. This applied both to the world at large and to the individual. Thus, notions of a world-soul, or ground of being and a permanent, unchanging individual nature were repudiated. The picture they adopted saw life in terms of harmonious interaction of multiple processes. Fundamental to this was the notion of dhamma (Sanskrit dharma) – the lawful and harmonious nature of things. This dhamma was rediscovered by the Buddha and his teaching was understood as the presentation of a universal law which exists in some sense, whether or not it is known about.

Our knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings and of early Buddhism in general derives primarily from the collection of texts known as the tipiṭaka, or ‘three baskets’: the canonical writings of early Buddhism. The earliest extant version of these is that preserved in the Pāli language by the southern Buddhists. At first it was preserved within the oral tradition, but was written down in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon in the first century bc. Translations of similar texts of diverse origins and dates are preserved in the Chinese Buddhist Canon. Undoubtedly some of this material is as old as the corresponding (and often similar) sources in the Pāli Canon, but it is mixed with material of later origin. Some texts in Sanskrit were discovered in libraries (mostly in Nepal) in the nineteenth century and more recently in the monastic libraries of Tibet, in a ruined library at Gilgit in Kashmir and (often fragmentary) in various desert locations in central Asia. However, most of these appear to be slightly later than the equivalent texts in Pāli. Most recent of all is the acquisition by the British Museum in 1995 of a number of fragments of a version of the Canon in the Gāndhārīlanguage, apparently dating from the first century ad or earlier.

Citing this article:
Cousins, L.S.. Buddha (6th–5th century BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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