“I am not a man. Those evil influences, those lusts, whose non-destruction would have individualised me as… a man, I have completely annihilated. Know, therefore… that I am a Buddha. ” – Gautama Buddha, from the Pali scriptures (Goddard, page 5) Throughout history there have been hundreds of influential figures. Some are well-known for their charitableness or kindness, or for their supreme knowledge which contributed to the growth of humanity. Others are noted for their religious, literary, or cultural contributions to the world. Yet very few are known as all of these.
One figure in particular could be called not only a religious founder, but a humanitarian and a philosopher as well. This is Siddharta Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. Born in about 563 B. C. E. in the Indian Subcontinent, the Gautama Buddha founded a well-known religion and proved to be an extremely influential figure whose traditions and beliefs are held in high regards today. Without the unique teachings of the Gautama Buddha, the world would be different for people of all practices, for in the path of this one great man were many more who helped to pass down and spread his beliefs across many cultures.
As a young prince growing up in Kapilavastu, now known as Padeira, Gautama led an indulged life under the care of his maternal aunt and father. No pains were spared to make the course of his life smooth. At the age of sixteen he was married; his wife bore a son several years later. For twenty-five years Gautama was sheltered from the suffering of mankind. Yet one day he left the palace and immediately saw an aged man, a sick man, and a corpse by the roadside. Shocked by his first experience with sadness, the prince lost all joy in living.
At the age of twenty- nine Gautama left his sleeping wife and son and rode away into the forest, impelled by a strong desire to find the origin of pain and suffering of mankind. This was known as the Night of the Great Renunciation. At first Gautama experimented with a life of ascetism, but found no solace in harsh penances. Finally he retired to the Bo tree, under which he sat for forty-nine days. As he meditated in solitude he experienced a spiritual awakening, known as “the enlightenment. ” He devoted the rest of his many years to the spread of his practices and ideas to better the lives of people everywhere.
Buddha was said to be a kind, humble, charismatic and magnetic person. This is demonstrated by the fact that throughout his life, he and his followers lived off of the food and drink that was offered to them by townspeople as they walked through the villages. Never did Buddha farm or purchase his own food, but he always accepted what was offered to him. This was probably very helpful to his cause because he was able to spread his ideas and live comfortably while mingling with all different types of people.
He was also very approachable, for he was a man who never claimed to be more than a man, and whose teachings were rooted in ideas of kindness and love towards everyone and everything. Furthermore this magnetism, the quality that drew other people to him, could be one of the reasons for the spread of Buddhism during Gautama’s lifetime. One instance where the quality of a “charismatic leader” came into effect was when the Buddha was returning from the Bo tree and was on his way to the city of Benares to preach his first sermon.
On the way he met five of his former companions in the Deer Park, whom he had renounced along with ascetic practices. “When these five saw… the Buddha coming towards them, they agreed… not to rise in salutation, nor greet him, nor offer the customary refreshments when he came, for he had broken his first vow by giving up acetic practices. However, when the Tathagata (Buddha) approached them, they involuntarily rose from their seats and in spite of their resolution greeted him and offered… to do all that he might require. ” (Goddard, page 10).
Immediately thereafter the Buddha preached his first sermon in Benares, which Buddhists hold in the same reverence as Christians do the Sermon on the Mount. These five companions became the first converts to Buddhism after hearing their teacher’s explanation of how to escape suffering- by accepting the four noble truths, and following the eightfold path. Undoubtedly was Buddha a charismatic, well-liked figure. During his lifetime he accumulated many followers from all walks of life, and in death a movement commemorating his teachings spread throughout Asia.
A great instigator of this movement was Asoka, a monarch from about 274- 232 B. C. E. , known for his contributions to Buddhism. Asoka was a devout Buddhist, yet insisted on tolerance toward all religious groups in his realm. At the time of his reign Buddhism was split into many sects and schools that Asoka attempted to meld into a uniform point of view. Through use of missionaries Asoka managed to spread the religion as far South as Ceylon and as far North as Kashmir. He also constructed monasteries, encouraged study of Buddhist scriptures, and had statements of Buddhist beliefs inscribed on pillars for all to read.
Without these contributions Buddhism would have come close to dying out in the third century B. C. E. By putting so much weight on the importance of Buddhism, Asoka was able to recruit many new followers, turning a local religion into a widespread practice two hundred years after its founder’s death. After Asoka’s death his religious work was discontinued, but Buddhism was seen in a new light. Other historical figures as well as Asoka have been greatly influenced by Buddhism. One of the most notable was Alan Watts, a 20th- century English author, teacher, and lecturer.
His first book, The Spirit of Zen was published in 1936, and caught some attention in the United States, where he moved three years later. He taught at several institutions of higher learning and lectured on Zen. His most influential book was The Way of Zen , published in 1957. Nishida Kitaro was the leading Japanese scholar of the 20th- century as well. His writings attempt to assimilate Western philosophy into Buddhist theology. He was the author of Philosophical Essays, A Study of Good, and From the Acting to the Seeing Self.
There were hundreds of others who devoted their lives to the spread and literature of Buddhism as well, from ancient times all the way to the 20th- century. Why did Buddhism catch on so well? Though it is not, by any means, as widespread as Christianity, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the world today. Even during Gautama’s life conversions to Buddhism were common in the small community where it was practiced. Perhaps many poor people, who knew what it was like to suffer, were able to identify with Buddha’s philosophies on pain and sorrow.
Since the Buddha never asked to be worshiped as a god, common people may have found the religion less demanding and easier to believe in. Buddha was also an unbiased person who did not believe in the caste system and did not think that people of low social status should be shunned and cast from society. By accepting the Buddha’s faith, the caste system became less popular and people began to question it. Without the influences of Buddha as a teacher, many would have continued to suffer, for Buddhism offered a path to follow that people believed could lead to the escape from suffering, and a way to reach the blissful haven of Nirvana.
If Gautama had never gone on to become what he was, other Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Jainism would have been different, for all religions are influenced by others. Prior to Gautama’s birth, there were said to be other practicing Buddhas. The most important early text that states this refers to six Buddhas that appeared prior to Gautama. Another text found in the Pali scriptures narrates the lives of twenty-four Buddhas, all existing before Gautama. Another question to ask oneself is why the Gautama Buddha was the most influential and well-known.
According to the texts these other Buddhas were worshiped in India off and on for an extensive period of time. Was there some sort of connection between these other Buddhas and Gautama? Many say that every Buddha is a different incarnation of the same soul. Even if this is so, why was Gautama the one who made a difference in the course of history? The answer perhaps lies in the fabled personality and charisma of Gautama; that by chance the fact that he was a “people-person” helped him to get through to common people in a way that previous incarnations could not.
It could also have been due to the time period in which Gautama was born. “The appearance of a Buddha in this world is determined not only by his own spiritual efforts but also by other circumstances. There can only be one Buddha in a particular world at a given time, and no Buddha can arise until the teachings of the previous Buddha have completely disappeared… A Buddha is not born… when human beings are so well off… that they do not fear sickness, aging, and death; such people… uld be incapable of insight into the pervasiveness of suffering and impermanence of all things and therefore would not be prepared to receive a Buddha’s message. ” (source unknown, page 327)
As this quote shows, a reason for Gautama’s influence could very well have been that he was fortunate enough to be born into the right time and place, and his ideas happened to fit the mind set of the people at the time. Another way in which Buddhism, the teachings of Gautama, influenced the world, was through many different types of art and literature.
A very early artistic representation of the Buddha was the stupa, or burial mound. The stupa is made to symbolize the transcendent body, or enlightened state of the Buddha. The traditional stupa was a golden urn in which the Buddha’s ashes lay, placed in a mound built at the crossing of four main roads and covered with flowers. It served as a place of worship, a sort of shrine. Later, anthropomorphous depictions show the Buddha as calm and loving, with a soft smile and radiant energy, usually sitting in the lotus position used for meditation.
Scenes painted in temples show the Buddha at key moments of his life, such as sitting under the Bo tree. Buddhist imagery has played an important part in the development of temple architecture throughout Asia. It is through the temple remains that scholars are able to track the growth and spread of Buddhism. Sacred Buddhist writings influenced the literature of the countries that accepted Buddhism as a religion, including the United States. Author Jack Kerouac claimed to be greatly influenced by Buddhist writings, which had a direct influence upon the American Beat movement in the 1950’s.
Ancient Buddhist scriptures also had an effect upon the New Age movement that followed- with many philosophies of hippies a reflection of what had been stated by Gautama 2,500 years before. Without the ideas of Gautama, there may never have been such a widespread hippie movement. There are multitudes of Buddhist verses, epithets and biographies of Gautama, few of which are granted very much credibility only because nothing was written of Gautama during his life. Modern-day Buddhism is still very much alive and growing.
In the East Buddhists have had to battle with communism and imperialism, but in the long run has overcome these threats. The most damage to Buddhism was done in Tibet, where the Chinese Communist occupation almost wiped out the spiritual and cultural basis of Tibetan culture. In Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal and Mongolia Buddhism is still a strong force. In the West Buddhism is kept alive by the descendants of 19th- century immigrants, and anyone else who may have found truth in the teachings of Gautama. There are currently Buddhist communities all over the United States, with all sects of Buddhism being represented.
The fastest growing schools in the U. S. are Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, both a variation of the Mahayana school. Many Westerners are so interested in Buddhism that they are becoming Buddhist teachers themselves. In the U. S. Buddhism is being modified to fit 20th- century American ideas and culture. As one can see, the teachings of the Gautama Buddha greatly affected many different cultures throughout many time periods all over the world. Whether it be art, literature, religion, philosophy, or social reforms, Buddhism has influenced a multitude of different things.
Had it not been for Gautama there would be no Buddhist influence on the many styles of artwork, literature, architecture, philosophy and ways of life as there is today. Buddhism has survived the threat of cultural reform and has flourished in most continents across the globe. The Buddha himself may have foreseen the spread of Buddhism, and how his local following would never die if it maintained a pattern of new growth. When asked how a drop of water could be prevented from drying up, he answered, “by throwing it into the sea. “