There are two general approaches to reach a full understanding of Buddhism.

    One is an analytical method to study the theories and practices of the Buddha's teachings, which have been covered briefly in previous chapters. The other is a historical approach to examine the life of the founder of Buddhism, and the development of Buddhism in our world.

    When we try to understand Buddhism, we have to know about the founder of Buddhism, whether his life was real in history, whether he attained the perfection in personality, whether he was pure in his own nature, whether he was enlightened with supreme wisdom, whether he was completely liberated from suffering, whether he was respectful for us to follow, whether his teaching benefited us to attain ultimate happiness, etc.

    Buddhism was founded by Shakyamuni Buddha who was a human being in ancient India 2,500 years ago. In order to have a clear understanding of Buddhism, one must have knowledge about the political, cultural, philosophical and religious background of India at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.

    29.1   The Political & Cultural Background of Ancient India

    The culture of ancient India originated from the Aryan people of central Asia around 3,000 years ago, known as the Vedic period. During the Vedic period, the Aryans defeated the native Indians, the Dravidians, and enslaved them. They also established a caste system in which the status and occupation of a person were determined by birth.

    The four castes were determined as follows:

    1. Brahmans (the priests) - the highest caste responsible for religious rituals, prayers, and education. They claimed that they were gods on earth.

    2. Kshatriyas (royal families) - warriors to protect and govern the land. Educated by Brahmans, they were constrained to obey Brahman's instructions.

    3. Vaishyas (farmers, manufacturers and businessman) - controlled and protected by Kshatriyas.

    4. Sudras (slaves) - Dravidians. Not treated as human beings, but can be traded as products. They worked like cattles and horses.

    The first three castes were of Aryan blood. Only the Brahmans were pure Aryan blood, and the other castes were mixed. Sudras were not allowed to have Vedic religion.

    Shakyamuni Buddha was born in a society of extreme caste system. He was classified to be Kshatriyas. However, he never suppressed people with his power. On the contrary, he challenged the caste system and put forth the doctrines of kindness, compassion and equality. One of the Ten Great Disciples of Shakyamuni, Upali, was a barber from the Sudras caste. Shakyamuni was really a remarkable revolutionary.

    In history, revolutions are usually initiated by people of lower class. However, Shakyamuni left his royal family, and sought for the truth in order to save the people from suffering. Moreover, many revolutionaries fight to reform others. However Shakyamuni asked us to reform ourselves. He knew that self was the cause of ignorance and affliction, leading to the suffering of birth and death. Shakyamuni was an ultimate revolutionary because he broke up the traditions of pursuing the pleasure of the Five Desires, attained the highest wisdom and freedom, and liberated human beings from sufferings.

    29.2   The Philosophical and Religious Background of Ancient India

    In ancient India, the bibles of Brahmans dictated the philosophical and religious thoughts, which were regarded as Sruti, i.e. the absolute truths originated from the holy god. There were four volumes, called Veda (i.e. knowledge):

    1. Samhita - consists of four sections, with poems, songs, rituals, mandra, etc.
    2. Brahmana
    3. Arangaka
    4. Upanisads - the treatise about man and universe, sophiscated exposition of the Indian philosophy and metaphysics.

    This era was known as the Vedic period in India.

    Just before Shakyamuni was born, the cultural centre in India had just moved from the upper Indus River southeastward to the upper and middle of the Ganges, where Shakyamuni lived and preached.

    At that time, there was a number of powerful kings struggling for supremacy. As political system was undergoing reform and economy was becoming prosperous, human thinking grew in sophistication. They had doubts whether human happiness and sufferings simply relied on gods or religious offerings dominated by the Brahmans. They began to believe that good/evil acts of the individual determined the reward/punishment. This gave rise to a belief in the Law of Cause and Effect, and the Law of Karma. It was actually the philosophy of the Upanishads and finally became a common feature of all Indian philosophy and religion.

    Another feature of the philosophy of Upanishads was the belief that individual self (Atman) and the universal self (Brahma) were of the same nature. According to this doctrine, people were bound to an everlasting cycle of birth and death, provided that they were still governed by the Law of Cause and Effect and the Law of Karma. Ultimate true happiness was attained only if the cycle of birth and death was broken and the ideal realm uniting Atman and Brahma was attained. Thus, meditation and asceticism system were developed.

    Similar doctrines of Upanishadic philosophy were adopted by Buddhism, e.g. the Law of Cause and Effect in the three worlds (past, present and future), the Law of Karma, the concept of transmigration, etc. However, Buddhism goes further to teach that people can escape from the cycle of birth and death, and enter the tranquil realm of Nirvana, where Karma no longer exists.

    29.3   The demand of new religions

    At the time of Shakyamuni, the Upanishadic philosophy was regarded as a secret, and was only taught by Brahmans amongst themselves. Kshatriyas (royal clan) and Vaishyas (ordinary citizens) who wanted to know about the human existence had to seek for wisdom and enlightenment on their own. Those people were known as Samanas. Comparing to the Brahmans, Samanas were generally more respected by the people as they renunciated their belongings and families, and concentrated their effort in the pursuit of spiritual culmination through self experience. Nevertheless, some of the Samanas were too superstituous and extreme in tormenting themselves.

    The unorthodox Samanas did not follow the Brahman's teachings, but established their own theories. There were several major schools amongst the Samanas, i.e. the unorthodox seekers of truths:

    1. Nihilists - who denied everything, including Karma, parents, good and evil, cause and effect, etc.
    2. Materialists - who rejected any kind of spiritual existence, and only accepted the existence in material form.
    3. Fatalists - who believed that Karma dictated life, thus efforts could not alter the preordained situation.
    4. Skeptics - who doubted the existence of truth, thus refused any judgments on good and evil.

    Between the two extremes of philosophical thoughts in Samanas, there came two new religions called Jainism and Buddhism. The major similarities of the two are:

    1. The founder - both founders belonged to the royal clans. Shakyamuni was the founder of Buddhism and Nataputta was the founder of Jainism. The former was from the royal clan of Shakyas tribe, while the latter was from the royal clan of Nata tribe.
    2. Atheism - both are non-materialistic atheism.

    However, the fate of Jainism and Buddhism was different. Buddhism was first merged by Hinduism and later was destructed by Islam in India. However, Jainism is still alive today in India. In the area around Bombay, there are about 1.5 million Jainists, who are mainly traders and merchants with great economic power. Though there is no Buddhism in India, Buddhism is widely spread all over the world nowadays with disciples over 500 million, and is one of the largest international religions.

    29.4   Family Background of Shakyamuni Buddha

    At the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, India was divided politically into 16 major states, all of which were struggling for supremacy.

    The state of the Shakya tribe, in which Shakyamuni was born, was not one of the 16 major states. The Shakya state was under the power and influence of Kosala, one of the four greatest states (i.e. Kosala, Magadha, Vansa & Avanti).

    Since the Shakyas had moved to the region at the foothills of the Himalayas from the central part of India several generations before the birth of Shakyamuni, they were already an established wealthy royal clan. The Shakya state was small and remote, and was a council-system republic ruled by the aristocratic class of the Shakya tribe.

    At the time of Shakyamuni's birth, his father Suddhodana was elected to be the king of the state by the 500 families of the Shakya clan. As the most outstanding family in the tribe, the Gotama, Shakyamuni's family, owned the fortified country of Kapilavatthu, which was also the capital.

    The mother of Shakyamuni was Maya, who was the princess of the royal clan called Koliya. The kings of the Koliya and Shakyas were brothers, and the families were inter-married. Indeed, Yasodhana, who was to become the wife of Shakyamuni, was also a princess of the Koliya royal house.

    Shakyamuni Buddha was born in Lumbini Garden, which lay between the states of the Shakyas and the Koliyas, while his mother was on the way to give birth to Shakyamuni in her own family home.