What You Always Wanted to Know About the Buddha But Were Afraid to Ask
compiled and edited byJoseph H. Kovacic, Ph.D.



The year was approximately 560 B.C.E. The place was Northeast India. Within the royal court of the Gautamas of the Sakya clan, a male child was born. His name was Siddhartha. Siddhartha Gautama was groomed from birth to assume the role of king, the position his father then held.

Young Siddhartha was educated in the ways of conducting court and maintaining the traditions of his princely estate. However, of the ways of the populace living outside the walls of his palace, he remained ignorant.

During his first twenty-nine years of life, during which he married and had a son, he led a most pampered and protected life. Then, one day he ventured out of the palace without the benefit of his servants preceding him and clearing the way. That which he saw troubled him greatly.

Gautama witnessed the suffering of his fellow man, which had been unknown to him. He saw an old decrepit, snaggedly toothed man, a disease riddled body lying beside the road, and then a corpse. These new and unseemly encounters were of considerable consternation to this young prince, who had only experienced the good life. Is there any doubt about the impact that becoming aware of the pain and suffering of humanity, the ravage of old age, poverty, the down trodden and exploited masses, would have on this man? He had known only pleasure and wealth. Imagine!

Had it not been for one additional sight, a monk with a begging bowl, Siddhartha may have experienced depression so great that he may have considered taking his own life. This may have been a plausible action for an ordinary man. The little monk, whose only possessions were the shabby garments in which he was clad and his begging bowl, was an inspiration to the disillusioned Siddhartha. Was it attachment to things material that made witnessing real life' so abhorrent? To find the answer to this question,

Siddhartha took leave of his wife, his son, his palace, and his position. In the still of the night Gautama left his life of luxury. He spent the following six years in the wilderness wearing a shabby robe and carrying a begging bowl. There he searched for an answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?" In his quest he engaged in ascetic practices and sought the counsel of Hindu sages. Eventually, he realized the futility of asceticism. This, he discovered, did not facilitate the peace he was seeking.

Looking inward, within himself, for the answer was more placable. He meditated and withstood many temptations. Nearing the conclusion of his plight, while meditating beneath a Bo tree, Gautama, knowing that for which he searched was at hand, persevered. During this final steptoward Enlightenment and Buddhahood, Siddhartha triumphed over the allurement and the temptations of the goddess Mara. Having transcended the flesh, he experienced Enlightenment, Satori. The unity and oneness of all things, became apparent Siddhartha. Siddhartha entered' Nirvana.

The Buddha's work, however, did not cease at this point. For forty-five years, following his Enlightenment, he shared the Dharma of the Four Holy Truths with those he encountered and gathered many disciples about him.




Much controversy arises among scholars from the fact that the life and teachings of the Buddha were initially transmitted orally. The Buddha wrote nothing and there was a gap of approximately one hundred and fifty years between oral transmission and the first written records. This, of course, has been the case in other great and lesser events.

Generally, the approximate dates of the birth and death of Siddhartha Gautama, 560 B.C.E. to 480 B.C.E., are accepted by contemporary scholars. However, in Indian Buddhist tradition the date of the Buddha's death ranges from 852 B.C.E. to 252 B.C.E. Therefore, documentation of the temporal existence of the Buddha is not satisfactory. Scriptural works, such as the Mahavastu and the Lalitavistara, contain material that may range some 800 years, from 200 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. Buddhism, as understood and practiced today, may have a questionable relationship to the authentic teachings of Siddhartha. Tradition plays a role in Buddhism, as it does in all world religions, although this was not originally the case.




The Dharma that the Buddha taught took exception to the exclusiveness of the Brahmins of his day. So, he denounced the monopolistic-grips of the Brahmins on . . . religious discoveries.' The Buddha advocated personal discovery of truth and self-reliance as opposed to accepting that which is based on the authority of tradition or that of books.

Ritual was likewise discounted as was speculation. Metaphysics were not a subject for concern or discussion. It did not matter "Whether the world is eternal or not eternal. The world is finite or not. Whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another. Whether the Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death . . . "

Tradition also had no place in the teachings of the Buddha. Notably, the Buddha quit Sanskrit' and taught in the language of the people to whom he was speaking.

Since many of his fellows had acquiesced to samsara, the Buddha emphasized the import of intense self-effort' in loosening themselves from the reincarnation cycle. Emphasis was placed on spiritual' self-determinism and one's own responsibility for salvation. This was in contrast to the intense fatalism of his day.

The supernatural was anathema to the Buddha. "He condemned all forms of divination, soothsaying, and forecasting as low arts, and refused to allow his monks to play around with any form of superhuman power." The Buddha's focus was on the eternity of the here -and -now.' However, after the demise of Siddhartha, Buddhism became replete with all that he proscribed during his earthly existence.

Buddhism was empirical, scientific, pragmatic, therapeutic, psychological, democratic, and was directed to individuals. Buddhism was empirical in that it placed responsibility on followers to know for themselves, via direct experience. Buddhism was scientific in that while placing importance on direct experience, it also stressed being-here-now.'

Pragmatism in Buddhism was to be found in its dismissal of speculation.

The Eightfold Path afforded a way of ending suffering, therefore the therapeutic nature of Buddhism. Metaphysics had no place in Buddhism.

Therefore, it was considered psychological in contrast to the essentialism of the day that would have man look outside himself for solutions rather than seeking inwardly for answers. This premise has it that one must move from the inside out. Man must start with himself. As opposed to moving from the outside in, e.g., as with Charles Horton Cooley's sociological concept of the looking-glass self.' The Buddha's approach here apparently was that of the existential. Democracy was found in the fact the Buddhism was open to all, whatever worldly estate or caste. Finally, Buddhism was individualistic in that the individual must "make his own way toward enlightenment."




Among the two primary branches of Buddhism are the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The term Hinayana had negative connotations and was initially used derogatively by the Mahayanists. Therefore, those of Hinayanist persuasion opted to be referenced by the term Theravada. Theravada means the Way of the Elders.'

Following the death of the Buddha, the Dharma was the subject of considerable controversy among his followers. The primary keepers of the Truth' were members of monastic orders. The Buddha established many monastic groups in Northeast India during his forty-five-year career. After the physical death of the Buddha no successor was appointed. The faithful' had only the Dharma to guide them. Had the teachings been written down there may have been fewer disagreements and schisms. According to Conze, four centuries lapsed before there were written scriptures. As the result of oral transmission of the Buddha's teachings many and varied traditions were established. The first group of sects may be called The Old Wisdom School.'

Although Sariputra preceded the Buddha in death by six months, the influence that Sariputra exerted over the monastic movement may have exceeded that of the Buddha himself. Sariputra was in charge of training monks, so his version of the Dharma influenced some fifteen to twenty generations of monks.

Mahayanist literature had its inception some four hundred years following the death of the Buddha. In Mahayanist writings, such as the Prajnaparamita Sutras', the Lotus of the Good Law', and the Avatamsaka Sutra', Sariputra is cast as the purveyor of inferior wisdom. His wisdom was suitable only for those who are unable to comprehend the real teachings of the Buddha. This inferior form was alleged to have been taught by the Buddha for the benefit of the obtuse and was known as Hinayana.

The starting point of Mahayana Buddhism came with the Mahasanghikas.  They were more liberal and less strict in discipline than the exponents of the Old Wisdom School.' The exclusive claim of monks to Enlightenment gave way to a more democratic approach which included lay persons. It also allowed for spiritual possibilities for women, and lesser gifted monks.

The Sutra of Perfect Wisdom', Prajnaparamita', was developed into a philosophical and systematic form by the Madhyamikas around 150 C.E. Madhyama means the middle, and the Madhyamikas are those who take the middle-way', neither affirming nor denying. The founders of this school were Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. For over eight hundred years the Madhyamika school flourished in India until it split into two subdivisions in 450 C.E. Later it came to disillusion. However, the Madhyamika principles were adapted to the Chinese and Japanese perspectives and lives on as Ch'an in China and Zen in Japan.




Some important Mahayana concepts are Bodhisattva, Emptiness, Nonduality, Suchness and Karma. These will be discussed in the following.

Others are considered elsewhere. A Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be.' The literal translation is Enlightenment-being.' A Bodhisattva is a person who has reached the brink of Enlightenment and rejects the final step to the other shore.' The result of nonattachment to self causes postponement of Enlightenment. Enlightenment is postponed so that he can be of assistance to others. More important than a Bodhisattva's own Buddhahood are the other person to whom he can show the way. In Tibetan Buddhism a Bodhisattva is considered a Heroic Being. A Bodhisattva is a compassionate being, unable to rest until the whole of creation can accompany him to the "shore on the other side or the river," to Nirvana. "A Bodhisattva is a being compounded of the two contradictory forces of wisdom and compassion. In his wisdom, he sees no persons; in his compassion he is resolved to save them. His ability to combine these contradictory attitudes is the source of his greatness, and of his ability to save himself and others."

Emptiness, as understood by the Western mind, would be something hollow, something perhaps without substance. When examining the Buddhist concept of emptiness, it is first necessary to view the Sanskrit root, SVI, to swell. Sunya literally means relating to the swollen.' SVI invokes the idea of that which looks swollen on the outside must be hollow on the inside. Swollen could mean something filled with an alien substance as in pregnancy, or as happens with a zit. The alien substance contained therein must be abandoned. The Sanskrit Sunyata, in English would be emptiness.

Sunyata is to the Westerner an easily misapprehended concept. When used technically, the words empty and emptiness, in Buddhist parlance, refers to the complete negation of the phenomenal world through an exercise in wisdom. "Emptiness is that which stands right in the middle between affirmation and negation, existence and nonexistence, eternity and annihilation."

Nonduality is a popular synonym for Sunyata. ". . . All dualities are abolished, the object does not differ from the subject, Nirvana is not distinguished from the world, existence is no longer something apart from nonexistence. Discrimination and multiplicity are the hallmarks of ignorance. From another point of view emptiness is called Suchness,because one takes reality such as it is, without superimposing ideas upon it."

Although the Buddha rebelled against Hinduism, denouncing the soul as having no spiritual substance, he did carry forward the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, and other Hindu elements. Karma is related to belief in the transmigration of souls. The following material, excerpted from Huston Smith's treatise on Buddhism from his book titled, The Religions of Man', will provide some insight on how karma is regarded by Buddhists.

". . . Each life is in the condition it is in because of the way the lives which have led into it were lived." "In the midst of . . . causal sequence, man's will remains free." ". . . Acts will be followed by predictable consequences, these consequences never shackle man's will or determine completely what he must do. Man remains a free agent, always at liberty to do something to affect his destiny."

This irony in the Buddha's teachings must be related to the perspective of duality which is inherent in conceptual thought. When one thinks of hot there must necessarily be the thought of cold with which to make comparison. There cannot be hot unless there is the taking into account the inverse, cold. While one clings to dualistic, conceptual thinking, attention is directed away from the experience one is experiencing.




Buddhism spread throughout much of Asia and even reached Persia and Greece. The appeal of Buddhism to peoples of varied and diverse cultures resulted from its malleability. Buddhism easily assimilated and adapted to the popular religious practices and beliefs of the peoples where it took hold.

Buddhist expansion was due in no small extent to the favor it gained among monarchies of the time. King Asoka, one of the greatest rulers of India, was the first to turn it into a world-religion. Through his influence Buddhism was carried throughout India, Ceylon, Kashmir and Gandhara.

He sent missionaries to Greece, Syria and Macedonia. Buddhism also gained favor with Chinese emperors and empresses, Mongol Khans and in Japan, with Shotoku Taishi. A factor in favor of the expansion of Buddhism was that it did not require exclusive allegiance from its adherents.

As Mahayana developed, it borrowed deities from the cultures where it assimilated, not to the exclusion of the rulers that gave it favor. Kings were regarded as Bodhisattvas in Java, Cambodia, Ceylon and Siam. In Tibet the Dalai Lama is regarded as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

While Buddhism gained in popularity, it assumed many superstitions from the cultures where it existed. Therefore, the purity of the Buddha's original teaching suffered abrogation.




The Buddhism of the laity developed from the idea that lay people, with their attachment to property, family and home, were of little inclination to metaphysical pursuits. So that lay people might also gain salvation, the Buddhism of Bhakti or faith had its inception. "One of the first Buddhas to become an object of Bhakti was Akshobhya, who rules in the East, in the Buddha-land of Abhirati. The cult of Amitabha began about the same time and bared a strong Iranian influence." "Amitabha is the Buddha of Infinite Light and his kingdom is in the West." Amitabha in China and Japan has been more popular than any other Buddha. There are many other mythological creations of devotion in Bhakti.

The faithful hope to be reborn in one of the Lands of the Blessed.' According to Conze, the methods used by the faithful to accomplish this goal are as follows: "One should lead a pure life, and cultivate the desire to become like the Buddhas. As the Mahayana developed, ever more, stresses were laid upon worship of the Buddhas to accumulate merit. One should think of the Buddha while repeatedly pronouncing his name. One should believe firmly that one's chosen Buddha or Bodhisattva has made a vow' to save all. Therefore he is both willing and able to save you, and to take you to his paradise. In meditation one should concentrate on the perfection of a Buddha-land. One should train the visual imagination to see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and senses of sound, sight and smell to perceive the sensory beauty of the Buddha-lands."





In the early sixth century C.E., Bodhidharma, who was from India or Persian, brought to China the essence of Buddhism', the Madhyama teachings of the Madhyamikas. The message transported to China by Bodhidharma, with its ". . . austere simplicity' and virtual lack of ritualism . . . made a strong appeal" to the Chinese. The Confucian influence in China "had predisposed scholars against the fine-spun metaphysical speculation in which Indian Buddhists have indulged with so much enthusiasm." The "teaching of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and the Taoist sages had anticipated Zen quietism and prepared the Chinese mind for the reception of a doctrine in many ways strikingly similarly to their own." This Path, which in China is called Ch'an and Zen in Japan, is well known in the West.

Most Buddhist sects hold to the premise that they maintain the authentic teachings of the Buddha. They all hold as their central theme that Enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Consider the precepts of Gautama the Buddha as contained in the Four Holy Truths and the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. The Buddha denounced authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, the supernatural, and encouraged intense self-effort in achieving Enlightenment. Therefore, one can ascertain that most of the Buddhist sects are given to self-deception, except Zen. Zen offers the purity of the Dharma as transmitted by Siddhartha himself.

Zen combines the lessons taught by the Buddha with the wisdom of Taoism. "The old Chinese Zen Masters were steeped in Taoism. They saw nature in its total interrelatedness, and saw that every creature and every experience is in accord with the Tao of nature just as it is." The Tao is the way of nature. Nature is neither good nor bad or not good nor not bad.

Nature is what nature is, nothing more or nothing less. Man, as a sentient being, along with all other sentient beings, is neither good nor bad. Man just is. Man and all creatures of the earth are part of the earth, an integral part of nature. The Tao, according to Chung-yung, "is that from which one cannot depart. That from which one can depart is not the Tao."

In Zen the ultimate goal of the adept is Satori. Zen, unlike other Buddhist disciplines, has it that countless samsaric experiences are unnecessary for the attainment of Enlightenment. Dhyana or Zazen is the prime activity in Zen. Dhyana, as the Buddha practiced it, is that which will cause the cessation of conceptual thinking. When the mind is still, one can realize one's true nature, one's oneness with all things. There is nothing for which to strive. Nirvana is all about and all within. This is allusive to those caught up in conceptual thinking. It is just as the old woman who lost her spectacles. She searched high and low, and looked into every nook and cranny in search of them. If she had noticed them resting of her forehead, she would have had no need to search. They were present, waiting to be plucked. Nirvana requires no search. There is nothing to achieve. One only needs to notice its prescience.

The great T'ang master Lin-chi said:

In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.

Alan Watts addressed the issue of conceptual thought when he wrote:  "Conventional thought is, in brief, the confusion of the concrete universe of nature with the conceptual things, events, and values of linguistic and cultural symbolism. For in Taoism and Zen the world is seen as an inseparably interrelated field or continuum, no part of which can be separated from the rest or valued above or below the rest. It was in this sense that Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, meant that not one thing exists', for he realized that things are terms and not entities." Let us not ignore the fact that this quotation is conceptualization and that concepts further obscure reality.

Concepts are neither good nor bad. They are like the finger pointing out the moon for the benefit of a small child. If the child sees only the finger, to the exclusion of that to which it points, the child will believe the finger to be the moon. Concepts are useful tools if they don't get in the way of that which they only represent. Conceptual thought perpetuates the dualism of good and evil, hot and cold, sad and happy. "Satori always remains inaccessible to the mind preoccupied with its own states or with the search for ecstasy." Continuation on this path precludes our direct experience of whom we are. Conceptual thoughts divert attention away from the experience about which we are to busy thinking to notice.