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Theosophical Encyclopedia


The religion founded by Siddhatta Gotama (Sk. Siddhartha Gautama), known as Buddha (“awakened”). His life is dated variously 685-605 BCE (the Siamese tradition), 566-486 BCE (the Cantonese tradition), and c. 500- c. 420 BCE (Western scholars such as Conze). Theosophical sources date it 643-563 BCE. Tradition states that he was born on the full moon of Wesak (Sk. Vaisaka, i.e., April-May) in the small kingdom of Sakkya (Sk. Sakhya) in what would now be northern Uttar Pradesh and the Nepalese terai; his father, Suddhodana (Sk. Suddhodana) was king (raja) of this area, which was located on the fringes of Aryan culture. The language spoken in the area was Magadha, later known as Pali. The boy’s mother, Maya, died in or shortly after childbirth and he was raised by an aunt, Krsa Gotami.

Various soothsayers predicted that he would either become a great king or a world teacher. His father, to prevent him from taking the latter path, protected him from experiencing anything which might turn his mind to philosophizing about the nature of human life. He married Yasodhara, thought to have been a cousin, at the age of 16 and they had a son named Rahula. He had a cousin named Devadatta who considered himself a rival of Siddhartha and who actually started a short-lived Order of his own. About the age of 29, after witnessing a sick man, and old man, and a dead body, Siddhartha left the palace (on the full moon of Wesak according to tradition) and went in search of the meaning of life.

He first studied separately with two Brahmin teachers, but ultimately left them because he had not learned the meaning of life from them. He then joined a band of five naked ascetics and practiced severe austerities for six years, again leaving them because austerities did not conduce to the understanding he sought. At the age of 35, he went to Gaya (in present-day Bihar State, now renamed Bodh Gaya) and meditated throughout the night under a pipal tree on the full moon of Wesak, attaining enlightenment just as the morning dawned, thereafter being called Buddha, Sakyamuni (“the sage of the Sakyas”), Tathagata (“thus-gone”), and Tirthankara (“one who made a ford [across the stream of ordinary existence]”). He then walked to Varanasi to deliver his first sermon to the five ascetics who became his first disciples. He continued teaching in the Magadha area (i.e., present-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) in the vernacular language rather than the priestly Sanskrit, converting large numbers of people, including his wife and son, who either became monks, nuns, or lay-followers. He is said to have died at the age of 80 after eating pork offered to him by a low-caste convert. His body was cremated and its ashes interred in several mounds, which later were preserved and decorated as stupas.

Early Buddhism. The period of early Buddhism may be said to start with Siddhartha Gautama’s first sermon in Varanasi after his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Gaya and to end with Emperor Asoka’s espousal of Buddhism and convening the Third Buddhist Council in the 3rd century BCE. Thereafter, Buddhism split into its two major sects: Theravada mainly in the south (promulgated by Asoka) and Mahayana mainly in the north (later promulgated by the 2nd century CE Kushana Emperor, Kanishka, who assisted Buddhism’s spread to China and central Asia). Pali texts suggest this covers a period of 218 years and Sanskrit texts much less. Theosophical sources identify Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life to be 643-563 BCE with his enlightenment having been attained at the age of 35, i.e., 608 BCE (although other theosophical sources date them differently; cf., e.g., CW V:249). That would suggest that the period of early Buddhism amounts to approximately 300 years.

Tradition has it that after his enlightenment, the Buddha made his way on foot to Varanasi where he gave his first sermon, termed “Setting in Motion the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” (dharmacakrapravartana) to the five ascetics with whom he had lived for some five years. This is said to have been on the full moon of the Indian month of Aadha (or Asala, i.e., July-August). They became his first converts, so Buddhism as a teaching or spiritual philosophy, as well as the order (Sangha) of monks (Pali bhikhus; Sk. bhiksus, lit. “beggars”), may be said to start from this date.

Simply put, Buddha’s teaching can be organized under three general headings: (1) “sorrow” (dukkha; Sk. duhkha) or more literally “insecurity,” (2) impermanence (anicca; Sk. anitya), and (3) non-self (anatta; Sk. anatman). (1) The first is developed in the Four Noble (Ariya; Sk. Aryan) Truths: life is inherently insecure or sorrowful, that insecurity (or sorrow) is caused by craving (tanha) or thirst (trsna), the insecurity (or sorrow) can be overcome by stopping the craving, and that craving can be overcome by following the Noble Eightfold Path: right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right effort, right memory, and right contemplation (samadhi). This Path leads to nirvana, literally “out-blowing,” i.e., extinguishing the fire of craving which causes human sorrow and insecurity. (2) The second is developed in the Chain of Dependent Co-origination (paticcasamuppada; Sk. pratityasamutpada) in which the causes of insecure existence are viewed as a wheel where the miseries of life (synopsized as “old age and death,” jara-marana) are dependent on being born, that in turn dependent on existing, etc. until all is dependent on our ignorance (avidya) of our true constantly-changing, dynamic nature — which is itself dependent on “old age and death,” etc. (3) The third analyzes human nature into a collection or “heap” (khanda; Sk. skandha) of “heaps”: form (rupa, usually mistranslated “body,” but meaning the tendency of consciousness to identify itself in terms of various forms), feeling (vedana), perception (sañña; Sk. samjña), mental dispositions or habits (sankhara; Sk. samskara), and conditioned consciousness (viññana; Sk. vijñana).

Buddha continued traveling through the area which is present-day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, giving sermons in his vernacular language (Magadha, which became known later as Pali) to large crowds of people and acquiring thereby a following of both monks, nuns, and lay people; some of the latter, being very wealthy, supported the Sangha with donations of food and by building rest houses for them to live in during the rainy season. These rest houses, along with some caves, eventually became the monks’ settled dwellings (viharas) after Buddha’s death. The rules or moral code (Vinaya) were developed by Buddha over time as the need arose. The Buddha’s sermons (Suttas; Sk. Sutras), the monastic code or Vinaya, and the Buddha are revered as the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism. Monks were classified according to their spiritual development as (1) those who had “entered the stream” (srotapatti), (2) those who would be reborn once more (ekagamin, lit. “once-returner”) before attaining enlightenment, (3) those who would attain enlightenment in their present incarnation, i.e., would not be reborn (anagamin, lit. “non-returner”), and those who were already enlightened (arahant or arhat, lit. “worthy”).

The Pali Canon explicitly denies that the Buddha taught an esoteric doctrine, but according to Helena P. BLAVATSKY, “There is an esoteric doctrine, a soul-ennobling philosophy, behind the outward body of ecclesiastical Buddhism. . . . This secret system was taught to the Arhats alone, generally in the Saptaparna cave, known to [the later Chinese pilgrim] Fa-hien [i.e., Fa-hsien] as the Cheta cave near the Mount Baibhâr (in Pali Webhâra), in Rajagriha (Sk. Rajagrha), the ancient capital of Magadha, by the Lord Buddha himself. . . . It is from this cave — called in the days of Sakyamuni [the sage of the Sakyas, i.e., Buddha], Saraswati or ‘Bamboo-cave’ — that the Arhats initiated into the Secret Wisdom carried away their learning and knowledge beyond the Himalayan range, wherein the Secret Doctrine is taught to this day” (CW X:71). She says that the cave got its name “Sapta-parna” (lit. “seven-leaved”) from Buddha’s comparing man in his secret sermons there to a seven-leaved plant (cf. CW V:246-7). She also says, “Gautama had sworn inviolable secrecy as to the Esoteric Doctrine imparted to Him” (CW XIV:388). Elsewhere, she makes a distinction between “Buddhism” (“the religious system preached by Gautama Buddha”; CW XIV:458) and this esoteric teaching, which she calls “esoteric Budhism” (cf. CW X:81), but in other places in her writings she terms the latter “esoteric Buddhism.” Obviously, none of this is to be found in scholarly or exoteric Buddhist writings.

About a year after the Buddha’s death, a Council of monks was convened at Rajagrha (some sources say in the Sapta-parna cave) to compile both the Sutras and the Vinaya. It was held under the leadership of Buddha’s two main disciples, Ananda and Kasyapa (sometimes referred to as Mahakasyapa). Buddhism as a religion may be said to date from this time. The monk Upali recited from memory the monastic rules. Ananda, who had been Buddha’s beloved disciple and had traveled with him, drew from his memory the entire sutra tradition. The sermons were then written on palm leaves and collected, along with a systematic reorganization of the sermons based on similar topics they covered (the Abhidhamma; Sk. Abhidharma), and the monastic code (Vinaya) in three separate large baskets, hence they became known as the “Three Baskets” (Tipitaka; Sk. Tripitaka). They form the canonical basis of what later was called “Southern Buddhism,” but are also accepted, with additions, by the “Northern Buddhists.”

A second Council was convened early in the 4th century BCE (theosophical sources say this was 120 years after Buddha’s death) at Vaiali under the leadership of monks Yasas and Revata. The monks at Vaisali had requested a relaxation of the monastic rules, which the Council condemned. But more importantly for the future history of Buddhism, there is evidence of a doctrinal split between a group who identified themselves as “Believers in the Teaching of the Elders” (Theravadins; Sk. Staviravadins) and those who called themselves “Members of the Great Order” (Mahasagikas). The former was later called, pejoratively, “Hinayana” (“Lesser Vehicle”) by the latter, which became known as “Mahayana” (“Greater Vehicle”). In fact, the Theravadins sometimes accepted this pejorative term, suggesting that it indicated humility, a Buddhist virtue!

A third Council was held in the mid-3rd century BCE (supposedly 236 years after Buddha’s death) at Patiliputra (modern Patna), the capital of the Mauryan Empire, at the instigation of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (whom some theosophical sources identify as a former incarnation of Col. Henry S. Olcott). Its purpose was to make a final compilation of the scriptures. The scriptures were written in the Magadha dialect and called the Pali Canon, pali in Magadha meaning “boundary” or “limit,” hence indicating the Canon was considered the final, authoritative version of the Buddhist scriptures. There is some evidence that it was attended only by Theravadins, so can be considered to omit any esoteric teachings Buddha is supposed to have given. As a result of Asoka’s patronage of Buddhism and missionary activity (including sending his son Mahendra to convert the island of Sri Lanka to Buddhism as well as sending Buddhist monks to Burma, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East), Buddhism may be said to become a world religion as a result of his activity.

A fourth Council was held in northern India in the middle of the 1st century CE, convened by the Kushana Emperor Kanishka, who had converted to Buddhism. Its purpose was to prepare commentaries on the sacred texts. But it may reflect predominantly — perhaps exclusively — the Mahayana point of view. It was as a result of Kanishka’s patronage that Buddhism spread to China and Tibet, then later to Korea and Japan. Since the Mahayana sect continued to write new scriptures, termed Sutras, after the death of Buddha, they justified them as Buddhist by indicating that they came from the same state of consciousness as that attained by the historical Buddha. They also developed the concept of the bodhisattva, one who has attained enlightenment but refuses, out of profound compassion, to “enter nirvana” (now conceived more as a place than a state of consciousness) in order to help enlighten suffering humanity.

According to a long-accepted view, the second century of Buddhism was characterized by a development of a sectarian spirit. It is said that there were some 18 different sects, 12 of them Theravadin and six Mahasanghika. Many of these sects, such as the Theravada sect known as Pudgalavada, condemned as heretical by all other Buddhist sects for postulating a semi-permanent soul called pudgala, disappeared over time. Little is known about their ideas. Further discussion of some of these sectarian divisions will be found in the articles on MAHAYANA BUDDHISM and THERAVADA BUDDHISM.

Modern Buddhism. The later development of Buddhism is covered more extensively under the following separate articles: MAHAYANA BUDDHISM; THERAVADA BUDDHISM; TIBETAN BUDDHISM; BUDDHISM, CHINESE; BUDDHISM, JAPANESE; BUDDHISM, KOREAN.

Theosophical Views. Some theosophical sources state that Buddha actually lived to the age of 100, but that is not confirmed by any Buddhist sources. Helena P. BLAVATSKY further claimed that he did not die from eating rice and pork, but that those were intended as allegories respectively for “forbidden fruit,” i.e., for revealing to common people “Brahmanical mysteries.” (CW XIV:85 fn) Needless to say, there is no confirmation of this in Buddhist or scholarly sources.

In addition to discussing the general history presented above, theosophical sources suggest that Buddhism was not as significantly divorced from Hinduism as scholars contend. For example, Blavatsky claims that Buddha’s doctrines “are not a modification but rather the revelation of the real esoteric religion of the Brahmans, so jealously guarded by them from the profane, and divulged by the ‘all-merciful, the compassionate Lord,’ for the benefit of all men.” (CW IV:463) Buddhist sources indicate that, after leaving the palace, Siddhartha studied initially with two different Brahmins, possibly learning from them the esoteric doctrines of the Upaniads, but these sources are also clear that he left those teachers because their teachings did not lead to the enlightenment he sought, so Blavatsky’s claim is certainly questionable. Nevertheless, she is unequivocal in praising Buddha as “the DIVINE MAN par excellence” (CW XI:205) and “the greatest Theosophist of the past ages.” (CW XI:373) She also explains the idea, advanced by medieval Hindus, that Buddha was an incarnation of Visnu by stating, “All the World-Saviors, the Bodhisattvas and the Avataras, are the trees of salvation grown out from the one seed, the Bija or ‘Maha-Vishnu,’ whether it be called Adi-Buddha (Primeval Wisdom) or Maha-Vishnu, it is all the same.” (CW XIV:371) In other words, it is only in this esoteric sense that Buddha — along with other “World Saviors” — is an incarnation of ViŠu, not in the sense that medieval Hindus thought of it.

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