Founders & Exemplars

The most important person associated with the foundation of Buddhism is the Buddha – Siddattha / Siddartha Gotama / Gautama (or Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit) also known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni (sage of the Shakyas). The precise dates of the Buddha’s life are uncertain. A widespread Buddhist tradition records that he was in his 80th year when he died and the dates for his life are most widely quoted as 566-486 BCE. However, recent scholarly research, using rock edicts and named monks and nuns and their recorded ages, has suggested that the dates should be brought forward, placing the Buddha’s death closer to 400 BCE rather than 500BCE. The Buddha also had important disciples who helped with Buddhism’s foundation: Sariputta / Sariputra was renowned for his wisdom, and the Buddha named him as his chief assistant in turning the Dhamma / Dharma Wheel. Moggallana Maudgalyayana was Sariputta’s friend and was particularly renowned for his psychic abilities; Ananda was the Buddha’s cousin and attendant and is known as the Guardian of the Dhamma / Dharma. Finally King Asoka / Ashoka, living a couple of centuries after the death of the Buddha, was extremely influential in the propagation of the Dhamma / Dharma.

The ancient Indians were more concerned with philosophy rather than chronologies and biographies. We therefore have a clearer idea of the Buddha’s thoughts and ideas than we do of his life. However, accounts of the Buddha’s life were developed after his death. Siddattha / Siddartha was born a prince in Lumbini, Ancient India, now modern day Nepal. He was examined by Brahmins and it was predicted he would one day be either a great king or a Buddha. His father, preferring his son to be a great king rather than a renouncer, tried to hide all suffering from him and ensured he lived a life of comfort. However, at the age of 29 the Buddha saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. Depressed by this, Siddattha / Siddartha left the palace, his wife and his son to become a mendicant and overcome old age, illness and death. He tried various ascetic practices, taking his austerities and self-mortification to such a point that he nearly starved to death. After collapsing in a river and nearly drowning he reconsidered; having taken some milk and rice from a girl named Sujata he realised a middle way between over indulgence and asceticism was preferable. He sat down underneath a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi Tree and vowed never to rise until he had found the Truth. After 49 days of meditating, at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha travelled in the Gangetic Plain teaching to an extremely diverse range of people – from nobles to outcastes, from street sweepers to mass murderers and cannibals. He set up the Sangha, the monastic community, which aided his teachings. At the age of 80 the Buddha entered Parinibbana / Parinirvana and told his disciples to follow no leader, but to follow his teachings.

Sariputta / Sariputra and Moggallana / Maudgalyayana were the two principal disciples and arahats / arhats of the Buddha, who both became ascetics on the same day. There are many stories about the two which emphasize Sariputta’s / Sariputra’s wisdom and Moggallana’s / Maudgalyayana’s psychic abilities. For example, a mischievous yaksa decided to irritate Sariputta / Sariputra by striking him on the head. Moggallana / Maudgalyayana saw this occurring with his psychic abilities, and warned his friend, though unsuccessfully. However, due to his great spiritual wisdom, Sariputta / Sariputra perceived the terrible blow that the yaksa delivered as only a light breeze. Moggallana / Maudgalyayana expressed amazement that Sariputta / Sariputra barely noticed the attack, while Sariputta / Sariputra was equally surprised that Moggallana / Maudgalyayana had foreseen all of this.

Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, was famous for his retentive memory with many of the Suttas / Sutras attributed to him. He famously petitioned the Buddha to allow nuns into the Sangha.

The Buddha represents the paradigm for human behaviour; he achieved as much as one possibly can by becoming a Buddha, all through personal striving. However, in terms of realistic models for modern Buddhists, the Buddha can seem somewhat ‘out of reach’. Therefore, the disciples are often easier to identify with. Each one highlights specific values Buddhists hold important; Sariputra’s / Sariputra’s wisdom is aspired to through studying the Dhamma / Dharma; Moggallana’s / Maudgalyayana’s psychic abilities are sought through meditation; and Ananda’s compassion and dedication to the Buddha is searched for through devotional practices.

The most important and most famous contemporary Buddhist leader is the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Gelug sect. Successive Dalai Lamas form a lineage of reborn magistrates which traces back to 1391 – the current one is the 14th. Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lamas to be the incarnation of the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

The title Dalai Lama was first bestowed by the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan upon Sonam Gyatso in 1578. Gyatso was an abbot at the Drepung monastery and was considered to be the most eminent lama of his time. Since he was the third member of his lineage the title was given posthumously to his predecessors and he became the third Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama with the support of the Mongol ruler Gushri Khan, united Tibet. The Dalai Lamas then continued to partially rule Tibet until the People’s Republic of China invaded the region in 1949 and before taking full control in 1959. The current Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Dharamasala in India, where he, along with a great many Tibetan refugees, currently reside. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama monks initiate a search for the lama’s reincarnation – a small child. Familiarity with the possessions of the previous Dalai Lama is considered the main sign of reincarnation. The search usually requires a few years, the child is then trained by other lamas. The current Dalai Lama has insisted that he won’t be reborn in any territory occupied by China, and has even suggested that he may by the last Lama.

The current Dalai Lama has been incredibly important as a spiritual leader for the thousands of Tibetan Buddhists living in exile all over the world. Chinese communists in the 1960s attempted to destroy everything to do with religion. However, the Dalai Lama was instrumental in keeping Tibetan Buddhism alive, established the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government in Exile), and has been fighting for the freedom of Tibet.

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