When did Buddhism begin?

Most textbooks would say that Buddhism began about 2,500 years ago in India with the teaching of a man who became known as ‘the Buddha’ (‘the enlightened one’), in other words, the person who woke up to the truth about life. His name was Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit) Siddhattha Gotama (Pali). Although he is often called ‘the’ Buddha, he is also called Shakyamuni Buddha (‘wise man of the Shakya people’) to distinguish him from other Buddhas, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, where there are many. That he was a real historical person is rarely disputed nowadays given the evidence, but his exact dates are a matter of some debate. Various Buddhist traditions have differing dates for his life such as 624-544 BCE, 566-486 BCE, or 448-368 BCE. Western scholars used to favour the middle date, but more recent evidence tends to favour the later one.

However, to call this historical person the ‘founder of Buddhism’ would be not quite right on two counts. For a start, as we have argued above, ‘Buddh-ism’ is a Western concept. In Buddhist thought, he did not ‘start’ but ‘discovered’ the Dharma/Dhamma or truth about life, which is eternal. In addition, there have been other Buddhas in previous eras before him, who discovered the same truth, and there will be future Buddhas in times to come. A text in the Pali Canon states that ‘our’ Buddha took his first steps towards enlightenment when listening to the teaching of a Buddha called Dipankara, twenty-four Buddhas (and zillions of lifetimes) ago. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many other Buddhas even now, in other dimensions.

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