Between 563 BCE and 483 BCE there lived in the southern regions of modern day Nepal, a man named Siddhartha Gautama who had been born a prince of the Sakya clan but who, at the age of thirty-five, after meditating and attaining a state called "Enlightenment," began teaching a completely new doctrine in India. That doctrine has since come to be known as Buddhism. At the end of his life, the "Buddha," as his followers have ever since referred to him, said that he had spent the previous forty-five years teaching only two things: suffering, and its cessation. Indeed, his emphasis upon the suffering inherent in samsara (literally, the realm of "continual going") has caused many over the centuries to view the tradition as pessimistic. In reality, the Buddha preached a doctrine which demands an in depth analysis of suffering and its causes as a means of bringing about suffering's end and, therefore, of ushering in a new and lasting peace, tranquility and insightfulness.
The most succinct formulation of the Buddha's doctrine was provided in the very first sermon that he delivered. That "First Sermon" set forth the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, namely:
1. There is suffering (duhkha).
2. There is a cause of suffering (duhkha-samudaya).
3. There is the cessation of suffering (duhkha-nirodha); and
4. There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering (duhkha-nirodha-marga).
According to the first Noble Truth, suffering is defined as follows: "Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering." However, there is the further injunction to understand what is meant by the term duhkha in all its connotations. With regard to this, Buddhist texts further delineate "three types/levels of duhkha," namely: suffering 'plain and simple,' that encompasses every kind of physical and mental pain, distress or uneasiness; the 'suffering produced by change,' especially that suffering brought on by the sudden shift of a happy state changing into an unhappy one; and the suffering which is 'inherent in samsara,' that is that type which occurs because of the very nature of all existents within samsara, namely their being ultimately impermanent, painful, and empty of independent existence.
The Second Noble Truth declares that the most palpable cause of our suffering is desire and thirst of various sorts, all of which are doomed to be unsatisfactory since they falsely ascribe permanence to what is, in reality, impermanent. However, the root cause of both desire and hatred is the ignorance which posits a false idea about the self's permanence. Thinking, mistakenly, that the self, soul, or ego exists permanently causes us to desire certain things while it generates aversion towards others. Only by extinguishing this false and illusory idea about the nature of our selves, as well as about the nature of things, can a lasting liberation from suffering be achieved. A state of such liberation is called, in the Third Noble Truth, Nirvana. The notion of Nirvana has been grossly misunderstood over the centuries as being a state akin to complete extinction or annihilation. According to Buddhism, however, Nirvana is not viewed as an extinction of the self; rather, it is only the extinction of the false idea about the self. A more contemporary expression for this might be, "Nothing is lost except what's false." Buddhism never denies the existence of a "relative, impermanent and dependent self." It denies only the erroneous view that the self exists as an inherently and independently existent entity.
The Fourth Noble Truth tells us that there is a Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Once we have determined that samsara is unsatisfactory, we should enter upon the path and, traversing it, through undertaking various methods of meditation and practice, attain the enlightenment of the Buddha. The multifacetness of Buddhist traditions throughout Asia and over its 2600 year history derives from the great variety of meditative techniques and methods offered under the rubric of the "Path."
As early as the days of the great Indian King Asoka (269-232 BCE), Buddhist traditions began to migrate out of India and to spread into the regions of South and Southeast Asia. Hinayana, or less derogatorily, Theravadin Buddhism spread south to Sri Lanka, and north and east to Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. By the fourth to the eighth centuries CE, Mahayana Buddhism had reached as far as Tibet, China, Korea and Japan.
According to recent world census data, there are about 305 million Buddhists worldwide, most of them living in Asia. However, one finds nearly 1 million (some recent sources make this number 4-5 million) Western-born Buddhists also, who live and practice in Europe and the United States.