Buddhism originates with Shakyamuni (also known as Gautama or Siddartha), who was born in what is now Nepal some 2,500 years ago.
Shakyamuni, from a young age, became aware of and was profoundly troubled by the problems of human suffering. Buddhist scriptures describe four encounters which served to awaken in him an awareness of four sufferings common to all people—birth, aging, sickness and death. This pre-occupation with sufferings was the trigger for him to embark on a spiritual quest to become enlightened to the true nature of life.
For several years, he subjected himself to ascetic practices but found these did not offer a way forward. Taking a middle way he entered a profound meditation. There he attained an awakening, or enlightenment, to the true nature of life and all things, including human suffering. It was because of this enlightenment that he came to be called Buddha, or “Awakened One.”
Initially he wrestled with how difficult it would be to communicate what he had realised to others. However, he resolved to share his understanding, so that the way to a more enlightened way to live, in which people are able to surmount the sufferings of birth and death, would become open to all people.
Shakyamuni travelled widely throughout the Indian subcontinent sharing his enlightened wisdom and teaching people how to unleash the great potential of their lives. His compassionate intention was to enable all people to attain the same awakened state of life that he had attained.
The huge diversity of Buddhism today originates from the different teachings taught by Shakyamuni during his lifetime. However Shakyamuni`s key message is contained in what we consider to be his most important teaching, the Lotus Sutra. This teaches that Buddhahood, a condition of absolute happiness and freedom from all fear and illusions, is inherent in all life, and is eternal. This means that ‘the Buddha’ is nothing other than an ordinary person who cultivates this state in his or her life and uses it in daily life. `The Buddha` is not a special or divine being. The development of this inner life state can enable all people to overcome their problems and live a fulfilled and active life, engaging fully with others and with society.
Shakyamuni taught that it was this approach of the Lotus Sutra of respect for the dignity of all life that would be practised in the age we live in today.
People tend to associate Buddhism solely with the teachings of Shakyamuni, however there have been many developments in the way the lineage of the Lotus Sutra has been understood and practiced.
Two key people to have developed it further: T’ien-t’ai in China followed by Nichiren Daishonin in Japan. T’ien-t’ai developed the workings of life implicit in the Lotus Sutra into a theory of the working of life (see below). Nichiren took both the Lotus Sutra and T’ien-t’ai`s theory of life and established the Buddhism focussed on the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo which SGI members practise today.