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What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a philosophy based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian Prince, who lived about 2600 years ago in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. He came to be called "the Buddha," which means "awakened one," after he experienced a profound realization of the nature of life, death and existence. In English, the Buddha was said to be enlightened, although in Sanskrit it is bodhi, "awakened."
Buddhism at its core is not a religion. It is a philosophy of non-attachment and seeing things as they truly are and not as the mind thinks they should be. It is a path of self-realization. Some sects of Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, do appear to be religions with extra layers of dogmatic belief. The Buddha was not a God and he told everyone he was simply a man who realized how to end his own suffering. You can think of Buddhism as a 8-step program for realizing your full potential - to get rid of their addiction to suffering.
From Prince to Buddha
Shortly after Siddhartha's birth, an astrologer visited the young prince's father, King Śuddhodana, and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls.
Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father's efforts, Siddhartha ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights — he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama eventually to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.
Gautama first attempted an extreme ascetic life and almost starved himself to death in the process. But, after accepting milk and rice from a village girl in a pivotal moment, he changed his approach. He concluded that extreme ascetic practices, such as prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain, brought little spiritual benefit. He saw them as forms of self-hatred that were therefore counterproductive. He abandoned asceticism, concentrating instead on anapanasati, or "mindfulness of breathing", meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the "Middle Way": a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Gautama was now determined to complete his spiritual quest. At the age of 35, he famously sat in meditation under a sacred fig tree—also known as the Bodhi tree—in the town of Bodh Gaya, India, and vowed not to rise before achieving enlightenment. After many days, he finally awakened to the ultimate nature of reality, thereby liberating himself from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, and arose as a fully enlightened being. Soon thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order.
In the remaining years of his life, the Buddha traveled and taught. However, he didn't teach people what he had realized when he became enlightened. Instead, he taught people how to realize enlightenment for themselves. He taught that awakening comes through one's own direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas.
In the centuries following the Buddha's life, Buddhism spread throughout Asia to become one of the dominant religions of the continent. Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world today vary widely, in part because many Asians observe more than one religion, and in part because it is hard to know how many people are practicing Buddhism in Communist nations like China. The most common estimate is 350 million, which makes Buddhism the fourth largest of the world's religions. He spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he discovered, traveling throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent,and died at the age of 80 (483 BCE) in Kushinagar, India.