Buddhism was founded in the fourth or fifth century B.C. in northern India by a man known traditionally as Siddhartha (meaning “he who has reached the goal”) Gautama, the son of a warrior prince. Some scholars believe that he lived from 563 to 483 B.C., though his exact life span is uncertain. Troubled by the inevitability of suffering in human life, he left home and a pampered life at the age of 29 to wander as an ascetic, seeking religious insight and a solution to the struggles of human existence. He passed through many trials and practiced extreme self-denial. Finally, while meditating under the bodhi tree (“tree of perfect knowledge”) he reached enlightenment and taught his followers about his new spiritual understanding.
Gautama's teachings differed from the Hindu faith prevalent in India at the time. Whereas in Hinduism the Brahmin caste alone performed religious functions and attained the highest spiritual understanding, Gautama believed that anyone could attain enlightenment. At the core of his understanding were the Four Noble Truths: (1) all living beings suffer; (2) the origin of this suffering is desire—for material possessions, power, and so on; (3) desire can be overcome; and (4) there is a path that leads to release from desire. This way is called the Noble Eightfold Path: right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, and right ecstasy.
Gautama did not recommend extreme self-denial, but rather a disciplined life called the Middle Way. Like the Hindus, he believed that existence consisted of reincarnation, a cycle of birth and death. He held that it could be broken only by reaching complete detachment from worldly cares. Then the soul could be released into nirva (literally “blowing out”)—an indescribable state of total transcendence. Gautama traveled to preach the dharma (sacred truth) and was recognized as the Buddha (enlightened one). After his death his followers continued to develop doctrine and practice, which came to center on the Three Jewels: the dharma (the sacred teachings of Buddhism), the sangha (the community of followers, which now includes nuns, monks, and laity), and the Buddha. Under the patronage of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (third century B.C.), Buddhism spread throughout India and to other parts of Asia. Monasteries were established, as well as temples dedicated to Buddha; at shrines his relics were venerated. Though by the fourth century C.E. Buddhist presence in India had dwindled, it flourished in other parts of Asia.
Numerous Buddhist sects have emerged, such as the Theravada (Way of the Elders), prevalent in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka; the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle), prevalent in China, Korea, and Japan; and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) (also callled Mantrayana (Vehicle of the Mantra), or Tantric Buddhism), which is most prominent in Tibet and Mongolia. Zen Buddhism encourages individuals to seek the Buddha nature within themselves and to practice a disciplined form of sitting meditation in order to reach satori—spiritual enlightenment.