Buddhism is the most ancient of the four world religions. The majority of its followers live in south, south-east, and east asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, China (including the Chinese population of Singapore and Malaysia), Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Laos. In Russia, Buddhism has been traditionally confessed by the residents of Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva. In recent years, Buddhist communities emerged in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and many other cities of Russia. In the end of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century, Buddhists appeared in Europe and in the USA; so almost every oriental school of any importance is represented there today.
The total number of Buddhists in the world is difficult to evaluate: such a census has never been performed; nor would it be consistent with legal regulations and ethical norms in many countries. However, one can speak of approximately 400 million lay practitioners and 1 million Buddhist monks and nuns in the world.
Buddhism emerged in India more than 2.5 thousand years ago as a religious and philosophical teaching. It has created manifold religious institutions and canonical literature, which is unique in its scale and diversity. Broad interpretation of the philosophical doctrines of Buddhism contributed to its symbiosis, compromise, and assimilation with various local cultures, religions, and ideologies, that allowed it to penetrate each and every sphere of social life from religious practices and arts to political and economical theories.
Depending on the point of view, Buddhism may be considered as either a religion, a philosophy or an ideology, as well as a cultural complex or a lifestyle.
The term Buddha is not a personal name but a mere designation meaning the Enlightened One, The Awakened one. His personal name was Siddhatta (Siddhartha) and the family name Gotama (Gautama). He belonged to the Sakya clan and warrior class, and lived in North India in modern Nepali in the 6th century B.C. He was born in Lumbini. His parents were Suddhodana and Maya. (Mahamaya). At that time Suddhodana was the ruler of the kingdom of Sakyas, which followed a republican system of government.
His mother died when he was just one week old and he was affectionately brought up by his maternal aunt, who married Suddhodana. Being the son of a rich and important family Siddhatta had a comfortable childhood. Tradition records that he was a very sensitive and a studious child who mastered the relevant Subjects with much ease. According to the custom of the time, he married at the age of 16, the beautiful young princess Yasodhara, whom tradition describes as his first cousin.
The young couple led a happy married life in full luxury for 13 Years. All these luxuries failed to veil the realities of life with which he was struck and overwhelmed. This made him renunciate everything, even his new born son Rahula and leave household life and enter the state of homelessness, leading an ascetic life in search of a solution to the problems of life. At that time he was in his prime of youth — just 29 years of age.
During his quest for a solution which lasted for six years he wandered about learning under famous teachers of the time. With his usual brilliance he mastered all the current philosophical and religious thoughts, but none satisfied him. He followed the most accepted traditional practices the severe ascetic practices which only left him physically battered. He resolved to break away from traditional extremes and follow his own way.
Firmly resolving to reach his goal, one day he sat under the Bodhi — tree, in Gaya near modern Bihar. Before the following dawn he realized, through his own higher wisdom, the truth, the problem of life and its cessation. This was his Enlightenment and since then he was called the Enlightened One, (The Buddha).
He started his mission, first preaching to five ascetics, his former colleagues, and continued his missionary activities for 45 years. During this period he toured on foot a fairly wide area in North western India, meeting people of all walks of life and preaching to them and guiding them to see the truth. Soon there grew a large group of disciples who took this message to the people.
The Buddha’s great compassion and wisdom, his unique qualities as a teacher, his unblemished character, frankness, straightforwardness and simplicity and many other simple human qualities won the hearts of the people. This comparatively young teacher soon over-shadowed his senior contemporaries.
Novelty of his Dharma with its liberal philosophy had a great appeal in the people. Just as the Buddha himself, his disciples also dedicated themselves tirelessly in the task of spreading the message for the welfare of the people. Soon people of all classes, kings, ministers, nobles, millionaires and even beggars and outcasts — became the followers of the Buddha’s teaching. His teaching was open to all those who wished to do so.
The Buddha continued his missionary activities to the ripe age of 80 years, till his feet could not carry him any longer. His compassion was such that even in his death bed he preached to those who sincerely approached him to learn. He was on one of his usual barefoot tours, in his 80th year, when he fell ill with dysentery and passed away in the small town of Kusinara in Uttar Pradesh in India
Based on this historical Buddha there developed a Buddha — concept in which the human Buddha got gradually transformed into a super-human being and in later Buddhism ending up as a metaphysical concept, the ultimate reality of the world- the Dharmakaya.
The uniqueness of the virtues with which the Buddha was endowed, some explanatory utterances of the Buddha himself concerning his personality, the rich imagination of his devoted followers, analysis of the Buddha personality by his metaphysically bent disciples popular beliefs, specially, those pertaining to ‘Great Beings’ that were prevalent at the time and such other numerous factors contributed to this transition. This process of transition which started while the Buddha was living, got accelerated after his passing away.
Many other connected beliefs developed alongside the Buddha concept. Plurality of Buddhas, past and future Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (or Buddha aspirants) are some of those affiliated beliefs .The study of the personality of the Buddha in its transition from that of a human being into a universal principle and the other related developments, is a special area of study, and it is called Buddhology.
The Buddha, unlike most of the other founders of religions, was a human being , one among us, who rose, from ordinary worldling level to that of a noble being. He, himself being a man, emphatically stated that man is supreme and that there is no higher being or power that controls and directs his deeds and sits in judgement over his destiny.
Consequently the Buddha was able to present the teaching that man is a free being with a free will, freedom of thought and investigation. Hence Buddhism does away completely with dogmatism and adopt an open minded attitude. This Buddhist attitude makes Buddhism discard the ‘This only is true, all the rest is false’ outlook and adopt a more sympathetic, understanding and tolerant approach to other views, beliefs and religions.
This open minded attitude of Buddhism helps also to break away from the shackles of regressive traditions, not only with regard to matters pertaining to religious sphere but also with regard to social, political, economic and such other related spheres as well.
This explains how Buddhism succeeded in evolving a new world view and presenting a clear philosophy and dynamic religion. The philosophy lays beare the problems of man while the religion presents a very practical and realistic method of solving them. This is why Buddhism is relevant to all climes and times.