History of Buddhism

Although the exact date of the birth Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha-to-be - is the subject of some disagreement, it is put somewhere between 624 and 563 BC. Dates in Thailand, which numbers the years since the Buddha's death, are based on the earlier birth date of 624, so I've used that for any dates given here. Siddhartha was born of royal parents in the city of Lumbini (also spelled Lumphini) in what is now Nepal. His father kept the young prince in the palace for nearly 30 years, providing him with every diversion a prince could want, including a beautiful wife who bears him a son.

At the age of 29, the prince leaves the secluded confines of his home for the first time. This is when he sees the "four sights" which set him on the path to enlighenment. The first three sights were an old man, an ill man and a dead man. These shocked the young man, who had yet to encounter such sights in his life. The fourth sight was a holy man, who inspired Siddhartha to give up his wealth and lead the life of an ascetic. But he soons finds this path unfulfilling, and becomes a religious teacher.

About six years after leaving the palace, Siddhartha attains enlightenment in Bodghaya. The new Buddha then travels to a deer park near Sarnath, where he begins teaching the Dharma ("truth"). It's at this time that two merchant brothers offered the Buddha his first meal as the enlightened one. In return, he gave the men eight of his hairs, which they bought back to their homeland, where they enshrined them in the Shwedagon Pagoda, in what is now Yangon.

In 543, at the age of around 80, the Buddha dies. Three months after his death, the first Buddhist Council was convened to codify the Buddhist canon, particularly where the rules of monkhood were concerned.

Roughly 100 years later, the second Buddhist Council was held to once again confirm the 10 basic rules governing monastic life.

About 130 years later, Ashoka the Great convened the third and last Buddhist council. This council once again refuted the views of some sects whose practices were seen as heretical, and also resulted in the issuing of several edicts, which the emperor had inscribed on stone pillars throughout his kingdom, which covered must of present-day India, Nepal and Pakistan. Ashoka is perhaps the person most responsible for the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.