Introduction
Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 B.C.E.), the warrior son of noble parents, formulated the philosophy known as Buddhism in the late sixth century B.C.E.
According to legend a soothsayer once predicted that Siddhartha would become a renouncer (someone who withdraws from worldly life). His father, in an attempt to prevent the prediction from coming true, provided him with every pleasure life offers.
Siddhartha had gone on a series of four chariot rides, where he first came into contact with the darker sides of life: old age, illness, death, and an abstemious renouncer. Subsequently he left his wife and son, Rahula (c. 534), and tried severe renunciation in the forest to such an extent that he nearly starved. Realizing the futility of the exercise, he ate food and meditated under a tree instead. By morning the next day (or after six months according to some sources), he had attained Nirvana, or enlightenment. He believed that, through meditation, he had found the answers to suffering and how to achieve a permanent release from it. Siddhartha then proclaimed himself the Buddha (“The Enlightened One”) and began to spread his knowledge so that others could also free themselves from life’s burdens and suffering.
In a vision he saw the human race as a bed of lotus flowers. Some flowers were submerged in the mud; some were just sprouting; and others were ready to bloom. In other words, he saw that all people have the potential to become enlightened, but some need help to do it. His most important doctrines included the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
After his death, the Buddha’s celibate disciples gradually settled down in monasteries provided by married laymen in exchange for their teaching of the Buddha’s principles, and a variety of monastic schools developed among the Buddha’s followers.
This was at least partly a consequence of the enigmatic nature of his teachings; he refused, for instance, to give a clear answer on whether a human being has a soul. Furthermore, he did not name anyone to succeed him as the leader of the philosophy.
Instead, he instructed his followers to be lamps unto themselves.
Since Buddhism does not have the idea of a creator divinity in its teachings, some do not see it as a religion in the conventional sense. Buddhist teachings are simple and practical guidelines. The basic doctrines observe that everything of this world is temporary, that every action has its consequences, and that change is possible. Buddhism attracts people all over the world, regardless of race, gender, or nationality. There are around 350 million Buddhists, with a growing number in the Western world. Though they may follow different forms of Buddhism, they all adhere to the same core Buddhist principles: nonviolence, lack of dogma, tolerance, and the importance of meditation. Buddhism is the fourth most widely accepted spiritual practice in the world, preceded only by Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Origins and History
When the Buddha started to preach after his enlightenment, the most important doctrines he taught were the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The first of his Noble Truths states that dukkha (“bad location” or “wrong position”) exists and that suffering is inevitable and almost universal.
The various reasons for it include loss, failure, pain, and the temporary nature of pleasure. His second Noble Truth deals with samudaya, or the causes of suffering. According to the Buddha, it comes primarily from attachment to the things of this world and the desire to possess them. It can take many forms, such as the desire for fame, anger, jealousy, or fear. The third of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths gives hope. It teaches about nirodha, or the end to all suffering. This can be obtained through Nirvana, a state of consciousness reached when the mind achieves complete liberation and detachment from desire or any kind of craving. The final Noble Truth is marga, which teaches that, in order to end suffering, practitioners have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
An eight-spoked wheel, also called the Wheel of Dharma, symbolizes the Noble Eightfold Path. Separately the individual spokes represent right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The right views are the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Right intention refers to following the right path in life. Right speech means not to condemn, lie, criticize, gossip, or use insensitive language. Right action involves following the Five Precepts, which are similar to the biblical Ten Commandments. The first of the Five Precepts enjoins one not to kill; sometimes this is translated as a prescription against all forms of violence.
The second precept discourages stealing, which is also generally taken as an injunction to avoid any kind of economic exploitation as well. The third teaches one not to misuse sex. For nuns and monks this means complete celibacy. For laypeople, it entails avoiding adultery, sexual harassment, and exploitation, including that within marriage. The last precept entails avoiding drugs and alcohol, since intoxicants confuse the mind. Nowadays television, the Internet, and other sources of entertainment are included as things that distract one from reality.
Right livelihood means supporting oneself without harming others. It is followed by right endeavor, which requires making an effort to promote good thoughts and dispel evil ones. The seventh path is right mindfulness, or becoming aware of one’s body, mind, and feelings. The last element of the Noble Eightfold Path is right concentration, or meditation, a mental state in which one can achieve the highest level of consciousness.
A major split occurred among Buddhists in the first century C.E., when Buddhism divided into the Mahayana branch (the greater vehicle) and the Hinayana branch (the lesser vehicle). Of the latter branch, only the Theravada school remains. Founded in the fourth century B.C.E., it is now practiced in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries. This school emphasizes the historical figure of Gautama Buddha. In addition, Theravada monks believe that the Buddha taught a doctrine of annata, or “no soul.” They also believe that human beings continue to be reformed and reborn, collecting karma until they achieve Nirvana.
The later Mahayana branch is today found in Korea, Japan, China, and Tibet. The most prominent of its schools are Pure Land, Zen, and Tantra.
These schools stress that even laypeople have it in them to become good Buddhists and that there are other paths to Nirvana in addition to meditation.
One of these methods is the chanting and good works utilized in Pure Land (the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in China and Japan). Pure Land emphasizes faith in, and love of, the Buddha.
The Buddha advised his followers that it was important to meet regularly and in large numbers if they were to thrive. Thus festivals are an integral part of Buddhism. They are occasions that provide followers with opportunities to celebrate as well to express their thanks to the Buddha for his teachings.

Holidays and Religious Observances
The Buddha advised his followers that it was important to meet regularly and in large numbers if they were to thrive. Thus, festivals are frequent, joyous events in Buddhist communities as well as an integral part of Buddhism. They are occasions that provide followers with an opportunity to celebrate as well to express their thanks to the Buddha for his teachings. There are four religious observances that are central to all Buddhist sects: Vesak or Visakah Puja (“Buddha Day”); Magha Puja Day (Fourfold Assembly or “Sangha Day”); Bodhi Day (“Enlightenment Day”); Asalha Puja Day (“Dhamma Day”).
There are also numerous Buddhist celebrations of particular bodhisattvas (embodiments of virtues) as well as observances of special significance in various countries with large Buddhist communities. Also, because Buddhists follow the lunar calendar, and all observances are scheduled according to the phases of the moon, the dates on which celebrations are held, for example, the Buddhist New Year, will differ from country to country.
The most significant religious observance of the Buddhist calendar occurs in May (on the Gregorian calendar) and in the month of Vesak on the Hindu lunar calendar on the night of the full moon, when the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha are celebrated. By a strange coincidence, the birth, enlightenment (moksha or nirvana), and death of Lord Buddha took place on the same date, although, necessarily, in different years, making it the most sacred day of the year for his followers. For Buddhists, this three-in-one festival is a day for rejoicing and contemplation. Celebrations can be elaborate affairs, with lots of festivities and feasting. Silent walks or evening meditations end the Vesak celebration.
Magha Puja Day takes places on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March), and commemorates an important event that happened early on in the Buddha’s life. Soon after the first Rains Retreat (Vassa), the Buddha went to Rajagaha city where 1,250 Arahats (“enlightened saints”), disciples of the Buddha, had returned from their wanderings to pay respect to the Buddha. This celebration is also called the Fourfold Assembly because there were four significant factors: (1) all 1,250 of those assembled were Arahats; (2) all of them had been ordained by the Buddha himself; (3) they had come together without prior arrangement; (4) it was the full moon day of the month of Magha month.
Asalha Puja Day, also called Dhamma Day, is observed on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately July on the Gregorian calendar).
It commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching: the turning of the wheel of the Dhamma to the five ascetics at the Deer Park (Sarnath) in India.
Bodhi Day observes the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. It is usually celebrated on December 8 (on the Gregorian calendar) with prayer, meditation, and readings from the Buddha’s teachings.
Other important Buddhist observances include the Buddhist New Year, which varies from country to country; Loy Krathong, the Festival of Floating Bowls, one of several “light festivals” of the Buddhist religious calendar; the Plowing Festival, which celebrates the Buddha’s first moment of enlightenment, when he went with his father, at the age of seven, to watch the plowing of the fields; and the Festival of the Tooth, an observance held on the night of the full moon in August (on the Gregorian calendar), when what is said to be the Buddha’s tooth is carried through the streets of Kandy in Sri Lanka.
Buddhist festivals are happy occasions. On a typical festival day, Buddhists go to their local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks and perhaps listen to a discussion of dharma. In the afternoon, they may distribute food to the poor and in the evening perhaps join in a ceremony of walking around a stupa three times as a sign of respect to the Buddha. The day ends with chanting teachings of the Buddha’s and meditation.
Although Buddhist marriages are secular in nature, the couple is blessed by monks at the local temple after the civil formalities have been completed.
Before a specially erected shrine, replete with flowers, candles, and an image of the Buddha, the couple recites certain verses. The couple then proceeds to light candles and incense sticks and present flowers, placing them on and around the table on which the image of the Buddha stands. The bride and groom then recite more verses. Finally, the assembly, or sometimes only the parents, recites verses as a blessing to the newlyweds.
According to the Buddhist faith, an individual passes through a series of reincarnations until he or she is liberated from worldly passions. Death, Buddhists maintain, is only a vehicle to move to the next reincarnation and move closer to nirvana. Thus, a Buddhist funeral is something of a celebration. The first service is held within two days of death at the home of the deceased. A second service is held two to five days following the death, and this service is conducted by monks at a funeral home. The last service is held seven days after the burial or cremation. It is meant to generate positive energy for the departed as he or she moves to the next stage of rebirth.