The story of Buddhism is kind of strange in that it began in India and is now almost extinct there. It began in one place and then spread so far that it’s barely recognizable from one country to the next. In the West you tend to find a tradition interpreted from the teachings of the Buddha focusing on the basic doctrines. Elsewhere in the world it’s merged with local culture so much that it takes on the character of that country.
Buddha himself was called Gotama Siddharta and lived in the 5th century B.C. The story goes that he was the son of a king who wanted to hide from him all the evils of the world so that he should not know anything but pure happiness and joy all his life. One day though the young prince slipped out of the palace and encountered reality for the first time; he saw old age, sickness and suffering and understood in a flash that he’d been living in a dream world all his life.
He packed his bags and set out to become and ascetic in the woods. He went months without sleep and food (see the starving Buddha in the Lahore museum) until he understood that punishing the self was not the way. Each time he conquered his appetites they returned again shortly afterwards. This led him to discovering the Middle Way. A path of spiritual moderation.
Finally he say down under a Bodhi tree and resolved not to move until he had discovered enlightenment. His moment of realisation came shortly before the dawn and then he spent the next 40 years of his life spreading the word.
It’s a long way from the birth of a rebel religion under a Bodhi tree to little plastic buddhas being sold in tourist shops around the world but in matters of spirituality, imitation is surely as much flattery as in anything else.