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Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment while sitting under a peepal tree (ficus religiosa, a species of fig), in Bodh Gaya when he was about 32 years old. His dates of birth and death were roughly 563 to 483 BCE. He was also known as Shakyamuni of the Shakya clan in Kapilavastu.

After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha was known by several names. He addressed himself (in the sutras) and was addressed by his followers as ”the tathagata,” meaning “one who has thus gone” or “who has thus come”. “The sugata” was also used, meaning “one who fares well.” The word “buddha” comes from the Sanskrit, meaning “the awakened one,” or in today’s English “the guy who woke up.”

He was never addressed as “The Buddha” in his lifetime. The term was adopted many years later probably by invading Greeks under Alexander around 350 BCE. According to legend, many “buddhas” existed before Siddhartha Gautama and many more have reached enlightenment after him. They have just not been recognized. A future Buddha is prophesied by many as Maitraya Buddha.

Buddhism is one of the oldest and most widely practiced religions in the world today, followed by over 500 million people. It evolved as it spread from the Ganges delta in India throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia. It has profoundly influenced all Asian religions, philosophies and societies. While it has declined slowly in Asia, It has grown rapidly in the 20th and 21st centuries in North and South America and Europe.

Buddhism developed through numerous movements, schisms, and schools. The principal schools throughout history have been the Theravada (the original school}, the Mahayana (1st c. BCE,) and the Vajrayana (7th c. CE,). Each one has evolved into many sects. The Theravada school (now 150 million people) developed throughout Sri Lanka, Burma,Thailand, Cambodia, Laos; Mahayana (now 360 million) in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam; Vajrayana (now 18 million) in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia.

We limit our attention to the ancient India that the Buddha lived and taught in. His life was limited to northeastern India and Nepal, principally in the today’s state of Bihar. While the Buddha is revered widely in India, he is often seen as an avatar of Vishnu. There are more Christians today in India than Buddhists.

Each Buddhist school developed many approaches to enlightenment, some of them popular today: Theravada school has several forms of Vipassana (Insight) reintroduced in the 20th c. in Burma, Laos, Camboda in the Thai Forest School and made popular in the West as Insight Meditation.

Mahayana school includes C’han, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, Tendai, Shingon and others in Japan, Korea and China made popular in the West in several forms of Zen and Pure Land.

Vajarayana developed in the 7th c. when a Mahayana monk from India brought his practice to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism today has several forms: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang, mostly limited to groups of monks in India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, but increasingly popular in the West among laypeople.

When the Buddha traveled throughout his lifetime, none of these schools existed. They developed hundreds of years after his death in Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the sacred sites we will visit. The Buddha’s followers were originally limited to celibate monks; later, celibate nuns were brought into his group at the insistence of his step-mother and aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami, although they lived and travelled in separate groups.

The Buddha spoke a form of Magadha, a dialect of Pali used in the Magadha Kingdom north of the Ganges valley: the ancient city of Rajgir was the capitol where the Buddha may have given the Lotus Sutra toward the end of his life. Near Rajgir is Vulture Peak, on the side of a hill where he also gave the Heart Sutra, the core of the Mahayana Zen tradition.

The first documents recording the Buddha’s teachings come from the Pali Canon, a large document divided into three parts known as the Tripitaca or Three Baskets. It was composed in North India after his death, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately four hundred and fifty four years after the Buddha’s death. One legend asserts that the Buddha’s nephew, Ananda, noted down and memorized the sutras as they were originally spoken.

Pali was an everyday language spoken by common people in northern India at the time. Sanskrit was the Brahman literary language spoken by Hindu priests. The Theravada tradition uses Sanskrit; the Mahayana tradition uses Pali. The languages are only slightly different: “dharma” in Sanskrit becomes “dhamma” in Pali; “nirvana” in Sanskrit becomes “nibbana” in Pali; “sutra” in Sanskrit becomes “sutta” in Pali.

We will travel to the sites sacred to the Buddha’s time and place. Each of them is strikingly different and authentic. Each of them can provide a deep and lasting experience to the pilgrim. Each of them holds a unique energy that each person can absorb with time and attention, what we call today Awareness or Mindfulness. With meditation seated in silence , a pilgrim can come away transformed.