To those who choose the path that leads to enlightenment, there are two extremes that should be carefully avoided. First, there is the extreme of indulgence in the desires of the body. Second, there is the opposite extreme of ascetic discipline, torturing one's body and mind unreasonably. The Noble Path that transcends these two extremes and leads to enlightenment, wisdom and peace of mind, may be called the Middle Way.
The founder of Buddhism was the son of a prince of Shakyas, a principality located in the Himalayan foothills. He was born about 563 BCE with the
family name of Gotama and the personal name of Siddhattha. He married at age 16 and had a son. Having lived in luxury until age 29, he then left
home and family to take up rigorously ascetic religious practices and self-mortification over a period of six years.
The experience almost killed him. When he recovered, he concluded that the true way of life was found between the extremes of luxury and asceticism, and that even this middle way was inevitably characterized by impermanence, imperfection and suffering. He analyzed the origins of these sorrows on the basis of his own experience, and elaborated a prescription for their alleviationč the Eightfold Way. He analyzed the human condition and put forward guidelines for conduct (the Dharma). For this he gained the name the Buddha, "the enlightened one." He is also referred to as Tathagata, "he who has fully arrived at truth." He died at the age of 80, after assembling a group of men and women disciples (the Sangha) who continued to spread his teaching by word of mouth.
It was not until about 29 BCE that his teaching was written down with any degree of completeness, in the Pali language, the predecessor of Sanskrit. The documents contain magical fables and supernatural assertions quite at odds with the original teaching, presumably added to impress the credulous. Consequently, when Gotama argues that there is no permanent self, and that questions of its existence after death or its rebirth are therefore meaningless, it suggests that any passages affirming reincarnation and eternal life are later additions. A narrow selection has therefore been made from what may be assumed to be the earliest accounts of his teachings, with a view to suggesting the kernel of the theory that he put forward.
Different Buddhist movements emerge by elaborating on the basic concepts put forward by Gotama. In some cases this involves grafting on other religions or philosophies, encouraged by Gotama's view that individuals should find their own special paths to enlightenment. Brahmanic concepts such as rebirth are already in the Pali texts. Add Hindu Tantaric practices and the Bon spirit religion to the basic teachings and the result is Tibetan Buddhism; add Taoism and the result is Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism.