The third and fourth lectures by Prof David Eckel on Buddhism looks at the doctrine of reincarnation and then the life of the Buddha.
Along with the Indian quest for wisdom, the Buddha inherited a basic Indian assumption about the nature of life: Human beings, like all other living creatures, lived not just one life, but came back into this world again and again in a continuous process of death and rebirth. This process is known in India as samsara, or “wandering” from one life to the next.
At first glance, the idea of samsara may seem attractive, a chance to enjoy some of the things we missed in this life, but in ancient India, samsara was viewed as a burden. To escape this burden, a person had only two options: to perform good actions (karma) and hope for a better rebirth or to renounce action altogether and bring the cycle of death and rebirth to an end.
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Historians generally agree that Siddhartha Gautama was born in a princely family in northern India about the year 566 B.C.E. As a young man, he gave up life in the palace and set out to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
After several difficult years of study and practice, he “woke up,” not only to the cause of suffering but to its final cessation. He then wandered the roads of India, gathering together a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline for the Buddhist community. Finally, at about the age of eighty, he lay down and passed gently from the cycle of death and rebirth.
With the simple events of the Buddha’s life as a guide, Buddhists have developed a rich tradition of stories and legends that tell us not only how they have understood the founder of their tradition, but how they have built lives of wisdom and freedom for themselves.