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I suppose it shouldn't seem unusual that many of the world's main religions were started by one man. The person achieves some insight that they pass on, and their teachings are taken up by others and spreads.
This was true of Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni) , who became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, who lived in Lumbini (in Nepal) 2500 years ago (ca. 566-486). Siddhartha was the son of a Hindu king and lived in luxury for the first part of his life. A seer predicted that he would become either a great king or a holy man, and because of this his father tried to make sure that he wanted for nothing so that he would have no dissatisfaction which might drive him toward a spiritual path. Of course as one might have foretold, as in all great stories it came to naught.
At the age of 29, he first came in contact with the
suffering of the world. On an unannounced trip outside of the palace, he
came across what is called the four sights: an old crippled man (old age), a
diseased man (illness), a decaying corpse (death), and a wandering holy man.
This realization that birth, sickness, old age and death came to everybody, not
only once but repeated endlessly in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as
believed by the Hindus, led him to abandon his wife, child, and position and to
assume the life of a wandering holy man in search of answers to these problems.
Photo by Wat Mahathat
Siddhartha became more adept than his teachers in the practice of mortifying his flesh in order to free his atman, or soul, from the endless cycle of rebirth. Finding no answer, however, he left with a group of companions in order to take their practices even further. After practicing more extreme ways of punishing his body and almost starving to death, he reconsidered the path that he was following.
He decided instead to look into his own heart and mind. He sat down beneath the pipal tree, determined that he would not rise from the spot until he had seen into the secret heart of existence. After forty days, Siddhartha achieved Enlightenment and became the Buddha.
The term "Buddha is a title and not a name, meaning "one who is awakened to reality." For the remainder of his life, another 45 years, he traveled through northern India, spreading his teaching which is known in the east as the Buddha-dharma, or the "teaching of the enlightened one." Some of his disciples also gained Enlightenment and in turn taught others.
Buddhists do not see Buddha as a god and he never made such a claim, but a human being who transformed himself through tremendous effort.
Buddhism practically died out in India a thousand years ago, but spread south to Sri Lanka and South East Asia which practices the Theravadin form of Buddhism, and north to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan in the Mahayana form. In the past century it has gotten more popular in the United States.
These sites are presented only as an introduction to an online search--by no means complete: