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Buddhism, founded in the late 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama (the "Buddha"), is an important religion in most of the countries of Asia. Buddhism has assumed many different forms, but in each case there has been an attempt to draw from the life experiences of the Buddha, his teachings, and the "spirit" or "essence" of his teachings (called dhamma or dharma) as models for the religious life. However, not until the writing of the Buaciha Charija (life of the Buddha) by Ashvaghosa in the 1st or 2nd century C.E. do we have a comprehensive account of his life. The Buddha was born in North India (ca. 563 B.C.E.) at a place called Lumbini near the Himalayan foothills, and he began teach in around Benares (at Sarnath). His era in general was one of spiritual, intellectual, and social ferment. This was the age when the Hindu ideal of renunciation of family and social life by holy persons seeking Truth first became widespread.

Siddhartha Gautama was the warrior son of a king and queen. According to legend, at his birth a soothsayer predicted that he might become a renouncer (withdrawing from the temporal life). To prevent this, his father provided him with many luxuries and pleasures. But, as a young man, he once went on a series of four chariot rides where he first saw the more severe forms of human suffering: old age, illness, and death (a corpse), as well as an ascetic renouncer. The contrast between his life and this human suffering made him realize that all the pleasures on earth were in fact transitory, and could only mask human suffering. Leaving his wife and new son ("Rahula"--fetter) he took on several teachers and tried severe renunciation in the forest until the point of near-starvation. Finally, realizing that this...