Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who lived in northeastern India around 500 BCE. He lived a life of luxury, but he was not content. After years of wandering, he attained enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree. For the rest of his life, the prince, now known as the Buddha, taught others how to become enlightened and free themselves from suffering.
Most Buddhists do not believe the world was created and is ruled by a god. Instead, Buddhism is a philosophy and a way of life that emphasizes moral actions. This is guided by the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path which promotes moderation and mindfulness. The ultimate purpose of life is to end suffering. Some Buddhists believe that it is possible to go beyond this and become another Buddha.
Buddha’s teachings were written down in many different texts called sutras. The earliest sutras are the Tipitaka, but some branches of Buddhism emphasize later texts. Other important texts include commentaries called shastras and the collected sayings of important Buddhist monks.
Most Buddhists maintain an altar at home to practice meditation and reflection. Buddhists may also visit a temple or monastery to obtain religious instruction. These are managed by orders of monks, each with their own teachings, practices, and organization. Spiritual leadership can also be informal since Buddhists recognize the importance of personal mentorship. In the Tibetan form of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader and had previously been the political leader, too.
Theravada – This school of Buddhism emphasizes the Buddha’s teachings that liberation from earthly suffering comes from personal enlightenment. Its sacred texts are written in the ancient Pali language, and its practice today is common in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
Mahayana – The largest school, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all beings as the way to end suffering, and tends to focus more on worldly matters. It uses more recent texts written in Sanskrit.
Vajrayana – These traditions are most commonly associated with the Tibetan diaspora. They add additional texts, rituals, and lessons to Mahayana Buddhism. Because these additions may be secret or esoteric, Vajrayana Buddhism privileges the relationship between teacher and student as a primary means to enlightenment.
Colors are used to represent beliefs, traditions, and concepts in many religious traditions. Many Buddhist monks wear orange robes, particularly those of the Theravada school. Historically, orange dye was inexpensive which fit the Buddhist concepts of humility, simplicity, and detachment from worldly things. Orange is also associated with illumination, wisdom, and reaching the highest state of perfection.
White was chosen as the exhibit’s background color because it is meaningful to each of the five religions. In Buddhism, white represents knowledge, longevity, and purity. White is the symbolic color of Vairocana, one of the celestial Buddhas in the Mahayana school.