Buddha and Buddhism
About 2,500 years ago a prince named Siddartha Gautoma was born in what would later become Nepal and India. According to legend there was a prophecy that he would become a great ruler or a great religious teacher. His mother passed away shortly after he was born and his father did his best to shelter his son from the hardships of life. There were palaces for every season, the finest foods in abundance and every sign of old age and decay was removed from the young prince's sight.
When Siddartha was nineteen he married his cousin Yasodhara and ten years happily passed. Then the Prince went out among his people unsupervised. He encountered all the things his father had kept from him, including Death itself. Siddartha was of the warrior caste--- sooner or late he would be expected to leave home to fight in the petty wars of squabbling kings but the young prince would ultimate choose to fight a different kind of battle.
However, the world view of Ancient India was cyclical. Birth and death were seen as interconnected parts of one circle. Rebirth, like death, was inescapable and life was a constant process of meeting those whom we had loved only to be parted from them over and over again. With our lives deeply marked as such by death, not to even mention sickness and old age, what hope was there for any of us? Siddartha did not know but India was going through a period of social change. A strong middle class had developed and a thousand year dark age was drawing to its close.
Homelessness seems to be a natural byproduct of such a time. However, in India, the role of the homeless had become something closely akin to holy men and women, mystics and ascetics who worked on this problem of birth-and-death. One night, unable to sleep, unable to get the image of a corpse he had just seen out of his mind, the twenty nine year old prince left his wife and son sleeping and went forth into such homelessness 
It was not an easy decision.
He studied with the great teachers of his day but none of them possessed the knowledge he sought. He practiced with five ascetics for some six years, nearly starving himself to death and finally collapsing along the roadside where his companions left him. A young girl named Sujata gave him a bowl of khir or rice pudding, and in desperation he accepted it. He regained his health with her help and began to suspect that there a middle way between the extremes of self indulgence which were a daily part of palace life and the extremes of self abnegation.
He found a nice spot on a river bank at the base of an old tree and he began to meditate. He made the resolve that he would not leave until he had found the Way. In the language of myth, it is said he was visited by Mara, the lord of the realm of desire which includes our world. Mara attempted to seduce Siddhartha with his beautiful daughters, to frighten him with his vast armies or promise him worldly power and fame if he would only abandon the search.
Siddartha was unmoved. Then Mara asked him, what right do you have to attain awakening? The Prince was silent--- if he spoke, he would give into pride at his achievements and deep in his heart he questioned himself. What right did he have? What lay beyond Mara's realm for that matter? No one knew. No teaching remaining in the world even hinted at it. The Prince had began his search to simply find the solution to birth-and-death but what if there were no solution?
But something ancient and deep did remember. Siddhartha reached down and touched the Earth. The Goddess of the earth rose up. With a voice like rolling thunder she scattered the armies of Mara and vouched for Siddhartha's right to become the next Buddha, the next Awakened One.  Siddartha was then alone in the night--- deeper and deeper he meditated, until he remembered everything that had gone before, understood all that what would come after, and saw how one state conditions the next in a complex chain of existence.
As the morning star rose in the East, Siddartha attained complete and perfect awakening and became Shakyamuni Buddha. There have been other Buddhas before him and there will be other Buddhas after him, but for our Age, he is the fully Awakened One. He lived and taught for about forty years and established a fourfold Sangha, a community composed of monks and nuns who left home life like himself and dedicated themselves to the Way, and lay men and lay women who in turn supported that endeavor.
Those who attained awakening following the teachings of the Buddha were called Arhats. They were second only to the Buddha himself in honor and were said to have conquered the blind passions which were seen as the root cause of birth and death. Both the Buddha's wife and son were counted among the Arhats. In time Buddhism moved out of India and spread into the surrounding areas. One branch, known as the Theravada today, moved south into Sri Lanka and later into Thailand and the Southern tip of Asia.
A second branch, which is today called the Mahayana, moved northward into what is now Afghanistan and following the Silk Routes, entered China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes considered part of the Mahayana. Padmasambava who was instrumental in establishing Buddhism there is thought to have been born near the region of Bamyan, a place made famous when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues there in 2001.
The Mahayana schools developed the ideal of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who seeks awakening for the benefit of others and is even willing to put off their own awakening if in doing so, they may be of greater benefit to others. Bodhisattvas occupy a place between ourselves and the Buddhas and while the Buddhas have superior wisdom and insight, the Bodhisattvas are more engaged in the world and are in someways closer to us.
Regardless of which branch of Buddhism one happens to follow, there are ten virtues that all Buddhists stress to one degree or another. The first four are called the Immeasurables while the next six are called the Perfections. The Four Immeasurables are Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy in the achievements of others and Equanimity. Compassion in particular is often stressed and in one of the Buddhist texts called the Nirvana Sutra, Buddha nature, which all living things possess, is said to be nothing other than great compassion itself.
The Six Perfections are Generosity, Precepts, Patience, Diligence, Concentration and Wisdom. Generosity is pretty self explanatory but often when we give we attach to the idea of giving. We may have some kind ulterior motive, maybe we expect something in return or we expect the recipient to do something or behave in a particular manner. This is not the kind of generosity Buddhism teaches.
When we give we do so without attachment. One monk compared it to touching a hot stove with your right and quickly pulling it back with your left. Your left hand doesn't expect anything in return. In a similar way, Buddhism teaches that we are all parts of one interconnected whole. So when we give, we just give, no ulterior motives, no expectations.
Precepts are the training rules we undertake as Buddhists. They are not exactly commandments and we don't follow them just because the Buddha said so. Instead we follow them because we want to and by following them, we create less suffering for ourselves and others. For householders, there are five precepts: First is to not kill, this includes not only other humans but other animals as far as we are able. Second is to not take what is not given. Third is to avoid sexual misconduct, which is not so about the sex itself as it is about honoring your commitments and not violating the trust of others.
Fourth is to be honest and upright, to not deceive others or manipulate the truth. Finally the fifth is to avoid alcohol and other recreational drugs. In the words of an old monk, we are stupid without adding alcohol. Again the basic idea is to try and reduce the amount of suffering we create; being sober helps with that.
Patience and Diligence are like two wings of a bird. We have a long history of bad habits and it takes patience and diligence and time to change that. We have to be patient with ourselves, and I tend to think that patience has to begin with ourselves anyway to be genuine. It will then naturally radiate outward to include others. Diligence is just picking ourselves up and trying again every time we backslide into another bad habit.
Developing concentration is largely a part of meditation. Ask most anybody and they will tell you that Buddhists meditate. Actually this is not entirely true but for many of us, meditation helps us navigate life's ups and downs, reminds us of the teachings and gives us a glimpse into the working of our own mind. There are many different forms of meditation.
Wisdom is mindfulness of the three so-called Dharma Seals which are said to mark all phenomena: they are impermanent, they lack a fixed unchanging self and they cannot be grasped. If we forget these three things, suffering, hardship and ennui naturally begin to arise. When we are mindful of the Dharma Seals, however, everyday is a good day.
Impermanence is fairly obvious--- Everything changes. The lack of a fixed unchanging self simply means that we also change. I am not the same person I was fifteen years ago or thirty years. Neither are you. This means that long term friendships and romantic relationships become a matter of rediscovering each other over and over again and even your enemy is not the same person from one moment to the next. Seen in this way, the world is always fresh, new and exciting and there is always the possibility of forgiveness.
Beyond grasp simply refers to the slippery nature of our human existence. We often talk about the present moment but where is it really? As soon as we mention the present, it is already past.
Time is continually slipping by and this precious human life of yours will never be repeated. Even if you believe in reincarnation or rebirth, as many Buddhists still do, this life in this here and now is unique. Furthermore, happiness itself is not something that can be achieved simply by grasping at it. The only means to happiness is genuine compassion. In the words of the Mahayana texts, this is the kind of compassion that a mother feels for her only child. This is also the Bodhisattva ideal. None of us are quite there yet. Hence the need for time, patience and diligence.
See Karen Armstrong's Buddha, 2001 for a more detailed account of this and the following events.
Buddhist Goddesses of India, 2006 by Miranda Shaw is an invaluable resource on the role of the divine feminine in early Buddhism.