Two thousand five hundred years ago, during Siddhartha Gautama’s time, no clear boundaries existed between nations. Some sources say that Siddhartha was born in Nepal, while others say that he was born in India. The Sakya Kingdom, in which the Gautama clan ruled, was located inside the border of Nepal, in what is now northeastern India.
Writing did not exist at the time, and the Pali Canon, written in Pali, may not have been the language of Siddhartha. In the 13th century, Buddhism disappeared in India and alot of material was lost. Hinduism took over and Muslim invasions further resulted in the loss of Buddha’s teachings from Indian languages. But meanwhile, the Buddhist philosophy prevailed elsewhere and was translated into Chinese and Tibetan, and thus preserved. However, monks from these countries not only kept the Buddha’s philosophy through the Chinese Canon and the Tibetan Canon (and from which the Pali Canon is tested for veracity), but also elaborated the teachings with a sprinkling of their well-intentioned interpretations and their ideas. The passage of time has made it difficult to separate Buddha’s exact teachings with that of the monks.
How has Buddha’s words been preserved all these years? Buddha had a gifted follower by the name of Ananda, who had a prodigious memory. Handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation until it was finally recorded in writing in 1BC, gifted monks such as Ananda preserved the words of Buddha.
Early in the development of Buddhism, two schools of thought diverged: Theravada Buddhism (known as “The Lesser Vehicle”), which claims to be the closest to the original teachings of the Buddha; and Mahayana Buddhism (“The Greater Vehicle”), which is divided into numerous distinct schools, two of which are Tibetan Buddhism (the highest authority is the Dalai Lama) and Zen Buddhism. A third school is mentioned in some sources, Vajrayana Buddhism (“The Diamond Vehicle”), which originates from Tibet. There are a staggering number of schools of thought that have evolved since the death of Buddha.
No one knows what the Buddha looked like–the statues of him that we know today were made centuries after his death. But judging from an ascetic’s diet of berries and tree bark, I really don’t think that a rotund Buddha, in his classic pose of meditation, would result. Neither one living on alms, I suppose. (He might have put on weight with age, but who knows?).