Over 2,500 years ago in northern India a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama was gripped by the realization that as human beings we are all vulnerable to suffering because of sickness, old age, and death. Six years later, after an intensive quest, he discovered an answer to this universal problem of suffering through profound insight into the nature of life.
As he began to share his understanding with others, he became known as the "Buddha," or Awakened One -- one who has come to great depths of wisdom and compassion through his own understanding. The Buddha's teaching is referred to as the "Dharma," a Sanskrit word meaning Truth or Nature or "the way things are."
Because the Buddha was simply a human being, the qualities of love and wisdom that he embodied are available to anyone who follows his example. One who practices the teaching of the Buddha is said to be a member of the "Sangha," or community of followers of the Dharma. These three facets of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are known collectively as the Three Refuges or the Triple Gem.
After the Buddha's time, his teaching spread from India throughout Asia. As it encountered other cultures it took different forms. Three main schools of Buddhism thrive in Asia today. The Theravada (Way of the Elders) still flourishes in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) characterizes the various traditions within China, Korea, and Japan. The Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) is associated primarily with Tibet. The San Jose Insight Meditation sangha draws primarily from the practices and teachings of the Theravada but is also influenced by the other Buddhist traditions.