Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born in Lumbini in southern Nepal about 543BC. Leaving his wealth and family he set out to find ultimate understanding. Years of rigorous asceticism brought him no closer to his goal and he settled on a 'middle way' between extremes and after meditating beneath a bodhi tree he attained enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha is the prototype of the enlightened realization who, by attaining his own awakening as the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, proved that enlightenment bodhi was possible for all perceptive beings. In brief, Buddhism teaches that all life is essentially suffering, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that can only be broken by attaining Nirvana. This can only be achieved by losing desire for all things of the world. Nirvana means cessation or to extinguish - liberation from the cycle of rebirth and should not be equated with a western 'heaven' concept. An essential concept is the interconnectedness of all things; the Buddha concept of the universe is often depicted as a net of jewels: each jewel endlessly reflecting the totality of reality.
The Buddhism of the Kathmandu Valley is the last living remainder of medieval Indian Buddhism and scholars speculate that it was the original religion until Indian kings introduced Hinduism in the 4th century. It began as Mahayana with an emphasis on monkhood, scholarship and meditation - large complexes served as places of worship and study. With the 14th century destruction of the great Indian monasteries Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley were cut off from their main source of inspiration and guidance. Today Newari Buddhism is in the process of disappearing as increasing numbers convert to Hinduism.
The Bhotia peoples of northern Nepal are essentially Tibetan Buddhist. This branch of the Mahayana tradition incorporates strong tantric influences and traces of the indigenous Himalayan Bon tradition. This is a vast and complex belief system in which esoteric teachings include difficult visualization practices and a highly developed understanding of the human mind. There are also many Tibetan refugees in Nepal, including the Kathmandu Valley, keeping this tradition strong.