Well, it should be an interesting essay. I just hope I am not writing your essay for you (smile).
No offense is taken to your inquiry. I just hope that some of what I am about to write is equally non-offensive to others who may read it. I am going to apologize for the length of this reply but I am attempting to explain the Buddhist answer to each of your points to the best of my ability in the order they were posed. I also apologize if it appears to be "preachy" -- that is not my intent since Buddhists are not permitted to proselytize but to answer questions to the best of our ability.
1) Buddhism is a religion (but it isn't); it's a philosophy (but it isn't). It is whatever one wants to make it. I think if you look at all religions (and for the sake of convenience and commonality, lets consider Buddhism to be a religion) they all hold the same basic tenents. One of the teachings of the Buddha in the "The Dhammapada" verse 183 states:
"To shun all evil.
To do good.
To purify one's heart.
This is the teachings of the Buddhas."
I doubt if any religious teaching would take offense with that teaching.
The core teaching of Buddhism is expressed in The Four Noble Truths: that suffering (the term is "dukkha" which some translate as "suffering" but really implies "out of balance") exists in life; that the cause of dukkha is attachment (sometimes referred to as "ignorance" or "desire"); that it is possible to end dukkha; that the end to dukkha is attained by self-improvement by following The Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). I believe all belief systems hold similar views and would be hard pressed to disagree with these beliefs. So, I guess all founders of all belief systems have in fact "...discovered his [the Buddha's] declared truth" in one way or the other.
In respect to your inquiry, "If the religion he founded is true, why wasn’t it in existence from the foundation of the world?" I guess you argument applies to all belief systems. Christianity did not exist until its founding by Jesus in the 1st Century CE (Common Era). Judaism did not exits until "According to Jewish tradition, Judaism was founded by Abraham, almost 4000 years ago" according to Rabbi Shraga Simmons (see http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askra…
). Islam did not exist until "The prophet Muhammad (circa 570-632 A.D.) introduced Islam in 610...." (see http://www.allaboutreligion.org/origin-o…
). As you can see, there is no extant belief system that has been "...in existence from the foundation of the world" as you stated. So, by your criteria, all religious belief are to be considered false or not true.
Buddhism is non-theistic. One of the main objections to Buddhism by theistic belief systems is that they consider Buddhists to be atheists. One of the most confusing aspect non-Buddhists have of Buddhism is the misunderstanding that we Buddhists worship the Buddha. We neither worship nor pray to the Buddha as though He is a God. Rather, we venerate and honor Him for His teachings. Yes, most Buddhists have an image of the Buddha in their homes. But look at it in much the same manner that I am sure you have photographs of loved ones in your home. You look at their pictures and remember the good times you had with them and perhaps the things they taught you. It is in the same manner that we Buddhists have representations of the Buddha in our homes.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama cautions, however, the primary importance for every Buddhist is studying the writings of the Buddha and texts written by teachers.
"It wouldn't be bad if you didn't have statues, but it has become indispensable to have Buddhist texts which deal with the structured path to train our mind. If you have Buddhist texts, read them for yourselves and to friends who visit. That way you can help others to understand Buddhist ideas....Buddha's image alone will not purify us of karmic obscuration…. It is very important to study the scriptures. They are not to be just stacked up on the altar. They must be cultivated in our mind. …[we] take great interest in having the symbolic representations of Buddha's body, speech and mind. I feel it is more important to acquire and read scriptures, the symbolic representations of his speech. You can pay homage to them, you can make offerings to them; above all, you should study them." (from "Generous Wisdom: Commentaries by H.H. the Dalai Lama XIV on the Jatakamala" translated by Tenzin Dorjee edited by Dexter Roberts).
The statues in themselves are unimportant—the teachings (the Dharma) is, however, crucial.
While most Buddhists deny the existence in a supreme being there is no evidence in the sutras stating emphatically there is no universal creator. Buddhism, as opposed to many religions, is what some would consider "agnostic" in its structure. There may be God or there may be no God. That in and of itself doesn't matter. What matters is where we are at the present moment—the Now—that ultimately matters and how we treat other living things. For more information regarding this concept of a universal creator in Buddhism please see http://www.nirvanasutra.org.uk/buddhaand…
The concept of a soul and eternalism is one of the Fourteen Unanswered Questions found in Buddhism.
" When the Buddha refused to be drawn into the net of these dogmatic views of existence and nonexistence, he had two things in mind: the ethical consequences of these two views, and the fact that the views of absolute existence and nonexistence do not correspond to the way things really are. The eternalists view this self as permanent and unchanging. When the body dies, this self will not die because the self is by nature unchanging. If that is the case, it does not matter what this body does: actions of the body will not affect the destiny of the self. This view is incompatible with moral responsibility because if the self is eternal and unchanging, it will not be affected by wholesome and unwholesome actions. Similarly, if the self were identical with the body and the self dies along with the body, then it does not matter what the body does. If you believe that existence ends at death, there will be no constraint upon action. But in a situation where things exist through interdependent origination, absolute existence and nonexistence are impossible.
" Another example drawn from the fourteen unanswerable questions also shows that the propositions do not correspond to the way things really are. Take the example of the world. According to Buddhist teaching, the world does not exist absolutely or does not exist absolutely in time. The world exists dependent on causes and conditions-- ignorance, craving, and clinging. When ignorance, craving, and clinging are present, the world exists; when they are not present, the world ceases to exist. Hence the question of the absolute existence or nonexistence of the world is unanswerable. Existence and nonexistence, taken as absolute ideas, do not apply to things as they really are. This is why the Buddha refused to agree to absolute statements about the nature of things. He saw that the absolute categories of metaphysics do not apply to things as they really are." (
You may also want to refer to the following websites for an interesting read on the topic.
2) Yes, you are correct that Siddhartha Gautama left his wife and child in his search for enlightenment. They were left in the care of his royal family (remember Siddhartha Gautama was a prince). In a similar manner Jesus left his mother without a spouse (according to the new Testament Joseph had died) in order to preach his teachings. Mohammed "...would retreat for days, taking provisions along with him, and would return to his family for more provisions" (see http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/18…
). If the Buddha was "escaping reality" as you indicate it would appear the other religious founders were doing the same. So, we can see it was not uncommon for a seeker to leave the responsibilities of loved ones and families in order to seek what we may term "spiritual" enlightenment.
3) This is a popular misconception of the part of many Westerners, i.e., that the Buddha is worshipped as a god. I will respond by reposting my answer to a similar question previously asked.
I can understand the confused view of many non-Buddhists that the Buddha is worshipped since there is usually at least one representation of the Buddha in a Buddhist home; one prostrates before the image of the Buddha; and offering bowls are placed before the Buddha each morning and removed at night (with a distinct meaning of each depending on the tradition followed). The image of the Buddha is to remind us of His teachings, we prostrate before the image to offer respect to His teachings and to instill humility within us, and the offerings are presented as a representation of what we should offer to other living beings. Obviously, it would be foolish on a Buddhist's part that these are for the benefit of a statue.
Do some misinformed Buddhists believe they are praying to the Buddha as though He was a God? Obviously such is the case. But every belief system (Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, etc., be they secular, political, or religious) has misguided practitioners who misconstrue the teachings presented within their belief system and even use them for violent personal gain. That is unfortunate but true--we see the consequences both in history and in present day events.
There is a teaching that after Siddhartha Gautama obtained enlightenment and became the Buddha, He was recognized by an individual as being exceptional. "Legend has it that a wandering ascetic encountered the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment and, seeing the how profoundly serene and contented the Buddha appeared to be, the ascetic asked him: 'Are you a God?' The Buddha replied 'No.' Then the ascetic asked him: 'Are you a man?' The Buddha replied 'No.' Finally the ascetic said, 'Well, if you're not a God, and you're not a man, what are you?' and the Buddha answered 'I am awake.'" (from http://www.hsuyun.org/Dharma/zbohy/Liter…
). The Buddha denied deification and cautioned His followers from making Him one.
4) How does anyone know if Buddha achieved Nirvana? Well, this is where faith comes into play, doesn't it? Each belief system relies on the faith of the practitioner in certain aspects.
May all be at peace.
As cited in the body of the response.