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Early history

Diffusion of Buddhism

Southeast Asia




Influence of the West


“Buddhism” is a Western term for the immensely diverse system of beliefs and practices centered on the teachings and person of the historical Buddha, who enunciated his message of salvation in India over two millennia ago. The general concept easily lends itself to a false sense of empirical unity remote from the complex history of the tradition and the varied faiths of the individual believers. In the centuries following the promulgation of the original teaching and the formation of the earliest community, Indian Buddhism underwent a massive process of missionary diffusion throughout the Asian world, assimilating new values and undergoing major changes in doctrinal and institutional principles. Today, under the impact of conflicting ideologies and of science and technology, Buddhism, like all the great religions, finds itself, amid the acids of modernity, undergoing vast internal changes which further prohibit simplistic stereotypes and definitions.

The traditional distinction between the major historical forms of Buddhism has centered on a threefold typology, based on doctrinal and institutional differences which seem to fall within relatively homogeneous geographical areas. They are (1) The Theravada (“teaching of the elders”), located in the lands of southeast Asia—most importantly in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia; (2) the Mahāyāna (“great vehicle”), in Nepal, Sikkim, China, Korea, and Japan; and (3) the Tan tray āna (“esoteric vehicle”), formerly prevalent in Tibet, Mongolia, and parts of Siberia. However, this classification is crosscut with atypical variations. The Theravāda, as it exists today, represents the sole survivor of the numerous ancient Indian schools. It has a fixed body of canonical literature, a relatively unified orthodox teaching, a clearly structured institutional distinction between the monastic order and laity, and a long history as the established “church” of the various southeast Asian states.

The Mahāyāna, on the other hand, is a diffuse and vastly complex combination of many schools and sects, based on a heterogeneous literature of massive proportions from which no uniform doctrinal or institutional orthodoxy can ever be derived. There are certain key scriptures which are sometimes regarded as typifying the more universal thrust of Mahāyāna principles over against Theravāda teaching, and Theravāda has traditionally been stigmatized as Hīnayāna (“small vehicle”) by Mahāyānists; but Mahāyāna itself is also to be found on the southeast Asian mainland, in syncretistic fusion with Theravāda. In China and Japan its literature ranges from the most abstruse philosophy to popular devotional theism and magic, and it includes the Hīnayana sources as well. Institutionally it has appeared both in monastic and in radically laicized forms, and it has occasionally served in well-defined church-state configurations.

Tantrie Buddhism, dominantly identified with Tibetan Lamaism and its theocracy, is equally ambiguous. The esoteric Tantrie teachings, which originated in India, persisted in several so-called Mahāyāna schools in China and Japan. In its Tibetan form Tantric Buddhism was richly fused with a native primitivism, and it underwent important and very divergent sectarian developments. The Tibetan monasteries contain (or did contain) superb collections of Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna sources in addition to the Tantric literature.

The statistics of Buddhist membership are even more deceptive. The total given has frequently ranged from 150,000,000 to 300,000,000—with the variation based principally on the fact that in Mahāyāna lands “orthodox” commitment to one religious faith was never a significant cultural characteristic. The populations of China and Japan could not be categorized as Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, or Shintoist in the same way that Western religious history seems to lend itself to relatively clear confessional divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In Japan, for example, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto have frequently formed a single interlocking system for the specialized satisfaction of a wide range of personal and social needs. The same family that takes an infant to a Shinto shrine for a baptismal ceremony will, without any sense of conflict, have funeral rites conducted by Buddhist monks and maintain family ancestral worship and ethical standards largely dominated by Confucian values.

In southeast Asia approximately 90 per cent of the total population is Buddhist, monastic and lay. In China, just prior to 1949 less than one-fifth of the popular cults were recognizably oriented to Buddhism in some form, and only a small fraction of the total population (under 1 per cent) were specifically affiliated with the monastic orders. Since 1949 this percentage has been further reduced, as it also has, most recently and drastically, in Tibet, where over one-fifth of the total population once lived in the monasteries. In Japan more than three-quarters of the population have Buddhist affiliations, while in India and Pakistan— after an absence of many centuries—Buddhism has only recently, during the past few decades, begun to return in strength; however, it still numbers less than 1 per cent. Since the eighteenth century, with the first Asian emigrations to the West, Buddhism has found its way into Europe, Great Britain, South America, and the United States. The number of conversions among the populations of these countries is small in total number but is of considerable cultural significance, since conversions frequently reflect dissatis-faction with Western values and goals.

Amid this diversity there are a few central elements, which may be taken as generally characteristic of Buddhism throughout the larger part of its history. First, for all Buddhists the common point of unity has been in the symbol of the Buddha—whether revered chiefly as a human teacher, as in Theravāda, or worshiped as a supreme deity, as in certain forms of theistic Mahāyāna. In all cases the element of personal commitment in faith is present in some form. Second, Buddhism is one of the three major religions of the world which defines the human situation with sufficient universality for all mankind to fall within the scope of its message of salvation without prior criteria of social, ethnic, or geographic origin. The voluntary act of personal conversion in response to the teaching was from the very beginning and still remains one of the most decisive symbols of its missionary scope. Third, from the very beginning Buddhism was dominated by a religious elite for whom the monastic ideal and pursuit of a mystical, otherworldly goal were overriding concerns, frequently to the exclusion of consistent focus on mundane socioeconomic and political problems. However, even here there are many exceptions which must be noted and which require that Buddhism be “defined” with careful regard for its discrete historical forms.

The systematic study of Buddhism in full critical perspective began with the Enlightenment and the advent of Western colonialism in Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The arduous translation of Buddhist scriptures and basic historical and institutional reconstructions were sufficiently well advanced by the end of the nineteenth century to provide raw material for bolder attempts at comparative evaluation.

In general it may be said that today the major obligations of study include, first, the basic Buddhist literature, doctrines, and institutions considered internally—that is, within the community itself and among individual believers, as they understand it; second, the external relationship and exchange between Buddhism and the larger cultural environments of which it has been a part— including its relation to the goals of the state and its confrontation with other religions and ideologies; and third, what can be very broadly called the therapeutic contributions of Buddhist teaching to the human situation—both personal and social.

Early history

Historically, ancient Indian culture during the sixth century b.c. was to much of Asia what Hellenistic culture was to the West, and Buddhism was the missionary bearer of many of its values. The conditions underlying the emergence of Buddhism in ancient India were those generally characteristic of the wider process of sociocultural transition which took place during the first millenium b.c. across the face of the civilized world, from Greece to China. In the principal centers of the high cultures, archaic social and religious institutions were breaking down under the pressure of more complex forms of economic and political activity, associated with the urban revolution and the territorial expansion of new imperial states. In all cases, apparent economic and political advances were mixed with serious social disorders, hardship, and the loss of traditional religious moorings.

In this process of transformation, new philosophical and religious solutions were sought and attained by the formative thinkers whose teachings still lie behind the institutions and ways of life characteristic of the major civilizations of the world today. Socrates, the prophets of Israel, Confucius, and the Buddha were among the great innovators who, in distinctive ways, offered systematic critiques of the older values and redefined the meaning of existence and the nature of man and society within a more universal, transcendent framework, which became the basis for new cultural reconstruction.

In India during the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. there were significant developments in agricultural productivity, urban commerce based on a money economy, a new and increasingly affluent middle class, and the beginnings of rational bureaucracy. But these advances were offset by protracted power struggles between warring states for territory and economic resources. They resulted in the uprooting and extirpation of political minorities and the corrosion of the traditional forms of communal solidarity and religious legitimation— a situation that provoked a deep spiritual malaise and intensified earlier innovating speculations about the meaning of the self and the world. The value of all worldly activities and of life itself was questioned with unparalleled sharpness.

The new religious and philosophical teachers in India—most significantly those whose doctrines are embodied in the Upanisads, in Buddhism, and in Jainism—began their reconstructive enterprise quite paradoxically with a radical devaluation of the phenomenal world and the simultaneous affirmation of an otherworldly realm of absolute transcendence which alone is worthy to be the goal of all human striving. The normative religious problem emerged as one of personal salvation from bondage to phenomenal existence. The process of salvation was defined by a transmigrational metaphysic which forms an almost airtight theodicy: the soul (ātman) undergoes an endless cycle of rebirth (samsāra), in which the individual assumes a new physical form and status in the next life depending on the ethical quality of deeds (karma) in this life. The individual may attain salvation from this process by practicing the Yoga—an autonomous, ascetic discipline of the inner self, of body, mind, and motivations, designed to eliminate the karmic source of the transmigratory process.

Although this basic metaphysic was presupposed by many of the major schools, there were sharp sectarian disputes on the theoretical particulars. This conflict was heightened by disagreements over the prevalent theory of social stratification, the caste system. From the brāhman perspective all means of salvation were contained in the Vedas, and the law of karma was tied rigidly to the caste system: one is born in a particular caste as a result of deeds in the former life, and conformity to caste rules is the precondition of salvation or at least improvement in caste status in the next life. The non-brāhmaṇic schools, like Buddhism and Jainism, denied the ultimacy of the Vedas and the ritual significance of caste. Their messages of salvation were preached openly. Admission was based on personal conversion, usually without ascriptive limitations of caste, class, or sex. Their teachings found rich soil among upwardly mobile urban commercial groups, who held that both soterio-logical and social status should be based on achievement criteria rather than on hereditary right.

The Buddha and his teachings

Efforts to reconstruct the life and teachings of the Buddha and the institutions of the earliest Buddhist community run aground on many refractory critical problems. But the Buddha’s life story, overlaid in its many versions with legend and myth, is nevertheless persuasive in basic outline. The historical Buddha (“enlightened one”), named Siddhārtha Gautama, was born a prince of an indigenous Indian clan in northern India about 550 b.c. In his early youth he displayed unusual sensitivity to the pressing enigmas of human existence. His family endeavored unsuccessfully to distract him from these concerns and to insulate him from the signs of human finitude—suffering, contingency, and death. But at the age of 29, still preoccupied with the ultimate questions, he left to search for a means of salvation. For some years he tested and rejected radical physical asceticism and abstract philosophy. Finally, in a single night of intensive meditation he achieved enlightenment and evolved his own unique diagnosis and teaching (Dharma). He then embarked on a missionary career, preaching his message of salvation openly to all “without a closed fist.” He formed an ever-widening community (Sangha) of mendicant disciples from all castes, including women and lay devotees, and after a long ministry he died at the age of 80.

The major forms of the tradition represent the Buddha as teaching an exoteric, practical Yoga which followed the so-called “middle path”—a mean between the extremes of bodily indulgence, self-mortification, and speculative philosophy. This is a qualitative, not merely an expedient, mean. It is based on the conviction that neither ritual manipulation of external physical forms—including radical asceticism (e.g., Jainism)—nor abstract intellectualism can touch the real core of the human problem—the habitual errors of the mind and the inward perversion of the will and motivational processes. The Buddha’s unique diagnosis and soteriology are embodied classically in the “four noble truths.” (1) All creaturely existence is marked by duhkha (“pain,” “anguish”), an agonized bondage to the meaningless cycle of rebirths amid a transitory flux which is impermanent (anitya) and without essential being (anātman). (2) The cause of this agony is ignorance (avidyā) of the illusory nature of phenomenal existence and particularly the pernicious notion of the eternality of the soul, which ironically perpetuates the desire (tṘṣṇā) for life. As individual consciousness is dissolving in death, this residual ignorance and desire once again—in an inexorable causal sequence—form the empirical self from heterogenous phenomenal elements and chain it to the process of rebirth. (3) The removal of ignorance about and desire for phenomenal life will break the causal sequence and so precipitate final salvation. (4) For this purpose the proper Yoga is the “eightfold path,” an integral combination of ethics (śīla) and meditation (samādhi), which jointly purify the motivations and mind. This leads to the attainment of wisdom (prajñā), to enlightenment (bodhi), and to the ineffable Nirvāṇa (“blowing out”), the final release from the incarnational cycle and a mystical transcendence beyond all conceptualization.

The Yoga is radically autosoteriological—an autonomous performance by the self-reliant individual. It demands total commitment, adequately expressed only in the role of the mendicant monk who has abandoned the aspirations of the everyday world and has undertaken a life devoted to full-time pursuit of the religious goal. Although the lay householder might practice the Yoga and originally was not excluded from the ultimate goal (the Buddha said only that it was “harder” for the householder to attain Nirvāṇa), it was inevitable that full spiritual perfection should be dominantly reserved for those whose deeper concern for salvation was institutionally defined by complete monastic commitment.

The rudiments of the teaching outlined here give only the barest suggestion of its innovatory and therapeutic potential. Always foremost is the paradigmatic grandeur of spiritual transcendence and renewal represented by the Buddha himself. His withdrawal from the givenness of the everyday world and his negation of it was the first step in gaining a new critical leverage over it. The principal symbols of world rejection and negation are not pessimism or nihilism. They negate and displace the archaic religious practices and forms of social organization in the name of a transcendent goal that places all men in a universal context of religious meaning through which the whole human situation can be comprehended and managed. Correlatively, it is possible to inculcate universal standards of conduct which establish expectations of interpersonal and intergroup relationships without particularistic, ascriptive limits of space or time.

The initial act of conversion, expressed in commitment to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, not only allows for the dramatization of personal dissatisfaction with one’s present life situation but projects a longrange program of spiritual recovery and maturation, including the cathectic transformation of the whole personality and the internalization of new values, which can be publicly acted out. Enlightenment is not only the result of incessant meditation on the truths and on the transitoriness of life, which will ultimately eradicate desire for it; it requires motivational purification through the practice of universal virtues, in addition to monastic poverty and continence, love (maitrī), and compassion (karuṇā) toward all living creatures, the elimination of a host of specific vices, and the obligation to promote friendship and concord. Within the community the ritual divisions of caste and all ascriptive divisions are obliterated before the universal force of love and the knowledge of the common condition of all men.

The Saṅgha

The solidarity of the earliest mendicant community was centered on the charisma and teaching of the Buddha himself, but the growing number of converts, the addition of lay devotees, and the settlement of a number of cenobitic communities around major cities in the Ganges valley forced the routinization of discipline and teaching. By the end of the Buddha’s long ministry the Sangha was differentiated along several characteristic lines; most important was the class distinction between the monastic elite and the lay devotees. The tradition relates that after the Buddha’s death a council was convened at Rājagrha to regularize the teachings and monastic rule. The actual accomplishments of the council are uncertain, but it is apparent that a substantial body of the scriptures found in the present Theravādin canon and the residuals of other early schools already existed in oral form— including the nuclear disciplinary code (Prātimokṣa) of the later full monastic rule (Vinaya) and much of the soteriological teaching embodied in the Buddha’s discourses (Sūtra). The major ceremonials of communal life were in practice, most importantly the bimonthly uposatha—a congregational assembly and confessional recital of the Prātimoksa. As a result of the increasing generosity of the laity, the various monastic centers soon possessed extensive properties and dwelling places, with a highly differentiated system of specialized roles for administration and teaching.

By the third century b.c. the Sangha was in the process of sectarian proliferation, ultimately forming a number of schools, each of which emphasized different philosophical and doctrinal features of the received tradition. Their distinctive doctrinal positions were embodied in commentaries on the early teachings, finally forming—to take the Theravādin case—the Abhidhamma—the third part of the threefold Pāli canon (Tipitaka). According to uncertain tradition, a second council was convened at Vaiśālī one hundred years after the Buddha’s death. There a series of sharp disagreements about the inner meaning of the teaching, the status of the laity, and the rigors of the monastic rule brought on the “great schism,” a split chiefly between the conservative forerunners of the Theravāda and the more liberal Māhasaๅghika, whose doctrines were significantly related to the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the following centuries.

The apparent failure of the first councils to unite the Sangha has to be gauged against the basic values of the teaching itself, the nature of monastic constitution, and the conception of internal authority. The early Saṅgha was never a “church” under one centralized control or subscriptionist orthodoxy. At Rājagṛha, after the Buddha’s death (and supposedly at his own request), the idea of routine patriarchal succession was deliberately rejected. In keeping with autosoteriology, the primary function of the monastic rule was to protect the spiritual independence of each monk. It contains typically stringent rules and penalties dealing with sexual offenses, abuse of material possessions, and interpersonal disturbances and outlines legal–rational procedures for dealing with internal disagreements. But the over-riding aim was to provide optimum conditions for pursuit of the ultimate religious goal, not to enforce ecclesiastical unity. Issues were discussed openly and decided by majority vote, with all ordained monks having equal franchise. The constitution of a monastery allowed free dissent in “good faith,” and if controversies could not be resolved, the rules governing schism allowed the dissenters to depart and form their own monastic center. Formal routinization finally included a status system based upon degree of spiritual perfection, knowledge and capacity to instruct, and seniority reckoned in a sequence of three decades from the date of ordination. There was a preceptor system for the guidance of novice monks, but the authority of the senior monks was in principle strictly advisory. The novice joined the Sangha by confessing his inward spiritual intention, but not within the framework of a system of bureaucratic office-charisma, as in the Roman and Byzantine churches, or of monastic obedience, such as we find in the Benedictine rule.

Social and political ethic

For the laity and for all secular spheres of social reality, the leadership of the Sangha developed a highly differentiated secondary soteriology, based on a merit-making ethic rationally oriented to the economic and political needs of the urban mercantile and artisan classes. In joining the Sangha, the lay devotees promised to conform to the “five precepts” (no killing, stealing, lying, adultery, or drinking of alcoholic beverages). By support of the monastic order and by their personal morality they could accumulate karmic merit and so be assured of better rebirth opportunities. By contrast with the archaic sacrificial rites which still persisted, Buddhism provided less-expensive religious media. The Buddhist laity were expected to make donations to the Saṅgha, but the soteriology stressed the autonomy of the self as the sacrificial agent.

In the Theravādin Sigālovāda Sutta, sometimes called the householder’s Vinaya, the layman is exhorted to pursue a lifetime of ethical self-discipline, for the sake of a well-being in “this world and the next,” including the maximization of economic efficiency. He must eliminate self-indulgent and wasteful vices which impair effective economic action: sensuality, hate, fear, and slothfulness. Undesirable business associates include those who lack self-discipline and waste human and physical resources. Slave trading and other dehumanizing practices are prohibited. The householder must train his children in socially useful occupations and carefully observe contractually defined ethical relationships with his family, servants, and business associates.

The lay theory of social stratification undercut caste criteria because it denied the religious ultimacy of the brāhmaṇs, the Vedas, and the ritual significance of caste divisions. The Buddha is represented as arguing that caste has no inherent sanctity because it arose historically as the result of occupational differentiation—“quite naturally, and not otherwise.” The social status of women was much improved, and in theory women and men were equals within the Saṅgha. Political theory, though basically patrimonial, asserts that the power of the state is based on a historically evolved contractual relationship between the king and the people which requires that the king earn his keep by his executive skill and moral example.

By the end of the third century b.c., popular lay piety had begun to find its center of gravity in a semitheistic cult entailing the merit-making worship (pūjā) of saintly relics and of the Buddha himself—now exalted to a supramundane plane and surrounded with symbols of his previous incarnations. The places of cultic worship (stūpas and caityas) signify the pressure of the laity for religious means increasingly remote from the monastic autosoteriology. These cultic developments were accompanied by civilizing rationalizations of many indigenous archaic resources which facilitated missionary activity—myths, cosmologies, gods, demons, heavens, hells, and magic—all subjected to the overarching power of the Buddha and the monastic order and tied to higher educational and socializing aims.

From the viewpoint of the expanding state in ancient India, Buddhism was from the very beginning a potentially valuable asset. The organized clergy—sworn to poverty—was a powerful and relatively inexpensive medium for building social solidarity where traditional collectivities had been disrupted by force, and they could assist in more subtle forms of pacifist teaching where force was impractical. This was also particularly meaningful in an expanding economy dependent on a stable and pacified environment for efficient production and exchange. The Sangha could provide the legitimation for political leaders and bureaucrats who either did not have suitable ascriptive status or desired to increase their innovatory power against some traditional elite.

The supportive relationship between Buddhism and the developing state reached a climax in the third century b.c., with an event which determinatively affected the subsequent history of Buddhism. The expansion of the state of Magadha, which had begun in the sixth century b.c., culminated in the founding of the Mauryan empire, a patrimonially governed centralized bureaucracy which dominated the subcontinent. The third ruler of this empire, King Aśoka, who acceded to the throne about 270 b.c., converted to Buddhism after completing the military consolidation of his territorial holdings. He then issued a pacifistic ideology grounded on the universal achievement-based principles common to the Buddhist lay ethic and most of the other Indian religions. This ecumenical ideology, along with an autobiography of his own spiritual transformation from military coercer to pious layman, was inscribed on stones and pillars and promulgated by emissaries throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Its goal was clearly not only to legitimize the innovatory authority of the royal house but also to provide a wider cultural base for a more viable social system. It exhorts all men in the empire to cooperative pursuit of socially and economically efficient virtues. It discourages the practice of archaic sacrificial and magical ceremonials, thus undercutting traditional religious customs that reinforced politically troublesome local solidarities and supported an entrenched class of archaic religious practitioners. The ideology makes no specific mention of brāhmaṇ caste criteria for social integration, urging only that brāhmaṇs be shown the same respect as other religious leaders.

Although Aśoka did not institute Buddhism as the state religion, he promoted Buddhist missionary movements, which spilled over the borders into other lands—most importantly into southeast Asia. Several of his edicts indicate that he tried to unify the Sangha and stem schismatic tendencies which threatened its effective support of the goals of the state. He may have instituted a doctrinal reform by convening a third council at the capital city of Pātaliputra, which then became the basis for the Theravādin orthodoxy that was carried to Ceylon and the southeast Asian mainland. But sectarian schisms in India persisted, for the doctrinal and institutional reasons noted above.

Within fifty years after Aśoka’s death the Mauryan empire collapsed under a multitude of pressures—barbarian invasions, economic decline, internal political conflict, and a resurgence of brāhmaṇ power. Subsequently, the ascriptive principles of the caste system were further rationalized. The king’s responsibility was increasingly tied to the maintenance of the social order in accordance with caste criteria, thus forming the permanent social base for the emergence of normative Hinduism. The specifics of Buddhist nonascriptive social theory remained only peripherally influential—allowing for occasional nontraditional legitimation of invading monarchs and their courts— most notably among the Greeks, the Sákas and Pahlavas, and the Kuṣāṇas.

The Mahāyāna

Mahāyāna Buddhism did not emerge identifiably as a self-conscious movement with its own distinctive literature and institutions until the first century a.d. Its earliest sūtras—held to contain the true and restored teachings of the Buddha—cannot be dated with certainty before the beginning of the Christian era, and there is some indication of Western and Iranian influence on their doctrine and symbolism. However, many prominent Mahāyāna principles have their roots in the issues raised at the second council of Vaiśāī, which culminated in the schism of the Mahāsarighika school. Its doctrines and those developed by other forerunners of the Mahāyāna represented liberalizing solutions to cumulative tensions which had been present within the Sangha almost from the very beginning. Particularly controversial were the hardened dichotomy between the laity and the monastic elite and disagreements regarding the right of lay access to the full religious goal.

The issues at stake centered on the traditional conservative conception of monastic perfection, ideally embodied in the Arhant, the fully perfected monk who attains complete enlightenment only at the end of the long and arduous pursuit of self-perfection demanded by the Yoga. This ideal was held by liberals to be a “selfish” distortion of the original teaching, violating the Buddha’s compassion for all men. In its place they introduced a new conception of spiritual perfection—the ideal of the Bodhisattva (being of enlightenment). The term, which was originally used chiefly to denote previous incarnations of the historical Buddha, was universalized. In its new configuration it means one who, although worthy of Nirvana, sacrifices this ultimate satisfaction in order to help all sentient creatures with acts of love and compassion. All men are inherently capable of filling this role. It is not necessarily a monastic category, and the Arhant is lower on the scale of perfection.

This innovation significantly undercut the rigidities of the class distinction between monk and layman. Although monasticism continued as a central institution, the Bodhisattva ideal opened the soteriology to new symbolic forms, beliefs, and practices. It facilitated popular diffusion and provided the basis for new theistic and philosophical developments, reflected in the principal Mahāyāna sūtras and schools. Equally important was the doctrinal affirmation of the divinity of the Buddha. He is not only the historical teacher; he is an omnipresent deity, an eternal spiritual being and force. This allowed for further rationalizations of the popular theistic movements.

The Perfection of Wisdom sūtras are among the most important theoretical formulations of Mahāyāna soteriology. The Bodhisattva’s distinctive marks are loving compassion and wisdom. This wisdom and its perfection are related not only to self-sacrificing love but also to a more accurate understanding of the real nature of Nirvāṇa. It is not an otherworldly goal, in polarity with the phenomenal world. This is a Hinayāna distortion, which ironically reduces Nirvāna to an empirical spatiotemporal object and reinforces the desire inimical to salvation. Nirvāna is beyond all phenomenal and conceptual polarities—void and empty (śūya). As one approaches inward realization of this truth and experiences enlightened insight, all distinctions between Nirvāna and the world are obliterated. One lives with pure, egoless compassion.

The “emptiness” motif in the Wisdom sūtras was developed by the philosopher Nāgǎrjuna, founder of the Mādhyamika school. He evolved a negational logic designed to break the inveterate tendency of the finite human mind to impose spatiotemporal categories on the supreme spiritual ideal. The other major philosophical school—the Vijn̄ānavāda (or Yogācāra)—based its teachings on sūtras developed around idealistic conceptions: all objective perceptions are illusory projections of the mind. Salvation is achieved by exhausting the source of dualistic consciousness and sensory perception through a Yoga which leads to union with the purity of being.

The philosophical schools reached extraordinary heights of exaltation and subtlety. They liberated the mystical ideal and soteriology from their scholastic bondage, attracted many intellectuals, and provided new principles for theoretical development of Mahāyāna universalism. But the bulk of Mahāyāna practice found its popular social base through theistic means. The heavens were filled with saving Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who transferred their own merit to the believer in response to prayer, provided richly differentiated objects for cultic worship, and satisfied a wide range of personal affective needs. Theistic piety inspired important artistic achievements, beginning perhaps as early as the second century b.c., in the friezes of the Bhārhut and Sānchī topes, and culminating in the Buddha statuary produced by the Mathurā and Gandhāra schools—the latter clearly influenced by Greco–Roman art forms.

Among many efforts to systematize this theistic profusion one of the most important was the formulation of the Trikāya (“three bodies”) Buddhology. Here the Buddha exists in his eternal essence as a supreme heavenly deity and in worldly manifestations. He is both the absolute ground of being and the actional agent of salvation. He interpenetrates all discrete phenomena, assuring the universal presence of the Buddha-nature among all creatures, without distinction. This theory provided an integral basis for formal and functional differentiation of symbolic resources, and it was at the same time a dynamic metaphysic which could be adjusted to new social and cultural pressures.

Within the immensely rich theistic literature of Mahāyāna there are several important sūtras which became the basis of the most popular cults and schools in China and Japan. The Lotus of the Good Law purports to reveal the ultimate teaching of the Buddha Śākyamuni, the transcendent father of all worlds, whose love bridges all finite limitations. The devotee is saved by faith in this sūtra itself. There is a suggestion of sectarian exclusiveness in the dogma that this sūtra alone embodies the ekayāna (“one vehicle”)—the only efficacious means of salvation, which thus exhausts all other doctrines.

More radical are the Land of Bliss sūtras. Here Amitābha Buddha presides over a heavenly paradise—the “pure land”—available to the faithful through the power of his grace. Eschatological and sectarian motifs appear, stressing the utter uselessness of all techniques of self-salvation in a world of utter degeneracy and emphasizing the need to rely absolutely on Amitābha.

Though Mahāyāna produced little in the way of systematic economic or political theory, there are some exceptions which deserve mention because of their demonstrable influence in China and Japan. The Exposition of Vimalakīrti glorifies the virtues of a paradigmatic layman who not only pursues a life of rational economic gain and sophisticated worldly well-being but simultaneously achieves a spiritual perfection excelling that of the most distinguished monks. In the area of political theory the Sūtra of the Excellent Golden Light, written some time prior to the expansion of the Gupta empire (319–540), outlines a modified doctrine of divine kingship. The king is called devaputra (“son of the gods”), a designation current in the Hindu theory of kingship, but he has no insulated cultic status. He stands under the Buddha’s law and is obliged to promote universal peace and social order or by judgment of the gods forgo his right to rule—obviously a sanction for revolt. The patrimonial theory of kingship remained dominantly contractual. Only rarely did the incarnational Bodhisattva principle lend itself to caesaropapist or theocratic pretensions in India. Problems of social stratification receive only passing attention. Caste is presupposed as an institutional reality, and one looks in vain for a systematic critique comparable to that found in the scriptures of the early schools.

The missionary diffusion of Mahāyāna was greatly facilitated by a remarkable principle of rationalization which allowed for almost unlimited adaptability to given conditions. This was the idea of the Buddha’s upāyakauśalya (“skill-in-means”) —the ability to adjust teachings and institutions to the needs of all sorts and conditions of men through any means available. It was identified with the Buddha’s universal love, and, combined with the conviction that all phenomenal forms are illusory and void, it allowed for expedient use of new techniques to further the message of salvation. It cut through traditional boundaries, textual literalism, orthodox formulations, and monastic regulations with remarkable innovatory power and carried the teaching forward, however adumbrated and transformed.

Tantric Buddhism

The assimilative diversity of popular Mahāyāna did not mark the end of the development of Buddhism in India but rather led almost imperceptibly to a metamorphosis. Beginning recognizably in the sixth and seventh centuries a.d. there took place an upsurge of a vast new repertoire of magical, ritualistic, and erotic symbolism, which formed the basis for what is commonly called Tantric Buddhism. Its distinguishing institutional characteristic was the communication through an intimate master–disciple relationship of doctrines and practices contained in the Buddhist Tantras (esoteric texts) and held to be the Buddha’s most potent teachings, reserved for the initiate alone.

In content, Tantric Buddhism is fused in many areas almost indistinguishably with Mahāyāna doctrines and archaic and magical Hinduism. Cryptic obscurities were deliberately imposed on the texts to make them inscrutable except to the gnostic elite. But it took a number of identifiable forms, the most dramatic of which was Vajrayāna (“thunderbolt vehicle”). Vajrayāna had its metaphysical roots in the supposition that the dynamic spiritual and natural powers of the universe are driven by interaction between male and female elements, of which man himself is a microcosm. Its mythological and symbolic base was in a pantheon of paired deities, male and female, whose sacred potency, already latent in the human body, was magically evoked through an actional Yoga of ritualistic meditations, formulas (mantra), and gestures (mudrā) and frequently through sexual intercourse, which occasionally included radical antinomian behavior. The inward vitality of the sacred life force is realized most powerfully in sexual union, because there nonduality is experienced in full psychophysical perfection.

The philosophical justification for these developments was derived from adaptations of Yogācāra and Mādhyamika theory: since the objective phenomenal world is fundamentally identical with the spiritual universe of emptiness or is at most an illusory projection of the mind, the conclusion was drawn that all forms are not only devoid of real moral distinctions but, also, may serve as expedient means to an undifferentiated spiritual end: the overcoming of the illusory sense of duality between the phenomenal and spiritual world. For the adept it is not only necessary to say that there is no good or evil; it must be proved in an active way. The traditional morality is violated as behavior formerly regarded as reprehensible is found to speed the realization of nonduality.

Many Tantric sects practiced these rites only symbolically and in certain cases—most notably in the Sahajayāna (“innate vehicle”) school— produced works of great ethical exaltation. The Mantrayāna (“true-word vehicle”) school, which became influential in China and Japan, remained a rational paragon of restrained magico-religious esotericism. The social origins and class stratification of Tantric Buddhism are almost impossible to determine. Tantric Hinduism, also, was in vogue during this period, and its popularity suggests that a wide-ranging democracy of magical esotericism had broken through stereotyped pressures resulting from the development of state-controlled orthodox institutions during the Gupta era. In the sixth and seventh centuries there were sporadic persecutions of Buddhism, which may have promoted esoteric withdrawal.

After the tenth century a.d. Buddhism began a perceptible decline, for reasons which are still far from clear. The Mahāyāna philosophical schools became increasingly preoccupied with abstruse theoretical issues and hairsplitting polemics. In time theistic Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism became hardly distinguishable from the increasingly luxuriant garden of Hinduism. The great medieval Hindu philosopher Śaṅkara successfully incorporated the strong points of Buddhist philosophy in a decisive synthesis. Buddhist monasteries, schools, and cults began to lose their popular foundation, and we can see the slow but sure absorption of its symbolism, intellectual leadership, and laity into the richness of what étienne Lamotte has called I’hindouisme ambiant. The Buddha was represented as one among many incarnations of the Hindu god Visnu. The final blow came with the Turko–Muslim invasions in the twelfth century. Offended by monasticism in principle, shocked by polytheistic Mahāyāna and Tantrism, and coveting the wealth of the monasteries, the invaders systematically extirpated Buddhism by force. It was not to return as a significant institutional reality for eight hundred years.

Diffusion of Buddhism

Despite their stark contrast in doctrine and practice, the divergent missionary movements of Theravāda Buddhism into the lands of southeast Asia and of Tantric Buddhism into Tibet hide similarities which reveal the deeper potency of Buddhist universalism. In both cases Buddhism became the official state “church” and provided the religious base not only for evolutionary advances but also for long-lasting and relatively stable societies. In both cases Buddhism was introduced under favorable ecological, cultural, and political circumstances by rulers who controlled relatively small, homogeneous land areas and polities grounded on primitive and archaic religions. They saw in Buddhism an opportunity to innovate and to provide a broader religious base for legitimation and social integration.

With respect to the church–state relationship however, in Tibet this evolutionary movement finally took the form of a theocracy based on a unique rationalization of Mahāyāna and Tantric incarnational theology; while in southeast Asia the Theravāda—with its class division between celibate monk and layman and its highly routinized, orthodox version of the classical tradition—was able to maintain a structural distinction between church and state which had important consequences for later institutional developments.

Southeast Asia

In coordination with Aśoka’s political and ideological universalism, Theravāda missions had penetrated southeast Asia by the end of the third century b.c., most importantly in Ceylon, where Theravāda was instituted as the official religion of the state. Ceylon became the chief citadel for Theravādin orthodoxy and its continued diffusion throughout the mainland. In all cases the introduction of Theravāda facilitated the development of more highly differentiated polities by freeing societal resources from their embeddedness in limited traditional and ascriptive ties. Moreover, the two-class system had certain advantages. The king was a lay “defender of the faith,” working cooperatively with the superior charismatic and educative power of the monastic order, which provided state chaplains, missionaries, and teachers who crossed traditional boundary lines and created a new cultural milieu. The specialized performance of these tasks by the Sangha and the structural distinction between church and state also allowed for the formation of secular bureaucracies.

This rational rapprochement between the secular authorities of the state and the monastic leadership of Theravāda in southeast Asia did not take place without significant changes in the values and institutions of the ancient Indian Saṇgha, particularly in those factors which had precipitated its earlier sectarian instability. The radical soteriological independence of the individual monk was placed under routine controls by the introduction of a hierarchy of scholastic distinctions that marked out a chronological path through which the monk progressed toward the ultimate goal. This included grades of perfection based on seniority and routine acquisition of appropriate knowledge. Many of these modifications already appear in later portions of the Vinaya and in the Theravādin Abhidhamma and commentaries. This provided more real space and time for the individual monk to perform worldly tasks without being stigmatized as a spiritual weakling. In addition, in Ceylon the structure of monastic authority was redefined in a way which sets it off strikingly from the early mandate interdicting all forms of centralized ecclesiastical control. We find new rationalizations of the legitimacy of patriarchal authority. A uniform line of charismatic successors to the Buddha’s authority was used to justify hierarchical control of the monastic orders, approaching that of a unified church backed up by the power of the state. Finally, a doctrinal orthodoxy was established. The key text is the Kathāvatthu, reputedly promulgated under King Aśoka’s supervision and contained in the Abhidhamma. It simply declares 252 non-Theravādin teachings “heretical,” with minimal discussion of the issues at stake. These relatively new dogmas and lines of authority now allowed for the definition of other essential forms. The councils at RājagṘha, Vaiśāllī, and Paṭaliputra were approved as officially binding. At the fourth Theravādin council, in 25 b.c., the threefold canon of scriptures was established as the basis for a uniform ecclesiastical law.

In this newly stabilized form Theravāda was located on solid institutional and doctrinal ground, from which it could more effectively serve the goals of the state. The “four noble truths,” the precepts, and the other rational socioeconomic and political teachings set generalized standards for interpersonal and intergroup relations at all levels of society.

In Ceylon the Sangha was partially fused with existing feudal institutions, forming a monastic landlordism pre-empting more than one-third of the land. But it also taught necessary technical skills and norms and provided a wider sphere for social consensus and the religious legitimation of the polity.

On the mainland—to take Thai as an example —the monarchs of some of the early Thai kingdoms which emerged in the mid-thirteenth century supported the Theravādin Saṇgha not only for internal integration but also for the acculturation of conquered non-Thai groups. The structurally differentiated status of the Sangha later facilitated the formation of a civil bureaucracy, which became the basis for Thai administration up to modern times. Specialized departments were set up under the titular rule of royal princes, with the actual administration performed by civilian officials. The Sangha was headed by a state-appointed patriarch, who coordinated the activities of the Sangha with the needs of the state, maintaining an important sphere for the management of tensions and the mediation of conflicting pressures from both sides. Although hereditary ascription, including discriminatory laws and penalties, remained an important integrative principle, the system was considerably opened to individual achievement because access to the civilian bureaucracy and the religious hierarchy was based on free education, provided by village monks. In addition, all young males were expected (as they still are) to spend at least several months living as novices in training with the monastic community. In general the Theravādin system represented a qualitative advance over the primitive and archaic systems which preceded it.


In Tibet, Buddhism provided equally important evolutionary guidance and ecclesiastical support, chiefly through the medium of Mahāyāna and Tantric values and under cultural conditions which resulted in a unique synthesis. The economy was agricultural and pastoral, with little in the way of commercial exchange and mobility. The native religion was a primitive magical animism (Bönism), marked by a labyrinthian demonolatry and controlled by Bönist shamans, who specialized in manipulatory magic, necromancy, divination, and exorcism. In the early seventh century a.d. Yogācāra teaching was introduced to the royal court by the monarch of a newly formed patrimonial state, but it was not until the eighth century, when Tantric missionaries arrived from Bengal, that the real cultural breakthrough occurred. Tantric success was due in part to the inherent grass-roots appeal of its theistic cosmologies and magical practices to those already steeped in the native religion. But compared with Bönism it provided a more highly differentiated and psychologically liberating system of beliefs and practices. The literate Buddhist clergy were armed with a charisma which overwhelmed local chiefs, sorcerers, and demons alike. The native deities were subordinated to the superior power of the Buddhist pantheon, and in time ethical standards were at least partially reformed and universalized through the karmic theodicy. Typically, many primitive indigenous practices were assimilated and placed under a suitable socializing hierarchy. Religious resources soon included a wide range of additional Indian Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna materials, and the monasteries became centers for the systematic translation and study of texts.

Authority was maintained by patriarchal succession, and the noncelibate Vajrayāna tradition, with its sexual-sacramental rationale, encouraged the monks to take spouses. This resulted in the institution of a hereditary “monastic” elite, which undermined and finally destroyed the secular monarchy itself. By the thirteenth century Tibet was controlled by lamas (“elders”), who ruled from their fortified lamaseries and dominated all political, economic, and religious activities. Theocratic power was hardened by an alliance with the emerging Mongol empire.

However, with the collapse of the Mongol empire in the fourteenth century, the inner resources of Buddhism found new creative outlets and produced a remarkable reforming movement. The monk Tsoh-Kha-pa, who initiated this reform, emerges as a genuine prophetic figure. He was a specialist in Mādhyamika negational philosophy and in the rules of the Vinaya, and he aimed at the elimination of Vajrayāna abuses and the restoration of monastic celibacy, discipline, and rational ethics. He organized the Ge-lug-pa (“virtuous sect”), the “yellow church.” The color yellow signified his purifying reforms against the Vajrayāna practices of the traditional “red church,” which soon lost its position of political power.

The reassertion of monastic celibacy in combination with the theocratic principle of political organization precipitated another series of innovations in the fifteenth century. Since patriarchal authority could no longer be defined by hereditary succession, charismatic legitimacy was maintained through a unique rationalization of incarnational theory: each of the chief lamas in the clerical hierarchy was held to be a worldly incarnation of a divine Bodhisattva, reborn as an infant in a lay household shortly after the preceding lama died. His spirit transmigrated into the newborn child, whose legitimacy was determined through elaborate rites of divination. The child was then trained in the monastery, under rigorous supervision. Theocratic authority was distributed between the Dalai Lama, who served as temporal ruler, and the Panchen Lama, who was authoritative in all doctrinal matters.

The metaphysical base of this system was further routinized by an emanational theology in which an original creator Buddha (Ādibuddha) produced and controlled all subdeities and discrete empirical forms. This was not only a soteriological hierarchy but a paradigm for the organization of the state, representing the order of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and the organic participation of various subsects and all the people in the spiritual power of the chief lamas.


The decisive factor affecting the history of Buddhism in China was its confrontation with the religious values and institutions of a high civilization that differed markedly from the ascetic, otherworldly orientation of Indian Buddhism. The Buddhist world view made its own unique contributions to Chinese culture, while at the same time undergoing acculturation—a process that produced a new if not always stable synthesis of Indian and Chinese values.

In China during the first century a.d., Buddhism was confined mainly to foreign communities in the northern commercial cities. The Buddha was worshiped popularly as one among many deities considered worthy of petition and propitiation, and it was not until the end of the second century, with the arrival of Mahāyāna missionaries and texts, that systematic propagation was undertaken. Buddhism’s deeper values and institutions began to assume relatively clear definition and to find a social base among members of the gentry.

The penetration of Buddhism was enhanced by the severe political and economic disorders which occurred at the end of the Later Han dynasty (a.d. 25–220). In this situation of general social breakdown, Buddhism provided therapeutic answers to pressing questions about the meaning of the times and of life itself, unanswerable within the indigenous religious framework. Han Confucianism formed the basis for a highly rational political system, and its ethic had immense integrative strength. However, its cosmological metaphysic was designed to reinforce worldly institutions, obligations, and goals. Awareness of the meaning of the self and the world and of the ambiguities of life was sometimes profound, as with Mencius and Chuang-tzu, but self-reflection and inward cultivation were aimed at better performance of the li (proper social action), rather than at personal salvation.

Taoism, with its naturalistic mysticism, provided an important outlet for the socially induced tensions and the pressures of conventional civilization. Equally significant was the hsüen-hsüeh (“mysterious learning”), an esoteric gnosis with a comparatively sophisticated metaphysic. But hsüen-hsüeh appears as a metaphysical capstone to Confucianism; and cultic Taoism was dominantly shamanistic—providing magical techniques and recipes for immortality in this world, not the next. Buddhism was something very different. With its devaluation of phenomenal life and rich repertoire of otherworldly symbolism and soteriologies, it placed infinite worth on the legitimacy of personal striving for salvation at the cost of all worldly concerns. By comparison the indigenous religions and philosophies were eminently life-affirming and naturalistic.

The Buddhist monastery, however worldly in fact, served as the institutional setting for fulltime pursuit of an otherworldly goal. Despite important similarities between them, the Buddhist monk and the Taoist recluse, the “retired gentleman,” could not be mistaken for each other. Even more striking was the stark contrast between the monk and the ideal Confucian gentleman, the chün-tzu. The decisive and ultimately victorious opponents of Buddhism in China were the Confucian literati. Their categorical affirmation of the inherent value of the phenomenal world and of the need for clearly structured human obligations and rational social order was deeply violated by the ideal of the celibate, ascetic monk who abandons the world, his family, and the principle of filial piety for the sake of an unknown, incomprehensible reward. The monastic ideal was regarded by many Confucians as an immense threat to the family, to the state, and to every sacred value.

The social disturbances at the end of the Han dynasty extended into the period of the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties (220–589). In the early part of the fourth century there were a series of barbarian invasions and settlements in the north which provoked a mass migration of Han gentry to the south. This long-lasting cultural split was important for the subsequent development of Buddhism in China. In the north, amid the chaos of the times, Buddhism was a relatively calm oasis of religious and social stability. The Hunnic warlords found in Buddhism the means of religious legitimation and of establishing their own political identity on a wide cultural base which broke through traditional social fissures. The meritmaking ethic and magical therapy were valuable for expiating past sins, gaining practical ends, and sanctioning desired social standards, which still remained profoundly Confucian in depth despite the decimation of the literati.

Under state sponsorship a systematic and remarkably disciplined translation of Buddhist texts was undertaken, introducing many new sūtras and commentaries, around which schools and cults began to form. Among the first were the Tien-t’ai, based on the Lotus Sūtra, and the San-lun, which centered on the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and Mādhyamika materials. Popular theistic cults included the worship of many Bodhisattvas. However, by the fifth century the entrenched status of the monastic orders—free from taxation and corvée—had resulted in internal abuses which, from the viewpoint of the state, destroyed their rational cultural and integrative functions. Many of the monasteries had accumulated vast wealth and properties. They were regarded as sanctuaries for those who wanted to avoid secular obligations —including the transfer of land titles to avoid taxation—and as hotbeds of immorality and political subversion. As a result, efforts were made to break the power of the Sangha and to place it more directly under state control. A caesaropapist fusion of church and state was contemplated by the emperor of the Northern Wei. It was suggested that he declare himself an incarnate Buddha and thus pre-empt the charismatic authority and power of the order. The Sangha was able to resist this effort because the northern dynasties were inherently too unstable for a theocratic synthesis.

More successful was the effort to control the Sangha by systematic reorganization and occasional persecution. A clerical bureaucracy in the Confucian pattern was superimposed on the monastic orders to guarantee rational internal regulation; and persecutions initiated in a.d. 446 and 574 deprived the monasteries of much of their property, wealth, and personnel. However, these acts of coercion had important consequences for the development of the Pure Land cult—intensifying the emphasis on eschatological symbolism and the need for salvation through faith in Amitābha’s grace alone and deepening its social grounding and universalism.

In the south the dynasties remained Chinese, and political and economic conditions were more stable. The primary cultural and ideological leader-ship remained dominantly in the hands of the Confucian literati, although Neo-Taoism was strongly represented at court. The leading Buddhist monks were for the most part learned, Confucian-trained intellectuals prepared to deal with Taoist and Confucian teachings in depth. They deliberately sought to maintain the political independence of the Sangha, while at the same time synthesizing and enrichening its soteriology in an endeavor to meet the spiritual and social needs of the laity. This independence of mind and synthetic flexibility are best typified by Hui-yüan (334–416). His monastery was a richly Sinified center of Buddhist—Confucian teaching. He was both an expert in the Confucian li—especially the mourning rites—and the traditional founder of the Pure Land school. In order to stabilize the lay ethic, he stressed the moral efficacy of the karmic metaphysic and insisted that the laity observe the five relationships and the law of land. Paradoxically, his rational accommodation of Buddhist teaching to Confucian norms was mixed with a strong sense of the independent dignity of the monk in contrast to the claims of the state cult. With remarkable courage he refused to conform to the traditional court ritual venerating the sacredness of the emperor. In a superb quasi-prophetic treatise entitled “A Monk Does Not Bow Down Before a King,” he argued that the monk does not lack loyalty or filial piety but has a higher loyalty to the universal Buddhist law, to which all men are subject.

On the whole, however, the bifurcation between the soteriological status of monk and layman prevented the formation of a principle of secular or lay social criticism. Lay patrons were expected to conform humbly to the given political values of the state, and in the last analysis the Sangria’s power in both the north and south was dependent on the attitude of the patrimonial monarch, which might range from pious support to savage persecution, depending on utilitarian need or personal whim.

The conquest of the south and’ the unification of China in a.d. 589 under the Sui dynasty was followed by a deliberate effort on the part of the Sui rulers to use the three major religions coordinately to attain a higher level of cultural unity. Buddhism not only supplied the religious imagery but also the ideology behind the conquests of the founder of the Sui. He deliberately drew on the Buddhist traditions about King Aśoka and justified the use of force by infusing it with cultic imagery: “… we regard the weapons of war as having become like the offerings of incense and flowers presented to the Buddha… .” Also of value was the psychological conditioning of the army through Buddhist-inspired emphasis on the otherworldly paradise and the trivial consequences of bodily wounds and death itself.

The Buddhist monasteries, patronized by wealthy aristocratic families, were important links between upper and lower status groups. They implemented a pietistic economic justice by distributing the wealth among the poor—a rational contribution in a time of low economic mobility. State supervision was tight. Monks were required to hold government-approved certificates of ordination and to submit to the supervision of a state-appointed Vinaya master.

In this situation of new political stability, which extended into the T’ang dynasty (a.d. 618–907), Buddhism underwent a remarkable institutional flowering. The T’ang capital was a great center of Sino-Buddhist art and ceremonial, gilding the power of the royal Son of Heaven with suitable charismatic and aesthetic beauty. The provinces and villages were dominated by Buddhist temples and staffed with clergy who tended to the personal affairs of the faithful, simultaneously reinforcing wider social solidarity.

By the eighth century the diffusion of Buddhism had in many ways broken through many of the old particularisms and created a relatively unified Buddhist culture, moderating the severity of the ferocious penal codes and promoting many charitable works. The major Buddhist philosophical schools—now emerging in full strength—provided varied outlets for personal choice and intellectual and soteriological satisfaction. These schools did not develop primarily out of institutional schism or sectarian dissent. Instead, they were formed around the teachings of one or more of the Indian sūtras, commentaries, and doctrinal systems expounded in China by a master and his designated successors. Confronted as the scholars were with the immense profusion of source materials, their practical goal was to reconcile and harmonize the texts. Some of the schools were based dominantly on the literature of the major Indian philosophical schools, Mādhyamika and Vijn̄ānavāda. But others, like T’ien-t’ai and Hua-yen, had no specific Indian institutional counterpart except that implied by the existence of their key sūtras, around which they catalogued the other sources. Membership in the philosophical schools was necessarily limited to a relatively select literate group, although Tient’ai had an extensive lay following, and Pure Land —for the reasons noted above—was inherently capable of wide popular diffusion.

The most remarkable synthesis of Chinese and Indian values was achieved in the Meditation school of Ch’an (Zen). While it was based on the autosoteriological principles of yogic action, its leadership developed a unique meditative technique, which stressed practical, nondiscursive, and naturalistic media for attaining enlightenment. Its teaching was conveyed through a master-disciple relationship founded rigidly on the principle of patriarchal succession, but the school split into two main sects in the seventh century. The Ts’aotung emphasized a gradual approach, including routine textual study in the traditional fashion, while the Lin-chi adopted an approach in which all residuals of abstract intellectualism, received texts, and dogmas were abandoned in favor of new techniques. Most notable was the “public case” (kōan in Japanese), a method of question and answer designed to shock the routine patterns of thought that inhibit intuitive insight and the realization of the Buddha nature latent in every man.

Although the Meditation school retained much of the traditional monastic discipline, the essential teaching was communicated largely without ecclesiastical or textual encumbrances. This proved helpful not only in facilitating missionary mobility but also in surviving persecutions which destroyed the edifices, property, and literature of the more traditional schools. The Meditation masters frequently required their disciples to do manual labor, and the antinomian potentials of the teaching were held in check by adherence to the Confucian ethic. In its practicality and its validation of the natural world by the very act of transcending it, there is much of native Chinese naturalism and mystical Taoism. The school exercised considerable influence on the arts and aesthetic values by stressing the inner spiritual depths of the natural form and act.

Buddhism reached its zenith in China during the eighth century. But in the latter part of the Tang it began to weaken. The main factors in this decline were the rise of Taoist political power in the royal court and the renewed importance of Confucianism among the gentry, including the restoration of the bureaucratic examination system under new Confucian leadership. Internal rebellions and barbarian pressures on the frontiers contributed to the collapse of the great family systems on which Buddhism had relied. Equally important was the fact that once again the Buddhist temples and monasteries had become entrenched centers of irrational economic and political power, which from the viewpoint of the state outweighed their cultural contributions. In a.d. 845 a massive persecution was instituted during which—according to the Emperor Wu—over 44,000 temples and monasteries were demolished and their properties confiscated, releasing millions of acres of land and their laborers. Monks and nuns were compelled to return to productive lay occupations.

This disastrous deinstitutionalization of Buddhism in the late T’ang was capped in the Sung (960–1279) by the Neo-Confucian reform, which effectively broke the back of Buddhist intellectual pre-eminence in philosophy and placed Confucianism on a new and metaphysically satisfying base. It represents an attack on the Buddhist world view, while at the same time appropriating from Buddhism not only much of its deeper philosophical orientation but also a new concern for the individual and questions of personal meaning. In the philosophical perspective of the great Neo-Confucian thinker Chu Hsi (1130–1200), understanding leads to a salutary enlightenment. This new image of the Confucian sage encroached on the unique role of the Buddhist monk.

Specifically, the Neo-Confucian attack on Buddhism was in two directions. First, there was an assault on the idea that, since the world is in constant change and flux, it is nothing but meaningless suffering and illusion. On the contrary, all change shows order and permanence in the larger process if not in particular things. Second, there was an attack on the idea that the world is empty and that one should turn away from outer sensations and progressively realize the artificiality not only of the world but also of the mind’s assertion of the independent reality of the world and the mind. On the contrary, instead of turning from the world, one must investigate its principles and discover its norms, as the basis for the active correction of worldly imperfection.

By the end of the Sung dynasty Buddhism lost much of its intellectual social grounding. The Mongols supported Tibetan Lamaism and Tantrism, as did the Manchus (1644–1911), for political reasons, but the long association of Buddhism with barbarian dynasties contributed to the general revulsion against it which characterized much of later Chinese intellectual thought. Monasticism continued, but under the closest government supervision. The Buddhist clergy were relegated to the service of popular religious needs and competed with the Taoist shamans for pre-eminence in magical therapy. Their main role was to pray for the souls of the dead, while the Taoists were specialists in the exorcism of demons and sickness. Individuals seeking their aid were not classified as Buddhists or Taoists but simply as Chinese consulting specialists who were essentially without congregations. A residue of Buddhist lay piety remained in several secret societies—most notably the White Lotus Society, which served largely as a low-level Gemeinschaft organization with little in the way of real devotional fervor or religious universalism.


Japan had not participated independently in the cultural revolutions of the first millennium b.c. For Japan, like Tibet and southeast Asia, this transition occurred much later, in the sixth and seventh centuries a.d., under the impact of Sino-Buddhist values and institutions imported from Korea.

At first Buddhism was valued primarily for its magical power and its prestige as the symbol of the great civilization of China. The real breakthrough to its deeper resources was initiated by one of the greatest figures in Japanese history, Prince Shōtoku (573–621). Shōtoku assumed the regency at a time when there was growing strife between the leading clans over imperial succession. He converted to Buddhism as a layman and, with the assistance of Korean monks, began to reconstruct his society on the broader ethical and cultural base provided by the new values. The innovatory significance of this conversion is suggested by a passage in one of the sūtra commentaries attributed to him: “The world is false—only the Buddha is true” In this ecstatic affirmation of the fundamental principle of world rejection, he appears to have taken the first step in the process of liberating his society from the burden of the archaic institutions which surrounded him. His reconstructive enterprise was spelled out in a new ideology, embodied in a 17-article constitution —a fusion of Buddhist universalism and Confucian ethics.

Shōtoku actually ruled from the monastery, availing himself of its legitimation and the leverage provided by the monastic order. He sent embassies to China to bring back knowledge of Chinese civilization, which became the basis for the later Taika reform and codes based on Tang law, land systems, and bureaucratic principles.

In the Nara period (709 to 784) Buddhist doctrine found institutional expression in newly imported schools, representing both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings, including the Mādhyamika (Sanron) and Vijn̄ānavāda (Hossō). Buddhism dominated the religious life of the royal court and was patronized through the building of temples and monasteries and in other acts of merit-making piety. It provided important ceremonial media for reinforcing court solidarity. Significant contributions to state ideology were made by some of the more politically useful sūtras: The Lotus of the Good Law not only represented the unity of all forms of soteriological action in the “one vehicle” but also had a potential affinity for symbolizing national unity, which gave it a permanent place in Buddhist political theory. In 741 Emperor Shōmu ordered copies of the Sūtra of the Excellent Golden Light sent to all the provinces. He directed the building of provincial temples, staffed them with suitable personnel, and built a central shrine to house the immense statue of the Lochana Buddha. By the mid-eighth century Buddhism was the cultic center and metaphysical base of state authority.

However, the Sangha itself began to gain new political power—a process which culminated in an effort to institute a Buddhist theocracy under a master of the Hossō sect. This was finally blocked by opposing forces in the royal court, and at the close of the Nara and the beginning of the Heian period (794 to 1185) the Nara clergy was significantly discredited. Emperor Kammu deliberately undertook to dissociate the court from the Nara schools by moving the capital bodily to Kyoto and adopting the term heian (“peace,” “tranquillity”) to express his new political and cultural goals. He also encouraged the formation of a new Buddhist monastic order, under the leadership of Saichō (767–822), a reforming monk who had earlier withdrawn in disgust from the worldly meshes of Nara Buddhism. Saichō established his own charismatic and doctrinal independence by studying with Tien-t’ai (Tendai) monks in China. He centered his teaching on the Lotus Sūtra and required his monks to undergo 12 years of study and discipline under the rules of the Vinaya. His specific social aim was to prepare them to assume positions of responsible leadership in joint support of the monastic order and the state.

With Kammu’s death in a.d. 806, the new emperor asserted his own patrimonial independence by promoting a new teaching, expounded by Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi), a monk of aristocratic Japanese lineage who had studied in China and returned with Tantric doctrines culled from the Mantrayāna (Chen-yen) school. Kūkai, unquestionably a man of immense intellectual and artistic abilities, founded Shingon—the Japanese version of this school. Its esoteric teachings, rich ceremonial, and aesthetically satisfying symbolism appealed to the royal court. Shingon claimed to incorporate not only all the major Buddhist doctrines but also Confucianism, Taoism, and Brahmanism, forming a hierarchial system arranged in ten stages of perfection and capped by the esoteric mysteries. It thus provided an eclectic system of beliefs and practices capable of wide-ranging social penetration, which could be accommodated to the given social hierarchy through extension of the highest esoteric privileges to the elite. Shingon’s synthetic potential also found one of its most important expressions in “dual” Shinto, in which Shinto gods were designated Bodhisattvas in an effort to form a unified cultic framework.

The syncretic power and popularity of Shingon moved Saichō and his successor, Ennin (794– 964), to institute a Tendai esotericism, based chiefly on Ennin’s studies in China. But Tendai itself was victimized by a sectarian disruption stemming principally from a dispute over the right of patriarchal succession which developed when the emperor selected a blood relative of the aristocratic Kūkai as abbot of the order. The conflict produced one of the most tragic periods in the history of Japanese Buddhism. The two camps not only split into hostile religious sects but also, in coordination with dominant clan-based feudal developments, formed fortresses of warrior-monks, who engaged in violent internecine warfare. During the medieval period this became a widespread characteristic. These hostilities were exacerbated by the fact that personal prestige and political status depended jointly on education in one of the monasteries and the monastery’s respective position vis-à-vis royal or clan approval. Clan conflict was frequently defined along sectarian lines, with the great families supporting one feudal monastery against another. Equally important was the freewheeling legitimation allowed by the syncretic richness of the esoteric teachings—including suitable Shinto deities to signify the solidarity of each monastic fortress. The esoteric repertoire also gave rise to the Vajrayāna sexual sacramentalism of the Tachikawa school—a “heretical” movement bitterly opposed by Shingon leaders and ultimately suppressed by imperial order.

In all of this the resurgent Buddhism of the early Heian seemed to have undergone a compromising worldly domestication. However, toward the end of the Heian period, amid increasingly violent clan wars and social disruptions, there were countervailing forces at work. In the Heian court, clearly under the influence of Buddhism, we find the emergence of a self-reflective poetry, literature, and drama marked by an extraordinary sophistication of mood and expression. Awareness of the transience of life and the melancholy of impermanent beauty was coupled with symbolism of withdrawal and a nostalgia for the tranquillity of the past. This easily degenerated into sentimentality and became a sign of courtly refinement, but nevertheless it signified a growing uneasiness and a renewed sense of human finitude and guilt.

The feudal wars finally resulted in the overthrow of the old Kyoto aristocracy and the installation of military rule under the Kamakura shōgunate (1192–1333). However, effective stabilization of the society did not take place until the Tokugawa period, and during the intervening four centuries Japan continued to be devastated by protracted warfare. In this situation of deepening gloom and pessimism the energies of Buddhism were once again restored, in a new breakthrough which touched all social strata. Liberated from aristocratic ties to the defunct Kyoto court, it expressed its inherent universalism in ways which still dominate Japanese religious life today. The most important new movement was Pure Land Buddhism. The soteriology was basically the same as in the Chinese case. Self-salvation is impossible. The single efficacious act is the Nembutsu, the invocation and fervent repetition of Amida’s (Amitābha’s) name—a practice already introduced earlier by Ennin.

The institutionalization of Pure Land in Japan was promoted by three unorthodox Tendai priests, Kuya (903–972), Genshin (942–1017), and Ryōnin (1071–1132). Kūya left the monastery to preach to the masses and promote charitable public works. His missionary zeal even moved him to try to evangelize the primitive Ainus. Genshin popularized Pure Land in his book The Essentials of Salvation. Ryōnin expounded the teaching in songs and liturgy, intoning the Nembutsu and urging the unity of all men in the faith. His converts included monks, aristocrats, and common laity alike. Subsequent developments were even more radical. Ippen (1239–1289) followed the tradition of personal evangelism, preaching and singing in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples about the omnipresence of Amida’s compassion with a universalism which transcended all sectarian differences.

The sudden increase in the popularity of Pure Land during this period of hardship suggests that for the first time the meaning of the human situation—not merely the immediate conditions of personal well-being—was called into question on a large scale. There was an increasing obsession with the idea that the world is hell and the human situation totally corrupt. Although it is clear that for many the heavenly paradise of the “pure land” was an affirmation of worldly pleasures, there were practices symptomatic of deeper stresses. People of all classes practiced ascetic vigils and fasts while concentrating on Amida’s compassionate image. There were radical acts of physical self-mortification—for example, gifts of a finger, hand, or arm to Amida or religious suicides by burning or drowning—all indicative of deep disturbance.

Hōnen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1262) were responsible for the major forms of Pure Land, which still exist today. Prior to their efforts the images of Amida were to be found in the temples of almost every sect, and the Nembutsu had no orthodox exclusiveness. But Hōnen insisted on the inherent superiority of Pure Land. His radical sectarianism and his success in winning converts resulted in persecution and exile. His disciple Shinran went further: man’s total sinfulness means that calling on Amida’s name is a useless effort toward merit making unless it is done out of grace-given faith and gratitude. Suffering and sin are the preconditions for personal salvation: “If the good are saved, how much more the wicked.” Monastic celibacy and the precepts are ineffectual and must be abandoned. The warrior, hunter, thief, murderer, prostitute—all are saved through faith alone. Shinran held that monastic celibacy was not required, and he formed the True Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shin) in reaction to some of the more conservative members of Hōnen’s group, who still held to the celibate ideal and other traditional vows. The new sect was organized around Shinran’s lineal descendants.

One of the consequences of Pure Land radicalism was that it provoked a counterreformation which brought new rigor to the Nara sects and reform movements within Shingon and Tendai. The most important reformer was Nichiren (1222–1282), a Tendai monk born the son of a fisherman, who took deep pride in his low birth and prophetic role. His reforming message was based on a call to return to the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. The goal of his mission was a paradoxical combination of evangelical universalism, radical sectarianism, and fierce nationalism, demanding the cultural and political unification of Japan around Buddhism through faith in the Lotus alone. His position was sufficiently radical for him to form a new school, and his criticism of the incumbent regime resulted in the imposition on him of the death sentence, which was finally commuted to exile. His suffering he interpreted as inherently in keeping with the Buddha’s message, and his disciples continued missionary activity despite continuous persecution, particularly during the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Zen Buddhism was the third major movement to emerge out of the Kamakura matrix, although it did not reach full strength until the Ashikaga shōgunate (1338–e1573) and after. In its soteriology it was the reverse of the Pure Land and Nichiren sects, and it did not become equally popular, although it was immensely appealing to many individuals for whom neither otherworldly theism nor ascetic withdrawal were meaningful forms of religious action. It was successfully transplanted to Japan by Eisai (1141–1215) and Dōgen (1200–1253). Dissatisfied with the condition of Tendai Buddhism, Eisai left for Sung China, where he studied with a Lin-chi (Rinzai) master. After returning to Japan he settled in Kamakura, where his practical teaching found popular acceptance among the new warrior aristocracy. Later he went to Kyoto, with the intention of blending both Shingon and Tendai esotericism with his doctrine. His alliance with the new political order and his compromise with the other sects were major factors in the successful institutionalization of Zen in Japan.

Dōgen, a Tendai monk of aristocratic birth and Confucian training, studied with a master of the Ts’ao-tung (Sōtō) school. He tried to strike a balance between the patriarchal and scriptural traditions, approving both Hīayāna and Mahāyāna sources and minimizing the importance of the kōan. His soteriology stressed rational modes of self-perfection through meditation and ethical and intellectual striving. He retained a strong sense of the dignity of physical labor and the discipline of work in the world, rejecting an easy accommodation of moral standards to given conditions.

Though Dōgen refused to lend open support to the incumbent political regime, Zen teaching in general provided a remarkably creative base for coordination with the secular needs and cultural goals of the state. Zen monks assisted the emperor in many tasks and helped to cement diplomatic and economic relations with China. They were instrumental in establishing a state-sponsored Buddhist church during the Ashikaga shōgunate, which imported and promulgated Sung Neo-Confucianism, provided educational services, and printed textbooks. Equally important was the liberalizing influence of Zen in the arts, including the military art of swordsmanship (stern discipline, selflessness, and spontaneity), the classical tea ceremony, and many aesthetic refinements which became part of the vital mainstream of Japanese cultural life.

The egalitarian thrust of these new religious movements initiated during the Kamakura period contributed richly to the moral and religious health of Japanese culture, but they were not basically reformist. They did not undercut the feudal or patrimonial basis of the society. Although at first they broke through the social boundaries of the old aristocracy, they later supported the ethic of the new warrior class, in many direct and indirect ways, by reinforcing the feudal leader-follower nexus. The demand for unswerving loyalty to the lord had structural and psychological parallels with the authority of the Zen master and the Pure Land hereditary patriarch. The early prophetic-critical tension was also siphoned off in other ways—through the aesthetic life, which Zen promoted by affirming the inner spiritual validity of the natural world as it is given, and in the otherworldly piety of the Pure Land devotee, which did not give rise to rational social criticism but rather to discrete philanthropies.

In the late medieval period, as the rationalization of state Shinto and the first glimmerings of a real national ideology began to emerge, Buddhism was increasingly regarded as a political menace because it reinforced clan particularism and, with the exception of Zen, seemed to add little to political or economic reason. In 1571 the military unification of Japan by General Oda Nobunaga was dramatized by the deliberate destruction of the Tendai establishments, including the razing of over 3,000 buildings and the massacre of all their inhabitants. His pretext was that Tendai had provided sanctuary for political rebels, but the more general reason given was that it obstructed “the maintenance of law and order in the country,” a notion which presaged subsequent events affecting the fate of Buddhism in Japan during the next two centuries.

Influence of the West

The advent of European colonialism in the eighteenth century and the diffusion of Western values and institutions throughout Asia precipitated far-reaching strains and innovations, which have significantly modified the traditional social role and teachings of Buddhism. Under the impact of Western imperialism and acculturation, the major modernizing pressures took the form of resurgent nationalism, democratic aspirations, the development of rational science, and industrialization—all of which placed new pressures on the Sangha for critical self-reflection and reform.

In southeast Asia—to take the Thai case once again—an initial positive response by the royal house to French colonialism and Catholicism was followed by a conservative reaction, approved by the Sangha, resulting in usurpation of the throne. The fear of political and economic domination was directly tied to the fear of a loss of religious identity. The Theravādin base of national unity against Western encroachments has persisted and intensified, although it has been modified by modernizing rationalizations allowing for the introduction of Western political institutions and technical means which at the same time have been used to reinforce the central national role of the Sangha. These innovations were effected not only by external pressures from the royal house and a Westernized laity but also, occasionally, by movements within the Buddhist Sangha itself, which liberalized traditional values and educational techniques held to be incompatible with rational science and modernization.

Characteristically, throughout Theravādin lands the Buddha is now often represented as the first modern “psychologist” and “scientist,” concerned with the analytical understanding of the human situation and the need for innovation and progress. The monastic leadership was placed under new pressures to jusify the immense drain on the economy which state support of the Sangha represented and to bridge the gap between its traditional values and the modernizing goals of the state. The principles of love and noninjury are now regarded as basic axioms for organized social action and reform, particularly in the new Buddhist youth movements and missionary activity. The value of the merit-making metaphysic has been refocused on the need for support of national ideology and new economic and technological goals.

The Sangha also sees itself as a harbinger of international peace, apparently unattainable in Christendom, and as a bulwark against the erosions of Western secularism and materialism. For the fifth Theravādin council, in 1871, the canonical scriptures were inscribed in stone partly to symbolize the permanency of the teaching in the face of Western values. At the assembly of the sixth council, in Rangoon, Burma, in 1954–1956, there was a new stress on the international solidarity of all Buddhists with respect to the missionary goals of Buddhism in the modern world.

The Western-educated laity and certain members of the monastic elite have been the most influential factors in bringing about internal political reforms. Constitutional monarchies and the franchise were both introduced in the early 1930s, undermining the entrenched relationship between the traditional monastic order and the aristocracy. Many of the new reforming movements were initiated by native civil servants who had worked for the British and French bureaucracies. In this regard Ceylon represents a particularly interesting case because it is the only one of the principal Theravādin nations which did not institute Buddhism as the national religion following political independence. The refusal to support the Sangha at state expense is significantly related to a deep split between the bulk of the educated laity and the more conservative members of the monastic leadership. One finds evidence of protesting lay movements publicly excoriating the leadership of the Sangha for its backwardness.

With respect to the encroachments of communism in southeast Asia, Buddhism has played an ambiguous role. Buddhist hostility to the former Catholic regime in South Vietnam has added to political instability in that country, but on the whole Buddhist leadership has found communist materialism and aggression repugnant to its spiritual ideals.

Prior to the communist take-over in China, there were several indications of Buddhist resurgence, including lay social welfare services and various youth movements with social reform programs. Most striking was the work of the monk T’ai-hsü, who joined the revolutionary forces against the Manchus and founded voluntary lay groups for the promotion of democratic institutions, educational services, and Buddhist missions. He conceived of Buddhist universalism as the basis for internal social reform and ecumenical restoration of world peace and moral standards. The communist regime has not extirpated Buddhism but rather placed it under ideological controls. Many of the monastic orders ostensibly retain their traditional customs, edifices, and property, but most of the inmates are compelled both to work productively and to support a cultural image of pacifistic tolerance which serves the goals of the state. The Buddhist Association of China in Peking has encouraged the study of Buddhism as a culturally valuable asset, and it has maintained ideologically useful contacts with Buddhists in other lands. The present results of communist domination in Tibet are uncertain. The economically unproductive aspects of monasticism appear to have been eliminated, but residuals of the traditional theocracy have been retained to facilitate hierarchical distribution of ideological propaganda and lines of authority from Peking. Marx and Mao are now the supreme charismatic figures.

In India, Theravāda Buddhism has returned, partly under government sponsorship of a more general program of cultural restoration. King Aśoka is a key symbol of India’s new national self-awareness. One of the most notable contributions which Buddhism has made in India is its emergence, under the leadership of the late B. R. Ambedkhar, as a social-protest movement against caste discrimination. As leader of the Untouchables in their bid for equal political and religious rights, Ambedkhar saw in Buddhism the innovating potential for formation of a new caste-free solidarity, and in 1956 he led a mass conversion of outcaste groups to the new faith. Buddhist anticaste polemic continues as an important element in the larger effort to break through the entrenched caste-oriented mentality, which persists despite official deinstitutionalization in the new constitution.

In Japan, following Oda Nobunaga’s short-lived dictatorship, the Tokugawa shōguns forced Buddhism into a utilitarian alignment with state policy. Through mandatory temple registration for all citizens, it was used to reinforce social controls against the encroachments of Christianity. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, it was further subordinated to the imperial Shinto−Confucian ideology. Shinto deities were divested of their “dual” association with Bodhisattvas, and Buddhism in general was briefly regarded as a foreign depredation on the purity of the indigenous religion.

There is some indication that Pure Land devotionalism, together with Confucian and Shinto values, may have contributed to the psychological ethos which facilitated later rapid industrialization. A functional analogue has been established between the work ethic of ascetic Calvinism and certain forms of self-sacrificing Amida devotionalism found among businessmen of the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. In the later Meiji and the early decades of the twentieth century the state promoted Buddhism extensively in Korea, for the purpose of pacifying the conquered territory, while at the same time it intensified state Shinto teaching at home, in support of nationalist aims. During the prewar military take-over and the subsequent events leading to World War II it is difficult to find significant examples of systematic political criticism from Buddhist leaders.

However, in philosophy the fusion of Western categories with the Buddhist world view produced some remarkably creative syntheses, as exemplified in the works of such men as Nishida Kitarō and Tanabe Hajime. Equally significant has been the influence in the West of D. T. Suzuki’s interpretations of Zen teachings, particularly in correlation with certain dimensions of existentialist philosophy and psychology. Japan in the postwar situation is an extremely complex matrix of cultural ferment, within which Buddhism appears in many new forms. It ranges from the radical sectarianism of Soka Gakkai, which blends intense devotionalism with militant political goals, to the subtle historical reflection and self-criticism of intellectuals like lenaga Saburō. lenaga sees in the history of Japanese Buddhism—particularly in Shōtoku and Shinran—evidence of its transcendent universalism and capacity to cut through traditional forms with innovating power; but this is paradoxically mixed with an easy accommodation to the givenness of the world and a loss of critical tension, with worldly institutions regarded as inherently illusory and unreal. lenaga’s powerful critique of Buddhist tradition is itself a manifestation of the pristine ideals of prophetic negation, self-reflection, and reconstruction which the earliest teaching conveyed. For Buddhism throughout the world, it suggests the presence of the power of spiritual renewal and transcendence which continues to speak therapeutically to the human situation even as it seeks to recreate itself to meet the pressing challenges confronting all the major religions.

Peter A. Pardue


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Buddhism, the only truly "world" religion of Asia, was founded in the fifth century b.c.e. in northwest India by a prince named Gautama, who was also called Siddhartha ("He who has reached his goal"), Shakyamuni ("Silent sage of the Shakya clan"), and eventually the Buddha, or "Enlightened One." The religion spread throughout northern India during the next centuries, becoming a major competitor with Hinduism for popular support and royal favor. The traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism mutually influenced each other, sharing many of the same assumptions but also differentiating themselves doctrinally and, to a lesser degree, socially and ritually.

The three major forms of BuddhismTheravada ("The Speech of the Elders"), Mahayana ("The Great Vehicle"), and Vajrayana ("The Diamond Vehicle")all were born in India and were given their characteristic stamp in that country. By the end of the first millennium c.e., however, Buddhism was more or less defunct in the land of its origin, in part as a result of invading Muslims who especially targeted Buddhist temples and monasteries and in part because Buddhist doctrines and deities were increasingly assimilated into Hinduism.

Long before it ceased to be a religion of India, however, Buddhism had become a pan-Asian religion. By the middle of the third century b.c.e. the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka consolidated most of the Indian subcontinent under his rule. While Ashoka may or may not have been himself a Buddhist convert, tradition gives him credit for spreading the religion not only throughout India (his "edicts" posted on pillars throughout the subcontinent are often read for their Buddhist or crypto-Buddhist messages) but also into Sri Lanka to the south, where it soon became the state religion. From there Buddhist monks brought the religion to Burma, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia, where it has survived as the predominant faith of that region.

Other monks, starting from points in northern India, followed the trade routes into Central Asia and eventually into China, where Buddhism entered by the first century c.e. Although initially regarded with suspicion as a foreign and "barbarian" faith, over the course of several centuries Buddhism was gradually blended with Chinese culture until it joined Confucianism and Taoism as one of the principal religions of that region. By the middle centuries of the first millennium c.e., Buddhism had become the religion of choice of the newly re-unified Chinese empire, and indigenous doctrinal and philosophical schools of Buddhism arose. By the seventh century, Buddhism had converts in China from all strata of society, from the imperial family down to the peasantry, and monasteries flourished throughout the empire. The popularity of Buddhism in China would not last, however, and by the ninth century the religion began to decline.

From China, Buddhism entered Korea by the third century c.e. Missionaries from Korea brought the religion to Japan in the sixth century, where it developed into the dominant religion of that country and exerted a huge influence on Japanese national culture. It was not until the seventh century that Buddhism came from India to remote Tibet where, after a few centuries of ups and downs, it became firmly entrenched by the eleventh century and was the state religion until the Chinese invasions in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism was exported to Mongolia originally as a result of the close relations between one of the ruling khans and the first Dalai Lama.

Buddhism has been known in the West since at least the time of Alexander the Great and possibly influenced some forms of Greek philosophy, the Gnostics, and early Christians. In modern times, as a result initially of immigration of Asians to Western countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and increasingly because of interest among Westerners themselves, Buddhism can no longer be regarded as an exclusively Asian religion.

The Buddha and the Fundamental Doctrines
of Buddhism

The historical details of the life of the Buddha, like those of the lives of many of the world's religious founders and saints, are probably unrecoverable, buried under layers and layers of mythology and doctrinal revisionism. While there is little doubt that at the origin of Buddhism lies a strong, charismatic founder, the particular contours of the person and life of that founder can only be purely speculative. The oldest Pali and Sanskrit texts do not relay a sustained narrative about the Buddha's life but rather give only snippets and fragmentary references that seem to emphasize his human features. This has led some to argue that Buddhism is fundamentally an "atheistic" religion, although for a variety of reasons this is a distortion of Buddhist belief. There are indications that even in his lifetime Gautama was accorded great respect and veneration and soon after his death was worshipped in the form of relics, pilgrimages to sites of significance in the Buddha's life, and eventually in images that became the centerpieces of devotion.

The first known formal biography or hagiography of Gautama Buddha was the Buddhacarita, written in Sanskrit probably around the first century c.e. by Ashvaghosha. Over subsequent centuries other life stories were produced in India and Sri Lanka incorporating more and more legendary and mythical materials. The later texts in the hagiographical tradition in Buddhism increasingly stress the miraculous and supernatural elements of the founder. Indeed, in many of them Shakyamuni is portrayed as this era's Buddha, the latest in a string of many prior Buddhas and the forerunner of a future Buddha known as Maitreya. By the time of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in the early centuries c.e. the historical Gautama was wholly eclipsed by a complex "Buddhology" that elevates the Buddha to cosmic and, for most ordinary Buddhists, divine stature.

While there are a variety of understandings of who the Buddha was among the various adherents and sects of Buddhism, all are agreed on the basic outline of his life story. He was supposed to have lived sometime during the period from the sixth to the fourth centuries b.c.e., born into a family of the Kshatriya, or warrior-king, class in the clan called the Shakyas in northeastern India. Many accounts say his birth was attended by miracles and that he was born with signs on his body indicating a destiny either as an enlightened Buddha or as a world-conquering emperor. His parents, preferring the latter career path, kept him isolated from the outside world and educated him to be a prince. Gautama grew up under these pampered circumstances, married, and had a son he named Rahula ("Fetter").

This sheltered life of royal luxury came to an end when the young prince was taken by his charioteer on four excursions outside the confines of the castle. On these trips he saw, for the first time, the suffering nature of a life where sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. On his last tour he also saw a mendicant who was attempting to find an alternative to such a life. These "four sights" provided the impetus for the future Buddha to immediately leave the householder way of life and go in search of the means to liberation from suffering.

The middle centuries b.c.e. in North India were a time of great religious and intellectual ferment and experimentation. Many of the religious assumptions prevailing at that time were integrated into the Buddha's teaching and subsequent Buddhism, including the belief in karma and rebirth, the cyclical nature of time, the pervasiveness of suffering, and the positing of an alternative to suffering and rebirth.

Upon leaving his previous life as a prince, Gautama is said to have joined several of the many different groups of world renouncers living in the wilderness areas of India, including one group of radical ascetics. The future Buddha perfected the methods taught in this group, learning how to live on but a grain of rice a day, until he became skeletal and weakbut not enlightened. According to legend, Gautama abandoned the way of radical asceticism, just as he had early renounced the life of hedonistic pleasure in the castle, and soon discovered a "middle way" between these two extremes. In deep meditation under a "tree of enlightenment," the Buddha reached his own enlightenment and nirvana, the "extinguishing" of ignorance, suffering, and rebirth.

The first sermon or teaching of the newly enlightened Buddha was, according to the legends, given at the Deer Park in Sarnath in northeast India to members of the group of ascetics with whom Gautama had associated earlier. This first "turning of the wheel of dharma" encapsulates the fundamental tenets of all forms of Buddhism and consists of what are called the Four Noble Truths.

The first of these is the universal fact of suffering and dissatisfaction (duhkha ). A standard formula declares that "birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with what one dislikes is suffering; separation from what one likes is suffering; not getting what one wants is suffering." Such unhappy circumstances are sometimes called "obvious suffering" and are also bound up in another central doctrine of all forms of Buddhism: the insistence that there is no "self" or "essence" to things and beings (an-atman ). This belief directly contradicts the concept in Hinduism of an atman, or fundamental and underlying self (which was not conceived of, however, as the ego or temporary persona that undergoes rebirth). In the Hindu texts known as the Upanishads, realization of one's true nature, one's true self or atman, as identical to the ultimate ground of the cosmos (the Brahman), was the end of the mystical pursuit. In contrast, the positing of an-atman became one of the distinctive, even unique, features of the Buddhist religion. Suffering occurs in part by grasping and clinging to a self that does not, according to Buddhism, exist.

According to Buddhist doctrine, what we call the "self" is merely a composite of five "aggregates" or "heaps" (skandhas ). These are "form" (the body in particular and physical and material form in general), feelings (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), discrimination (that which processes and categorizes sensory and mental information), karmic predispositions (including, among many other mental factors, will or volition), and consciousness (meaning not only mental awareness but also the "consciousnesses" associated with the five senses). The "self" is but an ever-changing conglomeration of these five aggregatesa process rather than an essential entity.

Another dimension of the first Noble Truth of universal suffering is called the "suffering of change." Even the pleasant things and circumstances of life are not lasting, and when they are lost we suffer. Thus a second central concept of Buddhist metaphysics also tied up with the truth of suffering is that of impermanence, or anitya. Buddhism posits the impermanence and changing nature of all caused and compounded or composite things and beings. Suffering occurs when one mistakes impermanence for permanence and, again, becomes ignorantly attached to things and beings in the false belief that they will last.

A third dimension of suffering is sometimes identified: the "pervasive" suffering that accompanies birth in "samsara"a word that literally means "to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions." Samsara describes the beginningless cycle of cosmic or universal death and rebirth and the fact that phenomenal existence is transient and ever-changing. "Pervasive" suffering points to the recurring experience of birth, life, death, and rebirth in such a universe.

The second Noble Truth states that suffering has a cause and is not therefore eternally and hopelessly hard-wired into the nature of things. Suffering, according to Buddhism, is created by our own ignorant and habitual responses to life. The chief cause of suffering is variously identified as "thirst" (tanha ), "craving" (trishna ), or the "three poisons": "desire" or "attraction" (raga ), "aversion" or "hatred" (pratigha ), and "ignorance" (avidya ).

Suffering occurs because of a series of interrelated causal factors that are summarized in another important Buddhist doctrine, that of "dependent origination." In essence this doctrine declares "that being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases" (Samyuttanikaya 2.28). In its classical form, dependent origination consists of twelve conditioned and conditioning links: (1) ignorance, (2) formations (the construction of new karma), (3) consciousness, (4) mind and body, (5) the six sense fields, (6) contact of the senses with the sense fields, (7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) grasping, (10) becoming, (11) birth (i.e., rebirth), and (12) aging and death. Each link depends on the one before it. Aging and death (12) depend on birth (11), for if one were not perpetually reborn one would not repeatedly grow old and die. Birth depends on becoming (10, in the sense of the ripening of karma created in the past); becoming depends on grasping or clinging (9), which in turn depends on craving (8). Craving arises due to pleasant and unpleasant feelings (7), which depend on the contact of the senses (6) with the objects or "fields" of the senses (5), which could not exist without a mind and body (4). Mind and body depend on the consciousness of the six sense fields (3, the five senses with the mind as the sixth), which are determined by the volitional forces (2) that come into play due to ignorance (1). When ignorance ceases, karma is no longer produced, and all other links in the chain are stopped, right up through old age and death.

This brings us to the third Noble Truth, which declares that there is an alternative to suffering, the state called nirvana. The term literally means an "extinguishing" or "blowing out" and has sometimes been misunderstood as some kind of nihilism. Nirvana is indeed often described in negative terms: the permanent cessation or extinction of suffering and its causes (craving and the three poisons), of the false idea of and attachment to self, of mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, and of rebirth in the world of samsara. But nirvana is also depicted in positive form, as a state of absolute peace, serenity, tranquility, happiness, and bliss. One who achieves such a state is known as an arhat, or "worthy one," and various important milestones along the way are also delineated. One who has had the experience of penetrating into the true nature of reality is called an arya (noble one) and a "stream-enterer," for he or she is from that time forward moving inexorably toward nirvana. A "once-returner" has only one more lifetime before achieving the goal, and a "non-returner" will attain nirvana in this lifetime. A distinction is also sometimes made between "nirvana with remainder" (indicating that the person has reached the goal but is still embodied) and "nirvana without remainder," or "final nirvana" (parinirvana ), which the arhat enters after the death of the body.

The fourth Noble Truth is the declaration that there is a path or method for achieving the state of nirvana. Just as suffering has its causes, so too can the end of suffering be brought about by entering and perfecting the "Eightfold Path," which are sometimes also grouped into what are called the "Three Trainings." The first "training" is in wisdom and covers the first two steps of the Eightfold Path: (1) right view (meaning, among other things, a proper understanding of the Four Noble Truths) and (2) right resolve (the determination to end one's suffering). The second training is in ethics and includes (3) right speech (abstaining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle speech), (4) right action (abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), and (5) right livelihood (abstaining from professions that involve harming other beings). The third training is in meditative concentration and covers (6) right effort (persistence in the training of meditation), (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. Given the crucial importance and centrality of meditation to the Buddhist path, texts go into great detail about the increasingly subtle states of mind associated with right mindfulness and right concentration.

After the first sermon at the Deer Park, the Buddha is said to have traveled and taught in India for many decades. During the Buddha's lifetime, he also apparently inaugurated one of the central institutions of Buddhism, monasticism, the most ancient continuous institution in history. From the earliest period of Buddhism, the community, or sangha, consisted of laymen and laywomen on the one hand and monks and nuns on the other. But it was especially the monastics who were encompassed in the term sangha. The monastic rules of discipline, or vinaya, may go back to the Buddha himself but were in any case codified in a series of councils held after the Buddha's passing away. Being a Buddhist traditionally means that one "takes refuge" in what are called the three jewelsthe Buddha, the dharma (i.e., the teachings and the attainments those teachings lead to), and the sangha (sometimes meaning exclusively the monastics and sometimes meaning the whole of the Buddhist community).

The Buddha was said to have lived to the age of about eighty, at which time he "passed into his parinirvana." According to the texts, relics from his body were distributed and subsequently buried at the base of distinctively Buddhist places of worship called stupas, which, together with the monasteries and pilgrimage sites, formed the spatial centers of the new religion.

Formation of Theravada Buddhism

According to legend, the first of the Buddhist councils, where monks from all over North India met to collate the Buddha's teachings, occurred just after the Buddha's passing away, and several more were held in the years following. In these councils, the earliest forms of the Buddhist canon were developed. Texts, originally orally recited by monks, were divided into three main divisions or "baskets" (pitakas ): vinaya (rules for monastics), sutra (discourses), and abhidharma (metaphysics). While different traditions have different recensions (in different languages) and even different texts in their canon, all follow this basic division of the sacred scripture into the "three baskets."

It was in the second of these councils, held some one hundred years after the Buddha's parinirvana, that sectarian differences led to a division between a group of monks called the "Elders" (Sthaviras) and a breakaway set of groups known collectively as the "Great Assemblists" (Mahasanghikas). While the exact reason for the schism is not known with certainty, it seems as though the Mahasanghikas were the more liberal of the two groups while the Sthaviras were the more conservative, preserving what they regarded as the original purity of the Buddha's teachings. Other schisms and divisions into schools and subschools also occurred, but the Sthaviravadins survived as the "Theravadins" (the Pali name for "teachings of the elders") in South India, especially Sri Lanka, and from there into Southeast Asia.

Prior to the eleventh century, Theravada was but one of the several forms of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka. While it, like all other forms of Buddhism, represents itself as "pure" and "original," it is in fact a syncretistic blend of a variety of elements and practices. Various reforms sponsored by royal patrons have attempted to recover the "original purity" of Theravada, and among the monastics movements of conservative "forest monks" have at various times insisted on going back to the meditative base of the tradition. As the form of Buddhism that came to predominate in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Theravada is sometimes also called "southern" Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhist Doctrines and Traditions

The origins of the second major division within Buddhism are shrouded in uncertainty. What was to be called Mahayana, or the "Great Vehicle," did not originate with any one reforming individual or emerge at any specific time. It at least partially had its roots in a pan-Indian devotional movement (bhakti) that also had a dramatic impact on the Hindu traditions of India around 150 b.c.e. and in the centuries following. Mahayana is also sometimes traced back to the "Great Assemblists," or Mahasanghikas, but it seems that for many years, even centuries, monks who eventually became Mahayana lived and studied in the same monasteries as others. Perhaps the best way to envision Mahayana Buddhism in its earliest years was as a set of new texts that introduced new doctrinal elements into Buddhism. Those who accepted the canonical legitimacy of these new texts were Mahayana.

The doctrines put forward in these new texts were not, however, represented as new. Rather, they too were supposed to originate with the Buddha; they were regarded as "turnings of the wheel of dharma" that taught the deeper meanings of the Buddha's message for disciples who were more capable.

Chief among the distinctive teachings of Mahayana was a new conceptualization of the goal of Buddhism. In early Buddhism as well as in the subsequent Theravada tradition, the attainment of nirvana was theoretically possible for anyone. But Buddhahood itself remained the unique feature of Gautama. The Mahayana Buddhists posited enlightenment and Buddhahood itself as the ultimate goal for all practitioners and regarded nirvana as a lower attainment for those of a "lesser vehicle" (Hinayana).

With this new idea regarding the goal of Buddhism came a radically different understanding of Buddhology. Gautama, for the Mahayana Buddhists, was but one of an innumerable set of Buddhas who populated the cosmos. Each Buddha ruled a region, or "heaven" or "pure land," which was also populated with highly evolved spiritual beings known as Bodhisattvas. These Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were thought to be filled with compassion and with certain abilities and powers to help those who asked for it. One of the chief features of Mahayana Buddhism is its devotional quality, consisting of the worship of and prayers to these celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Integral to the new Buddhology that distinguishes the Mahayana is the doctrine of the "three bodies" or "three forms" (rupa s) of the Buddha. The first is the "transformation body" (nirmana kaya ), which refers to the physical emanations the Buddha sends out to this and other worlds. The historical Buddha, Gautama, was one such emanation according to Mahayana Buddhisma notion that also assumes that Gautama was always and already enlightened, being merely an earthly incarnation of a previously enlightened cosmic Buddha. Under this conception, Buddhas have the capability of sending out virtually infinite numbers of transformation bodies out of their compassion and urge to help all sentient beings everywhere.

Each Buddha also has what is called an "enjoyment body" (sambhoga kaya ), a subtle body of light that appears in that Buddha's heaven or pure land, a paradisiacal world populated with advanced practitioners and Bodhisattvas. Conditions in such a land are highly conducive for the attainment of Buddhahood; one form of Mahayana Buddhist practice is to pray and perform other devotional activities in the hopes that one or another of the Buddhas will admit the devotee into his or her pure land after death.

Finally there is what is called the "dharma body" of the Buddha, which refers to the ultimate nature of the Buddha's mind and to reality itself in its ultimate form. The dharma body includes the omniscience or perfect realization of wisdom in a Buddha's mind. It also includes the ultimate nature of reality itself, its "thusness" or "suchness."

Another innovation in Mahayana Buddhism was the superseding of the Eightfold Path with a new method (leading to a newly reconceived goal). This was what became known as the "Path of the Bodhisattva." The first step on this path was to attain what was termed bodhicitta, the "mind of enlightenment" or the motivating wish to attain Buddhahood out of compassion for all sentient beings. A key ingredient to bodhicitta and, indeed, a virtue that takes center stage in Mahayana Buddhism, is compassion (karuna ), which, together with "loving kindness" (maitri ) and wisdom (prajna ), form a triad of the distinctive virtues characteristic of the Bodhisattvas ("beings of enlightenment," the ones who have attained bodhicitta ) and the Buddhas as conceived by Mahayana.

Out of this driving wish for enlightenment, impelled by the altruistic intention to help end the suffering of others, the Mahayana practitioner takes various vows, swearing to live a life guided by compassion, and then engages in the "six perfections," each associated with a progressively higher stage of the Bodhisattva path. The first of these "perfections" (paramitas ) is generosity, including the giving of material things, protection from fear, and the giving of dharma teachings themselves. In its most advanced form, the perfection of giving includes the willingness of the Bodhisattva to give up his or her own body if necessary. Also included under this perfection is giving in the form of what is known as "transfer of merit" (parinamana ), the perpetual turning over to the benefit of others any karmic merit done by any meritorious act.

The second perfection is ethics (shila ) and consists largely of avoidance of the ten basic misdeeds of body, speech, and mind (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, coveting, ill will, and wrong views). Third is the perfection of patience (kshanti ), specifically combating anger with compassion and loving kindness. The fourth perfection is joyful effort or "vigor" (virya ), defined as taking joy in doing meritorious and compassionate acts. Fifth comes meditative concentration (dhyana ) followed by the sixth perfection, wisdom (prajna ).

The "perfection of wisdom" consists of realizing the truths of the distinctive metaphysics that also defines Mahayana Buddhism. Especially associated with the great philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150250 c.e.) is the important doctrine of "emptiness," or shunyata. Nagarjuna argued that, as a sort of universal extension of the earlier doctrine of "no-self," all phenomena are "empty" of inherent nature or self-existence. Persons and phenomena exist only dependently, not independently. Emptiness is thus not the ultimate ground of being but rather the insistence that there is no such ultimate, irreducible ground. Emptiness is not some thing but the absence of intrinsic existence to all things. But neither, argued Nagarjuna, does this mean that "nothing exists." Things do exist, but only dependently. The philosophical school associated with Nagarjuna's thought was called the "Middle Way" school (Madhyamika), positing neither nihilism nor eternalism but a median between the two.

Another important philosophical tenet of Mahayana Buddhism is the identity of samsara and nirvana. Liberation is not "outside" or "apart from" a world of suffering; they are not two separate realities. Both are equally "empty" of self-nature and exist, as all things, only dependently.

While other traditions and schools of Buddhism also went from India to China, Korea, and Japan, it was Mahayana Buddhism that flourished and was further developed in those regions. Mahayana is thus sometimes called "northern Buddhism" in contrast to the predominantly Theravada traditions of "southern Buddhism."

Mahayana Buddhism in China was heavily influenced by the preexisting religious philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism and by the presuppositions of a culture already ancient, literate, and sophisticated by the time Buddhism was brought to it in the early centuries c.e. Among the difficulties Buddhism faced in China were monasticism and celibacy, which were understood to be in opposition to the Chinese emphasis on filial piety and ancestor worship. Conversely, the Chinese readily embraced and further elaborated the Mahayana concept of all beings having a "Buddha nature," or the potential to achieve Buddhahood and enlightenment.

By the fifth century c.e. different schools of Buddhism arose in China. Some of these were simply Chinese equivalents of Indian Buddhist schools. San-lun, or the "Three Treatises" school, was the Chinese version of Madhyamika, and Fa-hsiang, or "Characteristics of the Dharma" school, was the equivalent of the Indian philosophical tradition known as Yogacara. But also at about this time, distinctively Chinese schools of Buddhism arose that reflected indigenous cultural and religious emphases. The importance of harmony, for example, produced schools like the T'ien-t'ai ("Heavenly Terrace"; Tendai, in Japan), which placed one text (in this case the Lotus Sutra) above all others and then organized the rest of the diverse Buddhist tradition into a hierarchically ordered synthesis. The T'ien-t'ai philosophy embraced the idea that Buddha nature exists in all things and that the absolute and phenomenal world are not ultimately different. Another school that attempted to harmonize the teachings of Buddhism into a syncretistic whole was the Hua-yan (Kegon, in Japan) school, which elevated the Avatamsaka Sutra to the highest place and oriented the rest of Buddhist texts and teachings around it.

Of special importance, however, were two other schools that arose in China, spread to neighboring regions from there, and survive to the present. The first of these was the "Pure Land" school (Ch'ing-t'u), a devotional and faith-based sect centering on the figure of Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land became the most popular form of the religion in China, Korea, and Japan, especially among the laity. Pure Land promises an easy path to salvation in the guise of rebirth into the heaven or pure land of Amitabha, where one will quickly become enlightened. The principal practice of this form of Buddhism has been to call upon the grace of this Buddha through repeating a formula known as nien-fo (nembutsu in Japanese). In its more radical forms, Pure Land has insisted that one must rely totally on the "other-power" of the Buddha and not at all on one's own efforts.

The second of the two most important schools that arose initially in China was that known as Ch'an, or Zen as it was termed in Japan. Deriving from a Sanskrit word for "meditation," the Ch'an/Zen tradition offers a stark contrast to the devotionalism of Pure Land. Traced back to an Indian monk-missionary named Bodhidharma, whose radical and uncompromising meditational techniques become legendary, the Ch'an/Zen tradition developed a simple but disciplined and demanding set of methods for directly intuiting one's own Buddha nature and achieving various levels of awakening (wu, or satori in Japanese). These methods included meditation, the "direct transmission" of wisdom from the mind of the enlightened teacher to that of the student, and the contemplation of riddles known as koans.

Vajrayana or "Tantric" Buddhism

The third major form of Buddhism, like that of Mahayana, was the particular Buddhist expression of a pan-Indian religious movement. Whereas Mahayana became the Buddhist form of the bhakti, or devotional movement, Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") was the Buddhist expression of what has been called Tantrism, an esoteric, sometimes antinomian, and often controversial form of religious belief and practice that became influential throughout India beginning in the middle centuries of the first millennium c.e.

Here too, as with Mahayana, this apparently new form of Buddhism is not represented as new at all. Vajrayana claims to be the secret doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha in his guise as Vajradhara (the "Holder of the diamond") to only his most advanced disciples. It also portrays itself as the quick way to enlightenment in this very lifetime through the attainment of "accomplishments," or powers (siddhis ), that speed up the process. The tantric master (mahasiddha ) appropriates to him-or herself the powers of one or another of the Buddhas, who is invoked through the practice of meditative visualizations, symbolic gestures (mudras), and the recitation of sacred words called mantras (indeed, such is the importance of the latter that sometimes this form of Buddhism is called Mantrayana or the "Vehicle of the Mantra").

One key to this form of Buddhism is the emphasis on initiation and the important place of the tantric master, or guru. It is the teacher who is the gateway to the powers of the tantric deity or Buddha and their secret world, or mandala. The techniques and wisdom are to be scrupulously guarded from the uninitiated, and as a result the texts of Vajrayana Buddhism are often encoded in a symbolic or metaphorical language (sometimes called "twilight speech") not easily decipherable by outsiders. Once initiated, the practitioner forms a special connection, even identity, with the tantric deity or Buddha into whose sphere one has entered. By attempting to recognize the union with that deity through meditation and, in more advanced cases, ritual and yogic practices involving a partner of the opposite sex, the practitioner tries to "short-circuit" the mind into a realization of enlightenment and the perception of all things and beings as pure.

Tantric forms of Buddhism perhaps originated among the laity but by the eighth century had been taken up by monastic scholars and brought increasingly into the mainstream of Buddhist thought and practice. By and large the great tantric practitioners who brought this form of Buddhism to Tibet had originally been trained in the monasteries. And while Vajrayana Buddhism spread also to Southeast Asia, Japan, and elsewhere, it was primarily in Tibet and Nepal where this form of Buddhism was preserved after it was extinguished in India.

Later Developments: Modern Buddhism in Asia
and Buddhism in the West

Buddhism, like all other religions, has been influenced by the forces of modernity. These forcesincluding scientific materialism, secularism, technological advances, and the ideologies of democracy, equality, Marxism, and so onarrived in the traditionally Buddhist Asian countries in the forms of Western imperialism and colonialism and the Christian missionary movement that often accompanied them. In Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, the coming of Western influences disrupted the traditional structural alliances between Buddhist monastic institutions and the government. Buddhist revivals in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand resulted in what has been called a new "Protestant" form of Buddhism that emphasizes rationality and deemphasizes the split between monastics and laity. Buddhism also often became associated with cultural and emerging national pride in the battle against the colonial powers and their impact. In Japan and Korea, Buddhist influences combined with modern concepts and in some cases Christian influences to give rise to a slew of new religious movements. And in China and Tibet, where Chinese Communist regimes have not often been favorably disposed to Buddhism, the religion survives in a much-weakened condition in comparison to its earlier influence.

Buddhism in the modern West comprises two very different kinds of groups. On the one hand, it has come to North America and Europe as the religion of Asian immigrants. For these new arrivals, Buddhism provides a sense of cultural community, continuity, and tradition in new and often challenging circumstances. Often over time the Buddhism practiced in these immigrant communities increasingly takes on the shape of Christian church worship, with the introduction of scripture reading, sermons, and youth education ("Sunday school").

The other form of Buddhism in the West is made up of Western converts who are almost always attracted not to the devotional or even the communal element of Buddhist religion as much as to the philosophical and especially meditative component. For these Western lay practitioners (there are at present very few Western Buddhist monastics), the practice of Buddhism means first and foremost meditation, a dimension of the religion formerly in Asian contexts confined almost exclusively to the monastics.

See also Asceticism: Hindu and Buddhist Asceticism ; Chinese Thought ; Communication of Ideas: Asia and Its Influence ; Consciousness: Chinese Thought ; Cosmology: Asia ; Daoism ; Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus) ; Hinduism ; Meditation, Eastern ; Mysticism: Chinese Mysticism ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Sacred Texts: Asia ; Yin and Yang ; Zen .


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Williams, Paul. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Brian Smith

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"Decay is inherent in all compounded things, so continue in watchfulness." The last recorded words of Siddhartha Gautama (Gotama), the founder of Buddhism, might be taken to mean, "Work out your own salvation with diligence" (Bowker 1997, p. 169).

From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death because awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. According to traditional stories of the life of the Buddha, he first decided to leave his home and seek enlightenment after encountering the "four sights" (a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and someone who had renounced the world). The first three epitomized the sufferings to which ordinary beings were and are subject to, and the last indicates that one can transcend them through meditation and religious practice. The greatest problem of all is death, the final cessation of all one's hopes and dreams. A prince of the Shakya family in what is modern Nepal, Gautama became dissatisfied with palace life after witnessing suffering in the nearby city of Kapilavastu. At the age of 29, he renounced his former life, cut off his hair and started to wear the yellow robes of a religious mendicant. Buddhism, the faith he created through his teaching, thus originated in his heightened sense of suffering, and begins with the fundamental fact of suffering (dukkha ) as the human predicament: "from the suffering, moreover, no one knows of any way of escape, even from decay and death. O, when shall a way of escape from this suffering be made knownfrom decay and from death?" (Hamilton, 1952, pp. 611).

Origins of Buddhist Faith

The Buddhist faith originated in India in the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. with the enlightenment of Gotama (in Sanskrit, Gauatama), the historical founder of the faith (c. 566486 b.c.e.). The teaching of Gotama Buddha, also known as Buddha Sakyamuni (that is, "the Wise One" or "Sage of the Sakya Clan") is summarized in the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering (existence is suffering); the truth of suffering's cause (suffering is caused by desire); the truth of stopping suffering (stop the cause of suffering (desire) and the suffering will cease to arise); and the truth of the way (the Eightfold Path leads to the release from desire and extinguishes suffering). In turn, the Eightfold Path requires right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is also a twelve-step chain of cause. This chain of conditions consists of (1) spiritual ignorance; (2) constructing activities; (3) consciousness; (4) mind-and-body; (5) the six sense-bases; (6) sensory stimulation; (7) feeling; (8) craving; (9) grasping; (10) existence; (11) birth; (12) aging, death, sorry, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. This chain of cause or Doctrine of Dependent Origination explains the dukka that one experiences in his or her life. Finally, there is the continuing process of reincarnation. "If, on the dissolution of the body, after death, instead of his reappearing in a happy destination, in the heavenly world, he comes to the human state, he is long-lived wherever he is reborn" (Nikaya 1993, p. 135). Disillusioned with the ascetic path, Gotama adhered to what he called "the middle way." He chose to sit beneath a Bo or Bodhi Tree (believed by scholars to now be situated at Bodhgaya, Bihar), concentrating on "seeing things as they really are" and passing through four stages of progressive insight (jhanas ), which led to enlightenment (scholars believe this stage was achieved in c. 535 b.c.e.). The rest of his life was spent wandering in the area of the Ganges basin, gaining adherents and probably spending the rainy months in a community of followers, the beginnings of the Buddhist monastic establishment (vihara ). The Buddha is said to have made no other claim for himself than that he was a teacher of transience or suffering (dukkha or duhkha ), the first of his Four Noble Truths.

Two and a half centuries after the Buddha's death, a council of Buddhist monks collected his teachings and the oral traditions of the faith into written form, called the Tripitaka. This included a very large collection of commentaries and traditions; most are called Sutras (discourses). Some twelve centuries after the Buddha's death, the faith spread from India into Tibet and from the early seventh century c.e. onward, Buddhism became firmly entrenched in all aspects of Tibetan society.

The significance of the conversion of Tibet lies in the exceptionally rich early literature that survives: The original Sanskrit texts of the Sutra on "Passing from One Existence to Another" and the Sutra on "Death and the Transmigration of Souls" are no longer extant and are known only through their Tibetan versions. Buddhism spread also to central and southeast Asia, China, and from there into Korea (c. 350668 c.e.) and Japan (c. 538 c.e.). Although there have been conversions to Buddhism in modern times, especially the mass conversion of dalits (or untouchables) following the leadership of Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar, the dispersion of the centers of Buddhist learning led to a dwindling of the faith in most of India during the centuries of Islamic predominance.

Buddhist Traditions

Buddhism has two (or in some interpretations, three) main divisions, or traditions: Mahayana and Hinayana. Those Buddhist adherents in Mongolia, Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan follow Mahayana, the so-called Great Vehicle tradition, and those in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, except Vietnam, where the Mahayan tradition was brought by Chinese settlers, follow Hinayana, also known as Theravada, the so-called Lesser Vehicle tradition. More controversial is whether Vajrayana (the "Diamond Vehicle" or Tantric tradition emanating from Mahayana, now dominant in Tibet and the Himalayas) constitutes a distinctive and separate tradition or not.

Mahayana emphasizes, among other things, the Sutras containing the developed teaching of the Buddha, and recognizes the Buddha-nature (Buddhata, or Buddha-potential) in all sentient beings (and not exclusively humans). Mahayana emphasizes the feeling of the suffering of others as one's own, which impels the soul to desire the liberation of all beings and to encourage adherence to the "enlightenment" (bodhisattva ) path. A bodhisattva is defined as one who strives to gain the experience of things as they really are (as in the experience of Gautama under the tree, hence the name bodhi ) and scorns nirvana "as he wishe(s) to help and succour his fellow-creatures in the world of sorrow, sin and impermanence" (Bowker 1997, p. 154). An early Buddhist, Candrakirti, calls nirvana "the cessation of every thought of non-existence and existence" (Stcherbatsky 1965, p.190).

In contrast, Hinayana or Theravada (the latter term meaning "teaching of the elders") emphasizes the aspect of personal discipleship and the attainment of the penultimate state of perfection (arhat ). The followers of Mahayana view it as a more restricted interpretation of the tradition. There is also a basic disagreement on how many Buddhas can appear in each world cycle. In Theravada, there can only be one, the Buddha who has already appeared; hence only the penultimate state of perfection can be attained and Buddha-nature is not recognized. There are also other differences between the traditions, particularly with regard to the status of women (which is somewhat higher in the Mahayana tradition). Buddhism in its various manifestations is the world's fourth largest religion with about 362 million adherents in 2000, or about 6 percent of an estimated world population of 6 billion.

The Sutra on "Passing from One Existence to Another" relates that during the Buddha's stay in Rajagriha a king named Bimbisara questioned him on the transitory nature of action (karma ) and how rebirth can be effected by thoughts and actions, which are by their very nature momentary and fleeting. For the Buddha, an individual's past thoughts and actions appear before the mind at the time of death in the same way that the previous night's dreams are recalled while awake; neither the dreams nor past karma have any solid and substantial reality in themselves, but both can, and do, produce real effects. An individual's past karma appears before the mind at the final moment of death and causes the first moment of rebirth. This new life is a new sphere of consciousness in one of the six realms of rebirth (the worlds of the gods, demigods, humans, hungry ghosts, animals, and hell-beings) wherein the person experiences the fruits of his or her previous actions.

The discourse on "The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo" is one of a series of instructions on six types of liberation: liberation through hearing, wearing, seeing, remembering, tasting, and touching. It is a supreme example of Tibetan esoteric teaching on how to assist in the "ejection of consciousness" after death if this liberation has not happened spontaneously. If the body is present, the guru or dharma-brother, that is, the fellow-disciple of the guru, should read the text of the Sutra close to his ear three or seven times. The first bardo, or intermediate state between life and death, is called "the luminosity of the essence of reality (dharmata )"; it is a direct perception of the sacredness and vividness of life (Fremantle and Trungpa 1975, p. 36). The work is thought to have been written by Padmasambhava, known by his followers as "precious teacher" (Guru Rinpoche), a great eighth-century Tantric master and founder of the Nyingma school. He is considered by Tibetans to be a second Buddha. He describes in detail the six bardos, or intermediate states, three of which comprise the period between death and rebirth and three which relate to this life: the bardo of birth; the bardo of dreams; the bardo of meditation, in which the distinction between subject and object disappears (samadhi, or meditation); the bardo of the moment before death; the bardo of the essence of reality (dharmata ); and the bardo of becoming.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The German Tibetologist and scholar of comparative religion Detlef Lauf regarded the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar-do thos-grol or Bardo Thodrol, or Thötröl ) as an example of "yoga-practice" (Yogacara) or Vijnanavada idealism, "which proceed(s) from the premise that karmically laden awareness by far outlasts the earthly life span of the individual." This branch of Mahayana philosophy "places above all conceptualisation emptiness, suchness [sic], pure buddha-nature, or the crystal clear diamond nature of human awareness, which is of imageless intensity. . . . Therefore the Tibetan Book of the Dead can first proclaim the philosophical reality of the buddhas and their teachings, and after these have been grasped and penetrated, it can then say that these are only illusory images of one's own consciousness, for the pure world within needs no images of external form" (Lauf 1977, pp. 225226).

Mind or pure awareness is, in Vijnanavada theory, "the indispensable basis and essence of reality and is therefore absolute. Because nothing is imaginable without mind, it is called the absolute, or allpervading emptiness, or simply nirvana " (ibid., p. 221). Although appearing to be an instruction manual for the guidance of human awareness after death, Lauf argued that the Bardo Thodrol was in reality "primarily a book of life, for the knowledge of the path through the bardo must be gained 'on this side' if it is to be put into practice 'on the other side'" (ibid., p. 228).

Lauf also generalized from the various Tibetan texts the duration of the bardo state: "It is generally accepted that the total time of the intermediate state between two successive earthly incarnations is forty-nine days. The various cycles of emanation of the deities divide this time into a rhythm that is always determined by the number seven. . . . From the fourth to the eleventh day there is the successive emanation of the forty-two peaceful bardo deities from out of the fivefold radiant light of the buddhas. From the twelfth until the nineteenth day the fifty-eight terrifying deities take shape out of the flames, and the journey through the [bardo and the experience of the worlds of hell] Srid-pa'i bardo lasts . . . twenty-one days in all. The last seven days are dedicated to the search for the place of rebirth which is supposed to take place on the eighth day . . ." (pp. 9596).

Two modern approaches to the Tibetan Book of the Dead deserve mention. Based on lectures presented at his own Buddhist institute in Vermont, the charismatic Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa (19391987) published his own edition of the work in 1975 with Francesca Fremantle. His highly individualized commentary to the translation certainly owes a debt to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In Chögyam Trungpa's view, the bardo experience is an active part of every human being's basic psychological makeup, and thus it is best described using the concepts of modern psychoanalysis, such as ego, the unconscious mind, neurosis, paranoia, and so on. This view was popularized in Trungpa's Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos (1992).

A second approach is that of Robert Thurman, a professor at Columbia University, the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk and president of Tibet House in New York City, who sets out to produce an accessible version of the Tibetan text for those who might wish to read it at the bedside of their dying friend or relative. In this way, Thurman's Tibetan Book of the Dead is presented clearly as an "easy-to-read" guidebook for contemporary Americans. It is "easy for bereaved relatives to read and for lost souls to hear in the room where they anxiously hover about their corpses and wonder what has happened to them . . ." (Sambhava and Thurman 1994, p. xxi).

Buddhism and Death and Dying

Robert Thurman's text leads to a consideration of the relationship of Buddhism to modern clinical medical ethics and attitudes to death and dying in particular as well as to the pastoral care of the terminally ill. The Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross interviewed over 200 dying patients better to understand the psychological aspects of dying. She illustrates five stages that people go through when they know they are going to die. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While a sequential order is implied, the manner is which a person comes to terms with impending death does not necessarily follow the order of the stages. Some of these phases are temporary; others will be with that person until death. The stages will exist at different times and can co-exist within each other. Denial and feelings of isolation are usually short lived. Isolation is related to the emotional support one receives. If a person feels alone and helpless he or she is more likely to isolate. During the anger stage, it is important to be very patient with the dying individual, who acts in apparent anger because of an inability to accept the reality of the diagnosis. Bargaining describes the period in which the ill person tries to bargain with doctors, family, clergy, or God to "buy more time."

When the denial, anger, and bargaining come to an endand if the ill person continues to live depression typically arises. Kübler-Ross talks about two forms of depression (reactive and preparatory). Reactive depression comes about from past losses, guilt, hopelessness, and shame. Preparatory depression is associated with impending loss. Most ill persons feel guilty for departing from family or friends, so require reassurance that life will change in the absence of the dead person but will nevertheless continue. The acceptance stage is a product of tiredness and numbness after the various preceding stages with their struggles. The model has been criticized and may not be applicable to the majority who die in old age, where a terminal diagnosis may be more acceptable to the individual. Many of the aged have experienced a gradual diminution of health and abilities that predates any knowledge of impending death. Such a diagnosis may be better accepted by the elderly both because of gradual infirmity and because approaching death is not viewed as a "surprise," but rather as part of a long and total life experience. For all the caveats, there are important resonances between the Kübler-Ross model and the stages of liberation in the bardo experience described above.

Julia Ching writes that "the central Mahayan insight, that Nirvana is to be found in the samsara, that is, in this life and this world, has made the religion more acceptable to the Chinese and Japanese" (Ching 1989, p. 217). She questions the content of Buddhist belief in East Asia: ". . . it appears that many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Buddhists are less than clear about their belief in the cycle of rebirth. Their accounts of samsara include the presupposition of a wandering soul, which is not in accord with strict Buddhist teaching, and they tend to perceive life in linear terms. Besides, they frequently equate Nirvana with the Pure Land [named after Sukhavati, a Sanskrit word representing an ideal Buddhist paradise this side of Nirvana, believed to be presided over by the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite life and light], and the Buddhas with the bodhisattvas" (1989, p. 220).

Ch'an and Zen, the respective Chinese and Japanese transliterations of the Sankrit word for meditation (dyhana ) are a distinctively East Asian development of the Mahayana tradition. Zen teaches that ultimate reality or emptiness (sunya ), sometimes called "Buddha-nature," is, as described by Ching, "inexpressible in words or concepts and is apprehended only by direct intuition, outside of conscious thought. Such direct intuition requires discipline and training, but is also characterized by freedom and spontaneity" (Ching 1989, p. 211). Japanese Buddhism, she contends, "is so closely associated with the memory of the dead and the ancestral cult that the family shrines dedicated to the ancestors, and still occupying a place of honor in homes, are popularly called the Butsudan, literally 'the Buddhist altars.' . . . It has been the custom in modern Japan to have Shinto weddings . . . but to turn to Buddhism in times of bereavement and for funeral services" (Ching 1989, p. 219).

The tradition of death poems in Zen accounts for one way in which the Japanese regard Buddhism as a funerary religion. Minamoto Yorimasa (11041180 c.e.), lamented that "Like a rotten log / half buried in the ground / my life, which / has not flowered, comes / to this sad end" (Hoffman 1986, p. 48). Shiaku Nyûdo (d. 1333) justified an act of suicide with the words: "Holding forth this sword / I cut vacuity in twain; / In the midst of the great fire, / a stream of refreshing breeze!" (Suzuki 1959, p. 84). At what would be considered the relatively youthful age of fifty-four, Ota Dokan (14321486) clearly considered himself in decline already by the time of death: "Had I not known / that I was dead / already / I would have mourned / my loss of life" (Hoffman 1986, p. 52). For Ôuchi Yoshitaka (15071551) it was the extraordinary event that was significant: "Both the victor / and the vanquished are / but drops of dew, / but bolts of lightningthus should we view the world" (1986, p. 53). The same image of dew, this time reinforced by dreams, was paramount for Toyotomi Hideyoshi (15361598): "My life / came like dew / disappears like dew. / All of Naniwa / is dream after dream" (Berry 1982, p. 235). Forty-nine years had passed as a dream for Uesugi Kenshin (15301578): "Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake; /A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream / I know not what life is, nor death. Year in year outall but a dream. / Both Heaven and Hell are left behind; / I stand in the moonlit dawn, / Free from clouds of attachment" (Suzuki 1959, p. 82). The mists that cloud the mind were swept away at death for Hôjô Ujimasa (15381590): "Autumn wind of eve, / blow away the clouds that mass / over the moon's pure light / and the mists that cloud our mind, / do thou sweep away as well. / Now we disappear, / well, what must we think of it? / From the sky we came. / Now we may go back again. / That's at least one point of view" (Sadler 1978, pp. 160161).

The death poems exemplify both the "eternal loneliness" that is found at the heart of Zen and the search for a new viewpoint, a new way of looking at life and things generally, or a version of enlightenment (satori in Japanese; wu in Chinese). Daisetz Suzuki writes: ". . . there is no Zen without satori, which is indeed the alpha and omega of Zen Buddhism"; it is defined as "an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it." This can only be gained "through our once personally experiencing it" (1963, pp. 153, 154).

See also: Chinese Beliefs; Hinduism; Islam; Last Words; Moment of Death


Amore, Roy C., and Julia Ching. "The Buddhist Tradition." In Willard G. Oxtoby ed., World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Bowker, John. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Ching, Julia. "Buddhism: A Foreign Religion in China. Chinese Perspectives." In Hans Küng and Julia Ching eds., Christianity and Chinese Religions. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 1932. Reprint, Delhi: Patna, Varanasi, 1975.

Fremantle, Francesca, and Chögyam Trungpa, trans. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1975.

Hughes, James J., and Damien Keown. "Buddhism and Medical Ethics: A Bibliographic Introduction." Journal of Buddhist Ethics 2 (1995).

Hoffman, Yoel, comp. Japanese Death Poems. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle Col, 1986.

Kapleau, Philip, and Paterson Simons, eds. The Wheel of Death: A Collection of Writings from Zen Buddhist and Other Sources on Death, Rebirth, Dying. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth.On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Lauf, Detlef Ingo. Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead, translated by Graham Parkes. Boston: Shambhala, 1977.

Sadler, A. L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle, 1978.

Sambhava, Padma, comp. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman. London: Aquarian/Thorsons, 1994.

Shcherbatskoi, Fedor Ippolitovich. The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana. The Hague: Mouton, 1965.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Essentials of Zen Buddhism: An Anthology of the Writings of Daisetz T. Suzuki, edited by Bernard Phillips. London: Rider, 1963.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1959.


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Buddhism, one of the world's major religious traditions, originated, as did Jainism, in northeastern India in the sixth century b.c.e. Both religious movements arose in response to discontent with the prevailing religion of Hinduism. Buddhism derives its name from its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha. Buddha is not a name, but an earned title meaning Enlightened or Awakened One. Following the Buddha's death, Buddhism developed into two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana. Over the next several centuries, Buddhism spread throughout Southeast and Central Asia and Japan. During the late nineteenth century, it was introduced into Europe and North America through immigration, missionary activity, and a growing interest among Westerners in Eastern religions.

Buddhist History and Overview

The life of Siddhartha Gautama. Although precise dates for Siddhartha Gautama's life are disputed, most scholars accept 560–480 b.c.e. as rough approximations. Siddhartha was the son of a local ruler of the Sakyas clan, located on the Indian-Nepalese border. At his birth, it was prophesied that he would fulfill one of two destinies. Either he would become a great conqueror and unite all of India into one kingdom, or he would assume a religious vocation and become a world redeemer. Siddhartha's father preferred the destiny of a great conqueror and encouraged his son toward this destiny by surrounding him with worldly pleasures and shielding him from all of life's suffering.

Siddhartha grew up in luxury, married a beautiful princess, and fathered a son. Then, in his late twenties, on three successive trips into the city, Siddhartha saw an elderly man, a diseased person, and a corpse. Shocked by life's afflictions, Siddhartha fell into despair until a fourth excursion into the city when he encountered a monk seeking enlightenment. These confrontations with old age, disease, death, and the monastic life are known as the Four Passing Sights. They culminated in the Great Going Forth, a night in Siddhartha's twenty-ninth year when he abandoned his princely and family life for the religious pursuit of enlightenment.

Siddhartha spent the next six years seeking to understand suffering and the nature of existence. Initially, he studied under two prominent Hindu sages. After extensive learning from these teachers, he joined a band of wandering ascetics and assumed practices of extreme self-mortification, depriving his body of food and comfort. After reaching the point of death, yet without achieving enlightenment, he abandoned his companions and seated himself beneath a pipal tree to meditate, vowing not to rise until attaining enlightenment. For forty-nine days, Mara, an evil deity embodying death and desire, tempted Siddhartha to abandon his quest. Resisting all temptations, Siddhartha conquered Mara and awoke to the true nature and meaning of life. For the next forty-five years, until his death at the age of eighty, he taught others the path to enlightenment.

Basic Buddhist teachings. Buddhism's basic teachings are properly understood in light of several prevailing Hindu beliefs, that is, samsara, karma, and nirvana. Samsara is the Wheel of Life and refers to the cyclical stages of existence that are characteristic of reincarnation or transmigration: birth-death-rebirth. Integral to samsara is the role of karma, or the consequences of one's deeds and actions. Committing good acts merits one good karma that results in a higher rebirth in the realms of existence. Committing evil acts, however, accrues bad karma and subjects one to rebirth in a lower level of existence. Six realms of existence compose samsara. The three higher realms are the realms of the devas (gods), of the asuras (jealous gods), and of humans. The three lower realms are the realms of animals, of the pretas (hungry ghosts), and of hell. Of these six realms, only the human realm offers the possibility of achieving nirvana and escaping the continuous cycle of rebirths. Nirvana is the extinction of all desire and corresponds to the liberation of the individual from the Three Marks of Existence: suffering, impermanence, and the doctrine of no-self. Achieving nirvana is the Buddhist goal.

Siddhartha preached his first sermon at Deer Park near Benares (Sarnath). Known as the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (Dharma is the Sanskrit word for truth or law and refers to the Buddha's teachings), the Buddha proclaimed to his former band of ascetics the Four Noble Truths: The Truth of Suffering, The Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering.

The First Noble Truth is the Buddha's observation that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha). This should not be mistaken as a pessimistic interpretation of life; rather it displays a realistic awareness that life is filled with sorrow. Sorrow results from life's impermanence (anicca). Life is transitory, continually traversing the processes of change and becoming. Since humans are trapped in the continual cycle of birth-death-rebirth, the Buddha taught the doctrine of no-self (anatta), meaning that there is no abiding, enduring essence, such as a self or a soul, inherent in human existence. Instead of a permanent self or essence, human beings consist of five aggregates: (1) matter or form, (2) sensation or feeling, (3) perception, (4) mental formations, and (5) consciousness.

The Second Noble Truth identifies the origin or cause of suffering. Suffering is the result of human cravings or desires for fulfillment and contentment. These desires give rise to suffering not because the desires are evil, but because of life's impermanence, they are never sated. Although humans do experience moments of happiness or pleasure, these moments are necessarily fleeting, leaving people mired in a continual state of desire and suffering.

The first two Noble Truths describe and diagnose life. The Third Noble Truth prescribes a cure for life's dis-ease. To overcome suffering and desire, one must control and ultimately eliminate all cravings and attachments to worldly matters. The extinction of cravings or desires produces a state free from attachments to the world and therefore free from suffering. This state is nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth, also known as the Middle Way, teaches one how to extinguish desire and achieve enlightenment by avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence (hedonism) and self-mortification (asceticism). Traveling the Middle Way requires practicing the Eightfold Path. This path consists of eight practices that one must master to awaken to the true nature of the world and enter nirvana. These practices are organized into three categories: (1) wisdom, which includes the practices of right view/understanding and right intention/thought; (2) ethical conduct, which includes right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right diligence/effort; and (3) mental discipline, which includes right mindfulness and right concentration. These categories are interdependent, requiring one to practice wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline simultaneously. By deliberately engaging in these practices, one travels the Path of Liberation to nirvana.

Development and diversity of Buddhist traditions. Following the Buddha's death, a council was called at Rajagrha to codify his teachings. Five hundred monks attended the meeting. The council produced two authoritative, oral traditions of the Buddha's teachings, the Vinaya and the Sutta. The Vinaya described disciplines and rules for the monastic life, and the Sutta contained the Buddha's basic teachings. Over the course of the next several centuries, several other great councils were held. Each council addressed the gradual development of diverging ideological interpretations and religious practices within Buddhism. The result was a process of fragmentation that eventually produced eighteen different Buddhist schools. One of the first, and most prominent, schools to emerge was the conservative school of Theravada (Way of the Elders). Theravada contains the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Tipitaka (The Three Baskets). The elements of the Pali canon are the Vinaya (monastic codes), Sutta (basic teachings), and Abhidhamma (philosophical doctrines).

Theravada Buddhism emphasized the monastic lifestyle. The Theravada ideal was the arhat, an accomplished monk who achieved nirvana through wisdom, meditation, and self-effort. Within this tradition, the laity's primary purpose was to provide for the physical and material needs of the monastics. This arrangement produced a symbiotic relationship in which monastics carried on the Buddha's spiritual work while the laity supported the religious community. Theravada Buddhism flourished in India, reaching its zenith under the patronage of King Ashoka in the third century b.c.e. During Ashoka's reign, Buddhist missionaries introduced Theravada to Sri Lanka. Eventually, Theravada Buddhism spread throughout all of Southeast Asia. It remains the dominant Buddhist tradition in these countries. Geographically, it is designated Southern Buddhism.

The second major Buddhist tradition is the more diverse and liberal Mahayana (Great Vehicle). Mahayana developed in India in the first century b.c.e. Its adherents, competing with Theravada Buddhism for legitimacy, pejoratively dubbed the Theravada tradition, Hinayana, meaning the Lesser Vehicle. For the Mahayana, the ideal Buddhist was the bodhisattva, one who, having reached nirvana, chooses to return to the world to assist others on the path to enlightenment. The example of the bodhisattva promotes compassionate actions toward others. Eventually, both the Buddha and the bodhisattva came to be regarded as beings worthy of devotion. The bodhisattva model of compassion toward others and the development of acts of devotion towards the Buddha and the bodhisattvas empowered the laity to work towards nirvana through acts of compassion and devotion.

The Mahayana tradition spread from India northward and eastward into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. Geographically, this tradition is known as Northern Buddhism. As it encountered new cultures and pre-existing religious and philosophical traditions, such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto, it generated several different forms of Mahayana. This religious diversity produced a vast quantity of sacred texts recognized by various Mahayana schools. Three of the more well-known Mahayana schools are Pure Land Buddhism, Chinese Ch'an or Japanese Zen Buddhism, and Tibetan Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Amongst Western Europeans and North Americans, Ch'an/Zen and Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism are more commonly known and practiced.

Originating in China in the fifth and sixth centuries c.e., Pure Land Buddhism differed from other Buddhist schools by emphasizing faith as the means of entering the Pure Land, a "salvific paradise," or "paradise of salvation" where one could be saved and free from suffering. Ch'an or Zen Buddhism developed in China and Japan in the sixth century c.e. and sought enlightenment through practicing seated meditation (zazen) on paradoxical problems (koan) under a master's guidance (sanzen). Often considered a third Buddhist tradition, Vajrayana (Thunderbolt or Diamond Vehicle) or Tantric Buddhism developed in India and Sri Lanka in the seventh century c.e. and spread into Tibet. Vajrayana is also known as Esoteric Buddhism because it claims it originated with secret teachings of the Buddha that were passed down orally. Vajrayana teaches rapid and sudden enlightenment by using all of the body's latent energy. This is accomplished through the use of carefully choreographed body movements and posturing (mudras), repetitive recitation of chants and formulas (mantras), and meditation on religious icons and symbols (mandalas). The use of these methods earned this school yet another name, Mantrayana (Vehicle of the Sacred Formula).

Buddhism and the Family

Marriage and family relationships. Buddhism is not a family-centered religion. For a variety of reasons, it does not possess doctrinal standards or institutionalized models of the family. Some of these reasons include the role of renunciation, detachment, and the individual's pursuit of enlightenment. The virtue of renunciation derives from Siddhartha's Great Going Forth, at which point he forsook his family and familial obligations as son, husband, and father. The monastic lifestyle and the role of the religious community (sangha) formalized the renouncing of familial relationships. The goal of detachment also impinges negatively upon family life. The inherent nature of families and family relationships produces attachments that constitute formidable obstacles to achieving detachment from worldly affairs and desires. Finally, the practices for pursuing enlightenment are adult-oriented disciplines requiring significant amounts of time and effort in solitary study and meditation. Although these three factors adversely affect the role of family life, the vast majority of Buddhists are lay people with immediate and extended families.

Because Buddhism does not espouse any particular form of the family or family relationships, Buddhist family life generally reflects pre-existing cultural and religious values, customs, and socially sanctioned modes of expression. Within Asian Buddhist cultures, this typically translates into a traditional, patriarchal family structure with clearly defined familial roles. Buddhism's primary contribution to the family consists of five ethical prescriptions that inform all aspects of family life, including marriage, roles and expectations, sexuality, children, and divorce. Originally composed by the Buddha for families and laity not capable of adopting monasticism, the Five Precepts are binding ethical mandates promoting personal virtues. They are (1) abstaining from harming living beings; (2) abstaining from taking what is not given; (3) abstaining from sexual misconduct; (4) abstaining from false speech; and (5) abstaining from intoxicants. Although none of these precepts directly addresses the family, by governing social and interpersonal relationships they provide an ethical framework for family life.

Buddhism does not regard marriage as a religious act, duty, or obligation. Instead, marriage is viewed as a civic or secular matter. Therefore, wedding ceremonies are not considered religious events, and Buddhist monks do not officiate during the service. Monks may, however, attend weddings, and they often pronounce blessings and recite protective rites for the couple. Depending upon cultural traditions, marriages are either arranged between two families, as in many Eastern cultures, or decided upon and entered into between two consenting adults, as in the West. While monogamy is the principle form of marriage, Buddhism does not prohibit other forms, such as polygamy, polyandry, and group marriages. In fact, although not common, marriages of each of these types have existed within Asian cultures. Again, it is important to remember that the mode of marriage depends not upon a particular Buddhist ideal or teaching but upon pre-existing and prevailing cultural attitudes.

Neither the Buddha nor Buddhist texts give specific instructions on marriage and family life. There is, however, a great deal of commentary offering advice on how marital and family life can be lived happily. The emphasis within family life in Buddhist ethics rests upon the proper roles and responsibilities that characterize the husband-wife relationship and the parent-child relationship. Husbands and wives are to cultivate respect, honor, and faithfulness towards one another. Parents are responsible for inculcating Buddhist ethics and practices in their children and, in turn, children are expected to be obedient and to preserve the traditions of the family.

One of the primary means by which parents teach their children Buddhist beliefs and values is through participation in the life of religious community (sangha). Typically, in Buddhist homes, families erect a small shrine displaying a statue of the Buddha. Some families set aside an entire shrine room. Before the Buddha shrine, families conduct daily, short religious services, especially on full moon and festival days. During these services, members of the family make devotional offerings of food, flowers, candles, and incense to the Buddha. They also, through recitation, commit themselves to the Three Refuges ("I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.") and to Buddhist ethical precepts. Outside of the home, religious instruction consists of regular attendance at religious services and participation in religious festivals.

Divorce, although uncommon for Buddhists, is not prohibited. It is expected, however, that if a couple enters into marriage and adheres to Buddhism's ethical prescriptions for marital and family life, that divorce becomes a non-issue. If, however, a couple refuses to follow the ethical prescriptions, is unable to live in peace, harmony, and mutuality with one another, or in the event of extreme circumstances, such as adultery or violence, it is preferable for the marriage to be broken than for the marriage to destroy the couple or the family.

Although Buddhism is generally viewed as fairly permissive in terms of marriage, sexuality (non-procreative sex, including homosexuality, is not condemned), and divorce, it is important to note that Buddhism condemns abortion as the taking of life. Although abortion is not absolutely forbidden, Buddhism generally considers life to begin at conception and views terminating pregnancy as a violation of the first ethical principle.

Rites of passage. Buddhism possesses few official rites of passage. Most often such events are cultural rituals with little distinctive Buddhist presence or involvement. Like marriage, this characteristic is due to the perception that many rites of passage are social, civic, or secular affairs. For example, Buddhist monks may attend birthing or naming ceremonies; however their role rarely extends beyond reading sacred texts or making blessing pronouncements. There are two noteworthy exceptions to this general rule: ordination and death.

Buddhist males and females may seek ordination for life or, more commonly, for briefer designated periods of time. Ordination ceremonies and vows serve several purposes. They bestow the ordinand's family with karmic merit and honor, they reflect the highest aspirations of Buddhist life, and they signify entrance into adulthood and the larger society.

No rite of passage, however, is more significant than death. Death and funeral rituals, unlike other rites of passage, are distinctively Buddhist. Death's association with rebirth produced highly ritualistic and elaborate ceremonies to prepare for death and to ensure that the deceased enters into nirvana after death (paranirvana). To prepare for death, monks recite religious texts to the dying, creating and maintaining for them a state of peace and tranquility in which they can enter into death. Funeral rituals also involve reciting sacred texts. They include other religious practices as well, especially merit ceremonies designed to bestow additional karma upon the dead and protective rites to exorcise evil influences. These two features of death and funeral rites are crucial to ensure that the deceased is either liberated from the cycle of reincarnation or receives a meritorious rebirth.

Religious festivals. Religious festivals play important roles in preserving basic Buddhist beliefs, practices, and teachings. Because of Buddhism's vast religious and cultural diversity, there is a multitude of diverse religious festivals. There are, however, three principle festivals within Buddhism that celebrate the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings), and the Sangha (the religious community). The Three Jewels are also known as the Three Refuges. Wesak, the most important Buddhist festival, celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death (paranirvana), all of which, according to tradition, occurred on the same day of the year. Wesak is celebrated on the full moon day in late May or early June. Dharma Day, celebrated on the full moon in July, commemorates the Buddha's teachings, particularly his first sermon in which he taught the Four Noble Truths. Finally, Sangha Day, which is held on the full moon day in November, celebrates the founding of the monastic and religious community.

See also:Ancestor Worship; Asian-American Families; China; Interfaith Marriage; Japan; Korea; Religion


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With roughly 400 million adherents worldwide, Buddhism represents one of the worlds largest religious traditions. Originating in India, the majority of Buddhists are now found in China, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and North and South Vietnam. Buddhism also spread to Western nations such as the United States and Canada beginning in the nineteenth century. Since its inception, Buddhism has developed along numerous trajectories and in different cultural settings. Though certain commonalities historically unite the various Buddhist communitiessuch as a commitment to the Three Jewels of Refuge (i.e., the Buddha, his teachings, and the Buddhist monastic community)it is difficult to isolate a definitive set of beliefs and practices shared by all Buddhists.


The history of Buddhism begins with the career of Siddhártha Gautama. Scholars generally deem Gautama a historical figure who passed along to his followers the foundations of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Traditionally, Gautama was believed to have lived circa 560480 BCE, while more-recent scholarship suggests the later dates of circa 485405 BCE. Though Buddhists maintain that there have been numerous buddhas throughout history, most consider Gautama the Buddha for this age (though some hold that there can be more than one buddha per age). Accurately reconstructing the precise details of the Buddhas life and teaching, however, proves difficult. The first biographies of his life did not appear until centuries after his death and it is often impossible to ascertain exactly where the biographies reconstruct the Buddhas life according to ideal patterns as opposed to historical realities.

According to tradition, Gautamas previous lives prepared him for his final reincarnation before achieving the status of Buddha. At age twenty-nine, Gautamas life was profoundly altered when he ventured outside the palace and encountered four signs: an old man, a sick person, a corpse, and a mendicant (Buddhist sources indicate that the gods orchestrated these events). Troubled by what he saw, Gautama embraced the life of an ascetic for the next several years and searched for an answer to the suffering he had encountered. According to Gautamas biographers, six years after leaving the palace he finally experienced enlightenment. One night he sat under a bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he found an answer to the perennial problems of suffering and death. Though some traditions differ as to the exact nature of his enlightenment that night, the biographers agree that Gautama achieved the status of a buddha; he eliminated the ignorance that trapped individuals in the suffering (duhkha ) associated with the endless cycle of reincarnation.

Following this experience, the Buddha preached his first sermon, often referred to as the first turning of the wheel of dharma. Though it is important to note that many of the Buddhas teachings reflect the influence of Hinduism, the Buddha thoroughly modified various Hindu concepts and did not embrace the Hindu caste system. The theme of his teaching revolved around the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth stipulated the reality of suffering. Put simply, suffering persists throughout all the various stages of life. The second Noble Truth indicated that desire (trşnā ) originated from ignorance (avidyā ) and inevitably caused suffering. According to the Buddha, humans mistakenly posit the existence of an autonomous, permanent self (ātman). As such, they inevitably experience suffering as they try to maintain a permanent hold on things that are constantly changing and impermanent. Instead, the Buddhas teachings advanced the doctrine of no-self and insisted on the impermanence of all things. The third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering (nirvāna, literally blowing out), claimed it was possible to eliminate desire and ignorance and free an individual from suffering. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth pointed to the path that brings about the cessation of suffering, often referred to as the Eightfold Path. The path includes (1) right view, (2) right intention, (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. This Middle Path avoids both the extreme of self-denial and the extreme of self-indulgence and leads an individual to recognize the impermanence of all things.

Often, the different parts of the Eightfold Path are grouped under three main headings: moral precepts, concentration, and wisdom. The moral precepts (śila ) usually include basic prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual promiscuity, and intoxication (these are commonly accepted by most Buddhists, though monks and nuns usually adhere to more stringent guidelines). Concentration (samādhi ) involves various forms of meditation that differ among Buddhist traditions. Generally, however, Buddhist meditation requires careful control of the process of breathing and discipline of the mind. Finally, wisdom (prajñā ) reflects the necessary insights required to eliminate desire and ignorance and achieve enlightenment.

Following his experience of enlightenment, the Buddha continued to teach throughout northeastern India for the next forty-five years. With no named successor upon his death, a council of elders formed and orally perpetuated the Buddhas teachings. Centuries later, the oral traditions associated with the life of the Buddha were codified in Buddhist scriptures; these scriptures contained material directly attributed to the Buddha (buddhavacana ) as well as authoritative commentaries. The earliest extant canon, the Pāli canon (also referred to as the Tripitaka), consists of Vinaya (monostic law), Sũtras (the Buddhas discourses), and Abhidhamma (commentaries). The Chinese canon and the Tibetan canon took shape at later dates and incorporated new material.

As Buddhism grew following the Buddhas death, ritual practices developed along various trajectories. For example, though differences appeared among the various Buddhist traditions regarding their view of the Buddha, he remained a venerated figure for all Buddhists. Devotees lavished gifts on relics associated with the Buddha and annually celebrated his birth, enlightenment, and entrance into nirvana. Sites associated with the Buddhas life soon became places of pilgrimage. These included his birthplace (Lumbinì), the setting where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā), the location of his first sermon (Deer Park), and his place of death (Kuśinagara). Beginning in the common era, artists created images of the Buddha. Furthermore, Buddhist monastic communities (sangha ) quickly formed after the Buddhas death. Ordination ceremonies took shape for both monks and nuns, signaling their abandonment of worldly pursuits. Laypersons also began to venerate monks for their spiritual attainments and frequently showered them with gifts and offerings. Buddhist funeral and protective rites also emerged.

In time, Buddhism spread beyond India and also began to influence the activities of states. Beginning in the third century BCE, for example, Aśoka (c. 300-232 BCE, the emperor in India, took on the title of righteous king (dharmaraja ) and formally supported the monasteries. Aśokas son, Mahinda (c. 270c. 204 BCE), then carried the Buddhist message outside his homeland and attracted followers in Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the common era, Buddhist missionaries entered China and spread their message through the efforts of figures such as Bodhidharma (c. early fifth century CE) and Kumárajíva (350409/413 CE). While early Hindu missionaries also accompanied traders and merchants and helped spread Hinduism to Southeast Asia during the same period, Buddhism had key advantages that facilitated its growth. In particular, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism operated outside of the caste system, allowing its followers to interact freely with others. (This advantage carried over into the twentieth century as the Indian politician B. R. Ambedkar gained a large following among fellow Dalits [untouchables within the Hindu caste system]; Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a solution to the social inequality associated with the Hindu caste system and encouraged Hindus to convert.) Through these missionary efforts, different Buddhist traditions formed as Buddhist practices and beliefs often underwent significant modification as they took root in various cultural contexts.


The Theravāda (literally doctrine of the elders) tradition claims to adhere strictly to the Buddhas original teachings. It treats the Pāli canon as the only authoritative Buddhist scriptures and perpetuates the Hìnayāna tradition from the earliest days of Buddhism (within Buddhist literature, Hìnayāna, literally the Inferior Way, served as a pejorative term directed at more conservative Buddhists in contrast to followers of the later Mahāyāna tradition). Very strong in Burma (now Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, Theravāda first spread to Southeast Asia with the missionary activities of Mahinda in Sri Lanka. Unlike other Buddhist traditions that recognize several present buddhas and bodhisattvas, Theravāda focuses solely on the life of the historical Buddha. Ideally, every individual should imitate the Buddhas example and achieve enlightenment through self-effort. For this reason, the monastic ideal of achieving personal enlightenment (arhat) serves as the focal point of Theravāda Buddhism. Monastic complexesoften consisting of a bodhi tree and images of the Buddha, as well as stupas where relics associated with the historical Buddha are enshrinedfacilitate the veneration of the Buddha. According to tradition, it is impossible for laypersons to achieve enlightenment (in some locales, however, a form of temporary ordination has arisen that serves as a rite of passage into adulthood). For nonelite practitioners, ritual and meditation often provide a means to gain merit and improve their lot in life when reincarnated, or to better their present circumstances.

The Mahāyāna tradition (literally the Great Way) developed later than the Theravāda tradition and recast many of the more traditional Buddhist positions; it also eventually attracted a larger following than the Theravāda tradition. Particularly strong in China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, many scholars date the beginning of Mahāyāna to around the second or first century BCE. Groups within this Buddhist tradition usually focus on particular teachings of the Buddha, referred to as the second turning of the wheel of the dharma, believed to have been passed along by a select group of Buddhists for centuries following his death. Unlike Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna allows for the possibility of multiple buddhas to exist at the same time. Not surprisingly, alongside the historical Buddha, a number of other buddhas and bodhisattvas have appeared over the centuries. Accordingly, various Mahāyāna festivals have developed to venerate these figures. In general, Mahāyāna gives a higher priority to the bodhisattva, the person who puts off nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment; it also stresses the virtues of compassion (karunā ) and wisdom (prajñā ). The Buddhas life is reread as the quintessential model of the bodhisattva ideal that values highly a strong sense of communal responsibility. Usually, the Mahāyāna sense of communal responsibility is read as a reaction to the Theravāda arhat ideal in which Buddhists focus on achieving enlightenment for themselves in an individualistic quest for nirvana. Some scholars, however, have begun to complicate the sharp historical distinctions between the Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions.

A third major tradition in Buddhism, Vajrayāna (literally the Diamond Way, also referred to as tantric Buddhism) emerged around the third or fourth century CE as an amalgamation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other popular religious practices in the region. According to Vajrayāna teachings, principles in the world that appear to be fundamentally opposed are actually united and one. Enlightenment occurs when individuals grasp this reality. Whereas earlier Buddhist sources emphasized a long path to enlightenment, Vajrayāna offers instead enlightenment in this lifetime through the disciplined practice of meditation. Often, adherents visualize various deities during meditation. Among elite practitioners, these deities are often considered representations of inner states within the individual, though this is less often the case for the average adherent.

Vajrayāna proved very influential in the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, though the two terms are not synonymous. (Tibetan Buddhism is often considered a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism, as is Vajrayána.) According to Tibetan sources, Buddhism arrived in the region during the reign of the first Buddhist emperor Songtsen Gampo (Tib., Srong-btsan sgam-po, d. 649/650). By the twelfth century various Tibetan Buddhist sects emerged. One particular religious order, the Gelukpa (Tib., Dge-lugs-pa, literally Virtuous Ones), began to rule in Tibet by the mid-seventeenth century.

Tibetan Buddhists consider the Dalai Lama (a member of the Gelukpa school) an incarnation of the lord of compassion (Avalokiteśvara) and the rightful spiritual and temporal leader of the state. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa (Tib., Dge-dun-grub-pa, 13911474). As a result of the Dalai Lamas role, Buddhism has historically been intimately tied to politics in Tibet more so than in any other state. The current Dalai Lama (b. 1935), however, lives in Dharmsala, India, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and his exile from there in 1959. Nevertheless, he has gained international recognition for his nonviolent protests against Chinese abuses of Tibetans and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Various schools within the three main traditions named above (Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna) have developed over time. In Japan, for example, the Shingon school represents a form of tantric Buddhism, whereas the eclectic Tendai school adheres more closely to traditional Buddhist practices. Tendai was eventually overshadowed by its more popular offshoots: Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Nichiren ShŌshū, a particularly mission-oriented form of Buddhism that was reinvigorated beginning in the twentieth century through the SŌka Gakkai organization. Numerous other schools have also formed as distinct Buddhist movements within different Asian countries.


Buddhism has undergone important changes during the modern era. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Buddhist nations for the first time came into contact with Western culture as well as Western imperialism. At times, adherents adapted Buddhist practices to Westernand particularly Christianways, as can be seen in the adoption of Sunday meetings and Sunday schools by some Buddhists (in the West, some Buddhist groups also called themselves churches). In another sign of changes brought about through globalization, Buddhist societies formed to unite Buddhists worldwide. These include the Maha Bodhi Society (1891), the World Fellowship of Buddhists (1950), and the World Buddhist Sangha Council (1966).

Ultimately, Buddhism spread to the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, would eventually find a significant following in the United States. One of the most prominent subbranches of the Mahāyāna tradition, Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the figure of Amida Buddha, who was believed to have formed the Pure Land once he achieved buddhahood. In turn, individuals who devote themselves to the Amida Buddha are reborn in this Pure Land and achieve enlightenment. In a significant revision of traditional Buddhist teachings, Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes trust in the Amida Buddha as the key to enlightenment and places less stress on self-effort. Scholars often point to the strong similarities between these teachings and aspects of Christianity to help explain the success of Pure Land Buddhism in the West.

Zen Buddhism, another Mahāyāna school, has also been successful in the West. Literally Japanese for meditation, the Zen tradition grew out of the Chan school in China and traces its lineage back to the historical Buddha. The movement stresses experience through the disciplined practice of meditation and often plays down the importance of Buddhist scriptures. There are three contemporary schools in JapanRinzai, SŌtŌ, and Ōbakuthat perpetuate these highly specialized forms of meditation.

In the West, Rinzai Zen first gained attention when Shaku SŌen (1859-1919) attended the Worlds Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. He wrote books extolling Zen as a rational religion that fit well with modern trends. During the first half of the twentieth century, Shaku SŌens disciple, D. T. Suzuki (18701966), then continued to promulgate a form of Zen in the United States that was less rigorous than traditional Zen. As awareness of Zen grew in the United States, it eventually became incorporated into popular culture. Though sometimes criticized for promoting a superficial form of Zen, figures such as Allen Ginsberg (19261997), Jack Kerouac (19221969), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), and Alan Watts (19151973) developed what is commonly referred to as Beat Zen. Focusing on Rinzai Zen, which stresses sudden enlightenment, these figures embraced a popularized form of Zen during the social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Here, Zen represented the ideals of liberation and freedom and served as a tool to combat the perceived materialism, imperialism, and consumerism of American society. In addition to Rinzai Zen, Sótó Zen (which lacks Rinzai Zens focus on sudden enlightenment and instead emphasizes quiet meditation) has also attracted a significant number of adherents in various parts of the United States as individuals such as Suzuki Shunryū (19041971) established meditation centers. The growth and popularity of both Rinzai and SŌtŌ Zen in the United States during the twentieth century reflect the increased awareness of Buddhism in the West.

The very practical, empirical nature of Buddhism has also facilitated various forms of spirituality that intermix elements from other religious traditions with Buddhism. Thomas Merton (19151968) serves as a prominent example. Merton, an American Catholic monk, sought to develop a dialogue between Christian and Buddhist forms of meditation during the mid-twentieth century (see, for example, his Mystics and Zen Masters [1967]). Also indicative of combinative trends, many Jews have either embraced Buddhism or sought to combine Buddhist insights with their own heritage (see, for example, Rodger Kamenetzs The Jew in the Lotus: A Poets Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India [1994]). Some individuals have also combined Buddhist concepts with various aspects of Western science. While figures such as Watts sought to explain Zen using the terminology of Western science and psychology, others such as Mark Epstein (b. 1953) have also used Buddhist concepts to inform psychotherapeutic models.

Finally, Engaged Buddhism (sometimes referred to as Socially Engaged Buddhism) also represents a recent development within Buddhism. Initiated by figures such as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), the movement is in part a reaction to a perceived passivity in the contemporary practice of Buddhism. Followers attempt to enlist Buddhism on behalf of various causes and address social and ecological ills. Engaged Buddhism has attracted attention from Buddhist laypersons and monks in both the Eastern and Western world, and had an impact on mainstream Buddhism as a whole. Diverse in its forms and dispersed across the globe, Buddhism has shaped the religious sensibilities of countless adherents throughout history.

SEE ALSO Ambedkar, B. R.; Buddha; Caste; Hinduism; Reality; Reincarnation; Religion


Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Powers, John. 1995. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Queen, Christopher S., and Sallie B. King, eds. 1996. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Spiro, Melford E. 1970. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row.

Strong, John S. 2001. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld.

Tweed, Thomas A., and Stephen Prothero, eds. 1999. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Paul. 1989. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge.

Joseph W. Williams

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BUDDHISM. Buddhism originated in India in the fifth century b.c.e. and from there spread to many lands. The historic Buddha, born around 563 b.c.e., spent most of his eighty years traveling throughout north India preaching the way to salvation by reaching Nirvana and the cessation of rebirths. In some Buddhist traditions, respect for earth deities continues as a reflection of earlier cults of the soil. Animal sacrifices can still be seen in rituals requesting a boon from deities, ancestral spirits, and guardian spirits of localities. Food offerings may be left at stone monuments often containing relics commemorating the life and teachings of the Buddha. But these food practices are not Buddhist.

Buddhism is divided into several branches or ordination traditions. The Mahayana tradition, based on Sanskrit texts, spread into China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The Buddhism of Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia is also known as Vajrayana. Theravada Buddhism, "the way of the elders," is the form of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It is based on Pali texts. More recently, Buddhism has spread to Europe, Australia, and North America, where people are converting in large numbers, partly out of interest in Buddhist meditation practices.

Food Rituals

Food rituals transmit collective and individual messages about religious principles. Religion influences dietary intake by prescribing or proscribing certain foods, providing ritual foods or meals, and reinforcing key cultural and social values. Unlike Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, Buddhism has less rigid dietary laws defining what people can eat and with whom they can dine. However, fasting and feasting are integral parts of most religious traditions, and Buddhism is no exception. The special foods used in the annual cycle of Buddhist holidays and festivals differ by country. Food is both a marker of religious affiliation and a marker of ethnic identity. It is therefore impossible to identify foods as specifically Buddhist, as opposed to Thai Buddhist or Japanese Buddhist, for example.

In rice-growing Asian communities where Buddhism is practiced, food in rituals reflects the rhythms of food production, including its scarcity or abundance during the year. In some countries, it is possible to see a contrast between ascetic approaches to food (for example, during the rains' retreat from July to October) and festive excess (for example, after harvest in November and December).

Food rites mark changes in personal status as well, serving as temporal boundary markers through the life cycle. Special foods may be prepared for birthdays, weddings, funerals, tonsures, and ordinations, for example, particularly if monks officiate. In Theravada traditions, some of these rituals are Brahmanic in origin and feature rice and milk-based dishes. Harvest celebrations also make confections from foods such as rice, peanuts, sugar, sesame seeds, and coconut, possibly related to the sweet offerings of South India, called panchakadjaya (five foods). Puffed rice is used at funerals to symbolize rice that cannot be grown again.

Monastic Traditions

Dietary abstinence relates to a very widespread idea that giving up something desirable increases spiritual potency. In many religious traditions, food refusal also represents a denial of social relationships, a denial of sociability. Fasting is not central to Buddhist practice except for the monastic community. Most Theravada monks eat only once or twice a day, in the early morning and just before noon, as a part of monastic discipline and their dedication to following the path of the Buddha. The Sanskrit term sambhogakaya refers to the monastic practice of eating together. Theravada monks fast after noon and all night, often joined by pious laypersons who partially withdraw from the lay life of the householder on special holidays.

Monks are expected to show moderation and control in all things, including eating. They are warned that wrong mental states easily come to the surface when collecting or eating food. When Theravada monks go on begging rounds, giving people an opportunity to put food into their bowls, they are expected to show no interest in the qualities of the food and even mix the food donations together.

Chinese Buddhism regulates communal meals as part of monastic discipline. Rather than food being collected from begging or donations as in Theravada communities, food in Chinese monasteries is often prepared at the temple by lay devotees. Mahayana monasteries used to grow their own food to provide vegetables for simple meals with rice or rice porridge. Occasionally lay donors might provide a vegetarian feast to celebrate Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, or parinibbana, in order to gain merit.

Zen cooking (shojin ryori ) is a style of vegetarian cooking developed by Zen monks that acts as an aid to meditation and spiritual life. Food is prepared as a spiritual exercise with attention to balance, harmony, and delicacy. Some Zen and Chinese Mahayana temples practice the three-bowl eating style, making eating a ritual training. The three bowls contain rice, vegetables, and soup. In fact, eating can be a kind of meditationremembering to let go of evil, to cultivate good deeds, and to save sentient beingsas each food is put into one's mouth. In such events, food is consumed according to need with no waste and no overconsumption.

Theravada Buddhists believe that by feeding monks they obtain religious merit that assures them of a good rebirth. Laypeople advance on the path to Nirvana by striving for moral purity and doing good works, especially by giving food to the monks. People also believe that giving food to the monks transfers merit to the dead. By going to the temple on the holy day and giving food to the monks, people hope to help their dead relatives who may be wandering the earth as hungry ghosts or living in hell.

Food as Metaphor

Food is often used in Buddhist texts to explain complex ideas in an easily understood manner. Buddhism rejects the asceticism of fasting and denial found in many religious traditions. After the Buddha fasted for six years, he rejected the extreme of starvation as a route to salvation. Instead, he used the experience of eating and digesting food as a means to understand the instrumentality of food. The element of heat transmutes food into body during the process of digestion. Thus, eating is an important metaphor for understanding bodily existence and the transformation of matter and substance. Eating literally makes us human and embodies us.

The Buddhist path is the middle way requiring monks and laity to eat to maintain life and nourish the body but not to cling to the sensual pleasures of eating. In this philosophical interpretation, it is not material substances such as food that block salvation but the craving for them. When Buddhists gain right understanding, they can use this analytical knowledge to guide daily life, as well as for meditation. Food as an object of meditation is a metaphor for the foulness of the body. Monks concentrate on the repulsiveness of food in order to reduce their craving for food. The cessation of craving food is equated with the cessation of the body and the end of the cycle of rebirths.


For the laity, eating, particularly eating rice, is a means of orienting oneself in relation to all sentient beings whose lives are sustained by food and religion. Reciprocal food giving sustains lay communities as well as the monastic community. In general, Buddhist rituals imbue food with sanctity; the sanctity remains in the food after it has been received by the monks. Communal eating is one means of experiencing Buddhist precepts and concepts in a direct and sensory way.

In some Buddhist communities, members of the laity serve monks and the community by preparing and serving food from a communal kitchen. Mahayana services and ritual events are likely to be vegetarian. Most Chinese gods and goddesses are presumed to be vegetarian, but they may be offered meat in an attempt to provide the best, most valued food. Chinese Buddhism honors a number of deities, such as Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. A home altar might contain incense, flowers, tea, and fruit to be consumed later. The Kitchen Goddess helps one eat and drink healthily, and representations of her may be seen in household and restaurant kitchens.

Food given to Chinese deities is considered blessed; its essence is consumed by gods and Buddhas before it is eaten by the worshipers. Following chanting services in many temples, a communal meal is served, which may include beans, bean sprouts, vegetables, fruit, and always rice for prosperity.

Food Distribution in Theravada Communities

Four times in the lunar month, or weekly, the following practices might be seen repeated in Theravada communities throughout the rural areas of Southeast Asia. On a holy day, people bring such food as rice and dishes to eat with rice to the temple. Although the food is the best a household can prepare, people bringing the food cannot taste or even smell the food. A true gift that will gain religious merit must be well intentioned, and only by denying themselves even the smell of the food will the offering bear fruit. The monks chant to accept the food and confer blessings on those who have given food.

At the end of the morning service, after the monks have eaten, the laypeople consume the remaining food offered to the monks. By giving to monks who must follow rules of celibacy and denial, religious merit is increased at a greater rate. Generally, everyone who participates in the service shares in consuming the food that has been accepted or blessed by the monks. Even those who have not contributed food are actively encouraged to share the meal, as if the sharing of food may cause the intention to give generously to arise among all partaking of the meal. Following the meal, participants share the merit accrued from feeding monks with all sentient beings.

Buddhism and Vegetarianism

Buddhism in North America is widely associated with vegetarianism, although not all Buddhists are vegetarian and vegetarianism is not part of canonical Buddhism. This association with Buddhism developed because the key principles of Buddhism include ahimsa, or nonviolence and the avoidance of suffering. Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia are not generally vegetarian, although their daily meals may not include much meat. Meat dishes are even given to monks since meat is not explicitly forbidden to them by the rules of monastic conduct. Buddhist texts such as the Majjhirma Nikaya refer to the Buddha eating the proper proportion of curry to rice, experiencing flavor but not greed for flavor.

As more Westerners become Buddhist and as more Buddhist immigrants and refugees settle in North American and European cities, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants have prospered, offering devotees and secular vegetarians an opportunity to consume food exemplifying the Buddhist principle of nonviolence. Practicing Buddhist chefs prepare vegetarian feasts for events such as meditation retreats and cater meals for vegetarian practitioners and health-conscious diners. They may also perform dana, or selfless giving, by providing free food to the hungry.

Values of reciprocity and sharing are extremely important to Buddhists. In the strongly individualized and materialistic communities of North America, it is particularly difficult to maintain models of generosity and reciprocity. Commensalitythe shared meal of Buddhist merit makersis a model of reciprocity, redistribution, and generosity. The act of eating together and sharing each other's food is a concrete and reliable means of establishing a moral community where people know they can develop relations of trust with others and cooperate in joint activities within the domain of religion and in other domains.

See also Fasting and Abstinence: Hinduism and Buddhism; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts; Hindu Festivals; Hinduism; Metaphor, Food as; Religion and Food; Rice; Sensation and the Senses; Southeast Asia; Vegetarianism.


Khare, Ravindra S. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

McLellan, Janet. Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Van Esterik, Penny. "Feeding Their Faith: Recipe Knowledge among Thai Buddhist Women." Food and Foodways 1 (1986): 197215.

Van Esterik, Penny. Taking Refuge: Lao Buddhists in North America. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies; Toronto: York Lanes Press, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, 1992.

Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translations. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Original ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1896.

Penny Van Esterik

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Buddhism (bŏŏd´Ĭzəm), religion and philosophy founded in India c.525 BC by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. There are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada or Hinayana in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and the Mahayana in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. A third school, the Vajrayana, has a long tradition in Tibet and Japan. Buddhism has largely disappeared from its country of origin, India, except for the presence there of many refugees from the Tibet region of China and a small number of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

The basic doctrines of early Buddhism, which remain common to all Buddhism, include the "four noble truths" : existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the "eightfold path" of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism characteristically describes reality in terms of process and relation rather than entity or substance.

Experience is analyzed into five aggregates (skandhas). The first, form (rupa), refers to material existence; the following four, sensations (vedana), perceptions (samjna), psychic constructs (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana), refer to psychological processes. The central Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatman) asserts that in the five aggregates no independently existent, immutable self, or soul, can be found. All phenomena arise in interrelation and in dependence on causes and conditions, and thus are subject to inevitable decay and cessation. The casual conditions are defined in a 12-membered chain called dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) whose links are: ignorance, predisposition, consciousness, name-form, the senses, contact, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death, whence again ignorance.

With this distinctive view of cause and effect, Buddhism accepts the pan-Indian presupposition of samsara, in which living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth-and-death, with the momentum to rebirth provided by one's previous physical and mental actions (see karma). The release from this cycle of rebirth and suffering is the total transcendence called nirvana.

From the beginning, meditation and observance of moral precepts were the foundation of Buddhist practice. The five basic moral precepts, undertaken by members of monastic orders and the laity, are to refrain from taking life, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants. Members of monastic orders also take five additional precepts: to refrain from eating at improper times, from viewing secular entertainments, from using garlands, perfumes, and other bodily adornments, from sleeping in high and wide beds, and from receiving money. Their lives are further regulated by a large number of rules known as the Pratimoksa. The monastic order (sangha) is venerated as one of the "three jewels," along with the dharma, or religious teaching, and the Buddha. Lay practices such as the worship of stupas (burial mounds containing relics) predate Buddhism and gave rise to later ritualistic and devotional practices.

Early Buddhism

India during the lifetime of the Buddha was in a state of religious and cultural ferment. Sects, teachers, and wandering ascetics abounded, espousing widely varying philosophical views and religious practices. Some of these sects derived from the Brahmanical tradition (see Hinduism), while others opposed the Vedic and Upanishadic ideas of that tradition. Buddhism, which denied both the efficacy of Vedic ritual and the validity of the caste system, and which spread its teachings using vernacular languages rather than Brahmanical Sanskrit, was by far the most successful of the heterodox or non-Vedic systems. Buddhist tradition tells how Siddhartha Gautama, born a prince and raised in luxury, renounced the world at the age of 29 to search for an ultimate solution to the problem of the suffering innate in the human condition. After six years of spiritual discipline he achieved the supreme enlightment and spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching and establishing a community of monks and nuns, the sangha, to continue his work.

After the Buddha's death his teachings were orally transmitted until the 1st cent. BC, when they were first committed to writing (see Buddhist literature; Pali). Conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as religious and philosophical issues, especially concerning the analyses of experience elaborated as the systems of Abhidharma, probably caused differing sects to flourish rapidly. Knowledge of early differences is limited, however, because the earliest extant written version of the scriptures (1st cent. AD) is the Pali canon of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka. Although the Theravada [doctrine of the elders] is known to be only one of many early Buddhist schools (traditionally numbered at 18), its beliefs as described above are generally accepted as representative of the early Buddhist doctrine. The ideal of early Buddhism was the perfected saintly sage, arahant or arhat, who attained liberation by purifying self of all defilements and desires.

The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

The positions advocated by Mahayana [great vehicle] Buddhism, which distinguishes itself from the Theravada and related schools by calling them Hinayana [lesser vehicle], evolved from other of the early Buddhist schools. The Mahayana emerges as a definable movement in the 1st cent. BC, with the appearance of a new class of literature called the Mahayana sutras. The main philosophical tenet of the Mahayana is that all things are empty, or devoid of self-nature (see sunyata). Its chief religious ideal is the bodhisattva, which supplanted the earlier ideal of the arahant, and is distinguished from it by the vow to postpone entry into nirvana (although meriting it) until all other living beings are similarly enlightened and saved.

The bodhisattva is an actual religious goal for lay and monastic Buddhists, as well as the name for a class of celestial beings who are worshiped along with the Buddha. The Mahayana developed doctrines of the eternal and absolute nature of the Buddha, of which the historical Buddha is regarded as a temporary manifestation. Teachings on the intrinsic purity of consciousness generated ideas of potential Buddhahood in all living beings. The chief philosophical schools of Indian Mahayana were the Madhyamika, founded by Nagarjuna (2d cent. AD), and the Yogacara, founded by the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th cent. AD). In this later Indian period, authors in different schools wrote specialized treatises, Buddhist logic was systematized, and the practices of Tantra came into prominence.

The Spread of Buddhism

In the 3d cent. BC the Indian emperor Asoka greatly strengthened Buddhism by his support and sent Buddhist missionaries as far afield as Syria. In succeeding centuries, however, the Hindu revival initiated the gradual decline of Buddhism in India. The invasions of the White Huns (6th cent.) and the Muslims (11th cent.) were also significant factors behind the virtual extinction of Buddhism in India by the 13th cent.

In the meantime, however, its beliefs had spread widely. Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism in the 3d cent. BC, and Buddhism has remained its national religion. After taking up residence in Sri Lanka, the Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa (5th cent. AD) produced some of Theravada Buddhism's most important scholastic writings. In the 7th cent. Buddhism entered Tibet, where it has flourished, drawing its philosophical influences mainly from the Madhyamika, and its practices from the Tantra.

Buddhism came to SE Asia in the first five centuries AD All Buddhist schools were initially established, but the surviving forms today are mostly Theravada. About the 1st cent. AD Buddhism entered China along trade routes from central Asia, initiating a four-century period of gradual assimilation. In the 3d and 4th cent. Buddhist concepts were interpreted by analogy with indigenous ideas, mainly Taoist, but the work of the great translators Kumarajiva and Hsüan-tsang provided the basis for better understanding of Buddhist concepts.

The 6th cent. saw the development of the great philosophical schools, each centering on a certain scripture and having a lineage of teachers. Two such schools, the T'ien-t'ai and the Hua-Yen, hierarchically arranged the widely varying scriptures and doctrines that had come to China from India, giving preeminence to their own school and scripture. Branches of Madhyamika and Yogacara were also founded. The two great nonacademic sects were Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, whose chief practice was sitting in meditation to achieve "sudden enlightenment," and Pure Land Buddhism, which advocated repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha to attain rebirth in his paradise.

Chinese Buddhism encountered resistance from Confucianism and Taoism, and opposition from the government, which was threatened by the growing power of the tax-exempt sangha. The great persecution by the emperor Wu-tsung (845) dealt Chinese Buddhism a blow from which it never fully recovered. The only schools that retained vitality were Zen and Pure Land, which increasingly fused with one another and with the native traditions, and after the decline of Buddhism in India, neo-Confucianism rose to intellectual and cultural dominance.

From China and Korea, Buddhism came to Japan. Schools of philosophy and monastic discipline were transmitted first (6th cent.–8th cent.), but during the Heian period (794–1185) a conservative form of Tantric Buddhism became widely popular among the nobility. Zen and Pure Land grew to become popular movements after the 13th cent. After World War II new sects arose in Japan, such as the Soka Gakkai, an outgrowth of the nationalistic sect founded by Nichiren (1222–82), and the Risshokoseikai, attracting many followers.


See H. C. Warren, Buddhism in Translations (1896, repr. 1963); D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism (1956); A. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (1959, repr. 1979); E. Conze, Buddhism (1953, repr. 1959), Buddhist Scriptures (1959), and Buddhist Thought in India (1962, repr. 1967); E. Zürcher, Buddhism (1962); K. S. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China (1964, repr. 1972); W. T. de Bary, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan (1969); T. Ling, The Buddha (1973); R. Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (1973); W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (2d ed. 1974); D. and A. Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism (1974–76); S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer (1976); L. Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (1976); R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion (3d ed. 1982); and R. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism (1988); J. Ishikawa, The Bodhisattva (1990).

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BUDDHISM. By 2002 Buddhism had become highly visible in many countries outside of Asia. Although it never became nearly as popular as in Asia, by the 1990s Buddhism's influence on America was visible in the arts, in the steadily increasing number of converts and Buddhist institutions, and in the growing recognition of Buddhist groups as participants in the multireligious composition of U.S. society. In each Asian culture, it generally took many centuries for Buddhism to acculturate. In contrast, in the West, attempts to create adapted, regionalized forms of Buddhism occurred at a much faster pace. New schools and lineages additionally pluralized the spectrum of Buddhist traditions present in Western countries.


The origin of Buddhism in America can be traced to Chinese immigrants who began to appear on the West Coast in the 1840s. By 1852, around 20,000 Chinese were present in California, and within a decade, nearly one-tenth of the state's population was Chinese.

Japanese Buddhism developed more slowly in America than the Chinese form, but had much greater impact. By 1890, the Japanese population in the United States was barely 2,000. The World Parliament of Religion, held in 1893, radically changed the landscape for Japanese Buddhism in America. Among the participants was a Rinzai Zen monk, Shaku So[UNK]en, who returned to America in 1905, lecturing in several cities, and establishing a basic ground for the entry of Zen. Upon his return to Japan in 1906, three of his students were selected to promote Rinzai in America: Nyo[UNK]gen Senzaki, Shaku So[UNK]katsu, and Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki.

Rinzai was one of several Zen traditions to develop in America. So[UNK]to[UNK] Zen began to appear in America in the 1950s, and by the mid-1950s, Soyu Matsuoka Ro[UNK]shi had established the Chicago Buddhist Temple. Shunryu Suzuki Ro[UNK]shi arrived in San Francisco in 1959, founding the San Francisco Zen Center shortly thereafter. His (mostly Western) successors continued the So[UNK]to[UNK] lineage. Another form of Zen that took root in America attempts to harmonize the major doctrines and practices of each school into a unified whole. Proponents of this approach include Taizan Maezumi Ro[UNK]shi (who arrived in 1956), Hakuun Yasutani Ro[UNK]shi (who first visited the United States in 1962), and Philip Kapleau. Also significant are Robert Aitken Ro[UNK]shi, who founded the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii in 1959, Eido[UNK] Shimano Ro[UNK]shi, who first came to the United States as a translator for Yasutani Ro[UNK]shi, and Joshu Sasaki Ro[UNK]shi, who founded the Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles in 1968 and the Mt. Baldy Zen Center three years later.

Zen was not the only Japanese Buddhist tradition to make an appearance in America before the turn of the twentieth century. In 1899 two Japanese missionaries were sent to San Francisco to establish the Buddhist Mission of North America, an organization associated with the Pure Land school of Japanese Buddhism. Reincorporated in 1944 as the Buddhist Churches of America, it remains one of the most stable Buddhist communities in North America.

In the 1960s, another form of Japanese Buddhism, now known as So[UNK]ka Gakkai International-USA, appeared on the American landscape, and by 1974 it boasted over 200,000 members. This group grew out of the So[UNK]ka Gakkai movement in Japan, a nonmeditative form of Buddhism that based its teachings on the thirteenth century figure Nichiren (1222–1282). Although the group splintered in the late twentieth century, it remained a formidable Buddhist presence in America, having become extremely attractive to European American and African American Buddhists.

At the same time the Chinese were once again making their presence visible in American Buddhism. One notable addition was a largely monastic group known as the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, created by a venerable monk named Hsüan-Hua. Of even larger size was the Hsi-Lai Temple outside Los Angeles, founded in 1978, and eventually offering a wide variety of Buddhist teachings and services. By 2002 Chinese Buddhist groups could be found in virtually every major metropolitan area.

The Buddhist culture to enter America most recently is the Tibetan. Although a few Tibetan Buddhist groups appeared in the West prior to 1960, the majority came after China's invasion and occupation of their country. Communities from each of the four major Tibetan sects can now be found in America. The Tibetan groups were the most colorful of all the Buddhist groups prospering in late twentieth century America, possessing a rich tradition of Buddhist art and a powerful psychological approach to mental health. In the early 2000s they continued to grow rapidly.

The final sectarian tradition to be considered is that of the Therava[UNK]da. Most recently, groups from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar migrated to the United States to escape the economic and political uncertainty of their native countries. Therava[UNK]da temples sprang up in the Southeast Asian enclaves of major cities. The Therava[UNK]dabased Vipassana[UNK] movement became the most attractive form of this tradition among Euro-Americans.

Institutional Issues

Five areas of institutional concern can be outlined in the American Buddhist tradition: ethnicity, practice, democratization, engagement, and adaptation. Two questions help to contextualize these mutually influencing issues: first, how Buddhist identity is determined, and finally, the degree to which ecumenicity might play a role in providing a unifying instrument for the exceedingly diverse spectrum of Buddhist traditions in North America.

Who is a Buddhist? Identifying and quantifying American Buddhists has been an important issue. By the mid-1990s, scholars estimated the American Buddhist population to be four to five million. Although there were many possible methods of determining Buddhist identity in America, the most accepted approach was that of self identification. This approach allowed each group to be counted regardless of how they interpreted and practiced Buddhism.

Ethnicity. One late twentieth century attempt to quantify the American Buddhist population estimated that of the total Buddhist population in the United States, perhaps 800,000 were Euro-American convert Buddhists. This suggested that the vast majority of Buddhists in America were Asian immigrants. The relationship between Asian American Buddhists and converted Buddhists was tenuous.

Practice. There was no disagreement among researchers that Asian immigrant Buddhist communities and American convert communities engaged in significantly different expressions of Buddhist practice. The general consensus was that American converts gravitate toward the various meditation traditions, while Asian immigrants

maintain practices consistent with ritual activity or Pure Land observance.

Democratization. While Asian Buddhism was, for the most part, primarily hierarchical and highly authoritarian, the forms of American Buddhism that developed in the late twentieth century underwent a process of democratization. It could be observed in changing patterns of authority in the various Buddhist sanghas, or communities, highlighted by a reevaluation of the relationship between the monastic and lay communities. Second, democratization could be witnessed in changing gender roles in American Buddhism, especially in the prominence of women. Finally, it could be seen in the manner in which individuals pursuing a nontraditional lifestyle, particularly with regard to sexual preferences, found a meaningful role in American Buddhist communities.

Engagement. "Socially engaged Buddhism" has application to a wide variety of general human rights issues, such as antiviolence and environmental concerns, but also to the lives of individual Buddhists. The greatest challenge for socially engaged Buddhism in the West is organizational. In the early 2000s, it was far less developed in its organizational patterns and strategies than its Christian or Jewish counterparts. Nonetheless, an exciting array of activities could be documented in the records of the individual American Buddhist communities.

Adaptation. Perhaps the one issue that dominated the early comprehensive books on American Buddhism was adaptation or acculturation. As one early researcher asked, "Is there a characteristically American style of Buddhism?" Some North American Buddhists were concerned about the implications of altering the Buddhist tradition in the name of adaptation. American Buddhism has created, in addition to its distinct practices, a series of enterprises that Asian Buddhism never imagined: residential communities, businesses, farms, hospices, publishing companies, meditation products, cottage industries, and the like. Critics worried that these innovations represented a distraction from the purpose of Buddhist practice.

Ecumenicism. In each of the issues cited above, it is possible to discern the need for cooperative discussions between American Buddhists of all traditions. In July 1987, a conference on world Buddhism in North America was sponsored by the Zen Lotus Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It included a wide variety of talks, panel discussions, and meetings in an effort to bring together representatives of the Buddhist traditions in America to work together toward common goals. In the end, they sought to create a protective umbrella under which the issues of ethnicity, practice, democratization, engagement, and adaptation could be addressed productively, ushering in a successful future for the Buddhist movement in America.


Morreale, Don, ed. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Prebish, Charles S. Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Prebish, Charles S. and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1998.

Seager, Richard. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Williams, Duncan Ryu[UNK]ken and Christopher S. Queen, eds. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholar-ship. Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1999.


See alsoReligion and Religious Affiliation .

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The Buddhists of Southeast Asia are not considered here in a detailed article, since many of the longer articles in this volume deal with specific Buddhist cultural groups. Buddhism is, after all, a world religion with several hundreds of millions of adherents; and so, as with any other major and widespread faith, considerable diversity may be found in cultural practices.

The form that Buddhism has taken in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the delta of the Mekong, as in Sri Lanka, is called Theravada. Vietnam, on the other hand (except for the Mekong delta), can be grouped with China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia, all countries that follow the Mahayana form of Buddhism, a form that derives from the late Indian schools of Buddhism and their interaction with Tantrism. All forms of Buddhism of course take their origin from the teachings of Gautama the Buddha (also called Sakyamuni, c. 560-480 b.c.).

Buddhism was slow to spread to Southeast Asia. By the middle of the third century b.c. it had reached Sri Lanka, and from there, after some centuries, it was carried to Burma, at the latest by the fifth century a.d. In Thailand there is little trace of the religion before the thirteenth century a.d., while in Cambodia it can be traced back to the third century a.d. But this was probably not, in the latter case, Theravada Buddhism, but rather another form called Sarvastivada. It was only in the fourteenth century a.d. that Theravada appeared in Cambodia and Laos. For some centuries following the third century a.d. other parts of Southeast Asia were Buddhist, although they have not been so in recent centuries. Java and Sumatra, in particular, were strong centers of the faith, as were, to a lesser extent, Malaya and Borneo. Buddhism remained in much of this insular area until the massive conversion to Islam in the fifteenth century. A vast canon of the text in Pali, collectively known as the Tripitaka and covering a span of nearly two millennia, forms the basis for the Theravada sect. These texts and commentaries contain the orthodox doctrine and rules for the highly important monastic life, which can be traced back to the first Buddhist schism of the fourth century b.c., and the "doctrine of the elders" that was formulated, if not written down, at the time. This doctrine recognized three alternative paths for the devotee: (1) arahat; (2) paccekabuddha; and (3) fully awakened Buddha. An arahat was a worthy one who had achieved the goal of Buddhist life by gaining insight into the true nature of things; a paccekabuddha is one who, having gained enlightenment, lives alone as an "isolated Buddha" without trying to teach others. The cult of Theravada Buddhism broke away from Brahmanic ritual and also from Mahayana forms.

The Mahayana sect, though at one time present in Cambodia, alongside Hinduism, in modern Southeast Asia occurs only in Vietnam, and then not in the southernmost parts. This sect had its origin around the first century a.d., and entailed a reinterpretation of the Theravada discipline for monks, which in turn freed them to travel freely and even settle in distant lands. As a result it was the Mahayana form of Buddhism that reached China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. One important feature of Mahayana doctrine was the concept of bodhisattva, essentially an idea that certain almost heavenly personages have the potential to become future Buddhas. This idea allowed for the assimilation of numerous popular local cults in the countries just mentioned, and goes a long way toward explaining why Mahayanists are very much more numerous than Theravadists in Asia.

Returning to the Theravada sect, we must note the importance of the monastery (often called a pagoda). In former times all adolescent Buddhist boys were expected to spend some months there; many still do. The monastery was a central institution, to be found in very many of the Buddhist towns and villages. It was attached to a temple (called a vihara or pagoda), which contained several statues of the Buddha. Local forms of the temple were architecturally diverse. Other buildings commonly found within the precincts of a temple were a prayer hall, perhaps a school or library, and huts or cells for the monks, students, and some other elderly residents.

The monastic community was a moral community, bound together by its observance of the five basic commandments (Panch Sila) of Buddhism; but monks and nuns would observe three (sometimes five) additional restrictions. Some monks would remove themselves from the main community of their monastery to live in caves or remote huts as hermits, either alone or as a small group. Those more active in the community would teach the youths and young monks, or might preach to the faithful, study texts, or simply meditate.

Even within the Theravada sect, there was no overarching theocratic structure, and certainly no person analogous to a pope or Dalai Lama. In keeping with the fact that in each country of Southeast Asia Theravada Buddhism had a distinct history, the organization of the sect does not reach beyond a national level. Local temples and monasteries are essentially self-sufficient, for they depend on their own lands and the offerings of the faithful. Property belongs either to the community or, to a lesser degree, to the Buddha or to the monks.

The broad appeal of Buddhism throughout history can be attributed to the strongly universalistic content of its ethical teachings, which were first expounded and elaborated upon by the Buddha himself in a lifetime of sermonizing. The essence of these teachings is summarized as the "Noble Eight-fold Path," which prescribes: (1) right understanding, (2) right aspiration or purpose, (3) right speech, (4) right bodily action, (5) right means of livelihood, (6) right endeavor, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. Against this were set the five proscriptions, or Panch Sila: (1) refrainment from injuring any living things; (2) refrainment from taking that which has not been given; (3) refrainment from excessive sensuality; (4) refrainment from false or harmful speech; and (5) refrainment from any drink or drug that clouds the mind. Perhaps overlooked in these dual formulations is the great Buddhist emphasis on generosity, especially the giving of alms. Overall it must be admitted that Buddhism provided a code of conduct, a direction to both one's thoughts and one's actions, that could pervade the entire fabric of a peaceable society. If the perfect Buddhist society has not yet emerged, it is still a fervent hope for hundreds of millions in East and Southeast Asia.


Bareau, André (1976). "Le bouddhisme à Ceylan et dans l'Asie du Sud-est." In Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech. Vol. 3, 330-352. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Lafont, Pierre-Bernard (1976). "Le bouddhisme vietnamien." In Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech. Vol. 3, 353-370. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Spiro, Milford E. (1970). Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row.


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Originating with the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, born in present-day Nepal in the sixth century b.c.e., varieties of Buddhism have developed and spread across the globe for the past 2,500 years. Though Buddhism by no means presents a uniform face in all cultures and time periods, Buddhist traditions do reveal certain common experiential contours, doctrinal themes, and ritual practices. Speaking experientially, Buddhism emphasizes disciplined introspection through a combination of meditative, recitative, and gestural sequences. Doctrinally, Buddhist teachings call attention to four primary themes: suffering, liberation, emptiness, and interdependence. And in terms of ritual practice, Buddhists engage in a combination of devotional offerings, initiatory rites, and other ceremonies to mark important spiritual and life-cycle transitions.

Buddhist history reflects three primary "vehicles" of Buddhist thought and practice: Nika¯ya (Individual Tradition, of which Therava¯da Buddhism represents one strand); Maha¯ya¯na (Great Vehicle); and Vajraya¯na (Diamond Vehicle, also known as Tantric Buddhism). However, from a contemporary perspective, it remains difficult to know the extent to which these traditions operated autonomously from one another. It seems likely that a great degree of overlap existed between Buddhist traditions, as, for example, when a practitioner espousing Maha¯ya¯na precepts also may have engaged in Tantric practices. Adherents of all three traditions exist throughout the world, though one traditionally associates Nika¯ya (primarily Therava¯da) Buddhism with Southeast Asia; Maha¯ya¯na Buddhism with historical India, China, and parts of Southeast Asia; and Vajraya¯na Buddhism with historical India, Tibet, Japan, and, since the late nineteenth century, the West.

Buddhism concerns itself with science in, for example, its Tantric Vehicle. Tantric Buddhist texts occupy themselves with questions of cosmology, astronomy, embryology, and physiology, and they concisely weave religion and science together into a seamless fabric. An eleventh-century Sanskrit Buddhist Tantric text, the Śri¯laghu Ka¯lacakratantra (or Śri¯ Ka¯lacakra [Auspicious short Ka¯lacakra Tantra] ), constitutes a primary example of a religious text oriented toward meditative practice that also serves as the repository for highly developed scientific observations of the time. Divided into five chapters, the Śri¯ Ka¯lacakra and its corresponding twelve-thousand-verse Vimalaprabha¯ti¯ka¯ commentary contain five chapters in both Sanskrit and Tibetan redactions: (1) cosmology, the realm-space section; (2) physiology, the inner-self section; (3) initiation, the empowerment section; (4) generation stage, the practice section; and (5) completion stage, the gnosis section.

More specifically, the first chapter of the Śri¯ Ka¯lacakra, sometimes referred to as Outer Ka¯lacakra, presents a cosmological alternative to traditional Buddhist cosmology as articulated in the fourth century in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of manifest knowledge) and its Auto-commentary, the Abhidharmakośabha¯sya. The second chapter, sometimes referred to as Inner Ka¯lacakra, outlines the physiology of the "subtle body" (Sanskrit, śuksmadeha ), including its structure and function. This chapter also addresses the time cycle of breaths taken by a person during a day. According to this system, the vital-wind processes, which Tantric practitioners seek to control, situate the temporal divisions of the universe in the body. The third to fifth chapters of the Śri¯ Ka¯lacakra, sometimes referred to as Alternative Ka¯lacakra, include an explanation of the qualifications necessary for both guru and disciple and also describe the activities that precede empowerment, which include examining the initiation site, accumulating ritual materials, taking control of the site, creating a protective circle, and constructing the Ka¯lacakra mandala. This third chapter also describes disciples' progress through the mandala, the guru's conferral of empowerment, and the concluding rituals that follow the empowerment ceremony. The fourth and fifth chapters of the Śri¯ Ka¯lacakra focus on the practice of Ka¯lacakra's six-limbed yoga. These practices include both generation stage and completion stage yogas.

See also Buddhism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Buddhism, History of Science and Religion


dwivedi, vrajavallabh, and bahulkar, s. s., eds. vimalaprabha'ti¯a¯ of kalki śri¯ pundari¯ka on śri¯ laghuka¯lacakratantrara¯ja by śri¯ mañjuśri¯yaśas, vol. 2. sarnath, varanasi, india: central institute of higher tibetan studies, 1994.

sopa, geshe lhundub. "the kalachakra tantra initiation." in the wheel of time: the kalachakra in context, by geshe lhundub sopa, roger jackson, and john newman. madison, wis.: deer park books, 1985.

zahler, leah. "meditation and cosmology: the physical basis of the concentrations and formless absorptions according to dge-lugs tibetan presentations." journal of the international association of buddhist studies 13, no.1 (1990): 5378.

jensine andresen

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Buddhism. This began historically (although, of course, in its own account it has always been the truth, with a long pre-history) in the 6th and 5th cents. BCE, in India, with the enlightenment of Gotama, who became thereby muni of the Śakya clan (i.e. Śākyamuni) and (in his own self-description) Tathāgata. As presented now in the texts, he taught in the context of the basic components of Hindu cosmology and psychology (long cycles of time, and equally long periods through which a self or soul, ātman, is reborn as it moves, controlled by karma as cause, toward freedom or salvation, mokṣa), but modified them drastically: he saw all appearance as characterized by dukkha (transience, anicca, accompanied by the suffering which arises if one seeks something permanent or eternal in its midst). It follows that there cannot be a soul, but only the sequence of one moment giving rise to the next, constituting appearances with characteristic possibilities (human, e.g., as opposed to animal, through the skandhas, aggregations). The no-soul doctrine is referred to as anātman.

The teaching of the Buddha is summarized in the Four Noble Truths (the truth of dukkha and how to escape it), the Eightfold Path (aṣṭangika-mārga) (the route to escape or enlightenment), and paticca-samuppāda (the analysis of the twelve-step chain of cause which gives rise to entanglement in saṃsāra, the continuing process of reappearance (punabhāva).

Buddhist commitment can be summarized in the Three Jewels or Refuges: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma (Pāli for Skt., dharma); I take refuge in the Saṅgha. The saṅgha is the communal organization of the bhikṣus (bhikkhus), or monks.

The Buddha's teaching was gathered, over a long period, into canonical collections, especially the Tripiṭaka and the Sūtras, though the status, particularly of the latter, may be disputed (see BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES). From about the end of the 4th cent. BCE, different interpretations of the teaching were leading to different schools, and especially to the major difference between Theravāda (‘teaching of the elders’), with its eighteen schools, and Mahāyāna (‘great vehicle’, hence their derogatory reference to Theravāda as Hīnayāna, ‘minor vehicle’), with its innumerable styles and divisions; for these, see BUDDHIST SCHOOLS. The spread of Buddhism was greatly accelerated during the reign of Aśoka (3rd cent. BCE).

Under this endorsement, popular Buddhism flourished, especially in pilgrimages, in the development of stūpas and the rituals and beliefs associated with them, and in the proliferation of art and image-making. But philosophy (abhidhamma) also began its quest for more exact analysis of Buddhist concepts: three major schools emerged in the 3rd cent. BCE): Puggalavāda (Skt., Pudgalavāda), Sarvastivāda (Pāli, Sabbatthivāda), and Vibhajjavāda (Skt., Vibhajyavāda). Later, and even more important, came the development of ‘the Great Vehicle’, Mahāyāna, between the 2nd cent. BCE and 1st CE. It was not a single school or movement, but a drawing out of elements of practice and belief which had been in Buddhism from the outset, but without formal elaboration. Nevertheless, as the implications of these elements were elaborated, a new style of Buddhism began to emerge. In particular, the emphasis was no longer on making one's own way as near to enlightenment as possible (arhat), but on attaining what the Buddha promised and then turning back from selfish attainment in order to help others (bodhisattva). This led to entirely new cosmologies, as the whole spectrum of buddhas and bodhisattvas was mapped into its place. But even more disjunctively, new philosophical realizations were achieved of what the true buddha-nature must be, and how there cannot be other than that nature which is empty of self and of all differentiation (buddhatā; bussho; śūnyatā). A key figure here was Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamaka school.

The reasons for the decline and virtual disappearance of Buddhism in India remain a matter of academic dispute. Long before the decline, Buddhism had begun to expand, in three different geographical directions, which produced very different versions of Buddhism (for which see following articles and TIBETAN RELIGION): north into Tibet; east into China, Korea, and Japan; and south-east into Śri Lankā, Burma, and Thailand. For the development of Buddhism through schools/sects, see BUDDHIST SCHOOLS.

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59. Buddhism

See also 183. GOD and GODS ; 267. MEDITATION ; 285. MYSTICISM ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

the religion of the followers of Gautama Buddha, whose 6th-century b.c. doctrines strongly opposed the formalized, mechanical rituals of the Brahman sect in Hinduism; Buddhas teachings offered escape from endless reincarnation, a method of spiritual attainment through correct views and actions (The Eight-Fold Path), and a spiritual goal (Nirvana): a soul free from craving, suffering, and sorrow. See also Eight-Fold Path, The. Buddhist , n. Buddhistic, Buddhistical , adj.
Eight-Fold Path, The
the method of spiritual attainment outlined in Buddha s sermons on the Four Noble Truths: pain, the cause of pain, the cessation of pain, and the path that leads to this cessation, emphasizing, in the last, right view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, efïort, mindfulness, and concentration.
Fohism, Foism
the predominant Chinese form of Buddhism, Foh being the Chinese name for Buddha. Fohist , n.
the earliest development of Buddhism after Buddhas death, emphasizing doctrines and practices originally formulated by Buddha and reflected in the School of the Elders (Theravada) of the Pali tradition; called the lesser vehicle, it found followers in southern India and Ceylon. Hinayana , n., adj.
a reformation of Buddhism in Tibet intended to bring about stricter discipline in the monasteries; the dominant sect is Gelup-Ka (The Virtuous Way), with the patron deity Chen-re-zi (the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy), who is reincarnated as the successive Dalai Lamas. Also called Gelup-Ka . Lamaist , n. Lamaistic , adj.
a form of Mahayana Buddhism marked by its complex organization and elaborate rituals. Lamanist , n.
the greater vehicle or second development of Buddhism after the death of its founder as a reaction against the orthodox and conservative ideas of the Hinayana, asserting that Gautama is one of many manifestations of one primordial Buddha and emphasizing good works illustrating the six virtues of generosity, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom necessary to ideal Buddhism; its tenets are preserved in Sanskrit texts, later translated into Chinese and Japanese. Mahayana , n., adj.
the principles, doctrines, and tenets that concern or are believed by all Buddhists. Pan-Buddhist , n.
the mixed form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, adding to ideas from both major Buddhist developments doctrines and practices from Hindu Tantric sects and the native Tibetan religion of nature worship and magic called Bönism; it combines the Hinayana concept of emancipation through self-discipline and the Mahayana concept of philosophical insight into reality for the sake of others with uniquely Tibetan magical rites and mystical meditation. Tantrayanic , adj.
Zen Buddhism, Zenism
an outgrowth of Mahayana, the meditation sect, developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart and divided into two branches: Binzai, an austere and aristocratie monasticism emphasizing meditation on paradoxes; and Sōtō, a benevolent monasticism with great popular following, emphasizing ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence, and sympathy as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination. Zen , n. Zenic , adj.

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Buddhism A salvation religion, founded in north India in the fifth century BCE (the exact dates are the subject of scholarly controversy) by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha (meaning Enlightened One). Buddhists may be defined as those who revere the so-called Three Jewels: the Buddha himself; the Dharma or doctrine taught by him; and the Monastic Community—those monks and nuns who renounce the married household to live out the doctrine in full. Buddhism as taught by the Buddha was a universalist humanism not unconnected with the emergence of urban culture in north India. According to it, anyone (male or female, high-born or low) can escape from the endless cycle of rebirths by following the practice of morality, meditation, and insight.

Today, two main types of Buddhism survive, the Theravada and the Mahayana. The former is found in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka; the latter in Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Missionaries and immigrants have carried both throughout the world in modern times. Theravada Buddhism is the more conservative form: it has few and simple rituals and focuses on the worship of the Buddha itself. Mahayana Buddhism is a slightly later development, having more elaborate ritual, a baroque pantheon of saints (bodhisattvas), more numerous scriptures, and (sometimes) a married clergy. Mahayana Buddhists believe that their form of Buddhism offers an easier route to salvation than that provided by Theravada Buddhism.

Although Buddhism is a form of religious individualism, it has always accepted spiritual hierarchies, the most dramatic of which was the Mahayana theocratic state, under the Dalai Lama, which ruled Tibet for many centuries. In the modern world, new forms of Buddhism have arisen which combine it with nationalism, socialism, rationalism, and even social welfare activities.

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Buddhism Religion and philosophy founded (c.528 bc) in India by Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha. Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths: existence is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of suffering comes with the achievement of nirvana, and Nirvana is attained through the Eightfold Path: right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. There are no gods in Buddhism. Karma, one of Buddhism's most important concepts, says good actions are rewarded and evil ones are punished, either in this life or throughout a long series of lives resulting from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth by reincarnation. The achievement of nirvana breaks the cycle. Buddhism is a worldwide religion. Its main divisions are Theravada, or Hinayana, in se Asia; Mahayana in n Asia; Lamaism or Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet; and Zen in Japan. Today, there are c.300 million Buddhists worldwide.

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Bud·dhism / ˈboōdizəm; ˈboŏd-/ n. a widespread Asian religion or philosophy, founded by Siddartha Gautama in northeastern India in the 5th century bc. DERIVATIVES: Bud·dhist n. & adj. Bud·dhis·tic / boōˈdistik; boŏd-/ adj. Bud·dhis·ti·cal / boōˈdistikəl; boŏd-/ adj.

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Buddhistassist, cist, coexist, consist, cyst, desist, enlist, exist, fist, gist, grist, hist, insist, list, Liszt, mist, persist, resist, schist, subsist, tryst, twist, whist, wist, wrist •Dadaist • deist • fideist • Hebraist •Mithraist • essayist • prosaist •hobbyist, lobbyist •Trotskyist • boniest • copyist • veriest •pantheist • atheist • polytheist •monotheist •Maoist, Taoist •oboist • egoist • jingoist • banjoist •soloist • Titoist • Shintoist •canoeist, tattooist, Uist •voodooist • altruist • casuist •euphuist • Lamaist • vibist • cubist •Arabist • faddist • propagandist •contrabandist • avant-gardist • eldest •sadist • encyclopedist •immodest, modest •Girondist • keyboardist •harpsichordist • nudist • Buddhist •unprejudiced • Talmudist •psalmodist • threnodist • hymnodist •monodist • chiropodist • parodist •heraldist • rhapsodist • prosodist •Methodist • absurdist

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