Buddhism: An Overview

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[This article attempts to identify certain of the elements and structures that have constituted the Buddhist tradition as it has evolved over the past twenty-five hundred years. It traces a complex of social and ideological formations that have allowed it to develop from a small religious community to a "universal" religion associated with empire, to an important component in the several cultures of Buddhist Asia, to a tradition faced with the problems raised by modernity and contact with the West.]

The concept of Buddhism was created about three centuries ago to identify what we now know to be a pan-Asian religious tradition that dates back some twenty-five hundred years. Although the concept, rather recent and European in origin, has gradually, if sometimes begrudgingly, received global acceptance, there is still no consensus about its definition. We can, however, identify two complementary meanings that have consistently informed its use. First, it groups together the thoughts, practices, institutions, and values that over the centuries haveto use a phrase coined by the French Buddhologist Louis de La Vallée Poussin"condensed around the name of the Buddha." The implicit conclusion of this usage is that Buddhism is, in short, whatever Buddhist men and women have said, done, and held dear. Second, the concept suggests some unifying character or order in the overwhelming diversity encompassed by the first usage. The beginning of this ordering process has often been to consider Buddhism as an example of larger categories, and thus Buddhism has been variously labeled a religion, a philosophy, a civilization, or a culture. It must be admitted, however, that no single ordering principle has been found that takes full account of the data included within the first meaning. This admission stands as a rebuke of the limitations of our current understanding, and as a continuing challenge to go further in our descriptions and explanations.

When the first meaning of Buddhism, which emphasizes its encompassment of accumulated traditions, is placed in the foreground, the resulting conception is indeed comprehensive. The further scholarship proceeds, the more comprehensive this conception becomes, because Buddhists have done in the name of the Buddha almost everything that other humans have done. Buddhists have, of course, been concerned with living religiously, some with the aim of salvation, and they have created traditions of belief and practice that help to realize these aspirations. But they have been concerned with much more as well. Buddhists have built cities sanctified by monuments dedicated to the Buddha and they have cultivated their crops using blessings that invoke his name. They have written self-consciously Buddhist poems and plays as well as highly technical works of grammar and logic that begin with invocations to the Buddha. They have commended nonviolence, but they have also gone to war with the name of Buddha on their lips. They have valued celibacy, but have also written erotic manuals and rejoiced in family life, all in the name of Buddha. Buddhists have created subtle philosophical concepts, such as the absence of self (anātman ), which are contravened by other ideas and values they have held. Like other human beings, Buddhists have been inconsistent and even contradictory, and they have been both noble and base in what they have said and done.

Although most scholars have at some level accepted this first conception of Buddhism as a diverse cumulative tradition, few have been content to allow this encompassing notion to prevail. They have sought to discover what ideals and values have inspired Buddhists, or to formulate generalizations that will help us to see the behavior of individuals as distinctively Buddhist. Some scholars have singled out a pattern, an idea, or a cluster of ideas that they felt was important enough to provide continuity through Buddhist history, or at least sufficient to suggest a coherence to the variety. Important candidates for this "key" to Buddhism are the purported teaching of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama, which provides an essence that has unfolded over the centuries; the monastic organization (sagha), whose historical continuity provides a center of Buddhist practice and a social basis for the persistence of Buddhist thought and values; the closely related ideas of nonself and emptiness (anātman, śūnyatā), realized through insight, which are said to mold Buddhist behavior; and the goal of nirvāa as the purpose of life. While such patterns and notions are very important for Buddhist sociology and soteriology, they also omit a great deal. Moreover, we can see that the element that is singled out as important is often distictive to Buddhism only in comparison with other religions or philosophies and cannot serve as a core that informs the entire corpus of Buddhist beliefs, rituals, and values.

Scholars have also sought to identify the characteristic order of Buddhism by dividing the cumulative tradition into more manageable parts, whether by chronology, by school, or by country. Some scholars, following the Buddhist historians Bu ston (12901364) and Tāranātha (15741608), have divided Buddhism into three periods, mainly along philosophical lines. A first phase, represented by the early Theravāda (Way of the Elders) and Sarvāstivāda (All Things Are Real) schools, emphasized the no-soul idea and the reality of the constituents (dharma s) of the world. A middle phase, represented by the Mādhyamika (Middle Way) school, introduced the idea of the ultimate emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena. A third period, represented by the Vijñānavāda (Consciousness Only) school, was philosophically idealistic in character. The limitations of this philosophical division are severe in that it only touches certain aspects of Buddhism and acknowledges no significant development after the fifth century ce.

Other scholars have elaborated a schema based on polemical divisions within the Buddhist community. They have focused attention on three great Buddhist "vehicles" (yāna ) that are characterized by different understandings of the process and goal of salvation. The Hīnayāna, or Lesser Vehicle, elaborated a gradual process of individual salvation, and in that context distinguished among the attainment of an arhat, the attainment of a pratyekabuddha (one who achieves enlightenment on his own but does not become a teacher), and the attainment of a fully enlightened Buddha who teaches others the way to salvation. The Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda schools mentioned above are two of the major schools that are included under the Hīnayāna rubric. The term Hīnayāna was in its origins a pejorative name coined by the adherents of a new movement, self-designated as the Mahāyāna, or Great Vehicle, which generated new texts and teachings that were rejected by the Hīnayānists.

Like the adherents of the Hīnayāna, the Mahāyānists elaborated a gradual path of salvation lasting over many lifetimes, but their emphasis was different in two very important and related respects. They held that an individual's soteriological process could be aided and abetted by what some Mahāyāna schools came to designate as "other-power," and they recognized, ultimately, only one soteriological goalthe attainment of fully realized Buddhahood. The Vajrayāna (Diamond Vehicle), which is also known as Mantrayāna (Sacred Sounds Vehicle), Esoteric Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism, accepted the basic approach and goal of the Mahāyāna, but felt that individual realization could be accomplished more quickly, in some cases even in this present life. The Vajrayānists described the practices that lead to this attainment in texts called tantra s that were not accepted by either the Hīnayāna or the Mahāyāna schools. Although this Hīnayāna/Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna schema is probably the most common one used by scholars to divide Buddhism into more manageable segments, it too has serious drawbacks. It underestimates the significance of developments after the first millennium of the common era and it tends to overemphasize certain traits therein as extreme differences, beyond what is warranted by history.

Finally, scholars have recognized that Buddhism has always been deeply shaped by its surrounding culture. The Buddhist tradition has been more accretive in its doctrine and practice than the other great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam. It has shown an enduring tendency to adapt to local forms; as a result we can speak of a transformation of Buddhism in various cultures. The extent of this transformation can be seen in the difficulty that the first Western observers had in recognizing that the religion they observed in Japan was historically related to the religion found in Sri Lanka. This cultural division of Buddhism into Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and so forth has been most successfully applied to the more recent phases of Buddhist history, especially to contemporary developments. Its dangers are, of course, quite obvious: above all, it conceals the Buddhist tradition's capacity to transcend the boundaries of culture, politics, and nationality.

The general trends of scholarship on Buddhism in this century have been within such accepted divisions of the cumulative tradition, with the result that our sense of Buddhism's historical continuity has been greatly obscured. Theodore Stcherbatsky, a Soviet Buddhologist, is in this regard a representative example. He adopted Bu ston's tripartite "philosophical" division of Buddhist history and, in his Conception of Buddhist Nirvāa (Leningrad, 1927), commented on the transition between the first phase and the second phase as follows: "the history of religions has scarcely witnessed such a break between new and old within the pale of what nevertheless continued to claim common descent from the same religious founder" (p. 36). Similar statements pointing to radical discontinuity have been made from the perspective of the soteriological and cultural forms of Buddhism as well.

The investigation of each segment of the Buddhist cumulative tradition is now generally done in isolation from other segments. This strategy has had remarkable success in our discovery of the imprint of Buddhist thought and practice in areas far beyond the monasteries, beyond the level of elite groups. In small domains scholars have begun to see patterns in the full extent of phenomena grouped under the name of Buddhism. At the same time, contemporary scholarship often risks missing the forest for the trees. Our advances in particular areas of research may be at the price of the scholar's unique vision of Buddhism as a pan-Asian tradition.

As is often the case in the study of religion, however, the scale of investigation is decisive. This article will discuss Buddhism on a general level and will highlight continuities rather than disjunctions within the tradition. These continuities cannot be found in any static essence or core threading its way through all of Buddhist history. They will be traced here by following certain elements that have been preserved in a changing series of structures, expanded to meet new needs, and brought into relation with new elements that are continuously being introduced. We will, in other words, identify various elements and successive structures that have constituted Buddhism as it developed from a small community of mendicants and householders in northeastern India into a great "universal" religion associated with empire, civilization, and culture in various parts of Asia, and ultimately with "modernity" and the West as well.

Buddhism as Sectarian Religion

Buddhism began around the fifth or fourth century bce as a small community that developed at a certain distance, both self-perceived and real, from other contemporary religious communities, as well as from the society, civilization, and culture with which it coexisted. Thus, we have chosen to characterize the Buddhism of this period as "sectarian."

It is quite probable that Buddhism remained basically a sectarian religion until the time of King Aśoka (third century bce). Whether this was a period of approximately two hundred years, as some scholars, dating the death of the Buddha around 486 bce, maintain, or of approximately one hundred years (accepting a death date around a century later) as others contend, it was by all accounts a crucial period in which many elements and patterns were established that have remained fundamental to subsequent phases of Buddhist thought and life. Despite the importance of this early phase of Buddhist history our knowledge about it remains sketchy and uncertain. Three topics can suggest what we do know: the source of authority that the new Buddhist community recognized, the pattern of development in its teaching and ecclesiastical structures, and the attitude it took toward matters of political and social order. In discussing these three topics we shall identify some of the main scholarly opinions concerning them.

One primary factor that both accounts for and expresses Buddhism's emergence as a new sectarian religion rather than simply a new Hindu movement is the community's recognition of the ascetic Gautama as the Buddha ("enlightened one") and of the words that he had reportedly uttered as a new and ultimate source of sacred authority. The recognition of the Buddha's authority was based on an acceptance of the actuality and relative uniqueness of his person and career, and of his enlightenment experience in particular. It was based on the conviction that through his enlightenment he had gained insight into the dharma (the Truth). This included the aspect of truth that he had formulated more "philosophically" as, for example, in the teaching concerning the dependent co-origination (pratītya-samutpāda ) of the various elements that constitute reality, and also the aspect of truth he had formulated more soteriologically, as summarized, for example, in the classic delineation of the Four Noble Truths (that reality is permeated with suffering, that desire is the cause of suffering, that the cessation of suffering is a possibility, and that there is a path that leads to a cessation of suffering). Finally, the Buddha's authority was based on the confidence that the teachings and actions that had flowed from his enlightenment had been accurately transmitted by those who had heard and seen them.

From certain stories preserved in the tradition it seems that there were some challenges to the Buddha's authority. For example, there are numerous reports that even during his own lifetime a more ascetically inclined cousin named Devadatta tried to take over leadership of the new movement. Such challenges were successfully met by the Buddha and by those who carried on the tradition. As a result, later controversies concerned not so much the authority of his teachings and actions as their content and correct interpretation.

There is less scholarly agreement concerning the more specific content of the early Buddhist teaching and about the closely related question of the structure of the early Buddhist community. Three conflicting interpretations have been set forth, each defended on the basis of detailed text-critical research. Some scholars have maintained that early Buddhism was a movement of philosophically oriented renouncers practicing a discipline of salvation that subsequently degenerated into a popular religion. A second group has contended that Buddhism was originally a popular religious movement that took form around the Buddha and his religiously inspiring message, a movement that was subsequently co-opted by a monastic elite that transformed it into a rather lifeless clerical scholasticism. A third group has argued that as far back as there is evidence, early Buddhist teaching combined philosophical and popular elements, and that during the earliest period that we can penetrate, the Buddhist community included both a significant monastic and a significant lay component. This argument, which is most convincing, has included the suggestion that the philosophical/popular and monastic/lay dichotomies should actually be seen as complements rather than oppositions, even though the understandings of the relative importance of these elements and their interrelationships have varied from the beginning of the Buddhist movement.

By the time of the Second Buddhist Council, held in the city of Vaiśālī probably in the fourth century bce, the Buddhist community already encompassed two competing assemblies whose members espoused positions that correspond to the modern scholarly group of those who associate the "original" or "true" Buddhism with an elite monastic tradition, and those who associate it with a more democratic and populist tradition. A split occurred at or shortly after the Second Council: those who adhered to the former position came to be known in Sanskrit as Sthaviravādins (Pali, Theravādins; the proponents of the Way of the Elders), while those who adhered to the latter position came to be known as the Mahāsāghikas (Members of the Great Assembly).

The third area of discussion about early Buddhism has focused on its sectarian character. While it is not disputed that during the pre-Aśokan period the Buddhist community was a specifically religious community only tangentially involved with issues of political order and social organization, it is less clear whether this distance was a matter of principle or simply an accident of history. Some scholars have argued that early Buddhists were so preoccupied with individual salvation, and the early monastic order so oriented toward "otherworldly" attainments, that early Buddhism's sectarian character was intrinsic, rather than simply circumstantial. While individualistic and otherworldly strands played an important role in some segments of the early Buddhist community, there are balancing factors that must also be taken into account. Early Buddhists were concerned to gain royal patronage and were often successful in their efforts; they appropriated royal symbolism in their depiction of the Buddha and his career; they maintained their own explicitly anti-Brahmanic conception of kingship and social order, in the Aggañña Sutta, for example; and they encouraged a respect for authority and moral decorum conducive to civil order and tranquillity. Thus, within the sectarian Buddhism of the early period, there were a number of elements that prepared the way for the "civilizational Buddhism" that began to emerge during the reign of King Aśoka.

Buddhism as Civilizational Religion

Buddhism has never lost the imprint of the sectarian pattern that characterized its earliest history, largely because the sectarian pattern has been reasserted at various points in Buddhist history. But Buddhism did not remain a purely sectarian religion. With the reign of King Aśoka, Buddhism entered a new phase of its history in which it became what we have chosen to call a "civilizational religion," that is, a religion that was associated with a sophisticated high culture and that transcended the boundaries of local regions and politics. By the beginning of the common era Buddhism's civilizational character was well established in various areas of India and beyond. By the middle centuries of the first millennium ce, Buddhism as a civilizational religion had reached a high level of development across Asia. However, the signs of the transition to a new stage had already begun to appear by the sixth and seventh centuries ce.

History and legend of the Aśokan impact

Aśoka (r. circa 270232 bce) was the third ruler in a line of Mauryan emperors who established the first pan-Indian empire through military conquest. In one of the many inscriptions that provide the best evidence regarding his attitudes and actual policies, Aśoka renounced further violent conquest and made a commitment to the practice and propagation of dharma. In other inscriptions Aśoka informs his subjects concerning the basic moral principles that form his vision of the dharma; he mentions related meditational practices that he commends to his subjects as well as festivals of dharma that he sponsored. He also tells of sending special representatives to ensure that the dharma was appropriately practiced and taught by the various religious communities within his realm.

It would seem from Aśoka's inscriptions that the dharma that he officially affirmed and propagated was not identical to the Buddhist dharma, although it was associated with it, especially insofar as Buddhist teaching impinged on the behavior of the laity. However, the inscriptions give clear evidence that if Aśoka was not personally a Buddhist when he made his first commitment to the dharma, he became so soon thereafter. His edicts indicate that he sponsored Buddhist missions to various areas not only within his own empire, but in the Greek-ruled areas of the northwest and in Sri Lanka to the south. They indicate that he maintained a special interest in the well-being and unity of the Buddhist sagha, that he was concerned to emphasize the importance of Buddhist texts that dealt with lay morality, and that he undertook a royal pilgrimage to the sites associated with the great events in the Buddha's life.

Aśoka's actual policies and actions represent only one aspect of his impact in facilitating the transition of Buddhism from a sectarian religion to a civilizational religion. The other aspect is evidenced in the legends of Aśoka that appeared within the Buddhist community in the period following his death. These legends vary in character from one Buddhist tradition to another. For example, the Theravādins present an idealized portrait of Aśoka and depict him as a strong supporter of their own traditions. Another widely disseminated Aśokan text, the Aśokāvadāna, composed in Northwest India probably in a Sarvāstivāda context, depicts an equally imposing but more ambivalent figure, sometimes cruel in behavior and ugly in appearance. But all of the various Aśokan legends present in dramatic form an ideal of Buddhist kingship correlated with an imperial Buddhism that is truly civilizational in character.

During the Aśokan and immediately post-Aśokan era there are at least three specific developments that sustained the transformation of Buddhism into a civilizational religion. The first, a realignment in the structure of the religious community, involved an innovation in the relationship and balance between the monastic order and its lay supporters. Prior to the time of Aśoka the monastic order was, from an organizational point of view, the focus of Buddhist community life; the laity, however important its role may have been, lacked any kind of independent institutional structure. As a result of the Aśokan experience, including both historical events and the idealized example he set as lay participant par excellence in the affairs of the sagha, the Buddhist state came to provide (sometimes as a hoped-for possibility, at other times as a socioreligious reality) an independent institution that could serve as a lay counterpoint and counterbalance to the order of monks. In addition, this realignment in the structure of the Buddhist community fostered the emergence of an important crosscutting distinction between monks and laypersons who were participants in the imperial-civilizational elite on the one hand, and ordinary monks and laypersons on the other.

The transformation of Buddhism into a civilizational religion also involved doctrinal and scholastic factors. During the Aśokan and post-Aśokan periods, factions within the monastic community began to formulate aspects of the teachings more precisely, and to develop those teachings into philosophies that attempted to explain all of reality in a coherent and logically defensible manner. As a result, the literature in which the community preserved its memory of the sermons of the Buddha (the sūtras) and of his instructions to the monastic order (Vinaya) came to be supplemented by new scholastic texts known as Abhidharma ("higher Dharma"). Given the philosophical ambiguities of the received traditions, it was inevitable that contradictory doctrines would be put forward and that different religio-philosophical systems would be generated. This led to controversies within the community, and these controversies led to the proliferation of Buddhist schools and subschools, probably in conjunction with other more mundane disputes that we do not have sufficient data to reconstruct. Some sources list a total of eighteen schools without any consistency in names. The institutional and ideological boundaries between groups and subgroups were probably very fluid.

Developments in the areas of symbolism, architecture, and ritual were also significant components in the transformation of Buddhism into a civilizational religion. Some changes were related to the support Buddhism received from its royal and elite supporters. For example, royal and elite patronage seems to have been crucial to the emergence of large monastic establishments throughout India. Such support was also a central factor in the proliferation of stupas (Skt., stūpa s), memorial monuments replete with cosmological and associated royal symbolism that represented the Buddha and were, in most cases, believed to contain a portion of his relics. These stūpas were an appropriate setting for the development of Buddhist art in which the Buddha was represented in aniconic forms such as a footprint, a Bodhi ("enlightenment") Tree, a royal throne, the wheel of the dharma, and the like. Merit making and related rituals proliferated and assumed new forms around these stupas. Pilgrimages to the sacred sites associated with the great events of the Buddha's life became more popular. The veneration and contemplation of stupas and other symbolic representations of the Buddha became increasingly widespread. Moreover, the notion of merit making itself was expanded so that it came to include not only merit making for oneself but the transfer of merit to deceased relatives and others was well.

Imperial Buddhism reasserted and transcended

Despite the importance of Aśoka to the history of Buddhism, the imperial order that he established persisted only a short time after his death. Within fifty years of his death (i. e., by the year 186 bce), the Buddhist-oriented Mauryan dynasty collapsed and was replaced by the Śuga dynasty, more supportive of Brahmanic Hindu traditions. The Buddhist texts claim that the Śugas undertook a persecution of Buddhism, although the force of any such persecution is rendered dubious by the fact that Buddhism and Buddhist institutions continued to flourish and develop within the territory ruled by the Śugas. Moreover, Buddhism emerged as a dominant religion in areas outside northeastern India where the Śugas were unable to maintain the authority and prestige that their Mauryan predecessors had enjoyed.

During the three centuries from the second century bce through the first century ce Buddhism became a powerful religious force in virtually all of India, from the southern tip of the peninsula to the Indo-Greek areas in the northwest, and in Sri Lanka and Central Asia as well. New polities seeking to secure their control over culturally plural areas emulated Aśoka's example and adopted Buddhism as an imperial religion. This happened in Sri Lanka, probably when Duhagāmaī brought about the unification of the island kingdom in the mid-second century bce. It happened in central India when the rising Śātavāhana dynasty became a supporter of the Buddhist cause. It happened to some extent in northwestern India when certain Greek and invading Central Asian kings converted to Buddhism. And it happened more fully in northwestern India during and after the reign of King Kanika (first to second century ce), who ruled over a vast Kushan empire that extended from northern India deep into Central Asia. By this time Buddhism had also begun to penetrate into trading centers in northern China and to spread along land and sea routes across Southeast Asia to South China as well.

A major aspect of the transformation of Buddhism into a fully civilizational religion was the differentiation that occurred between Buddhism as a civilizational religion and Buddhism as an imperial religion. During late Mauryan times the civilizational and imperial dimensions had not been clearly differentiated. However, by the beginning of the common era Buddhism had become a civilizational religion that transcended the various expressions of imperial Buddhism in particular geographical areas. As a direct correlate of this development, an important distinction was generated within the elite of the Buddhist community. By this period this elite had come to include both a truly civilizational component that maintained close international contacts and traveled freely from one Buddhist empire to another and beyond, as well as overlapping but distinguishable imperial components that operated within the framework of each particular empire.

At this time Buddhist texts and teachings were being extended in a variety of ways. In some schools, such as the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda, canons of authoritative texts were established, but even after this had occurred new elements continued to be incorporated into the tradition through commentaries. In the case of the Sarvāstivādins, a huge collection of commentaries known as the Mahāvibhāā was compiled at a Buddhist council held by King Kanika. In other schools the Pitakas themselves were still being enriched by the incorporation of a variety of new additions and embellishments. There also began to appear, on the fringes of the established schools, a new kind of sūtra that signaled the rise of a new Buddhist orientation that came to be known as the Mahāyāna. The earliest of these were the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, which put forward the doctrine of śūnyatā (the ultimate "emptiness" of all phenomena) and proclaimed the path of the bodhisattva (future Buddha) as the path that all Buddhists should follow. Before the end of the second century ce the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna had given the perspective of these sūtras a systematic expression and thereby established a basis for the first of the major Mahāyāna schools, known as Mādhyamika.

This extension of Buddhist traditions of texts and teachings was accompanied by two other developments that also contributed to their civilizational efficacy. During this period the older Buddhist schools (hereafter collectively called the Hīnayāna) that had previously limited themselves to the oral transmission of tradition, and the newly emerging Mahāyāna fraternities as well, began to commit their versions of the Buddha's teaching to writing. Some Buddhist groups began to translate and write their most authoritative texts in Sanskrit, which had become the preeminent civilizational language in India.

The rapid development of Buddhism led to major changes in Buddhist ways of representing the Buddha and relating to him ritually. Some Hīnayāna schools produced autonomous biographies of the Buddha. The most famous of the biographies is the Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha), by Aśvaghoa, written in refined Sanskrit in a classic literary form (kavya ). The Hīnayāna schools provided the context for the production of anthropomorphic images of the Buddha, which became a major focal point for sophisticated artistic expression on the one hand, and for veneration and devotion on the other. These schools also made a place within the Buddhist system for a new and very important figure who became a focus for new forms of devotional practice and, in later phases of Buddhist history, new forms of religio-political symbolism and activity as well. This new figure was the future Buddha Maitreya ("the friendly one"), who was believed to be residing in the Tusita Heaven awaiting the appropriate time to descend to earth. By the beginning of the common era other buddhological trends were beginning to surface that were exclusively Mahāyāna in character. For example, sūtras were beginning to appear that focused attention on a celestial Buddha named Amitābha ("infinite light") and portrayed practices of visualization that could lead to rebirth in the western paradise over which he presided.

Closely associated developments were taking place at the level of cosmology and its application to religious practice. In the Hīnayāna context the most important development was probably the rich portrayal of a set of six cosmological gati s, or "destinies" (of gods, humans, animals, asura s or titans, hungry ghosts, and beings who are consigned to hell), which depicted, in vivid fashion, the workings of karman (moral action and its effects). These texts, which were probably used as the basis for sermons, strongly encouraged Buddhist morality and Buddhist merit-making activities. Other Hīnayāna works of the period suggested the presence of a vast expanse of worlds that coexist with our own. In the new Mahāyāna context this notion of a plurality of worlds was moved into the foreground, the existence of Buddhas in at least some of these other worlds was recognized, and the significance of these Buddhas for life in our own world was both affirmed and described. Finally, there are indications that during this period both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Buddhists increasingly employed exorcistic rituals that depended on the magical power of various kinds of chants and spells (paritta in Pali, dhāraī in Sanskrit).

Buddhism as Pan-Asian Civilization

From the second to the ninth century, Buddhism enjoyed a period of immense creativity and influence. Prior to the beginning of the sixth century, Buddhist fortunes were generally on the rise. Buddhism flourished in Sri Lanka, India, and Central Asia. Through already familiar processes involving its introduction along trade routes, its assimilation to indigenous beliefs and practices, and its adoption as an imperial religion, Buddhism became firmly entrenched in both northern and southern China and in many parts of Southeast Asia. After about 500 ce, these well-established dynamics of expansion continued to operate. Buddhism became the preeminent religion in a newly unified Chinese empire, it continued its spread in parts of Southeast Asia, and it was established in important new areas, first in Japan and then in Tibet. However, during this latter period its successes were coupled with setbacks, and by the middle of the ninth century the era of Buddhism as a pan-Asian civilization was rapidly drawing to a close.

The geographical expansion of Buddhism was both a cause and an effect of its civilizational character. But Buddhism's role as a pan-Asian civilization involved much more than a pan-Asian presence. Buddhist monasteries, often state supported and located near capitals of the various Buddhist kingdoms, functioned in ways analogous to modern universities. There was a constant circulation of Buddhist monks, texts, and artistic forms across increasingly vast geographical areas. Indian and Central Asian missionaries traveled to China and with the help of Chinese Buddhists translated whole libraries of books into Chinese, which became a third major Buddhist sacred language alongside Pali and Sanskrit. In the fifth century Buddhist nuns carried their ordination lineage from Sri Lanka to China. Between 400 and 700 a stream of Chinese pilgrims traveled to India via Central Asia and Southeast Asia in order to visit sacred sites and monasteries and to collect additional scriptures and commentaries. Some of these, such as Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing, wrote travel accounts that provide information concerning Buddhist civilization in its fullest development. In the sixth century Buddhism was formally introduced into Japan; in the following century Buddhists from Central Asia, India, and China made their way into Tibet. Beginning in the eighth and ninth centuries monks from Japan visited China in order to receive Buddhist training and acquire Buddhist texts. These are only a few illustrations of the kind of travel and interaction that characterized this period.

While Buddhism was reaching its apogee as a civilizational religion, the teachings of the Hīnayāna tradition were further extended and refined. New commentaries were produced in both Sanskrit and in Pali. During the fifth century these commentaries were supplemented by the appearance of two very important manuals, Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa, composed in the Sarvāstivāda-Sautrāntika context in Northwest India, and Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), written in the Theravādin context in Sri Lanka. Moreover, many Hīnayāna themes remained basic to the other Buddhist traditions with which it coexisted. Most Buddhists continued to recognize the Buddha Gautama as an important figure, and to focus attention on the single-world cosmology that posited the existence of three realmsthe realm beyond form associated with the most exalted gods and the highest meditational states, the realm of form associated with slightly less exalted gods and meditational states, and the realm of desire constituted by the six gati s previously mentioned. This latter realm was especially prominent as the context presumed by pan-Buddhist teachings concerning karmic retribution and the value of giving, particularly to the members of the monastic community.

Within the Mahāyāna tradition this period of Buddhist efflorescence as a civilizational religion was characterized by a high level of creativity and by a variety of efforts toward systematization. In the earlier centuries the Mahāyānists produced a rich and extensive collection of new sūtras, including the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra (Lotus of the true law), the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, the Lakāvatāra Sūtra, and the Avatamsaka Sūtra. With the passage of time, voluminous commentaries were written on many of these sūtras in India, Central Asia, and China. These sūtra s and commentaries developed new teachings concerning the emptiness of the phenomenal world, the storehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna ), and the "embryo of the Tathāgata" (tathāgata-garbha ). These teachings were given scholastic forms in various Mahāyāna groups such as the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra schools, which originated in India, and the Tiantai and Huayan schools, which originated in China. In addition, these sūtras and commentaries recognized a vast pantheon of Buddhas and bodhisattva s (future Buddhas) and acknowledged the existence of a plurality, even an infinity, of worlds. Some went on to affirm the reality of an eternal, cosmic Buddha whom they took to be the ultimate source of these innumerable Buddhas, bodhisattva s, and worlds (and of all else as well). Some of these texts highlighted various kinds of soteriological help that particular Buddhas and bodhisattva s could provide to those who sought their aid. In addition to Maitreya and Amitābha, mentioned above, other Buddhas and bodhisattva s who became particularly important include Bhaiajyaguru (the Buddha of healing), Avalokiteśvara (the bodhisattva exemplar of compassion), Mañjuśrī (the bodhisattva patron of the wise), and Kitigarbha (the bodhisattva who specialized in assisting those who suffer in hell).

By the second half of the first millennium ce a new strand of Buddhist tradition, the Vajrayāna, or Esoteric Vehicle, began to come into the foreground in India. This new vehicle accepted the basic orientation of the Mahāyāna, but supplemented Mahāyāna insights with new and dramatic forms of practice, many of them esoteric in character. The appearance of this new Buddhist vehicle was closely associated with the composition of new texts, including new sūtras (e.g., the Mahāvairocana Sūtra ), and the new ritual manuals known as tantra s. By the eighth and ninth centuries this new vehicle had spread through virtually the entire Buddhist world and was preserved especially in Japan and in Tibet. But before the process of systematization of the Vajrayāna could proceed very far the infrastructure that constituted Buddhist civilization began to break down, thus at least partially accounting for the very different form that this tradition took in Tibet and in Japan, where it became known as Shingon.

During the period of its hegenomy as a pan-Asian civilization, Buddhism retained a considerable degree of unity across both the regional and text-oriented boundaries that delimited particular Buddhist traditions. In each cultural area and in each of the three yāna s there were ascetics and contemplatives who practiced Buddhist meditation; there were ecclesiastics and moralists whose primary concern was Buddhist discipline; there were monks and laypersons who were involved in Buddhist devotion; and there were those who took a special interest in Buddhist magic and exorcism. These diverse groups and individuals sharedand many realized that they sharedbeliefs, attitudes, and practices with like-minded Buddhists in distant areas and other yāna s.

Moreover, during the period of its ascendancy as a civilizational religion, Buddhism provided a successful standard of cultural unification such that other religious traditions, including the Hindu in India, the Manichaean in Central Asia, the Daoist in China, the Shinto in Japan, and the Bon in Tibet, responded to it with their own innovations shaped by Buddhist ideas and values. During this period, in other words, Buddhism set the standards, religious, philosophical, artistic, and so on, to which a whole range of other Asian traditions were forced to respond. Buddhism also served as a civilizational religion by encompassing other elementslogic, medicine, grammar, and technology, to name but a fewthat made it attractive to individuals and groups, including many rulers and members of various Asian aristocracies who had little or no interest in the spiritual aspect of religion.

Buddhism as Cultural Religion

For more than a thousand years, from the time of King Aśoka to about the ninth century, Buddhism exhibited a civilizational form that began as pan-Indian and ultimately became pan-Asian in character. Like the sectarian pattern that preceded it, this civilizational pattern left an indelible mark on all subsequent Buddhist developments. Buddhism never completely lost either its concern for inclusiveness or its distinctively international flavor. But beginning in about the fifth century the civilizational structure suffered increasingly severe disruptions, and a new pattern began to emerge. All across Asia, Buddhism was gradually transformed, through a variety of historical processes, into what we have chosen to call "cultural religion."

The period of transition

Buddhist civilization, which characteristically strove for both comprehensiveness and systematic order, was dependent on the security and material prosperity of a relatively small number of great monasteries and monastic universities that maintained contact with one another and shared common interests and values. This institutional base was, in fact, quite fragile, as was demonstrated when historical events threatened the well-being of these monasteries and their residents. New developments arose within the Buddhist community as a result of these vicissitudes, developments that eventually transformed Buddhism into a series of discrete cultural traditions.

Some indication of these developments can be seen quite early, even as Buddhist civilization was at the peak of its brilliance. Events in Central Asia during the fifth and sixth centuries were not favorable to the Buddhist kingdoms along the Silk Route that connected Northwest India and northern China. These kingdoms were invaded and in some cases conquered by different nomadic peoples such as the Huns, who also invaded India and the Roman empire. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited Sogdiana in 630, saw only ruins of Buddhist temples and former Buddhist monasteries that had been given over to the Zoroastrians.

The instability in the crucial linking area between India and China during the fifth and sixth centuries seems to have been sufficient to weaken Buddhism's civilizational structure. For the first time we see the emergence of new Buddhist schools in China that are distinctively Chinese. The appearance of synthetic Chinese schools like Tiantai and Huayan suggests a continuation of the civilizational orientation. These schools sought to reconcile the divergent views found in Buddhist literature through an extended elaboration of different levels of teaching. This is, of course, characteristic of Buddhism as a civilizational religion, but the manner of reconciliation reflects a style of harmonization that is distinctively Chinese.

The increasing importance of Tantra in late Indian Buddhism and the success of the Pure Land (Jingtu) and Chan (Zen) schools in China during the Sui and Tang period (598907) are further indications that the Buddhist tradition was becoming more local in self-definition. Chinese Buddhism had a new independent spirit in contrast to the earlier India-centered Buddhism. Moreover, the new movements that emerged at that time seem to be the result of a long development that took place apart from the major cosmopolitan centers. Far more than in the past, expressions of Buddhism were being made at all levels of particular societies, and there was a new concern for the interrelation of those levels within each society.

During the last centuries of the first millennium ce, Buddhist civilization developed a new, somewhat independent center in China that reached its peak during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Thus, when Buddhist texts and images were introduced into Japan during the sixth century they were presented and appropriated as part and parcel of Chinese culture. The new religion gained support from the prince regent, Shōtoku Taishi, who wanted to model his rule after that of the Buddhist-oriented Sui dynasty. Chinese Buddhist schools such as Huayan (Jpn., Kegon) also prospered in the Nara period in Japan (710784) as Chinese cultural influence continued to flourish.

The two centers of Buddhist civilization, China and India, also competed with each other, as can be seen in a situation that developed in Tibet. Buddhism had been brought to Tibet by King Sro bstan sgam po (d. 650), who established the first stable state in the area. Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan from both Sanskrit and Chinese. A later king, Khri sro lde btsan (755797), officially adopted Buddhism as the state religion and determined to resolve the tension between Indian and Chinese influence. He sponsored the famous Council of Lhasa, in which a Chinese party representing a Chan "sudden enlightenment" point of view debated an Indian group that advocated a more gradualist understanding of the Buddhist path. Both sides claimed victory, but the Indian tradition gained predominance and eventually translations were permitted only from Sanskrit.

During the ninth and tenth centuries the two Buddhist civilizational centers in India and China were themselves subject to attack, both internally and externally. The combination of Hindu resurgence and Muslim invasions led to the effective disappearance of the Buddhist community in India by the thirteenth century. Repeated invasions by Uighurs and Turkic peoples, as well as official persecutions and the revival of the Confucian tradition, resulted in a decisive weakening of institutional Buddhism in China.

The processes of acculturation that had first become evident in the sixth century in India and China repeated themselves beginning in the tenth century in Japan, Korea, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. In each of these areas distinct cultural forms of Buddhism evolved. There was a reorganization of the Buddhist community with an increased emphasis on the bonds between elite and ordinary Buddhists in each particular area. There was a renewed interest in efficacious forms of Buddhist practice and the Buddhist schools that preserved and encouraged such practice. Within each area there was a development of Buddhist symbols and rituals that became representative of distinct Buddhist cultures, particularly at the popular level.

In Central Asia the Buddhist community had no success in surviving the Muslim expansion. Buddhism had some limited success in India during the last centuries of the first millennium. It benefited from extensive royal and popular support in northeastern India under the Pāla dynasty from the eighth to the twelfth century, but Hindu philosophy and theistic (bhakti ) movements were aggressive critics of Buddhism. Hardly any distinct Buddhist presence continued in India after the last of the great monasteries were destroyed by the Muslims. In China there was more success, although the Confucian and Daoist traditions were powerful rivals. As a result of persecutions in the ninth century, Buddhism lost its distinctively civilizational role, but it continued as a major component of Chinese religion, becoming increasingly synthesized with other native traditions. In Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia (except for Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, where Buddhism suffered the same fate that it suffered in India), Japan, Korea, and Tibet (from whence it eventually spread to Mongolia), areas where Buddhism did not have to compete with strongly organized indigenous traditions, it was successful in establishing itself as the dominant religious tradition. The religious creativity of these areas, once the periphery of the Buddhist world, resulted in a Buddhist "axial age" that dramatically transformed the tradition as a whole.

Monastic order, royal order, and popular Buddhism

The transformation of Buddhism from a civilizational religion to a cultural religion depended on a fundamental realignment in the structure of the Buddhist community. As a civilizational religion, Buddhist community life had come to include a largely monastic elite that traveled extensively, was multilingual, and operated at the civilizational level; an imperial elite made up of monks and laypersons associated more closely with royal courts and related aristocracies; and a less exalted company of ordinary monks and laypersons living not only in urban areas but in the countryside as well. In Buddhism's zenith as a civilizational religion the central organizing relationship was that between the largely monastic civilizational elite and the imperial elites, consisting of kings, queens, and other high-placed members of the laity on the one hand, and the monks whom they supported on the other. The ordinary members of the laity and the less exalted monks played a role, of course, but in most areas at most periods of time they seem to have been somewhat distanced from the mainstream of Buddhist community life. With the transformation of Buddhism into a cultural religion, however, this situation was drastically altered.

One aspect of this transformation was major changes that took place at three different levels: monastic, imperial, and popular. The demise of the monastic network through which the civilizational aspect of Buddhism had been supported and maintained was decisive. To be sure, there were elements of the monastic community that never lost their international vision, and travel and exchanges between specific cultural areas was never totally absent, particularly between China and Japan, China and Tibet, and Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to speak of a pan-Asian Buddhist elite after the ninth or tenth century.

The pattern at the imperial level was altered by the loss of monastic power and influence coupled with increased state control in monastic affairs. During the period that Buddhism was an effective civilizational religion its great monasteries functioned practically as "states within the state." Monasteries commanded extensive resources of land and labor and were often actively involved in commercial enterprises. This public splendor made the monasteries inviting targets, especially after their usefulness as civilizational centers had declined. If the monasteries were not simply destroyed, as they were in India and Central Asia, they were often deprived of their resources, as occurred at one time or another in virtually every Buddhist area. With the decline of monastic influence at the imperial level, the control of the state over monastic affairs inevitably increased. In China and Japan, and to a lesser extent in Korea and Vietnam, state control became thoroughly bureaucratized. In Sri Lanka and the Theravāda areas of Southeast Asia, state control was implemented more indirectly and with considerably less efficiency by royal "purifications" of the sangha. Specific local conditions in Tibet led to a unique situation in which monastic and royal functions became so tightly interlocked that they were often completely fused.

The demise of the international Buddhist elite and the weakening of the large and powerful establishments were counterbalanced by a strengthening of Buddhist life at the grass-roots level. Smaller, local institutions that for a long time had coexisted with the great monasteries took on new importance as focal points in Buddhist community life. For example, smaller so-called merit cloisters (kung-te yüan ) supported by wealthy laymen were significant components in the development and life of Chinese Buddhism. In Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia the emergence of cultural Buddhism was closely associated with monks who were called gāmavāsin s (village dwellers) and who strengthened Buddhist influence among the people in the major cities and in the more distant provinces as well. In contrast to civilizational Buddhism, in which the crucial structural alignment was that between the civilizational elite and the monks and laity at the imperial level, the crucial structural alignment in cultural Buddhism was between the monks and laity of the imperial or state elites, who were located primarily in the capital cities, and the ordinary people who inhabited local monasteries and villages.

The preeminence of practice

The era of comprehensive Buddhist philosophizing and the formulation of original systems of thought came to an end, for the most part, with the demise of Buddhism as a civilizational religion. There continued to be philosophical innovations, and some of the great systems that were already formulated were adjusted to meet new circumstances. However, the real creativity of Buddhism as a cultural religion came to the fore in schools and movements that emphasized efficacious modes of Buddhist practice.

A major component in the development of various Buddhist cultures is the ascendancy of schools or movements that combined a strong emphasis on the importance of discipline (particularly although not exclusively the monastic discipline) with an accompanying emphasis on meditation. In China and Japan, Chan and Zen, with their emphasis on firm discipline and meditative practices such as "just sitting" and the contemplation of kung-an (Jpn., kōan ; enigmatic verses), are representative of this kind of Buddhist tradition. These were the schools that became more prominent as Mahāyāna Buddhism emerged as a cultural religion in East Asia, and they continued to exert influence on the various East Asian political and aesthetic elites from that time forward. The Āraññikas, or "forest-dwelling monks," represented an analogous orientation and played a similar role in Sri Lanka and subsequently in Southeast Asia. The Āraññikas appeared on the Sri Lankan scene in the ninth and tenth centuries as a group of monks who had chosen to withdraw from the wealthy monasteries of the capital, to adopt a strictly disciplined mode of life, and to devote themselves to study and/or meditation. In the twelfth century the Āraññikas led a major reform in Sri Lanka and in subsequent centuries they extended their reform movement throughout the Theravāda world, which included not only Sri Lanka but also Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The Āraññikas in the Theravāda world, like the Chan and Zen practitioners in East Asia, were closely affiliated with the elite segments of the various societies in which they were active. A similar kind of emphasis was placed on discipline, study, and meditation in Tibet, where the Vajrayāna tradition was established by Atīśa, the monk who in the eleventh century inaugurated the "second introduction" of Buddhism into the country. In the fifteenth century another infusion of discipline-oriented reform was provided by reformers who established the Dge lugs pa, the so-called Yellow Hats, which became the preeminent Tibetan (and Mongolian) school subsequently headed by the well-known line of Dalai Lamas.

Each expression of Buddhism as a cultural religion generated, as a kind of counterpoint to its more elitist, discipline-oriented schools and movements, other schools and movements that focused on more populist forms of devotional or Esoteric (Tantric) practice. In the East Asian Mahāyāna areas the most important development was the increasing prominence of the Pure Land schools in the early centuries of the second millennium ce. The Chinese Pure Land schools remained in close symbiosis with the practitioners of Chan and retained a relatively traditional mode of monastic practice. Their Japanese counterparts, however, became more differentiated and considerably more innovative. During the Kamakura period (11851333) a number of new, distinctively Japanese Pure Land and related schools were founded by charismatic leaders such as Hōnen, Shinran, and Nichiren; these schools took on a distinctively Japanese cast. For Nichiren, the Pure Land was Japan itself.

Although less important than Pure Land and related kinds of devotion, Esoteric or Tantric modes of religion also were a significant part of cultural Buddhism in East Asia. In China the Esoteric elements were closely related to influences from the Vajrayāna tradition in Tibet as well as interactions with forms of indigenous Daoism. In Japan more sophisticated Esoteric elements persisted in the Tendai (Chin., Tiantai) and Shingon schools, while more rustic and indigenous elements were prominent in groups that were integrated into these schools, for example, the Shūgendō community that was made up of mountain ascetics known as yamabushi.

In Sri Lanka in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (the period of Hōnen, Shinran, and Nichiren in Japan) devotional religion also seems to have been influential in the Buddhist community, generating new genres of Buddhist literature that were written primarily in Sinhala rather than Pali. Although no specifically devotional "schools" were formed, a whole new devotional component was incorporated into the Theravāda tradition and subsequently diffused to the Theravāda cultures in Southeast Asia. Similarly, there were, as far as we know, no "schools" that were specifically Esoteric or Tantric in character. However, there is some evidence that indicates that Esoteric elements played a very significant role in each of the premodern Theravāda cultures. This kind of influence seems to have been particularly strong in northern Burma, northern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

In Tibet and Mongolia, as one would expect given their Vajrayāna ethos, the primary counterpoints to the more discipline-oriented traditions were the schools, such as the Rnying ma pa and Bka' brgyud pa, that emphasized the performance of Esoteric and Tantric rituals in order to achieve worldly benefits and to proceed along a "fast path" to salvation. However, just as in the other Buddhist cultures devotion was supplemented by recourse to Esoteric and Tantric techniques, so in Tibet and Mongolia Esoteric and Tantric techniques were supplemented by the practice of devotion.

Another important component of Buddhism as a cultural religion was the mitigation, in some circles at least, of traditional distinctions between monks and laity. This trend was least evident in the more discipline-oriented contexts, but even here there was some movement in this direction. For example, in the Chan and Zen monasteries, monks, rather than being prohibited from engaging in productive work as the Vinaya had stipulated, were actually required to work. In the Pure Land schools in Japan, and in some of the Esoteric schools in Japan and Tibet, it became permissible and common for clergy to marry and have families. Also, certain kinds of monastic/lay and purely lay associations played important roles in China and Japan. These included both straightforward religious associations devoted to the various Buddhist causes, and, particularly in China, a number of secret societies and messianically oriented groups. Even in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia tendencies toward the laicization of the monastic order can from time to time be observed, but in these strongly Theravāda areas the process was always thwarted by royal intervention before the innovations could take root.

The pervasiveness of ritual

Alongside the particular schools and movements that characterized Buddhism as a cultural religion there were also modes of Buddhist practice that, although influenced by those schools and movements, were more pervasively involved in Buddhist cultures as such. Pilgrimage was in the forefront of these practices.

Virtually every instance of Buddhism as a cultural religion had its own particular patterns of Buddhist pilgrimage. In many cases these pilgrimage patterns were a major factor in maintaining the specificity of particular, often overlapping, religious and cultural complexes. In some contexts these pilgrimage patterns delimited Buddhist cultural complexes that supported and were supported by particular political kingdoms. An example of this situation was the Sinhala pattern, in which there were sixteen major sites systematically distributed throughout all of Sri Lanka. In other situations, for example in Southeastern Asia, these patterns often delimited Buddhist cultural complexes that cut across political divisions.

Many of the sites that were the goals of major Buddhist pilgrimages were mountain peaks or other places that had been sacred from before the introduction of Buddhism and continued to have sacred associations in other traditions that coexisted with Buddhism. Through pilgrimage practices at these sites Buddhism assimilated various deities and practices associated with local religious traditions. At the same time, of course, the Buddhist presence imbued those deities and practices with Buddhist connotations. In Japan, Buddhas and bodhisattva s became virtually identified in many situations with indigenous kami (divine spirits). In China great bodhisattva s such as Kitigarbha, Mañjuśrī, and Avalokiteśvara became denizens of sacred mountains that were popular pilgrimage sites, and in those pilgrimage contexts underwent a thoroughgoing process of sinicization. Stūpas, footprints, and other Buddhist objects of pilgrimage in Southeast Asia became, for many who venerated them, representations in which the Buddha was closely associated with indigenous spirits (e.g., nats in Burma, phī in Thailand, etc.) who served as the local guardians or protectors of Buddhist institutions.

Wherever Buddhism developed as a cultural religion it penetrated not only the sacred topography of the area but also the cycle of calendric rites. In China, for example, the annual cycle of Buddhist ritual activities included festivals honoring various Buddhas and bodhisattva s, festivals dedicated to significant figures from Chinese Buddhist history, a great vegetarian feast, and a very important "All Soul's" festival in which the Chinese virtue of filial piety was expressed through offerings intended to aid one's ancestors. While these rituals themselves involved much that was distinctively Chinese, they were interspersed with other festivals, both Confucian and Daoist, and were supplemented by other, lesser rituals associated with daily life that involved an even greater integration with non-Buddhist elements. In Sri Lanka the Buddhist ritual calendar included festivals honoring events of the Buddha's life; a festival that celebrated the coming of Mahinda, Aśoka's missionary son, to establish Buddhism in Sri Lanka; a festival in the capital honoring the Buddha relic that served as the palladium of the kingdom; and the monastic-centered kathin (Pali, kahina ; giving of robes) ceremony that marked the end of the rainy season. These Buddhist rituals were interspersed with non-Buddhist celebrations that were, in this case, largely Hindu. These large-scale rituals were supplemented by more episodic and specialized rites that involved an even wider variety of indigenous elements such as offerings to local spirits. In the Tibetan cultural area the Buddhist calendar encompassed great festivals sponsored by monasteries in which the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet was celebrated as the Buddhist defeat of indigenous demons, as well as festivals honoring Buddhist deities (e.g., Tārā) and Tibetan Buddhist heroes (e.g., Padmasambhava). The Tibetan Buddhist calendar also included other large- and small-scale rituals in which Buddhist and indigenous shamanistic elements were combined.

Buddhism in its various cultural expressions also became associated with life cycle rites, especially those of the male initiation into adulthood and those associated with death. The Buddhist involvement in male initiation rites was limited primarily to Southeast Asia. In many Buddhist countries children and young men were educated in the monasteries, but only in Southeast Asia did temporary initiation into the order, either as a novice (as in Burma) or at a later age as a full-fledged monk (as in central Thailand), become a culturally accepted necessity for the attainment of male adulthood. Buddhist involvement in funerary rituals was, on the other hand, a phenomenon that appeared again and again all across Asia. For example, in the Theravāda countries where Buddhism has been the dominant cultural religion elaborate cremations patterned after the ceremony reportedly performed for the Buddha himself have become the rule for members of the royal and monastic elites. Simpler ceremonies, based on the same basic model, were the norm for those of lesser accomplishment or status. Even in cultures where Buddhism coexisted with other major religions on a more or less equal basis, Buddhists have been the preferred officiants in the funerary context. The prime example is China, where Buddhists developed elaborate masses for the dead that were widely used throughout the whole of society. Originally introduced into China by the now defunct Zhenyan (Vajrayāna) school, these masses for the dead were adapted to their new Chinese environment and became an integral component of Chinese Buddhist culture.

All across Asia Buddhism expressed itself as a cultural religion through different kinds of ritual at different levels of society. It was through these ritual forms, more than in any other way, that it became an integral component in the life of different Asian peoples, molding cultures in accordance with its values and being itself molded in the process. Once Buddhism became established as a cultural religion, it was these rituals that enabled it to maintain its position and influence, and to do so century after century on into the modern era.

Buddhism in the Modern World

The beginnings of European mercantilism and imperialism in the sixteenth century initiated a chain of events that continue to stimulate and to threaten the Buddhist community in its parts and as a whole. Traditional social and economic patterns on which the various Buddhist cultures depended were disrupted and eventually displaced by new patterns. These new patterns inextricably linked individual Buddhist societies to a global community and especially to the West. As a result, all of the profound transformations that have occurred in European civilization in the last three centuries, the advent of rationalism, scientific materialism, nationalism, relativism, technology, democracy, and communism, have challenged Buddhists in Asia just as they have challenged religious men and women in Europe and the Americas.

The modern encounter of cultures and civilizations has not been monolithic. Three stages can be identified in Buddhist Asia. The first was the arrival of missionaries with traders in various parts of Asia. These missionaries came to convert and instruct, and they brought printing presses and schools as well as Bibles and catechisms. There was a missionary onslaught on Asian religious traditions, including Buddhism, in Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. This onslaught was sometimes physically violent, as in the Portuguese destruction of Buddhist temples and relics in Sri Lanka, but for the most part it was an ideological assault. A second stage was more strictly colonial, as some European powers gained control over many different areas of the Buddhist world. Some Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and the Indochinese states, were fully colonized while others, such as Thailand, China, and Japan, were subjected to strong colonial influences. In virtually every situation (Tibet was a notable exception), the symbiotic relationship between the political order and the monastic order was disrupted, with adverse effects for Buddhist institutions.

The twentieth-century acceptance of Western political and economic ideologies, whether democratic capitalism or communism, represents a third stage. Buddhists in China, Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of Korea and Southeast Asia now live in communist societies, and the future of Buddhist communities in these areas looks bleak. Capitalism has been dominant in Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and parts of Southeast Asia (Thailand being the prime example), and greater possibilities for the Buddhist tradition are presumed to exist in these areas. But capitalism, as well as communism, has undercut the claim that Buddhist thought and values are of central significance for contemporary life. Buddhist monuments and institutions are in many cases treated as museum pieces, while Buddhist beliefs are often banished to the sphere of individual opinion. In many situations Buddhism is deplored as backward and superstitious, and is for that reason criticized or ignored. As Edward Conze noted in his A Short History of Buddhism (London, 1980), "One may well doubt whether capitalism has been any more kind to Buddhism than communism" (p. 129).

Despite the difficulties that Buddhists have faced, they have responded creatively to the turmoil of recent history. They have engaged in many efforts to adapt to their changing environment, just as they have done repeatedly in the past. Thus far, however, they have drawn on their traditional heritage for suitable models, and their varied responses can thus be grouped as cultural, civilizational, and sectarian.

Cultural responses

The initial responses to European civilization were cultural in character, and often reactionary. Some Buddhist kingdoms, after an initial exposure to elements of European civilization, attempted to isolate themselves as a way of preserving their cultural identity. This was done in Japan, Korea, and Tibet, and was attempted in China. In other cases, Buddhist revivals were inspired by the missionary challenges. In Sri Lanka and China, Buddhist intellectuals responded to the efforts of Christian missionaries to criticize Buddhism with their own spirited apologetics. These intellectuals readily adopted the methods and instruments of the Christian missionary, the printing press and the school, as well as his militancy, to promote the Buddhist cause. Some processes that began in the period of Buddhist culture, especially the mitigation of distinctions between monks and laity, were also stimulated by these innovations. Modern technology, such as improved modes of transportation, also made it easier for more people to engage in traditional practices like pilgrimage.

The Buddhist revivals often were inspired by cultural loyalism. To choose Buddhism as one's religious identity in the face of the Christian challenge also meant that one was choosing to be Sinhala, Thai, or Chinese. It was an emphatic denial that things Chinese, for example, were inferior, even if this was suggested by the power and prestige of Christianity and European civilization.

The association between Buddhism and cultural loyalism has been strongest in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Buddhists, both laity and monks, were actively involved in the local independence movements. In these contexts Buddhism has been given a sharply defined nationalistic character by drawing on both the heritage of indigenous Buddhist culture and the example of Aśoka's imperial religion. Buddhism has been used as an instrument for national integration in postcolonial politics and elements of Buddhism have been appropriated by emerging civic religions in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand.

The colonial disestablishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and its analogues in Qing-dynasty China and Meiji Japan, altered again the lay-monk relationship and encouraged the emergence of an active lay leadership. Monasteries, deprived of government maintenance and generally without sufficient resources of their own, found it necessary to cultivate the support of local patrons. A larger number of people from various economic and social levels thus became actively involved in religious affairs focusing on the monasteries. This, of course, often led to controversy, with further segmentation of the monastic communities resulting. It also created an environment in which laity and monks could come together in new kinds of associations, much as had happened in the development of Buddhist cultures. Some of the strikingly successful "new religions" of Japan and Korea, such as Reiyūkai (Association of the Friends of the Spirit) and Won Buddhism, are products of this environment.

The disestablishment of Buddhism also encouraged the development of an active lay leadership among the new urban elites who were most influenced by European civilization. These elites introduced "reformed" interpretations of elements of the Buddhist tradition in order to bring those elements into harmony with the expectations of European civilization. Modern reformers' interpretations of the Buddha's biography have emphasized his humanity and his rational approach to the problem of human suffering. Some modernists have sought to relate Buddhist thought to Western philosophical perspectives and also to scientific patterns. Many Buddhist reformers have stressed the relevance of Buddhist teachings to social and ethical issues.

Civilizational responses

The encounter between European civilization and Buddhist cultures encouraged a new awareness among Buddhists of their common heritage. New contacts among Buddhists began on a significant scale, and, as a result, there was also a renewed sense of Buddhism as a civilizational religion.

This sense that Buddhism could again be a civilizational standard that could encompass the conflicting ideologies present in modern Asia and the world had great appeal to the new urban elites. In many countries Buddhist apologists maintained that Buddhism could be the basis for a truly democratic or socialist society and, as a nontheistic religion, could be the basis for world peace and unity. Sōka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), a Japanese "new religion" stemming from the Nichiren tradition, for example, presents an understanding of Buddhism as the "Third Civilization," which can overcome the opposition of idealism and materialism in thought and, when applied to the economy, can bring about a synthesis of capitalism and socialism.

New missionary efforts to Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, and Nepal, where Buddhist influence had waned, and to the West have been encouraged by this view of Buddhism as "the supreme civilization" and the antidote to the spiritual malaise generated by European civilization.

Sectarian developments

New sectarian developments in the modern period have resulted from the expansion of Buddhism, through missionary work, and from Buddhist losses that have occurred through the encounter with European civilization. These developments are evidence that the idea of a new Buddhist civilization remains, as yet, more an aspiration than a reality.

Sectarian developments resulting from expansion can be seen in the establishment of Buddhism in the West, which has been accomplished at a certain distance from the mainstream communities, whether among immigrant groups or among intellectuals and spiritual seekers disaffected by Western cultures and religious traditions. Another sectarian development resulting from expansion is the neo-Buddhist movement among harijan s, or scheduled castes, in India, led by B. R. Ambedkar.

A resurgence of sectarian patterns, resulting from Buddhist losses, can be seen in totalitarian communist areas. These developments tend to be pragmatic and defensive in character. Buddhists have attempted to isolate their community from the mainstream of communist society and thus avoid criticism and attack, but these efforts have rarely been successful. Sectarian isolation, however, has often been enforced by new communist governments as a way of weakening and discrediting Buddhist influence. Through a combination of criticism of Buddhist teaching by communist ideology and the radical disestablishment of Buddhist monasteries, communist governments have been able to divest Buddhist leaders and institutions of their cultural power and influence very quickly. This has occurred in the Soviet Union, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, and with special ferocity in Cambodia (Kampuchea) and Tibet.

The Tibetan experience provides a tragic example of a new sectarian development in Buddhism. Buddhist institutions and leaders have been subject to a brutal attack as part of the effort to incorporate Tibet into the People's Republic of China. This has often taken the form of sinicization, with Buddhism being attacked because of its central place in traditional Tibetan culture. Following the Chinese invasion of 1959, thousands of Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country. They have established refugee communities in North America, Europe, and India, where they are trying to preserve the heritage of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Finally, the growth of millenarian movements among Buddhists in the modern period, especially in Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, may be described as sectarian developments resulting from Buddhist losses. Like so much else of Buddhism in the modern period, Buddhist millenarian movements were transitory responses to crises of power and interpretation within the Buddhist community.


Buddhism as a whole has not yet developed a distinctive character in the modern period. On the contrary, there is a great deal of continuity between the historical development of Buddhism and the current responses and innovations. Thus the sectarian, civilizational, and cultural patterns continue to exert a predominant influence in the evolution of Buddhist tradition.

At the same time, we can see that Buddhism, like other world religions, participates in a modern religious situation that is, in many respects, radically new. Buddhism has thus come to share certain modern elements with other contemporary religions. We can see such elements in the search for new modes of religious symbolism, as is found in the writings of the Thai monk Buddhadasa and the Japanese Kyoto school of Buddhist philosophy. We can also see these common elements in the preoccupation with the human world and this-worldly soteriology that is emerging in many Buddhist contexts. A modern Sinhala Buddhist, D. Wijewardena, expressed this attitude in a polemical tract, The Revolt in the Temple (Colombo, 1953), by saying that Buddhists must pursue "not a will-o'-the-wisp Nirvana secluded in the cells of their monasteries, but a Nirvana attained here and now by a life of self-forgetful activity [so that] they would live in closer touch with humanity, would better understand and sympathize with human difficulties" (p. 586).

This diversity, representing both tradition and present situation, reminds those of us who would study and understand Buddhism and Buddhists that, in the end, the decisive meaning of our concept of Buddhism must be that of cumulative tradition. Our concept must remain open-ended to allow for future transformations of the Buddhist tradition for as long as men and women associate their lives with the name of Buddha.

See Also

Ālaya-vijñāna; Ambedkar, B. R.; Amitābha; Arhat; Aśoka; Atīśa; Avalokiteśvara; Bhaiajyaguru; Bodhisattva Path; Buddha; Buddhaghosa; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, article on Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts; Buddhist Ethics; Buddhist Meditation; Buddhist Philosophy; Buddhist Religious Year; Cakravartin; Chan; Chinese Religion, overview article; Confucianism; Cosmology, article on Buddhist Cosmology; Councils, article on Buddhist Councils; Dalai Lama; Dge lugs pa; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Duhagāmaī; Eightfold Path; Faxian; Folk Religion, article on Folk Buddhism; Four Noble Truths; Hōnen; Huayan; Iconography, article on Buddhist Iconography; Indian Religions, overview article; Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia; Japanese Religions, overview article; Jingtu; Jōdo Shinshū; Jōdoshū; Kamalaśīla; Karman, article on Buddhist Concepts; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Korean Religion; Kitigarbha; Language, article on Buddhist Views of Language; Mādhyamika; Mahāsāghika; Mahāsiddhas; Maitreya; Mañjuśrī; Merit, article on Buddhist Concepts; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Missions, article on Buddhist Missions; Monasticism, article on Buddhist Monasticism; Mongol Religions; Mountains; Nāgārjuna; Nats; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Nichiren; Nichirenshū; Nirvāa; Padmasambhava; Pilgrimage, article on Buddhist Pilgrimage in South and Southeast Asia; Pratītya-samutpāda; Priesthood, article on Buddhist Priesthood; Pūjā, article on Buddhist Pūjā; Pure and Impure Lands; Reiyūkai Kyōdan; Sagha, overview article and articles on Sagha and Society; Sarvāstivāda; Sautrāntika; Shingonshū; Shinran; Shōtoku Taishi; Shūgendō; Sōka Gakkai; Soteriology; Soul, article on Buddhist Concepts; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Stupa Worship; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā; Tārā; Tathāgata; Tathāgata-garbha; Temple, articles on Buddhist Temple Compounds; Tendaishū; Theravāda; Tiantai; Tibetan Religions, overview article; Turkic Religions; Vasubandhu; Vinaya; Worship and Devotional Life, articles on Buddhist Devotional Life; Xuanzang; Yijing; Yogācāra; Zen; Zhenyan.


"A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America" is provided by J. W. de Jong in two successive issues of Eastern Buddhist, n. s. 7 (May and October 1974): 55106 and 4982, which he has brought up to date in his "Recent Buddhist Studies in Europe and America 19731983," which appeared in the same journal, vol. 17 (Spring 1984): 79107. One of the few books that treats a significant theme within this fascinating scholarly tradition is G. R. Welbon's The Buddhist Nirvāa and its Western Interpreters (Chicago, 1968).

Among the book-length introductory surveys of Buddhism, the second edition of Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson's The Buddhist Religion (Encino, Calif., 1977) is, overall, the most satisfactory. The only modern attempt to present a full-scale historical survey by a single author is to be found in the Buddhism sections of Charles Eliot's three-volume work Hinduism and Buddhism, 3d ed. (London, 1957), taken together with his Japanese Buddhism (1935; reprint, New York, 1959). Although these books are seriously dated (they were first published in 1921 and 1935, respectively), they still provide a valuable resource. Five other important works that attempt cross-cultural presentations of a particular aspect of Buddhism are Junjirō Takakusu's The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, 3d ed., edited by Wing-tsit Chan and Charles A. Moore (Honolulu, 1956); Paul Mus's wide-ranging Barabuur: Esquisse d'une histoire du bouddhisme fondée sur la critique archéologique des textes, 2 vols. (Hanoi, 1935); Robert Bleichsteiner's Die gelbe Kirche (Vienna, 1937), which was translated into French and published as L'église jaune (Paris, 1937); W. Randolph Kloetzli's Buddhist Cosmology (Delhi, 1983); and David L. Snellgrove's edited collection The Image of the Buddha (London, 1978).

Many of the most important studies of the early, sectarian phase of Buddhism in India extend their discussions to the later phases of Indian Buddhism as well. This is true, for example, of Sukumar Dutt's Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India (London, 1962) and of Edward Conze's Buddhist Thought in India (Ann Arbor, 1967). For those interested in Buddhist doctrines, Conze's book may be supplemented by David J. Kalupahana's Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Honolulu, 1975), which focuses on sectarian Buddhism, and Fredrick J. Streng's Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York, 1967), which examines the work of the famous early Mahāyāna philosopher Nāgārjuna.

A historical account that is focused more exclusively on the sectarian period and the transition to civilizational Buddhism is provided by Étienne Lamotte in his authoritative Histoire du bouddhisme indien: Des origines á l'ère Saka (Louvain, 1958). A somewhat different perspective on the same process of development is accessible in three closely related works that can profitably be read in series: Frank E. Reynolds's title essay in The Two Wheels of Dhamma, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Bardwell L. Smith, "AAR Studies in Religion," no. 3 (Chambersburg, Pa., 1972); John C. Holt's Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapiaka (Delhi, 1981); and John Strong's The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna (Princeton, 1983).

Good books that treat Buddhism as an international civilization are hard to come by. Three that provide some assistance to those interested in the topic are Trevor O. Ling's The Buddha: Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon (London, 1973); Erik Zürcher's The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China, 2 vols. (Leiden; 1959); and René Grousset's In the Footsteps of the Buddha, translated by J. A. Underwood (New York, 1971). Works that focus on the process of acculturation of Buddhism in various contexts include Hajime Nakamura's Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, the revised English translation of which was edited by Philip P. Wiener (Honolulu, 1964); Alicia Matsunaga's The Buddhist Philosophy of Assimilation (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., 1969); and Kenneth Chen's The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism (Princeton, 1973).

Studies of particular Buddhist cultures are legion. Some valuable studies focus on Buddhism in the context of the whole range of religions that were present in a particular area. Good examples are Giuseppe Tucci's The Religions of Tibet, translated by Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley, 1980), and Joseph M. Kitagawa's Religion in Japanese History (New York, 1966). Other treatments of particular Buddhist cultures trace the Buddhist tradition in question from its introduction into the area through the period of acculturation and, in some cases, on into modern times. Two examples are Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Chambersburg, Pa., 1978), and Kenneth Chen's comprehensive Buddhism in China (Princeton, 1964). Finally, some interpretations of particular Buddhist cultures focus more narrowly on a specific period or theme. See, for example, Lal Mani Joshi's Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India (Delhi, 1967), which deals primarily with Buddhist culture in Northeast India during the seventh and eighth centuries; Daniel Overmyer's Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China (Cambridge, Mass., 1976); and William R. La Fleur's The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley, 1983).

There is also a myriad of books and articles that consider the development of Buddhism in the modern period. The most adequate overview of developments through the early 1970s is provided in Buddhism in the Modern World, edited by Heinrich Dumoulin and John Maraldo (New York, 1976). In addition, there are two excellent trilogies on particular traditions. The first, by Holmes Welch, includes The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 19001950 (1967), The Buddhist Revival in China (1968), and Buddhism under Mao (1972), all published by the Harvard University Press. The second, by Stanley J. Tambiah, includes Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (1970), World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (1976), and The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (1984), all published by the Cambridge University Press.

For those interested in pursuing the study of Buddhism in a cross-cultural, thematic manner, Frank E. Reynolds's Guide to the Buddhist Religion (Boston, 1981), done with the assistance of John Holt and John Strong, is a useful resource. It provides 350 pages of annotated bibliography of English, French, and German materials (plus a preface and 65 pages of index) organized in terms of eleven themes, including "Historical Development," "Religious Thought," "Authoritative Texts," "Popular Beliefs and Literature," "Social, Political and Economic Aspects," "The Arts," "Religious Practices and Rituals," and "Soteriological Experience and Processes: Path and Goal."

Frank E. Reynolds (1987)

Charles Hallisey (1987)

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Buddhism: An Overview

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Buddhism: An Overview